February 4, 1965
Marica Vilcek, Cofounder, The Vilcek Foundation
All immigrant stories have similar threads, yet each is woven in a different pattern, creating a distinct fabric. In my case, those threads have sometimes clashed, have seemed at odds in my mind's eye - and I often wonder if this is because I have coped with the immigration experience through rejection, rejection of certain aspects of my past. But perhaps that, too, is a common thread among immigrants, for must we not turn our backs on our pasts, as least to some degree, if we are to fully face the future we have chosen?
By the time I left Czechoslovakia, rejection of life there did not seem difficult. Continuous political upheavals had already destroyed a long-established society; social contacts had crumbled in its wake, and life had become increasingly difficult. The members of my family had grown apart, too - increasingly after my mother died. My older brother had moved away, first to France and later the United States; my younger brother was sent to work in a salt mine, a horrible experience I still can't bear to think about. So I was not leaving a supportive family structure or a network of close friends, and I had no feelings of national belonging. Leaving became synonymous with hope, inexplicable and unsure, and oh so alluring. But, as I was soon to discover, rejection is not simply a matter of walking away.
In retrospect, I think my awareness that my new life would raise new problems, even as it silenced old ones, emerged the first time I saw in front of me the Manhattan skyline, gleaming in the light of that sunny February afternoon in 1965. There it was, suddenly, a magic floating island of architectural madness, full of promise and opportunities. But it also appeared so fearlessly bold, so aggressive - everything reaching up and up and up - and very different from the low-lying scenes I was familiar with. Could I possibly match its level of energy, adopt its can-do attitude as my own? I was not, by nature, an assertive person, and so it became apparent to me very quickly that I had left my past but it had not left me.
For a time, I seemed to live two lives, night and day. In my sleep, my dreams took me back to the place that had been my home since birth, the landscape inhabited by old friends and family. In the morning, I woke to a different reality, one of dislocation and readjustment. I could not even understand the weather report! How would I ever learn how to live and work in this place?
It would take an act of will, the determination to integrate into my new homeland.
For me, that meant finding a place in the art world. Anywhere else, art history, my profession, would not seem a practical field for an immigrant. But this was New York, a center of the art universe, and within months, I had found my professional home, in one of the brightest stars in that galaxy - the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There I worked for more than three decades, years that were instrumental in shaping not only my professional development but my personal life, as well.
Nevertheless, I find all these years later that the assimilation process continues for me. It did not end when I found I could at last understand the weather report, or when I felt myself to be a respected member of my professional community. Nor was it over when I began to think of myself as an "official" New Yorker, or even after I had become an American citizen. No, my immigrant experience continues to this day, in ways small and large. I still find that, though I love to travel, I am overcome by emotion in airports - feelings are stirred up that I am helpless to quiet. And the words to say things in English still sometimes escape me, or I question my ability to capture the right ones to express myself as I intend. To this day, it takes courage for me to press the Send button, to let go of my emails; I worry whether my grammar is correct - have I used the appropriate article, the proper punctuation?
Yet I am grateful that my experience as an immigrant to this country is ongoing, for it has motivated me to begin my second career with our foundation. I want others to be aware of and inspired by the accomplishments of those who have come to these shores from elsewhere, and have more than "fit in"; they have triumphed.
2019 Vilcek Prizewinners
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