Magda Mraz (born Maři Magdalena Mrázová), 1948
Magda Mraz was born in Liberec in northern Bohemia in 1948 and grew up in Chomutov with her parents and younger brother. Magda’s mother, Milada, was of Czech ethnicity but grew up in southern Slovakia where her father owned several successful hotels. Milada studied hotel business in Lausanne, Switzerland, and later worked as an accountant in a spa/hotel in Jáchymov. Magda’s paternal grandfather owned a large manufacturing business and her father George (born Jiří) was sent to Britain to study. When WWII broke out, George joined the British Army. Magda says that upon his return to Czechoslovakia, he had a hard time as a result of spending the war years abroad. Magda was ten when her family moved to Ostrov nad Ohří, as her father lost his job as an engineering professor at a technical school because of his ‘bourgeois’ background.
From a young age, Magda was interested in painting and drawing and joined an art club. She attended a high school in Karlovy Vary that specialized in decorative china and ceramics. After her graduation, Magda’s uncle, who had emigrated shortly before, invited her for a visit to the United States. Magda says that her parents were encouraged when she received a visa without any trouble and also requested permission to travel abroad. In July 1967, Magda and her family traveled to Switzerland and applied for permission to immigrate to the United States. Shortly thereafter, they flew to New York City and settled in Queens where Magda’s parents quickly found employment: her father as an engineer and her mother in the UN gift shop. Magda herself got a job designing plastic plates. She took classes part-time at Queens College and received an MFA with a concentration in painting. Magda worked for many years as a freelance textile designer. With her then-husband, Magda bought an old barn in Connecticut and converted it to art studios. She recently received a doctorate in divinity studies from Wisdom University and today focuses on broadening her drawing and painting techniques while occasionally exhibiting her work and teaching art.
Although Magda describes the Czech community in New York as ‘divided’ at the time of her arrival, she became close with a group of fellow émigrés who often played soccer and went skiing together. Her first trip back to Czechoslovakia was in the early 1980s; she next returned after the fall of communism with her parents, who briefly considered returning there to live. Magda visits the Czech Republic each summer and says that she hopes to retire there someday. Today she lives in New Haven, Connecticut.
Magda’s mother was raised in Slovakia, where WWII brought changes for her family
“They were originally welcomed. All the Czechs were welcomed as helpers to the newly liberated states [of Slovakia] from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Many teachers, many people in higher positions were Czechs because there wasn’t such a thing as education in the Slovak language, previously. If you wanted higher education, you had to study in Hungarian. So Czech, being a Slavic language, was much closer to Slovak. And there were many young people who actually ended up studying either in Olomouc or in Prague. Both of my aunts married Slovaks, but ones who spoke Czech because they studied at the colleges in the Czech part. The attitude was originally very positive toward Czechs bringing more culture and sophistication to Slovakia, which was kept very rural by the Hapsburgs because, along the Danube, the soil was much more fertile than in Bohemia. So it was more a nation of peasants and the intelligentsia developed only later, and it was led by Czechs.
“But all of the sudden, with the arrival of fascism, there was an option to become an independent state, and all of the sudden everybody became a big patriot, a big Slovak patriot, and Czechs were no longer welcome; Czechs and Jews were kind of pushed away. So that’s why my grandfather lost his hotel, which he built from scratch, in Nové Zámky which was on the occupied border in southern Slovakia, and went to Bratislava which was the capital and still a little bit off-limits at the time.”
Although they were not staunch Catholics, Magda’s parents refused to give up their religion
“It was more a matter of integrity I think. When they came to the United States, they were looking for different spiritual venues, but in Czechoslovakia nothing else existed and remaining Catholic meant that they would be adhering to their values, which they considered superior to the communist ones. So it was partly political. It was kind of a silent protest.”
Magda talks about being a teenager in the run-up to the Prague Spring
“During our teenage years, we all turned into sort of activists. We had a performing group called Škamna which was based a little bit on the principles of Laterna Magika. We had some film projections in the background, some black theatre, recitations; we had our own band and we made our own songs. We were very successful in the neighborhood and we took it different towns. We were playing pieces from the books and plays by Hrabal or Kundera or Škvorecký and we felt very much part of the protest movement. We had the big kulturák, or House of Culture, where the stage was available to us. So we were pretty active in that way, trying to promote the more liberal and liberating ideas of the contemporary Czech writers and playwrights.”
Although Magda’s family emigrated in 1967, her parents wanted to leave the country for more than 20 years
“Always. Ever since they got married. As a matter of fact, they got married for the purpose of being able to leave the country. However, communism took over and both grandfathers were arrested. This was after my paternal grandparents didn’t see their children for six years. My aunt got married and pregnant, so somehow my father had to delay his departure because of the wedding and, with all the delays, eventually the borders closed again and it was impossible [to leave] anymore. They wanted to leave the country very much immediately after the War because, having a Western perspective, they were convinced easier that – or at least my father – that communism will indeed take over Czechoslovakia [sic], and Eastern European countries in general. So they wanted to leave. And my father would have become a British citizen and would have had some advantages as a veteran of the War, so he wanted to pack up my mother and go but, also, she became pregnant very quickly with me, so it would have been difficult under those circumstances. So they missed their chance, and they got stuck for another 20 years.
“They took the first chance they could later on. As a matter of fact, when I got my high school diploma, I asked my uncle to invite me to America, and I was granted the visa without any problems; it was unusual. So my parents were encouraged and they said ‘Well, when she got it so easily, why don’t we all try?’ and, to our great surprise, their passports arrived a couple of weeks later. Instead of me going to the U.S., I joined them in their car and we went to Switzerland as a whole family, and there we asked for American visas and we got them without problems. At that time, a year before the Russian invasion, each nation had a certain quota of immigrants, and Czech was not fulfilled at all, and my father being an engineer, he was on the more wanted lists, professionally. So that’s why it was so quick.”
After arriving in the United States in 1967, Magda found a job
“My first job was in New York City. I was making designs on plastic plates, which wasn’t particularly creative, and I wasn’t paid. The guy had some kind of outdated information that if he hires foreigners or anybody under the pretext of hiring them as apprentices, he doesn’t have to pay them. So after two months a friend of the family asked me ‘How much are they paying?’ and I said ‘Nothing, so far.’ He said ‘You can’t leave it like that; you have to go to the Department of Justice and tell them you are not getting paid.’ So I did and I had a hard time with my broken English, but they invited my employer and he had to pay my salary back, plus some penalty. So I felt very rich and in the meanwhile the lady from the department of employment found me another job, which paid what seemed like a lot of money to me at the time. I think it was $75.00 a week, but to me it was a fortune, so I was very happy about the situation. It was a very good demonstration of justice existing in the States – that a little girl could win against the employer.”
Magda’s first visit back to Czechoslovakia was in the 1980s
“I went to Paris, I lived there for two years, and during that stay I went to Prague while it was still under communism. I arrived there at midnight, tried to call my aunt, the phones were kind of disconnected, and in my nervousness, I forgot my passport in the phone booth. I didn’t find out until the morning; eventually I did get in contact with my aunt, who picked me up, and I said ‘Oh by the way, I have to go back to the airport. I forgot my passport there.’ My aunt had a fit. She said ‘Oh my god. You left your passport. How could you?’ So we rushed to the airport and my aunt was much more nervous than myself. That kind of tells you about the psyche of somebody who matured in America, land of the free, and somebody who was subjected to the communist persecution; she was beside herself. We arrived at the airport and there was the clerk who was waving the passport and saying ‘Can you imagine if this would get into the wrong hands?!’ Not only did I have my passport there, but there was also a return ticket to Paris. Can you imagine? So I was very lucky then, but at least there were honest people at the airport.”
Category: New York City, Oral History