Emil Brlit, born 1954
Emil Brlit was born in 1954 in Nitra, Slovakia. He grew up in the smaller town of Partizánske with his parents and two older sisters. His father was a dentist, while his mother worked as a dental assistant. Prior to the communist coup in 1948, Emil’s father had his own dental practice. Once he was stripped of his business, he became a company dentist in a local factory. Emil says that he had a ‘very nice childhood’ and especially enjoyed the outdoors. He often fished, camped, and spent time at his family’s summer house in the mountains. If he had not left Czechoslovakia, says Emil, he would have become a forest ranger and specialized in fisheries.
Emil says that his father had always thought about leaving, due to his dislike and distrust of the communist system. They found their chance in August 1969, when both of Emil’s sisters were out of the country (one had won a trip to West Germany and the other was visiting relatives in Austria), and Emil was on vacation with his parents in Yugoslavia. They were given permission to pick up his sister in Austria and decided not to return. As a 15 year old, Emil’s first reaction to the move was to steal a passport and attempt to hitchhike back to Czechoslovakia. The family lived with Emil’s relatives in Vienna for four months, during which time Emil worked for his uncle and aunt’s window business.
In late December 1969, Emil and his family arrived in Boston. After two months of unsuccessfully trying to find a job, Emil’s father moved the family to Chicago where he found employment in an acquaintance’s dental lab. Although Chicago had a large Czechoslovak community, the Brlits settled on the north side of town (away from their fellow émigrés) on the recommendation of Emil’s father’s friend. They eventually bought a house in Skokie, Illinois, north of the city. Emil says that he had somewhat of a rough time in high school and spent much of his free time working in the dental lab with his father. In 1976, he opened his own lab in the upper peninsula of Michigan, in search of the outdoor activities he left behind in Czechoslovakia. Eighteen months later, he joined the rest of his family in moving to Florida, where he again opened his own dental lab.
Emil met his future wife, Elena, while she was visiting her uncle who was well acquainted with Emil’s family. The couple married three weeks later. In Florida, the Brlits have a large circle of Czechoslovak friends, and their two children speak Slovak fluently. Emil says that he believes his father made the right decision in moving his family to the United States and says ‘This country gave me opportunity.’ Today, he lives in Sarasota, Florida, with his wife, Elena.
According to Emil, his father was not a stranger to the police station, for one reason in particular
“Talking against communism openly. Fortunately, he was very respected as a doctor in town, and the director of the factory [where he worked] is the one who was covering him a lot. He would be called into the police department probably once a month, once every two months because of saying something or doing something.”
Emil remembers the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion
“We were fishing on the Hungarian border with my father and we found out at seven in the morning that Warsaw Pact forces occupied us, so we just got into the car and drove home. And we had a couple uncomfortable experiences where the tanks almost ran us off the road and stuff like that, so it wasn’t fun. It wasn’t fun.”
So you had actual contact with Warsaw Pact troops.
“Actually, I had more than that because we were putting signs up against them and they started chasing us. But there were bushes and we knew those bushes, so they didn’t have a chance. Yeah, they were chasing us through them, so it wasn’t fun all the time.”
What signs were you putting up?
“Oh, comparing Russians to Hitler and stuff like that. Just like kids.”
Emil recalls going grocery shopping in Czechoslovakia during the 1960s
“For one, you wouldn’t buy everything in one store. You had a store for vegetables, you had a store for bread, you had a store for groceries, so you had to go to different stores. You’d usually end up in line because there wasn’t enough, so there was a line for bread. It was like, we’d go to the store and one of us goes in line to buy potatoes, the other one goes in line to buy bread, the third one goes to buy meat, and mom would go to the regular grocery store to buy everything else.”
Upon arriving in Chicago, Emil’s family settled away from the large Czechoslovak population
“A friend of my dad – the gentleman my dad worked for – suggested not to go into the Czechoslovakian community. He said because of English and this and that, which I’m sure he meant well.”
Can you talk a little bit about that and whether you, in the end, agreed with him?
“In the end I disagreed with him. A lot of people just used the system where they were being supported by the state and all that, which I disagree with, but there were a lot of things that would have been different if we knew what we can do. Maybe it would have been different about school, because there were a lot of Czechoslovakians so school would be a lot easier for me. There were sports, soccer and such. And for my dad alone in all of this, that would have been completely different, so I think life would have been easier for us if we went there; if it would be better or not, I don’t know. We’ll never find out.”
Emil describes his reactions to his first few visits back to his homeland
“At that time, I was just so excited being there, seeing my aunt… We went to the summer house that used to be ours, and the first day, 29 people came to visit me. So that was nice. And just being back there, I was excited; I didn’t see anything wrong. When I went the second, third [times], the more I went over there, I was impressed how people started changing, how they started doing their business. There were a lot of people complaining ‘They don’t have this; they don’t have that.’ I said ‘What? You forgot you used to live there? It takes time. It takes time to change all of that.’”
Category: Chicago, Oral History