“Where is my home?” — Student documentary explores stories of Czechoslovak emigres to Britain

'Where is my home?', photo: archive of Tereza Tomanová

Moravian-born Tereza Tomanová has just finished her MA in Multimedia Journalism in the UK. Her dissertation led her to create ‘Where is my home?’, a documentary exploring the stories of Czechoslovak emigres who moved to Britain during the communist era, through a mix of interviews and archival film footage. I spoke to the fresh graduate and began by asking her how she came up with the idea.

“Honestly, the idea just sprang up in my mind one day. When I do projects, I like to be prepared in advance. I already knew that creating a TV documentary would be a part of my masters degree, so I started thinking about what I was going to do before it started.

“I wanted to do a project connected to Czech Republic, a country that I really love, and the UK. I also have an interest in communism. I believe there are still many stories from that era which have not been told, so when I was thinking of how to combine all of this together I thought, why not create a documentary about Czechoslovaks who emigrated to the UK during the communist regime, so I went ahead with it.”

If we move on to the documentary itself, it features interviews with three emigrees who chose to move to the UK during communism. How did you find these people and were there any people who you had to cut out?

Tereza Tomanová,  photo: archive of Tereza Tomanová

“The search was not hard per-se, but certainly a challenge. I remember talking to my family before I started and they told me that it was going to be very hard, that it would be difficult to find any such people. Nevertheless, I was already decided. I started at the end of January. I contacted various types of organisations, various websites and online projects in Britain and the Czech Republic that are centered around communism.

“I also reached out to Czech and Slovak organisations in the UK, there are many of them, and both of the countries’ embassies there. It was partially successful. There were people who told me that they would provide me with contacts for certain people and so on. However, when I did contact them there turned out to be difficulties. They were either afraid of talking in front of the camera, or there were other problems, so it was kind of a dead end.

“But then I had a huge strike of luck. I got contacted by the British Czech and Slovak Association, which has its HQ in London and they have a bi-monthly charity magazine that they publish and they were looking for an editor that would help them with publishing. Since they contacted me, I felt they could help me too. So I asked them if there is someone in the association who emigrated during the time I was focusing. Then suddenly, without even asking me, they decided to place ads for such people in their magazine.

“After that people started reaching out to me via email. I also published the adverts on their Facebook page, which is quite large and people started commenting. After that I started getting real interviews that I could use, because I was not reaching out to people and asking them to talk to me, but they were contacting me. By May I had established a sufficient list of people and then in June I started making the documentary.”

So you went from too few to too many interviewees.

“Basically, yes. You could say that. I was very happy, because by June I had made five or six interviews and had the privilege to choose which were best suited for the documentary.”

Speaking of the interviewees, the one that struck me the most was Karel Šling, the son of Communist Party functionary Otto Šling, who was indicted in the famous 1950s show trial around the then party general secretary, Rudolf Slánský, and executed. What was his story?

“First of all, it was a huge coincidence that I got to interview him, because I was his wife who contacted me and after I had told her more what the documentary would be about, she suggested I may also interview her husband who turned out to be Karel Šling. It was a huge coincidence and turned out to be perfect for the documentary.

“His story is really interesting. He was born in London, then, when he was 11 months old his parents decided to return to Czechoslovakia. Mr. Šling’s father, Otto, became a big fish in the Communist Party. He was the Communist Party's Regional Secretary of Brno in Czechoslovakia, but he was then marked out as a traitor during the purges and they got rid of him.

'Where is my home?',  photo: archive of Tereza Tomanová

“What is interesting about Karel's story is that he decided to stay in Czechoslovakia. His mother was British. She and his brother chose to emigrate to the UK in 1968. However, as a young man, Karel chose to stay in Czechoslovakia. He told me he had not finished university and he loved his homeland, so, despite the awful things that happened to him in his life, he stayed and chose to emigrate only in 1974. By then, his relationship with communist Czechoslovakia had reached a breaking point.”

He was also a Charter 77 signatory if I am correct?

“Yes. That is right.”

Did the interviewees ever discuss how they feel about today’s Czech Republic? I am specifically talking about those people who emigrated during the communist era.

“Honestly, it is hard to answer, because everyone has a different view. I had some interviewees who would ask me, after the interview was over, who Prime Minister Andrej Babiš was and what was his character. They had an idea of what was going on in the country today, but did not know much about it. On the other hand, there were also people who still follow Czech news, politics and are closely aware of what is happening.

“There were also people with whom you could feel that they still miss the Czech Republic and still kind of want to be back, but have been aware for such a long time that they simply know that it has changed. So it is hard to say what their view on today’s Czechs is. In their case it is more a case of how they view the country in general.”

'Where is my home?',  photo: archive of Tereza Tomanová

And you say that is very varied?

“Yes. Although I would say that, in general, they all love the Czech Republic. At least that was the impression I got from speaking to them.”

Did any of them ever consider returning? I know that there were several Czech emigres to Switzerland who tried to return, but then said that they were always seen as foreigners after they came back.

“I did not speak to anyone who had tried before. However, I did speak to one interviewee who said his wife is Polish that they have been living in London since 1968, but said towards the end of the interviewee that he still thinks they will go back, because they are getting old and want to go back to their roots. There are definitely people like that. However, at the same time, some interviewees told me that everyone they know is now in England, so, even though they still have the desire to return, their life is not there anymore.”

I understand. You were talking about how the British Czech and Slovak Association helped you with finding these interviewees. I was wondering, is there a strong emigree community in Britain? I am specifically talking about those Czechs who emigrated during communism.

“I believe that they have mostly blended within the larged Czech and Slovak community within the UK, which is fairly strong. Mostly you can find these types of emigres when there are talks at the embassy for example, exhibits, or talks. However, I would not say that these types of emigres just stick with each other.

Photo: Public Domain

“I already said that their viewpoints are very different. I did have people who told me that the emigres from the communist era can be divided into two types. There were some who had to move for political reasons, but there were also people who just wanted to move abroad, to live in a different country. Some of those emigres who had to move for political reasons look at the others a bit strangely. They don’t really accept their reasons for leaving the country.”

How easy was it for these emigres to integrate into British society and was it easy to find jobs and a living when they got there?

“When they started it was a bit hard for all of them. I remember a story where one told me that they were doing various hospitality jobs and lived off just GPB 18 a week which had to be used for food and rent. Sometimes they just had two potatoes in the fridge for example. Another told me that they actually went homeless for a few years, because they had lost their job, things happened and they ended up on the street.

“So it certainly was not easy to start with in the beginning. However, most of those I talked to, eventually ended up with some very good jobs. I interviewed people who were working as senior lecturers at universities, or a woman who launched a music studio with her husband, so it turned out great in the end for many of them.”

Now, you are either a millennial or a member of generation z.

“Yeah. I was born in 1996.”

The reason I am asking is because you start your documentary by saying that for people such as you it is difficult to understand a Europe where there is a lack of freedom. Did you personally learn something from this experience, or do you believe people from your generation could learn something?

“The thing I was trying to stress a lot in the documentary is how much we should appreciate our freedom. It is the central message of the documentary in regards to its message for the younger generations, explaining how hard it was for the older generations. For example, travel-wise, they just did not have the same options that we had.

“Personally though, what I learned is that even if you know someone but never ask them about their past, you may as well not know them at all. After I finished most of the interviews, the people asked me if I could send them the unedited versions.

“They told me that they had never really talked about their past with their kids and that these could learn something about them if they watched these videos. That was really interesting for me, because one may be living with their grandparents in the same house and they may have really interesting stories, because they are still members of the generation that survived the war and the Cold War, but it sometimes never crosses your mind to ask them what it was like.”

Interesting, so you felt that your documentary helped uncover stories to the families themselves?

“Yes. I actually always thought that as emigres, they would tell their family about what it was like starting in Britain. However, I was very surprised about how many interviewees said that their children and grandchildren know something about them, but not in much depth. That was really interesting.

“I believe that, since they see it as just a part of their lives, they may not realise how interesting many of these stories are, but then when they started talking about it they may have realised how interesting these stories actually are.”