Otto Zizak Sr.
Otto Zizak Sr. (born Otto Žižák), 1950
Otto Zizak Sr. was born in Bodružal in northeastern Slovakia in 1950. Otto’s grandfather had moved to the United States in the early 1900s to earn some money; he then returned to Slovakia, bought properties and started a distillery. Otto’s father was an elementary school teacher in Nižný Orlík, the village where Otto and his two younger siblings grew up. Because of his job, Otto’s father was a member of the Communist Party. Otto attended high school in Svidník; he says this was the time when he realized ‘something was not right’ with the communist system. Otto began university immediately after the Warsaw Pact invasion in 1968. He studied electrical engineering and, after graduating, completed his mandatory one year Army service.
Otto’s first job was as a government clerk in charge of administering an energy program. Five years later, he was offered a job with an agriculture construction company. In 1974, Otto married his wife, Božena, and the couple lived in an apartment in Poprad. Their son, Otto Jr., was born in 1976. In 1983, Otto visited his aunt in the United States for three weeks. He returned for another visit in 1986, this time for three months. Otto says that, during this trip, he had the intention of finding a business or company who would offer him a job and sponsor his immigration. When he returned to Slovakia with a letter of sponsorship and attempted to immigrate legally, he was fired from his job. Otto says that he had trouble finding employment until a friend gave him a job working with an agricultural cooperative.
In January 1990, only a few months after the Velvet Revolution, Otto moved to the United States. His wife and son followed at the end of the school year. Otto’s first job was as a metal factory worker in Brooklyn. He then worked as a ship electrician and, five years later, started his own electrical contracting company. Otto is also the owner of Zizak Premium Spirits in Slovakia, which uses a natural, clean distilling process to produce traditional fruit brandies. Today, Otto is a real estate investor and electrical consultant. He lives in New York City with his wife.
Otto has fond memories of joining his father, a teacher, at school
“It was the classroom, a small library, and an apartment or the rooms we lived in. I was four and five and my mother was probably wanting to get rid of me, so she sent me to school with my father. So I was sitting in the first row; I was four, five, six and, finally, when I was seven I was an official first grader. I already knew how to read, I already knew mathematics in the second, third and fourth grades, but it was a big moment. I was an official student.”
Do you remember your first backpack?
“Actually I didn’t have one, because I was just walked through one hallway and I was sitting in my classroom. So it was beautiful. Every lunchtime we took a break and, instead of having a sandwich or something, we just went into the kitchen and had hot soup and a real meal. I had a very beautiful time.”
In 1983, Otto visited the United States for the first time
“My aunt, my mother’s sister, was in America since WWII, because she married an American citizen, but an American citizen living in Czechoslovakia. His father, like my grandfather, was in America in the 1920s. There were no jobs; there was a big depression, so he came back to Czechoslovakia and he brought two young [sons]. Actually, John was an American citizen with a Slovak father and he came when he was maybe 13 years old. So she married him in Slovakia and after WWII they just went back to America. So I had this aunt and, actually, that’s the basic factor. She affected our life because she came to visit us, so she brought us our first Walkman, she brought us jeans, she brought us our first colored pictures and she told us what the life is like.”
Otto set out to find work in the United States in 1986
“I came back to Prague with a paper saying I can come back to America as an expert. They’re going to take me to work. I came like a big man with a smile – I know how naïve I was; I know it today and I knew it later – I took the paper, I took vacation the next two weeks, I spent my money because I was happy, happy, happy [thinking] I’m going to America, right? So I came to Poprad. After a week, I came to my company and the guy at the gate said ‘You cannot go in,’ and I had a good reputation and a good position in this company and I said ‘Why?’ ‘Because I have an order. The director said you cannot go in. You have to go and see him.’ I said ‘Ok’ and I came back and said ‘What’s going on? Hi, how are you?’ and he said ‘Otto, I have to tell you the truth. I have to fire you because they took me to the Communist Party central [committee] and they said ‘If you don’t fire this guy, we’ll fire you.’’ He said this in a friendly way and said ‘What can I do? I cannot fight them, you cannot fight them, so you’re fired.’”
Was it a shock for you?
“I think it was a shock. The shock for me was, I would say, the next year. The shock was that everybody knew in the city, except me, what’s going on here, because people were talking. And I was walking on the sidewalk and a guy who knew me and saw me a hundred meters away, he turned and he was going the other way to not meet me. So I was a black sheep.”
According to Otto, he had trouble finding a job back home
“If you didn’t have a job for six weeks or something, they put you in jail. So I started to go after my friends. I had many friends; I was a successful man, right? And everybody said ‘No problem, of course we’ll take you to work.’ I came to work in the personnel department, those narrow-minded stupid communists’ kádrovanie [background checking] – and after I turned in the application, they said ‘No. No. No. No.’ So then in the next district I had a friend in the agricultural cooperative so he took me to work and he put me with four other workers to build certain buildings. Actually, I was the boss for these four guys with the shovels, so I didn’t have to have a shovel, but I had to get the materials and organize them.
“This was the worst time of my life, because at this time it was ’87, ’88 and the communist system was cruel and stupid. They were like wild animals. They put people into jail, they didn’t understand and I had to survive. This was very bad. Not only this, I had to travel over there [for work] and the guys said ‘How do you manage all this stuff because you have to spend more money on gas than you make?’ The basic thing was there was not a light at the end of the tunnel. For one or two years there was not a light. I always believed in myself; I knew that something had to happen, that I had to go and find this light. But this certain time was dark. So I said ‘Survive.’ Times like this you had no chance to do something.”
Sitting in his son’s restaurant in Brooklyn, Otto reflects on his first job in New York
“I started my new career. Nobody welcomed me – it was actually not a good time in America because in the ‘90s the market was going down and everything; it was maybe worse than now – and they hired me in 16th Street over here as a metal factory worker. So I had to work bending metals, making those window guards and carrying metal gates. Actually, on this very sidewalk, every Friday they gave me a paycheck and here on the corner is an Atlas bank. It was the only bank who gave an account by the passport, so all of us immigrants opened accounts here. I had a 30-minute break – it was strict – and I had 30 minutes to run over here, to stand in the line and deposit my check, and run back and be back to work, all to have money in my account, so I didn’t have a chance eat every Friday. So that was my first [job, on this] sidewalk, and those are things I like, unpredictable, that now we have here a pretty good restaurant and we invested a lot of money into it, but I have a free beer for the rest of my life and free food.”
It’s a sweet poetic justice to be on the same sidewalk.
Otto’s second job in the United States utilized his professional skill
“I found a job as an electrician, but I had good luck. It was the marine industry; I was working on vessels, on the big boats, cargo boats, Navy boats. And after five years, I became a good and valuable electrician in this field, so I opened my own company in this field and I started to work as a subcontractor for my mother company, and I started to get my own contracts. I had contracts with the city – I built a lot of projects in the city – and I got a contract with the Army Corps of Engineers which are something like Army, but they are Army civilians. They are federal agents; they have boats watching the harbors, so I was rebuilding boats; I was going on the water on small boats to fix stuff on the big boats. Actually, I was working in this harbor here, in front of the Statue of Liberty, [near the] Verrazano Bridge [New York Harbor], and this was like my water, my harbor, for years. I was working hard on those boats. And now my son bought a house on Staten Island, on this side of the water, and he has a window in his dining room which looks straight to the same water. If I’m over there sometimes and talking to his kids, I’ll say ‘You see guys, 15 or 20 years ago, I was working on all of those boats over there and now I am sitting here with you and looking at them.’ So that’s two things that are emotionally fantastic.”
Category: New York City, Oral History