Miro Medek (born Miroslav Medek), 1944
Miro Medek was born in Prague in 1944, but moved with his family to Vrútky in northern Slovakia when he was two years old. His father, also named Miroslav, was a mechanical engineer while his mother, Marie, a former factory worker, stayed home with Miro and his sister Irena. Miro says the political situation in Czechoslovakia led to tensions between his parents, as his father leaned towards more capitalist ideas and his mother supported the Communist Party; however, he says that his mother eventually became disillusioned with the Communist regime. When Miro was a teenager, his father was arrested for ‘reintroducing capitalist enterprise’ and sent to work in the Jáchymov uranium mines for one year.
At school, Miro was an avid volleyball player and was named to the roster of the Slovak national youth team. Upon graduation from technical high school in Zvolen, Miro was invited to attend university to study physical education, but decided to take a job as a draftsman at a railroad depot. He served in the Czechoslovak Army for two years, and then began studying political economy at the College of Economics in Bratislava in 1965. Miro also received a graduate degree in business management and postgraduate degree in systems engineering. While he was at university, Miro witnessed the liberalization that would eventually mark the Prague Spring in 1968 and says that, because of this, it was a great time for him to be studying his disciplines as they had access to information and teaching styles from the West. Miro also spent some time abroad in 1968, hitch-hiking through western Europe. He was in Yugoslavia during the Warsaw Pact invasion in August of that year, and although he considered staying out of the country, he decided to return to Czechoslovakia to finish his studies. He subsequently spent the next ten years attempting to get visas to travel abroad.
Miro graduated from university at the top of his class, but says he had trouble finding a job. He worked as a bricklayer for five months before one of his professors secured him a position in the IT department of Slovnaft, an oil refinery in Bratislava. Eventually, he joined a newly formed Institute for Systems Engineering. In 1978, Miro was able to obtain travel visas for himself, his wife, and their two children for a vacation in Yugoslavia; while there, he applied for travel visas to Greece. The Medeks stayed in a refugee camp in Greece for close to one year as, even though Miro’s father (who had left Czechoslovakia in 1968 and settled in the U.S.) was sponsoring them, they had left the country with no documentation. The Medeks arrived in Washington, D.C. in April 1979. One week later, Miro’s wife gave birth to their third child. Due to his professional experience, Miro was working as a systems engineer within two weeks of arriving. He first returned to Czechoslovakia in 1990, right after the fall of communism, an event which he says he ‘didn’t believe… would happen in my lifetime.’ Today, Miro is retired and lives in Woodbridge, Virginia.
A summer job revealed an aspect of the Communist regime that surprised Miro
“I played guitar. When I was about 14, I went to work for a summer in a cinderblock factory. It was hard work, but I made some money and bought my guitar. That’s also a time when I met a lot of people. You look, it’s a cinderblock factory, but everybody was an ex-professor, ex-teacher, ex-accountant, because they lost their job and the only thing they could do was doing manual labor. So that was another thought, ‘Now hold on just a minute, this is not right.”
Miro’s father’s inventive spirit got him into trouble
“My father was always kind of enterprising, and what happened is he was a mechanical engineer taking care of construction machinery. At that point in time, there was a problem. They had a high rate of breakage, and he came up with an invention how to grease and maintain those things. And he was talking to everybody ‘Please start doing this,’ even going to the Ministry somewhere in Prague, but nobody wanted to do it. So he decided ‘Ok, I’m going to do it on my own.’ And he did. Except eventually, he was jailed and sentenced for reintroducing capitalist enterprise. So he spent I think about a year in jail in Jáchymov, in those uranium mines. And he was so good of an engineer that even when he was in jail he tried to make things better, ‘How can you do this better?’ So, as a matter of fact, they even let him out early for good behavior.”
Miro began studying at university in the mid-1960s
“I went through college and then graduate school in a very good time. I started in ’65. In a couple of years, the Prague Spring started, and you could see it in schools. Suddenly it was open. They taught pretty much a more Western style. I got my undergraduate degree in political economy, graduate degree in business management, and postgraduate in systems engineering, and those were all things they pretty much taught Western style management, and I knew more about the stock market than people in the U.S., and systems engineering as a discipline – it was more related to what I did when I finished university – it was not so well-known even in the U.S. It started to be taught some ten years later, kind of building big systems and things like that. So that’s why I’m saying that it was a good time; because at the same time, the Prague Spring started at that time. There were a lot of new ideas.”
Miro discusses his experiences at work concerning Charter 77
“We were very much in touch with what was going on, and I knew some people who signed it and things like that. But what was happening – I guess it was happening at every company – everybody had an interview and was asked ‘Sign this document that you do not agree with it Charter 77.’ I had a problem, so again I opened my mouth, and I eventually signed it, but I put ‘Signed under duress’ or something like that. That was an additional reason they were kind of saying ‘Well, you’re not going anywhere in your career.’ We had copies distributed. We had a copy of it; it was an underground copy, but yeah, we had it.”
Miro and his family stayed in a refugee camp for one year in Greece
“We were trying to go [to America] on – I don’t know what kind of visa it is – but reunion of family, because my father was already in the U.S. and he was a naturalized citizen at the time. But we needed my birth certificate and all the kids’ certificates to be able to prove that I’m his son and these are really my kids and we didn’t know that, we didn’t have anything. My family sent us photocopies; that was not good enough, it had to be originals. Finally, my family sent it through somebody who went to Greece. Well, the scumbag asked for a lot of money for doing that, but never delivered. My father started threatening that he’s going to put Interpol on it. Eventually, we got the documentation that we needed, but it took close to a year. Other people sometimes left after four months and were on the way to the U.S. or Australia. We’d been there for a year.”
The first few months in America were a struggle for the Medeks
“Those were not easy times, because when we moved in, we didn’t have anything. You wanted to cook dinner, we don’t have a pan, we don’t have any plates and things. So everything you had to buy. We came really with a pair of t-shirts and jeans for each of us. So you had to buy from scratch and start from scratch. Friends of my father gave us some tables. We bought a mattress to sleep on and stuff like that, but it took time until you set yourself up. We didn’t have anything.”
Miro explains his reluctance to become active in the local exile organizations
“We went to a few meetings with people, and I didn’t like one aspect of it. You had generations of immigrants – some people came during WWII, some people came after ’48 when it changed, then some people came in between, and then ’68 was another move, and then we came in ’78. Now what I didn’t like much was that people living in the U.S. were trying to tell me how it is, when I just came from there and knew. Their view was totally skewed because they – well, we didn’t like what was happening either – but they knew, ‘We know everything and this is what it should be like,’ and it was more like they were angry at the system, and I didn’t want to deal with that much. Especially, I didn’t want to talk so bad about the country back home, because then I would be talking bad about my family who is still there, about my friends who are still there, so I kind of avoided that for that reason.”
Category: Oral History