Ivana de Windt

Canterbury’s People: as a young adult Ivana became increasingly unhappy with her life in the Communist governed state and eventually fled Czechoslovakia. She migrated to Australia in 1979 and lived in the ‘wild’ suburb of Bondi Beach before moving to Campsie.

Life in Czechoslovakia

Born in 1957, Ivana grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia. She lived with her family in a small village near Plzen in Western Bohemia.

Ivana’s parents worked on a large State farm in the village and if not involved in farm business, they had to tend the family vegetable plot and livestock. Food was expensive to buy in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s and 1960s so home grown food resources were important to the family.

Ivana’s father, Miroslav, was a well regarded farm manager who applied skills and knowledge gained as a private farmer before the Second World War to the Czech State farms. However, he battled to achieve efficiency and productivity on the farm in the face of a sluggish administration and at times, unmotivated workers.

One of Ivana’s lasting memories of that time is of playing near the highway that ran past her village. The highway was on the border of Czechoslovakia and West Germany and offered a window on life in non-Communist Europe. Large powerful Mercedes cars driven by foreigners across the border were a lesson to Ivana and her friends of what life might be like outside Czechoslovakia.

The impact of the Communist regime on life in Czechoslovakia was also revealed in disparities in history and information such as the celebration of the Liberation of Western Bohemia from the Germans:

“When I was seven or eight (years old) a Communist official visited our school to mark the Liberation of Western Bohemia. Now everyone knew that we were liberated by the American Army but this official spoke of the Liberation by the Red Army (Communists). I began to doubt the official line at this stage. I felt angry and resentful at the lie.”

The Prague Spring

When Ivana was nine years old the family moved to Trutenov in northern Czechoslovakia. Here her father managed another State farm. By this stage, the late 1960s, Czechoslovakia was experiencing a time of liberalisation known as the Prague Spring. Under the leader, Dubcek, the country was changing and people were supportive of his program of reform drawn up under the slogan “Communism with a human face”. There was a promise of prosperity and freedom for everyone at that time. For instance, Czech children in the late 1960s were able to join the Scouts while in earlier years the choice was limited to the Communist Youth Association.

Soviet Troops enter Czechoslovakia

The quiet liberalisation of life in Czechoslovakia ended suddenly in 1968 when the Soviet troops invaded. On the day of the invasion Ivana was on a school camp. She woke to the sound of planes overhead and glimpsed images of Russian tanks and troops marching through the streets of Prague on the camp staff room television. The children were sent home from the camp.

“When I went out I could feel the land shaking under my feet as the tanks approached the town. They stopped at Polska Ave, at the burning barricades. Then people started pouring out of their houses to see the Army. The soldiers were Polish and the people shouted at them asking them why they came and I can recall one soldier saying, ‘it was an order’. It was a very confusing time. The Polish army left and then a couple of weeks later the Red Army came with their tanks.”

Life under Soviet occupation

The invasion by Russia was not only a great humiliation, it was also the end of what the Czech people saw as an improvement in their lives and that of their nation. Referred to as “the occupants”, the Russian soldiers were almost universally hated by the Czechs.

Ivana personally experienced the effect of the occupation on life in Czechoslovakia when the principals and some teachers of Czech schools were forced to resign for political reasons and were replaced by Soviet sympathisers.

Resentment toward Soviets and their brand of communism fuelled a subculture of youth rebellion. Ivana and her friends enthusiastically embraced all the material expressions of Western youth culture.

After finishing school Ivana worked in a number of clerical jobs but felt unfulfilled in these positions and dreamed of being involved in creative work, writing or acting. However, moving to Prague to audition for acting roles proved unsuccessful and her initial optimism turned to dejection. She began to seriously question whether she would ever be able to follow her ambitions and improve her life in Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. Her experience living in Prague in the late 1970s confirmed her suspicions that corruption, censorship and misinformation flourished under Communism, and there were few opportunities to expand one’s horizons.

Leaving Czechoslovakia

Ivana planned to leave Czechoslovakia. As legitimate migration was impossible at the time, she had to plan her escape without alerting the authorities. She booked a holiday in neighbouring Yugoslavia from where she thought she could simply hitch a lift over the border to Austria and her new life. She had an uncle in Canada and she planned to join him there.

Surprisingly, the first part of this naive and hopeful plan was successful and she was given a lift across the German border undetected. She spent the next week travelling back and forth across Austria and Germany, trying to locate the Canadian Embassy and eventually applying for political asylum in Austria.

During her detention in a refugee hostel in Austria, Ivana decided to apply to migrate to Australia rather than Canada, and in November 1979 she boarded a Qantas jet bound for Sydney.

Endeavour Hostel at Coogee, Sydney

The Endeavour Hostel at Coogee, where Ivana lived for the first six months in Australia, was full of migrants from all over Europe. At first life in Australia felt like an extended holiday as Ivana and her hostel mates spent most days at the beach. At the end of six months, Ivana had found part time work in Bondi at the Gelato Bar and went to live in a large share household near the beach.

Living in Bondi in the early 1980s gave Ivana a quite skewed view of life in Australia for the area was full of young people, working part time and partying hard. Consequently Ivana thought her new home was a bit wild! She enjoyed her life here and made new friends easily. She chose to mix with a diverse group of people, Australians and fellow young migrants she met at the hostel, and in this way slipped easily into the Australian way of life.

It was while living in Bondi that she met her future husband, Bernard de Windt, who was a migrant from Belgium and a fellow tenant in the share house. When they married they moved to Maroubra for a short time and then in 1983 to Campsie where they still live with their two adult children.

Settling into Campsie life

In 1983, whilst there were many Australian (Anglo-Celtic) families living in Campsie, it was still home to a diverse community of people, Greeks, Arabic people and Eastern Europeans. This was one of the reasons Ivana and her husband quickly grew to love the area. In addition, the area was well serviced by public transport making it easy for Ivana to travel to work in the city. Her husband worked at a factory in Alexandria and later worked as a computer programmer in the city.

While her children were young, Ivana took advantage of the area’s facilities, attending local playgroups and making use of Campsie’s parks and playgrounds for daily outings with her children. Ivana and the children especially looked forward to the arrival of one travelling circus or another. The circus would set up in a park on the Cooks River and Ivana and other local mothers and their children would walk down for an afternoon of fun.

New ways of thinking

Ivana’s children first attended Campsie Public School where Ivana got to know many of the parents and became very involved in the school’s Parents and Citizens Association. Her children went on to attend Kingsgrove High School.

Ivana found the Australian education system very different to that in Czechoslovakia and was at first surprised by the lack of strict discipline. In Czechoslovakia, schools were regimented and there was little encouragement for children to develop as individuals and take responsibility for their own learning as is the case here. Ivana has brought her children up in the Australian way, encouraging them to find their talents and follow their interests without pressuring them. Both children are now involved in tertiary education.

Revisiting the Homeland

Up until the early 1990s Ivana was unable and unwilling to return to Czechoslovakia to visit her family for fear of reprisal. She also made a conscious decision not to dwell on her life before migrating to Australia.

However, the collapse of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 has enabled her to revisit the land of her birth both in her reflections and in person. She returned to visit the Czech Republic a number of times, first to see her elderly father who had become ill. Sadly her mother had died before Ivana could see her again.

Returning to the Czech Republic after living such a different life in Australia was a very revealing experience:

“People have not changed much – they were not used to questioning authority. When I went back to see my father when he was ill I wanted to speak to the doctor and this was regarded as very unusual – they are not used to it, you don’t question authorities.”

She felt that she had fundamentally changed in her attitudes and values since she was a young 22 year old. Her home is now here in Australia and in particular with her family in Campsie.