Around the World and Back Again: The Nearly Unbelievable Life and Times of Alek Kozel
Part I: In which our hero is born in Christopher, Illinois; finds himself “a slave” on a Ukrainian farm; and becomes a master tailor in Czechoslovakia—all before the age of one and twenty . . .
Alek Kozel was born on September 17, 1913 in Christopher, Illinois to Anton and Anna Kozel, both of whom were Ukranian immigrants. Anton’s father was a shoemaker in a small town near Kiev, and he very much wanted Anton to become one, too. Not only did Anton not wish to become a shoemaker like his father, but he was afraid of the impending threat of war hanging over Europe. In haste, then, he asked his sweetheart, Anna, to marry him, and they ran off to America together.
Anton and Anna somehow found their way to the little town of Christopher in southern Illinois, where Anton was able to get a job in a coal mine. Their first baby, a little girl they named Larisa, died at two months of whooping cough. Their next baby was Alek, who, though small, was healthy and lived. In total, they had eight children who lived past infancy—four boys and four girls.
Anton and Anna struggled to make a life in their new country, Anton toiling in the mines and Anna caring for the children. At one point, however, Anna started getting distressing letters from her mother back in the Ukraine, begging them to return. Anna wrote back faithfully, telling her mother that it was not possible to return, but each time she would enclose a little bit of money for her. Not being able to read, Anna’s mother had to rely on neighbors to read her daughter’s letters to her. Years later, Anna discovered that while the neighbors had indeed read her letters to her mother, they had meanwhile kept all the money for themselves.
As time went on, Anna’s mother’s letters grew more and more desperate, and more than once, Anna attempted to persuade Anton to go back to the Ukraine for a long visit. Anton refused, saying that it he could not leave his job in the mine, and tried to instead persuade Anna to take the children on her own and go. Anna was afraid to go alone, however, so the two continued to argue about what to do. Anton, having been badly burned in the mines twice already, finally began to waver a bit and eventually offered Anna an ultimatum of sorts. He would go back to the Ukraine, he said, if Anna would agree to it being a permanent move. If they returned, he said, it would be for good. Anna was not sure she wanted to give up her life in America, but she was so worried about her mother and her family in the Ukraine, that she agreed.
So, in 1920, Anton and Anna packed up their belongings and their six children at the time (two more would later be born in the Ukraine) and went back. Anton decided to try his hand at farming and rented a farm from the Catholic Church for two years until he found a fourteen-acre farm that he could purchase.
This is when young Alek’s life began to take a downward turn. Alek was just six years old when they took up farming in the Ukraine, but being the oldest, he shouldered a lot of work once they got there. Anton had him working from sunup to sundown beside him on the farm and frequently referred to him as “the slave,” even in front of other people, who sometimes commented to Anton that he was working the boy too hard.
Alek says that his father seemed to love all of his children except for him. He believes this is because he was short with blond, curly hair like his mother, while all of the other children were tall and dark like Anton. Regardless of whether this was true or not, Anton worked Alek ceaselessly and was very short tempered with him. Alek says he doesn’t remember much about his father during the time they lived in America, but his mother, Anna, once confided to him that Anton was like a different man after they moved back to the Ukraine. It was as if something had “broken” in his mind, and he was now obsessive, irritable and impatient all of the time. To Alek, as the years passed, it always seemed as though his father had a chip on his shoulder, as if he had something to prove.
Thus, poor Alek was required to work all day beside his father. By the age of only eight or nine, he was also required to go into the forest in the evenings after his daily chores to chop wood, half of which Anton sold for extra money. When he finished chopping wood for the evening, Alek then had to go into the barn to shovel out the manure and put down fresh hay before he was allowed to quit for the night.
Alek remembers that one day when he was just nine, he was so exhausted from the day’s chores that he sat down to rest before going out to do his evening chores. When Anton saw him sitting there idly, he became enraged and grabbed a piece of wood and hit Alek on the head with it. Alek remembers doubling over with the pain, but he managed to stumble out to the barn to continue working, though he couldn’t hear anything in his right ear for the rest of the night. In fact, he had permanent hearing damage in that ear and later in life had several surgeries to try to correct it.
There’s no doubt that Alek had a terrible life on the farm in the Ukraine. No matter how hard he worked, his father still seemed to despise him. He was still small for his age but very strong from all of the manual labor. As time went on, however, he became thinner and thinner and had what he calls “weak bones.” He recalls one winter when he was sent out to lead the bull from one pasture to the next and was having a hard time getting the animal to go through the gate. Anton noticed and came over to chastise him and to show him how to properly do it. Neither of them realized that they were standing on a patch of ice, apparently, and when Anton pulled on the bull, the bull slipped and went down, taking Anton and Alek down as well. Somehow, Alek was trampled underneath Anton, and he ended up with a broken sternum, which healed improperly and still sticks out awkwardly today. He also recalls how he didn’t even have shoes, and if stepped on something and cut himself, he was not allowed to stop working. He would have to wrap his bleeding feet with rags and keep going. Needless to say, he never went to school or learned to read or write.
Finally, in 1928, when he was just shy of 15, Alek decided to run away. Anna, discovering his plan, cried and begged him not to go, but Alek couldn’t take it anymore. “I am a slave,” Alek told her. “I have no father,” and set off one night for Czechoslovakia. At some point along the way, the Red Cross came upon him and gave him a set of clothes: two shirts, one pair of short pants, one pair of long pants, shoes and two stockings.
Once in Czechoslovakia, one of the first people he met was a man by the name of Honza Skalicky, who was a tailor by trade. Mr. Skalicky gave the nearly starving boy he saw before him some food and eventually offered to take him on as an apprentice, to which Alek readily agreed. Because he had never gone to school and because he did not know the language, Mr. Skalicky sent him to a sort of school for two years at night in the winters. Meanwhile, he lived with the tailor and was expected to do odd jobs around the house and tend the garden in exchange for his training as a tailor. After what he had been through at the hands of his father on the farm, however, this was almost like heaven. The tailor’s house was a half-hour walk from the shop, and each morning before he set off on his walk to the shop, he was required to wash himself at the well outside the house, whether it was hot or cold, summer or winter.
Besides learning to sew, one of his duties was to deliver the repaired clothing to the customers, and he was delighted when he got tips. The tailor, however, soon discovered this and confiscated these tips, saying that by rights, he should pocket them to cover the cost of the clothes he provided Alek to wear. Alek declared this to be unfair because the tailor was supposed to provide food and clothes as part of their initial agreement. The tailor was resolute, however, saying that he needed the money to buy buttons and accessories, not included in the deal, and Alek had no choice but to turn over the tips.
Alek was not Mr. Skalicky’s only apprentice. In all, Mr. Skalicky employed three or four apprentices at any one time, all at various stages in their training. They all worked together to make one suit at a time and were able to produce fourteen suits per week this way, which was a lot, Alek says. It took Alek four years to learn enough to become a master tailor “with papers.” Just one month short of his “graduation,” however, an unfortunate incident occurred one day which prevented him from doing so.
On that particular day, Alek walked into the work room and witnessed the tailor screaming at a new apprentice for something he had done and hitting him on the head. Memories flooded Alek’s mind of his own father hitting him on the head with the block of wood, and something “just snapped,” Alek says. He became enraged and picked up a nearby pair of scissors and threatened to kill Mr. Skalicky if he didn’t stop. Apparently terrified, the tailor rushed out of the shop with Alek pursuing him before Alek came to his senses and let Mr. Skalicky go. Horrified by what he had done, however, Alek stayed away from the tailor’s house and shop for over a month before he realized what he needed to do. He was nothing without his “papers,” which he had worked for for over four years. So, gathering his courage, he slunk back to the tailor and apologized. The tailor took him back, and Alek was able to finish his apprenticeship and graduate.
At the time, it was 1932, and Czechoslovakia was in a severe depression. Alek set off trying to find a job as a master tailor, but no jobs were to be found. It was as though he had done all of that work for nothing. He travelled around a bit, looking for work, before he finally went back to see his old master, Mr. Skalicky. The tailor offered him a position in his shop in exchange for room and board only, no money—an offer Alek was insulted by. The conversation between the two became heated, with Alek declaring that he’d rather shovel manure. A neighbor overheard them arguing and told Alek he was a fool not to take the tailor’s offer, but Alek retorted, “Don’t worry, I’ll never come begging at your door!” and left.
As it turned out, Alek did come very close to begging after several months of wandering from town to town in search of work. Eventually he had to eat his words and really did get a job shoveling out the contents of outhouses into a wheelbarrow and spreading it on fields for farmers. He also got jobs cutting grass with a long sickle. He slept in parks and ate whatever rotten fruit he found on the ground under trees.
Eventually, as would be expected, his health began to decline and his hands became covered in blisters. Not being able to work with blisters all over his hands, he decided to seek out a doctor for help. Before the doctor examined him, however, Alek told him that he had no money to pay him. After studying him for a few moments, the doctor said he would treat his hands and charge it to a rich customer of his who wouldn’t know the difference if Alek would agree to cut his long curly blond hair and give it to him. Though this seemed an odd request, Alek agreed, knowing he could always grow his hair back, and so had it cut accordingly in exchange for treatment for his hands. He was also losing his teeth due to his poor diet, so he asked the doctor what he could do about it. The doctor advised him to rub lemons on his gums from time to time, which Alek laughed at—as if he had access to lemons!
Alek then went on his way and continued to sleep in parks until one day he saw an older man pasting up posters in the park. The man asked him where he was living, and when Alek told him he was basically living in the park, the man offered to let him stay at his boarding house. Alek informed him that he didn’t have any money to pay, but the man said not to worry, that he would find him a job. The man’s name was Josef Kratochvil and he lived in a basement apartment of the boarding house, where he spent much of the day smoking tobacco. He had a son and a daughter living in some of the rooms above him. His son, Mr. Kratochvil explained, was apprenticed to a baker, which made sense when Alek eventually met him, as he was very large and was also losing his teeth, both of which Alek put it down to sampling too many of the bakers’ wares.
Being the owner of the building, Mr. Kratochvil offered Alek a place to stay, which Alek accepted, promising to pay as soon as he could. Alek eventually met all the tenants in the building, including a man by the name of Mr. Chvatal on the top floor, who had grown quite wealthy from buying wheat from local farmers and reselling it in Prague. He offered Alek a job sewing patches in wheat sacks where mice had chewed through. It was a messy, dirty job, but Alek readily took it. After only a short time of working for him, Mr. Chvatal was impressed with Alek’s hard work and began to trust him more and more. Eventually, he arranged to have Alek sleep in the office to guard the safe at night and gave him a small raise as compensation for this extra duty.
Things were going along pretty well until one day when Mr. Chvatal left for Prague as usual to sell another load of wheat. Not long after he was gone, Mrs. Chvatal called Alek in from the mill and asked him to come upstairs to help her carry the laundry. Alek obeyed, but when he got upstairs, he found Mrs. Chvatal dressed only in a housecoat. To his dismay, she then untied the belt to reveal her underthings to him. Stunned, Alek quickly told her he wasn’t that type of man and wanted no part of this and then ran out of the house. When Mr. Chvatal returned several days later, his wife, apparently stinging from Alek’s rejection, informed him that Alek had made advances to her and insisted he be fired. Mr. Chvatal seemed reluctant to lose his best worker, but he ultimately listened to his wife and fired Alek. At this point he was just twenty-one years old . . .
Read Part II next week: In which the Germans and then the Russians invade, and our hero finds himself escaping the clutches of many different foes . . .
If you liked this true story about the past, check out Michelle’s historical fiction/mystery series, set in the 1930s in Chicago: