Viktor Solarik (born Viktor Solařík), 1961
Viktor Solarik was born in Prague in 1961. He lived in the Smíchov district of the city with his parents (who were both chemists) and his older sister, Helena, who still lives in the family home in Prague. Viktor began elementary school in 1968, right after the Warsaw Pact invasion, which occurred in August of that year. He says that it was apparent that the Communist Party had an ‘arm in every organization,’ including sport activities and youth organizations. After graduating from high school, Viktor attended ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague) where he studied architecture. An avid windsurfer, he asked permission to travel to Malta to represent Czechoslovakia in a global competition, but the dean of architecture refused to sign for him. Shortly after graduating from ČVUT, Viktor married his wife, Eva, whom he had known since high school, and they decided to emigrate. Viktor says that the pair had the full support of their families who, even though there was a chance they would encounter repercussions, felt fairly secure in their professional lives. They signed up for a tour going to Austria and Germany and, in August 1987, left the country. When the bus stopped in Munich, Viktor and Eva went to the police station where they claimed asylum. After two months in a refugee camp, Viktor found work with a surveyor and the couple were able to move into a small apartment while waiting for their paperwork to clear. They were granted immigration visas to the United States after 18 months and arrived in New York City in March 1989.
Viktor and Eva’s sponsors were friends of their parents who had emigrated in 1968 and lived in New Jersey. They stayed in New Jersey for a few weeks while looking for a job. Viktor was offered a position at the architectural firm Kaeyer, Parker and Garment in Mount Kisco, and the pair moved to Westchester County. In 1998, Viktor started his own firm (VKS Architects) which focuses on residential design and construction. Viktor and Eva have two daughters who are now in college. They both speak Czech and, when they were younger, spent summers with their grandparents and cousins in the Czech Republic. Viktor tries to visit his home country every year to spend time with family and friends. Today he lives in Carmel, New York, with his wife Eva.
It was shortly after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 that Viktor started school
“I guess, as a kid, one doesn’t necessarily see all of the suppressiveness of the regime, but one example I can give you is that in 1968, when I was about to go to first grade, of course in August 1968, the Russians and the Warsaw Pact army marched in and it was obviously very stressful. Tanks everywhere, soldiers everywhere, nobody knew what was happening. My father, with a stoic calm, told me ‘Well, I went to school when the Nazis were here and so you go to school when there’s another occupation. So just keep your mouth [shut], don’t tell anybody what we talk about at home, don’t make any contacts with people that you don’t know, and be very careful.’ For a seven-year old kid, that’s kind of a harsh lesson to learn.”
Viktor was denied the opportunity to travel out of the country when he was studying at university
“That was one thing I can tell you about the presence of the regime, or the omnipresence of the regime. As an athlete, I wanted to go to the Academic World Championship in windsurfing in Malta in the Mediterranean. I think it was probably the early ‘80s, ’83 or ’84. So I went to the dean of the faculty and I asked him to sign my paper so I could travel abroad to represent the socialist Czechoslovakia in the Academic World Championship, which I thought was great for the country – and of course I would have enjoyed it very much. And he wouldn’t sign the paper. He thought that it was not appropriate for me to travel abroad. One thing I remember that he said [was] ‘Well, do you want to be an architect or do you want to be an athlete?’ but I saw it as curbing my freedom to decide what I wanted to be. Why was it his decision to decide what I wanted to be? And I could have been either, I guess, or both. But who was he to tell me what I wanted to be? But he didn’t give me the opportunity to do that.”
Viktor reflects on his reaction to the Chernobyl nuclear disaster
“We experienced Chernobyl in 1985 and we didn’t know about it for I don’t know how many days after it happened; after the press was forced to admit that something happened. They were denying [it]. Of course, it was all over the world, everybody was talking about it. If you listened to Radio Free Europe or any other station from abroad, it was discussed or talked about it, and the official line was nothing happened. When you find out things like that, how do you feel about living in a state that is hiding such important facts from you and expects you to just accept it on face value?”
How did you experience Chernobyl?
“I think it was late spring in 1985 and I was in a windsurfing camp, because I was on the official Czechoslovak national team, and we were at a lake in western Bohemia – Nechranice, near Chomutov – and so we were practicing and surfing and having a good time, actually. It was beautiful weather; it was clear days and very nice weather, and then we heard this rumor about the nuclear disaster, but nobody could verify anything, so I don’t know how much radiation we received or not. When we came back to Prague, and of course rumors spread very quickly, we found out that this horrible thing happened and there was a discussion about prevailing winds and which way they blew, and whether it was north across Poland and Sweden and back down to Czechoslovakia, or how much radiation was possibly in the air. Nobody knew anything. There was no testing to be checked. It was very upsetting. You feel like you’re being nuked and you don’t even know about it.”
Viktor explains how their families reacted when he and his wife Eva revealed their plans to leave the country
“They encouraged us. We told them that we were planning on leaving and we asked them sort of for their approval. We asked them how they felt it was going to affect their lives, because they’ll be staying behind. In my case, I was also concerned for my sister who had a job. She was young and starting out in her position and the concern was that if she had a brother who emigrated, it would have an effect on her ability to get jobs or work where she was working. But she felt that she had a good enough position to stay where she was and her work would not be greatly affected. My parents didn’t feel that that would affect them tremendously. My wife had the same discussion with her parents. Of course they said how sorely they would miss her, and both of us, but they would certainly encourage us to seek a better life elsewhere.”
The fall of communism was a surprise to Viktor
“In the early ‘80s, Solidarity in Poland was gaining a lot of interest and was becoming well-known as an opposition, but it seemed to be moving in small steps. Then, in ’85, I went to the Soviet Union and Gorbachev was then president, and there were some signs of glasnost, they called it, and certain liberties that were allowed to people much more than the Stalinist tight regime allowed before. It felt like it might loosen up a little bit, but it never felt like the whole thing is going to collapse. Of course by the time in East Germany when the Berlin Wall came down, we were already here and we were watching it in disbelief. It was something we could never envision or imagine. We were in Berlin not long before that, before we escaped, and you couldn’t even get close to the wall on the Eastern German side. There were police everywhere; there was no-man’s land, all these barbed wires. Everything was so well protected that one could never imagine that it could come down so fast. Unbelievable.”
Viktor reflects on America’s immigrant ‘spirit’
“Here, everybody has an immigrant story. Everybody’s grandmother or grandfather or great-great-grandparents came from some place, and so everybody relates to the immigration story. I think the story can be told a million times and every time it’s slightly different, but every time it’s the story of people coming here, looking for new life, and then making it better for themselves. I think on a certain level it makes this country better because people have the spirit to succeed and do something better and something with their lives.”
Category: New York City, Oral History