It surprised me how easily I decided to leave Czechoslovakia. It first occurred to me shortly after our wedding in 1963, but my wife Věra did not want to leave her mother, even though she still had four siblings. I was the third of four children in a traditional protestant family.
At that time, I did not insist on leaving. Materially, I lacked nothing. Two years later, Věra herself came with the idea of leaving our home. And when the Communist Party offered me a membership – for me that was the proverbial last straw. I refused, saying, “but we go to church”. Stunned, the Mayor Jiroušek responded by saying, “well, Comrade Bísek, we’ll talk about it at our next meeting, and will let you know.” The comrades at the Army printing house, where I learned the trade and worked as a typesetter, did not have a second chance to let me know – in May 1965 my wife and I “ran away” via Malmö, Sweden, to New York.
The second major reason for my departure was the fact that, despite finishing high school with honors, I was twice prevented from pursuing university studies – at first I wanted to study chemistry at the ČVUT, then at the graphics school in Leipzig.
well, Comrade Bísek, we'll talk about it at our next meeting, and will let you know
While living and working in Malmö for six months we obtained US visas, and arrived at the Brooklyn docks by freighter the first week of December 1965. Meanwhile, our American sponsor went bankrupt, so the first week we stayed with a rich American fellow traveler in her luxury apartment on 5th avenue. Various moves followed, once to a stinky hole on the West Side, from there to a sublet, where I killed 52 cockroaches in the kitchen one night after coming home from work for the expatriate American papers of the Švehlas.
It was not easy to get used to New York after calm, clean and friendly Sweden, but the final settlement came a year after the birth of our daughter Veronica, when we bought a house in the small town of Glen Cove on Long Island, which for our family – in 1974 expanded by our son Jonathan – became a home for the next 44 years.
We spoke Czech at home, had a few Czech friends, but overall our life was American – jobs, raising children, schools, taking care of the house and household. I retrained in computer typography at a trade school in Colorado Springs, taught the subject for a few years, and in 1986, with a lot of support from my wife, I established a very successful typography studio, Typrints Company. Successful until the Velvet Revolution, which practically over night sucked me into the Czech ethnic life. Again, with Věra’s great commitment, I started publishing the Czech-Slovak Americké Listy in April 1990, which gradually grew from the original eight to sixteen pages of good reading.
Related to this was a deep, time-consuming and physically demanding involvement in expatriate life. Related to my new role as publisher of the American Listy was my membership in several important organizations. First of all, it was SVU (Society for Sciences and Arts) and my participation in its congresses and conferences not only in the USA and Canada, but also in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
I also accepted an offer to become a member of the board of directors of the American Friends of the Czech Republic (AFoCR) Washington organization, which – among other important actions – built the TGM monument in Washington, returned the statue of Woodrow Wilson to Vrchlický Park in front of the Main (Wilson) Station in Prague and placed the bust of Václav Havel to the Capitol.
In the years 1996-2009, I was an official, for six years the president of the expatriate Bohemian Civic Benevolent Society of Astoria in New York (BCBSA), which owns a large building with a theater hall and a huge garden restaurant. Something interesting was always happening there. At my invitation, President Václav Havel visited us with his wife Dagmara to plant a “Havel Linden Tree”.
In order not to go completely crazy with countrymen, in 1989 I started and managed a rowing team at the private grammar school that our children attended. This, of course, involved regular trips to regattas, including the US Championships. Looking back, I don’t understand how I was able to keep up with everything.
It was a carousel in which it was impossible to do everything. I met or was introduced to a large number of interesting and important people, not only of Czech and Slovak origin. Unfortunately, too often our meetings were short because I was always “on the run” back to my office. I met not only presidents, parliamentarians, senators, judges, artists and sportsmen, but also some extraordinary people outside the social milieu that I did not or could not find time to spend with. I am very sorry for that.
I believe in the so-called art of leaving, when at the right moment the older generation has to make way for a new generation, so in the years 2010-2013 I gradually ended the publication of Americké Listy, canceled my candidacy for the next year as president of the BCBSA, and finished my coaching career with medals at the US Championships.
Since 2013 I am back home where my heart is
But I didn’t really retire. While visiting my “old” rowing club in Prague in the spring of 2013, I accepted an offer to help with youth coaching, which eventually stretched to five years.
Back home I’m not bored, there’s always something going on. I am a member of the supervisory board of Diakonie ČCE, on the board of the music festival Americké jaro, I have a reserved space in Prague’s daily Mladá fronta DNES for my column “Confession”. And in my place of residence in Prague 8 I represent the Pirate Party in one of the local committees.
My work for the expatriate community and for the Czech Republic was awarded with the Medal of Merit 1st Class (1998, from the President Václav Havel, for successfully lobbying for the accelerated admission of the Czech Republic to NATO), together with my wife Věra, we were granted the Gratias agit award (2005, from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, “for spreading the good name of the Czech Republic abroad”). Also I was presented with the Memorial Medal of the Chairman of the Senate of the Czech Republic (2010) and other medals and recognitions, including the Honorary Connoisseur of the Pilsen Brewery for the promotion of Pilsen beer in New York. And in 2008, at the largest conference of rowing coaches in North America, they surprised me with a Special Medal.
Since 2013 I am back home where my heart is.