Peter Esterle (born Petr Esterle), 1973
Peter Esterle was born in Bratislava in 1973 and grew up in a small town called Zohor, located northeast of the capital city. His father was a meteorologist and his mother worked for IBM. Peter has a younger brother and a younger sister. In 1980, Peter and his family received travel visas for a vacation to Yugoslavia; however, instead of returning to Czechoslovakia, they crossed the border to Austria. The Esterles lived in Vienna for over one year; Peter and his sister attended school there and his father found work as a truck driver. Peter’s family had friends who had left Czechoslovakia previously and were able to help Peter’s father find a job selling machine tool equipment. In 1982, the Esterles moved to Milwaukee. Although Peter spoke Slovak at home with his family, he says that he was able to pick up English fairly quickly. In 1984, Peter’s family moved outside of Milwaukee to Franklin, Wisconsin. There Peter finished grade school and attended high school. While in high school, he began working for his father’s company, a machine equipment service and repair business. Upon graduating, Peter worked with his father while studying electrical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee part-time. In 2002, Peter began working at a foundry where he currently works in maintenance, installation and controls engineering.
Peter says that there is a good-sized Slovak community in the Milwaukee area, which his mother has been involved in since moving there. He was a member of the Tatra Slovak Dancers of Milwaukee for a number of years. In 2001, Peter met his Slovak-born wife at a Slovak folk festival. The couple married in 2002 and speak Slovak at home to their two young children. They travel to Slovakia once a year to visit family and friends. Peter says that he ‘feels like a Slovak-American’ but does not rule out the possibility of returning to Slovakia on a permanent basis. Today, he lives with his wife and children in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
It was Peter’s father who had the idea to leave Czechoslovakia
“He was just upset with the lack of freedom, but the details he would know more than I. He actually wanted to escape by flying over the Dunaj (the Danube River) into Austria – there’s a peak above the river – with a hang glider at one point. He wanted to actually do that. So those were some pretty extreme measures that he was planning.”
Peter doesn’t have many memories of his time in Slovakia and Austria
“I had a lot of friends in Austria and it’s like they’ve been wiped from my memory. I started in a preschool, you could say, in jasle in Zohor and then from there I went to first grade in Austria and had all these friends and it was as if they never existed. So then when we got to the States, I started in second grade at that time and it’s as if Austria didn’t even happen. It was wiped from my memory along with the language. That’s one thing I remember, and I wish I would have kept my German. But if you don’t use it, you lose it.”
Peter’s relatives in Czechoslovakia were affected by his family’s emigration
“I found out later that after my family didn’t come back, they were basically all questioned. My grandparents were questioned; my aunt and uncle were questioned. They [were asked] ‘Where are they? When are they coming back? Why didn’t they tell us that they were going to stay longer?’ It was actually pretty bad. They, the police or whoever, were trying to pry out of my closest family members – threatening them with prison time and whatnot – trying to pry out where we went and why we hadn’t come back. So that was pretty bad.”
Was anybody arrested?
“Not that I know of, but apparently it got pretty close to where…As I mentioned – and it’s all very vague to me – some of the family was more communist than not and they were under pressure to tell what had happened or where we went. Something transpired, which I didn’t get the full details of, that they did actually say where the family ended up and there were some repercussions, the details of which I’m not too aware.”
Peter and his wife have two children who they hope will be bilingual
“Primarily at home [we sic.] speak Slovak and, interestingly, they speak Slovak very little. They understand absolutely everything in Slovak, but they’re now… because of TV and my son is going to school, he speaks primarily English at home, but he understands everything in Slovak, so it’s strange. But when we do visit Slovakia, he’s able to switch over and speak Slovak. It takes him, I’d say, about three or four days and he’s speaking all Slovak, and then when we come back to the States, he’s speaking Slovak for three or four days and then he’s back to English again.”
Category: Oral History