1981 | Prague, Czechoslovakia | Age: 24
This isn’t something I could bring myself. I had to have it smuggled. This is my transcript and my diploma. I couldn’t really bring any documents with me because it was way too dangerous. So I gave them to a friend, and then another friend from Madrid mailed it to me to the post office in Vienna. These were really important because without them I would not have been able to apply to grad school here, so it was really smart thinking on my part! I had already earned a Master’s in Economics and Industrial Engineering in Czechoslovakia, and it’s funny seeing some of the courses in the transcript, like International Movement of the Communist Party! Look at what they were teaching alongside the hardcore math, statistics and organizational management. Of course we had to study Russian, which continued for like 18 years. So you can imagine, even if we didn’t want to, we became fluent.
The trip was organized by a travel agency. It wouldn’t have been possible to get on it, but my friend’s mom knew somebody. She and I planned it together. We had to be very clandestine because there was always someone there to monitor activity. Everyone had suitcases, but we were the only ones traveling light with just backpacks because we knew that we would run away at some point. So we kind of stood out a bit.
I was 24, and this was 1980. The tour first went to Austria and then to Italy. They took our passports, but at some point I was able to get them back when we were in Firenze, and then we just ran. We were taking a breather because the whole thing was just so emotionally difficult. As we were walking through the streets, we saw our tour group! We knew we had to leave the country as soon as possible, so we got on the train and went back to Vienna. Once there, we went to the Traiskirchen refugee camp and applied for political asylum. I found a job teaching skiing in the mountains while waiting for my papers to come to the U.S. The process with the embassy was very tedious. It took close to a year.
When I was in Vienna I met a lot of Czech dissidents, young people who had been part of the Charter Movement. I had been too young when this had happened in 1968, but my dad got into trouble, and the family was basically marked by the communists because he had been very vocal. By the ‘80s the government was forcing these dissidents out of the country, and many of them settled in Vienna. Our friends were part of that movement, and we met many of them in the camp.
I couldn’t tell my parents anything ahead of time, so they didn’t know that I had planned to defect. They were older and I knew that not much would be done to them. I told my brother because I knew that it would have a real impact on him, and did lose his job when I left. I have the piece of paper that says that I was sentenced in absentia to 2 years in jail for defecting.
The ‘80s were a very troublesome period. All my letters and calls to my parents were checked. It was very hardcore communism. When I got my American citizenship in 1984, I was able to go visit. They couldn’t prosecute me at that point because I was traveling as an American citizen. But I was so scared. After I had defected, I had this one recurring nightmare that I was back there and couldn’t get out. It continued for years until I went back to visit, and after I returned to the U.S. I stopped having that nightmare.
It had been impossible to live in that regime. It totally destroyed humanity in every way. It was so oppressive. It was horrible what it made people into. I’m sure something similar happened when the Nazis took over in Germany. All of a sudden people who seemed decent would inform on each other, would do awful things to each other. At the same time, they realized that if they played along it could be advantageous. So it became a very polarized society. People in apartment buildings would report on each other. At school they wanted us to report on our parents. It was really crazy.
As a teenager during the Prague Spring, I had experienced this amazing freedom. Then the Russians came and just destroyed all of it. Once you experience that freedom and the joy, it’s very difficult to go back. My dad should have taken our whole family then and left, but my parents decided to stay. My dad was well known in his field, and he could have gotten a job anywhere. He had a PhD in Chemical Engineering. He had invented things and did a lot of research. That’s how they controlled you there. These smart, highly educated people - they’d give you a little bit, and if you wanted to achieve more you had to cooperate. And my dad just was not the type. He was deemed “unreliable” by the Party, and once you were given that label, it was a professional death sentence. They’d use your knowledge but they wouldn’t let you grow.
When I came here, I applied to the Columbia Business School and got my MBA. The school had never had a political refugee from a communist country before, so they were a little bit lost about what to do with me. I had this transcript, but how were they going to verify it? So I translated it, had it notarized, and the university accepted it. I thought it was amazing! What if I had just made it all up? It’s all handwritten. There are some funny stamps here and there, but who knows what they are?