Beseda Volnost: bringing Czech expatriates in Belgium together for over a century


The Czech expatriate organization Beseda Volnost was founded in the Brussels pub of a Mr Antonín Trojan in 1904. Its membership has grown some from the original 29 Czechs who signed up to pay their half-a-franc yearly fee back then, but the club’s mission remains more or less the same. Over the past century, Beseda has provided Czechs living in Belgium with a means of keeping their culture alive, and has raised funds for a number of good causes such as the Prague floods in 2002.

Alena Gilbert  (right) and Olga Schmalzried with the Gratias Agit award and Cyril Svoboda
On a recent trip to Brussels I met two of the expatriates most active in Beseda Volnost. One of the club’s longest-serving committee members is Alena Gilbert. She moved to Belgium nearly a quarter of a century ago, to live with her Belgian husband:

“It is a little bit of a long story. We were working together, we were both business people. I was selling steel, Czech steel, and he was buying our steel. And one day it happened that he asked me to marry him, and I said yes. But it was still in the days of communism, so it was not so easy. It took me one year to get a permit to come here, because I didn’t want to leave Czechoslovakia illegally. We were married in Prague and then he returned here but I couldn’t because I still didn’t have the papers. But after one year I followed him and so since 1984, I have been living here in Belgium.”

Anita Březinová
Anita Březinová is the president of Beseda – she too settled in Belgium because of a significant other:

“In 1990 I was working for a firm which sent me here to set up a subsidiary of this company which they then wanted to move to the Czech Republic. So I came here with my daughter who was very little at the time, and it was here I met my future husband. We said at the time, ‘let’s spend three months living together and see’. And what was originally supposed to be three months has turned into 20 years!”

Alena Gilbert didn’t become involved in Beseda straight away upon arrival in Brussels, but in the late 1980s, just before the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe:

“Because many of the people in Brussels had left Czechoslovakia unofficially, the door to Czechoslovakia was very firmly closed to them. So at these meetings, there were these people who could not travel to Czechoslovakia. They came to these meetings to listen. And members of the embassy came to these meetings and told us some very important things about what was going on in Czechoslovakia – but this was official information. But otherwise, for instance, I could travel any time I wanted to Czechoslovakia, and so each time I came back I told people all the gossip and so on. And it was very nice; these people were very friendly and interested in working together in such a club.”

“It was memories, memories, memories. Everyone wanted to know about Czechoslovakia which was very dear to them, but unfortunately because of the political system, they just could not go there.”

At Beseda in the 1980s people like Alena, who had gone through all the government channels to get a visa to live abroad, and even government officials from the Czech Embassy in Brussels, mixed with those who had fled the country and had their citizenship revoked in 1968. With all of its members having very different personal backgrounds, were there not conflicts in Beseda?

“It was strictly prohibited to talk about politics. And this helped a lot. Because all of us have different political opinions and if we started defending our views then it would be bad, there would be a fight. So it was prohibited, and to this day, we are an apolitical club.”

Discussing the situation in Czechoslovakia was one of the activities favoured by Beseda members, but it was by no means the only thing that those assembled did:

“During these meetings it was not only talking. We were also listening to music. We had a gramophone because it was in the olden days and there were no CDs like there are today. And we were singing also together. It was really nice. Today, maybe people wouldn’t understand it, but then it was necessary, and everybody was very happy with it.”

Alena Gilbert remembers fondly another highlight of Beseda’s yearly cultural calendar:

“We had two balls. They were called balls, but you didn’t have to wear long dresses or anything, still, people came nicely dressed. And there were usually Czech musicians who came from Czechoslovakia, and this was very nice. And Czechs would often invite along Belgians, so this was a mix of nationalities.”

But now, after the fall of the Iron Curtain, and when Belgian Czechs can travel freely back to their land of origin, does an expat organisation such as Beseda still have a purpose? Yes, absolutely, says President Anita Březinová:

“I think that right now our organization - and indeed all Czech expat organizations have a real importance. Because, of course, people can travel home easily and do have the internet and so on. But they want to maintain their identity. They want to sing Czech songs, speak to fellow Czechs; they want to meet their friends, exchange experiences. They can swap tips on finding jobs here, they can discuss how this or that aspect of life in Belgium works. And so that is the role of our organization.”

In fact, according to Anita Březinová, Beseda Volnost finds itself in the unusual position of having an ever larger group of people who are interested in the organisation’s activities:

“The organisation has grown, of course, because there are more and more Czechs here. They are working for European institutions, they are working in Antwerp, they are studying in Ghent. You just meet Czechs everywhere here now, you can’t go out in Antwerp without hearing Czech spoken. But actually, the number of people who are members of our club has fallen slightly. Because the younger generations come to all of our events but don’t necessarily want to join up and pay a membership fee. So actually, it is a bit of a problem that a great number of people come to our events, but our membership figures remain more or less the same.”

Alena Gilbert said that in the past Beseda organized events such as balls and musical evenings. But what about nowadays? What sort of events does Anita Březinová put on?

“Right now, because it is the Czech presidency of the European Union, and there are so many cultural activities on in Brussels to mark the presidency, we have actually stopped a lot of our events, because the Czechs here are just so busy that they don’t have the time and no one would come to our events. We are focusing right now on our web page. But in September we’ll get back to the usual programme and things will revert to normal.”

Beseda still organizes dances, theatre performances and barbecues for Czechs and Czechophiles in Belgium. To find out more about the organization and upcoming events, go to its website: