George Drost (born Jiří Drost), 1946
George Drost was born in Brno in December 1946. His father, John, was a lawyer while his mother, Doris, stayed at home and raised George and his older brother Rudy. George says the Communist coup in 1948 was a ‘turning point’ for his father, who left Czechoslovakia within days. Two weeks later, George’s mother and brother followed, crossing the border into Austria and leaving George in the care of his grandmother. It took two years before George was reunited with his family. George says both legal and illegal attempts were made to transport him to Austria, but in the end a family friend, Marie Bednar, and one of his aunts worked together to smuggle him across the border and bring him to Innsbruck, where the rest of the family were staying. The Drosts, who had already applied for American visas, waited for their paperwork to clear in a guesthouse in Kranebitten in the Austrian Tyrol. They sailed to New York City on the General Blatchford (a U.S. troop transport ship) on July 27, 1950, arriving in America some ten days later.
The family settled in Chicago, where George says they were greatly helped by the congregation at Ravenswood Presbyterian Church. At first, George’s mother earned money cleaning houses while his father found work in a factory cleaning meat-cutting equipment. George says a ‘breakthrough’ took place for his father when he became the caretaker at the city’s St. Paul’s United Church of Christ, where the German-speaking congregation encouraged him to attend night classes at John Marshall Law School and reopen a legal practice.
After staying in several Chicago neighborhoods, the Drost family moved to Rogers Park. George attended Taft High School and then Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. He followed his father into the legal profession, obtaining his law degree from DePaul Law School. He is now an attorney at Drost, Kivlahan, McMahon & O’Connor LLC. George is a previous head of the Bohemian Lawyers Association of Chicago and, between 2000 and 2005, was appointed honorary consul of the Czech Republic for Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana. He is a current director of American Friends of the Czech Republic and the Council of Higher Education (Matice Vyššího Vzdělání) and is an avid collector of Czech art. Today, he lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
George discusses some of his earliest memories
“Things I remember are things kids remember when they are two or three years old, you know, looking for toys, when the housekeeper would remove her teeth and make herself look like a witch and try to scare me, and then make me relieved when she put her teeth back into her mouth. But it was those kinds of little childish games, and then, of course, when I was reunited with my parents, I remember being reunited with them, and it was almost like being with strangers. We settled in a small gasthaus near Innsbruck, in Kranebitten, and waited to get final approval to go to Bremerhaven to eventually take a boat to America.”
George says his parents wanted to immigrate to the United States rather than to Britain or Australia
“We had other options, two – two options that I was told of. One was Australia and one was the UK. And my father, in his explanation of it, thought that the Australian experience was too austere, because it was almost a biblical indenture where you would be in unpopulated areas helping to redevelop them and after five or ten years you would be basically removed from any covenance of promises that you had to stay in the outback. In England, although England was an attractive place, my father felt that because of the class system immigrants wouldn’t succeed in the English system, and he felt that there would be too many bars to access opportunity in the UK.”
George remembers how his parents started out in Chicago
“Mother cleaned houses, and she took me with her. I think I remember she was being paid $5 to clean a house, and she would do one a day, or possibly two, and I learned how to ride on the public transportation. And my father’s jobs were at first in a meat factory where he would be cleaning meat-cutting equipment and then eventually he made it to another manufacturing job which was at the Hammond Organ Company, which no longer exists, and he would make pieces for organs, piecework. And I remember him saying that when he was working there some of his colleagues that he was working with [said] ‘John, you’re working too fast. You shouldn’t work as hard because you are making us look like we’re bad.’ But that gave me a sense of the type of ambition that my father had to quickly better himself. But sort of the breakthrough moment was when my dad took a position as the church administrator for St Paul’s which is now the United Church of Christ at Fullerton and Orchard. And again that was a very helpful congregation where my father received encouragement from church leaders to continue his legal career and attend night school at the John Marshall Law School.”
George spent five years as Czech honorary consul for Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana
“It gave me a… it connected me back with my Czech roots in a way I felt comfortable. I liked the idea of having a title to be the sort of official Czech person in the region, and having the ability to start to introduce Czech visitors – dignitaries from prime ministers to presidents, senators, ambassadors – to Chicago and to help them, at least from my experience what I think might be helpful in creating better Czech-American relations. Those were the good things. What I didn’t like was that there was too much… I’ll call it ‘stempeling.’ The Czechs are wonderful for bureaucratic design, and I don’t know if it was inherited from the Austro-Hungarian Empire but it is overly bureaucratic and overly protective to [the point that it] really minimizes the purposes that are trying to be achieved.”
George says he did not anticipate the Velvet Revolution
“No, this is sort of stunning. This was again an amazing event. My father couldn’t believe it, we couldn’t believe it, we thought it was a dream – der Lebenstraum, you know? It didn’t seem real – a Fellini movie, Kafkaesque – it was not to be believed, because we had 43 years of this Communist regime and totalitarianism. Even during the time of Dubček in 1968, my father was very distrustful of that, ‘He’s still a communist.’ So… But I think that history will prove that he was more than, that he was an enlightened socialist.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History