Tomas Votocek (born Tomáš Votoček), 1968
Tomas Votocek was born in Liberec, northern Bohemia in 1968. He grew up with his parents and sister in Hrádek nad Nisou, a town on the border of East Germany and Poland. His father Milan worked in a bakery and his mother Karla was a pediatric nurse. As a child, Tomas occasionally helped out at the bakery. He says that people in his town often crossed the border into East Germany and Poland to buy goods, especially food and electronics. Tomas attended school in Liberec, and because of his interest in wood-working, went to a trade school to learn carpentry. Upon finishing his studies in 1987, Tomas says that many of his friends left the country; however, he was unable to do so himself. Tomas remembers joining the protests during the Velvet Revolution in 1989 because he was excited about the changes, including the opening of the borders. Following the fall of communism, Tomas traveled throughout Europe, visiting places such as Austria, Switzerland, Spain, and France. In 1997, his started his own construction company with two acquaintances. He says that although the process was frustrating, the freedom of owning his own business was worth it.
In 2001, Tomas traveled to the United States. He visited California, where his cousin lived, and New York before settling in Chicago. Tomas says that because he did not know any English, he was drawn to the large Czech and Polish population in Chicago. His first job was cleaning up construction sites, but after a few months he found employment building new Chuck E. Cheese restaurants which saw him on the road for two or three weeks at a time. Tomas says that his co-workers – along with closed-captioning on TV – helped him improve his language skills. In 2007, he bought what had up to then been a Polish grocery store and began selling imported Czech and Slovak food and other goods, such as books and videos. Tomas’s store, Vltava, has also worked to promote cultural events with several Czech organizations in Chicago in the past. Today, Tomas lives with his Czech wife in Chicago.
Tomas lived in a border town, close to both East Germany and Poland
“I lived close to Liberec. It’s 20 kilometers, 12 or 13 miles from Liberec. The city name is Hrádek nad Nisou. It’s close to the border – Poland and German, so if I had a choice, I’d go to Germany. If I want, I’d go to Poland; that’s very close. But before the communists broke, we couldn’t go anywhere, we could just go to East Germany. Before the communists [broke] there was border control. He checked everything. So if you wanted to go out, he checked a case, the suitcase, and a package, and whatever you got. He checked everything.”
After the fall of communism, Tomas started his own business
“Everybody had a big vision to work for themselves, because before everybody worked for the company, the state was the owner, and now everybody wants to be free and work for themselves and make a profit for myself. But nothing was too easy, everything was hard. Somebody is thinking everything is very easy, but no. First thing, it’s bureaucratic because if you want to do some paperwork or something it’s not very easy to do it because everybody needed money and it’s working slow, and I didn’t like it.”
Through one of his early jobs in the U.S., Tomas had the opportunity to travel around the country
“After a few months, I got a big job with Chuck E. Cheese. I started to build Chuck E. Cheese [restaurants] around the United States. The first year, I visited 21 states and we were living in a hotel, and in Chicago. I had two houses, one in Chicago, one on the strip. We built Chuck E. Cheese almost everywhere, in every big city. New York, Minnesota, Florida, and Texas – that’s beautiful. It’s a big job, but the first three months, it’s very hard. I think Texas is beautiful. I liked the whole country; it’s very nice. Every place is different. So Florida is different, Georgia is different, Kentucky is different. Every place is different.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History