In the late fall of 2022, the Park District of Forest Park demolished several properties at 7400-7412 Harrison St. The former Pines Restaurant and Oak Leaf Lounge had been vacant for years, but the other business, the Forest Park Foreign Car Repair shop, 7400 Harrison St., kept going until last September.
The business operated on a month-to-month lease, and owner Vladimir Rejman decided to retire rather than try to pick up the pieces. And after he passed away suddenly earlier this month, his son, Eric Rejman, reached out to the Review. He said that, while what the park district ultimately does with the site is out of his hands, he wanted to do his best to ensure his father wasn’t forgotten.
“What I’m really…” Rejman paused to collect his thoughts. “There’s a story,because my dad, like many other people, like any other refugees, really, came to America and fulfilled the American Dream. He made sacrifices to serve the community and provide the solutions to our community, fixed people’s problems that they had, so they could have operating cars.”
He said he wanted his father to be remembered not just as a hard worker, not just as a business owner, but as a member of a vanishing Czech community in the western suburbs. And while his parents shied away from discussing politics, Rejman sees a parallel between his father’s story and current events. Once again, Russian tanks are invading a Slavic country that tried to walk its own path, sending refugees like his father out across the world.
Vladimir Rejman was born in 1950 in Prague, then the capital of Czechoslovakia. By that point, the country was run by a socialist government backed by the Soviet Union. But in January 1968, a more reform-minded government led by Alexander Dubcek came to power. The new government relaxed cultural censorship and repressions against non-Communist organizations and tried to move the economy away from the centralized planning model.
But the government ultimately lasted only a few months. On Aug. 20, 1968, the Soviet Union and some of the Warsaw Pact nations invaded Czechoslovakia. Rejman was among the thousands of people who fled.
Eric Rejman said his father spent a few years in a kibbutz in Israel before coming to the United States. Like current-day Ukrainian refugees, he benefited from a political asylum program that helped him get a home and find a job. The elder Rejman moved to the Chicago area in 1972 and met his future wife in Berwyn a year later.
He began working at the Foreign Car Repair Shop in 1978, eventually becoming an owner.
Eric Rejman said he was proud of the fact that his father was able to build a life from scratch in a new country. He reflected that his father’s success allowed him and his brother, also named Vladimir, to be the first people in their family to go to college. He thought that a big part of his success was that his father went above and beyond for his customers.
“He was a very distinguished mechanic. He was an honest man,” he said. “That’s why the customers returned to him — because they trusted him.”
In 2007, Tony Kaldis purchased the properties on 7400-7412 Harrison St. for a mixed-use development that ultimately didn’t pan out, and the shop kept operating under a lease. Eric Rejman said he didn’t know why his father agreed to the arrangement. By the time the park district set out to buy the land, the shop was operating on a month-to-month lease.
Jackie Iovinelli, park district executive director, previously indicated that the elder Rejman asked for multiple extensions to give him time to move to another location. Eric Rejman said he wasn’t privy to those conversations, so he couldn’t comment on his father’s side of the story. Whatever the case, the park district ultimately declined to extend the lease beyond Sept. 30, 2022.
“The park district doesn’t have a plan for that property yet,” Eric Rejman said. “It’s kind of disappointing that they didn’t allow him to operate his business.”
He said that his brother found work at H & R Auto & Towing which is located right behind the site, at 805 Hannah Ave., but his father decided to retire for good.
“That guy, at the age of 72, was working harder than anyone,” Eric Rejman said.
He said his father remained active to the end. While Rejman didn’t go into detail about exactly what happened, he said May 8 started out like any other day.
“That morning, he made breakfast and coffee for my mother, they kissed goodbye, he went to [H&R],” Rejman said. “My father lived his life to the fullest all the way until the freaking end. No one ever saw him suffer. He just lived his life until the very end, that was very important, it was magical.”
He said that, even before his father’s passing, he wanted to create some kind of a memorial marker to Forest Park Foreign Cars, because it was a prominent Forest Park business and because it was one of the examples of presence of people from the Bohemian region in the western suburbs.
“We’re losing our restaurants left and right — Czech Plaza [Restaurant] in Berwyn, Klas [restaurant] Cicero, and our identity is dwindling,” Rejman said. “People like my dad’s generation — their kids aren’t taking over their businesses, they aren’t taking over their restaurants and their bakeries. I think it’s important for us to hold on to history in our area.”
His father’s passing made him even more determined.
“I wanted to create a call for action, to ask the Park District of Forest Park to have a modest memorial, to at least create a plaque, or plant a native garden,” Rejman said. “Me and my family, [we’]re asking to memorialize part of our community, part of history that would just fade into… it will be forgotten.”