The Story of Greeks in Czechia
There is a small Greek minority in the Czech Republic. People from this Southern European country did not come primarily to seek jobs or improve their economic outlook. They were driven here because they believed that communism was a better form of government than capitalism.
The end of WWII did not bring peace to Greece. Fighting continued, only the Greeks were not shooting at the Germans and Italians who had occupied their country in the previous years. They were shooting at each other. Communists and other left-leaning political parties wanted a Soviet-style government. Right-wing conservatives defended the monarchy. The civil war lasted until 1949 and took a heavy toll on the population driving some 100 thousand communist sympathizers and their children into exile. Historian Jan Koura teaches at Charles’ University in Prague.
“The left-leaning refugees were looking for help in the communist countries and Czechoslovakia was one of them. Some 12 000 Greeks and their children fled to this country. The government sent them mainly to the border areas from which the German-speaking population was expelled after the war.”
One of the Greek pro-communist fighters who ended up in Czechoslovakia was the father of Mr. Kostas Papasavoglu, who now heads the Greek Community in Ostrava, the third most populous city in the Czech Republic:
“My father told me that he witnessed executions of people because of alleged crimes in the name of communism without a proper trial. That is what motivated him to start fighting against the terror of the illegitimate right-wing government. My dad was then 23 years old. He was leaning to the left because he came from a poor farmer’s family. There was a lot of poverty in Greece then and the little crops they grew and the meat they raised they had to give to the authorities. He did not like it and that was why he joined the national pro-communist resistance."
The Papasavoglus got a reasonably nice flat within the refugee center. They were lucky in that they were together as a family. Many of the other Greek families ended up in different centers all over Czechoslovakia, in some cases in different countries. Kostas Papasavoglu’s father did his best to help:
“He was working with the Czechoslovak Red Cross. His task was to deal with the bureaucracy and find Greeks from different families placed in different centers. He sent some people to Hungary or even the Soviet Union. For him, it was a kind of mission.”
Another Greek whose parents came to Czechoslovakia at that time was Alexander Papageorgiou. He was also born in this country and spent his childhood in a similar center like Mr. Papasavoglu in the small town of Vidnava. You might think that growing up among blind and otherwise handicapped refugees who lost all contact with their country must have been a very sad, even depressing experience for a young boy. He says nothing could be farther from the truth, he found it inspirational:
“These people changed me, they changed my whole outlook on life. If you grow up among them, see that they can go on, it inspires you. There was even a man who was blind, had lost his arm and leg. Yet, he was able to sing! For me that was unbelievable. If a man like he could sing then whatever happens to me in my life, it can be overcome. Any problem can be overcome. If these people could do it, what are our problems compared to theirs?”
For more than two decades there was virtually no contact between the Greeks in Czechoslovakia and their native country. There were no letters or phone calls. Then things changed in Greece. In 1974 the military junta that had ruled the country for the previous seven years fell. A new legitimate democratic government was established, and the Greek Republic joined the European Economic Community in 1981. The refugees could go back to their old country not just for a visit but for good if they wanted. For Alexander Papageorgiou the first visit was quite emotional:
“It was incredibly moving. The Greek customs officials and border guards were already used to people like us coming from different countries. But for us, it was something completely different. It was the first time we could see that the Greek flag was raised proudly, for the first time, people were greeting us in Greek and we could use the same language. They were interested in where we were coming from. It was a great feeling, very moving."
For many Greeks, it was not easy to decide whether to move back their homeland or stay in their new country. Kostas Papasavoglu had friends in Ostrava who decided to go back to Greece but in the end, he decided to stay in Czechoslovakia:
"I married a girl from Slovakia, I already had new roots here. I knew it would be difficult for my wife to live in a country whose language she did not speak. It was really a difficult decision. But when communism in Czechoslovakia fell in 1989, we decided to stay here. It suits us to go to Greece at least once a year for two or three weeks. We enjoy the sea, the warm climate, and the fruits and we visit our relatives for a day or two. Frankly, we could not have the same living standards as we already had here."
So, neither Kostas Papasavoglu nor Alexander Papageorgiou left Czechia for Greece. This, however, does not mean, that they do not feel Greek:
“Anyone, who knows me can confirm that it is probably the most important part of my personality. My family roots have always been important to me, as well as the history of our nation. I have always been active in our community on the local as well as national level. After all, we founded a Greek folk dance group. We also play traditional instruments, travel to Greece, and sing and dance our traditional folk songs."
Officially, some 2 000 Czech citizens declared Greek nationality in the last census. According to unofficial estimates, there are well over 7,000 people with connections to this national minority. You can find 12 officially recognized Greek communities and they have their representative in the Czech Government Council for Minorities.