Gratias Agit recipient on her ties to homeland

Jana Reichová, photo: Ondřej Tomšů

Jana Reichová left Czechoslovakia just weeks after the country’s invasion by Soviet-led troops in 1968 and started a new life in Sydney together with her husband and son. Soon after her arrival in Australia she became involved in work for the Czech and Slovak community. Among other things, she contributed to Czech broadcasts at SBS radio popularising works by exiled authors. Last week, Mrs Reichová received the Gratias Agit Award from the Czech Foreign Ministry for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic abroad.

Jana Reichová,  photo: Ondřej Tomšů
I caught up with her on that occasion to discuss her life in Australia, but she first told me what it was like when the Czech ambassador told her she would receive the award.

“It was a pleasure, of course, but also a bit of a shock. I told the ambassador that I won’t be able to travel to Prague due to my health condition, but my husband said: no, we are going. And I know why.

Two days before this telephone call I got a video from my schoolmate. It was a fantastic video about Prague, and it really caught our hearts. And that’s why my husband immediately said yes.”

You left Czechoslovakia in 1968. How did you come to the conclusion that you no longer wanted to live in this country?

“It was because we had a lot of bad experiences in the family. For instance my father’s brother was in jail in Jáchymov. Once, my auntie got permission to see him. And because the family didn’t want her to go alone, I went along. I will never forget the moment when I saw them together and they couldn’t even touch each other.

“So there were enough bad experiences in the family and we didn’t want our son to grow up in these conditions. And when the Soviet armies came in 1968, we thought: that’s it. We are not going to wait any longer.”

How did you end up in Australia?

“We thought we would be probably spend some time in Austria, but in the end we found that we could apply for a residency permit in certain countries, and my husband decided for Australia. So we went to Australia.”

What was it like when you arrived there? How difficult was it to settle down in a new country?

“I love Australia and I never will be grateful enough that it opened the door for us, but my roots are in the Czech Republic.”

“We were actually lucky, because my husband had a cousin in Sydney. This was really helpful, because we had somebody we could trust. He rented a flat for us and told us he would pay the rent until we got a job.

“So it was nice to have somebody, but we certainly tried to stand our own feet as soon as possible. When I got my first job, my husband almost collapsed, because he didn’t have one.

“Actually first our son went to school, which wasn’t easy for him, because he couldn’t understand the children. So sometimes he came home with blue marks on his body, as children do.

“I got my first job as a housekeeper and cleaner and finally my husband got a job too, and as we improved our English, we eventually found better work.”

What about the Australians? Did they accept you immediately?

“Maybe we were lucky. In the house were we lived, there were about five flats there and all of the people were really nice to us. No one ever treated us as if we didn’t belong there. Luckily we didn’t have that experience.”

Soon after you arrived in Sydney, you became involved in the Czech community. Was it important for you to stay in touch with Czech and Slovaks.

Photo: Ondřej Tomšů
“Very much. Actually, I couldn’t help myself, when I heard someone speaking Czech or Slovak. People started visiting us and our place looked like some club.

“And through those people I met a group of Czech people who made cultural programs for the Czech community and later I managed to work for Czech radio broadcasting.”

How did that happen?

“We were lucky that Australia actually launched its own foreign service, but we had to find our own studio and we had to pay for it. So the community was sending the money to finance the studio.

“Later they opened a state studio, which we could use for free. But we had to have jobs to support our families and the radio was just something we did on the side.”

Were you broadcasting for the Czech community in Sydney or all over Australia?

“At the beginning it was even for Melbourne and Brisbane, but later they opened their own studios in Melbourne, in Adelaide, and even finally in Brisbane.

“But we were still in contact and helping each other and what was important, of course, was that we were getting news from RFE and from Czechs who worked in various media.

“We got in touch with the 68 Publishers, with Josef and Zdena Škvorecký. They came for a visit three times. We were also in touch with Karel Kryl, who came to Australia two or three times. So we had enough contacts with the other people.”

“When the Soviet armies came in 1968, we thought: That’s it. We are not going to wait any longer.”

What do you miss most about the Czech Republic? And do you still miss your homeland?

“Yes, I do and I think I never actually stopped missing it. I have my roots here, I belong here. My home is in Australia. That’s where I have my family, including my great-children and great-great children, but my roots are in this country.

“I love Australia and I never will be grateful enough that it opened the door for us and made us its citizens, but you can never forget your home.”