The Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences meets in Plzen

The Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, based in Washington, is the biggest and most influential organization of Czech and Slovak intellectuals living abroad. It has over two thousand members, who meet for conferences and gatherings around the world. What they share is an interest in their homeland, a desire to help their country and, in many cases, a feeling of nostalgia for what they had to leave behind when they fled Czechoslovakia for political reasons.

At present, the Society is holding a week-long conference in the west Bohemian city of Plzen. Over 500 of its members have traveled thousands of miles to visit their homeland, meet family and friends, and attend workshops on the country's history, culture and present day development. The topics covered included Czech literature, architecture, and music as well as hotly debated issues such as the role of the media in the present day Czech Republic or the importance of settling with the country's communist past.

Professor Zdenek Slouka was among those who fled the country in 1948, and he traveled half way around the world before taking up a new life in the United States. He says that despite finding love and professional fulfillment abroad, many of the 1948 exiles lived for the day when they could come home.

"Most of us exiles existed on two levels. One was the emotional level :one day I will go back. The other was much more rational. Especially after 1968 when it seemed that the regime might last for another 30 years. There was no saying how long it could take because much depended on developments in the West as well as in Moscow. So we all lived two lives . Our real life and the one we dreamed about and hoped for. Some day... like the man I mentioned who a special suitcase prepared for the day he could return home. All his hopes were in that suitcase. And he remained an exile until his death."

For those exiles who lived to see the day - the 1989 fall of communism - threw open the doors to their homeland . Milos Halouska recalls how he felt at the time.

"Oh that was a great feeling. I was very, very pleased. Some three or four years before it happened we discussed in the Council of Free Czechoslovakia who the country's future leaders might be and we guessed correctly that Vaclav Havel was the logical leader and we supported him and the circle of dissidents around him as much as we could. "

Do you remember what you were doing when the news broke?

"We were having a meeting of the Council of Free Czechoslovakia in New York and during our session the chairman was called away on a last distance call from Prague and he returned and said " Ladies and gentlemen this may be our last meeting because freedom is returning to Czechoslovakia."

If you'd like to hear more about the thoughts and feelings of the former Czech exiles, tune in to this week's Magazine.