"Children of the storm" - A look at the complex origins of the Czech Republic's Hellenic community
Greece, like many poorer countries, has a huge diaspora of emigrants living and working abroad. It's estimated that over five and a half million people of Greek origin live in other countries around the world. The Czech Republic also has a sizeable Greek community. But while Greeks living in places like the United States and Australia primarily left their homeland in search of work and a better standard of living, most of the Hellenic community here first came to the Czech lands for a very different reason.
Tassula Zissaki-Healey, the chairwoman of the Hellenic society in Prague, explains the historical circumstances behind how the majority of the Czech Republic's Greek community ended up here:
"These are Greeks who came here after the civil war in Greece from 1946 to 1949 following the Second World War. They were mostly on the communist side. After the defeat of the partisans, they ended up in the socialist countries of that time. The Czech Republic didn't just take in partisan fighters. The majority were women, children, and orphans. Most of the children came here. There were 14,000 of them. By the time an amnesty was given in 1974 following the end of the colonels' regime, most of them returned - from most of the countries [of exile], not just from the Czech Republic. So of the 14,000 who came here, 10,000 returned. So our community has now got about 3500 registered Greeks."
Ermioni Spala is one of those Greek refugees still living here. Her father fought and died as a communist partisan during the Greek civil war in the 1940s. As a result, she had to flee to a "friendly" socialist state along with the rest of her family when the communist guerrillas were defeated by government forces in 1949.
Separated from her mother, whom she later found in Tashkent 13 years later, she was just 15 years of age when she first came to what was then Czechoslovakia.
The transition was made easier by the fact that the Czechoslovak authorities made a great effort to help the refugees feel at home here. This included encouraging them to remain in touch with their native culture through special schools and organisations:
"It was supported on all sides. They supported us in every way, including our culture. In school we even had our own Greek choir. So we were really supported as a nation. Even our organisations were supported."
Now, despite having lived here for over 50 years, Ermioni still feels a strong sense of Greek identity. Her homeland, she says, has as big a hold over her as ever:
"It's my native country. I feel like I'm Greek and I'll feel that way until I die. But I will live in the Czech Republic. This is my second country. I will never forget the Czech lands or the former Czechoslovakia. Most of us grew up here. I have a kind of affinity with the Czech nation. I have a positive relationship with Czechs. And I hope they feel positive towards Greeks also."
The Greek and Czech languages mix interchangeably in Prague' s Greek-owned Mythos restaurant, which is a major focal point for the city's Hellenic community. One regular visitor is Ermioni's daughter Androniki. She was born and raised here and is one of a number of second-generation Greeks who have embraced a mixed Czech-Greek identity. So which element of this dual nationality does she feel most strongly?
"I would say that the Greek identity predominates. Because that's the way I was raised from childhood. I was raised to never forget that I was Greek and to be proud of that fact. But because I was born here, studied here and started a family here, I have some Czech characteristics. My identity is a little bit mixed. But the Greek part predominates. I'll live here until I die. I like it here and I have no problems with Czech people, which is borne out by the fact that I married a Czech. So my children are half-Czech and half Greek. But I never forget that I'm Greek. That's simply the way I was brought up."
Although Androniki's children are half-Czech, she says they are deeply aware of their Greek origins. She thinks this sense of Greek identity will ensure that the Hellenic community here will remain strong and dynamic for generations to come.
"One must raise the next generation in a spirit that ensures they are aware of where they're from. That's not to say that we should make them think their Greek identity is more important, but so that they don't forget where we have our roots. I think that will remain, because Greeks generally have strong national feelings."
Despite the relatively positive experiences of people like Ermioni and Androniki, the transportation of thousands of Greek children after the civil war is a still a deeply controversial issue.
There are those who claim that these "children of the storm" as one historian calls them were just simple peasants caught in the political crossfire of a bloody conflict.
Some even say that many of the children's parents were coerced by the communists to send their children to the socialist states for propaganda purposes.
Tassula Zissaki-Healey, who herself was brought up by Greek partisan exiles in Bulgaria, admits that some forced relocations could have occurred in the fog of war. But she claims that the majority of the children were sent willingly by their parents, and that the youngsters benefited enormously as a result:
"I would say that even if people were coerced into that, these children were educated. Imagine me now if I lived in Evros - Evros is the area near Greece - Imagine if I had lived there. My parents were uneducated and illiterate people when they were in Greece. What would have happened to me there? And yet I'm a university lecturer. Sometimes actually, however Greek I may feel, I'm quite happy to have had the chance to study, develop and reach the career and life that I've got. Among my relatives in Greece nobody's got a higher education or any education really. They're still looking after their sheep and cows and things like that."
Anyone wanting to find out more about the Hellenic community in Prague can visit the website for the Czech Society of the Friends of Greece at www.dialogos-kpr.cz