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"Enraptured" by freedom after escape to US

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How difficult was it for you to leave Czechoslovakia in 1984?
Elena Letňanová (EL): It took me many years. I had decided to escape, but it was very difficult for me to leave my family, friends and the artists I identified with.
TSS: What was the attitude of western authorities then to people leaving Czechoslovakia?
EL: Very good. The Americans immediately gave me the chance to be a permanent resident. I'm very thankful for this.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): How difficult was it for you to leave Czechoslovakia in 1984?

Elena Letňanová (EL): It took me many years. I had decided to escape, but it was very difficult for me to leave my family, friends and the artists I identified with.


TSS: What was the attitude of western authorities then to people leaving Czechoslovakia?

EL: Very good. The Americans immediately gave me the chance to be a permanent resident. I'm very thankful for this.


TSS: How difficult was it for you to adjust to life in Texas?

EL: The first year was quite difficult, but I was absolutely enraptured by the freedom, hearing people on the radio freely expressing their opinions. In my country, you would have gone to prison for that. And people helped me a lot - they gave me new clothes, my first furniture, my first type-writer, TV and piano. And they told me the truth! I no longer felt tricked and betrayed. In our country at that time, during totalitarianism, I had been used to hearing only 'no, no, no'; suddenly it was all 'yes, yes, yes.'


TSS: What parts of Slovak culture did you miss?

EL: I actually didn't miss Slovak culture at all. I was surrounded by a new culture, and I was eager to get to know it. However, I still felt emotionally tied to my family and friends, to our artists. I returned home because they represented the values I had been attached to all my life. And although I practised the ways of the new culture, I always carried the baggage of our culture with me, no matter where I went.


TSS: How did American culture appeal to you when you arrived?

EL: American culture seemed to me to be on the verge of kitsch. Works produced by US artists were so hyper-realistic to me, I couldn't derive any aesthetic satisfaction from them, although I did experience the psychological satisfaction of being shocked. American culture often seems rough to me, and I struggle to separate good composers from total kitsch. Their culture is too young. They have no cultural history, while we are proud here of our Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art. But I am amazed at how much they were able to build in the desert, like in Arizona, where big cities now stand among the sand and the bushes.


TSS: How difficult was it for you personally to be in a foreign country and watch the wall come down?

EL: When I saw on TV that Communism was really falling apart, when I saw the demonstrations, I couldn't believe it. The people had had enough of Communism! I so much wanted to be there and help. But I had to fulfil my contract with the school, and I taught there till 1992.


TSS: When you came back to Slovakia, what had changed about the country you grew up in? How did you feel about these changes?

EL: I was euphoric when I came home. Spending so many years in America, I had seen new scientific discoveries being made, things I never would have been able to see if Communism had prevailed. I was very happy to see that these discoveries had finally found their way to us as well. I could see how backward we were in this field when I returned, but also, fortunately, how strong we were in culture.


TSS: Having lived in a democracy, did you find yourself responding any differently to issues than Slovaks who had lived here their entire lives?

EL: I felt different. It seemed to me as if the beautiful life I had lived in America, which had enabled me to realise all my dreams, would protect me for another decade. Even though I couldn't find work in my field.

For the first two years, there was this euphoria left over from the fall of Communism, but then things returned to their old tracks, with the leading places kept by the old communists. I could also see that many people still used old communist thinking.


TSS: The Slovak community in North America tends to be more nationalist, more fiercely proud of Slovakia, than Slovaks themselves. How would you explain this?

EL: Because they are separated from Slovakia for ever. They were born in Slovakia, and they want to have an ideal picture of their country in their minds, a picture taken some 30 years ago when they left. But it was a different Slovakia at that time. It's all emotions and homesickness. Expatriate Slovaks are nationalistic - they are trying to protect their 'old mother Slovakia'.


TSS: Was it so in your case?

EL: No, no. I was always homesick for my family, and I've always known that my country was beautiful, but I could easily have exchanged it for Colorado. I like change.

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