George Suchanek (born Jiří Suchánek), 1940
George Suchanek was born in Prague in 1940. His mother, Milada, immigrated to the United States with her parents when she was six years old. After she finished her education, the family returned to Prague where they bought property and started a business. George’s father, Josef, originally from Velký Osek, a village in Central Bohemia, trained to be an auto mechanic and moved to Prague to open his own repair shop. He eventually became a skilled airplane mechanic. George has one older brother, also called Josef.
After graduating from primary school, George says that only three professions were available to him: bricklayer, miner, or steelworker. However, a well-placed friend of the family was able to help him enroll in culinary school. After four years of school, George served in the military for two years and then, as he had trouble finding a good job, again went to school for two more years. George joined an orchestra after his stint in the army and, in order to be able to work and perform, he took a job as a cook in a printing factory. While on a work brigade with the youth organization ČSM (of which he was not a member), George and his peers saved a large warehouse from burning down. As a result, the workers were awarded a tourist trip to Austria. George arrived in Austria in June 1965. Although he says it was never his intention to leave Czechoslovakia, at the end of the trip George left the group and made his way to the police station where he claimed asylum. He was sent to Traiskirchen refugee camp. While living in Austria, George saw an advertisement for a job at Vašata, a Czech restaurant in New York City. He was accepted as a cook and, in November 1965, traveled to the United States.
In New York, George worked in several restaurants. After a few years he moved to Los Angeles where he worked at the Ambassador Hotel; George was working in the kitchen the night Robert Kennedy was assassinated. George returned to New York and received his American citizenship. He started his own construction company and also built and ran several restaurants, the last of which was Zlata Praha, in Queens. George also acted as a manager and promoter for Czechoslovak entertainers performing in the United States and Canada. He organized several tours and concerts for Karel Gott, among others. Today George lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.
In the early 20th century, George’s grandparents and mother immigrated to the United States
“My grandparents from my mother’s side were from Prague, and they immigrated when my mother was six years [old]. She had only American education. It was a Czech school in Chicago, but still it was in the United States. They were waiting until she finished school and then, after that, returned back to Czechoslovakia. Like all the immigrants used to do, they made some money and they went back, they bought some property, they bought a house, they opened a general store, and they tried to start a new living. In the meantime, when they were in the United States, my mother was the only child when they came over, but she had a brother and sister born [there] and when they came back to Czechoslovakia she had another sister born.”
George talks about his early interest in cooking
“When I was a kid I liked to cook. We had a garden and, on my own, I went, pulled out some vegetables, some fruit and I was making soup, and he [George’s father] said ‘My god, you cannot eat that. It’ll spoil your stomach!’ What can ten year old kids cook if you don’t have any experience? So then my mother said ‘Ok, I will take care of it.’ And she was dictating some recipes to me. I remember the first one – potato soup. We had potatoes in the garden, so I was trying to get the other stuff, like mushrooms. I remember when I made my potato soup; my mother was of course assisting and helping me. Since then it was a big hit, and everybody knew that I made a soup which was very good. As I said, more or less my mother did it, but I was participating. So it created my appetite and my sympathy for cooking, and whenever we went camping or something I always was the cook.”
On his trip to Austria, George promised his friends he would bring them back Western goods
“Not everyone has a chance to go to a foreign country on the Western side. Even though they said it’s neutral – Austria – but still it already had the Western influence, and at the markets you could buy everything. In Czechoslovakia there was nothing. There was the black market when somebody bought something. So my friends, everybody brought me a list, [said] ‘Buy me this.’ I had a suitcase full up. I had a horn for a car, double-sound horn; I had boning knives; I had Magnetophone tapes; I had potato peelers; I had women’s stockings. There was a guy who gave me orders and I met his professional friend who was a dentist, and he gave me false teeth. He gave me all kinds of things. Can you imagine? I had a list. I had about 20 things. Some of these things sound so funny. And I came to the police and they opened my suitcase, and they said ‘What, did you come to do business in Austria? What is this? What is this thing?’ because I bought everything. I spent all my money. If I knew I was going to stay there I would never buy these things. But what I am proud of, all these things I bought – it took me awhile – but every single item got back to Czechoslovakia to the person.”
George had a side career as a promoter for Czechoslovakia entertainment in the United States
“There I started my first contacts with musicians and I started to invite them one by one. I already had the restaurant then, and little by little we started to rent all kinds of places, like Carnegie Hall or Town Hall and Bally’s Grand Casino. Then I became an official Karel Gott manager after the first Carnegie Hall, and the latest we did was a 2008 Canadian tour and, I tell you, all the best halls. It started in Toronto, the biggest hall where the Toronto Maple Leafs play, a big, beautiful hall. Then we went to Edmonton, Vancouver.”
A longtime customer of Zlata Praha (George’s restaurant) recounted his experiences of WWII to George
“One of my customers was coming in and I never saw him [before] and usually when I have a new customer who is repeatedly coming back… So I went and I was trying to [find out] if he was Czechoslovakian or if he lived in the neighborhood; I was trying to be friendly with each customer who was coming back. Then suddenly I sat with him and he told me ‘No, no, I don’t live nearby. No, nobody was Czechoslovakian.’ I was surprised; he said ‘But I was in Czechoslovakia. I was in Prague. But it’s a long time ago. I said ‘Well, I know that the American army wasn’t in Prague’ and he said ‘No, it was in 1945.’ I said ‘You were in Pilsner [Plzen]; you were not in Prague.’ He said ‘Yes, I was in Pilsner and I was in Prague.’ His name was William Gladstone and he died about two and a half, three years ago unfortunately; he was a very nice man. He gave me all his discharge papers from the army, and I have a very nice picture.
“General Patton sent him and three Jeeps and one tank to Prague so they can talk with the Czech government, new government, if they want. Because there was a demarkační čára [demarcation line], General Patton wasn’t supposed to cross it. So he stopped at Pilsner, but he was so anxious that he wanted to go all the way, but he couldn’t, and they came and this man, William Gladstone, told me that when they were driving to Prague ‘the Germans were going the opposite way to Pilsner, but they had all kinds of weapons so they can shoot us right away; there was no one shot. And they were jumping on my tank. They wanted to give up themselves, but we couldn’t go because we had to go to Prague with the message.’”
They were trying to surrender.
“Surrender, yeah. But he couldn’t take any prisoners or anything because he had a different kind of mission. I have a picture of the tank with the soldier which he’s actually parking on one side of the Moldau (Vltava), and they even have a bottle of Pilsner beer on the tank, which they brought with them.”
Category: New York City, Oral History