Karel Ulvr on his daring escape from communist Czechoslovakia, his greatest loss and his new life in the free world

Karel Ulvr, photo: archive of Radio Prague

The 1948 communist takeover of Czechoslovakia radically changed people’s lives overnight. Those who refused to accept that change risked their lives to flee the country, leaving behind their families, their home and everything dear to them. One of those who went in search of a better life in the free world was Karel Ulvr – a teenager who ostensibly left home for school but instead undertook a daring flight across the Czech-German border. This week he visited Radio Prague’s studio and talked about a decision that changed his life.

Karel Ulvr,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“Yes, I was seventeen when I first arrived in Australia, back in 1949.”

You were a minor at the time, what made you decide to flee Czechoslovakia. I understand your parents did not even know you were doing this…

“No, unfortunately not. That was due to the fact that I didn’t want to cause them any problems, because if they knew where I was going they would have stopped me immediately. Also the police would want to know how come they knew where I was going and didn’t stop me. However, after a few months I could contact them thanks to the fact that I had an aunt in America and could send them a letter through her. So I could tell them where I was.”

Can you tell me what preceded your decision and if you went alone or with someone else?

“I went with a friend. At that time things in this country were rather drastic. In 1948 the communists took power and especially young people were dissatisfied with the way things were going and so we decided we would try elsewhere.”

How long did you consider the matter?

“We had been planning it for about a year and on October 8th we decided to escape and we did. We were lucky that we managed to cross the border without getting caught.”

Many people were shot trying to cross the border. Were you not afraid it was a huge risk?

“A number of people in our village did the same thing and were caught and jailed. We knew about that. The risk was big, but we took it.”

How did you find your way across the border?

“We had some idea. We had studied the area and had some idea which way to go and as it turned out we went the right way all along.”

Photo: archive of Radio Prague
It must have been well-guarded. Did you go under cover of darkness?

“No, as a matter of fact we went early in the morning. However it was harvest time and there were a lot of workers in the fields, so we managed to cross the border without being detected.”

So there was no point at which you feared for your life?

“Well, we did. All the way through, because from the railway station right until we’d crossed the border we kept looking over our shoulder for the border police or somebody who would try to stop us. But we were lucky and it didn’t happen, maybe due to the fact that we were teenagers. I think that was to our advantage. If we had been older maybe they would have shown a greater interest in us.”

What did it feel like when you crossed the border and knew you were safe?

“Oh, what a relief that was. As soon as we crossed the border we just followed the road and about a kilometer down the road the German border police approached us and took us to the local jailhouse overnight and then sent us to Regensburg which was where most of the Czechs who crossed the border were taken.”

How were you treated, as minors who suddenly appeared on their own?

“Well, things were not easy. We were in the camp, you had no utensils, you just picked up any old tin and that’s what they put your food in. However once we got to Murnau things were quite good. We were treated like any other political refugee. “

Were you the only minors there?

“No, no, there were ten or fifteen of them. Teenagers, I mean. And when we went to Waiblingen there were about thirty, forty of them. And from there we emigrated to Australia.”

How did you parents learn about this?

Brisbane,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“My parents were investigated by the police. But they had nothing to disclose because we never told them we were going. I didn’t get in touch with them until about two or three months later. I had an auntie in America so I sent a letter to America and then she sent it to the Czech Republic. So they knew nothing about where I was. “

It must have been heart-wrenching for you to leave knowing you were not coming back and might not see them again…

“For them it must have been a shocking experience and for me the hardest part was that I could not get in touch to tell them where I was and that I was not lying somewhere in the gutter, so to speak.”

When you got to Australia, what happened then?

“Well, in Australia the rule was that you had to work for two years wherever they placed you because you were basically paying for the fare to Australia. However, due to the fact that we were under-21, we were treated much better and the department of child welfare looked after us. I got a number of jobs, I worked at a steelworks, I worked on a farm –mainly due to the fact that my English was non-existent. In order to help me learn English they sent me to work on a farm. It was difficult but it was good because I had no one to talk to in my own language so I was forced to speak English. And that was the start of my new life in Australia.”

So you made a life for yourself there and decided to stay?

“Yes, I worked at different garages as a mechanic and then I got a job in New Guinea working on a plantation. I stayed there for a number of years and then I moved to Brisbane, Queensland.”

What was it like for you to arrive in Australia and start a new life without family, without friends, not knowing anyone?

“It was a shock but once you learn the language you assimilate with the locals. At the beginning “New Australians” as they were called were not treated as well as they should have been, but you get used to that and because we were young we did not have much trouble assimilating.”

What year was this?

Brisbane,  photo: Brisbane City Council,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“I arrived in Australia on December 13th, 1949.”

And you eventually got married there and had children….

“In 1959 I got married to an Australian girl and was married for 54 years. Sadly she died last year, so now I am a widower. And we have two children.”

When did you first manage to return to this country or even see your parents?

“In 1975 I managed to get a visa to come to the Czech Republic with our two children who were then 12 and 13. And since then I have been here about five or six times.”

You are now a senior member of the Czech community in Brisbane, are you not?

“Yes, I have been involved with the Czech community quite a bit because since 1960 I have been a member of the Czechoslovak club in Brisbane and also in 1980 I joined a radio group in Brisbane which broadcasts in Czech on FM. Actually 52 nationalities have a specified time when they can broadcast in their own language for their community. We have a one and a half hour broadcast every Wednesday and an hour-long broadcast on Saturdays. The length of time you get depends on how many people are willing to become a member of that group, each group must have a specified number of people for the airtime they have. We have 80 members so we get two and a half hours of broadcasting time.”

You had an Australian wife, Australian kids, but you still felt an urge to stay in touch with things Czech. What was the greatest loss in leaving this country?

“The greatest loss was that I lost all my friends. I had no one and had to start a new life from scratch. However, we now have a Czech community in Brisbane and I feel that they are my family.”

What was it like when you first came back here and saw your family and friends?

“In 1975 it was really heartbreaking. That really hit me hard. But now that I am getting older, it is not as bad as it was then.”

Did you recognize places, people?

“For me it is now important to go back to my village and see the places that I remember from childhood. As for friends, unfortunately, not many of them are left due to old age. But still, my family is here and I enjoy coming back.”

Do you feel that what happened in this country in 1948 robbed you of something very important?

“Not really, I do not blame them. If that was the style of living people wanted, so be it. I know it sounds awful, but there you are. The Czechs in Australia admire you people for your courage, for how you managed to survive and make the country what it is today, which is very good in my book.”

You made a decision at the age of 17 that changed your entire life. Have you ever had any regrets? Was it the right decision?

“I think it was the right decision. As I said, I am very happy in the town of Brisbane. And, definitely there are things I would like to change but it’s too late now.”