Andrew Greene, a broadcast journalist in Australia, talks about his Czech roots. At the beginning of the 1950s his grandparents fled from Czechoslovakia and settled in Australia. Andrew held on to their language and culture.
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.
Cover photo: Andrew reporting on the Czech Presidential elections, Prague´s Old Town Square, 2013