Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Czech and Slovak Emigration to the United States

In response to the Tenement Museum's 400 Years of Immigration History Twitter campaign in July, guest blogger Rosie Johnston of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library shares stories of twentieth-century Czech and Slovak immigration history.

A Slovak Immigrant, Ellis Isla... Digital ID: 212079. New York Public Library
Slovak Immigrant at Ellis Island, 1905
Czechs and Slovaks had emigrated to the United States long before Czechoslovakia even came into existence in 1918. But two events in the country’s more recent history sparked mass emigration to America: the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948 and the Soviet-led invasion of the country in 1968. The National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library has been recording the stories of those who left during the Communist era, asking them why and how they came to settle in America.

When Communists seized power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, approximately 25,000 of the country’s citizens fled in that year alone. The most frequent routes out of the country were over the Czech border with Bavaria in the west and the Slovak border with Austria in the south. The borders were guarded and closed, but especially in these early days, people found a way across if they knew what they were doing. John Palka escaped with his family in 1948, escorted by a paid guide:

At this time, leaving Czechoslovakia was regarded as a criminal offense and, indeed, if you fled, your closest relatives could well end up in prison. Click here for the story of Ludvik Barta, whose mother-in-law spent four years in prison because her husband left in 1948.

A number of escapes during this early period of Communism in Czechoslovakia read like something out of a spy novel or Hollywood film. Perhaps the most famous escape of this era was that of the Masin brothers, who spent one month on the run in East Germany in 1953, trying to make their way to West Berlin. They had tried to leave in 1951, but this plan had been foiled and oldest brother Ctirad Masin spent two years in labor camps as punishment. The brothers were pursued at one point by as many as 25,000 East German police and they killed at least three people on their journey to the West. Ctirad Masin remembers the very last leg of his group’s journey:

In other stories, people allegedly used scuba gear to swim down the Danube River into Austria (the Danube was later mined to prevent such escapes). In 1951, a group of resistance fighters actually hijacked a train and forced it over the border into Western Germany. A number of those on board the so-called ‘Freedom Train’ later settled in the United States, including Karel Ruml, whose profile will soon appear on our website.

The next big spike in Czech and Slovak immigration to America came in 1968, the year that Warsaw-Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia and put an end to a period of liberalization and reform (including an easing of travel restrictions) often referred to as the Prague Spring. It is thought that even more Czechs and Slovaks fled in 1968 than had 20 years previously.

Immediately following the Soviet-led invasion on August 21, Czechs and Slovaks continued to apply for tourist visas abroad; they received them without problems and then left the country, with no plans to return. There are also stories of border guards ‘turning a blind eye’ in the days after the Warsaw Pact invasion. However, in 1969, so many Czechs and Slovaks left the country that the government nullified all existing passports in a bid to stem the exodus.

The most common forms of escape during the years that ensued were, on the whole, much less dramatic than those of the early Cold War era. A common way of leaving the country was through organized coach tour. Joe Gazdik’s story is quite typical. He took a bus tour to Denmark in August 1969, obtained his passport from the group leader and then declared his intention to remain abroad. He says it was important not to talk too early:

Another way that Czechs and Slovaks made it to America during this period was through marriage (though understandably, many of those in question would insist that emigration was not their prime concern when tying the knot). Those who did marry an American citizen and emigrate legally to the United States (such as Stan Pechan) talk about the large amount of paperwork and multiple bureaucratic barriers to navigate, particularly on the Czechoslovak side. In Stan Pechan’s case, it took one and a half years before he could join his wife in the United States. Some were not even granted visas to get married in person – the ceremonies instead took place by proxy at the Czechoslovak Embassy in Washington and Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Prague.

By the time Communism fell in Czechoslovakia in 1989, it is believed that between 180,000 and 600,000 Czechs and Slovaks had fled their homeland. Thousands of these individuals live in the United States today.

-posted by Rosie Johnston

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