Peter Vodenka escaped with his wife and two small children from "Iron Curtain" Czechoslovakia during the Cold War. Peter and family now own a home in Piedmont along Erickson Ranch Road.
He's been on talk radio and on 4-5-11 on SDPB's Dakota Midday interview. Now that the Soviet Union has disbanded, where are we now in terms of Cold War politics and other threats to freedom. Read excerpt
Review of Journey for Freedom: Defection from Communist Czechoslovakia (2010)
Half a lifetime ago, Peter Vodenka was quite literally running for his life. In June 1983, Vodenka (then known as Petr) was 27 and a lifelong resident of Communist Czechoslovakia. For 10 years, he had been working on a way to escape from under the Iron Curtain to the free countries of the West — and he finally had it figured out.
The risk was enormous, however: If he and his 24-year-old wife, Ludmila, were caught, they’d be sentenced to a decade of hard labor, and their young son and daughter would be taken away from them permanently. “It was a full-blown defection,” Vodenka said. “We ran at 2 o’clock in the morning. I was carrying my son in my hands, and my wife was holding our daughter.”
Guards at the Yugoslavian border — where Vodenka had chosen to cross into Austria because it was less well-guarded than Czechoslovakia’s — pursued them through the dark and pouring rain, shining floodlights and firing bullets.
“When we crossed the border, there were woods and really heavy undergrowth,” Vodenka said. “Luckily for us, their lights didn’t penetrate the rain and they couldn’t actually see us, so they stopped.”
From there, the family made it to an Austrian refugee camp, where they applied for political asylum in the United States. An American consul interviewed them and approved them to immigrate, and First Lutheran Church in Beach, N.D., near the Montana border, sponsored the family, lending them $820 in airfare to make the trip.
Now 54, Vodenka has lived in Scandia for the last decade and a half and runs a successful business with his partners at International Fire Protection Corp., a fire-sprinkler installation company. He’s documented his family’s story in a new book, “Journey for Freedom: Defection From Communist Czechoslovakia,” released in March.
Given that he arrived in the U.S. unable to speak English, this latest accomplishment is as impressive as many of Vodenka’s other achievements. He has a history, though, of tackling difficult projects and succeeding — such as finding a job as soon as he and his family got to North Oaks in September of ’83. “I started immediately looking for work, because I can never do nothing for long,” he said. “Everyone was saying, ‘Don’t worry about it, there’s no work right now.’ But I just kept asking everybody. I had the (Czech-to-English) dictionary with me all the time. Seven days later, I started working for the local pig farm.” He continued looking for better and better jobs, putting in his two weeks’ notice every time he got hired elsewhere for a higher wage. He and Ludmila, who changed her name to Lilly, were learning English rapidly, out of necessity.
“It wasn’t easy,” Vodenka said. “But we were learning a lot faster than we would if we were just studying it, because when you have to go to the store and buy food, you don’t have any choice.” Still, his progress wasn’t fast enough to satisfy Vodenka, especially when he entered school in Wahpeton, N.D., to get a plumbing license. He’d attended trade school in Czechoslovakia and worked as a plumber there for three years, and though the work itself wasn’t so different, becoming certified to perform it held certain challenges for a relatively new immigrant.
“I got stuck with about seven big fat books which I couldn’t read,” he said. “Suddenly I feared that because of my speaking and reading, I’m gonna be on the bottom of the class. So I started studying — nothing but studying — so much that I memorized the books.” He finished with a nearly perfect grade point average and made the dean’s list.
Other people, of course, have played a huge role in the Vodenka’s journey, and that’s true in the case of the book, as well. Debbie Stewart, the wife of a friend and former coworker, had encouraged Peter for years to put his story in writing. Her return to Minnesota two years ago gave them a chance to start working on the project in January 2008. Vodenka dictated onto audio cassette, and Stewart transcribed his words into book form.
“The story is 50 times better than even I thought it would be,” Stewart said. She said she left much of Vodenka’s slightly idiosyncratic English unaltered when she put it on the page. “I didn’t want to take the heart away, because he’s the heart of the story, and if we change the grammar too much, it really does take that away.” The book was printed — after a search that extended all the way to China — by Forest Lake Printing. Forest Lake is also where his son, Pete, a former Marine, owns a home. His daughter, Patty, lives in Taylors Falls with her own children.
“Those children are the first generation of Americans in my family,” Vodenka said. Besides running his business, he continues to speak to service clubs, churches and other organizations — now offering the book as well — to let people know how important that distinction is.
“When September 11 came, I realized it was my duty to start talking to people,” he said. “Americans born in America don’t understand that not every country is as nice as it is here. I just wanted to help people understand.”
Written by Josh Wimmer for St. Croix Valley Press, 5-6-10, as "Scandia man recounts death-defying 1983 defection in new book"
Read more about Peter Vodenka and researching life behind the Iron Curtain in articles by Dean Muehlberg under "Cold War" sidebar-menu above.