Dagmar Bradac (born Dagmar Vaníčková), 1964
Dagmar Bradac was born in Litomyšl in eastern Bohemia in 1964. Her father Milan was an engineer and her mother Jana was a teacher. Dagmar says that growing up in the small cultural town of Litomyšl has had a lasting impression on her. In the aftermath of the Warsaw Pact invasion on August 21, 1968, Dagmar’s father moved to Vienna where he had relatives, leaving Dagmar and her mother in Czechoslovakia. In 1970, he moved to the United States. As a result, Dagmar says that her and her mother’s lives were made more difficult – her mother had trouble keeping her job and much of their property was reclaimed by the Communist government. After graduating from high school, Dagmar knew that she would not be accepted to university and instead applied to a training program for those interested in working in the cultural sector. When she was not accepted for this program despite excelling at the entrance exams, Dagmar decided to leave the country. She arranged to visit her father in the United States and, in June 1982, flew to Chicago with her high school diploma and jewelry smuggled in her luggage.
Dagmar’s first job in the United States was as a dishwasher at a Czech restaurant. She quickly became involved in the Czech community in Chicago and was particularly active in a tramping group called Dálava. Dagmar enrolled in English language classes and began studying liberal arts at the College of DuPage. She attended evening classes, working in the library at the law firm Baker & MacKenzie during the day. She worked full-time in this job until 1990, when she had a daughter and resigned from this position – although she did stay on at the law firm on a part-time basis for one more year. It was in also 1990 that her mother came to visit the United States for the first time.
In 1991, Dagmar moved to Prague in order to work for a travel agency, but returned within one year. Back in the United States, Dagmar worked as a freelance translator and interpreter before landing a job as the librarian at the Czechoslovak Heritage Museum – an experience which she says was very fulfilling. Today Dagmar works as a cataloger at the law firm Sidley Austin and is pursuing a degree focusing on cross-cultural communication at DePaul University. She has been involved with the Prague Committee of Chicago Sister Cities International for almost 15 years.
Dagmar says that it is important to her to not only keep her Czech heritage alive, but also to educate others about the culture and history of her home country. She visits the Czech Republic every summer. Today, she lives in La Grange, Illinois.
In August 1968, Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia
“I do remember it vividly. I was about four and a half years old, but no matter how much our parents were trying to shield us from it, they just couldn’t quite do that. Litomyšl has a very long square – it’s not a square, really; it’s a main street – and it’s the second longest square in Czechoslovakia, second to Wenceslas Square in Prague, and they were trying to prevent the Russians from invading the middle of the town, so they put a barrier as a bus. And I just remember that there was a bus that was on the main street preventing traffic, and that people tore stones from the paving and stuff like that. The wave of invasion was from Polish [soldiers] and then Russian soldiers, and I remember my father took me to see them in a car, and I remember being scared for my dad. He said ‘Do you want to see the soldiers?’ and then we would just go past them and then he couldn’t back up, so that was a little tense. As little kids, four and a half, five years old, we had some kind of a notion that something was going on.”
Following the invasion, Dagmar’s father left the country and eventually settled in the United States
“It was written in all my papers. It totally made a difference if I was accepted to any school; it had nothing to do with my student status. I know that my mother tried extremely hard to put on a good face. She was not willing to make a compromise with the socialist state to become a member of the [Communist] Party, but she was trying to be very involved in some social and civic organizations so we could put that on the resume. So I was able to go through a good college prep.”
Dagmar recalls a trip she took with her mother
“We traveled by bus from my hometown, through Hungary, through Romania, and into Bulgaria. It was very interesting in the sense that our bus broke down and we had to stay and camp out in Hungary. But Romania was by far the most startling experience I ever had, because we would stop at the rest area and there were corn fields, and all of the sudden the bus stopped and you have all these children running to you and begging for chewing gum and watches. It was really startling. Even just passing the Hungarian-Romanian border was startling enough, that the children would be sleeping in sleeping bags and you had all your bags and stuff, and they would order all the people to get off the bus and match every parent with each child, because there was a slave trade, and they were just so adamant about having every child to be accounted for. And Bulgaria, it was very interesting. It was interesting how different that was. Lack of working toilets. Lack of toilets, period. Lack of plumbing in the house. There was something that was outside and that was where you were supposed wash. It was like ‘Really? No privacy at all?’ So that was another lesson in being humble.”
Unlike most of her classmates, Dagmar did not have to work on labor brigades picking hops or potatoes
“Because I had some severe allergies growing up, I was pretty much excused from a lot of this work. We did go picking potatoes a couple of years. When I got my exemption from the doctor that I really shouldn’t be submitted to anything like that, I was put to alternative work at the Litomyšl archives which was a totally cool place, and it started me on my archival experience. We did some really interesting things. We worked on reading through old judgments and old court documents, and everything that was more than ten years old was to be discarded, with the exception of that being political matter. So we got to read through all the court documents and, actually, if you think about it, high school kids deciding which material is going to get retained by local courts, it’s sort of an interesting experience. It was headed by some wonderful people, PhDs, who used it as a learning tool for some of us. There were some interns from Charles University from the philosophy department, and we had little breaks when we had little talks, and that was really very rewarding.”
Dagmar explains why she feels so strongly about keeping her heritage alive
“When I came here – and of course my knowledge of English was quite limited – people automatically assumed that I was somehow handicapped or that I came from a part of the world that was behind the Iron Curtain. People asked me, believe it or not, if I ever saw snow, and it’s like ‘Yeah, every winter.’ People asked me if we had cars or flushing toilets, and I just thought that it was a lack of information. So being here with an accent, it automatically put me at a place of being a second-class citizen, which I was already, at the economical level. I knew that I had to embrace being part of America, but I also knew that I wanted to have my own cultural identity – that I didn’t want to succumb to McDonald’s, that I didn’t want to succumb to other things. I felt that there was a good life somewhere else and I wanted people to know about it. That there is something else outside of their little world, and I’d like to be acknowledged for it.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History