Comic book tells tale of post-1948 Czech emigrés

Photo: Universum publishing

Historians rarely publish comic books, but Martin Nekola is an exception. In cooperation with illustrator Jakub Dušek he has just published a comic book about the fate of Czechs who were forced to flee from their homeland after the 1948 communist coup and who found themselves in a foreign country, torn from their friends and family, having to start anew without a home, job or any kind of security. The comic book, which came out in Czech two weeks ago, is called Do švestek jsme doma or “We’ll be home by the time the plums ripen”, reflecting emigres hopes that the communist regime in Czechoslovakia –and their exile -would be short-lived. I spoke to Martin Nekola about what inspired him to write a comic book on the subject.

Photo: Universum publishing
“I am a historian who has focused primarily on the Czechoslovak exile after 1948 and the life stories of Czechs who had to leave Czechoslovakia and settled in the US, but also in Canada, Australia, New Zealand. I am trying to popularize the topic and lecture on the subject for students and the general public both in the US and here in the Czech Republic. I also try to write a lot of articles and books on the subject, but I realize that the young generation doesn’t read that much anymore. So I thought that a comic book might be a good way of presenting the topic to young readers and attracting more attention to it.”

The story is about a fictitious Czech family called Novak, where did you get inspiration for it –is it the story of one real family or is it a collection of stories that you heard from many people?

“It is a collection of stories that I was told by people over the years. The main character is Cyril Novak, a democrat and journalist who works with Ferdinand Peroutka and has great respect for the Masaryk tradition. After the communist coup in 1948 he decides to leave with his wife and two small children. As I said, the story is fictional but the background is real, because I interviewed lots of people who had the same experience, who had to leave Czechoslovakia in order to avoid communist oppression.

“So the story starts with their escape from Czechoslovakia and then describes the months-long period in displaced persons camps because that is a very important part of life in exile and it is now almost forgotten that refugees had to spend months or even years in camps for displaced persons in Germany or Austria. It was a tough experience for all of them and even when I now interview someone who is 80 or 90 years old they still remember every single detail from the daily life in the camp.”

And where do you lead the story from there?

Martin Nekola,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“Well, these people had to wait a long time to get visas and work permits. And this family – after a lot of trouble – finally got a visa to go to Australia which was very open and welcoming to refugees after WWII. The Australian government at the time wanted to increase the population which was around 7 million in 1945 and they wanted to reach 20 million in less than two decades. European immigrants helped to fulfill this goal and the Australian authorities accepted about 180,000 people between 1945 and 1949, including some 10,000 Czechs and Slovaks. So that is how this family ended up in Australia.”

So the comic book is about their life in Australia?

“In part. Later they moved to the United States, but the first stage of their exile was Australia.”

Comic books tend to be action-packed. There’s a lot of action in what we’ve discussed so far, but do you cover the emotional aspect of being an émigré – foreign country, culture shock, nostalgia…is that all part of it?

“Exactly. You feel homesick, many of these people were close to retirement when they fled and found themselves in a foreign environment, had to learn a foreign language, whole families left and it was tough for the kids as well. Every life-story is unique.”

Is that experience not difficult to share via a comic book?

“Maybe you are right, but I think the illustrator Jakub Dušek did a great job and you can really feel the emotions of the characters.”

Photo: Universum publishing
And the reactions of the different generations to actually settling in a foreign environment, because it would be easier for younger people, right?

“Exactly. We’ll have to wait and see what impression it will make. The book has just been published so we are still waiting for the reaction of the readership.”

Is it intended for Czechs in this country, for them to be able to understand what emigrés went through, or is it for the emigres themselves who would easily relate to it?

“It is mainly for people here, because this phenomenon – the post 1948 exile - is almost forgotten and I feel the need to fill this gap. In primary school and even high school, history books end with 1945 so students get almost no information about the country’s modern history. The teachers do not care about it. If you ask someone to name three or four famous people from the post-48 exile they will recall Ferdinand Peroutka, Pavel Tigrid and that’s it. But there were so many interesting people who were successful after escaping to the West, people who taught at American universities, who were involved in the United Nations etc., and I really feel the need to present their stories.”

Can this experience be shared – unless you have lived through it, through this major trauma, can it be shared?

“I am always deeply affected by the interviews. I am just back from the States where I had the honour of meeting with Mrs. Bundza, the widow of Bohumil Bundza who was a member of the Czechoslovak parliament after the war. She is now 102 years old and very sharp, she still remembers everything that happened on a given day in 1948 so it was amazing to talk to her. I also met Suzan Herben, her father-in-law was Ivan Herben, a very prominent Czechoslovak emigré and an editor at RFE and his father Jan Herben was a close friend of Tomas G. Masaryk. Suzan Herben was born in 1940 and she was a Holocaust survivor. She spent two years in a concentration camp and then the whole family had to leave after 1948. It was hard to believe that these stories are true, but they are.”

Photo: Universum publishing
What were the things that you felt it was absolutely essential to put in the comic book?

“Above all it was the daily life in the camps for displaced people, which I consider very important. It formed these peoples first opinion of the West, because their first steps led behind the fences of these camps. There were two kinds – one under the administration of the International Organization for Refugees –which afforded better living conditions- and then the other camps under German or Austrian administration for people who were not found to be eligible for protection from the IRO, so they were basically left behind and their chances to emigrate somewhere else were much lower. So they had to deal with a lack of food, lack of clothes, lack of medicines, the kids had to attend school in the camp, which was also very hard.”

So it has a relevance to the present day - the story you are telling…

“Exactly, even now hundreds of thousands of people are waiting for something in displaced persons camps or refugee camps and they do not know what their future will be.”

And what were the stories that you had to tell in this family’s new country?

“Well, as I said, Australia was unique in that it welcomed European refugees with open arms. On the other hand they were far from their homeland, they did not speak the language, the culture was different and every refugee who was accepted by Australia had to sign a two-year contract to work where the Australian government sent them. So even doctors and engineers had to start as waiters, cleaners, manual workers in Tasmania or Northern Australia.”

So you describe what it was like coming to terms with that…

Photo: Universum publishing
“That’s right.”

What have the reactions from emigres been to this comic book? Do they tell you, yes, this is authentic, or do they say – you will never be able to tell our story?

“I do not know yet. The book came out just two weeks ago and I am still waiting for their reactions.”

What are you hoping for?

“I hope readers will be satisfied, that they will understand it is a fictitious story, but that the background or the experience presented is authentic. I am hoping to attract younger readers and students, to get them to be more interested in the fate of Czechs and Slovaks who left Czechoslovakia and fought for democracy and freedom for forty years.”