Australia through the eyes of Czech immigrants: The Škvařil Family

Vlastimil Škvařil described how he ended up in Adelaide after fleeing Austria with his family after August 1968 to great detail. Later he moved to Burnie in Tasmania where he lives to this day.

Image: The Škvařil family at the airport in Adelaide

We registered ourselves as refugees at a police station in Vienna and studied our options. We didn’t want to stay in Europe. Getting to America and Canada was a little complicated and we weren’t really drawn to South Africa and Rhodesia. That left Australia – a country that was really interested in expanding its working force. We started the process of applying for our travel documents. We did not have much money, but thankfully I found work in a small factory cleaning, sweeping and doing that sort of stuff. I could not speak German, but Austrians sympathised with the Czechs and so tried to help when they could. After a few weeks we were accepted by Australia, and all that was left to do was wait until there was a free space on one of the planes that was organised and paid-for by the Australian government. We could not wait to get there, but all of the flights were full for the time being. During one of many frequent visits to the Australian Consulate we were told that the next flight to leave was also full, but occasionally someone doesn’t show up. They said that if we wanted to risk it and come to the airport, we might get lucky. Fortune favours the brave, and so we “burnt our bridges” and headed to the airport. We could not believe it when they told us that five people didn’t turn up and so all five of us got to board the flight; our friend, Zdeněk, my wife Jožka, myself and our two sons, Vlastík, aged 7, and Petr, aged 3. On 28th September 1969, filled with expectations and dreams, we boarded a Qantas Boeing 707. Around 168 refugees from Czechoslovakia headed off into the unknown, only one of which spoke English. We knew basically nothing about Australia, just that it is a free country – and that was all we needed to know. After stopping over in Karachi and Singapore, we started getting closer to Australia. We found out that we would be landing in Adelaide soon. We had never heard the name of the city in our lives. We landed at six in the morning. The plane stopped by the Immigration Department building. It was already light out and when I looked out from the window, to my surprise, I saw steam coming out of the mouths of the people standing outside. Is smoking that widespread here? That can’t be steam – we are in the tropics after all! Back then we didn’t know that the tropics are located in the north of Australia and we hadn’t the faintest idea of how enormous Australia is and how much the climate in the south could vary from that in the north. We made it through document and custom checks without any problems. Like most of us, we only had a small suitcase and 7 dollars and 50 cents in our pocket that we exchanged using the few shillings from Vienna that we had left over. We got into several buses and headed to our lodging. Our group, as we were to find out later, was headed for Smithfield. It was located about 70 km from the airport. The journey there led through, at times, quite sparsely populated regions and to my disappointment several women in the bus started to complain: “Where on earth have we ended up?” This got me a little angry. “We haven’t even seen anything yet and you have already made up your mind about Australia?” Lord almighty, what characters. They should have stayed home, I thought to myself…”

Text by Martin Nekola.

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