Czech immigrants of the Swan Valley
However, shortly thereafter hope arrived in the form of letters from friends in Minitonas. The land held great promise there. The drought did not seem to reach the Valley. As a consequence, the families of Vilem Jersak, Karel Andrs, and Vaclav Moravec moved to Minitonas that fall arriving there just before harvest. The Kulhavy brothers stayed in Esterhazy along with Josef Dvorak who with his wife Lidmila discovered that digging for Seneca Root could be very profitably. This enterprise enabled them to purchase land in Minitoans when they arrived there in the spring of 1931.
That same year in August Rudolf Racinsky arrived from Hvezdoslava in Czechoslovakia. By the fall of 1929 the Czech immigrants numbered some 17 families. These families became the tiny nucleus around which the Czech settlement in Minitonas was built. In that same year they organized themselves into the Czechoslovak Mission. By 1939 the immigration was pretty well complete with the last immigrants slipping in just before the Second World War closed the doors to any further immigration.
Another stream of immigrants came to Minitonas via Czechoslovakia. During the early 1920_s several families returned to the newly formed Czechoslovak Republic which invited Protestant exiles back to their homeland offering favorable land settlements. In many cases the families returned to lands their forefathers had lost to the Catholic Church and the Austro-Hungarian nobility.
For this group of immigrants the dream of returning to their ancient homeland after wandering around Europe since the early 1700_s was a stronger dream than the dream of Canada. They had wandered from place to place in central Europe for some 200 or more years not only to preserve their faith, but also with the firm hope that one day they or their children would be able to return to the land of their forbears. This stubbom adherence to their ethnicity often created difficulties for them in the host countries. Now at last they were coming home. This was a momentous historic occasion.
My grandparents along with other Volyn Czechs departed for Czechoslovakia in 1923. They moved by train taking all of their belongings, their livestock, and farming equipment with them. After 200 years in exile remnants of Czech Protestant Exiles returned to their ancient homeland which welcomed them with special appropriations and ceremonies. They were known officially as the "After White Mountain Exiles."
Here the exiles began the experience of orientation to the motherland. The children entered Czech schools where they quickly purified their use of the mother tongue which had deteriorated somewhat over the years in foreign lands. They were immersed into the soul of the country learning the dance, songs, and the manner of thought, values, and beliefs. The new democracy built on the ideals of President Masaryk quickly bred a a deep loyalty and love of their homeland. Soon they were well to do firmly established farmers living in a progressive and modern society with electricity, running water, and sewage. This was indeed a dream come true. My family always considered these as some of the happiest years of their lives.
Whatever would cause some of these families to uproot and move on once more after years of untold struggle and wandering?
For example, my grandfather was paying attention to the radio broadcasts from Germany. He feared what would result from Hitler's rhetoric and ranting about the German super race and the need for space. He began to have doubts about any hope for peace in Europe. The history of his family was a constant struggle for survival. During the First World War he served in the Czech Legions in Russia. Having to leave his young family and go off to the killing field taught him a lesson he would never forget. Secretly he vowed to himself not to take his family through another war.
Then at the age of 21 my father just married was conscripted. This galvanized grandfather into action. One evening he called the family together and announced that they were moving to Canada where his sister already resided. The women began to wail and protest but their pleading was to no avail. Every effort would be made to help his son be exemp-ted from the draft. It was great fortune that with the help of an acquaintance in the conscription office my father received exemption from the draft on the grounds that his wife was pregnant.
Grandfather saw in Canada a refuge from the narrow nationalism and warring that had characterized Europe over the years. In Canada he saw the promise of real freedom. In 1935 his family and my mothers parents gave their farewells to a quite typical of other families that also decided to leave Czechoslovakia at this time.
Once in Canada the immigrants from Czechoslovakia brought a new dimension to the Czechs who came directly from Volyn. Their children had attended high quality schools in Czechoslovakia. Their Czech was impeccable. As well they brought with them a new awareness of Czechoslovakia's culture. They had experienced the spiritual aspects of the ancient homeland. They would provide the impetus for the organization of a Czech school run on Saturdays and a keener ethnic self awareness. In many of the immigrants still lived a desire to make some money and eventually to return to Czechoslovakia. Also one must note that the majority of Baptist immigrants which formed the majority of the Czech settlement contained a number of families who did not have the same historic background. Several families were Catholic. These arrived in Volyn in the mid 1800's because of hunger and depressed economic conditions in Czechoslovakia and did not follow the wandering path of the Protestant exiles. However, most of these families became Baptist and were absorbed by the Protestant majority fairly early.
Although all of the immigrants struggled long hours cutting forest and breaking new land, their major concern as always in the past was their faith. That is why all these families including the Catholic families joined together to build a church in Minitonas. This church completed in 1934 quickly became the focal point of spiritual, social, and cultural life. Soon Czech pastors, the most prominent being Dr. Vojta and Bohatec, came to provide leadership for the congregation. A substantial choir and brass band were organized in due time. In a few short years the new immigrants acquired a sense of identity and security having carved out a place for themselves in the community.
Here they left their mark. The first generation of sons and daughters to be born in Canada were delivered by their own mid wife, Stepanka Sebesta, my maternal grandmother. She delivered 90 babies in all not losing a single one. One of the foremost contributions along with all of the other ethnic groups was to conquer the wilderness and make it into an economically thriving community creating an exceptionally rich environment for generations to come. Their faith impacted the community by providing sons and daughters who held closely to conservative Christian values. They were trustworthy, honest, hardworking, and believing in the sanctity of the family. Thus they helped to make a secure and safe community.
They also a high priority on education. Soon second and third generation Czech Canadians would take their place not just as farmers but as professionals of all classes moving to various parts of Canada. Their contribution to music in the community would be very strong. The young folk would take up hockey with great dedication. My two uncles played hockey as soon as they arrived at the age of 10 and 12 respectively. At a later time the church had its very own hockey team sporting sweaters with the red Canadian Maple leaf on a white background with the word Czechs superimposed on the front. What was even more surprising was that a number of the first generation sons went to war as Canadian soldiers and participated in the very war from which their fathers escaped to Canada. Ironically two of my uncles joined the armed services only seven years after they arrived to Canada.
One was conscripted, the other volunteered. Needless to say grandfather was dismayed by these events. How could the tentacles of war reach across the expanse of the Atlantic which they had just crossed a few years ago? How could his sons be snatched from this haven in Minitonas?
By the early 1970_s the Czech language was being gradually replace by English in the church. In 1978 the congregation called the first English speaking pastor to serve. Today everything is run in English with the exception of one Sunday School class which is still run in the Czech language for the eldest of the congregation who although speaking English quite well prefer to hear the lesson in Czech.
As it turned out Canada was the final stop for these immigrants after wandering around Europe for over 200 years. They did not return to Czechoslovakia after having achieved economic security as some had planned.
Why would these people, especially those from Czechoslovakia, exchange prosperity and modern Europe for tiny cabins of wooden houses with paper thin walls sometimes insulated with sawdust, with no amenities? How could they ac-cept the desolation around them, once great forests now ravaged by fires with ugly blackened poplar poles reaching for the sky, with only dirt roads or tracks connecting lonely farmsteads? How did it come to pass that he great exile dream of faith and homeland which they had lived for two centuries weakened and waned?
A number of external conditions beyond their control militated against any early return to the old homeland. At first the Dirty Thirties created difficult circumstances so that the thought of selling and leaving had to be postponed. Then on the heels of the Depression came the Second Great War. Even by the end of this war no one felt secure enough economically to return to Europe. Finally in 1948 the Iron Curtain slammed into place cutting off connections to the old country.
However, what kept these people put was more than the world circumstances which were beyond their control. Almost without knowing the immigrants were falling under the irresistible charm and spell of Canada.
First, Canada made no attempt whatsoever to influence their Christian faith. Here immigrants of all kinds worshipped as they pleased. This was an entirely new situation for the exiles. This had never happened to them before in such generous measure.
Second, a much more subtle and typically Canadian influence began to assert itself. Canada did not punish ethnicity. In fact, it was allowed to flourish and in later years it was promoted through government policy. To be ethnic was to be Canadian. The immigrants slowly began to understand that they could actually contribute to the making and fashioning of this country. At first this was an uncomfortable challenge to the new newcomers, but soon they responded with devotion and love to this unusual new land.
Third, very gradually over a period of a couple of decades the Czech farmers along with their neighbours of various ethnic backgrounds including third and fourth generation Canadians of Anglo descent turned the area into the picture postcard Swan River Valley nestled between the boreal highlands. The Czechs had created a new home. They now experienced a sense of deep pride in their handiwork. When Canada was pitted against the Czech Republic at Nagano in the 1998 Winter Olympics, the descendents of Czech immigrants passionately cheered for Canada, even though they also found it quite easy to root for the Czechs when Canada went down to defeat.
Today links are still maintained with the Czech Republic. Some of the original immigrants naturally have traveled to Czechoslovakia to reunite with close relatives.
Even third generation Czechs have traveled back to see the country which was home to their forbears. Some of the second generation have returned for short periods to teach English or provide other services and participate in different exchanges. One young man has even taken up permanent residence there. A few young folk have been there to pursue studies or simply to follow their roots. All of them bring back experiences which enhance the weave and texture of Canadian culture.
Assimilation is never easy, although it can likely never take place in more favourable circumstances than in Canada. Assimilation means loss, not just gain. Czechs have a rich tradition of song with the immigrants kept in the form of various recordings from Czechoslovakia. These songs express the soul of the people. One national Czech song states that should Czech songs cease to be sung, the Czech people will cease to exist.
This literally happened to the Czech immigrants to Minitonas. Many of the second and third generations were never exposed to Czech music, but others were. Some carried the songs with them from the old country to Canada. Now there is only a handful of these immigrants that listen to Czech music. My grandmother who passed away in 1994 at the age of 96 loved to listen to the records in my music collection. She would hum along at times and at other times she would weep. She wept for the days lost, her youth, and her old home. When I asked her whether she would like to go back to Czechoslovakia she would say "No! That would be too painful. Canada is my home now."
The Minitonas Czechs have ended their exile. They have a history and roots of which they can always be proud. Assimilation did not destroy their soul; it enriched it. Here they were able to become Canada and Canada became them.Jerry V. Marek
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