Jerry Rabas (born Jaroslav Rabas), 1945
Jerry Rabas was born in Pardubice, eastern Bohemia in 1945. In April 1948, Jerry’s father, Jaroslav (who was politically involved with the Agrarian Party), was warned by a friend that he was in danger of being arrested. The family, comprised of Jerry, his father, mother, Růžena, and sister Joan Zizek, left Czechoslovakia and spent 16 months in refugee camps in Germany. In August 1949, they sailed to New York City, and Jerry says that his first recollections are of this trip. The Rabas family then made their way to Chicago where Jerry’s father found a job managing a Sokol hall in the South Lawndale neighborhood. While growing up, Jerry says that his parents wanted him to participate in activities such as Czech school and community dances, but that he was more interested in sports. In high school, Jerry played basketball, football and baseball. He graduated from Roosevelt University with a degree in marketing in 1966, joined the Illinois National Guard that year and got married the following year. After finding a job at an electrical distribution company, Jerry worked his way up over the years to become manager.
When Jerry’s father stopped working at the Sokol hall, he decided to buy a travel agency with the idea of assisting his peers in returning to visit Czechoslovakia; Jerry bought the business (Weber Travel) from his father in 1983. He says that this gave him the opportunity to rediscover his Czech heritage and sparked his interest in Czech history. Although he expanded the scope of the travel agency, Jerry maintained a focus on Czech and Slovak travel, and in recent years did a lot of work with people who are interested in genealogy. Jerry, building on the efforts of his father, also traced his family heritage back to the mid-1400s. Proud to have continued what his father set out to accomplish, he was always supportive of Czech organizations. Jerry lived in Willowbrook, Illinois, with his Czech-born wife until his death in 2013.
Jerry’s father was in danger of being arrested following the Communist coup in 1948
“He was politically involved. He was very involved with the Agrární strana which is the farmers’ union political party, and they were very, very anti-communist. My mother told me the story that a good friend of his that he went to school with was on the police force in Pardubice – he turned into a communist – and the Communist Party, I believe it was on Good Friday of ’48, and they had a meeting and they were going to take over the country that Easter weekend. He came to the house late that evening and he told my dad ‘Jaroslav, your name was on the top of the list that the communists are going to come and get tomorrow. You’re going to be the first one to be arrested, and I’m telling you, they’re going to send you to Siberia and nobody’s going to hear from you again.’ So he was put under that kind of immediate pressure, that a good friend of his who was a Communist Party member came and told him – because of school friendships – he says ‘You better leave right now because they’re going to be here first thing in the morning.’”
Because he left Czechoslovakia so early, Jerry never questioned his American citizenship
“I was young enough where I was Americanized very early, and I didn’t even give it a thought that I wasn’t an American citizen because it was so ingrained in me from day one when we arrived here and I grew up with that. When somebody asks me if you’re American, of course I’m American. But I’ve got to stop and think, ‘Well wait a minute, I’m a naturalized citizen and I wasn’t born here.’ And that realization of what I went through didn’t really hit me until I was much older, surprisingly enough.”
Do you know how it did, or what triggered that realization?
“Well the first thing that did, but I didn’t appreciate it at the time is when I was 18, I graduated high school, I was applying to go to college, and I was denied admittance. And the letter came back and says ‘You’re not a U.S. citizen.’ So I called around and found out what was going on. We were legal aliens for all these years and I should have become a citizen by this time, and my parents had and I didn’t become one with them, so I scrambled overnight to become an American citizen – which was no problem at all – and then I did get accepted into school. That was the first realization that I felt I was being discriminated against, and I couldn’t appreciate it because I always thought I was American, it didn’t dawn upon me that I wasn’t an American citizen at the time.”
Jerry’s father helped found and was the first president of the Alliance of Czech Exiles in Chicago
“It was anti-communist. They published a newsletter for at least 15 years called Zpravodaj, and Zpravodaj would get mailed out – and I remember my sister and I doing the folding and the postage for years, we helped them out on that – and it would get mailed out internationally and it was just an anti-communist newspaper, that’s all it was. They spoke about nationalism in the Czech Republic, they spoke about anti-communism. That organization still exists on a much smaller scale no, but it was an organization put together by the immigrants of that era, of the ’48 immigration era, that got together, had a common cause to try and gain the independence back of Czechoslovakia, and the only way you go after that, get that independence back is being very anti-communist.”
Jerry took over the travel agency his father had bought
“I wasn’t as enthused about it initially, ‘Oh jeez, I’ve got to get to know these guys again,’ but after a while I really, really enjoyed reacquainting myself with some friends I knew from many years ago that I hadn’t communicated, a lot of the immigrants that I hadn’t talked to in 20 years I was able to communicate with them on a regular basis again and have them as clients and give them service, and the majority of them that I can remember came back and were very happy with the service I could give them, which I was happy to hear. So I was thrilled to be able to get back, not initially, but over time I realized that I felt proud of myself a little because what I was doing, I was carrying on what my dad wanted to do and I was able to accomplish what he initially set out.”
The Czech community in Chicago has changed over the years
“I think it’s lost a little bit of its cohesiveness. Geographically at one time it was a centered community – that’s lost. That’s gone. There is no central town that can claim as a Czech community anymore. Czech stores are spread out all over the place. I’ve seen Czech restaurants go from in the 20s down to five or six, I’ve seen Czech travel agencies go from six down to one, I’ve seen bakeries go from eight or nine down to one, maybe two.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History