Tomas Opatril (born Tomáš Opatřil), 1974
Tomas Opatril was born in Pardubice, eastern Bohemia, in 1974. His parents worked as technical assistants at the Institute of Chemical Technology in the city, which was largely industrial. Tomas’s father, Petr, was an assistant researcher, while his mother, Helena, worked in the explosives department. Tomas enjoyed the outdoors and was a member of the Pioneers, which allowed him to attend summer camp and go on weekend outings. When he was older, he joined the Brontosaurus group, which was a volunteer organization that focused on the environment and nature and planned trips to work on conservation efforts. Tomas attended a mechanical high school.
Tomas was 15 when the Velvet Revolution occurred. He was taking dance classes at the time and, against his parents’ wishes, joined the demonstrations in downtown Pardubice rather than attending his lessons. He has vivid memories of this time, although he admits that he was very young and didn’t fully understand what was going on. The fall of communism, however, was a ‘huge change in the life of every teenager, says Tomas, and was especially significant because of the resulting freedom to travel.
After graduating from high school, Tomas performed civil service in lieu of a one-year stint in the military. He found a job at the famed Barrandov Studios as a production assistant on documentary films for a foundation that supported the arts. Tomas moved to Prague and, while working at Barrandov, took classes at FAMU (the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague). Upon finishing his work at Barrandov, Tomas started his own web design business. In 2004, Tomas applied for the green card lottery and was awarded one in 2006. He moved to the United States in the fall of 2007 and settled in Chicago where he had several acquaintances. He has held several jobs and today is a freelance web designer and developer. Tomas lives in Chicago.
Tomas enjoyed that fact that his mother sometimes helped to test explosives
“In the usual families, the father usually went on the business trips, but in our family, as I remember, our mother went on the business trips which were connected with some trials or explosion research in the fields for the army or for something like that. So she sometimes went for two weeks in Ostrava and she helped the researchers make explosions, and they did recordings of the explosions and they’d write down numbers and things like that. So I’m a typical child of Pardubice because all of my friends, I remember, at least one parent worked in some kind of chemistry.”
Tomas recalls his experience of the Velvet Revolution in Pardubice
“Every young man and every young woman in the Czech Republic had to join dance lessons. It’s a Czech tradition, and every young man or young lady who’s the age of 15 must join and must visit the lesson of classical dance, which means polka, valčík [waltz] and other dancing in formal wear. And of course every young man and young woman commonly hate it, because it’s too formal and everybody loves a different kind of dancing that that. So it happened to me during the fall of 1989 and I also must join that taneční, dancing classes, and it brings me to the demonstrations against the communist government. Two days per week I rode the bus from the apartment building where I lived to the cultural center on the other side of the town. It was bus number six, and that bus crossed downtown Pardubice and the square where the demonstration against the government was happening.
“So I rode the bus across downtown Pardubice and I realized it would be better to join the anti-government demonstration than to go to the dance lesson, just quietly. So I just wore the formal wear and I said to my mom ‘Ok, so I’m going to dance classes and I’ll see you tonight,’ because the demonstrations were always late afternoon/evenings after people come from work. Everybody was wearing jeans, like normal, and I was in the formal wear. I met my friends and they asked me ‘Did you sign the petition?’ and I said ‘No, not yet,’ and then later I signed it, but I did it because they told me to. But I was not sure because I had absolutely no idea if the people from the opposition are true, because I didn’t study the political situation and economic situation and society before, so I was not sure if the truth was that way or on the other side or if it’s maybe in between. My friends were older and I trusted them; they understood much more than me, but I was really young. I was 15 and I didn’t understand what’s going on.”
Following the fall of communism, Tomas and his peers experienced some changes
“November ’89 was a huge change in the life of every teenager at that time because we thought that everything’s changing and now everything will be better and all those bad guys in government are going away, so it really means that we will have happier lives. And I think it happened; from 1989 to 2000 it was a really good ten years. As not just teenagers but young adults and other adults, we enjoyed especially the open borders. Because every young person wanted to travel, and it was impossible to travel to many countries during the communist era, and so that was a big, huge change for us and we really enjoyed that freedom – freedom of travel.”
Tomas spent his one year of civil service working in the film industry
“Most of my classmates and most of my friends of that generation tried to find a way to not join the army. Except for one or two guys of my generation, they were for one year in the army. In 1989 there was two years of military service and everybody must go, and after the Velvet Revolution it started coming down. So maybe in 1990 they made it for one and half years and after another two or three years it was just one year. But we still didn’t like it at all because it was not a modern army – no computers, no techniques, and just yelling at you to do this and do that, and it didn’t make sense that we will be more manly than before because we didn’t remember any one; they were just more stupid after one year. And we also didn’t like war, so it didn’t make sense to be a member of the army.
“So if we didn’t find some health issues, which was [a reason] to not be in the army, we found that a way to escape from the army was through civil service, like to help in the hospitals or something like that. I worked that way and I tried to find some one and a half year job in the civil sector, which included foundations. I was able to find this foundation that was interested in the arts. The foundation supported the theatres and something like that; the foundation I found supported documentary movies, so I did my military service at the ateliéry Barrandov [Barrandov Studios] in the film industry, and I spent my military service as an assistant of production and an assistant of camera in some small documentary productions. It was the first time I found something I really liked and it brought me out of machine technology and big industry to the people, and also to Prague. So I left my hometown where I was born and grew up and I moved to the biggest city which I really liked.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History