After 37 Years of Separation, Czech Mates Stephen and Zdenka Are Married at Last
Stephen Klemish, 66, a semiretired carpenter, awoke at 4 a.m., his usual time, in his house in the little town of Is-lip, Long Island. October 25th was just another Saturday in a procession of perfectly ordinary days. He fixed a light breakfast for himself and his late wife's friend Carolina Williams, 77, a disabled woman whom he cares for in his home.
After his usual roll and coffee, he drove to nearby Sayville to help his friend Jeff Schaum construct a cathedral ceiling. Around 11:30 they were interrupted by a call. Someone, a relative maybe, from the old country—Czechoslovakia—had shown up unexpectedly at Klemish's front door.
Klemish picked up the phone and heard a voice that, for almost four decades, had spoken to him only in dreams. It was Zdenka Hromadkova, 61, his first love, his true love, the love whom he thought he'd lost forever. Quite suddenly, Stephen Klemish was jolted out of his clockwork routine by a romantic myth from his past.
"I recognized her voice right away," he says. "I could know her in the dark."
The 10-mile drive home was a blur. "I could have gotten 50 tickets the way I went down that highway." He burst into his house and there was Zdenka, the same young girl he had left behind at the Prague airport 37 years ago.
"We met in the kitchen," he says, his voice breaking, "and when I got her in my hands, I just froze. For five minutes I held her. I couldn't even breathe. I couldn't let her loose. It was just like I was back in the past."
Their history is fraught with chance encounters and what can only be regarded as a kind of indestructable constancy. Stephen's family had moved to New York from Czechoslovakia in 1921, when he was an infant. They returned to their homeland in 1939 for what was to have been a vacation, but they were caught up in World War II. The Nazis confiscated their passports.
Stephen and Zdenka first met in 1947 at a firemen's ball in Zhor, a small town in Moravia near the farm on which he was working. Zdenka was a grade school teacher, and he was bewitched. "She was a knockout," he says—dark, lovely, educated, "my type of girl." He asked her to dance and it was, they agree, love at first sight. "She fell into my eyes," he recalls, "and I fell into hers."
After several months of dating they decided to marry and move to America. But Stephen's father, Romuald, who had returned to Long Island, wrote warning that Stephen might have a hard time getting admitted to the United States if he married a Czech citizen. First come to America, become a U.S. citizen, then send for Zdenka, advised Romuald. And so Stephen and Zdenka agreed that they must separate. They lived together for three years while Stephen waited for his U.S. visa. In May 1949, Zdenka said goodbye to her fiancé at the airport in Prague. "She was crying," says Stephen. "I can see it like it's today."
In Islip, Stephen took a construction job and began building the comfortable ranch house in which he still lives. "I wrote Zdenka that I'm building it for us," he says. "If we got married, we were young rabbits, you know, so we would have had a couple of children, and we'd need a place to put them."
But soon after he left Czechoslovakia, a harsh Communist regime took power and hounded Zdenka about her relationship with Stephen. She was driven out of her teaching job, forced to sweep streets and mix mortar. Her applications for a passport were regularly rejected. She wrote Stephen often, sending pictures and drawings, and he wrote her. One day, 11 years after Stephen flew away, she married someone else. "I was married on the 14th of May, the same date Stephen flew out of Prague," she says in her native Czech. "I did that so I would always remember the date he left."
"It was a paper marriage," explains Stephen. Zdenka's husband was a college professor 18 years her senior. She married him to improve her status with the authorities so that she could teach again. Stephen married in 1973. Neither he nor Zdenka had children, and neither wrote the other about their marriages. "We didn't want to hurt each other," Stephen explains.
In 1978, Stephen's wife died. Zdenka's husband died in 1982. It had been a long time since the Czech government had worried about Zdenka's loyalty, and so this fall she was permitted to join a tour of the United States and Canada. Armed with a tiny, frayed Czech-English dictionary (one that Stephen had left with her 37 years earlier) and an old picture of the Islip home Stephen built for the children they never had, she broke away from her tour group, telling the leaders that she was going to visit a friend.
She had not heard from Stephen in several years and did not know if he was alive or dead. Somehow, she made her way by train and cab to Klemish's house at 29 Manitton Court. When Carolina Williams came to the door, Zdenka was unable to explain who she was. She pointed to Stephen's picture on the wall, repeating his name again and again, and finally Carolina, who had heard the saga of Stephen's lost love, caught on.
There was a further tantalizing delay before the lovers could be reunited for good. She returned to the tour group and retrieved her clothing. He consulted his lawyer about immigration law. Twelve days later, on Thursday, Nov. 6, she slipped away from the tour for the last time and took a $110 cab ride back to Islip. On Friday morning, Stephen and Zdenka were married by a Suffolk County judge.
Zdenka, or Jean as she is now called, left three grown stepchildren and a house behind in Czechoslovakia, but none of that seems to bother her. "I didn't feel sorry for leaving anything," she says. "My favorite place is right here."
"God meant us to be together," agrees Stephen. "Our love is forever."
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