April 22, 2010 at 8:34 a.m.
Peter Vodenka knows this for a fact.
In conversation, he'll sometimes ask people what they feel is so "free" about life in America. Not many can answer at any length, he reports. Vodenka, on the other hand, could write a book about it, and he has. Journey For Freedom is his true story of fleeing Communist Czechoslovakia in 1983. It came out last month.
Vodenka, who eventually raised his family in the Scandia area, has a local fire sprinkler company. Lilly, his wife, works for Fairview Homecaring & Hospice in Chisago City. Journey for Freedom is their riveting tale of how they fled their homeland with their son, 2, and daughter who was 4.
Over the last 20-plus years Vodenka has been told many times he ought to write about the experience, and he finally did. The approximately 300 page soft cover book is a publication of Forest Lake Press. It is a fascinating read of fleeing on foot across the border (the Vodenka family actually crossed from Yugoslavia into Austria because the Czech-Austria line was too well patrolled.)
Vodenka explains the process of defecting, the refugee experience and finding their way to America sharing intimate recollections that let the reader into his state-of-mind.
This was a once in a lifetime decision to lead his family possibly into harm's way and discard the only life they'd known.
Vodenka talked about his wristwatch in Czechoslovakia and that it was set to U.S.A. time-- it was always several hours ahead of the time zone in 'The Prague' where he worked. This tiny act of rebellion served to remind him of his goal to get to America, or as he puts it, "Whenever I looked at the time I felt closer to America."
When the family finally made its way across the Atlantic Ocean Vodenka was overcome with emotion, gazing at a wall clock in a transit center on the east coast, because his watch matched the time. "I almost wept," he said in our interview. "I was finally where I should be."
Lilly swears she did see tears.
The Vodenka family was adopted by a church congregation in Beach, North Dakota ending two-and-a-half months in the Austrian refugee center. This meant they were on their way to their new life quickly. Some people they met had been in the refugee center for two years.
"The hardest thing" about the defection, Peter continued, was that he and Lilly could not let anyone in on their plan. In the 1980s they were criminals for leaving Czechoslovakia. Their parents and siblings would have been marked, their lives would be made difficult if they'd been in on the defection, Vodenka said.
Of course since the 80's communist rule has disintegrated and the Czech Republic no longer functions. Peter's mother sent them official documents notifying he and Lilly they are no longer criminals and do not face incarceration.
To make this book, Peter explains that he dictated the stories into a recorder and worked with his editor Deborah Stewart, to correct language and phrasing and organize things.
He learned to be a plumber in Czechoslovakia (trade school was his only option under Communism) and continued this after completing plumbing school in Wahpeton, ND. He is still a proud tradesman. But he describes himself as an avid reader. "I know what keeps me interested so I write it that way, with suspense, you know," he explains.
Lilly takes this a step further to paint an image of Peter's intellectual side.
She says when they were delivered by the church folks to their first home in North Dakota, they had two suitcases and two handbags they brought from the homeland.
The satchels contained a change of clothes for the two children and the rest of the space was filled with books. Peter's mother mailed them books while they were in the refugee center. Peter was adamant about retaining something from their culture for the children. The church helpers laughed and laughed when they saw the luggage was stuffed with books, said Lilly.
Peter Vodenka will be available for speaking to groups if you belong to an organization that might want to hear his story.
He's an avid educator on the downfalls of becoming complacent about freedom.
Order books at www.journeyforfreedom.org or contact the publishing house at P.O. Box 1196 Forest Lake, MN 55025-1196. For speaking engagement information call him at 612-518-9309 or e mail is [email protected].