After the communist coup d’etat in February of 1948, thousands of people fled from Czechoslovakia. They then spent long weeks and months in the inhuman conditions of refugee camps in Germany, Austria and Italy, waiting for the chance to emigrate. The United States of America was still a dream destination for many, but it had very strict immigration quotas. On the other hand, Australia after the Second World War was one of the countries most open to immigration. At the time the population of Australia was around 7 ½ million and the government in Canberra was aiming to more than double this number in the span of a single generation. The Department of Immigration was founded in July 1945 and was led by Arthur A. Calwell. The government prepared a daring project of transport ships, which transported over 180 000 refugees from Europe between 1945 and 1949 alone.
According to the official statistics provided by the International Refugee Organisation at the time, the Polish were by far the largest group of arrivals from the other side of the Iron Curtain, with 68 300 arriving to Australia. They were followed by Ukranians (22 400), Yugoslavs (26 100), Latvians (19 600), Hungarians (13 320), Lithuanians (10 100), Czechoslovaks (9 880), Estonians (5 950), Romanians (2 190), Bulgarians (720), Albanians (240) and the nations of the USSR (4 940). The Australians understandably preferred healthy, educated people of a productive age. Preference was given to single males and women, sometimes even to married couples with one child. To begin with the maximum age for accompanying family members was set at 50 years, which led to tragic cases where old, sick parents chose to commit suicide, rather than being a burden, and to allow their children to travel to freedom.
Australian consuls travelled amongst refugee camps and actively lured displaced persons to their homeland, positively describing Australia as a prospering land of wealth, freedom, opportunities, industry and sunshine. Information in promotional brochures, handouts and film clips sometimes differed from reality and people only discovered the reality once they landed on Australian soil and there was no turning back. Even collaborants with the communist secret service kept busy in the camps, by spreading false rumours that there is no work in Australia, workers have no rights and are mere slaves to capitalism, and that new arrivals fall victim to tropical diseases and venomous spiders. Those interested awaited a long beaurocratic process that lasted several months, involving security checks, interviews and medical examinations. If they were successful and they were deemed to be eligible, they were transported a German or Italian port by train, where they then undertook the 6 week long journey on an ocean steam-liner to the other side of the world. The first transport ship, an American ship by the name of General Stuart Heintzelman, arrived to the port of Freemantle, south of Perth, on the 28th November 1947 with 843 passengers on board. There, passengers disembarked and continued on to Melbourne. Until November 1941, when the main wave of immigration died down, a total of 40 ships went on 150 trips to Australia.
New arrivals ended up in Bonegilla, an arrival camp roughly halfway between Melbourne and Canberra, where they intensively learnt English and acclimatised to the local conditions. They also had to sign a two year work contract in a position assigned to them by officials. It was not uncommon for doctors and engineers to start out as construction labourers or miners.
The Czechoslovakian exile community expressed a strong desire to stick together right from the get go. In the first half of the 1950’s alone, a whole range of new ex-pat organisations and groups were formed. Multiple groups were established in cities across Australia, with the majority in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide, varying from national clubs and language schools to scout groups, theatre groups or exile university students.
Many sporting institutions were also formed around this time. Sokol groups sprang up in Adelaide, Darwin, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney and Perth. As for other sporting instutions, in 1950 two football clubs were formed, Bohemians in Adelaide and Canberra, and Slavia Post Melbourne in Melbourne. A hockey club, named the Slavonic Bombers, was formed in Sydney a year later in 1951. In that same year a Czechoslovakian volleyball club was founded in Melbourne. and in 1955 Tennis Club Bohemia was founded in Sydney.
Exile newspapers and magazines are a chapter in themselves which deserve there own article in the future.
Text prepared by Martin Nekola