Zelmira Zivny (born Želmíra Prchalová), 1937
Zelmira Zivny was born in the village of Blšany in 1937. Zelmira’s mother grew up in Komárno on the Slovak-Hungarian border and had met Zelmira’s father while he was stationed here with the Czechoslovak Army. He then took a post teaching at a Czech school in Blšany, which was in the Sudetenland. When this area was annexed by Adolf Hitler as part of the Munich Agreement in September 1938, Zelmira’s family was forced to leave. After moving several times in six months, Zelmira’s father found a teaching job in Kněževes, a town near Rakovník. Following WWII, Zelmira’s family moved to the nearby town of Jesenice where she attended school.
Zelmira went to high school in Rakovník and then studied journalism at Charles University in Prague. Zelmira was an excellent student and, along with Jiří Dientsbier (who became a close friend), was offered membership in the Communist Party after her first semester. Zelmira had several summer jobs, including at a county newspaper in Podbořany, very close to where she had been born. During her last year in university, Zelmira worked at Czech radio (Český rozhlas). She and her husband, Milos Zivny, married during this last year as well and the pair stayed in Prague.
Zelmira worked as a journalist for the magazine Svět v obrazech for many years and traveled throughout the Eastern Bloc, including to Uzbekistan. Zelmira says that things began to change after the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. She gave up her Party membership and helped Jiri Dientsbier publish a book. Coupled with her connections in the West (professional contacts as well as distant family members ), Zelmira began to feel a lot of ‘pressure,’ and she was taken in for questioning several times. When her daughter did not get into the high school she had hoped to attend, Zelmira and Milos began to think seriously about leaving the country. In 1984, they received passports and permission to take a vacation in Yugoslavia. Zelmira, Milos and their two children crossed the border into Austria and spent several months at Bad Kruezen refugee camp. With the help of the American Fund for Czechoslovak Refugees, the Zivnys moved to the United States and settled in Oakland, California, in February 1985.
In September 1985, Zelmira was offered a job with the International Rescue Committee as a refugee resettlement worker. She later joined her husband who had started his own cabinetry business. Zelmira and Milos have been heavily involved in the local Sokol organization since their retirement. Although she says that Prague will always be in her ‘heart and head,’ she is very happy in the United States. Today she continues to live with Milos in the house they bought shortly after arriving in Oakland.
Zelmira’s family had to leave their home shortly after she was born
“When I was one year old and Hitler got the Sudetenland, my parents had to move. Today you would say they were refugees, and they were. My mom was 24, 25, and suddenly there she was with my sister who was three years old and I was one year old, and she had to leave that town within 24 hours, with two kids and whatever she could carry, because my father was still in the Army; they didn’t release them yet. So she did. She didn’t have any place to go being from Slovakia and her husband’s parents were relatively – from the Czech point of view – far away. But there were more people who had to leave, so they said ‘There is a parish there the small town of Městečko and we know that that monsignor is ready to accept refugees.’ So this is where she landed with us, and they had to move three or four times within six months. Then finally my dad got another position as a teacher in small town or large village – a rich town, a lot of hops – which was called Kněževes , close to the town of Rakovník, and this is where we spent the War.”
One of Zelmira’s early memories took place during WWII
“One of my first remembrances is the middle of the night and we were awake because there was that very deep sound, and there was a pinkish or yellowish shine all over the sky and my father was standing close to the window and said ‘Has to be Leipzig or Dresden. This is where they are bombarding tonight, but it’s terrible; it’s very, very intense.’ So it was the night that Dresden got bombarded.”
Zelmira talks about her experience of joining the Communist Party
“I was joined to the Communist Party when I was two months at the university. No, actually, the first semester. After the first semester, Jiří Dienstbier and myself had the best results, and the professor who was in charge of the department called us both and told us ‘Congratulations, you are good students, you will be good journalists, and let me tell you that I am ready and I am supporting you’ – you had to have a grantor – ‘I am your grantor so you can join the Communist Party.’ And then he left, and we were sitting there in the lobby. Both of us were from sort of old democratic families. His parents were treating poor people during the depression and so on, so they were socially oriented. So we were sitting there because we didn’t expect it, and you could say ‘thank you, no’ and you wouldn’t get a job in a factory, and then Jirka said ‘Maybe it will be good for something. We will at least be part of the people who make decisions.’ So this is what happened, but nobody ever asked us to sign anything, any petition or whatever. We were just… this was it. It might be part of why Jiří was later on sent to that internship to Czech Radio and why I was accepted there. And in the foreign broadcast the Communist Party wasn’t the main point there, and when ’68 came I said ‘I’m so sorry; I cannot take it anymore.’”
After almost 30 years in the United States, Zelmira is still happy to be here
“We got Americanized quite quickly I have to say. Maybe next generation. But we are very happy to live here. There are plenty of things we like about America. Nobody whines; people understand that they come somewhere and they have to take care of themselves. That’s your business; that’s your problem. Which is not that much… The Communists were telling you ‘The state will do it. The country will do it. You don’t do it.’ People got used to it. We never liked it and we are happy that mood is not in the air. And our children are happy here, so we would never left. Of course, if we never left we would be living in Prague and being happy there, but we prefer to be here. We prefer to be Americans.”
Zelmira explains why she wouldn’t return to the Czech Republic permanently
“Nobody will take Prague out of our hearts and heads. We know it and we’ll always feel it. And it’s nice to see that it’s changing and so on. But also, the country has changed a lot and we would have to start again. For the third time? No. I really like the spirit of America, I have to say.”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History