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The Immigration Story of Libor and Jirina Rostik (Czechoslovak immigrants)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

Culture : 
Country of Origin: 
Port of Arrival: 
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2012.2110.1

Story Text: 

Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada is for Canada what Ellis Island is for United States. One million people entered Canada via Pier 21 between 1928 and 1971. To commemorate this, Pier 21 was named National Historic Site and is maintained as Canada’s Immigration Museum.

There is a Sobey Wall of Honour, which pays tribute to people who braved to come and contribute to the culture of Canada. One of those bricks displays the names of Libor F. Rostik and Irene J. Rostik. It is here where our new lives began and we are proud to leave our names here for our future generations to see.

We came from what was Czechoslovakia and the life was getting better in 1968. The country was experimenting with“Socialism with Human Face” and we started to feel a little more free. I am an electrical engineer, Irene has a technical college and was working as a technical illustrator and draftswoman and our life was good as we were getting ready for our wedding in April.

I was working for a big manufacturing company SKODA in Pilsen (Plzen), which was liberated in 1945 by General Patton’s army. Our company was manufacturing machinery for steel mills and in 1968 I was involved in a project for Yugoslavia, which was financed by the Soviets. I was busy commuting by air between Prague, Moscow and Beograd and thanks to my connections in Moscow, I could see the clouds on the horizon. There were ramblings in Moscow that the Soviets are ready to come to“help” us to make sure that we follow the“right way” of Stalinist socialism

We were married in April and we felt on top of the world. We had all young people desire. We had a cottage on the lake, motorcycle, good jobs and love for each other and our parents and relatives. It all came to a crushing end in the early morning on august 20th, 1968. Soviet army invaded our Republic, took our government away in a Soviet jail and declared state of emergency.

I have mentioned before that our city was liberated in 1945 by US Army and there was a demarcation line between them and the Soviet one about 30 km east of our city. And there the Soviet invasion stopped in 1968 expecting the USA to move in their 1945 territory. That did not happen and the Soviets came to our city three days later. I was not ready to live in the regime where you had to be always looking over your shoulder and I knew that the situation will be even worse than before, especially for those of us who openly supported the road to freedom. My wife and I decided that we start new life in the West. I was not interested in any European country knowing that we will never belong. I have always felt that the Canadian culture invites immigrants and that it is a country with enormous resources. There was an opportunity for us to reach Canada by air.

My brother-in-law worked as an engineering expert in the Cuban sugar industry and he and his family lived in Havana. We knew from him that to fly to Havana the turbo prop planes of that time had to go Prague, Shannon Ireland, Gander, NF and Havana. And the reverse on return. We arranged with my brother-in-law to invite us for a visit, were lucky to obtain the visa and spent two months in Cuba trying to make sure that we understand the finality of our decision to leaveeverything behind, our culture, our material possessions and most of all our parents and brother and sisters.

The news from our country confirmed our fears, as the situation got worse. Persecutions began, my cousin, who was the General Manager of a radio station in our city was suspended and sent to shovel coal in a power plant and was lucky not to end up in jail as many others did. We made the final decision and we stepped out of our plane in Gander on December 6th, 1968.

We had to look normal when departing Havana and we loaded our suitcases with old newspapers knowing that we will have to leave them on the plane. As we deplaned, we tried to keep back. There was a door to the left leading to the cafeteria and there was a door to the right where the immigration officers sat. We turned right and asked for a political asylum. To our surprise, about thirty other passengers followed us.

We were met with an utmost courtesy and one of the officers offered to retrieve our personal belongings from the plane. As I was filling the paperwork he accompanied my wife to the plane door, asked for the description of our items and came back with our possessions, which consisted of two bottles of Cuban rum, fifty Cuban cigars and a small transistor radio. And we had our valet of riches– ten US dollars!

After being processed, we were transported to the local Holiday Inn and we received vouchers for a next day breakfast. We were told that we would be transferred to Halifax sometime during the next day.

We woke up into a beautiful blue sky day with fresh snow which kept falling all night. Irene decided that she should look even more beautiful and that she needed a hair spray. To this day, I wish I could see the documentary of our trip to the nearest grocery store! We arrived in our summer clothes and I will always remember people honking on two people dressed for tropics wading through the snow, the young lady in high heels. We flew to Halifax later that day and were escorted to the bus, which, after it reached Halifax, started to stop at different hotels. Irene was commenting on the appearance of each and was impressed by a large one close to the sea harbour. She was disappointed when that was not our destination, which was actually right around the corner. We have stopped at Pier 21.

Men to the left, women to the right and I will never forget Irene holding my hand and crying that she will not see me again. We were ushered to austere quarters with bunk beds, which served as a detention centre. Next morning we had to undergo health checks and obtain a medical clearance and we received a schedule for the immigration interviews.

I believed that I have some knowledge of the English language but that was shattered already in Gander where I realized that I will have to learn a lot and quick. I had to see Irene and with my broken Pidgin English I asked the officers to bring me a small table, two chairs and my wife so we can start to learn English. The detention housed many people from many countries and some of them were quite happy to be housed and fed there. My request was apparently considered to motivate others and it was greeted by the officials warmly and my wish was fulfilled immediately. We were happy to be together again at least during the day.

Our immigration interviews started in earnest. I was a thirty five year old professional engineer relatively high on the totem pole in our company; I traveled on business to Poland, Algeria, Yugoslavia and many, many times to Moscow. I was an officer in the army and understood the depth of my interviews. We were told that if we pass and are accepted as political refugees we will be allowed to leave the detention and enter in a government language program. We will have to pass weekly tests and if we pass those we will receive $35.00 weekly allowance. I was very impressed with the knowledge of two interviewers. They came from the Service in Ottawa and they spoke Czech which they perfected during the Second World War while being deployed as parachutists and fought with the Czech partisans. In one week, my deposition was confirmed by their intelligence and received our immigration status. I have kept in touch with the gentlemen from Ottawa and they extended their help to me again later on.

We left Pier 21 on December 12, 1968 and we moved to a rental apartment on Jubilee.

There is a little interesting story concerning our language education. Before we started the school we were given an advice. Learn English and be able to communicate in six months. Learn French and it will take you five years before you can communicate well. However, learn French and a year later you will be fluent. If you learn English you will never speak fluently. We chose English, Irene later added French in Montreal.

We will always remember the help we got from an immigration officer we were assigned to. His name was Peter Kelly and he will always have our gratitude.

The schooling was supposed to last six months. I could not wait that long and three months later, in March of 1969, I was hired by Dominion Engineering Works in Montreal as a Project Engineer and became Manager of Engineering in 1972.

I have mentioned my friends in Ottawa. Dominion Engineering was a major manufacturer of heavy equipment for steel mills. My first job was for Stelco project and it called for me to go with their delegation to Japan. However, I had no passport and my company asked my Ottawa friends for help. They did, and the Canadian Government issued me a Passport for Stateless persons, sanctioned by UN. It served me well until I received my Canadian Citizenship. There was another occasion where I needed help. In the nineteen seventies the Czechoslovak government tried to lure people of interest back. Voluntary or not. There were cases when people were lured to a ship in the Montreal Harbour and were never seen again. We received a visit one day and the visitor claimed to bring greetings from my sister. We were delighted and Irene invited him for a dinner. He came a few more times and he started to show his colors. He started to insist that we return home and his arguments started to be forceful. That was the time when my friends in Ottawa helped again. We received a protection and about 3 months later, we were advised that he was a spy and was apprehended in London, UK. Only much later we learned that he never met my sister.

In 1973, I received an offer from my former boss to join him in a consulting firm in Oshawa, Ontario. It was a sister company to a steel company and my work too, me all over Canada, United States, Ireland, England and continental Europe, Japan, Israel, etc. At the end it took me to Dallas, Texas, where the company had a fifty-fifty ownership in a newly built steel plant. This is still our home now.

I will be forever proud to be the Alumni of Pier 21!

Note: We wil never forget the frienship and kindness of Mr. Peter Kelley, the Immigration Officer who helped us to feel like we are welcome! If you know Peter Kelley or his family please contact us through Ms.Carrie-Ann Smith at library@pier21.ca. Thank you.