Vladimir Zeithaml (born Vladimír Zeithaml), 1955
Vladimir Zeithaml was born in Hradec Králové, a city in Bohemia, in 1955. Both his parents were natives of Hradec Králové, and when they moved to Prague for their jobs, Vladimir stayed with his grandparents for several years. He joined his parents in Prague at the age of six. Vladimir’s father was a military doctor while his mother was a nurse who later worked in the Ministry of Health. In the mid-1960s, Vladimir moved with his family to Egpyt where his father was working as a military translator. Vladimir says the several years that he spent there were ‘formative’ and ‘beautiful’ times.
At his school in Prague, Vladimir studied English, which was unusual at the time. In high school he started working as a tour guide for foreign tourists and also became involved in Jazzová sekce, a state-sponsored cultural organization that was able to promote jazz and other Western-style music, mostly through the efforts of young people and jazz enthusiasts among higher-ups. Vladimir’s family owned a cottage in the Krkonoše mountains where he enjoyed cross-country skiing.
Vladimir attended law school at Charles University and then spent one year performing mandatory military service. Following his military service, Vladimir started working for a law firm in Benešov. Living in Prague at the time of the Velvet Revolution, Vladimir witnessed first-hand the fall of communism, and worked as a guide and translator for an American reporter during that time. After living in London for under one year, Vladimir returned to Prague and continued to practice law. He also developed a hydroelectric plant with a partner, which is still a successful enterprise today.
In 2002, Vladimir visited the United States for the first time. He moved to Washington state in 2011 following his marriage to his Czech-American wife. Vladimir says that he enjoys a certain freedom moving to the United States has given him, which is the feeling of being a citizen of the world and being able to move around freely.
For several years, Vladimir lived in Egypt with his family
“At the age of 12, my father was there working as a military expert as a translator. There was massive military aid from Russians and the Czech Republic to the Nasser’s regime in ’66 and ’67. Actually, we were there during the Six-Day War which was quite an experience. My mother missed it and she thought, after the bombing was done, she said ‘I heard some noise and I thought somebody was dusting the carpets,’ because we were in the center and it was with a surgical precision; the military targets were on the outskirts, so nothing happened in the center.
“That was the beautiful time where it was the last weeks before you are distracted by women and you already have the capacity to understand what’s going on. So we had school activities close to the pyramids and there was an Egyptology institute of Prague university [Czech Institute of Egyptology at Charles University], which is quite famous, so we were, as pupils of a Czech school, taken there and we had these afterschool activities walking these mastabas and around pyramids. So it was a formative experience.”
So there were enough Czechs there to have a Czech school?
“My guess is about close to 10,000. We had our school there and a couple of houses, our own school bus. And the Russians – I think it was a military secret; I’m glad to reveal it now – about 50 or 60,000. Quite massive.”
As a teenager Vladimir became involved in a cultural organization
“I was an active part in the Jazzová sekce [Jazz section] and we helped to organize concerts in Lucerna. I was not at the headquarters; I just went there and helped with some manual work. It was the first experience for me to meet other people. Meet other people who I could identify with, and they were in the jazz culture and that’s for me what for the previous generation could be the tramping tradition, because the jazz music was something that I identified with American culture, and films as well.”
Vladimir’s move to the United States in 2011 brought an added feeling of opportunities around the world
“This is not an isolated world anymore; even if people think that it is, it’s not. And what’s happening in Europe will be here really, really soon. So we are in one world. That’s why I feel more like a citizen of the world, and I can imagine that I can live in some other place and it’s still one world. And that’s what I am enjoying most. I learned how to pack. First time in my life that was sincere packing, and I still did not unpack after the refurbishment. But once I’ve done that I can do that again. That’s one of the main differences. When I was in Europe I actually could not imagine ‘I am packing and there is flat which is empty,’ and I’m able to get all these formalities here, with the help of my wife, done. It’s nice because I felt stuck there and now I feel I can move.”
Vladimir ponders the idea of freedom in the United States versus freedom in his homeland
“I distinguish between internal freedom and the freedom of convenience – if you want to get a service or some good, you can find them easily and it works, which is what I would call an objective freedom, yes. If I want to have something done then I can find it. But the internal freedom… I’m not that really convinced that this is the case. It could be really easily confused that what I can buy, where I can go with what I can do. Now I realize that I enjoyed a substantial part of an internal freedom back in Europe. It’s kind of an open-ended issue for me.”
Category: Oral History