Zdenka Novak (born Zdeňka Smrčinová), 1931
Zdenka Novak was born in Prague in July, 1931. She lived there until the outbreak of WWII when her parents (who owned a delicatessen in the capital) decided to return to their native Kokšín in western Bohemia. In Kokšín, Zdenka’s father Václav set up a feather processing business with a Jewish partner, Emil Goldscheider. Zdenka says her family came under scrutiny because of this partnership and that she remembers the day the Goldscheiders were taken away (none of them returned from the concentration camps they were sent to). During the War, Zdenka remembers attending secret dancing lessons, as dancing was outlawed in the Protectorate in 1941. She says young people had to be ‘inventive’ due to shortages in goods, but that on the other hand they had ‘less expectations.’ At the end of the War, Zdenka’s family moved to Tašovice, near the West Bohemian spa town of Karlovy Vary, where Zdenka started attending ceramic school. She says one of her proudest moments was being selected to paint a vase for President Edvard Beneš on an official visit to the academy. She studied there until one year after the Communist coup in 1949, when she was arrested on charges of helping smuggle secret documents across the border to the CIC in West Germany. She was interrogated and found guilty without a trial. Zdenka spent 18 months in Prague prisons such as Pankrác and Čtyrka (the StB headquarters on Bartolomějská Street). She escaped through a bathroom window en route from one prison to another in 1951 and went on the run – making her way to territory she was familiar with near Karlovy Vary by train and then walking across the border into Bavaria through the woods.
Zdenka reported at a police station in Mehring, Germany, and was sent to Valka Lager refugee camp. She says she was not there long before she was approached by the American government with a job offer. She moved to Oberursel near Frankfurt to work and it was there, in 1953, that she married her husband Frank (a Czech émigré whom she had met at Valka Lager). At the end of 1953, the couple moved to the United States. They settled in New York City. Zdenka first worked as an office hand at an import/export company but soon became a clerk at an insurance firm. She says that she had many Czech friends in the city and that she enjoyed socializing at Sokol New York in particular. In 1956, she moved to Beloit, Wisconsin, when her husband gained a job as a mechanical designer at Beloit Corporation – a factory producing papermaking machines. There, Zdenka and Frank started raising their two children before moving to neighboring Rockton, Illinois. While her children were growing up, Zdenka ran a landscaping business. Today, she continues to live in Rockton. She has traveled to the Czech Republic with her children and grandchildren and says she tries to impress the value of her Czech heritage upon them.
Zdenka remembers dancing being banned during WWII
“No dancing. It wasn’t allowed. I know that we had at one family’s house, they knew somebody who was before a dance instructor, so he would come there occasionally and we gathered and we danced, but that was… if we were caught, we would be in trouble. So that was one of those things, and a lot of things were… you know, we were young girls; we would like to have nylon stockings, we couldn’t get them, you know. With a lot of things you had to be very inventive – to make things interesting and fashionable. You know, from old to new.
“But I think otherwise we were happy. Maybe we were even happier young people than they are nowadays. You know, we didn’t have any expectations. We were taught that we have to work, either physically or mentally, to accomplish things – that nothing comes free in life, and that you should deserve it and be proud of anything, whatever you do. It doesn’t matter how important or unimportant the job is, but you should be always proud of the things you are doing and do it at your best.”
Zdenka says it was ‘tradition’ to attend Sokol before the War
“You know, more or less, I think it was a tradition. You know, nobody talked about it, nobody was so aware of what you are or not. You were a neighbor, you were a friend, you were an ‘Oh, terrible! I wouldn’t talk to him or to her!’ And the kids, we didn’t have any way to get in trouble if we went to Sokol, you know, we didn’t get in any trouble. We got [rid of] our energy, you know, that way.”
Life was more ‘open and free,’ says Zdenka, after WWII came to an end
“Oh, everything was more open and free. There were more goods to buy and you could plan. You know, I think you do not know what freedom means unless you lose it. You know, we are talking about freedom, but nobody knows what it is, really, until you lose it. You don’t have it, you cannot decide things for yourself, you know. There are so many things which you don’t think about if you live in a free world. And so we were enjoying all those things, and I think we were happy, but it didn’t last too long and then the Communists took over.”
Zdenka remembers being interrogated in prison
“That was a horrible thing, because you were in a tiny little cell and even when I went to the bathroom I had to leave the doors open. I don’t know what they thought that I will do. It was terrible. Then they interrogated me there, of course, and in Čtyrka too. And I think at Čtyrka they were very rude, very rude. Actually, that was when I learned how to smoke. They brought me from the interrogation and I was completely out, and the girls in the cell gave me a cigarette so, that’s how… Then I had to undo that habit.”
Inmates learned how to use the toilet as a telephone at Pankrác prison, says Zdenka
“We had a good time in the bad times too. We used the toilet as a telephone, because we found out that if we empty it, then we can talk to the people downstairs. And we were sending letters through the windows on a thread. So we had all kinds of excitement. But you know every day somebody had to go through the interrogation, and that was tough. So you had to make it nice.”
Zdenka says those who have lived in more than one country have a different perspective
“Once you take that step, you are in the middle, because you miss certain things from the country you came from, and if you are there, you miss the things from where you are: you have comparison. If you live and stay in the same country, you don’t have any comparison. You know, you can see it on TV or whatever, but you have to live it. It’s like if you go for vacation some place, it’s not to live there. It’s different.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History