Mark Zejdl (born Květoslav Marek Žejdl), 1943
Mark Zejdl was born in Petrovice, a village outside Prague, in 1943. His parents owned a butcher shop in Prague; however, Mark lived with his grandparents in Petrovice until he started school due to unrest in the capital brought on by WWII and the Communist coup. Mark has vague memories of the end of the War and also recalls helping his grandmother with daily farm responsibilities. Mark’s father’s business was nationalized after the Communist coup, and he and his family moved to northern Bohemia near Bílina when he was sent to work in the coal mines there. Mark says that he was a very good student who loved to read and hoped to study medicine; however, after ninth grade, he was not allowed to pursue this field and instead went to a training school in Karlovy Vary to become a cook. While there he worked at the train station and began taking night classes in microbiology and chemistry. After finishing his training, Mark moved to Prague where he continued his higher education and applied for medical school. He was not accepted, and completed two years of mandatory military service. Mark found a job as an economist in the food industry and was fired when he refused to join the Communist Party. In 1968, Mark was living close to Czech Radio on Vinohradská třída and was active in the streets during the Warsaw Pact invasion.
In 1970, Mark says that things got ‘really tight’ in Czechoslovakia and he decided to leave. He had secured a job in Frankfurt as a cook, but returned to Prague once to visit his family. On the way back to Frankfurt, Mark was asked to step off the train; however, he says that he was forgotten about in some commotion, ran away from the train and crossed the border into West Germany on foot. Mark spent time in Munich and Berlin working as a chef before deciding to go to the United States on the recommendation of some friends. He arrived in San Francisco in 1971 and soon found a job in the Fairmont Hotel. Mark worked in the kitchen and the front of house in several hotels and restaurants and eventually opened his own seafood restaurant called The Seagull in the Sunset District. He opened a few other establishments and also worked in real estate. Mark says that he was ‘impressed’ by the United States and the willingness of Americans to assist him.
After Mark’s first visit back to the Czech Republic in 1999 he and his wife, Brenda, returned for visits every year. When he retired, and because he had business interests there, the couple decided to move to Prague. He holds dual citizenship and, while he is enjoying his time in Prague, Mark believes he will return to the United States.
Mark hoped to continue his education and study medicine after finishing ninth grade
“I wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to study medicine so, when I was 14, they take you to this group of people and they listen to what you want to be, and then they determine what you will be, really. So when I got my turn, they asked me what I wanted to be and I said ‘I want to be a doctor.’ They sort of chuckled because, at that time, those were professions for children of the communists. So they were listening to me and I really was fascinated by medicine, because I found some medical books in the [paper] and I read them too. So it was fascinating to me, but they laughed at me and they said ‘Well, ok. You have a choice. You can be a cook, butcher, bricklayer or coal miner.’ I couldn’t understand why, because friends of mine who were not doing well in school were getting better jobs. So I said ‘What else can I do?’ ‘This is it. Make your choice.’ Oh, I came home and I cried. My father said ‘Do the best from the worst. Take the cook job.’ So when I was 14, I went to Karlovy Vary to the trade school and, since I didn’t want to take money from the family, I used to go to the railroad station – there were two, one upper and one lower, in Karlovy Vary. It’s still there; I was there last week. So I went to the railroad station at 14 and unloaded the train at night. It was very crucial for my survival, but also it was very hard.”
Mark says that everybody had to be schooled in the subject of political economy
“Political economy consisted of mainly brainwashing. How great everything from the Soviet Union is and we have to accept it, and how bad everything from the West is. How corrupt and rotten the West is and what a bright story is what Russia is offering us. I remember, after the War, there used to be food rationing coming in, UNRA, military rationing from the United States, and they were giving it to the people. Of course, they were saying that it’s Russian, from Russia. Wheat from the United States, which came as help from the West, the signs were blacked out and it said ‘CCCP’ in the Russian alphabet, which meant Soyuz Sovetskikh Sotsialisticheskikh Respublik. So it was that, blatantly lying about things.
“I’m an open-minded man. I always wanted to research everything, regardless of what happened to our family, what happened to me. I still wanted to find out and know things about enemies, about friends, it doesn’t matter; you want to know the most about it. So in 1966, I actually went to Russia to see what it is all about. It was a very interesting experience. Loved the people, but I found out that it was way behind Czechoslovakia. I found out that Czechoslovakia was called by Russians ‘little America,’ and I thought ‘We live like peasants there. We are all rubbed in the face about how great things are in Russia and now I see this.’ It was a very fascinating experience as well to which I sort of said ‘Ok, well now I know.’ I was always open to not believing what they fed us about the Western countries and didn’t believe what they told us about Russia. I wanted to find the truth.”
According to Mark, his motives for leaving the country were not economic
“Economics was the last thing why I would leave, because I know how to tighten my belt from my childhood, and economics were not any reason why I would leave. It was the political reason and, also, I saw that people were getting worse. Spiritual life non-existent, hateful attitude toward people with religious beliefs, even then the racial problem was here. There was lots of hate among people and dishonesty. Everybody who worked somewhere didn’t work for the money; you had the job, but you didn’t work. People used to take a few hours to go shopping or go for a beer or do things like that. If you knew the Prague of my years, every third building had a scaffold which was standing by the building for eight years and no work was done on it. The scaffolding was there to protect the pedestrians, so that work was not done. People had no place to live. In one apartment, there were two families living. One small apartment, two-room apartment, and you had two generations living there.”
Although Mark left the country in 1970, he was reluctant to do so
“I didn’t want to escape but then, in ’69, ’70, it got really tight. In ’68 it was easy to leave the country and I didn’t, because I don’t think anybody every wants to leave their home. In ’68, the people who had some connections or who were just looking for adventures – it was easy to leave – they left. But I didn’t want to leave my house. My life was here, all my friends were here and I had no reason to leave. I thought ‘I’ll fight the thing.’ If it got easier in ’68, a little freedom, I thought ‘Of course it has to get better.’ Of course, it didn’t. And in ’70, it got really nasty; I got interrogated twice and so I decided it’s time to leave.”
Mark recalls his first impressions of the United States and his adventures in learning English
“I was amazed with the openness of the people in the United States. I was amazed that you see different races around the street and nobody is arguing and looking nastily at each other; although, this time was Black Panther time in San Francisco. But, still, I didn’t see any racial tension. Lots of Chinese, Filipino, Mexicans. It was just amazing to talk them and… To me, everybody spoke beautiful English because I didn’t speak any. But I picked up some Tagalog from the Filipinos and, because of the Latin language, I picked up very quickly some Spanish. I was able to read Mexican papers that the Mexican guys brought in. I was absolutely amazed at how people were friendly, open and willing to help. Suddenly the threat that I felt with going to a country that was so bad-mouthed by the communists kept disappearing. Even though I didn’t speak English I met only friendliness and willingness to help.
“I was depressed that I didn’t progress with my English as fast as I could because I learned it a long way. It took four years of my life, because for four years I studied from Shakespeare, translating Shakespeare, and when you keep talking in Elizabethan English to foreigners who spoke limited English, it was sort of funny. Now I think it was funny. Even Herb Caen, when he heard the story later on, he wrote it in his San Francisco Chronicle column about this ‘silly Mark Zejdl who thought that he will exist in San Francisco with Elizabethan English,’ to great envy of friends, then, because everybody who meant something wanted to be named in Herb Caen’s column.”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History