Expatriate conference brings Czechs together from all over the world

Photo: Martina Stejskalová

Czech expatriates from as far afield as Australia and the United States have been meeting in Prague this week for a conference called ‘Czechs and Exile: 1948 and 1968’. Those present have been remembering the historic events that prompted them to leave the country, as well as comparing notes on Czech expatriate organizations in their different regions. Milan Kocourek is one of the people speaking at the conference. He has lived in Britain for the last 40 years, where he has worked for both the BBC and, today, Czech Radio. I met Mr Kocourek at the conference, and asked him why he left the country:

“It was in 1969, in autumn, when I left with my then girlfriend, now wife. We went to stay only for one year in Dundee, where I was supposed to study English and economics at the university, which I did. When we left, it was still easy for us to go because there was still freedom of travel, surprisingly enough, one year after the invasion – but within a month we were asked to come back, because all the rules changed, and suddenly freedom of travel was abolished. So, I was there for one year to start with, but I stayed on and graduated there, because there was a very nice vice-chancellor who actually waived my fees. He had my foreign student’s fees paid for me. And it was very nice that I could stay without actually paying to be a full-time student. So we stayed there for three years, and then we moved down to England.”

Just out of interest, how was your time in Dundee? What did you make of the city?

Milan Kocourek,  photo: Martina Stejskalová
“It was very nice indeed, but I must say, it was in Dundee where, for the first time in my life, I saw poverty as such. There was a fairly large amount of poor people, there was very high unemployment, and I must say I never saw so much poverty before. And there was also moral poverty. My wife, for instance worked in the Timex factory with ladies who were during the day working making watches, and in the evening quite a few of these girls went to work on the streets as prostitutes. And that was something which shocked me and my wife, of course. I never saw that sort of thing before.

“And not only that, it was often their own husbands who were taking them there to work. It was moral corruption to me - it was moral meltdown really. I’ve never seen anything like it before, or since actually.”

Did you find it difficult to retain links with Czechoslovakia, and have your ties with this country strengthened since the Velvet Revolution?

Photo: Martina Stejskalová
“Yes indeed. I mean, I always kept in touch of course with my family. My brother in Liberec was the only person who was, in a way, disadvantaged by my stay because he could not work in foreign trade, which he had studied at Prague School of Economics. When he came back to his previous company after graduation, he couldn’t get a passport to work in foreign trade because of me (I was working for BBC radio at that time). So it was actually my brother who was the one who was persecuted – he had to find another job. But otherwise, I was keeping in contact all the time, and I actually started traveling back here even before the end of Communism, because I applied for a visa and I got it. And after 1989 and the November Revolution, we traveled back more and more to this country, so yes we love coming here now, very much so.”