Close to 90 Volhynian Czechs make dramatic escape to their old homeland
After several days of tense silence regarding the fate of Volhynian Czechs living close to a military facility being bombed by the Russians, the Czech authorities announced on Tuesday that a rescue operation had successfully brought 88 Volhynian Czechs, including 46 children, out of the country.
Although there are around 6,000 people with Czech roots living in Ukraine today, the community settled in the Volhynia region, dating back to 1863, was in the gravest danger due to the close proximity of a military facility that was a primary Russian target. The Czech authorities organized a rescue operation sending out busses with a special police unit for the close to 90 Volhynian Czechs who fled their homes in Zhytomir and Malynovka even as the Russians started bombing the facility. Their progress to the border was slow due to the fact that they were literally moving through a war zone and it was not clear where they could be picked up by the buses trying to get to them.
The governor of Central Bohemia, Petra Pecková, who was engaged in coordinating the effort, was close to tears when she announced that the group was safe and on its way to the Czech Republic.
“I have just received confirmation that the group of Volhynian Czechs from Zhytomir, Malynovka and several other villages have been successfully evacuated. It was a dangerous and highly demanding operation that took two days and I want to say how grateful I am to the interior minister and above all to the police officers and bus drivers for undertaking it. And I want to thank the Volhynian Czechs for having the courage to escape from their homes in an area that was being bombed because of the military facility close by. I have just been alerted to the fact that the busses have safely crossed the Hungarian border and I am immensely happy.”
Czechs first migrated to Ukraine in the second half of the 19th century. Between 1868 and 1880 close to 16,000 Czechs left Austria-Hungary for the Russian Empire in search of better living conditions in the Russian realm, where there was plenty of unused agricultural land.
The bulk of the migrating Czechs settled in the region of Volhynia setting up villages and giving them names with the prefix "Czech" (České Noviny, Český Malín, Český Boratín, Český Straklov). Others settled in the western and southern parts of the country, establishing expat associations and keeping their language and traditions alive.
They stayed there throughout the 20th century living through Nazi persecution, famine, but above all Stalinist repressions. Some returned after WWII, others packed their bags after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster fearing for their children’s safety. And, most recently –in 2015 – around 200 of them made use of a government sponsored repatriation program for ethnic Czechs. Around 6,000 people with Czech roots remain in the country. What their fate will be in the present day remains unclear.