Jana Svehlova (born Jana Helena Roubíková), 1943
Jana Svehlova was born in Cardiff, Wales, in December 1943. Her father, Jan, was a Czech who had moved to England at the start of WWII to fight with the Royal Air Force (RAF). He met Jana’s mother, Eleonora (a German speaker originally from the Sudeten region of Czechoslovakia), at the Air Force Club in Cardiff. The pair were married in May 1943. Jana lived in Wales until the end of WWII, when her father decided the family should return to Czechoslovakia and settle in Prague. One year after the Communist takeover, in 1949, Jana’s father was arrested because, she says, the new regime viewed those who had fought for the Allies with hostility. Jan was sentenced to ten years hard labor. He worked in the uranium mines of Jáchymov and Příbram, and spent time in prison in Bory and Ilava. Jana says that she and her mother were able to visit him about twice a year.
When she was 14 years old, Jana was told that she would no longer be able to attend school and was sent to work for TESLA making televisions. Growing up, Jana says, her goal was to become a pediatrician, and so when the opportunity presented itself for her to work at Prague’s Bulovka hospital the following year she seized it. Jana’s first job was in the operating room, cleaning blood from the floor after surgery. She applied for nursing school on a number of occasions, but was refused each time on grounds of her family background. Following her father’s release in 1959 Jana says she was able to attend night school to gain a qualification in nursing. In 1966 she applied for a visa ostensibly to go and visit her birthplace in Wales, but she did not return home from that trip and settled instead in Vienna, where she became a nurse. At a preordained time and place in Vienna, she met her fiancée, Jan, who had escaped from Czechoslovakia separately. The couple were married in Austria and then moved to England, where Jan studied for his doctorate and Jana became a ward sister in a Brighton hospital.
The couple moved to Hampton, Virginia, in 1974 when Jan was offered a job at NASA. Jana says her first job in America was selling cosmetics for Avon. She subsequently became a clinician at NASA. When the pair divorced Jana moved to Washington, D.C. She worked at the Bethesda Naval Hospital for more than 20 years and studied for a master’s and doctoral degree at the same time. Her postgraduate work (in political psychology) focused on daughters of political prisoners in 1950s Czechoslovakia. With some of the women she interviewed for her doctorate, she founded an NGO called Dcery 50. let (known in English as Enemy’s Daughters). Members of the group regularly visit Czech classrooms to talk about their experiences. Today, Jana lives in McLean, Virginia, and works as a tour guide of Washington, D.C, and as an usher at the Kennedy Center.
Jana remembers her father’s arrest
“Many people who fought with the Allies then became the enemies of the state. So my father was arrested three days after Christmas, on December 28, 1949. And I remember that they were turning the apartment upside down and looking for stuff, knowing that they wouldn’t find anything. I know that they confiscated his Air Force uniform and the flight jacket – that was the first thing they took – but they also took all our photographs. I do remember my father standing there and his face was white, like this wall… This wall is not as white as my father’s face was. That’s all I remember of that day and I remember asking one of the secret police agents ‘Where are you taking my daddy?’ And he said ‘Oh, we just need to ask him a few questions.’ And I can still remember my mother standing by the window waiting for my father to come back and of course we didn’t know… I learned later it took six months before they let us know where he was. And I just kept asking, I kept asking my mother later ‘How did I react?’ Because I adored my father. My mother was the disciplinarian, because I would kick my father and he would say ‘Isn’t she sweet?’ But she told me that I just kept asking ‘Where is daddy? Where is daddy?’ and she told me ‘Well, when he comes back he’ll be back.’ And I remember her crying a lot, but that’s about all I can remember.”
Jana says Stalin became her ‘temporary father’
“My mother was working and I was home with tonsillitis listening to my beloved radio – we had two stations. And suddenly they announced that they would be singing Stalin’s favorite song, ‘Sulika,’ and we all knew from school that this was Stalin’s favorite song. I was in bed with scarves and everything around my neck to keep warm. I pulled them all off. I was maybe 10 years old, 11 years old. I stood to attention, nobody told us ever we needed to stand to attention when they sing ‘Sulika’ [but] I stood to attention and I was listening to ‘Sulika’ from the radio… Because Stalin in a way was my temporary father and I just never know how to explain it to people. I had no other input. That’s what I believe, that that guy, who sent my dad to prison, became my temporary father.”
Jana visited her father in prison about two times a year
“For me, it was like going on a school trip. Those hardboiled eggs never tasted so good like on the train to the prison camp! Of course, it took all night because they had special trains from Prague. We were lucky, we were from Prague – imagine the people coming from other parts of the country. It was an overnight train with all the people going to the same place. We would go to Jáchymov, Příbram, and I remember the train would arrive, let’s say, at 4:00 in the morning and then they would let us wait in that cold train station for the local little train to take us to the labor camps. And of course I have plenty of stories about that. But for me it was kind of an adventure. And I was very proud because when we visited the prisoners, every prisoner had a guard standing right next to him following our every word. The visits were about every half a year for about 15 minutes. And I was told by my mother to be sure to shove some food into my father’s pocket. So, I always had to watch for the guard not looking for a second and I was always very proud of myself when I managed to get something in.
“My father was taken away when I was six and he came back when I was 16. When I was 14, my mother had one of her migraine headaches and that was the only time that she could not go to visit him. She sent me alone, and it was Příbram. And today it may take an hour by train but I remember then it took forever. I arrived at the town square, got off the train and there were buses that would go to the labor camps, [but] I didn’t see anybody, except there was a bus with the driver kind of sleeping there and I said to him ‘Oh, I don’t know what to do! Where are all the buses? I must have missed them!’ And he said ‘Where are you going?’ I said ‘To see my dad; he’s in the labor camp, and my mother will kill me if I don’t get there!’ He said ‘Well, get on’ and he took me to the labor camp. I see that they were already closing all the gates because this was a place which was just for the visits, it wasn’t the real place. It looked kind of like when you see some of the wooden barracks in concentration camps. They were just for visits.
“So I come to the gate and the soldier is closing the gate and I start crying – I’m 14, I look like I’m 11, and I said ‘My mother will kill me if I don’t see my father!’ He says ‘Well stay right here.’ Actually, it was the commandant of the labor camp that came out and he said ‘Okay, here is a piece of paper, and you will go to the place where your father is and show them this paper.’ So, you need to imagine that this was in the middle of a field where there was nothing except, on the little hill, those watchtowers with, you could see, those soldiers with guns. But mainly you saw all those signs everywhere. In Czech it would be Nevstupovat! Střílení bez výstrahy! (Do not enter! Shooting without warning! Or something like that.) And it was everywhere. And I still remember running, with this piece of paper – holding it in front of me and thinking ‘Well, how do those soldiers there know that this paper says that I can be here?’”
After working for TESLA, Jana secured a job at Prague’s Bulovka hospital
“Maybe it’s my personality; I kind of always enjoy what I am doing so, you know I enjoyed when I learned the craft. I enjoyed it. And then when I worked at that hospital I left the operating room and they allowed me to work on the floor. It was the urology floor. And the nurses, I will always be grateful to them because some of them preferred to sit at the nurses’ station and talk and laugh and do nothing if possible. And of course I was all eager. So they taught me how to give injections and how to change dressings and of course, we didn’t have to worry that anybody would be sued! So I loved it, I enjoyed it and I had the best time. I loved my job and, I mean, I didn’t have a good title.
“I was also humiliated, interestingly, that also stayed with me, because there were now girls, women, 18 year olds, who had just finished, who’d become registered nurses at the age of 18, because it is a different system. So of course, they were basically my superiors, because they had the diploma and I didn’t. And I still remember one of the girls, and I was told that she hardly managed to get through nursing school, she wasn’t very bright, but she had the power, she had the diploma and I still remember how she told me ‘Go to the blood bank and bring the blood transfusion for the patient.’ And I still remember the tone of her voice – no please, no thank you – it stayed with me.”
Both of Jana’s parents left Czechoslovakia in 1968
“We arranged for him to come over and then when he arrived at Heathrow, the passport control officer said ‘Do you have a visa?’ And my father said ‘Well, when I came here to fight for you in 1939 you didn’t ask me “Do you have a visa?”’ And the official said ‘Welcome back, sir.’ It always kind of gets to me because my father was not happy in England. He was a Czech. He loved Prague. He was not happy in England; he used to tell me ‘holčičko’ (my little girl) ‘I would walk back if I could.’ The only reason he left was because there was a rumor in Prague that they will arrest the former political prisoners. And he was by then 54, because he was born in 1914, and he did not want to go through that again. And that’s the only reason he left, and he wasn’t happy.”
Jana’s first job in the US was selling cosmetics
“Avon didn’t care whether you had a work visa or not so I became an Avon lady. And I didn’t know how to drive, so in the heat of the South; in Hampton, Virginia, I schlepped about in that little neighborhood with my Avon case. I didn’t make any money, because when I would walk in – and this was kind of a lower middle-class section – I mean, the women, all they wanted to know was about my background. So I didn’t make any money, and Jan would say ‘Well, you didn’t make any money,’ because at the end of the visit they would buy a lipstick just to kind of justify the visit. I’ve never drunk so much coffee and tea in my life!
“But anyways, then they opened a shopping mall in Hampton, and the most prestigious store at that Hampton mall was JCPenney. And I went to the manager of the cosmetic department and asked him if he would hire me. And he said ‘Well, you don’t have any experience’ and I said ‘Oh yes I do! I know how to deal with people because I was a nurse in England’ – I didn’t tell him those were sick people – ‘and I sold Avon’ – and I didn’t tell him I didn’t make any money! So he said ‘Okay, I’ll take you for three months.’ Well, he made me sell Zsa Zsa cosmetics. Now, young people don’t know probably who Zsa Zsa was – Zsa Zsa Gabor. But, I had an accent, and who would have known in Hampton, Virginia, that it wasn’t a Hungarian accent. Zsa Zsa didn’t advertise, and the only time that people knew who Zsa Zsa was was when she was on the Merv Griffin Show. That shows you how old I am! So, the next day people would come and buy her cream, and at that time, one ounce of her cream was $32.”
Jana’s PhD focused on daughters of political prisoners in 1950s Czechoslovakia
“I think the main impact that it had was that feeling of injustice, [about] what happened to the families, and the lack of recognition after the fall of communism. That’s what bothered them so much. They basically had this ‘Why doesn’t somebody come and say “You went through some awful stuff?”’ And nobody did. And suddenly everybody was a victim, and there was a lot of whitewashing. But it’s changing now because… You asked me if I wrote: I’m not much of a writer, I haven’t written too many articles, here is one in Slovo. But when I asked those 12 women [whom she interviewed for her thesis] whether they would like to meet the others, they said yes. So, from these 12 women is now an NGO, a non-governmental organization. There are over 100 of them. They meet once or twice a year in different places and mainly what they are doing now is they are going to schools and they are talking to schoolchildren about what they have been through. So not only that it is therapy for them, but also they are getting some recognition, and that’s what I am the happiest about.”
Category: Oral History