Vlastimil John Surak
Vlastimil John Surak (born Vlastimil Ján Šurák), 1927
Vlastimil Surak was born in 1927 in Brezová pod Bradlom in western Slovakia. His father, Matej, had moved to the United States when he was 15, but returned to Slovakia in 1920 and married his mother, Alžbeta. In 1922, the pair went to the United States, but again returned to Slovakia in 1926. Vlastimil’s father owned two tanneries in Brezová pod Bradlom while his mother stayed home raising Vlastimil and his two brothers. During WWII, Vlastimil recalls hiding in forests and small villages whenever Nazis came through his town to avoid being conscripted or sent to work in Germany.
Vlastimil attended business school in Bratislava and, upon graduating in 1947, returned to Brezová pod Bradlom to work in his father’s tannery. He says that after the Communist coup in 1948 ‘things started going so bad, there was no other thing on my mind, just to leave.’ Vlastimil and his younger brother Slavomil did not have trouble obtaining passports, as their parents were American citizens. They left Czechoslovakia in November 1948 and sailed to the United States three weeks later on the Queen Elizabeth. Vlastimil recalls this trip as a great experience. They took the train to Chicago where they were met by their older brother, Miloslav, who had come to the United States two years earlier. Vlastimil found lodging with a Slovak family, and eventually found a job with an electric company. He says that it was always his plan to have his own business, and in February 1954, following in the footsteps of his father, Vlastimil started the National Rawhide Manufacturing Company (later Surak Leather Company). Initially, his business was making drum covers, but when rawhide was replaced by plastic, he turned to making leather for jackets and gloves; he owned this business until 1995. Vlastimil’s parents arrived in Chicago in 1964, following what he says was years of persecution under the communist regime in Czechoslovakia. Following the communists’ rise to power, his father lost his business and properties and was sentenced to prison for a number of years. Because of his American citizenship, U.S. Senator Hubert Humphrey intervened and was able to secure his release.
Vlastimil has been married to his wife Elizabeth for over 50 years and they have three children. His two daughters were debutantes with the Czechoslovak National Council of America. In 1989, he was shown on television in Daley Plaza, celebrating the Velvet Revolution; however, Vlastimil has not been back to Slovakia because he says he “doesn’t want to change the picture in his mind” of his home. Today, he lives in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Vlastimil remembers the fate of the Jewish people in his town
“Most of them ended up in the concentration camps. My best friend and schoolmate and his younger brother and older sister, father and mother perished in the concentration camp. I was about 12 or 13 years old. I came to school one morning and he didn’t come. They day before was the last time I saw him, and they never returned back. Most of them did not return back to my hometown. They perished in the concentration camps, which was a very heartbreaking situation.”
During WWII, Vlastimil says they had limited ways of hearing news
“Listened to BBC London. That was the information during the War for people under the Nazi’s control. They used to come listen at the windows – the Gestapo – [to see] if people are listening to the foreign broadcasting. But that was the only information you could get. Nobody could write to you; they opened the letters. They were interfering with broadcasting. But still, there was a possibility to get some news.”
Vlastimil talks about his journey to the United States in late 1948
“So I didn’t have some problems getting here. Why? I got an American passport because my parents were American citizens, and I got an American passport in the American embassy in Prague. There were some restrictions and we were worried they won’t let us go out, me and my brother – younger brother – because we were born there [in Czechoslovakia]. And if you were born in that country, you were considered to belong there by them. Luckily we made it through the borders by the train all the way to Paris. We were in Paris for two weeks and Cherbourg one week. Why? There was a strike on the boats, and a couple times they sent us to Cherbourg by the trains and they brought us back to Paris, because they said the strike was over but it wasn’t over. So it took me three weeks in France to wait for the trip.”
“I came to this country December 5 by boat, which was the nicest trip I ever had in my life. Five and a half days being on the boat, the Queen Elizabeth. As a young man, I met other young people there. We had a good time, excellent food, and the trip in my case was too short. I didn’t want to leave – it was so good.”
Vlastimil’s first job in Chicago was working at Garden Electric for $0.75 an hour
“The people at Garden promised me that after one month I will get $0.80 an hour. I stayed there – a month came, two months came – the raise wasn’t coming. Three months came. Finally I was brave enough to ask what happened to my raise, five cents. I went, on the way home, I didn’t find my punch card at the clock, and I went back to the supervisor. I said ‘Where is my punch card?’ He said ‘You are fired.’ I said ‘Why?’ ‘We can get so many people for $0.75 an hour, why would we pay you $0.80?’ I said ‘I didn’t want to quit, but you promised a five cent increase and that’s all I was asking.’ Nope, I was fired. Despite that I had my cousin in the high position in Garden Electric. But the money was very important to this system.”
In February 1954, two major events happened in Vlastimil’s life
“I met my wife Sunday evening, the day before. I started my business the next day, and I met my wife at the Sunday evening dances in the Sheraton Hotel on Michigan Avenue. So I did two things in my life – met my future wife and start my business. I rented space and I started a very small tannery, and I was making drumheads for musical drums. First batch I made, I went with the samples to the company who were making drums, Ludwig Drum Company. The owner was a gentleman from Germany. He was very nice and knowledgeable, and he liked my product so much he said ‘I will take everything that you make in your place for my drums.’ So I started to produce more and more until I came to the point that he said ‘You are making too many, I can’t use them all.’ So I had to look for new customers for the existing amount of product.”
Category: Chicago, Oral History