Australia through the eyes of Czech immigrants

The Czechs left their mark on Australia at various points throughout the eventful 20th Century. Czechs fled to the other side of the world during the era of the First Republic, after German Occupation in March, 1939, after the Communist Coup d’etat in February, 1948, as well as after Soviet Occupation in August 1968. While the sun-burnt country was a sanctuary that offered the chance at a new beginning, leaving Europe, adapting to unknown surroundings and learning a new language, was by no means an easy task. Many letters and memoirs describing immigrants’ first impressions of the Land Down Under have survived to this day. Even many decades later it is still interesting to read about the way that regular people viewed Australia.

The following is an excerpt from the letter of an un-named former Factory Director, who settled in Sydney; printed in “Přítomnost” magazine in January 1939:

“ The difficulty of the language when conducting business should not be underestimated, even though speaking English was quite common in the European context. The accent here is very tough, among other reasons because it is mixed with Scottish. If someone claims to be able to learn the language in a few weeks, they are either a genius, or they are talking about attaining the level of language needed to sell vegetables in a grocery store (…) The temperature here changes up to four times a day. Sometimes during the day it is as warm as a hot summer’s day back home, and then a cool breeze will come and suddenly you need a warm coat. Sometimes the air is unbearably humid, but warm at the same time, which means Europeans end up drenched in oily sweat, can’t work, find it hard to breathe, and are absolutely exhausted.

Something that few know about Sydney: you haven’t got a hope of finding any kind of artistic cultural activities here. There are no theatres, concerts or architecture. The cinemas only play English and American films. The main form of entertainment is sport, above all horse-racing, which people bet millions of pounds on. Cafes as we know them do not exist here. Animals of all kinds are a huge downside, and I’m not even talking about all the flies and mosquitos in Summer. I stared at the first moth I saw completely gob-smacked. It had a wing-span of about 15 cm. You can’t go for a walk in the bush and fields because the newspapers warn against snakes. Notices warning to not walk or lie directly under trees are published almost daily in the newspapers. People only swim in bathing areas that have steel shark nets (…)

Australia is a real workers´ paradise. Every decent labourer has a good car and house and those who specialise in their trade do very well for themselves. Representatives of European companies have to count on coming across competition from all around the world. Preference is given to anything English and anything that is Japanese is very difficult to beat price-wise. Starting out here is unbelievably difficult if you don’t have enough capital. If you open a workshop you should expect to have to pay high wages and deal with strict inspections into the state of the workshop and treatment of staff by the union organisations. I’d also like to add that us men do the toughest work around the house in the evenings and on the weekend, because only the wealthy few can affored to hire any help.” (The wife of the author of the letter added the following remark: At the beginning my once managerially feared husband thought washing and drying the dishes was strange, but he is already starting to become quite a decent house-maid. After he cleaned his shoes, scrubbed the floor, swept, and did a deep clean for the first time, his hands were covered in blisters that he only used to get after playing tennis – but now we are getting silly).

Text by Martin Nekola

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