Czech and Slovak Americans from an international perspective
On April 7 to 9, 2010, the Center for Great Plains Studies presented its 36th Interdisciplinary Symposium on the subject of “Czech and Slovak Americans: International perspectives from the Great Plains,” http://www.unl.edu/plains. The same Web site provides direct links to registration for the symposium and to hotel reservations. This article aims to provide an overview of the history of Czech and Slovak Americans in the Great Plains states, as well as an appreciation of the extent to which examining this history from international perspectives may facilitate one’s understanding of it.
Most Americans of Czech and Slovak ancestry are descendants of immigrants who came to the United States from Bohemia, Moravia and northern Hungary between 1865 and 1914. At least half of all such immigrants settled in the states bordering the Great Lakes, while nearly a quarter of all Czech immigrants settled in the Great Plains states to which they were attracted by affordable agricultural land, greater political and religious freedom and lucrative commercial opportunities.
Since 1890, Nebraska has been the state with the greatest percentage of citizens of Czech ancestry, and, along with Illinois, New York, Ohio and Texas, has remained among the five states with the largest number of such citizens. Among these states, Illinois has always held first place, thanks to metropolitan Chicago, in which nearly one in every four Czech immigrants chose to reside beginning as early as 1865. Omaha continues to rank fourth among American metropolitan areas with the largest number of Czech-American citizens after Chicago, Cleveland and New York, and ahead of Cedar Rapids, the Twin Cities, St. Louis, Baltimore and Los Angeles. Up to 1914, Czech immigrants usually settled in those parts of the United States in which millions of German and Scandinavian immigrants were already present. This fact should occasion no surprise given the fact that all of these groups enjoyed a high rate of literacy and comparable financial assets, as well as the fact that many Czech-Americans spoke German as a second language and were as likely to intermarry with German-Americans as with any other ethnic group. Like other European immigrants, Czechs and Slovaks preferred to live and work among people who spoke their mother tongue and who often had come from the same or a nearby village. In the Great Plains states and in nearby rural Iowa, Minnesota and Wisconsin, Czechs usually settled together in small towns or in rural townships in which they sometimes comprised a majority of the inhabitants.
Slovaks immigrated to the United States in slightly larger numbers than did Czechs, even though the latter outnumbered them in Europe by nearly three to one. Within the Austro- Hungarian Monarchy after 1867, the Slovaks were truly a politically oppressed people who lived in northern Hungary, one of those economically underdeveloped European areas of agricultural overpopulation, like Ireland, southern Italy and Galicia, from which a disproportionately large percentage of inhabitants immigrated to the Americas or to rapidly industrializing regions of Europe between 1865 and 1914, a period during which as many as one in every five Slovaks came to the United States. With the exception of Chicago, Cleveland and the Twin Cities, few Czech and Slovak immigrants took up residence in the same parts of America, as Slovaks primarily obtained industrial employment in greater Pittsburgh, in the larger cities on the Great Lakes and in the anthracite mines of northeastern Pennsylvania. Though much less likely than Czech immigrants to be literate, to have modest amounts of capital or to emigrate almost exclusively in family groups, Slovak immigrants were equally intelligent and industrious workers whose patterns of settlement and occupational choices resembled those of Polish, Ukrainian and Italian immigrants much more than those of immigrants from Western, Central and Northern Europe. The Slovaks were distinctive among Slavic peoples in being the only one with a substantial Protestant minority—perhaps as many as 20 percent— and also in having had the highest percentage of their entire population immigrate to the United States. In this respect, as in their financial support for politically oppressed relatives and neighbors in northern Hungary, many Slovak Americans initially regarded themselves as the American branch of the Slovak nation (národ). Of course, among the many millions of Slavic immigrants, Slovaks were outnumbered by Poles and Ukrainians as well as by Russians.
Czech and Slovak immigrants in America respectively established separate Czechand Slovak-language periodicals, church parishes and fraternal associations. Not until 1915 did these two immigrant communities gradually begin to work together in advocating the destruction of Austria-Hungary and the establishment of an independent Czechoslovak state. In doing so, they communicated with one another in English as well as in their distinct but mutually intelligible Czech and Slovak languages.
In early September 1914, Czech Americans in Omaha initiated the first public solicitation of funds to support the interests of Czechs endangered by Austria-Hungary’s suspension of representative governmental bodies upon having joined Germany in declaring war on Russia, France and Great Britain. Omaha’s example promptly inspired comparable efforts in Chicago, Cleveland and elsewhere in the United States among secular Czech and Slovak organizations. These activities ultimately came to fruition in the famous Pittsburgh Agreement (Pittsburská dohoda) of May 1918, by which representatives of Czech-American and Slovak- American fraternal and religious associations formally endorsed the creation of a Czechoslovak Republic under the leadership of the Czech National Alliance (Československé národní sdružení), which had been established in Switzerland in July 1915 by T. G. Masaryk, professor of philosophy at the Charles University in Prague, and his former students, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, a Slovak astronomer of international renown, and Edvard Beneš, a Czech journalist and sociologist.
All immigrant groups in the United States continue to be more alike than different in their aspirations, achievements and acculturation, just as all Americans, regardless of ethnic origin, owe their primary allegiance to the laws, values and institutions of the United States. Nevertheless, it is sometimes instructive to examine some of the more remarkable characteristics of each American ethnic group, including those have been susceptible to oversimplification or even stereotyping. In this regard, Czechs are perhaps relatively fortunate among ethnic groups in having so often been portrayed as cheerful, music-loving, kolache-eating and beerdrinking citizens, who proudly wear attractively elaborate regional folk costumes. Such characterization has occurred not only because it is usually a well-intentioned oversimplication of fact but also because music, cuisine and folk arts are those aspects of every ethnic heritage whose perpetuation depends least upon knowledge of languages other than English. By contrast, Czech-language literature, drama and journalism flourished in America for no more than three generations, having been dependent for their survival upon the continued speaking of Czech in family and community life.
Consonant with an international perspective, it is important to note that traditionally Czech and Slovak cuisine and folk music have undergone considerable changes over time on both sides of the Atlantic, especially in the direction of greater variety and complexity. As is evident from the enduring market for Czech and Slovak cookbooks in the United States, traditional family recipes and such dietary staples as roast pork, knedlíky, zelí and koláče have been passed down and enjoyed from generation to generation. Slovaks are more likely than Czechs to drink wine as opposed to beer and continue to enjoy a cuisine that is generally spicier and more like that of Hungarians or Croats than that of Czechs. Meanwhile, for more than a half century, Americans of every ethnic background have been eating “fast food” for convenience and also increasing the frequency with which they partake of an enormous variety of well-prepared meals reflecting the tastes and culinary talents of American citizens from all parts of the world. Appropriately enough, the most successful pioneering entrepreneur in the development and sale of generically American fast food has been Ray Kroc (1902–1984), the grandson of Czech immigrants from western Bohemia. Moreover, his standardized McDonald’s restaurants opened for business in several Czech and Slovak cities shortly after the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, at a time when many Czechs and Slovaks were acquiring both the means and desire to add greater varieties of vegetables and fruits to their traditional diet and also to patronize a growing number of restaurants serving ethnic fare from different parts of the world, including Mexico, India, China and Vietnam.
Traditionally, Czech and Slovak folk music in America continue respectively to help define Czech and Slovak ethnicity in the United States. Comparable to a lesser degree is the ongoing identification of Czech- Americans with the most internationally famous of 19th- and 20th-century Czech classical composers, including Bedřich Smetana, Antonín Dvořák, Leoš Janáček and Bohuslav Martinů. A similar phenomenon is evident in the continued appreciation by American audiences of all styles of Slavic folk, religious and classical music generally (be they Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian or Bulgarian). The popularity of public performances of such music owes much to its having been and continuing to be a means of strengthening ties and mutual understanding across several generations, as well as a means of promoting ethnic pride, attracting patrons to ethnic festivals, and selling professionally produced CDs and sheet music.
During 1967, when my wife, Karen, and I were American exchange students in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, we immediately discovered that many young people, including all of our best friends, usually listened to or performed modern music, particularly jazz and cabaret music, in preference to traditionally Czech folk and classical music. They did so in part because intelligent and selfrespecting youth at that time did not underestimate the stupidity and narrow-mindedness of Communist officials who touted the desirability of “healthy” folk and classical music as opposed to “decadent” and “Western” jazz, and who obstinately refused to acknowledge that jazz had originated among the most oppressed of American ethnic groups and, therefore, ought to deserve recognition as a truly “progressive” means of musical expression. Karen and I promptly acquired a taste for the classical jazz of Jaroslav Ježek (1906–1942) and the witty lyrics and lively music of Jiří Suchý’s and Jiří Šlitr’s Semafor theater (“Sedm malých forem”—“Seven little forms”), while simultaneously deepening our appreciation of Czech folk, classical and sacred music. Much to our consternation, as well as our edification, we also discovered that our Czech contemporaries usually knew much more about all sorts of American popular music than we did. Extraordinarily popular among youth in Communist Czechoslovakia were not only jazz but also rock, Dixieland and bluegrass music, the latter of which by 1990 was performed by more than a dozen bands organized into a Bluegrass League (Bluegrassová liga). The heartthrob of every male rock music fan in Czechoslovakia in the late ’60s and early ’70s was Marta Kubišová, a copy of whose sole LP album, “Songy a Balady” (“Songs and Ballads,” 1969), I managed to smuggle out of Czechoslovakia in 1973 as contraband, Marta having maliciously been banned from giving public performances and selling new records since 1969 by frightened Communists.
Czech receptivity to modern music is familiar to the many Americans who know something about Antonín Dvořák’s having spent the years 1892 to 1895 as the director of the New York’s National Conservatory of Music, including the summer of 1893 in Spillville, Iowa, where he composed his “American” String Quartet in F Major and String Quintet in E-flat, both of which, like his most popular symphony, “From the New World,” reveal the influence of American folk music, especially that of African Americans and Native Americans.
The public performance of folk music as well as newly composed classical works played a large part, along with opera and drama, in promoting Czech national consciousness during the first half of the 19th century, in strengthening efforts to achieve national political and cultural autonomy during the second half of that century and in celebrating the achievement of Czechoslovak independence in October 1918.
Less recognized by many Americans was the extent to which Czechs and Slovaks were justifiably proud of their many achievements in science, industrial technology and all of the fine arts. In comparison to Czech composers and musicians, few Czech authors ever acquired a large audience in the United States. Among the most noted exceptions are Božena Němcová (ca. 1818/1820–1862 ), author of the first bestselling Czech novel, “Babička” (“The Grandmother,” 1855); T. G. Masaryk, the president- liberator of Czechoslovakia (1850–1937); the playwright and essayist Karel Čapek (1890–1938), whose play “Rossum’s Universal Robots” (“R.U.R. - Rossumovi univerzální roboti,” 1920) introduced a new word into almost every language; the novelist Milan Kundera (born 1929); the Nobel Prize-winning poet Jaroslav Seifert (1901–1986); the versatile author, critic and publisher Josef Škvorecký (born 1924); and the courageous dissident and first president of post-Communist Czechoslovakia Václav Havel (born 1936).
Many Americans are unaware of Czech- Americans as well as Czechs having, for nearly two centuries, achieved international recognition as leaders in scientific discovery and the improvement of modern technology. Outstanding examples among such Czech-Americans are Karl Jansky (1905–1950), whose discovery in 1933 of radio waves emanating from outer space launched the discipline of radio astronomy, and František J. Vlček (1871–1947), founder of the Vlchek Tool Works in Cleveland, Ohio, whose autobiography and other publications are among the most extensive sources on Czech-American industrial entrepreneurs and employees. More pertinent to industry and agriculture on the Great Plains is the legacy of the “Hospodář” (“The Farmer”), published in Omaha from 1890 to 1961 and thereafter in West, Texas, and enjoying until the 1950s the largest circulation of any Czech-language agricultural magazine in the Americas.
What is perhaps most unusual about Czech immigrants of the period 1865 to 1914 is the fact that they exerted extraordinary efforts in trying to maintain their native language in the New World and also that they became the only European immigrants in the United States by 1900 among whom a majority did not affiliate with any organized religion. This determination to perpetuate use of the Czech language in the New World arose primarily from all Czechs having understood that their language had been the principal means by which the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia had sustained some sense of national identity throughout the long “period of darkness” (obdoba temna, 1620–1775/1781 ), at whose outset the Habsburgs had replaced Czech with German as the sole administrative language of the two Bohemian Crownlands and during which Czech had almost ceased to be a literary language. Moreover, in the succeeding period of “national renaissance” (Národní obrození, 1775/1781–1848) Czech had reemerged as a literary and commercial language and served during and after the 1848 revolutions as the principal means of expressing Czech aspirations to achieve political, educational and cultural autonomy as well as greater economic prosperity within the Habsburg Empire.
In the United States, Czech language typically survived no more than three American- born generations as a language of family and public communication despite strenuous Czech-American encouragement of weekend language instruction and subscriptions to mass circulation Czech-language newspapers and periodicals, whose principal publishers were located in Chicago, Omaha, Cleveland and New York. Acculturation of immigrants typically accelerated as soon as the children and grandchildren of immigrants embraced English in education, commerce and professional employment.
The establishment of the Czechoslovak First Republic in October 1918 fulfilled many Czech and Slovak aspirations, including national independence, universal male and female suffrage, the enlargement of civil liberties and the promotion of social and educational reform. These achievements undercut the continuing appeal of free thought, as did efforts by Czechs to encourage harmony and mutual interests between themselves and the Slovaks, whose devoutly Catholic majority and large Protestant minority never expressed any liking for free thought.
Almost all Czech-Americans, a majority of Protestant Slovak-Americans and a minority of Catholic Slovak-Americans united after March 1939 to join the revived Czechoslovak National Alliance (Československé národní sdružení) in supporting Allied victory and the reestablishment of an independent and democratic Czechoslovak Republic. A similar unity prevailed in the more than fourdecades- long third struggle (třetí odboj) to restore democracy to Czechoslovakia after the Czechoslovak Communist coup d’état of Feb. 25, 1948. In conducting this struggle, seasoned leaders were increasingly joined by younger Czech and Slovak Americans who had come to the United States since 1945. By this time, the quarrels and competition between Czech-American Catholics and freethinkers had ceased to be an influential force in public life and were soon to be largely forgotten.
The acculturation of Czech- and Slovak- Americans accelerated as a consequence of World War II and the advent of Czechoslovak Communist rule in February 1948. During the war, the sons and grandsons of immigrants spoke only English while serving in the American armed forces, and many of these servicemen moved after the war to towns and cities far from the close-knit ethnic communities in which they had been born and raised. The brutality of the Czechoslovak Communist dictatorship, as well as its slavish obedience to the Soviet Union and its hostility toward the United States during the Cold War, brought the formerly good name of Czechoslovakia into disrepute in the minds of many American citizens. The Czechoslovak Communist government for more than 15 years discouraged tourism, trade and educational exchanges with citizens from NATO countries. During this time, few Americans of Czech and Slovak ancestry traveled to Czechoslovakia; and many of those who did so had relatives or friends among the more than one-and-a-half million members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party.
Another wave of Czech and Slovak immigrants arrived in the United States and Canada after the Soviet and Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. One such post-1968 immigrant, Dr. Miluše Šašková-Pierce, professor of Russian at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL), has helped keep alive the more than one-centuryold tradition of offering Czech language classes. During the 1980s, Šašková-Pierce encouraged her students to revive the Komensky Club (Komenský klub), the oldest Czech- American student organization in the United States, founded in 1904 and named in honor of the world-famous Czech Protestant pastor and educational reformer Jan Amos Komenský (1592–1670). Šašková-Pierce also established the club’s new periodical, Náš Svět. Šašková-Pierce and her husband, Layne Pierce, and other Nebraskans, including me, have worked with the Czech Language Foundation of Nebraska to raise funds to support the continuation of the Czech program and also to create an endowment large enough to fund a permanent professorship in Czech language. In 1993, UNL’s Czech Language Program lost its only tenure-track position during budget cuts instituted by then Chancellor Graham B. Spanier, despite the fact that the Czech program had enrolled more students than any such program in the United States.
The Velvet Revolution of November 1989 opened a bright new era in Czech and Slovak history, inaugurating the restoration of the rule of law, representative government, extensive civil liberties and a market economy, and giving to Czechs and Slovaks an opportunity to address the many serious problems ignored or exacerbated by Communist Czechoslovakia. Having restored their good name in politics and built upon their reputation for creativity in the arts and sciences, Czechs and Slovaks are making their countries into ever more attractive destinations for tourists, scholars and businessmen. May their relations with Czech and Slovak Americans, as well as Americans generally, continue to prosper, intensify and improve.Bruce Garver
(Undertaken from Prairie Fire
with the author approval)
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