Joe Gazdik (born Jozef Gazdík), 1940
Joe Gazdik was born in the spa town of Trenčianske Teplice, in western Slovakia, in March 1940. His family had a small farm, which he and his brother helped look after. To make ends meet after WWII, Joe’s father worked on both the family farm and the land belonging to the spa itself. Joe went to school in Nové Mesto nad Váhom and, as a keen sportsman, gained a place at Charles University’s Faculty of Physical Education in Prague upon graduation. He studied there for one month until his father died and, Joe says, money ran out. In 1961, Joe entered the Czechoslovak Army and was sent to the officers’ academy in Nitra. He left the army in 1963 and began to study technology and machine maintenance at the Stredná priemyselná škola in Dubnica nad Váhom; during this time he also worked in a local factory. Joe says it was when he was denied promotion at this plant (called Strojárske a metalurgické závody Dubnica) that he decided to leave Czechoslovakia.
He did so with two of his friends in August 1969 in the course of an organized coach tour to East Germany and Denmark. In Copenhagen, the trio went to the Danish police with their passports and said they did not want to return home. Joe subsequently spent 21 months in Denmark, working at the port in Copenhagen, before moving to Munich, Germany, and then the United States. He was sponsored to come to the United States by the International Rescue Committee in 1971. Joe first lived in Annandale, Virginia, before settling in Alexandria and then Arlington, where he lives to this day. He started working in construction in the Washington, D.C. area before securing a job with ABC News, where he worked as a building and maintenance technician for 21 years. He retired at the end of 2001. He is married to Maria Amparo Gazdik and has two daughters, Leyla Margareta and Lucy Ann.
Joe says people were poor in his region at the end of WWII
“Everybody was almost poor, because people didn’t have too many things after the War – everything was destroyed. I remember I didn’t have shoes; I couldn’t go out and play because we didn’t have shoes for a few months, because it was not available to buy anything. At the end of 1946, the supplies started to come to the people, because the factory and everything was destroyed, and people didn’t have, you know, too much money to buy things and it was very hard. Just after I started to go to school, I remember, it was much better everything.”
Joe left Czechoslovakia in 1969, he took a bus tour to Denmark and did not return
“We were very careful not to say one word to anybody in the group, because we knew that in the group they have some informer. Exactly what happened was, we were in Warnemuende in Germany, which is in the North Sea region, you know, which is like a recreation area, and the German secret police came – the Stasi – and they took one girl away from us. The told her, ‘Take your suitcase and come with us immediately.’ They showed this ID to our leader who was with the group and said ‘We are police from DDR Germany and this girl must go back with us to Czechoslovakia immediately.’ And the girl was crying, unbelievable, you know, she was so sorry. Just two guys come and they say, right away ‘You must go with us.’
“Her idea probably was if she goes to Denmark she will stay over there, that is my thinking, you know. Just they took her away, we didn’t say anything, we always said ‘Oh, we are coming back, I must finish my house’ (because I was remodeling,) ‘We must do this when we come back.’ You know, we had a good time and we were friendly with everybody in the group, just we never ever said something bad about the government or ‘we will not come back’ or something. We always looked to the future back in Czechoslovakia, that ‘we will do this and come back and do that…’”
Joe says the Danish police took good care of him and his friends
“You see, you went to the police in Denmark, and we said ‘We don’t want to go back.’ And they said ‘Ok, give us your passport.’ We must give them our passport, a young police officer in civilian clothes said ‘Come with me.’ We went to his car, we went to the hotel where we stayed and he said to the doorman ‘These guys go with me.’ He said ‘Let them go into the room, pick up their things and they go with me.’ And the doorman said ‘Well, it’s a police officer,’ you know, he didn’t say anything. We picked up our things, we went to his car, and he takes us to the penzion. It was not like a camp or something, it was a pension, a nice pension, in Copenhagen, and it was full of refugees – Czechs, Slovaks and Polaks.”
Once settled in America, Joe sent his mother letters with money in them
“I sent my mum, I tried to send her some money in the letters, and all the time, I sent the letters registered, you know, [to be picked up] in the post office. And what really bothered me was that the director of the post office told my mother ‘Open the letter here.’ And mother opened the letter, there was money in it, and he said ‘I give you one week to go into the bank and exchange this money the legal way.’ Because at this time there were bony and my mum could sell these dollars to somebody and some people liked to buy bony [with this foreign currency], because they liked to buy cars or go to Tuzex – at this time there was Tuzex [a shop where luxury goods could be bought for foreign currency] and all kinds of things. Just no, they told my mother something that was not right, because you have the law, you have secrecy, no? You’re supposed to have, in your letters, secrecy. And they said ‘Forget it, open it, right now!’”
Joe was warned by a Danish colleague that life in America would be hard
“I was leaving the shipyard in Copenhagen and they sent me to this superintendent, because he must sign the paper for me to release me, and he asked me, he said ‘I heard that you are going to America.’ I said ‘Well, I would like to go.’ And he said to me ‘I lived in America for 15 years,’ he said, ‘I was working over there.’ He said ‘America is hard, just if you make it, you will be happy.’ He said ‘If you don’t make it, come here and see me and I will take you back.’ He told me that. And I always remembered that, him saying ‘America is hard, just if you make it, you will be happy.’ Thanks god, I was working hard, you know, working in construction in this country – it is not easy. I was working, I remember, I was working for this company for six years – it was George Hyman, it is now called something different – they changed it, now it is Clark Company. We were building this new Senate office building, it was like a big hole, three floors down, and the Washington temperature was 102 degrees. Back in the hole it was maybe 120 degrees! It was not easy, it was hard – and thanks god I made it. I was working most of the time inside construction, finishing everything, this kind of thing, you know, not outside. Just that time we were building that Senate office building I was working outside, because I didn’t want to leave the company, I wanted to stay with the company. And, it was not easy.”
Category: Oral History