Vlado Simko, (born Vladimír Šimko), 1931
Vlado Simko was born in Bratislava in 1931 to a Slovak father and Czech mother. His parents, Miroslav and Mária, were both educators; his mother taught at a high school in Bratislava while his father served in the Ministry of Education. His sister, Olga, was born five years after Vlado. Vlado says the onset of WWII was difficult for his family, as his mother lost her job because of anti-Czech sentiment in the newly-independent First Slovak Republic. Towards the latter half of the War, Vlado and his family were evacuated from Bratislava and sent to Trenčianske Teplice, a spa town in northwestern Slovakia. Upon their return to Bratislava, Vlado resumed his schooling. He spent the summer of 1947 in London as part of a student exchange program. After graduating high school in 1950, Vlado enrolled in Comenius University’s Faculty of Medicine. While studying, he worked part-time in a physiology research lab. He met his future wife, Mary, who was also a medical student, while attending a concert. After finishing graduate school, Vlado and Mary married, and he found a job in the physiology department of the Research Institute for Human Nutrition where he eventually became director of the laboratory.
Vlado says that he and his wife were given permission to travel outside the Eastern Bloc to attend conferences and present papers; however, they were not allowed to take their son, Daniel (who was born in 1959), with them. In the late 1960s, Vlado joined the Communist Party. He says that faith in the leadership of Alexander Dubček spurred this decision; however, the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968 led him to rescind his membership. It was at this time that Vlado began searching for ways to leave the country and sent out letters to his contacts in the West. He was offered a two-year visiting professorship at Cornell University in the School of Nutrition and, on April 1, 1969, left Czechoslovakia with his family. After three years at Cornell, Vlado completed a two-year fellowship at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, and was then offered a job as an associate professor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. The Simkos lived in Cincinnati from 1974 until 1982 when they moved to New York City where Vlado became head of the gastroenterology department at the Brooklyn V.A. Medical Center.
Vlado became involved in the Czechoslovak community shortly after arriving in the United States. He served on the board of the Council of Free Czechoslovakia and is the current president of its successor, the Czech and Slovak Solidarity Council. Vlado is currently on the board of the American Fund for Czechoslovak Relief and is the executive vice-president of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts & Sciences (SVU). Vlado refers to his immigration as ‘the best decision of [his] life’ and considers himself an international citizen. Today, he lives in Staten Island, New York.
Vlado recalls the early years of WWII
“It did not start too well because my mother was Czech and the Slovak government made a strong anti-Czech movement and anybody who was a Czech national, and who didn’t have a [Slovak sic.] passport, couldn’t get a job in then-Slovakia. So my mother lost her teaching assignment at the high school in Bratislava and she became a housewife. My father actually was limited because his wife was Czech. That was not a good kind of evidence or proof, at that time, because he worked for the government. He also had a difficult time because he was not Catholic. He was Lutheran; he was Protestant. So our family had a dual label – mother, Czech, and father, Protestant. But somehow we managed. My father, actually, managed to get through this, but it was not very pleasant.”
Vlado had a memorable encounter with an American plane during WWII
“Toward the end of the War, we were evacuated because the big cities were prone to bombardment. So we were in a small spa city which is called Trenčianske Teplice – there are mountains around – and one day there was this kind of an air raid situation. All of the sudden, I remember, I heard this wailing sound of an aircraft approaching which was louder and louder, and then all of the sudden I heard a big boom and nothing, and we knew something happened. So the older villagers, including me as a boy, started running in that direction and, true enough, when we came to a hillside we saw smoldering debris of a four-engine Liberator which crashed there. Maybe two or three of those airmen happened to jump out and, I remember now, they wound up with their parachutes hanging from the branches of the trees around that smoldering ruin of the aircraft. Unfortunately, there were also just remnants of a body around the smoldering aircraft, and I’m still deeply moved by what I found there. There was a residue of a New Testament in English which was all burnt around. I took that relic. I cherished it with big respect all my life and when we moved to the United States I lost that piece of a relic and I’m very sorry about it. It was very important to me. This was my, probably, first direct contact with the West and with the United States.”
While in medical school, Vlado worried that his background would hold him back
“While I was at the medical school I never knew when I would be thrown out of the medical school. Somehow I managed to graduate and I was a very good student. I graduated with the best marks and the best index [transcript] – one out of only four people in my class. Despite all this, they considered me to be unreliable, an unreliable element. They didn’t make it impossible for me to finish my medical education, but after I finished the medical school, they assigned me a job in a small village just at the border of Slovakia with the Soviet Union – Ukraine – and this would have been the end for me. I don’t even recall what was the name of the village. I did everything possible not to go there. Because I had good contacts with the Institute of Physiology where I worked as a student volunteer doing a little student research, I managed to get a job in the physiology department at the Research Institute of Nutrition in Bratislava. So that was a big, big deal for me because I could stay in the big city of Bratislava.”
Before he immigrated to the United States, Vlado had been able to travel to the West
“I did fairly decent research and my papers were published in fairly prestigious journals in Switzerland and in Sweden. I had a paper published in Hungary in the journal of the Hungarian Academy of Science. I got permission to attend from time to time an international convention in the West. That was a big deal but, by the time, we already had our first son Daniel, our only son, and when we went for instance to a congress of diabetes in Sweden, where I had a report because I did some research on diabetes in experimental animals. We were permitted to go to Stockholm, but we had to leave our son behind, for obvious reason. They knew that we were good parents; we would never leave our son alone and stay out in the West. The same thing happened when we went to an endocrinology convention in Marseilles, France. Imagine what it meant for me. I always longed for distances and for travel. By the time, we already had our first car, a little Škoda, and that car was loaded with food, with cans. We had a tent and we would camp out all the way to Marseilles and back, eating through our forage of canned food. But we were in the world.”
In the late 1960s, Vlado made the decision to join the Communist Party
“About two or three months before the Prague Spring, because at that time everybody was siding with Dubček. Because everybody thought ‘This is something that is going to pull us out of the misery.’ There was this reform movement and people wanted to help the reform movement. With me, I also had several of my colleagues who did the same thing. As soon as the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia, in August ’68, I simply cancelled that thing, and that was also a very bad mark on my profile. This was one of the reasons why I started to do everything possible to get out of the country.”
Vlado has been recording his own personal history for decades
“After I came to the United States, I started to write my diary. By today, I’ve already written about 2,682 pages of my diary which are very carefully indexed so when you mention a name or something, I can immediately find out at what page of my diary I have a note about that entry. People laugh at me and they say ‘Listen guy, you think anyone ever will be interested to read what you write? You think anybody will try to look at those slides, those thousands of slides that you made on your trips around the world?’ And my answer is ‘It’s obvious. If not for good recording, we would know nothing now about human history. Whether anybody’s going to read it or not, it’s part of civilization; it’s part of human culture to keep records.’ And this is also what you are doing with me right now.”
Category: New York City, Oral History