Hage: Freedom rings loud for defector

Peter Vodenka speaks on Sept. 5 at a meeting of the Princeton Rotary Club.

You could here a pin drop in the back room of the K-Bob Cafe last Wednesday.

The members of the Princeton Rotary Club were glued to the man with the thick Czecholslavakian accent.

His message was simple, but clear: We, as Americans take our freedom for granted and we should do more to protect that freedom.

Peter Vodenka knows from first-hand experience what he’s talking about.

In June 1983 a 27-year-old Vodenka, his 24-year-old wife Lilly, their four-year-old daughter and two-year-old son defected from behind the Iron Curtain of Communist rule in Czecholslavakia. After a grueling four day journey the family surfaced in Austria, where they found their way to a refugee camp, and later to America.

But more about that in a minute.

Since Sept. 11, 2001 Vodenka has thought a lot about freedom. As he watched Middle Eastern terrorists strike the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Vodenka thought a lot about freedom — both his and ours.

After the 9-11 tragedy Vodenka felt strongly that Americans needed to be reminded how lucky they were to be free. Living one time under an oppressed government, Vodenka could speak from first hand experience.

And he set out to tell his story. On Wednesday, Sept. 5 he brought his story to the Princeton Rotary Club. It was a startling story that mesmerized the Rotary members for the better part of an hour.

It was a journey that was 10 years in the making — and a journey where the stakes were high.

Had the Vodenkas been captured, Peter and Lilly would have faced 10-year sentences in a prison camp. Their children would have been taken from them and put in institutions. Because being captured would have meant they were political criminals, they would have never seen their children again.

The Vodenkas escape from Czecholslavakia started by planning for a vacation to a resort town in Yugoslavia. But instead of a vacation, the family was seeking freedom.

Peter and Lilly did not tell their families about their plans. They left their families behind, as well as everything they owned.

Thy drove through Czecholslavakia and into Yugoslavia. It was along the border in Yugoslavia that they ditched their car and ran for their lives and their freedom.

On a cold, rainy night the Vodenkas ran for their lives across the border from Yugoslavia and into Austria while being chased by guards with automatic weapons. They ran for freedom and took refuge in a forest. After making their successful escape they spent three months in a refugee camp before coming to America after being sponsored by the First Lutheran Church of Beach, N.D.

The Vodenkas arrived in North Dakota with not much more than the clothes on their backs. They spoke no English. They had no idea how they would survive in this new world of theirs. But Peter and Lilly had dreams.

Peter took work with a pig farmer. He worked for what was then minimum wage — a whole $3.35 an hour.

But nearly 30 years later, the Vodenkas are examples of how dreams come true.

Today Peter and Lilly live in Scandia, near Forest Lake. Peter owns a successful construction company. Lilly works for Fairview Healthcare. Their daughter graduated from college and works in graphic design and their son joined the U.S. Marines and fought to protect freedoms while in Baghdad.

Peter says that as a boy he dreamed about freedom. Later in life he risked the lives of his family to obtain it.

And two days ago, on Wednesday, Sept. 11, Vodenka joined Americans on the anniversary of one of our greatest tragedies and was able to call the American flag “his” flag. He has lived the ultimate version of the American dream.


Jeff Hage is the editor of the Princeton Union-Eagle. Reach him by email at [email protected]