Vera Borkovec (born Věra Žandová), 1926
Vera Borkovec was born in Brno in 1926. She grew up in Prague with her parents and younger sister until 1934, when her father became the director of Škoda Works in Tehran, Iran. Vera remembers Tehran as a progressive city, and the schooling she received there was an important influence on her. After graduating from the American Community School, she began teaching sixth and seventh grades there, and the principal encouraged her to continue with her education. Vera moved to Beirut where she attended a French school for one year. After WWII, Vera and her family returned to Czechoslovakia; she says they were very happy to be back. Vera majored in English and Oriental studies at Charles University and received her degree in 1949. That same year, she left the country with her family. Through an uncle (who had been involved in the resistance during WWII) Vera’s family was introduced to a guide who helped them across the border into West Germany on July 4, 1949.
Vera stayed in refugee camps in Germany for one year and a half. She and her sister were able to get secretarial jobs at the International Refugee Organization in Munich, where she met her husband, Alexej (Sasha) Bořkovec. Through an acquaintance of her father’s, Vera’s family received permission to immigrate to Bolivia in the spring of 1951. While there, Vera and Sasha married, and Vera worked for Braniff Airlines. Vera and Sasha obtained U.S. visas in the spring of 1952 and they moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, where Sasha was able to accept a fellowship at Virginia Tech that he had been offered five years earlier. Vera worked as secretary for the head of the university’s Department of Dairy Science and also became involved in the theater on campus. She says they became good friends with the faculty and even the president of the university. After short stays in Texas (where they became U.S. citizens) and Roanoke, Virginia (where Vera obtained an M.A. in French at Hollins College), the couple moved to the Washington, D.C. area when Sasha got a job at the Department of Agriculture. In D.C., Vera gained a second masters degree, in Russian, from American University and received her doctorate in Russian literature from Georgetown University. She became a professor at American University, and taught in the Language and Foreign Studies Department for more than 30 years.
Vera and Sasha were instrumental in the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Science (SVU) at both a local and international level. Vera became a member in 1965 and sat on several committees before being elected Secretary General of the organization in 1977. She was Chairman of the Washington, D.C. chapter, and also started a student essay contest to promote interest in SVU and Czech and Slovak culture among younger generations. In her retirement, Vera has worked as a translator and published several books. In 2003, she received the Artis Bohemiae Amicis award from the Czech Ministry of Culture for her translations. She lives in Silver Spring, Maryland.
Vera attended elementary school for two years in Prague
“I was two years in the elementary school and my recollections of that time are not happy ones. I was being punished by my teacher constantly for being able to read when I came to first grade.”
So that was out of line for the times?
“Today that would be something a teacher would welcome probably. I was reading already Greek mythology and all sorts of things and I was bored with the primitive things that you learn if you are learning to read. I already was reading quite well.”
And how had you learned to read? Did anyone teach you, or did you just pick it up yourself?
“Well, I had an uncle who was a teacher – a first grade teacher – and he said, ‘Don’t let her learn to read because she will have problems.’ So I asked the maid to teach me. And I learned to read from tabloids.”
When she moved to Tehran with her family in 1934, Vera went to an American school
“This school was just really outstanding. It was a Presbyterian missionary school, and it was such an outstanding [school]. We learned things that, well, we learned about democracy. We learned about getting together and having relationships – good relationships – with people of other nationalities or religions. In that school, when I was graduating, we had 200 students, 20 different nationalities, and eight different religions. Tolerance was one of the things we learned, above all. And the principal [Commodore Fisher] was the best man I ever knew.”
Vera considered studying veterinary medicine at university, but was not encouraged to follow that path
“My favorite uncle was a veterinarian. Since I was a little kid, he would take me around when he was making his rounds all over the country, and I wanted so badly to be a veterinarian like him. There weren’t many veterinary school and they really didn’t want women either, and I said ‘I want to go to that university in Brno that you went to.’ And he said ‘What do you think you are? Look at yourself, you’re too [small].’ I was littler then. And he said, ‘You don’t have the strength to be a veterinarian. Come with me.’ And he took me out and he showed me how he was pulling out a calf, how he was pulling out a colt. And he said ‘Can you do that? That’s what a veterinarian has to do. No, you go to the philosophical school in Prague and do something else.’ So I went and I did English studies and then later I was lured into Oriental studies because of my living in Iran and knowing something about Persian literature.”
Vera met her husband while working for the International Refugee Organization
“Then one day he [my boss, František Slabý] said, ‘Věruška, I have to find you a nice husband. I have just the man in mind. He’s in Ludwigsburg [refugee camp], and I will call him and he can be our accountant here.’ And guess who arrived? Sasha Borkovec. When he arrived I thought ‘Good looking enough, but he seems so aloof and so stand-offish.’ I wasn’t particularly interested. But then, František, my boss, invited us to a party and I went there with my sister, and Sasha was playing the guitar and singing beautiful songs. That was it. And then at that party, I think that’s what sort of started things going, he asked me if I would teach him English. And I said yes, and we would take walks and I would teach him English, spoken English, and I guess that brought us together.”
In 1951, Vera and her family all received permission to immigrate to Bolivia
“We thought we would stay in Bolivia. It was a beautiful country. I was working for Braniff Airways and Sasha was working for a pharmaceutical company; we were quite comfortable and everything. But then they had another revolution. We lived through three different revolutions during the year and a half that we lived in Bolivia, but the last one was socialist. They were going to nationalize everything, and so again we said, ‘This is not for us.’ Because I was working for Braniff Airways, I could get Sasha a ticket for five dollars to go to Brazil to find out what Brazil looked like, and to Uruguay. And he went on this expedition to find out where we could move to. And then he came back very happy from Brazil. He had been to Uruguay as well and to Paraguay. But he came back from Brazil and said, in front of a gathering of Czechs, ‘So we are moving to Brazil. Brazil is a fine place and we can find work.’ And I said ‘No we’re not. We’re not going to Brazil, we’re going to the United States because we received immigration visas to the USA.’”
Vera received her PhD in Russian literature and became a professor at American University
“In 1968 when we were in Prague, my relatives and friends would say ‘You poor thing, how can you teach that awful language, that awful Russian literature?’ And I would say ‘The Russian language is a beautiful language and Russian literature is really world-class literature. I don’t teach socialist realism. I teach the classics, which have nothing to do with communism.’”
Through her work in translating, Vera met one of her favorite Czech playwrights
“Recently, two or three years ago, I published a book on Josef Topol and his various plays. But I wanted to meet the man, and I knew people here at the embassy who knew him and they said ‘Oh, you will not have a chance to meet him because he’s very shy and he doesn’t want to meet other people.’ So I asked people in Prague and everybody said the same thing, that you just can’t get close to this guy, that he doesn’t want to meet anybody. And then finally, the former cultural counselor came very happy to me and he said ‘I have found a way and Mr. Topol is willing to accept you. He’s inviting you to his home.’
“And he took me inside, brought the dog inside, he put me on the sofa and asked if I wanted coffee. I said ‘Yes, please, thank you.’ And so he went to the kitchen to make some coffee and the dog and I were sitting there together. And you know I told you that I wanted to be a veterinarian and how much I love animals and dogs especially. I called Zorinka – her name was Zorinka – I called her over and she came, sniffed me, and then she sat in my lap. And the playwright comes out of the kitchen with the coffee, he nearly dropped it and he said ‘My god! She’s sitting in your lap. Zorinka sat in your lap!’ And I said ‘Well she knows, she knows I like dogs.’ Well that did it. He started talking, he was telling me his whole life story, his love stories, whom he was going to marry, whom he married, how he worked with [Václav] Havel. He didn’t want to let me go home. And we have seen each other ever since. Every year when I go to Prague we see each other, in Café Slavia usually.”
Category: Oral History, Washington D.C.