Joseph Balaz (born Josef Baláž), 1960
Joseph Balaz was born in Prague in 1960. His father Ladislav worked for the national railway system. Prior to Joseph’s birth, his father was arrested and worked in the uranium mines at Jáchymov for seven years as a result of his being abroad for several years following WWII. Joseph’s mother Milada, who still lives in Prague, was an office manager for a company that manufactured paint. Joseph often went to his mother’s home town in southern Moravia to visit his grandparents and other relatives. He says that immediately following the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, his mother sent Joseph to live with his grandparents for several months, and he went to school while there. Joseph attended the Institute of Technology and then began studying civil engineering at ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague). In February 1982, while on a university ski trip in Austria, Joseph and a friend left the group and hitchhiked to Salzburg. When advised, they traveled to West Germany to seek asylum. Joseph stayed in Bonn for one year and a half while being debriefed (as he had been in the Czechoslovak Army before leaving) and waiting for permission to immigrate to Canada.
In 1983, Joseph flew to Edmonton, Alberta. Five months later, he moved to Montreal where he began working in construction and development. Joseph’s first visit to New York was in 1985 and he spent a few years traveling between Manhattan and Montreal. He eventually settled in New York where he started his own construction business. Today, his successful company specializes in high-end residential development.
When Joseph first arrived in New York he says that he only knew two other Czech immigrants; however, almost 20 years later, he provided consultation for the renovation of the Bohemian National Hall (BNH) in Manhattan which began his involvement with the Czech community in New York. Joseph is on the board of the American Fund for Czech and Slovak Leadership Studies and the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR). Currently, he is the president of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association (BBLA), an organization which operates out of and administers Bohemian National Hall and promotes Czech and Slovak culture in New York. Joseph frequently returns to Prague to visit his mother. He lives in Manhattan with Stephanie, his wife of 17 years.
While he was growing up, Joseph was able to avoid most Communist-sanctioned groups and obligations
“Until 1968, there was even a Scout movement throughout the country. It was not an officially sanctioned movement; it was more what people privately would adhere to. I remember that for a couple of years I was a part of this young group – maybe I was a six, seven, eight year old – and we would gather once every two weeks at someone’s house and they would teach us to make knots with rope, and we were recognizing birds. Once a year, during the summer, I would go for about ten days or two weeks to a summer camp that was organized by this group of loosely-connected parents. So I never became a member of the Pioneer movement. I know that in every school across the country, it was mandatory that the kids participated in some of these things, but I don’t remember that much. I know later on, when I was at the Institute of Technology, that there was recruitment for the Communist Party and for the army, obviously, and things like that, but I managed not to participate in these things.”
Joseph describes his reasons for emigrating
“In general I was unhappy with the political situation in the country. It obviously bothered me that I couldn’t travel. It bothered me tremendously, even at the technical university, the ridiculousness of the whole setup. Even a simple textbook dealing with concrete and concrete mixtures would start with some proclamation that ‘Comrades in the Soviet Union invented the best mixture’ and nonsense like that. So I felt that it was a sad, strange dictatorship where I lived and I had a keen sense of something out there that fascinated me, and that was the draw. It was definitely this quest for a different life, obviously for some adventure, and also as a young guy you have a certain tolerance to the unknown and the silliness of some of these decisions based on just an emotion or something like that.”
In 1981, Joseph and a friend began making plans to leave the country the following year
“We managed to take part in this skiing trip to Austria which was organized by this association… sanctioned by the universities. I know that we somehow discovered that this trip to Austria was going to take place in a couple of months, essentially in February , and we were already too late to formally to apply for it. So what we did was we actually took a very individual approach and we started going to all these individual offices that needed to give us an approval. We started with the school; we went to the police and, in my case, the army also. I think that all together we needed close to 12 approvals so that we could participate. Because we were approaching these decision-makers, these bureaucrats, individually, face to face, and obviously we adjusted the truth a little bit, sort of saying that everybody else promised an approval and it’s now just up to you to okay it as well, these people kind of did it, went along with it. Then we were able to go.”
Joseph talks about the emotional impact of leaving Czechoslovakia
“[My mother] knew that if I had the opportunity that I would leave. She actually supported it and the most traumatic thing was that the day I was leaving I couldn’t tell her. The only member of my family who knew that I was actually leaving was my cousin, who was a buddy and older, and I couldn’t tell my mom; I couldn’t tell anybody. That was most difficult. For me, it was actually quite difficult to leave. The week prior to the trip where I knew I was going to attempt to escape – emotionally, that was the most taxing time frame. What’s interesting is that the friend of mine that I escaped with was extremely upbeat at the time, because he was just planning the trip. He was expecting his wife would join us later on and he was carefree and upbeat, so he helped me tremendously during this time. After we escaped, a couple of weeks later when we were already in Bonn, he was actually down for weeks. Completely devastated, and he was thinking about going back, returning to Czechoslovakia. But at that time, I completely turned around and I was extremely upbeat about the fact that we made it, and it made sense for us to stay. He claims that I helped him, that I kept him there. What’s interesting is that if it didn’t work that way, maybe we would never leave, or he would have returned, or something like that. So it worked out well that we could support each other.”
Joseph arrived in Edmonton, Alberta in 1983
“I actually wanted to return to Germany, because I spoke German; I was fluent. I didn’t speak English whatsoever. Also, Bonn was this sophisticated, extremely clean, colorful city and Edmonton was this strange outpost. I didn’t want to unpack my suitcase for a couple of months. But then, as it goes, I met some young people and we became friends, and they took me to the Rocky Mountains. And there, somehow, I discovered that this continent has something absolutely magnificent. I mean obviously there are some magnificent areas in Europe as well, and all over the place. I got somehow attached to it and I decided that this continent offers something else as well and I decided to stay.”
In more recent years, Joseph has become involved in the Czech community in New York
“My intent has been not to turn the building into a Czech social club, because I think that’s wrong. It’s sort of enclosing a group of people. On the contrary, I believe that the function of today’s groups, and especially our association and also the cultural center and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is to showcase Czech culture. Not only the past – I mean, we have to talk about the past because it’s also fascinating – but current, today’s Czech Republic. Democratic Czech Republic. And it cannot be just a showcase for art. It needs to be a showcase for science; also business. So I’m taking a lot of steps to make sure that we have Czech scientific groups or even companies showcasing their things here. So it has to be a platform showcasing Czech things to the U.S., not just New York.”
Category: New York City, Oral History