Roman Prokes (born Roman Prokeš), 1960
Roman Prokes was born in Svitavy, a city in central Czechoslovakia, in 1960. Roman’s mother and father met after they both moved to the city following WWII, when it had been annexed by Nazi Germany as part of the Sudetenland. At the age of three, Roman moved to Monastir, Tunisia, with his parents and older brother, as his father, the director of a textile company, was tasked with opening a factory there. Roman’s earliest memories are of the Mediterranean setting and his reluctance to travel back to Czechoslovakia. After four years in Tunisia, Roman’s family returned to Svitavy and Roman started school. He recalls his father being quite outspoken against the communist government, especially following the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion, and subsequently losing his job. Roman says that because of his father’s standing, ‘going to high school was very difficult’ and he and his brother were not able to attend university. Roman’s high school education focused on food service and, as part of his studies, he worked in a grocery store and trained to be a manager.
Following high school, Roman and his brother decided to leave the country. They took a bus tour to Yugoslavia and, on the island of Korčula, left the group and hitchhiked to the Italian border. After crossing the border into Trieste on foot, they were sent to Latina, a refugee camp near Rome. Roman says that although he saw the experience as a ‘great adventure,’ the camp was rather dangerous. After two months in Latina, Roman and his brother were given permission to immigrate to the United States. They arrived in New York in September 1981 and settled in Astoria, Queens. Roman’s first impressions of the city? ‘I loved New York from the first minute we landed.’ While Roman’s brother quickly found work in a hotel restaurant, it took Roman longer to find a job. He worked in a church thrift shop and odd jobs in construction. He then started driving a cab – a job he held for three years.
Roman next found a job stringing rackets at a Czech-owned tennis club. He grew his business and, today, owns one of the premier pro shops in New York. Roman toured with Andre Agassi for 16 years and includes several other high profile tennis players as his customers. Because of his work, Roman has traveled extensively, which he says is ‘amazing’ after growing up in communist Czechoslovakia with few options to travel. He became an American citizen in 1986 and calls New York his ‘home from the day [he] landed.’ Today, Roman lives in Queens with his wife and children.
Roman recalls his earliest memories of Czechoslovakia
“We grew up in Africa, and Tunisia was blue sky, beautiful weather; we lived in a beautiful town called Monastir. It was right by the water. So my memories are of the beach and sun and all that, and my father was building a textile company, so he was in charge of a lot and meeting with the president of Tunisia and he had a pretty high position, and from there he did a lot of traveling back to Western Europe to buy the machinery from the Belgians, French, English, so he was all over Europe. My memories of childhood are what I can remember from there and any memory of Czechoslovakia was that we would basically we would go vacation there once a year, and I hated every minute of it, because it was gray, rainy, cold. As a kid, I would cry and say ‘I want to go home to the nice place,’ and it just kind of stayed with me so I never liked the place from day one, to be honest. Never liked it, and as soon as one comes to a certain age where you start thinking a little bit outside of the kid’s mind, I basically said ‘I’m leaving the second I can.’”
Roman describes his reasons for wanting to move to the United States
“The United States has the most friends of the countries which are supposedly the enemies, so the communist world was supposedly the enemy of the U.S.; therefore the people loved everything about the U.S., because we obviously hated the Russians and anything with it. So then you kind of glamorize the other side and you believe every single word of it and you start paying attention and it was this huge attraction. Then you buy books and you read about it and we would listen to Radio Free Europe and Voice of America. I never had any idea or tendency to go Germany or Austria; it just wasn’t tempting whatsoever, but the U.S. was like this different planet – it kind of is.”
Upon crossing the border into Italy, Roman and his brother went to Latina, a refugee camp near Rome
“It was a mess. For my brother, it was harder because he was the older one so he felt responsibility. For me, it was this great adventure so you don’t much care about anything. But there was a lot of pretty nasty people there. [It was] very corrupt, so all the money, which was – later on you learn was donated by the U.S. government for these camps, most of it was stolen. You get a mattress on the floor and the bathroom isn’t a bathroom. There is a hole in the wall and water is spraying out of it, and that’s what it is. They feed you, but the living conditions are absolutely atrocious. We and the two brothers wanted to be in one room, so you get four mattresses and you stay there, and you make your own weapons and you block your doors at night because it gets very dangerous. Very dangerous. Back then they were saying – I don’t know if it was true – Romanians would empty their prisons and just bus them to the border and send them to Italy. And these types of people would end up in these camps. It was not pleasant. It was a lot of tough people.”
Did you ever need to use your homemade weapons?
“We never had to use it, but a lot of people would get stabbed and shot, even, at night. You couldn’t walk around the camp alone at night; you were crazy if you did that. You had to go with a lot of people together. I guess that’s what happens in these situations, very separated by nationality.”
Were you able to go freely to and from the camp?
“Absolutely. You could do anything you wanted. There were public busses, so you would always looks for work. Stand on the corner of the road, and there are fields and agriculture and people take you, so you make a little money; it’s illegal work basically, but that’s how it was so you would make a little money occasionally. You don’t need to buy clothing. You have food in the camp, so you just go out, take a bus and go to the beach. The public bus was cheap. So you could anything. We would actually take little trips around old, small towns in the mountains and hills there. It’s actually pretty beautiful there.”
After two months in Latina, Roman and his brother were given permission to immigrate to the United States
“They have a process there and you actually go to the consulate in Rome and they talk to you and ask you questions. It’s supposed to be a long process of questions of why and what. I was a 20 year old and had long hair and we thought it was very modern and American, except here they look at you like you are a lazy hippie – which we didn’t know – so they asked you ‘Which would you prefer, long hair or work?’ which I thought was the strangest question because, again, I didn’t know that’s how it was, so I said ‘Obviously work,’ because that’s all you want to do. Then the next question was ‘If there’s a war with the Russians, would you go and fight them?’ and I said ‘Sure, gladly,’ and they said ‘Welcome to the United States.’ It took three minutes.”
Since arriving in the United States, Roman has made a point to make America his home
“Never read a Czech newspaper; never read one more book. I had no interest whatsoever, because right from day one you want to improve your language and everything about it. You want to understand everything, so from day one I started buying a newspaper. I didn’t understand a word of it, but it’s just that looking into it, that habit, turning on the TV. You just immerse yourself in the country and the culture and the language and that’s what helps you, and you get to the point where, like I said, I get a headache; I can’t read a page of a Czech newspaper because you lose interest, it doesn’t go anywhere; it becomes hard.”
Roman has traveled extensively for work, accompanying pro tennis players to tournaments around the world
“As a kid growing up in a place where they tell you that you can’t travel, you kind of always want to see the world, and this enabled us to see the world, and a nice part of the world as well, because the travel is paid for by the company and you stay in player hotels, which are usually four- or five-star hotels, and you go to phenomenal tennis places. So if you like tennis and you go to Wimbledon and Roland Garros and Aussie Open and on and on, it’s pretty amazing. Then traveling with the U.S. Davis Cup team, you stay in nice places; you go to the U.S. consulate and you are chauffeured around in Mercedes. It’s just a great experience. Phenomenal experience. You see the world. I’ve been to probably 65 countries, many of them 20 times or 100 times.”
Category: New York City, Oral History