Greek Civil War: Thousands of refugees found shelter in Czechoslovakia

Between 1946 and 1949, Communist Czechoslovakia agreed to receive thousands of refugees as a result of the bloody Greek Civil War. Since then the Greek community has comprised an integral part of this otherwise ethnically homogenized country.

Photo: The Association of Greek Communities in the Czech Republic


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After a long period of hesitation, the Czech Republic agreed to accept at least 15 families of Syrian refugee families in January. During the Cold War, however, such an attitude was not customary. As a result of the bloody Greek Civil War, communist Czechoslovakia agreed to receive almost 13,000 Greek Civil War refugees.

Despite the fact that many of them later returned to their homeland, the Greek community in Czech Republic never completely disappeared, and has remained an integral part of this otherwise ethnically almost homogenized country.

With this diachronic perspective in mind, we will examine the integration and adaptation process of Greek Civil War refugees in Czechoslovakia from their arrival to the present day.

Greeks are coming

In 1948 and 1949, with the end of the Greek Civil War approaching, the exodus of nearly 100,000 Greek citizens to the Eastern Bloc countries was in full swing. The refugees were first sheltered by the neighboring Balkan states, but after the Tito-Stalin Split in 1948, the Greek Communist Party (Kommounistiko Komma Elladas, KKE) came to an agreement with the Soviet Union to transfer the majority of them to other Soviet Bloc countries in Eastern Europe, such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, Eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia. The first refugees arrived and began to seek shelter at the end of summer in 1949. However, the question of how long and under which statute they would stay remained open.

The first transfer organized in 1948 consisted mostly of Greek and Slavophone children from the territories of Northern Greece, which were severely hit by the fights between the Greek Royal Army supported by the US and the resistance, the Democratic Army of Greece (Dimokratikos Stratos Elladas, DSE). In this period locals were exposed to permanent danger and violence, while villages were bombed and napalmed.

The transfers were carried out on the ground through Albania, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. In the spring and summer of 1949 many refugees continued from Albania either via Dardanelles to the Soviet Union or via Gibraltar to the Harbor of Danzig in Poland; and from there, several thousands of the refugees were transported by train to Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Between August 30th and September 10th in 1949, 4,192 refugees from Yugoslavia and another 3,500 from Albania were transported to Czechoslovakia. By 1952 almost 13,000 Greeks and Slavomakedonians (Slavic speaking Greek citizens) had settled in Bohemia and Moravia, since Slovakia was meant only as a place of temporary recovery in convalescent homes. Another 12,000 were received by the USSR and Poland, 9,000 by Romania, 7,000 by Hungary, 5,500 by Bulgaria and about 1,200 by the GDR. Tito’s Yugoslavia originally hosted about 17,000 refugees but after the Yugoslav-Soviet Split, Greeks were slowly deprived of their privileges and virtually expulsed from the state.

Regarding the national identity of the Greek civil war refugees in Czechoslovakia, 69% declared that they were Greek, while 29% identified themselves as Slavomakedonias. The rest identified themselves either as Aromanians, a minority group speaking a Romanian dialect (1%) or Turks (1%). As for the age structure, most of the refugees (50%) were under the age of 30, about 5,000 of those, children; and only 57% were able to work due to their age or health status.

Living in Czechoslovakia

After their arrival, refugees were placed in temporary sanitary camps where they were provided with food, clothing and basic medical treatment; while all children were placed in about 40 children’s homes regardless of their age or whether their family members lived in Czechoslovakia or not. This kind of institutionalization persisted until their graduation, with the teachers and employees of these homes substituting the role of parents. The institutions were often established ad hoc in chateaus or recreation centers in the Bohemian and Moravian border areas, which were vacant after the expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia after the Second World War.

The majesty of these buildings softened, to some extent, the children’s nostalgia for the families they were separated from. Panagiotis, who is now 74 year old and lives in Prague, mentions: “In my eyes it resembled a palace. We saw electricity for the first time, and large rooms with big tables, the yard full of trees and flowers […] I missed my family and my home a lot. In my dreams I saw my mother cooking for us. I saw myself swimming in the river in our village, but when I was playing with the other children in this ‘palace,’ I forgot my sadness and enjoyed being here.”

The adults who were of good physical and mental health, and were able to work were sent to 24 different villages in the mountainous regions of Northern Moravia close to the Polish border. These areas, sparsely populated due to the German expulsion, were considered not only safe, but also according to the KKE, similar to Northern Greece.

Vasilis, a former resistance fighter who was about 20 years old when he arrived wounded in Czechoslovakia via Yugoslavia, recalls: “I was in a group, which went to a place called Vilémovice. For several weeks we were reconstructing and cleaning houses left behind by the expulsed Germans, which were meant to accommodate our families. Once we prepared these homes, we helped out in the local agricultural cooperative. Then in January 1950 about 50 of us men who were able to work left for Vidnava, where we began work in a brickyard. None of us knew a craft, so we did various hard manual jobs. Do you see these calluses? I still have them from that time.”

Although the first generation of refugees were uneducated peasants, many of them soon managed to learn the Czech language and adapt to their new lifestyle. Most of them, like Vasilis, were first put to work in the agricultural sector, but some of them moved to agglomeration centers in order to earn a better living in the industrial sector. The majority of their children subsequently studied at universities and later found prestigious professions.

Georgios, who arrived in Czechoslovakia with his family as a child, reflects on his career as surgeon and head of the department. “I still see our coming to Czechoslovakia as a wonderful choice for further development, since other countries around us weren’t as emancipated or as well equipped in regards to industry, high school, education, etc.” He remembers the promise of the Communist Party back in Greece concerning what they billed as temporary emigration: “They told us “Kids, you will go there and study.” This was true since we really did study – not only myself, but also the younger and older kids, who returned to Greece. But our peers [in Greece] – nothing – they didn’t even have a primary school, but those of us who wanted learn, learned.”

The Greek community found itself under the auspice of the KKE in cooperation with the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (Komunistická strana Československa, KSČ). Yet only about 1,000 to 2,000 Greek Civil War refugees in Czechoslovakia were party members. Since one could become a KSČ member only as Czechoslovak citizen and Czechoslovakia did not permit holding dual citizenship, Greeks exclusively joined the KKE. Moreover, loosing Greek citizenship meant losing the right to return to the homeland, therefore Greeks rarely applied for Czechoslovak citizenship.

Over the course of the 1950s, the Soviets instructed the exiled Greeks to cooperate more closely with the Czechoslovak executive bodies, which eventually left their imprint on the Greeks’ political views and resulted in some cleavages in their own party politics, which led to major disruptions within the party.

Disagreements and tensions caused the first split of the KKE in 1956, when KKE leader and Stalin’s loyal follower, Nikos Zachariadis (1903-1973), was discharged as the party’s head. His expulsion divided refugees into his supporters and supporters of the new leader Konstantinos Koligiannis (1909-1979).

The next split occurred in 1968 after the Prague Spring, when party leadership supported the Soviet invasion against the majority of refugees led by Dimitris Partsalidis (1905-1980). In the end this resulted in the creation of the Euro-Communist KKE Interior and the Moscow-oriented KKE Exterior.

Dionisios, who was born in Czechoslovakia, reflects on the 1956 events, as his father described them: I heard that in 1956 when the party broke down […] the emotions were so strong that a police unit had to come to separate the Greeks […] Many friendships were damaged. They were so fanatic because they put their hearts into it. They were not only some fights, of course they felt it. And they were abroad, therefore it was even stronger.”

The Greek refugees also had to deal with strong tensions between the Greek and Slavophone communities. At first the common experience of the civil war, expatriation, desire to return home and KKE policies kept Slavomakedonians and Greeks together. In April 1952, the Slavomakedonian political organization, Ilinden, was established in Poland as a successor to the Macedonian Liberation Front (Narodnoosloboditelen front, NOF), which was banned after 1948; but the Greek and Czechoslovak authorities perceived Ilinden with the same suspicion.

Grigor, who maintains his strong Slavomakedonian identity but is still persuaded that the Greek Civil War refugees were split due to the pressure executed by Greek authorities: “There were dance parties, and I have a friend, who plays at them. They were allowed to play Macedonian songs, but one day a man from the embassy came and said: ‘What are you playing? Play it one more time and I will take your Greek travel documentation away!’” Grigor also connects the current Greek-Macedonian dispute with a lack of acknowledgment the Greek community has towards the Slavomakedonians: “There is an attempt by the rest of the Greek immigrants living here to claim that we don’t exist.”

In 1954, after repeat interventions by Czechoslovak officials in KKE leadership, Ilinden was dissolved. In 1950s many Slovomakedonians as well as other Greek Civil War refugees were also accused of “Titoism” and fell victim to the “fight against the internal enemy.” This among others ultimately led to enmity between the two groups, which they never fully managed to overcome.

Repatriation

Since the beginning, Greek communist leaders reassured the refugees in the Eastern Bloc countries that their stay there was only temporary and that they would soon return to their homeland. No one thought that they would live in exile for more than two decades and that their children would grow up in a foreign country.

For many years on New Year’s Eve, Greek refugees would toast: “Next year in the homeland.” Martha, once a child refugee who later became part of the cultural elite in Communist Czechoslovakia, suggests that this toast, which expressed the generally accepted wish, soon lost its real content:

“We were always saying this but by that time nobody really believed in it, meaning later, when we were bigger. Maybe at one time we were very small, when we arrived, people were thinking for a long time, for five, six, ten years, that it will be like this. Then they stopped thinking that.”

Ilios, who later became a university professor in France, adds: “The biggest schism was in the first generation. They hoped that they would go back to Greece but at the same time they understood that they could not go back.”

The repatriation was conducted in two phases. Between 1953 and 1954, several hundred Greek children whose parents stayed behind, searched for them through the International Red Cross and applied for their repatriation, were returned; as well as elderly people, who desired to rejoin their families in Greece. This was happening quite simultaneously with the process of family reunions in Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania and the USSR, and after several years of separation, more than a 1,000 parents reunited with their children in Czechoslovakia.

Stylianos and his younger brother came to Czechoslovakia in 1954 to be reunited with their parents: “I arrived with my brother at the railway station in Těchonín near Česká Třebová at night. Our parents were waiting there for us. When we got off the train, my mom was standing at the stairs. The moment I saw her I recognized her. I started to call out to her as we approached her. Mommy hugged us and said to my brother: ‘Vasili, I am your mom.’ But he answered, ‘you are not my mom. I have another mommy.’ In the children’s home in Hungary we had mommies (educators), who were taking care of about 30 children, so he knew this mommy but not his own. Our mom was crying because her own son didn’t recognize her.”

In 1968, a year after the outbreak of the Greek military junta, Yugoslav leadership offered the Slavomakedonian refugees in Eastern Europe favorable conditions to establish themselves in the Socialist Republic of Macedonia. For their participation in the Greek Civil War, Tito provided them with homes, work and generous pensions. Between 1968 and 1975 this offer was only accepted by about 1,200 people from Czechoslovakia.

The second wave of repatriation to Greece began in 1974 during the democratic consolidation after the end of Greece’s military dictatorship. The Greek Prime Minister, Constantine Karamanlis, abolished a law depriving political refugees of their nationality and allowed their repatriation, but neither decriminalized the communist resistance nor issued laws regarding restitutions of the refugees’ property. This inactivity roused strong reactions from the repatriates who fought for their claims. Only after Andreas Papandreou with his Panhellenic Socialist Movement (Panellinio Sosialistiko Kinima, PASOK) won the 1981 elections, was a promise made to stand up for the Greek Civil War refugees’ rights. It is estimated that between 1974 and 1990 about 10,000 refugees, both first and second generation, repatriated from Czechoslovakia to Greece.

Jannis was 30 years old upon his return and he recalls: “In 1974 the dictatorship in Greece was over and a democratic government headed by Karamanlis was restored. Immediately after the military government stepped down and gave power to civilian politicians everybody started preparing to go back to Greece – be it our parents or us, who never knew Greece, the nostalgia was passed from parents to their descents. All their life was in fact ours. My brother was among the firsts to go to Greece in 1975. I left in 1979. […] For me, Greece was a country beyond my reach, a country that I couldn’t touch; so I touched it once I crossed the border.”

The Greek reality, however, was far beyond the refugee’s expectations. Upon their return they had to deal with many problems and the Greek government took little care of them. After an initial period of joy, repatriates realized that the contrast between their wistful memories of the past and their present reality was sharp. They also faced indigenous Greek’s suspicions. These fears were partly apprehensible considering the sociopolitical atmosphere of that era. In Greece, the word “political refugee” was connected with communism, civil war, shortages and suffering that everybody wished to forget. However, despite their mistreatment by the Greek government and their fellow citizens, as well as the nostalgia they felt towards Czechoslovakia, the majority of repatriates did not regret returning to Greece.

Greek community today

According to the 2011 census data from the Czech Statistical Office, however, only 2,611 people registered as Greek nationals, while many claimed both Czech and Greek citizenship. Those Greeks who stayed in Czechoslovakia tried to reorganize and mend the bonds between themselves. They formed 13 Greek communities, which were affected by the repatriation or emigration of Greeks to other countries, cities and towns; but by organizing cultural and educational activities, these communities maintained their “Greekness,” and promoted good relations between Greek and Czech citizens. In this way the Greek community in the Czech Republic never disappeared. Although many of its members acquired Czech citizenship they still retained their specific culture and habits, thus escaping complete assimilation into Czech society.

Selected bibliography:

• Maria Bontila,“Polychronos na zis, megale Stalin,” I ekpedefsi ton pedion ton Ellinon politikon prosfygon sta anatolika krati 1950 – 1964, (Athina: Metechmio, 2004).
• Antula Botu and Milan Konečný, Řečtí uprchlíci: kronika řeckého lidu v Čechách, na Moravě a ve Slezsku 1948–1989, (Praha: Řecká obec Praha, 2005).
• Loring M. Danforth and Riki van Boeschoten, Children of the Greek Civil War: Refugees and the Politics of Memory, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).
• Ivan Dorovský, Makedonci žijí mezi námi, (Brno: Vydavatelství Masarykovy univerzity, 1998).
• Pavel Hradečný, Řecká komunita v Československu: Její vznik a počáteční vývoj (1948 – 1954), (Praha: Ústav pro soudobé dějiny AV ČR, 2000).
• John O. Iatrides, (ed.), Greece in the 1940s: A Nation in Crisis, (Hanover / London: University Press of New England, 1981).
• Kateřina Králová, “Otázka loajality řecké emigrace v Československu v letech 1948-1968.” Slovanský přehled 3 (2009): 337–350.
• Kateřina Králová and Konstantinos Tsivos, Stegnosan ta dakrya mas. Ellines prosfyges stin Tsechoslovakia. (Athina: Alexandria, 2015).
• Mark Mazower, After the War Was Over: Reconstructing the Family, Nation, and State in Greece, 1943-1960, (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2000).
• Lysimachos Papadopulos Chr., Děti bouře: Vzpomínky a výpovědi o dětských emigrantech z roku 1948 po padesáti letech, (Praha: Nemesis, 1998).
• Marián Sloboda, “Language Maintenance and Shifts in a Greek community in a Heterolinguistic Environment: the Greeks in the Czech Republic.” Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 29 (2003): 5–33.
• Katerina Tsekou, Ellines politiki prosfyges stin Anatoliki Europi 1945-1989, (Athina: Alexandia, 2013).
• Eutyxia Voutira and Aigli Brouskou, “Borrowed Children in the Greek Civil War.” in Abandoned Children, ed. Catherine Panter-Brick a Malcolm T. Smith, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 92-110.
• Eftychia Voutira, Vasilis Dalkavukis, Nikos Marantzidis and Maria Bontila, To oplo parapoda. Oi politiki prosfyjes tu elliniku emfyliu polemu stin Anatoliki Evropi, (Thessaloniki: Ekdosis Panepistimiu Makedonias, 2005).

Kateřina Králová

Kateřina Králová

is an Assistant Professor in Contemporary History and the Vice-Dean for International Relations (2010-2015) at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University in Prague. In her research she focuses on reconciliation with the Nazi past, post-conflict societies, memory and oral history as regards the Holocaust, Greek Civil War and post-war reconstruction particularly in Greece.

Georgia Sarikoudi

Georgia Sarikoudi

earned a PhD in Social Anthropology at the Department of History and Archeology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (Greece), with a thesis entitled “Aspects of the life of the Greek refugees in Czech Republic (former Czechoslovakia): An anthropological approach.” She also widely published in Greece, both academically and in popular history publications.