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From Prague to Sydney: A refugee’s fondness for the language she hated

Jana Vytrhlik
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From Prague to Sydney: A refugee’s fondness for the language she hated

Published: 25 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Fifty-five years after the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, JANA VYTRHLIK finds surprising pleasure speaking Russian. 

I was 16 when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague on August 21, 1968, the city where I was born and had lived all my life. By then, beside my native Czech, I was fluent in the Russian language and hated it. Now, living in Sydney for over 35 years, I can’t get enough of my Jewish friends’ Russian accents.

Last week, a visit to the Paddington markets in Sydney’s eastern suburbs brought back feelings I had thought I had to laid to rest a long time ago. To begin with, I stopped at a stall and chatted with a young artist making colourful tapestries. She had a slight, yet distinct, and to me, familiar accent. An accent that still sounds alarms and puts my mind on guard.

Within days of the Warsaw Pact army occupying Czechoslovakia, my two best friends in high school left the country. One to Israel and one to West Germany. The decision was made instantly for them, their parents taking no chances that the borders might be closed any day. There was no goodbye, no last phone call. Just a silence of long summer evenings, broken by the sound of random gunfire reverberating through the streets of Prague.

The beautiful city was tested once again. The old Czech people said, “Eight has always been our unlucky number”. German occupation in 1938, Communist takeover in 1948 and now, in 1968, it was my generation’s time to endure the crushing of the short-lived optimism of the "Prague Spring".

The author as a student in Prague
The author as a student in Prague

At last, our common knowledge of Russian language came in handy as large posters with slogans in azbuka (the Cyrillic alphabet) appeared overnight all over towns and villages. “Go Home!” and “Moscow is your place!” The braver ones among us practised conversational skills, only to bring many of the bewildered Red Army troops to tears. Some were barely older than us and had no idea where they were, and why they were not welcome. But our school language skills and the nation’s passive resistance were not enough to turn them back.

Early in September that year, the summer holidays over, and we returned to school. My two friends’ seats were empty, just like many in other classes. Some 70,000 Czechs and Slovaks fled to the West immediately after the invasion. Everybody knew somebody who left, each family had friends who disappeared. The communication with them was minimal, and the huge uncertainty of their fates was unbearable. In 1981, I became one of the hundreds of thousands of "illegal" emigres.

We asked difficult questions and resisted learning the language of the Soviet soldiers.

Strangely, the Russian language lessons remained part of our high school timetable. But the teacher, a kind, Soviet-born middle-aged woman, could not cope with a class of 30, each affected in one way or another by the events of that summer. We asked difficult questions and resisted learning the language of the Soviet soldiers still patrolling our streets.  

Even at home, where I was hoping for a more sympathetic ear, I found no compassion over my enraged rejection of the Russian language. My mother, herself a Holocaust orphan at 15, who could have despised the language of the Nazis that had murdered her parents, defended the innocence of a language per se.

Czech protesters confront Soviet soldiers in Prague in 1968
Czech protesters confront Soviet soldiers in Prague in 1968

During the 1970s, the Iron Curtain divided Europe and the last memory of Prague Spring evaporated. The political and ideological realities turned into Soviet-style oppression, censorship and widespread snooping. The Russian language was still pumped into our apathetic minds, but the youthful rage morphed into lethargic hopelessness. There was only one light at the end of the tunnel: escape.

After long odyssey through Austria and New Zealand, Sydney became new home in 1986; and so began the next linguistic challenge. I did not speak much English. Back in the Brezhnev era, English was the language of American capitalists and decadent songs, not something upheld high in the Soviet-sphere classrooms. Now in the free world, I swapped the textbooks’ working-class heroes for trashy US TV sitcoms and detective stories, both captivating enough to sustain my concentration and making me reach for a dictionary. At last, the Russian language chapter of my life was closed.

Or so I thought.

Living in Bondi throughout the rest of the 1980s, it was inevitable that I met a lot of Jews. The Hakoah club in Hall Street was at its best, and in the nearby Golds’ World of Judaica shop I discovered a label, Made in Israel. I had never seen a kosher shop before, and the thriving Hasidic tradition of Flood Street opened my eyes. After failing to meet the English proficiency of the Hungarian ladies of the Cosmopolitan cafe in Double Bay, I succumbed to the familiar pathway of immigrants.

I landed a job as an aide in a nursing home in Bondi, where hardly anyone spoke English without an accent. Early each day, the Sydney Morning Herald was delivered to a charming old lady in the front room. Her name was Ruby and where my English was deficient, I could match her German and French. I learnt too late that she was the celebrated and decorated Zionist feminist Ruby Rich-Shalit (1888-1988), who so kindly let me read the newspapers' employment sections.

Eventually, I found a dream job with the emerging Powerhouse Museum. Bicentennial fever was still high, multiculturalism was in, and having an accent or two was advantageous. In the parlance of the time, my brief was to find and engage Sydney’s ethnic people in the museum programs and exhibition. A straightforward task, but I was not prepared for what soon followed. Nobody was.

Czech school map of the USSR from 1960 (Sbazar.cz)
Czech school map of the USSR from 1960 (Sbazar.cz)

First came the collapse of communism in the Eastern Bloc and the fall of Berlin Wall in November 1989. In two years, the dissolution of the Soviet Union shocked the world when it was replaced by a cluster of independent countries. The large wall map which used to hang in our classrooms in Prague, showing the Soviet Union as one vast homogenous mass where only one language existed and where only one people lived, was a political cover-up.

New borders were drawn with nations small and large, rich and poor, industrial and agricultural, and most importantly, with language groups spanning from Slavic and Finnic to Turkic and Ugric. After 1994, many of them made their way to Australia and all of a sudden, on a personal level, my museum work became more complicated.

It was in Sydney that I first discovered that a Russian accent did not belong only to Soviets. I never knew how brainwashed I was until I met people here, many of them Jewish, from Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia.

That was when I discovered that a strong Russian accent did not belong only to Soviets. I never knew how brainwashed I was until I met people here, many of them Jewish, from Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Armenia ... people whose former lives were far more oppressed than ours had been in Czechoslovakia.

These were people who had to learn Russian as we did, but for whom it was also the enforced language of homes, schools, media and authorities. And while it was difficult to escape from communist Czechoslovakia in the 1980s, it was almost impossible to break away from the hermetically sealed USSR.

Before long, I found myself fond of the Russian accents of my Latvian and Uzbek Jewish friends in Bondi. The Russian language that I hated so much in my teens now clicked me like a magnet with new allies. Our English was equally lacking, but my latent Russian was awakened, allowing for many funny, and not-so-funny, situations.

I learnt first-hand of a young Tashkent “Evrei” (Jew) who almost got sent to Prague on a tank in 1968 but at the last minute was rejected as an ideologically non-reliable Jew. Or a young woman who recalled being yelled at as "Evreika" (Jewess) in the schoolyard in Odessa, only to discover that her Jewish identity was a norm in Bondi that could open doors for her.   

The Russian language that I hated so much in my teens, now clicked me like a magnet with new allies.

Sadly, the story does not end happily here.

After February 24, 2022, my heightened sensitivity to the Russian language returned. The Russian military invasion into Ukraine brought back memories of Soviet tanks in Czechoslovakia, although now my feelings towards the Russian language are more ambiguous. On one hand, it is still a reminder of the complex past that shaped the Czech nation’s destiny. On the other, I am learning to detach the language from its historical and contemporary context. Months have turned into a year, as the Ukrainian people defend their territory and independence amid utter devastation and loss of lives.

Back in the markets, I did ask the young person where her accent was from. “Russia ... and I’ve been here over 20 years”, she added instinctively. I did not ask any more questions.

About the author

Jana Vytrhlik

Prague-born Dr Jana Vytrhlik is the curator at The Great Synagogue Sydney and former curator of the Jewish Museum in Prague and Sydney.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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