Kveta Eakin (born Květa Kaňková, then Šimůnková), 1956
Kveta Eakin was born in Karlovy Vary, in western Bohemia, in 1956. When she was 18 months old, however, she moved with her mother to her maternal grandparents’ home in Brno, Moravia. Her father, Arnošt, was a successful agricultural engineer, who subsequently moved to Cuba to work for the government there. When Kveta was eight, her mother (also called Květa) remarried. Kveta’s stepfather was Dr. Vladimír Šimůnek, an economist who became one of President Alexander Dubcek’s advisors during the Prague Spring in 1968. Dr Šimůnek had been teaching economics in Brno, but shortly after marrying Kveta’s mother gained a fellowship in Prague, and so the pair moved there, while Kveta herself remained with her grandparents. In 1969, Kveta’s mother and stepfather moved to the United States, when the latter was offered a position at Kent State University in Ohio. The pair defected and Kveta was, in her stepfather’s words, ‘kept hostage’ for six-and-a half years in Czechoslovakia. Following the signing of the Helsinki Accords, Kveta was reunified with her mother in Cleveland in February 1976. She says she was the second person released from the country as part of a pledge to reunify families torn apart by the Cold War.
That year, Kveta started her studies at Kent State. She graduated in 1980 with a major in psychology. Ten years later, she returned to university to gain a masters degree in rehabilitation counseling, which is her current area of work. Kveta is now settled in the Cleveland area, where she is active in the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) and the local Czech drama group, Včelka. She has one son, Paul.
Kveta’s father was a loyal member of the Communist Party, who ended up working in Cuba
“He was always bothered by inequality in wealth between people. He had trouble accepting that there’s a class of people that’s very wealthy and a class of people that’s very poor. But I don’t think he actually actively did anything in that direction. But he supported equality or fair treatment: that was his objective. But I think what happened with him was that he was so extremely intelligent and knowledgeable that his frame of reference was horribly skewed, because I don’t think he understood that not everybody was as smart as him. So, he could easily… he didn’t care, he could easily give up what he had today, because tomorrow he would have double. Do you understand? He could easily earn money quickly. So, he didn’t understand the struggles of most people because he was definitely above an average person – he spoke four languages fluently, he was, you know, extremely good at what he did, at college his picture was on the wall way after he graduated as one of the best students they ever had, you know. But they did send him to Cuba and he was drinking with Castro. Yes, so, when he left for Cuba, he was already involved with someone else who would be my stepmother and my brother was born in Cuba.”
Kveta says the authorities wanted to turn the house she was living in into a department store
“They did want to take the whole house, and they would come every so often, I remember, when I was a little kid, people would come to our house and they would measure the whole house, because they had some rule, if your property exceeded some whatever square feet, or meters in our case, they had a right to take it. And they wanted to convert our house into a department store, but we were right on the money. Like, by just a centimeter – one more centimeter and it would be over, but they just couldn’t find that one centimeter! That’s what happened.”
It took Kveta six-and-a-half years to leave Czechoslovakia legally and come to the United States
“The idea was that I would come and visit them for summer vacation, and I got a passport, and I was pretty much set to go, but then my grandmother got an idea that I should not be traveling alone and she wanted to come too. And at that point… so she went to apply for a passport, and that triggered my stepfather’s sister saying she wanted to come too. And then everybody was applying for a passport, which delayed the whole thing. I was 16 years old. And by the time it was processed or anything could be done, they actually called me to the passport station and took my passport away. So, nobody went.”
Kveta was reunited with her family thanks to the signing of the Helsinki Accords
“I heard later, and I don’t even remember at what point that was, that when they finally released us, I was the second one to go and that the first child released was a child who was terminally ill. I don’t know for sure, the story goes that she got hit by a car crossing a street and so somehow, whether that triggered something, or whether she had an infection anyway, she had only six months to live, so they let her go, to die with her parents. And I guess she was only ten years old. Whether that is true or not, I really don’t have anything to substantiate that. And I was told I was the second one. But again, whether that’s the truth, I don’t know. And supposedly it was 35 of us they let go, from the whole country. So you have to imagine, it’s, you know, even though it’s not a big country, but still, that’s hard to find somebody else like, in your situation.”
Does Kveta think her problems were caused by the political system in place at the time, or her family?
“Of course, the sad part is that it’s bad enough to deal with family issues – you should not have to have politics interfere in your family life, because then, it’s almost like you have no place to go. And that’s what happened to me at that one point, you know, when I graduated from high school. I was completely stuck. I didn’t know if I could go to school, I did not know if I could leave the country, I just did not know. There was nothing. And I was, you know, becoming an adult. I did not know how to survive. I was really scared to death. I did not have any skills, any, any skills worth mentioning as far as who would hire me, you know… to do what?”
A news conference was held upon Kveta’s arrival in the US
“We landed around 7:00 on February 10, in the middle of the winter. And of course, unknown to us, there were reporters waiting. So, when we were getting off the plane, the stewardess came and told us we had to wait, to be the last, because they already knew. You know, and at that time I’m already thinking ‘That doesn’t sound good!’ And sure enough, we get off the plane, and you know, there is my mother, my stepfather and a bunch of photographers and then they drag us into a room and I had a press conference, right off the bat. Yeah. I could answer questions, but I didn’t understand what they were asking so my stepfather had to translate for me.”
Category: Cleveland, Oral History