Petra Sith (born Petra Suchánková), 1979
Petra Sith was born in Bratislava in September 1979, in Kramáre Hospital where her mother, Anna, worked as a nurse. Her mother married her stepfather, Peter Sith (a mechanical engineer for carmaker Škoda), when Petra was four years old. In 1983, Petra’s brother, Karol Sith, was born.Petra started grade school in Bratislava, of which she says she still has ‘fond memories.’ She did not stay there too long, however, before her family left the country. The Siths went on holiday to Yugoslavia in 1986 and it was there that Petra’s parents told her and her brother they had no intention of returning home.
The family spent about one year in refugee camps in Yugoslavia before moving to Traiskirchen camp in Austria. The Sith family spent another nine months in Traiskirchen before being sponsored by a distant relative in Illinois to come to the United States. They settled first in Chicago before moving to Fox Lake, Illinois, where Petra lived up until three years ago.
Petra says her parents were not able to find jobs at first in the U.S. which reflected their qualifications; her father started sweeping floors at a factory, while her mother worked in a laundromat. Eventually, Petra’s mother became a nursing assistant, while her father became a factory technician. Petra says her parents impressed the value of education upon her; she graduated from Chicago’s Roosevelt University in 2007. She currently works as a billing processor at Robert Half International and is studying for her master’s degree. Petra plays bass in a band called Losing Scarlet, which she describes as making ‘user-friendly, heavier rock music.’ She has a U.S. green card, but still travels on a Slovak passport. She has returned to Slovakia to see her family twice since coming to America; in 1994 and 2007. Today, Petra lives in Ingleside, Illinois, with her husband, Brad.
Petra remembers her schooldays in Slovakia fondly
“I loved school, a lot of learning, dancing. I have a lot of fond memories of growing up in Slovakia – I think because I left when I was so young. I didn’t get to experience what would be the negative aspects of communism, what the adults had to deal with. For me, I was just a kid, I was growing up so… we left when I was only seven.”
Petra’s parents did not tell her and her brother that the family were emigrating
“No, unfortunately, me and my brother were both not told – we were little. I was notorious for having a big mouth and I would talk, and my dad could have got into a lot of trouble if anyone were to find out we were defecting. As a matter of fact, my dad started remodeling the apartment we were living in, it seemed like everything was normal and we were just told we were going on vacation to Yugoslavia. So we packed up the car one day and like ‘Oh, we’re going on vacation,’ and I don’t think my parents actually told us until we were in Yugoslavia that we weren’t coming back home.”
The Sith family spent nearly nine months in Traiskirchen camp, Austria
“The saddest part about it is that in Austria, the camp Traiskirchen, it was literally 40 minutes away from the border with Slovakia. So our family was right there, and we couldn’t go and see them or talk to them. We were political, you know, in political asylum and we were even told, once we were in the gates of the camp that we were safe, but if we wanted to venture outside the camp in the city, we weren’t necessarily safe – they could come and get us if they wanted to so, it was just really strange.
“When we first got there, we stayed in a building with multiple families in one room – I can’t tell you exactly the number, but it had to be more than 40 people, lots of bunk beds. So once you got there and you were processed, you were then assigned maybe an apartment to live in. So we ended up living in an apartment for quite some time, because I think we were there for about eight to nine months. And so we had our own apartment and I made a lot of friends with different children from around the world, I was with Turkish kids and Hungarian kids and Romanians and at one point, my parents said I was speaking about four or five different languages. I lost that soon after we left there, but when you are a kid, you have the capacity, I guess, to learn that many different languages, so…”
Petra’s parents talked to her and her brother when they were older about why they left Czechoslovakia
“My dad simply put it that it’s for me and my brother, not so much for my mum and my dad, but he knew… because we left right before the fall of communism. I think the fall of communism happened about a year after we left the country. So, when we got here, I don’t think my dad ever looked back at that and regretted it, because even now, today, all these years later, it’s still hard for all the people who are living there, economically. It’s a new democracy, starting from the beginning and coming here; my dad saw that as a big opportunity for our education, for our work, for our futures.”
Petra says she understands why there is nostalgia for the Communist era in Central Europe now
“I see where they’re coming from, my nostalgia comes from being a kid, growing up there, drinking Kofola, watching Matko a Kubko, being kids – we were kids at a time when you saw cartoons one hour a week, on the three stations that were available in Bratislava at the time! You come here and kids have so many more opportunities and things to rot their brain and their teeth and everything. So, in a way, I can see it. And I would be lying if I said that it didn’t fascinate me, you know – anything communist related, or movies of anything, because deep down inside, I know that was a part of history that I was a part of, even though it was towards the real last part of it. I can’t say that it doesn’t intrigue me. I don’t know what I’d tell those people. I know a lot of them thought it was better during communist times, and who am I to tell them whether or not it was or not, because now it is harder – it is hard for people out there who are struggling.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History