THE COMMUNITY of Slovaks living in the United Kingdom started to grow after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. According to the web page of the Slovak Ministry of Culture, the official number of Slovaks living in Britain today is around 1,000.
In the early 1980s the former Czechoslovakia was included in the list of countries that could participate in the UK au-pair program. As a result a large number of Slovak girls and young women started to flow to Britain to learn English while helping British families.
At the same time, Slovak students became entitled to study in Britain and support themselves with part-time work.
According to Ivan Štípala, a former head of the Slovak Circle in Great Britain (the main representative body of Slovaks in Britain), the 1990s brought dramatic changes to the Slovak Community in the United Kingdom.
"While before the fall of Communism the purpose of our organisation was to represent Slovaks in Britain, and to offer 'Slovak soil' to ex-pats, whose contacts with their homeland were limited, this representative role was taken over in 1990 by the Embassy of the Slovak Republic in the UK... [In addition,] the opening of the borders substantially broadened the possibilities of keeping in touch with Slovakia [so consequently] our organisation became more of a social club for meeting with friends," said Štípala.
There were three main waves of Slovak emigration to Great Britain, with the first one occurring after the Communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in February 1948.
Another wave came in 1968 after the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Czechoslovakia in order to end democratic reforms that did not have the support of Moscow. The final, and also the largest wave, came after the collapse of communism in 1989.
"Nowadays, the Slovak Circle in Great Britain has more younger than older members. They meet about once a month in London and also on major holidays like Christmas, when a party is usually organised and special Slovak food is served. Recently a Slovak Ball took place attracting about 250 people.
The Slovak Circle's events are often attended by representatives of the Slovak Embassy, including the highest ones," remarks Štípala.
Another meeting place for Slovaks living in London is a Czech-Slovak house in the picturesque north-eastern part of the city called West Hampstead.
The house, which incorporates a library, accommodation facilities and a restaurant (serving delicious Czech and Slovak meals), has a very lively pub and a summer garden.
Czech and Slovak youngsters are attracted to the pub in search of the irreplaceable taste of Czech beer, especially on weekends. During the Ice Hockey World Championships the house literally bursts at the seams.
Two years ago, when the Slovaks became World Champions, London's Czecho-Slovak House had probably the largest gathering of Czech and Slovak Ice Hockey fans outside the Czech and Slovak Republics.
After the victorious final match, Slovaks took to the streets of London to celebrate the success, just as English fans, or members of some other much larger national minorities, do when celebrating the success of their football team.
The Slovaks in Britain are, according to Štípala, mainly concentrated in London and large industrial English cities like Manchester and Liverpool.
"In recent years the cultural life of young Slovaks has been enriched by regular concerts by Slovak and Czech music groups, including one of the most popular Slovak bands, Elán. They take place in part of north London called Camden, in the former theatre called Camden Hall," Štípala added.
The most recent wave of Slovak emigration to Britain has dramatically changed the shape of the modest official number of Slovaks living in Britain.
However May 1, and Slovakia's membership of the European Union, has brought another major change in Slovak-British relations - Slovak citizens are now able to work in the United Kingdom without restriction.
Whether this brings about another mutually beneficial wave of Slovak emigration to Britain remains to be seen.
9. Aug 2004 at 0:00 | Robert Valjent