Eugenie Bocan (born Evženie Jandusová), 1942
Eugenie Bocan was born in Prague in 1942 and grew up in the Podolí district of the city with her parents and her younger sister. As a young girl, Eugenie recalls swimming in the Vltava and taking trips to the country to visit her father’s relatives. During WWII, it was those same relatives who provided food to Eugenie’s family, as items like meat and eggs were in short supply in the city. Eugenie’s father, Václav, was a bank clerk, while her mother, Milada, worked in a shoe store. Although Eugenie enjoyed chemistry in school, she says she was not allowed to continue those studies in university and, instead, attended nursing school where she specialized in newborn and pediatric nursing. Upon graduating, Eugenie worked for one year at the children’s psychiatric facility in Prague – an experience she calls ‘very interesting.’ She then became a maternity nurse and also worked for a short time in a dentist’s office.
One of Eugenie’s coworkers had relatives living in West Germany who sent Eugenie and her husband, Vladimir, a letter inviting them for a visit. They took advantage of this opportunity several times before deciding to leave Czechoslovakia permanently. In the spring of 1968, Eugenie and Vladimir crossed the border and stayed at a refugee camp near Nuremberg. During their eight month stay, Eugenie worked cleaning floors and in the Grundig factory while her husband worked in a toy factory. The couple had a car (which they had driven across the border) and traveled on weekends.
Eugenie and Vladimir arrived in New York City in December 1968. Sponsored by the Red Cross, they were first put up in the Wolcott Hotel, which Eugenie called ‘terrible.’ They shortly found an apartment in Queens and Eugenie began working at Booth Memorial Hospital. Although she initially had a hard time getting her state nursing license, Eugenie worked for over 30 years as a newborn and pediatric nurse. She and Vladimir raised one daughter, Monica. After receiving her American citizenship, Eugenie began traveling back to Czechoslovakia frequently. Now widowed, Eugenie lives in the house in Queens that she and Vladimir bought not too long after their arrival.
During WWII, Eugenie’s father made sure the family had enough to eat
“They had problems with food, of course, and because we had relatives in a village, he used to take a train – which wasn’t allowed; there were Germans around and, somehow I understand, it was dangerous and they weren’t allowed to do it, but he did it anyway because we had to eat – then he went there, he brought for them what they needed, and exchange they gave him eggs and meat and a goose or whatever we needed to have some food. I mean, we were never hungry, never ever, but that’s what he did. He used to go and exchange what they ordered from Prague, like clothes and materials for dresses because at that time they were sewing everything, and in exchange they gave him a lot. Also because he was always very kind to them and he helped them in the summer a lot. Then he’d always bring fruit and meat and eggs and we had everything all the time. But I understand it was dangerous because the German soldiers were around busses and trains, and I don’t recall how dangerous or why but I know that my mother was always nervous about if my father will come back or if they will catch him; he wasn’t allowed to do it.”
Eugenie recalls her first job following nursing school
“In the beginning, all our class was supposed to go out of Prague. It was mandatory for one year to work somewhere in the outskirts of Czechoslovakia where there was a big shortage of nurses, but somehow – I don’t recall how – I stayed in Prague, but I had to go to psychiatry. Children’s psychiatry [hospital], it’s a big place in Prague; it’s called Bohnice. A lot of people know it; it’s slang, like ‘You will end up in Bohnice’ if you get a little crazy. It was a really interesting experience, very, very interesting experience with the children. The children did like me a lot, because they had these old-fashioned nurses who were cruel and nasty to them.”
Is that how nurses used to be?
“No, not in the hospital, but in this institution, the children were disturbed children. They were mentally disturbed, and some of them were there on a trial [basis], if they should go to an institution permanently or be with parents and be treated outside. The children were very, very difficult and they were criminally inclined, some of them; some of them were dangerous. Then there were old nurses, and they had their old methods, like they had seclusion when a child got wild or did something nasty to the nurse. They put him in the seclusion and undressed him, which was so demeaning; I would never do that to anybody, not to ten-year-old boys. It was frightening for him and it was cruel. To me, it was cruel and I never did it. That’s why I had very good interaction with the children, because they knew that I will not do it and I will not tell on them. If they did something bad, I talked to him and I would tell him that wasn’t nice or it wasn’t good to call me some names, but I never put them in isolation or did anything cruel. They loved me.”
Despite her skill as a nurse, Eugenie was denied a promotion
“I had a problem in the hospital because I was a regular nurse when I started and I had a boss, male; he was in charge of me and he wanted to promote me to a supervisory position, because he found out that I was perfect for it, but he wanted me to sign papers for the Communist Party because he was a big Communist. And I said ‘No.’ He said ‘What do you mean, no? You go have more money, you go have a good job, you don’t have to do what you do, you go sit in an office and so on.’ And I said ‘Yes, I would love that, and I think I deserve it, but I don’t need to sign anything. I’m not going to be communist to go sit in an office.’ He said ‘I don’t understand you.’ I said ‘I know you don’t understand me because you are communist, and I will never sign it.’ And that’s how it ended.”
Eugenie felt welcomed in her new country, particularly in her professional life
“I was very impressed with the Americans because they treated me like everybody else. At work, I was amazed that they would trust me and they were so nice to me. I had my book, translating, and they would go, if I didn’t understand, ‘Give me the book, Eugenie,’ and they would find it and translate the word; they were very kind. The doctors really did appreciate me because I knew actually more than their nurses; because I had two years specialty in newborn babies and premature babies, I had better knowledge than they did. And you don’t need to speak too much. You need to work, and they could see that I know what I am doing.”
Category: New York City, Oral History