Melania Rakytiak (born Melania Strečanská), 1936
Melania Rakytiak was born in Paris in March 1936. Her father was a Slovak laborer at a furniture factory while her mother, also Slovak, was a maid in the home of a wealthy French family. Melania’s mother died when she was only 10 months old. Her aunt came to Paris and married Melania’s father. In 1941, the family moved back to Šúrovce, Slovakia, where Melania’s brother was born. In 1945, the family moved to Bratislava, and Melania’s father, Valent, took a job at the city harbor, on the Danube River. All his life, Melania’s father was a fervent communist and, come the takeover in 1948, he became active in politics, says Melania. He worked for Bratislava Region with secret documents and conducting political screenings on county employees. Meanwhile, Melania enrolled in Bratislava’s Stredná pedagogická škola and trained to be a teacher. Upon graduation, she went to work in an orphanage before being placed in a two-teacher rural school in Čierna Voda, not far from Bratislava. It was here in 1956 that Melania herself became a member of the Communist Party.
Melania married her husband, Fedor Rakytiak, in 1957. She says they had three weddings – a civil ceremony, a Catholic service and a wedding in a Lutheran church. The couple had four children. In 1969, Melania’s husband and brother, Ivan, devised a plan together to immigrate to Canada. Melania says she was strongly opposed but suspected her husband would relent at the last moment. He did not, and on April 30, 1969, Melania, Fedor and their four children went to Austria, on the premise of visiting an aunt. They spent the whole of May at Traiskirchen refugee camp before moving to Bad Kreuzen, where they lived for a further two months. Melania says Canada was not accepting refugees at this time, and so the family decided to apply to the United States. They arrived in Cleveland in August 1969. At first, Melania says the family was greatly supported by Joe Kocab and Karlin Hall. Melania worked as a cleaner before she and her husband purchased a dry cleaning business, which they ran until 1981. In 1989, Fedor was diagnosed with lung cancer and died the following year. Melania lives close to her children and grandchildren in Parma, Ohio, and, as an avid cook, she is working to collate a family cookbook of Slovak recipes.
Melania says her father was a ‘devoted communist’
“In 1948, when the communists finally took over in Czechoslovakia, people were not accepting it very well, they didn’t want it. Because first of all, people were losing their own property, they didn’t own anything. And my father thought everything belongs to everybody – you couldn’t be having more than I do, or I shouldn’t be having more than you do – we all should have the same. And his own sisters, who lived in a different village, Dubovany, by Piešťany, his own sisters didn’t want to accept that people have to leave their property or something and let Communists run it. And he went over there to talk to his sisters to sign, they had some farmland. My aunt had a small amount of farmland, and my other aunt, and he didn’t feel that they should own that – they should all own it and all together work. So he was very, very strict about it, he would talk and say ‘No, you have to agree, it’s going to be a better life for you, I guarantee you’.
“He had really good ideas, and those ideas which I heard, which he told me, I liked them, because I felt yeah, everybody should… there shouldn’t be hungry people, there shouldn’t be poor people, everybody should have a little piece of something, everybody should have free school, free health program. And that’s what communists promised. So that’s how he believed it.
“Until, I believe, after we left, in the late seventies – he died in 1976. After 1968, it was that Prague Spring and everything, and things were changing. And he went outside, in the city, in Bratislava, and he sees these big shots, these communist leaders talking and being rich, suddenly they were rich, loaded with money and he would say – later on I found out, he never said anything to me, because we were over here – ‘Now something is wrong! Because this is not how I wanted. I wanted to have everything equal, this is not equal.’”
Melania applied to become a member of the Communist Party in 1956
“It was a small village, farmland, there were about 300 population, that’s it. And that teacher who was working with me – her name was Rosie, Ružena, Rosie – she got me involved with the people. We had a drama club, we had the kids involved in pionieri, that was kids… I was a Pioneer when I was in sixth or fifth grade or something! And sväzáci, that was a teenagers’ club, they wore blue shirts, so we were involved with them. With the drama club we put on some play, that was a teacher’s job in the farmland or villages, the teacher has to do that. And because of that, somebody came up with the idea of ‘Why don’t you become a Communist?’ So that woman, that Rosie said ‘Uh-uh! I don’t want to be!’ She was single, 36 years old, she didn’t want to be. I wanted to be because, I think it was something I wanted to prove to my father, or I wanted him to be proud of me or whatever. I thought that he would be proud.
“And when I told him I was asked to be a Communist Party member, first you are on a waiting list for about a year, and then you are promoted, a full-blown… He looked at me and he says to me ‘Wait a minute! Do you want to go because you believe it, or do you just want to go because you think it’s not time to do it?’ I said ‘No, I want to believe it.’ He said ‘Alright then, you have to live by that!’
“So, I lived by that except one thing: I never claimed that I don’t believe in God. That was my private thing. When somebody asked me the question ‘How are you doing with your view on God and religion?’ I said ‘I’m still working on it.’ That was my answer. That was the only thing that I kept with me, I always believed in God. Because I thought, that has nothing to do with it, communism and God. God is taking care of even communist people.”
Melania says she heard Radio Free Europe on occasion, but did not believe it
“I know my husband one time brought some radio, it was about midnight, we were listening to something, but we called it propaganda. I didn’t believe that. I said ‘Yeah, they tell you anything they want to.’ We say in Slovak ‘keď vtáčka lapajú, pekne mu spievajú’ – did you ever hear that? ‘If you want to catch the bird then sing to him.’ So I thought, this is a nice, nice, speech, but that’s not my idea… When my husband brought up the idea of leaving Czechoslovakia, I said to him ‘You know what, why don’t you go, because I know some people, older people, men went to the United States and made money and then supported their wives, sent for their wives. Why don’t you go?’ And he says ‘Well, I think I have some place a marriage license, and on the marriage license you’re in my name. So, that makes no sense, me going without you. We all go, or nobody goes.’”
Melania’s husband was summoned by the Army during the Cuban Missile Crisis
“My father, because he had contact with everything, he knew what was going on. He said to my husband, ‘You know what, probably you are going to be called to service, because Cuba is happening, and a lot of soldiers are being called and sent to protect the country. Probably you are going to be called too.’ And my husband says ‘Dad, why me? I already did my… I am not like a regular soldier!’ And my father says ‘Well, it can happen.’ We got home and about 10:00 in the evening somebody knocked on the door, a man, in a uniform, and he says to my husband ‘You have to report at the airport tomorrow at 6:00 in the morning.’ And that’s when reality hit me. I had a two year-old daughter, and he left in the morning, he went to the airport, and then, at the end of the day I didn’t hear from him, and it wasn’t like here where everybody has phones. We didn’t have a phone, I was living with my mother in law, she didn’t have a phone, I didn’t have a phone. So, the following day, I went to a phone booth, and I called the army reserve or somebody, and I asked about my husband, and they said to me ‘Oh, you know what, súdružka, you don’t have to worry about it, but we can’t tell you where he is, it’s a secret.’ And I didn’t know anything. So, a week went by, I didn’t know anything, and then about maybe ten days later, he called me and he said that he is in Trenčín – I don’t know how many miles it is from Bratislava – he’s in Trenčín, he’s with the army, he is safe, and he is working as a driver. He was driving some big surgeon or big shot in the army, driving him from one place to another. That’s about it. And I said ‘Are you coming to visit or something?’ And he said ‘No, I can’t even talk to you for long, I have ten minutes only.’”
Melania remembers the 1968 invasion
“It was a beautiful day and I took my kids to play outside. We had an apartment building with a little kind of playground; there was a sandbox, trees and a line for hanging your laundry. And I used to, in those days, I used to wash diapers by hand, we didn’t have disposable ones, it wasn’t that good a time like now. So I took those diapers and I hung them on a line and my youngest one was in a stroller sleeping, his afternoon nap. And a helicopter was flying. I was in the building already, and then I heard people, I went on the balcony and I saw people on the other balcony screaming ‘Take the children in! Take the children in!’ So, the helicopter was shooting, I don’t know at whom. So I ran downstairs, a couple of people helped me get the kids inside, and then we find in a couple of diapers holes. I wish I saved those diapers those days!
“I’m sure they were not shooting at the children, probably because it was the center of the city, probably some commotion was going on on one of those streets and one little bullet got lost or something. So I had another reason, I’m not going stay here, I’m moving out of here, I’m going to live with grandma. Because I thought in a village, it’s nice and quiet, what is the city offering you? Nothing!
“Then, later on that afternoon, my husband – I sent him to get the bread, he came home without bread – he says ‘The stores are empty, no bread!’ I said ‘I need milk for my youngest one.’ Over there for babies, you need a prescription for baby milk, you can’t buy it just like that. And it’s also only in drugstores or pharmacies, they were equipped with the milk for babies. So I said, ‘I’m going to get milk for Lubo,’ so I went down the street, I lined up in front of the pharmacy, I’m standing in line, and they say to me ‘We need a birth certificate, we are not giving you this milk, because anybody can come with a prescription. And we have a shortage, look at the shelves, they are empty.’ So I went back home, walked about ten minutes, meantime helicopters were flying and shooting, we were hiding in one house, in a building, we ran. The whole street, everybody ran into the building. They were shooting, nobody got hurt. I got home, I got the birth certificate, I went back to the pharmacy. No more milk.”
Melania’s father took her departure particularly badly
“In 1969, when we left Slovakia, it was secret, nobody knew about it, not even my father, because my father would call the police and lock us up. He wouldn’t allow it – he said it later on. He said if he knew we wanted to leave, he would have taken precautions so that we won’t leave, even if we went to jail. Yes, he was very upset. Because he was a devoted communist, and he thought he had raised me the same way, and how can I leave my country?
“And he wrote us letters, kind of mean letters, and in those letters he said ‘I don’t think you have an idea what is waiting for you, life out of your country is very hard. I remember my life, it wasn’t easy, and it’s not going to be easy for you, especially because you have four children.’ And ‘Why did you do that? Did I raise you the wrong way, or did I make a mistake raising you? You left this country, you left your family! You shouldn’t do that.’ And he was very upset, and my husband wrote him a letter and apologized to him for me, saying he shouldn’t be mad at me, because it was not me who was doing that, it was my husband who wanted to leave, and I just followed him because I was his wife. So I don’t think my father ever made peace with me leaving.”
English was a problem for Melania upon arrival in the US
“The language was really tough, my husband went to Berlitz, so he picked up quick, he was talking all day. The kids, they didn’t have problems at all. My daughter, she was a fourth grader when we left Czechoslovakia, when we got over here they put her in second grade, because they said that’s where she should pick up English. About three months later, she went to the principal, that was a nun, and she said to her ‘I think I speak good enough English, I want to go to fourth grade.’ And they transferred her to fourth grade. So she picked up really good, she didn’t have problems, my boys didn’t have problems. My problem was I didn’t want to talk to anybody, when we were living in that town house, I would go outside, my kids were playing and the next door neighbor would talk to me, I turned I went inside because I didn’t understand her. So, I watched TV, there were soaps, and I would watch them and I said ‘Every day it’s the same people!’ I didn’t understand what was said, I didn’t understand when is the story and when is the advertising, the commercials! I didn’t know, I couldn’t.
“Then my kids were watching a lot of kids’ shows and I would watch with them. And you know what show? Sesame Street! Sesame Street helped me… I watched Big Bird ‘one, two…’ and that’s how I learned English from the TV.”
Category: Cleveland, Oral History