Students map lives of Czech émigrés in Canada

Liberečtí studenti

Throughout the spring Radio Prague has been running its series on Czechs in Toronto - a look at the lives of Czechs who fled Communist Czechoslovakia to Canada. It turns out that students at a high school in the North Bohemian town of Liberec have been up to something similar. Under the guidance of their history teacher, they headed for Toronto last summer, putting together a study as well a short film on émigrés'. What they recorded were some moving testimonies indeed.

Katerina Souckova,  Jakub Hodbod and Hana Novakova
Hana Novakova, Jakub Hodbod, and Katerina Souckova are three 18-year-olds with a mission: an interest in the past. Specifically, the oral history of one of Czechoslovakia's darkest chapters: February 1948. Following the Communist take-over of the country, thousands fled for fear of persecution. Hana Novakova explains she felt it was important to find out something about their lives.

"We wanted to do it because we think that our generation is young, doesn't know enough about the problems that our society had in the 20th century, concerning emigration, so we wanted young people to know."

Her colleague Jakub told me some of the stories they heard were remarkable, making him realise the decision to leave was never an easy one to take.

"People left their families, their lovers, their friends, and couldn't say they were leaving. Quite sad stories, for example, families divided at borders, where a mum and her daughter made it across, but the dad and son did not make it and were arrested and ended up in for a long time in prison. It was... it was dangerous...for them."

Katerina Souckova, who was behind the camera, says she'd never made a film before and stresses she has no ambitions in film in the future: for her it was a means - not an end - to learn something more.

"It was just for this project, it was necessary for it. Most of [the people] were open to speak on camera but two or three just wanted to speak to us off camera, when we just took notes."

It has to be said the film does have some rough edges. But, on the whole, Katerina Souckova threaded the testimonies together fluently, showing she - and the trio as a whole - had a good sense of story. Just as importantly, they were unafraid, at one point leaving the camera running as Jan Travnicek - a man has been honoured for his work for Czech-Canadian émigrés - bites back tears as he describes what it was like to come back to Czechoslovakia for the first time after 1989.

It is a moving moment.

The film has now been shown locally at many schools, sparking discussions about the strength and justice of oral histories on recalling a forgotten past.