John Palka (born Ján Pálka), 1939
John Palka is the grandson of Milan Hodža, the prime minister of Czechoslovakia between 1935 and 1938. He was born in exile in Paris in 1939, without his father present. His father, Ján Pálka, joined the family some months later, after playing an active role in the anti-Nazi resistance back home. The family spent most of WWII in Chicago, with John attending kindergarten and elementary school there. In 1946, the Palka family returned to Czechoslovakia and settled in Liptovský Mikuláš (today found in northern Slovakia), which had for generations been the home of the Palkas. Following the Communist takeover in 1948, John Palka’s father spent four months in jail, and the family eventually fled in 1949, when it was suggested that he may again face arrest. John was nine when the family escaped.
The Palkas crossed the border into Austria at Petržalka, which under communism became one of the most heavily guarded borders in the country. After nine months spent in Innsbruck, Austria, the family obtained American visas and moved to New York City. John’s mother, Irene Palka, worked as a translator at Radio Free Europe, while his father tried to set up an import/export business, which eventually failed. John excelled at his studies and landed a scholarship at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. It was there that he met his wife, Yvonne. They have two children. Until recently, John taught biology at University of Washington. He has written a book about his experiences which was recently published in Slovak by Kalligram in 2010.
John’s family lived in straightened circumstances in Chicago during World War II
“He managed to find this place in FNB Manufacturing – it’s a company which still exists, though now they do different things. He would actually bring me home components which had been rejected to play with. And so I had switches and transformers and things of this sort which I could take apart and unwind and string the wire all over the place. It was actually a bit of a hazard in the apartment.”
John started at Milan Hodža Elementary School in Bratislava in 1946
“It was a school that my grandfather had helped to build. He came to the opening of the school in 1938, it was named in his honor. So I went to my grandfather’s school, so to speak, for the second half of first grade. That was a very bad experience, because the students there were way ahead of anything we had done in the Chicago public schools. And most particularly, they were all writing in cursive, and they were using quill pens that you had to dip into the ink, and I only knew how to write in pencil, and I only knew how to print – I didn’t know how to write cursive. And I had never gone to school in Slovak, and it was a much more formal attitude and when I walked in I had no idea that you were supposed to stand when the teacher came into the room and all those kinds of traditional ways of being in the classroom – that was all new to me. So I was not very happy in that school.”
John’s family escaped over the Slovak border into Austria in 1949
“The idea was to move when there was no light in our sector and then drop to the ground as the light started to come closer. And of course it had a fairly regular rotation and so you could be sort of out of reach of the light. I remember very distinctly that this was a heavily ploughed field and so there were big, big chunks of earth and it was not easy walking, especially for little feet. We were held together by a rope, a light string, that we all held onto. And so the leader would go, he had made the crossing a number of times, and he would go when it was safe, he would drop when it wasn’t safe, and the rest of us did the same. And then we came to the barbed wire fence and, in my memory, the wires were either spread, or one was lifted, anyhow – a crawling space was made for me at any rate. And we crossed over to the other side, which was just as dangerous, because it was still ploughed, and it was still within reach of the searchlights, and it was the Russian zone of Austria. So this was not a complete escape by any means. But we did make it across safely and we did end up in another safe house.”
The Palka family settled in New York City
“My mother tried her best to assimilate. My father I don’t think ever really tried to assimilate. He tried to make a living, but that’s different than really assimilating. He didn’t do that, but it wasn’t because he was resentful or because he thought it wasn’t appropriate, he just… I think the energy had gone out of him. By the time of one escape, and then another escape and being jailed in between, and having sort of come from very elevated circumstances and having had to do this really menial work during the war, and trying to run a business and that failing – it was just a tremendous amount of discouragement. And how much the imprisonment had to do with it, I don’t know. We certainly never talked about it, but my cousin in Bratislava… my closest cousin says that he remembers his mother saying that when she saw my father after he’d been released from prison, her first reaction was ‘this is a beaten man.’”
John was finally allowed to revisit Czechoslovakia in 1976
“You just had to be really careful and basically stay out of trouble and find ways of not yielding to the system completely. That was particularly difficult with children, because children went to school, and at school they might repeat anything that was said at home. And so parents were faced with this horrible dilemma of either not saying anything and having their children brainwashed, or saying what they saw was the truth and then risking that everybody would be severely penalized if this ever came out into the open – and this easily could through the children. It was… Not only was it dangerous, but it confronted everybody with the problem of how to live within the regime and not sell out to it completely.”
Category: New York City, Oral History