Czech expatriates meet in Prague to swap experiences

Expatriates conference in Prague

A two-day conference for Czech expatriates has just come to a close in Prague. The event attracted dozens of Czechs who left their homeland for a range of different reasons. Some were forced out by an unsympathetic regime, others sought better living conditions abroad, some fell in love. The meeting gave expatriates a chance to share their experiences, as well as defend their interests.

Expatriates conference in Prague
Expatriates came from countries as diverse as Norway, Croatia, Canada and Australia to take part in the conference. This year’s over-arching theme was ‘Czechs and Exile: 1948 and 1968’, which found a particular resonance with Zora Flajšnerová. At 83, Mrs Flajšnerová was perhaps the conference’s oldest participant; she has been living in Britain since the communist putsch in Czechoslovakia in 1948:

“I went in September 1947 for six months or a year, just to improve my English, after February 1948, I decided to stay. I was with a family as an au-pair. Then I returned to London and became part of the Czech community. I went to Sokol, we students went dancing every Saturday evening at the Czech club, and it was there that I met my husband.”

Members of Czech organisations such as Sokol from all around the world compared the ways that their local chapters worked. For Zora Flajšnerová, such an organization was, for a long time, one of the few links she was able to retain with her homeland:

Expatriates conference in Prague
“I was absolutely cut off from Czechoslovakia for 40 years.”

What about the first time you came back to Czechoslovakia after the revolution?

“Well, it was great! It was great, it was unbelievable. I remember I was in New York when I heard about it. I just wanted to jump up to the ceiling, and couldn’t believe the people around me who were more interested in the football results than in a liberated Czechoslovakia!”

The conference may have focused upon the anniversaries of 1948 and 1968, but those returning to Prague for the event emigrated at all sorts of different times, and for all sorts of different reasons. Ika de Detrich, who now works as a journalist, came from Australia to attend the conference:

“I migrated in 1984, but I officially asked for the right to migrate, I didn’t escape as the majority of people perhaps here at the conference did. I really wanted to go through official channels, which proved to be quite difficult. It took me almost two years to get out, and without the intervention of the Australian government, I would never have been able to leave the country, perhaps not until 1989.”

Ika de Detrich
When you went to Australia, did you find what you wanted there?

“After almost 16 years, I was allowed in January 1983 to visit my brother who had escaped in 1968 after the Russian invasion. And there I met my future husband, we got married and I returned back to Prague to organize my stuff. We had suffered - myself and my other brother - because of this brother’s escape, and so I didn’t want to do this to my brother in the same way. So I asked officially to migrate and join my husband in Australia, but then the Communist government said no – that it was not in the interest of the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic for me to leave.”

In what way did you and your brother suffer because you had this brother in Australia?

Milan Kocourek
“During my studies – I was a student at Charles University here in Prague, I studied languages – I could never travel even to Cuba, despite the fact that I was best at Spanish. There were many sorts of restrictions, I know that sometimes I was followed, and especially after my marriage to my husband in Sydney, my phone was bugged and I had to leave my work and everything and work as a cleaner. So there were quite a few things.”

One of the topics discussed at the meeting was the attitude of Czechs living in this country towards their fellow countrymen who left. Milan Kocourek, who spoke at the conference, sums up what, he thinks, is the problem:

“Still I think the relationship between Czechs here and abroad is not very good at all. Even in the papers here, you still find attacks on émigrés. I think that Poles, for instance, have much better relations between citizens living in Poland and those abroad than we do. I think there is still this sort of suspicion here of those who live abroad. It is sad, because after all we are only a small nation, and we still aren’t very friendly to each other - those who live here and abroad.”

In the two days which the conference spanned, topics as diverse as expatriate periodicals and the legal rights of Czechs abroad were discussed. Emigrés were given a chance to reflect upon the historic events which forced them to leave the country, and meet others who had shared a similar experience. And stories of Czechs from the furthest reaches of the globe converged in Prague, if just for a short while before they all went their separate ways again.

Photo: Martina Stejskalová