Peter Vodenka, author of Journey For Freedom, captivated an audience of about 20 listeners at the Hazel Mackin Community Library in Roberts on Thursday, Jan. 23, with his riveting tale about escaping a life behind the Iron Curtain.
Vodenka, his wife and two children fled communist Czechoslovakia in June 1983. His book tells of their journey, struggles and finding freedom in the United States.
Vodenka spent 10 years planning their escape. He had wanted to come to the United States ever since he was 17. He craved freedom of speech, freedom of religion and the freedom to choose his own clothes, vehicles, travel destinations and thoughts.
“You could be persecuted for your thoughts,” Vodenka said of living in Czechoslovakia at that time. “We always felt like someone was watching, that someone was listening to us.”
Vodenka said secret police were everywhere, dressed as civilians. They trusted no one with their plans to defect to the United States. It was common for family members, neighbors and friends to be secret police informants.
Vodenka’s family applied with the government to take a camping trip vacation to the Adriatic Sea off the coast of Yugoslavia. They were approved. They led everyone in their lives to believe they were going on an innocent camping trip.
If their true plans had been revealed and they had been caught fleeing, they could have been sentenced to a prison labor camp or had their children taken away by the government, Vodenka said.
The audience at the library listened with rapt attention as Vodenka told of their successful escape in the pouring rain into Austria from Yugoslavia. They were chased by armed guards with dogs, but somehow outran them while toting their 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter.
“With every cell, every breath and every step we took, I was praying,” Vodenka said.
They entered their new life with $600 cash, a few personal documents and a bag of their children’s clothes, plus the clothes they wore, Vodenka said.
After spending three months in Traiskirchen Refugee Camp in Austria, the family was allowed entrance into the United States. First Lutheran Church in Beach, N.D., sponsored the family. They arrived in the United States on Sept. 7, 1983.
None of them spoke English. Vodenka said the house the church provided for them was filled with groceries, many of them canned items. Since they couldn’t read English yet, they often didn’t know what they were opening. He laughed when he told of his wife picking a random can. When she tried to fry the contents in a pan, it didn’t turn out so well. It was pumpkin pie filling, Vodenka said.
Vodenka found work at a local pig farm for $3.35 an hour. Today, he owns a successful construction company and his wife, Lilly, works for a medical facility. Their daughter, Patty, graduated from college with a degree in graphic design and has six children. Their son, Peter, joined the U.S. Marine Corps and was among the first wave of soldiers to march into Baghdad under the American flag.
“Peter (the author) risked everything, including his life, to live in America,” Vodenka’s assistant Debbie Stewart said. “They left the loved ones and everything they worked for behind to be free and have the opportunities America offers. Peter felt the risks and hardships his family endured became more meaningful when his son chose to serve this wonderful country, which made him very proud.”
Vodenka has been speaking to schools, churches, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, veterans, historical societies and many other organizations since 2008. His book was self-published in March 2010, Stewart said. He has sold almost 4,000 copies.
Vodenka said he and his wife still cry when they hear The Star Spangled Banner at sporting events.
“We must not take our freedoms for granted,” Vodenka said. “Many people, even today, do not have them.”
Library director Brenda Hackman invited Vodenka back to speak again in July. A date will be announced.
For more information about the author, visit journeyforfreedom.com.