It is often said we live in the lucky country, Australia, the land of the opportunity, life style, and freedom. But too often I think it is taken for granted. I’m a proud Australian, but I’m also proud to say I have Czech heritage.
I’m excited, in a weeks’ time I’m off to see friends in Prague and visit my Grandma after 4 years. She lives the country spa town called Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad). The beautiful country that Czech Republic is today, with its picturesque capital city Praha (Prague), is visited by millions of tourists each year. But not that long ago it was a different story, when from 1948 to 1989, the then Czechoslovakia, was a country in military and political control of the Communist Regime.
I thought I would share my parent’s experience on how and why they decided to leave the country of their roots, their families and friends, and call Australia home.
My parents were 19 years of age when the Russians invaded the then Czechoslovakia, which they remember like it was yesterday, but only really share their insight after a few shandies. After the invasion there wasn’t really any violence, however the communists wanted to dictate what people could do in terms of work, education, and even to the extend if someone spoke badly about the party they could end up in jail and many did.
Unlike in Australia, my parents were faced with restricted employment options. My Dad worked at the Forestry Research Institute as a climatologist and was studying his PhD. However unless he joined the Communist Party, he was denied the opportunity to complete his studies. The Communists wanted to dictate what he could learn and how. My Mum worked as a sociologist and she lost her job because she wouldn’t be part of the Communist Party either. They also had my brother think about, but they didn’t see a good future ahead. They were concerned about his education, and in particular being subjected to the Communist doctrine.
In 1981, at the age of 33, and my brother 7, having lost hope in a future in their home land, they decided to escape the Communist regime for a better life. It was done by being granted to be able to leave the country and go on a “holiday” to Yugoslavia. My brother at the time thought it was great, holiday to another country, yet he knew nothing of what was to be. Nor did my parents family, relatives or friends. If word had got out they were planning to escape they would have been locked up in jail. Hearing my Mum explaining how she wrote a letter to her parents and asked her friend to give it to them on a specific date, at which point they would be out of the country, really hit me. I find it impossible to imagine writing a letter to my parents saying good bye, telling them I’m leaving for another country, not knowing if I would ever see them again.With their bags packed for a 2 week holiday, leaving all personal mementos behind, they set off. It was important that they gave no clue they weren’t returning, as crossing the border into Hungary, their car and suitcases were inspected, and if caught would have been jailed.
Entering into Austria which was under the UNESCO treaty, they were treated as refugees and were granted political asylum and provided with accommodation. In wanting to go as far away as possible from Europe, know little about Australia but from a distance looking big and friendly, it is here they applied migration to Australia. After several interviews and 6 months living in Austria, the Australian Government accepted their application and organised flights to Melbourne.
For my brother it was really just one big holiday who at the time was reading the novel, Robinson Crusoe. My parents never mentioned about not going back to Czechoslovakia, rather they were thinking about the future, and positioned it as wanting to explore another country.
Upon arriving in Melbourne on 13th January 1982 with their bare essentials, they were provided with accommodation, meal vouchers, and access to English language classes (even though their English was quite well established). From here, they began their new life, eventually working in their chosen professions, being valuable contributors’ to society, building and creating a life which I am very fortunate to have been able to experience.
I mentioned earlier my parents did not know when they would see their family and friends again. They assumed they would never see them again. Leaving Czechoslovakia meant they were sentenced in absence, and returning would have seen them sent to jail. However, in 1989, known as the “Velvet Revolution” the communists were overruled in a peaceful revolution. In 1990, after 9 years, it was the first opportunity for my parents to be reunited with their families.
I love my family, the risks they took has meant I have been very fortunate to be brought up in Australia, ‘the lucky country’. A country where we can moan about laws and regulations or our high taxes, but really, we are very fortunate and should not take for granted what we have. That said, I do recommend visiting Czech Republic and Prague, it’s a beautiful city full of history and culture.
Ps. Thank you Mum and Dad for letting me share your story.