50 YEARS SINCE 1968
Yuri Dojc: I did not want to live under occupation
Slovakia is not even close to what I remember from my life here, says the Canadian- Slovak photographer.
Noted Slovak-Canadian photographer Yuri Dojc comes from the eastern-Slovak town of Humenné. In 1968, he was in his early twenties and decided to use the opportunity that the thaw in the regime presented, and see the world west of the Iron Curtain. With a friend he got a summer job in England, picking strawberries.
“If I hadn’t gone, my whole life would have gone in a different direction,” he says 50 years later.
On August 21, 1968, Dojc was on his way to the airport to fly back home to Czechoslovakia, where all his family lived.
“I walked into a Polish store, and the lady was telling me that the Russians had come,” Dojc recalls. “I didn’t believe her, but then I saw a demonstration in the street and I realised there was an invasion. So I decided there was no point in going to the airport.”
Dojc made his way to the International Student House where people like him were already gathering. They were soon to become refugees.
“I had spent all my money on presents and I had just enough for the underground ride to the airport,” Dojc says. “At that moment I realised my whole life had just dramatically changed.”
Away from Europe
What he did know was that he did not want to live
in Czechoslovakia anymore after the occupation.
He admits that he was scared about what was in
store for him, but he was also “young and stupid”, as he says, ready to make spontaneous decisions and take his chances.
Since he was horribly homesick, in December 1968 Dojc went to see the Czechoslovak Embassy in London to ask for a permission to return and come back to England. It allowed him to briefly visit Bratislava for two days. His father took him to the side and said: If you want to stay, it is ok, but if you want to be free, get out the next day before they close the borders.
Yuri Dojc on his brief visit to Bratislava in December 1968: "The girl in the photo was my then girlfriend Bohunka, who lives in Teplice, Czech Republic." (Source: Yuri Dojc archive)
“I chose the latter, I left the very next morning and did not return for 20 years,” Dojc says.
After half a year in England, Dojc made his way further west, to Canada.
“I don’t really understand why but I decided I didn’t want to live in Europe anymore,” he explains as he remembers his visits to foreign embassies in London, with the aim of becoming a legal immigrant. “I started with New Zealand, to be as far from Europe as possible. I ended up at the Canadian Embassy, and Canada said yes, so I took the chance.”
With the status of an immigrant, he got a ticket to Canada and boarded an airplane to Toronto, still with his Czechoslovak passport in his pocket.
Navigating the capitalist world
It was the second time he had flown, and when the stewardess asked him if he wanted some champagne, he remembers thinking “This is a capitalist society, surely they give you champagne for free.” So he drank it and only then was told it was six dollars.
“So my fortune of 12 dollars shrank to six dollars.” With that in his pocket, Dojc landed in Toronto.
“There was a lot of trepidation,” he admits. There was nobody waiting for him at the airport and he did not know what to do. Security gave him money for the cab and papers to go to an immigration office in downtown Toronto, where they directed him to a hotel for immigrants. On his first night, he was kicked out of the room.
“I felt sorry for myself, thinking why the hell I had come here,” he says. “It wasn’t as amazing as I expected. It felt very plain, and suddenly England looked very rosy. But once I went to Canada, I decided to stay.”
The first return
People who emigrated from Czechoslovakia could not return home, since they faced a prison sentence for an unauthorized departure from the republic. Most of them saw the places of their childhood and often their family only after 1989, when the Communist regime collapsed. Dojc got the opportunity one year earlier.
In 1988, he heard from a friend that the Czechoslovak government was willing to absolve people of prison sentences for a fee of 2,000 dollars.
“We did not know Communism would collapse soon, and my friend said ‘You might never see your parents again’,” Dojc recalls. “So 2,000 dollars seemed like a good price to pay.”
He went to the consulate in Montreal and paid the price, not knowing whether he could trust the Communist government. But it worked out and he was allowed a visit home.
“I was absolutely petrified,” he says about that visit to Czechoslovakia, adding that everything was the same as when he had left 20 years before, except his friends had grown older.
The emotion of home
Now, Dojc is visiting Slovakia regularly, not least because of his Last Folio project, which he had been working on since the late 1990s. He says Slovakia is a completely different country now, “not even close to what I remember”.
“I know that since I don’t live there, just visit, that I see it much nicer than those who live there on everyday basis,” he says. “I don’t get too involved. Everybody wants to talk about politics, but frankly, I don’t even know the names of the politicians.”
After 50 years living abroad, he no longer calls Slovakia home. As a matter of fact he does not call any place home. Home is everywhere he is at the moment, he says, and quotes the Czech philosopher and fellow emigrant Vilem Flusser: “Émigrés become free not when they deny their lost homeland, but when they come to terms with it.”
It’s all written
As an immigrant in Canada, Dojc has had a successful career as a photographer. He admits that back home, he never thought of photography. But he is reluctant to say that it was thanks to the opportunities Canada gave him, which he surely would not have had in 1970s Czechoslovakia.
“To be honest, I really believe in what the Italians say: É tutto scritto. Everything is written,” he says. “Why I’m here is not because of emigration, but because it was written.”
Did he ever feel any regrets about leaving home? That question brings back the memory of the girlfriend he had left behind in 1968 Czechoslovakia.
“I was never really longing to go back, though,” he says. “I wanted to go forward rather than backward. Going forward is to appraise whatever is in front of you.”