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Downtown Austin Stories – Vera Stanek

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If you’ve come to our Urban Core Happy Hours, you’ve no doubt seen Spring resident and DANA member Vera Stanek, with a sunny smile that lights up a room with a disposition to match – she’s a neighbor that’s great to know!

But, even though you may have chatted over a glass of wine with Vera, you may not know her truly interesting story.  We asked Vera to tell us about her past so that we could share her amazing life!

Read a teaser about Vera’s inspiring journey below:

When I came to the U.S. in January 1999, I was surprised with the attitude of people in Texas toward me. Everyone immediately wanted to know where I was from, why I came to the U.S., and what was my life story.

I started to make friends, which improved my ability to communicate in English.

I came to Texas with only a basic knowledge of the English language, but I wanted very much to talk and share stories, meet people, cook for them and have a good time. So it did not take long before I came up with the idea of writing a book.

I started writing about the sequence of events that have shaped me for 60 years of my life.

Having been born in the former Czechoslovakia shortly before WW II gave me the opportunity to describe the terror of the war I experienced as a child. From living in fear of the Nazis to a bomb that did not explode and let us live, to the first feeling of freedom after the Russian Army swept the Germans away.

But the freedom lasted only for three years.

Communists took over the government in a coup and a different kind of terror followed. This time it was people of the same nation who decided others’ fate.

There were only two choices: accepting the new system regardless of political and moral beliefs, or rebelling against it. My father chose the latter, and so we suffered. He moved from one job to another, which always seemed worse than the previous one. I had problems being accepted to the high school and later university of my choice. At the end, I found one university that was willing to take me as a student, because the subject was not very popular in those times and not too many young people were interested in it. I became electrical engineer.

After I met my husband Frank, our unhappiness with living “behind the iron curtain” eventually led to a desperate decision. We decided to escape, along with our four-year-old daughter Eva.

We planned a trip to West Germany with the intention of not coming back. With a valid permission to travel abroad, we made it as far as the border, but were stopped, interrogated, and sent back. Why?

My own sister signed a written statement to the Secret Police about our plans; she was the only person we had confided in.

Shortly thereafter, we were sentenced and received probations. Our passports were confiscated with a warning that we would never be allowed to travel to any West European country together.

Life went on, but we did not forget our dreams.

It took us another 16 years until we were able to escape in 1983, this time to Switzerland. We went to visit our daughter, who had become a young woman and married a Swiss man. Even though we were not supposed to travel abroad as a family, we were able to obtain all the necessary papers for both of us and our son David.

After the border gate between Czechoslovakia and Germany opened, and we finally crossed into Germany, we stopped in a small forest near the road – and cried and hugged each other.

We had made it!

We had $50 in our pockets, a 20-year-old car, and two suitcases with summer clothing. We started working our way up in Swiss factories until we were able to stand on our own feet.

Life got better. The only disadvantage about living in Switzerland was the attitude of Swiss people toward foreigners. In the 14 years we lived there, we were never able to make any local friends.

Then we received an opportunity of a lifetime to go live and work to Beijing, to China. We spent one unforgettable year experiencing a completely different, exotic culture.

With the assignment in China completed, we applied for the green card to come to U.S. Our daughter had in the meantime become an American citizen and was able to sponsor us.

Why the U.S.? During our first visit to the U.S. we visited Disney World in Florida. Standing in line for one of the attractions, we observed all the people around us: there were two girls with fine blonde hair, maybe of Swedish origin and next to them a Mexican family with several children. Behind them was an African-American man with a young girl perched on his shoulders and a large Asian family. All these people were American.

It was the first time we understood what the U.S. means. We wanted to belong somewhere where people would accept us regardless of our origin.

While waiting for the green card, we had to stay outside the U.S. We spent this time traveling, first in Asia – Australia, Bali, Thailand and Singapore – and then Europe. It took 270 days, but then our green card was finally ready.

On January 10, 1999, we landed in Houston as American residents. We moved to Lago Vista which is the end of my book, titled Life for DreamsThe book is available at Amazon.

But that’s not how my story ends. In 2003, we became American citizens. The following year my husband Frank was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I took care of him as he forgot the world around him, the people he loved, and even his own name until he passed away in 2010.

That’s when I sold our house in Lago Vista and moved to  Spring condo.

Your neighbors have stories to share, and being a part of DANA is a great opportunity to meet interesting people like Vera.  We hope to see YOU at the next Urban Core Happy Hour / Annual Meeting in January (details announced soon – keep checking back !

*Are you a downtown resident with an interesting or inspiring life story?  Send it to us at info AT downtownaustin DOT org and we might just include it in our blog!