Peter Palecek (born Petr Paleček), 1940
Peter Palecek was born in Prague in 1940. Prior to WWII, his father Václav was president of the National Union of Czechoslovak Students and served as secretary general of the Czechoslovak-Yugoslav Chamber of Commerce. With the outbreak of war, Peter’s father escaped to Britain, where he became a member of the Czechoslovak government-in-exile. Click for more about Peter’s father, General Václav Paleček.
As a result of her husband’s activism, Peter’s mother was arrested by the Gestapo in 1943 and sent to an internment camp at Svatobořice for the remainder of the War. Peter was taken in by a family friend, lived on a farm in Krucemburk, and returned home shortly before the end of the War, where he was reunited with his parents in May 1945. After the War, Peter’s father was named chief of the Czechoslovak Military Mission in Berlin. Following the Communist coup in 1948, he was arrested and sentenced to 13 years in prison. In 1957, his sentence was reduced and, with poor health impacted by years of work in uranium mines, he returned to his family.
Peter attended Catholic school in Prague 6 until 1949, when he says the school was closed and the teachers and priests there were arrested. After elementary school, Peter attended a secretarial school for one year, and then transferred to Nerudovo gymnázium, from which he graduated in 1957. Peter worked for two years at a ČKD transformer plant and then, with the help of his father, enrolled in ČVUT (Czech Technical University in Prague) to study mechanical engineering. During his second year there, he was elected as a student trade union representative. Upon graduation, Peter began working at ZPA as an installation and start-up technician. A keen sportsman (he loved skiing and orienteering), Peter was named a master of sports in high-altitude tourism in 1964. It was also at this time that he met his future wife, Hana. He began studying for a master’s degree at VŠE (University of Economics in Prague) and, in the wake of the Prague Spring and the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, decided to continue his studies abroad. He was admitted to a two-year MBA program at Stanford University and, in September 1969, traveled from Prague to the United States. Peter says he was ordered to return to Czechoslovakia in the midst of his studies. He decided to stay in the United States and complete his degree. Hana, whom he had married the previous year, spent the next nine months attempting to join him. She arrived in California in the summer of 1970. The pair became proud American citizens in 1977.
Peter’s first job after graduation was with Philip Morris in New York City; the work required him to make multiple visits to Toronto and Montreal. In 1973, after the birth of their first son, David, the Paleceks moved with Philip Morris to Switzerland. They returned to California in 1975 and bought their current house in Atherton in 1979. Peter worked as senior management consultant at Stanford Research Institute from that time until 1986. Peter and Hana had two more sons, Misha and Tom, both born at Stanford and dual citizens of the United States and the Czech Republic. In May 1990, Peter was hired by Tomas Bat’a of Toronto to work on the re-establishment of Bat’a as a private company in Czechoslovakia. In 1995 Peter joined Arthur D. Little of Boston as managing director of their Prague office. He retired in Prague in 2002 and returned with his wife Hana to Atherton, California.
Peter says his parents divorced during WWII so as to protect his mother
“I know that when my father was active and established, in London, November 17 as International Students’ Day, the Gestapo of course knew what happened. When he came to the U.S. in ’43, the Gestapo knew exactly that my father came on the invitation of American organizations and [First Lady] Eleanor Roosevelt. That’s when the Gestapo came to our apartment in Podolí and arrested my mother, and my mother was taken for two years to Svatobořice concentration camp. When my father was even more active, my mother was destined for a gas chamber; she was put in a special group. At that time in Prague, my godfather who really helped to care for me, Dr. Fedor Tykač from Ljubljana, he was a lawyer and he produced divorce papers and he presented the divorce papers to the Gestapo within a few days, and my mother was literally taken from the train and that saved her life. Of course, my father, when he came back in ’45 from London, he didn’t know about that, he said. So they had one more short wedding. My father didn’t know they were divorced and that divorce saved the life of my mother.”
Peter remembers Prague being bombed during the last days of WWII
“I don’t remember anything when I was five years or younger, but when I was five, there was an American plane shot down very close in a field [at Krucemburk], and we boys went to look over there. I was scared like hell. And then when I came to Prague in May, we believed it would be the end of the War, so we walked over Palackého most [Palacký Bridge] and I remember the big holes from bombings going through the bridge and you could see down to the water. My grandma took me to my house; we already carried American, French, and British flags, and the Germans were shooting from the roofs [of Palackého naměstí] at us so we had to hide in a couple of houses with my grandma until dark, and then we continued for a few blocks to our house at Podskalská 8. Then, about one week before the end of the War, the Americans bombed Železniční most, because that was the last [railroad] track for Germans moving out of Prague, waiting for Russian tanks to come and maybe kill them. But it was a cluster bombing from 10,000 feet, so the bombs never hit Železniční most; it hit right at our apartment. Our apartment was at Podskalská 8 druhé patro [second floor]. It came right to druhé patro [the second floor]; I was with my grandma down in the basement, so it took them five or six hours to dig us out. We were just in the rubble. These are my first memories. Shot [American] plane in Krucemburk, holes in the bridge, bombing, and houses on fire in Prague.”
Peter once visited his father in prison in Ostrov
“I remember from that visit, we were in a trailer [at Tabor L in Ostrov by Karlovy Vary] and there were about 20 partitions for 20 people. Each partitioning was about eight feet wide, and you could see barely through the wooden barrier; you could see your father barely through it. We had a 20-minute visit, 15-minute, and it was minute number five when I looked in another cube, and there was a mother with a one- or two-year old child and she gave him an apple to pass over the barrier to his father. Then the guard with the machine gun behind us, he jumped in and smashed the boy’s hand and the apple was flying, and he just yelled ‘Finished! Visits are finished. Everybody goes home.’ So that was a five-minute visit during his nine years.”
Peter says he nearly did not graduate from gymnázium
“One week before my graduation from high school [Nerudovo gymnázium], a letter came from the Ministry of Education – to my knowledge – for four people. One was me, and the Ministry requested that I be evicted and would not graduate. In my case, I was so grateful to the principal. The principal said ‘No, Peter is going to graduate.’ I graduated, and he [Principal Dr. Radoslav Pacholík] was immediately retired. He lost his job. I was very grateful. I learned about it, that he was very firm, and I just thanked him and he said ‘Anyway, I would probably retire next year or in two years, and this is a lot of BS what happens in our country.’”
To avoid gathering hops during the summer, Peter says he showed his ‘business principles’
“With collective farming, farmers did nothing but went to Prague and went to nightclubs. So the soldiers and schoolchildren had to go and do hops [during the harvesting season]. So let’s say I went for two weeks to do the hops brigade. Very hard work; it’s very hard on your fingers, and I just couldn’t manage and it was so stupid. I must say, I showed my economic or business principles over there. I paid the girls – we were supposed to make two věrtels. Věrtel is a measure for hops – a big basket [about 6.7 gallons] – was called a věrtel. And we were supposed to do two a day so we could pay for our accommodation and food. And there were girls making six or seven and making money, so I paid her a little bit more, and she did my two věrtels and I was able to read or whatever or go for a hike. The second was potato brigades when the school went for one week to harvest potatoes. Harvesting sugarcane. High school guys did it.”
While at the Czech Technical University, Peter was elected as a student trade union representative
“I was one of 12 members of the trade union representing 22,000 students. All the others were professors and teachers – a lot of them Communist Party members. I was in Terezín [on a two-month military training exercise] after my second year. Suddenly, a big Tatra comes for me in the middle of August to Terezín. ‘Peter, we have an extraordinary meeting.’ I said ‘Are you kidding? In the middle of August, I have to go to Prague?’ Of course they had all the papers and the military released me. I go red carpet to Prague; I go to our meeting. We go through mundane, routine stuff. I said ‘We don’t have to do this meeting in the middle of August.’ Then they said ‘Oh, we have one more last point. There are two professors who are really bad. They use American textbooks. They are too pro-American. We don’t need this happen; these guys have to be retired today, August 16. Think about it.’ We had five minutes to discuss it. I said ‘These are the best professors; we learn the best from them. Kids love them. I cannot go for it.’ And of course there was an open vote. ‘Who is for? Eleven. Who is against? Peter. Why are you against it Peter?’ I said ‘I am representing 22,000 students. We love these guys, and you just told me at the last moment. You couldn’t even tell me one or two hours before what I am coming for.’ Well, these were experts from the university. Guess what, I didn’t get my car back to Terezín; I had to take a slow train back to my military unit. That was it, and the next year I was out of it.’”
Category: Bay Area, Oral History