From Czechoslovakia to Australia: The story of successful Slovak musician Albín Berky Jr.

With his father abroad, Albin tasted freedom as a teenager and could not let go of his desire for a better life during the communist regime.

Albín Berky Jr. (Source: Post Bellum)

Musician Albín Berky Jr. was born in Bratislava on March 31, 1953. He grew up in a well-known musical family.

His father, Albín Berky Sr., was a cellist virtuoso. He was soloist of the Slovak Philharmonic between 1940 and 1967, as well as a professor, awarded by the president of Czechoslovakia, at a state music school and at the Academy of Performing Arts (VŠMU) in Bratislava, and represented Czechoslovakia abroad as a musician. He is considered a pioneer of Slovak music and culture, as he co-founded the Slovak Public Radio, the Slovak Philharmonic, VŠMU and other institutions. He also had noble roots, a descendant of the Bittó family on his mother’s side.

It was always music

Berky Jr.'s parents met upon their families' initiative. Both families were devoted to trade, and Berky Sr. studied in Prague in the thirties. At the age of 24, he won a position at the Prague Philharmonia.

When he returned to his hometown of Žilina, two mothers agreed that a beautiful daughter should marry a successful son. After the wedding, Berky Jr. was born.

Berky Jr. spent his childhood living in a villa on Vlčková Street, not far from the memorial monument Slavín in Bratislava, which his father received from the state.

“My father was a representative personage, and we had a very good life,” claimed Albín, underlining that his father never joined the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (KSČ).

Albín was eight or nine years old when his father began to take him out for concerts. At that time, the state agency Slovkoncert, which organised concerts in Slovakia, used to send a driver and Tatraplan car, manufactured by the Czech producer Tatra in the late 1940s, to pick them up. Berky Sr. would settle his son into a seat in a side-box at the concert hall, where he would then listen to the live music performance.

“He was an incredible role model to me, and I could not have imagined becoming anything other than a musician,” Albín said.

Family changes

At the beginning of the sixties, the villa, in which the Berky family lived, was returned to the original owners. As a result, the Berkys had to move elsewhere. They went on to live in a block of flats owned by the Culture Ministry, opposite Bratislava's Stein brewery.

Popular Slovak actors like Eva Kristínová, Július Pántik, and Štefan Kvietik became the family's new neighbours. Albín's father did not spend much time at home, however. He often travelled abroad, but rarely to western Europe.

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“My father often complained that Czechs were always prioritised when it came to concerts in the West,” Albín claimed. Hence, his father visited all the socialist countries. He may have even been the first Czechoslovak artist to represent Czechoslovakia in USSR's Leningrad.

But Berky Sr. did not take care of his family much because of his travels and his wife had to look after the household. His parents eventually got divorced, and Albín left with his mother to live in Žilina. Albín got to know his father better, in fact, as an adult.

In the sixties, his father became a soloist in Berlin, then in Malmö, and later in Dublin, where he worked legally. Following the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troops in 1968, he decided to stay in Dublin instead of returning to his homeland. He lived there with his second wife and son Tomáš.

Soldiers in the night

Albín was 15, in Bratislava, when he experienced the Warsaw Pact occupation of Czechoslovakia. He looked out of the window on the night of August 20, 1968 and spotted a line of tanks queueing up by the former central market. At first, he thought it was just a military exercise.

“My brother worked at the petrol station, and I gave him a ride to work the next morning,” recalled Albín. They were approaching the neighbourhood of Lamač when they saw a huge number of tanks moving towards Bratislava.

“It was a shock,” Albín said. Having taken his brother to work, he then rode his motorbike to SNP Square. Everyone came to the square, both the young and the elderly. And everyone asked the soldiers the same question: “What are you doing here?” The soldiers did not know. They thought it was a military exercise as well. They were essentially youth serving their compulsory military service.

“Kill me, you Russian swine!” shouted a man, who had torn his shirt, at the soldiers, as recalled by Albín. People incited the soldiers so long that one of them grabbed a machine gun and began shooting all around the square. Thousands of people on the square found themselves lying on the ground in a second. At the nearby post office, a bullet killed a boy.

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Freedom, freedom!

“A few days after the occupation, I rode to Februárka [a colloquial term for today's Račianska Street in Bratislava, previously known as Victorious February Street] to get my visa at the passport department,” Albín recalled.

The building, where the department was housed, was encircled by 20 or 30 tanks. Albín had to slalom through the tanks to reach the building. He swiftly leaned his motorbike against the staircase and ran to the visa department. There, people were already queueing up to get a stamp.

“We got the exit permit, and my friend and I shouted out 'Freedom, freedom!'” Albín remembered.

Bratislava spirit

It was hard to leave Bratislava behind, though, as it had experienced a cultural boom in the sixties.

Albín used to go to gigs of different bands, such as Beatman, Buttons, Guľový Dolník (the band's name refers to a specific German playing card), Collegium Musicum, Fermata, and Prúdy (Currents). At six in the evening, the youth used to meet at Korzo, a promenade stretching from Michael's Gate through Hviezdoslav Square up to the Danube.

“It was amazing. Everyone had a radio and long hair,” Albín recalled. “People smoke and drank, which was not healthy. That was how it went.”

People went see concerts at the V club, dormitories Bernolák and Mladá garda, and at the Park of Culture and Relaxation (PKO). Around this time, Prúdy started singing in Slovak, though bands usually sang in English at the time.

However, Albín soon realised what socialism was really about.

“Communists gave people assurances,” he said. The system took care of your health, education, employment and social support, he added.

“But when a persanted individual freedom, or they held a different opinion to what was required,” claimed Albín, “it was not possible to have it.”

Reunited with father

That was why thousands decided to emigrate. Albín crossed the border only with his violin and a suitcase. His mother encouraged him since the occupation to find his father and settle in Ireland.

The mood towards emigrants in Vienna, which was Albín's first stop, was open and generous. Thousands of Czechoslovaks slept on mattresses in a sports hall, and the Red Cross handed out food. Foreign consulates issued visas willingly. As a result, Albín managed to get to Germany. He met his father, who was playing a concert, in Cologne by chance.

“I was walking on the main street when a friend of mine told me: 'Look! Your father.'” Albín said. His father was standing behind a shop window and Albín knocked on the glass. His father looked out through the window and put his glasses on. Only then did he recognise his son, and nearly fell to the ground. Later, they visited the Irish embassy to get an Irish visa for young Albín.

Benson Hedges & Black Label

In Ireland, Albín began studying the violin at the Royal Music Academy under the supervision of Czech professor Vanečka. Yet, he longed to return home and spend Christmas with his mom, and managed to persuade his father to arrange a ticket for him. But Albín's exit permit was no longer valid at the time, meaning that he was staying abroad illegally.

“We landed in Prague and, of course, as soon as I pulled out my passport, police officers pushed a knob,” Albín remembered, “two comrades came and took me to a hearing.”

“Where have you been? Who did you meet? Where did you live? Names!” Albín recalled the questions he had been asked. He did not lose his nerve, though.

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“Do you smoke, comrades?” Albín asked them, while they were jotting down what he said. They nodded. Albín took a box of Benson Hedges out of his pocket.

“And do you drink sometimes?” Albín went on, pulling a Black Label whiskey out of his bag. He gave them all the presents he had bought in Ireland.

“Well, do not worry, comrade. Everything will be alright,” they said to Albín. “We just have to write it down.” Following the hearing, they let him go. Two days later, however, two secret agents turned up at Albín's mother's house, withdrawing his passport.

“You will not travel anywhere outside Czechoslovakia,” they stated. But Albín had experienced the West, and he could not forget the occupation of ʼ68. Hence, he attempted to cross the border again and return to the academy in Ireland.

But he did not find the courage to go to Februárka on his own, because the officers there knew him very well. Albín therefore sent his friend to apply for another exit permit and pick up a decision later on. It somehow worked out well, and Albín found himself in Vienna at the start of April 1969 again.

By that time his father was already living in Canada. Albín tried to get a visa to Canada for himself, but his father's second wife did not agree to it. Albín had to return home.

Blacklist

The fact that Albín's father had emigrated did not help Albín after his return to Czechoslovakia. He enrolled in a musical school in Bratislava, where he studied the oboe. Under the supervision of professor Hargaš and professor Oberlander, he even graduated from the school.

However, VŠMU did not accept him. The dean told Albín that his name was on the blacklist, and no one would help him anymore. Later, he had to undergo mandatory military service. During this time, he passed an exam to join a military band. Yet, he never joined it as he was sent to Písek in the Czech Republic, where he served as a tank driver instead.

From 1978 to 1980, Albín taught at a musical school in the neighbourhood of Štrkovec in Bratislava's borough of Ružinov. Comrades shut him out of the school, however.

“Another teacher has taken your position. I am not allowed to explain!” the school's principal announced to him, Albín recalled. He went on to work as a postman for two weeks. During the nights, he worked as an employee of municipal services. In addition, he worked at the Juraj Dimitrov chemical plant.

At the same time, he played in a number of bands, including Orbit, Gong, and Dynamit. They often played at the V club, and he regularly appeared on TV as well. When one of the bands was asked to play abroad, Albín was banned from travelling at the last minute. As a result, he remained in the country and played with the band Profil. He also had the opportunity to audition for the Slovak State Philharmonic in Košice, where he could have played the oboe. But then he learned that Gustáv Husák became the president of Czechoslovakia.

“We take you.”

“We will not support a promenade between Bratislava and Vienna!” said Husák at the KSČ rally. “But who wants to go, let them submit an application to move out!”

Albín did so. His application was rejected three times. Yet, it worked out for the fourth time under the condition that he would give up his Czechoslovak citizenship. His older brother had already moved to Australia, and Albín wanted to follow him there. But he needed a visa first.

Coincidentally, the Australian consul was in Prague at the time, and Albín caught him at the British consulate. He told the consul his story in person. The consul just responded: “We take you.” Albín obtained the visa three days later.

“He was very humane to me, and I will never forget it! The Australian mentality,” Albín said.

Albín flew to Australia on May 17, 1980. The beginning was tough, and he lived on the street for a while. But then he stayed at his brother's house for some time and even passed exams for the Australian Chamber Orchestra successfully in five months. It was his first opportunity to play at the Sydney Opera House.

Music education was just developing in Australia, and smaller towns lacked musical schools. Albín thus got a chance to start a musical school in the towns of Wagga-Wagga and Albury. Charles Sturt University, attended by 6,000 students, also had campuses in the towns. As the university did not have any music department, Albín got a job as a lecturer and chamber musician there. He played hundreds of concerts, public recitals and educational concerts.

Júlia

Even though Albín managed to emigrate, his fiancée Júlia remained in Czechoslovakia. He tried to get her to Australia legally but did not succeed. Therefore, she decided to escape.

She was a flautist in the folk group Lúčnica, which still tours around the world today. Once they travelled to Barcelona, where she made the decision. She snuck out through the window of the hotel and ran away, wearing only slippers on her feet and holding a small suitcase and her flute underarm. She took a flight to Vienna where Albín was waiting for her. In the meantime, he had handled all the formalities in Australia.

Around this time, the communist government in Poland declared a state of war from 1981 to 1983 to stop the Solidarity-led democracy movement. Following that, thousands of Poles emigrated and applied for the Australian visa, as well, Albín recalled.

“I was still without citizenship, the so-called stateless - no citizen of any country,” Albín said. “I just held the Australian Certificate of Identification.”

Nonetheless, the Australian consul was very helpful again. In two weeks, everything was ready and Júlia and Albín could leave for Australia together.

“We flew 20,000 kilometres to start a new life, happy and content, in the country of palm trees and beaches, finally together,” he remembered.

After two years, they obtained Australian citizenship. They co-founded three musical schools in Australia's inland, as well as the Australian International Conservatorium of Music in Sydney. In 1986, they established the Berky Music Academy, where they still teach today. Many successful graduates, teachers, artists and soloists have studied at their academy.

Albín and Júlia were also members of the Riverina Trio, which was later renamed to The Berky Trio.

After 1989

Because emigrated legally, he could return to Czechoslovakia after getting Australian citizenship. He travelled there in 1982, but it was a tough return, mentally.

“Those customs officers had not changed a bit,” he claimed. One of them took his passport and studied it. As soon as Albín confirmed that he was born in Bratislava but was Australian, the officer began to check his suitcases very carefully.

“I could eventually visit my mother, but I was unhappy to see that nothing had changed,” he admitted.

When the situation eventually began to change in 1989 in Czechoslovakia, he watched it all on TV in Australia. It was an emotional and tense moment, Albín remembered.

After 1989, he visited the country even more often because of his mother. Yet, his close childhood friends, originally from Bratislava, were not there. They had also emigrated from Czechoslovakia during communism.

“Thousands of Czechoslovaks decided to chase freedom abroad,” Albín said. “They left everything behind and began from scratch, with no home, family and money, to have a better life than in Czechoslovakia.”

Today, Albín Berky Jr. and his wife Júlia have two children; Richard is an economist and younger Jacqueline is a successful flute player and teacher.

Albín’s generation had to fight for their individual freedom, such as the opportunity to go abroad, study abroad, and become successful in the world. And it is a freedom that is often taken for granted by the younger generation today.