Czechs in Australia

In this space there will be stories of Czechs and Australians. From those, who paved their way overseas, to those who remained largely unrecognized, but whose stories nonetheless highlight interesting aspects of relations between the Czech Republic and Australia.

Edouard Borovansky

The world-renowned dancer, choreographer and founder father of Australian ballet was born on 2nd February 1902 in Přerov as Eduard Skřeček. At the end of the 20s he first visited Australia, which were to became fateful for him a decade later.

Text written by Martin Nekola.

The world-renowned dancer, choreographer and founder father of Australian ballet was born on 2nd February 1902 in Přerov as Eduard Skřeček. His father was a railroad worker who also happened to be an enthusiastic supporter of folk dance and a music enthusiast. Edouard studied at the ballet school at the National Theatre in Prague, from 1921 he performed in a theatre in Olomouc, then on the Prague scene, before landing a position in prestigious artistic groups in Hamburg and Monte Carlo, with whom he traveled the world. At the end of the 20s he first visited Australia, which were to became fateful for him a decade later.

He led a ballet school in Prague for some time, but saw his future in the land down under. Australia fascinated him and he saw a big potential for cultural development. Just before the Second World War he moved to Melbourne with his wife, Russian ballerina Xenia Nicolaeva Smirnoff, where he founded his own ballet troupe, which eventually developed into the Australian Ballet Company.

Borovansky was a visionary. He hired dancers, musicians and designers and got his own costumes, outfits and extravagant backdrops made without any government funding. He would carefully create the program of each performance so that it would be both entertaining as well as to a high aesthetic and artistic standard. He pioneered the idea that it is better to have cheap tickets and a full audience than an empty auditorium. He and his troupe even traveled to smaller towns and laborers, miners and those from the lower middle class became his regular audience in run-down theaters and dance halls. He caused a revolution by popularising dance and music and turning it into mass entertainment…

Petr Adámek is no stranger to innovation, entrepreneurship and business growth. He is an expert in the field, with over 25 years of international experience in building connected innovation ecosystems that support companies to innovate and grow.

His innovation journey began in the Czech Republic, where he received his Master in Computer Science from the Czech Technical University in Prague in 1997, focusing on technical cybernetics and artificial intelligence.

In 1999 he co-founded a niche consulting company specialising in strategic planning, investment attraction, innovation and business growth. Over the next 10 years Petr established himself in the field of economic development and innovation, having started or led the delivery of several key innovation initiatives in the Czech Republic, as well as developing and managing complex projects across Europe and in Asia.

Over the last 10 years, he has brought his innovative experience to the lands of the Antipodeans – New Zealand and Australia. In 2009, Petr relocated down under to New Zealand, where he started a branch of his consulting company and kept on going down the path of innovation. He first delivered a scoping study for NZTE analysing the export and innovation potential of the ICT industry in the Waikato region. In 2010 he joined the team at SODA Inc., a business incubator in Hamilton, where he was responsible for the design and management of delivery of business growth programs for the incubator client start up and scale up companies…

Petr Adámek

Petr Adámek is a very interesting ex-pat, who currently lives in Canberra. He has spent the last 10 years in both New Zealand and Australia working in innovation. He talked with us about how he ended up in Canberra and shared his insights and experience from life down under.

Vladimír Gottwald

The story of Vladimír Gottwald – a Czech that emigrated to Australia with his family in 1980. He always enjoyed art and eventually fulfilled his artistic desires when he found work as a graphic artist at the Royal Mint in Canberra.

He worked there for 22 years, during which he won several awards for design and manufacture of coins thanks to his skilled handywork.

Vladimír Gottwald emigrated to Australia in 1980 with his wife and three young children.

The journey, which was originally planned from Vienna to Melbourne, ended in Sydney. They had no choice because the hostel in Melbourne was already full. Vladimír was very disappointed, especially due to the fact that a classmate from school was waiting for him in Melbourne, where Vladimír intended to settle with his family.

It was already dark when the bus with crying children pulled up to a hotel in Maroubra with Czech and Polish emigrants on board. It had woven through unsightly streets, where all kinds of junk was scattered around the place. You could see the sadness in Vladimír’s eyes. He blamed himself for bringing his family hear.

This apparent sadness soon passed. He liked being in Sydney. Given that he felt somehow cheated, he started planning another move. He was originally bound for Melbourne!

After one and a half years his family relocated to their original destination. Vladimír frequently changed jobs out of concern about providing for his family and as he found himself in new surroundings. None of the jobs had anything to do with art.

He tried to make up for this by devoting himself to art, which he enjoyed so much, after work in his garage, where he would prepare for exhibitions…

I was born in 1944 in Bubenec, Prague to Josef (Pepik) Krejzar and Zdenka Prochazkova – a chance encounter, which soon after the war would complicate and change the course of our family’s life and mine forever.  

Renee Maisl a cantor’s daughter of the eminent Maisl synagogue dynasty, the only holocaust survivor of her immediate family, befriended a small blond child on the lake-shore at Stare Splavy – which eventuated in Zdenka’s divorce from Pepik in Prague in 1947.

In 1948 Renee migrated to Australia to join Elsie and Frederick Epstein, her Jewish relatives who had escaped Vienna from the clutches of the Nazi’s in 1938. Once the communists expropriated his dental practice in Vinohrady, Pepik that same year followed Renee to Sydney to wed.

In 1950 my courageous mother Zdenka Prochazkova with a six-year-old boy in tow fled – the almost impenetrable iron curtain – escaping across the Czech German border to freedom. Once in the west my six year old self spied a piece of exotic fruit, a banana that I had to have, and my poor mother had to barter her last piece of jewelry to keep me quiet. We spent a year in a German refugee displacement camp before boarding the Skaubryn in Genoa, (which later sank in the Indian Ocean in April 1958), to end up in Bonegilla, a resettlement camp in Australia in December 1951.  

In 1952 we two refugees settled in Kings Cross in Sydney. My pre-teens were spent in conflict; being tossed from one culture to another, you needed to adapt and gain a sense of enterprise overnight in Kings Cross. Zdenka remarried a fellow Czech, Milos Rosenbaum.

The two families soon reunited and in 1953 my half-sister Susan was born. Frederick Epstein was the well-established Australian CEO for Honeywell Inc. by the time Renee arrived. One year when Frederick’s nephew Freddie Neumann, a New York fashion-photographer turned up and won Renee’s heart, she then abducted my father’s 12 year old daughter Susan – and in 1965 fled to the USA to marry him.

Pepik’s dental practice catered predominately to the Czech émigré community. With rudimentary English language skills without formal registration he created superlative porcelain and gold crown work rarely seen in Australia in those days. I still have one of his gold inlays in a back molar. Pepik remarried for the fourth time and died in 1971 aged 58; sadly he never saw his daughter again.

Susan Filingeri nee Krejzar is a retired French teacher living in Florida and her daughter Nicole is Head of Distribution Client Services at INVESCO US…

 

Jerry Krejzar

Skiing and voluntary work – not just a pastime but a way of life – Jerry Krejzar is an alumnus of the Thredbo Ski-Patrol with two decades of voluntary ski-patrolling experience behind him – and a voluntary Alpine Historian for the Thredbo Alpine Museum – he has spent forty winters and some skiing in St Anton am Arlberg. 

A former pharmaceutical executive with an extensive background in both branded and generic pharmaceuticals: currently a Commercial Property owner and investor and the Company Director of Tatra Holdings Pty Ltd.

Text by Martin Nekola.

Alex Skovron a Josef Tomáš

A joint interview with Alex Skovron and Josef Tomáš, who recently collaborated on the translation of a special bilingual Czech > English translation of the Elegies of Jiří Orten.

Alex Skovron
Josef Tomáš

Alex Skovron was born in Poland, lived briefly in Israel, and emigrated to Australia aged nearly ten. His family settled in Sydney, where he grew up and completed his studies. From the early 1970s he worked as an editor for book publishers in Sydney and (after 1980) Melbourne. His poetry has appeared widely in Australia and overseas, and he has received a number of major awards for his work. The most recent of his poetry collections, Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems (2014), was shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Skovron’s collection of stories, The Man who Took to his Bed (2017), and his novella The Poet (2005), have been published in Czech translations; The Attic, a selection of his poetry translated into French, was published in 2013, and a bilingual volume of Chinese translations, Water Music, in 2017. His work has also appeared in Dutch, Macedonian, Polish and Spanish. The numerous public readings he has given have included appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland, Macedonia, Portugal, and on Norfolk Island.

Josef Tomáš was born in Polička, Czechoslovakia, in 1933, completed his schooling in 1952, and in 1957 gained a degree in mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Prague. From 1957 to 1962 he was Assistant Professor at Liberec, Bohemia, and then Research Fellow at the Slovak Academy of Sciences at Bratislava until 1968. In 1966 he had been awarded a doctorate in the Theory of Nonlinear Vibrations by the Czech Academy of Sciences. After emigrating to West Germany in 1968, two weeks after the Soviet occupation of his country, he took up an Alexander Humboldt Scholarship (1968–70) at the Technical University, Karlsruhe, and subsequently (1970–71) taught as Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville, USA. Returning to West Germany, he worked as a Research Fellow at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg (1971–76), and after moving to Australia was appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering at RMIT, Melbourne (1976–93). From 1993 until his retirement in 2010, Tomáš was owner and director of the engineering company Advea in Melbourne.

 

In the early 1950s my maternal grandparents were among thousands of ‘displaced persons’ who turned to a distant, mysterious but welcoming Australia, to begin their new lives.

Their post-war journey saw the newlyweds flee Communist-occupied Czechoslovakia, seek temporary shelter in Austria and then enter a refugee camp in Italy where they waited until they could board the converted cargo ship SS Skaugum, for a journey to the other side of the world.

During their three month passage to Melbourne, Leopold and Maria Dobes taught themselves English, and were joined by my grandfather’s widowed mother, Blažena.   

After eventually leaving the Bonegilla migrant camp in rural Victoria, the new Australians begun constructing a simple home on the western outskirts of Melbourne, in a new suburb called St Albans, a residence they would stay in for the rest of their lives.

Throughout my childhood I spent numerous school holidays there with my Babička and Dědeček, who took great pride and much effort in making sure all four of their grandchildren spoke Czech in their home.

My mother, like her parents, was blessed with great linguistic skills and spoke several European languages to other children in her neighbourhood before learning English at school. 

Unlike many European migrants of their generation, Leopold and Maria Dobes were determined to pass on their language and culture not only to their own children, but to the next generation as well, and this foresight is something I am forever grateful for.

In 2005, one year after the Czech Republic joined the European Union, I had the honour of becoming a citizen of the country my grandparents had only been able to return to after Communism had fallen in 1989. 

Six decades after my grandparents’ arrival in Australia, and shortly after their deaths, I had the privilege of living and working in the Czech Republic between 2012 and 2013 as a journalist for the English language newspaper The Prague Post. 

Then in 2015 I received a scholarship from the Czech government to complete a one-month intensive Czech language course in the town of Dobruška, alongside dozens of other students from around the world with similar family stories to my own.

Throughout my two decades working as a broadcast journalist in Australia, and in Prague, I have frequently encountered interesting and significant Czech figures who are more than a bit surprised when I am able to greet them in their own language, and have a conversation.   

Today my continuing connection with the Czech Republic is largely through Beseda, the Czechoslovak-Australian Association in my home city of Canberra, where I try with difficulty to keep up my existing language skills, something I hope to be able to pass onto my own children.

Miroslav Bukovský

The story of a unique jazz musician, Miroslav Bukovský, who was born in Czechoslovakia in 1944 and emigrated to Australia in 1968, where he and as compositions became a jazz sensation. He had a significant impact on the teaching of jazz at Australian universities.

Miroslav’s father was a dissident. The resulting persecution from the Communist Party also affected his son, Miroslav, who had to study jewellery in order to be able to enrol in university.

Throughout the 50’s, the communist regime saw jazz as an expression of capitalism and support towards American culture. Interestingly, in the 60’s this opinion changed. After Paul Robeson, an Afro-American musician and member of the American Communist Party, came and toured the Eastern Bloc, the regime realised that American jazz music could also be the creation of the working class and started to support it more.

While still in home country in 1967, Bukovský graduated from Janáčková Conservatorium in Ostrava with honours. He chose to attend Janáčková Conservatorium because at the time it was the only university that tough jazz music. Then, in 1968 he fled Czechoslovakia by train to former Yugoslavia. The regime intensified persecution of his father, who stayed in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.

The beginnings in Australia were hard, but as early as 1969 Miroslav had already made contacts with musicians in Sydney and began to play in various groups and clubs. In 1974 he joined the band of famous Australian singer, Marcia Hines, where he would play for the next 5 years. In 1974 he joined the Music Faculty at the Conservatorium in Sydney, where, one year later, he co-founded the first jazz music course in Australia. He teaches at the jazz faculty of ANU to this day, and still actively performs.

Miroslav Bukovský is considered to be one of the leading jazz composers and teachers and has long been considered one of the best trumpeters in Australia. The jazz musician, constantly and playfully trying different line-ups and compositions, co-founded many bands e.g. Moontrane and Ten Part Invention. In 1991 he founded the band, Wanderlust, which consisted of 6 leading jazz musicians who had already earnt recognition in their own right. Throughout the 90’s, the group extensively toured Australia, Asia and Europe and was awarded an ARIA in 1993.

In 1999 an offer to teach full-time brought Miroslav Bukovský to Canberra, where he joined the Canberra School of Art and Music (later ANU School of Music). Pan Bukovský had an enormous influence, not only on the boom of the jazz scene in Sydney in the early 90’s, but also on jazz boom in Canberra known as the Canberra Jazz Renaissance. Bukovský, with his unique compositions, had a profound impact on the jazz community. Every song sounds different according to how each musician approaches it.

Bukovský admits that he will always consider himself to be a Czech, even though he partially became Australian. He never forgot about his home country. Since 1989 he enjoys returning to the Czech Republic and feels good there. He compared this feeling to the feeling when you put on an old pair of boots. When he is in the Czech Republic is takes the opportunity to visit his father. In the 90’s he went on many tours around Europe and even performed at the birthday celebrations of former president Václav Klaus. In 2019 he returned to the Czech Republic to perform at the first jazz club to be founded in the Czech Republic, Reduta.

According to Bukovský, the difference between the Czech and Australian jazz scene is enormous. Prague is riddled between jazz clubs, which rode the wave of cultural tourism. Jazz in Australia is not as popular in Australia. Besides a few exceptions, jazz musicians in Australia are not able to make a living just by playing in clubs. They always had to supplement it with other work.

In 2012 Bukovský composed a song inspired by one of the most famous paintings in the NGA, Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, and has performed at the Capital Jazz Festival in recent years. After many successful projects, he is still musically active and he plays a very significant role in the jazz community to this day.

I come from Martinkovice near Broumov.  I left Czechoslovakia as a nineteen-year-old in October 1949 at some risk across the Soviet zone to West Berlin.

I arrived in Australia for the first time on August 17, 1950.  It was after a fifteen day voyage from Bremerhaven on the ship Fairsea.  From the Melbourne harbor they took us to the Bonegilla camp on the border of the states of Victoria and New South Wales.  While on the train an interesting situation occurred.  The train stood a long time by the Flinders Street station in Melbourne, and from the windows we saw a large Indian style building.  So a rumor spread that they took us to India, and this caused considerable uproar.  The matter was resolved at the first stop in the town of Seymour where they prepared for us a rich banquet of food the likes of which we never saw during the war or even after it.  We ended up in a camp where we were to learn English, and to adapt to the Australian environment.  We were especially surprised and disappointed by the cruel winter that awaited us there.  We were under the impression that Australia is a warm country, and furthermore, we experienced weeks of tropical heat on the ship. But at night in the camp the blankets were not enough. Everyone added on his blanket whatever he had in his suitcase – books, magazines, ties, shoes, under the impression that he will warm up a bit. How we cursed that in Germany before departure we sold our coats, sweaters, and scarves!

Every morning people ran to the labor office to see if there is work for them there. Finally, they gave me work in Licola west of Melbourne in the distant bush country where we were to built a sawmill.  I got money for the trip with which I bought chocolate right away and traveled by train.  By way of welcome they gave us a bundle of hay so that each of us would make a bed out of it. The conditions there were very difficult, and I did what I could to get to civilization. Finally in the year 1952 I got a job in Melbourne in the St. Vincent hospital in the Fitzroy quarter.  I washed floors, windows, toilets, and I also burned, in the boiler room, organs extracted during operations.  Many of the surgical instruments they had were from the 19th century.  In the hallway on the third floor they drew blood from donors. There I came to the conclusion that every healthy person should regularly donate blood. During the course of my life, I managed to reach hundred and four donations.  My salary was twelve pounds a week.  I saved a good deal there because I ate leftovers in the kitchen for the doctors.  

I became close friends with Stanislav Hofirek, a lawyer and a former People’s Party politician. I rented a small apartment on Dryburgh Street in a house that belonged to an old lady that might have been a hundred years old. Here we had  “political meetings” of the émigrés in Melbourne where we made up fantastic plans for the liberation of the republic from the communists.

The fifties in Australia were a time of feverish building activity.  There was no building during the war, suddenly thousands of immigrants started arriving, so there was a horrendous shortage of houses and apartments. On the outskirts of Melbourne new neighborhoods were created, meadows and fields were parceled. Plots were for sale, mostly fifty meters wide. When a person saved some pounds, he right away started looking to buy and attended auctions.  It was necessary to hurry, as prices rose every month.

In January 1953 I returned by boat to Europe because I thought that communism would soon fall.  In a German newspaper I read an offer of well paid work in Charleroi, Belgium in coal mines. I applied, and together with 400 new miners, I was to report for work. But then my train from Munich was delayed. Meanwhile there was a big explosion in the mine which killed many people. Only by lucky coincidence I was not among them. I took it as a clear sign, and returned to Australia where I live to this day. For years I taught elementary school, was active in Czech community, was involved with the arrival of Vietnamese refugees who fought against communists. Today I live in Ascot Vale, not far from Melbourne, together with two cats and a granddaughter who is studying astrophysics.

Karel Halla

Thanks to the project Czechoslovak Talks, we are sharing the story of Karel Halla with you, who fled from Czechoslovakia to Australia in 1949. At the start of 1953 he returned to Europe thinking that communism would soon fall.

When his train that would have taken him back to Czechoslovakia was delayed he interpreted it as a sign and decided to return to Australia, where he lives to this day. 

Read more stories at Czechoslovaktalks.com

Jiří Chaloupka

The story of Jiří Chaloupka, a Czech who emigrated to Australia and dedicated his life to the documentation and preservation of the rock paintings of Indigenous Australians in the Northern Territory.

In 1948, right after the Communists seized power in the Czech Republic, he emigrated to Australia. There, as a youth he had the chance to get to know the original inhabitants of Australia and their traditional way of life during work mapping the waterways of the Northern Territory. From that point on his fate was intertwined with indigenous culture.

Driven by a love for indigenous cultures George, a nature lover and enthusiastic scout as a child, became a leading expert on indigenous rock painting, in the Kakadu region especially. Later he became a museum curator and was even awarded the Order of Australia for his services to indigenous art and culture. Thanks to his studies, we were able to more accurately pinpoint the age of indigenous culture in Australia.

Despite his life-long passion for and original contribution to the indigenous cultures of Australia, he never turned his back on his home country and repeatedly returned after the Velvet Revolution. At the age of 79, on the 18th October 2011, he passed away in Darwin.

He was the first Czech to be honoured with an Australian state funeral and in accordance with his spoken wishes, half of his ashes were laid to rest in his home town of Týniště near Hradec Králové. He left behind an intriguing legacy of understanding and respect towards indigenous culture in Australia, which lives on thanks to the George Chaloupka Fellowship program, founded in 2008, which aims to preserve rock paintings in Arnhem Land. The coming together and cultivating of a positive relationship between two seemingly different cultures is a central theme in his life.

The painting Kangaroo and the Watering Hole, created under the guidance of Yidnji artist, Greg Joseph, together with staff and friends of the Embassy of the Czech Republic, hangs proudly on the wall of the main hall of the Czech Embassy in honour of Jiří Chaloupka. 

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