As a little girl in Czechoslovakia, Helena Peskova imagined what her wedding might be like but not in her wildest dreams could she envisage the reality – as one of three couples saying “I do” on the same date in the same church in a migrant camp at the bottom of the world.
Fifty five years after that remarkable day, Helena - now Helena Chlebna – returned to the Bonegilla Migrant Experience with her husband Ladislav to revisit the place where they and the two other couples began their married lives in Australia.
The road that led Ladislav and Helena to Bonegilla was an unexpected one.
Young and “very much in love”, the couple saw no reason to leave their home until Russian forces rolled into Prague in 1968, intent on crushing reform and enforcing communism in Czechoslovakia.
“They came with tanks into the centre of Prague and all of a sudden it looked hopeless and that’s when people started to think about how to get out of there,” Helena said this week.
With one suitcase each, the young couple went to a camp in Austria from where they hoped to emigrate to America. The American option did not work out but soon after learning that Australia was looking for skilled migrants, Ladislav and Helena found themselves on a flight to Sydney.
Speaking no English, they left family and friends behind to begin their Australian adventure and thinking they might return to Czechoslovakia, but “sometimes you don’t realise that it’s forever”.
After a bus ride from Sydney through charred country recently scorched by a bushfire and amid alarming conversations on board about Australia’s dangerous snakes, the unmarried couple arrived at Bonegilla, where the authorities tried to separate them.
Ladislav and Helena refused to be parted so on October 31, they married alongside two other Czech couples at the Bonegilla Catholic church.
It was, observed the Border Morning Mail, an unusual situation for any bride, let alone three.
“Fleeing Russian-occupied Czechoslovakia on a four-day passport allows a prospective bride little opportunity to bring her trousseau, so three young Czech brides at Bonegilla will be married today in borrowed finery,” the paper reported.
Helena recalls the “borrowed finery” with affection.
“The Salvation Army ladies found a nice little costume (dress) for me and made flowers to put on the side and it was very pretty,” she said.
“My friend was a hairdresser and she did my hair so it was very nice and it must have been right because we’re still together!”
The weather was lovely that day and the couple enjoyed their unusual wedding and although they intended to return to Czechoslovakia for a “proper wedding with our parents, it never happened.”
The newlyweds soon made their way to Melbourne where Ladislav, who had been a surgical instrument mechanic in Czechoslovakia, saw a job in Czech newspapers for a toolmaker at Massey Ferguson in Melbourne and started working there.
Although they did not much like Australia at first, the couple worked hard, bought land for their own home and gradually they “started to feel like we were at home”.
They went on to have two sons, four grandchildren and five great grandchild and built a wonderful life as Australians.
Helena said their recent return to Bonegilla for the first time since 1968 is taking time to process but they’re looking forward to returning soon to see their plaque placed on the Arc memorial.
Twists of fate and a spur of the moment decision led them to Australia and their memorable triple wedding - and as Helena says, “I’m so glad we’re here”.