On April 7 to 9, 2010, the Center for Great Plains Studies will present its 36th Interdisciplinary Symposium on the subject of “Czech and Slovak Americans: International perspectives from the Great Plains,” at which musicians will perform, artists will display their works and scholars will present papers on a variety of topics illustrating the great extent to which developments on both sides of the Atlantic have conditioned the experience of Czech and Slovak immigrants and their descendents in the Great Plains states and the upper Middle West from the mass immigration of 1865 to 1914, through two World Wars, to the long Cold War and its aftermath. The complete program of this symposium, including keynote speakers from the Czech Republic and the United States, may be found on the Web site of the Center for Great Plains Studies at 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 encourage readers to attend the symposium and to provide them with 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. Not only were Czech and Slovak and other European immigrants proud of their ancestors many artistic, literary, technological and scientific achievements in medieval, Renaissance and modern times, but most of them also kept in touch with contemporary political, economic and cultural developments in their European homelands by subscribing to periodicals and by regularly corresponding with and occasionally visiting relatives and friends in the “old country.” At the April symposium, scholarly papers will address not only many of the attractive but also some of the unsavory aspects of Czech and Slovak life on both sides of the Atlantic, including prostitution, poverty, suicide, political factionalism and Czechoslovak Communism.
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. Just as the history of these states cannot be comprehended without reference to the rest of the nation, neither can their economy be understood apart from that of the upper Middle West and especially Chicago, as William Cronon has so clearly demonstrated in his imaginative and solidly documented monograph, “Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West” (New York, N.Y.: W. W. Norton Co., 1991).
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.
During the last quarter of the 19th century, Slovak immigrants established in the United States a large Slovak-language press, which freely and vigorously advocated Slovak interests everywhere, thus accomplishing what Hungarian censorship prevented Slovaks from doing in northern Hungary. Because the Hungarian government inadequately funded compulsory public elementary education, while insisting that Hungarian be the sole language of instruction, illiteracy rates remained high among Slovaks who, until the formation of Czechoslovakia, had no Slovak-language university and had been able to maintain only two private Slovak-language secondary schools. Whereas some Czech and Slovak intellectuals within the Habsburg Monarchy had developed cordial ties and reciprocal political interests, Czech and Slovak immigrants in America respectively established separate Czech- and 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 beer-drinking 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.
In Europe, as opposed to America, Czech folk music increasingly occupies a somewhat less exalted place in the broad, varied and enormously popular musical repertoire that Czechs have skillfully and enthusiastically performed for many centuries. At least as early as the Hussites’ “Jistebnice hymnal” of the mid-15th century, “Co Čech, to muzikant”—“Whoever is Czech is also a musician”—has been a defining feature of Czech national character. During the era of baroque arts and architecture, polyphonic Czech classical music and religious hymns achieved European-wide acclaim in the works of such composers as Jan Dismas Zelenka (1679–1745) and the Benda brothers, František (1709–1786) and Jiří Antonín (1722–1795). Meanwhile, Czech folk music has thrived in every part of Bohemia and Moravia with distinctive styles, themes and rhythms often corresponding to an equally attractive variety of regional folk art and costume. For example, Moravian folk music often has a somewhat slower and stronger melody, as in the ever popular love song, “Teče voda, teče” (“Flow Water, Flow”), than does the generally faster and lighter pace of traditional Czech folk music from Bohemia. Slovak folk music generally more resembles that of Moravian Czechs and even of Slavs from Balkans as opposed to that of Bohemian Czechs. Such distinctions are hardly evident in classical music or in jazz and rock music, whose Czech and Slovak composers typically have not departed markedly from the internationally recognized conventions in the style and instrumentation of each of these types of 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 self-respecting 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.
Creative innovation in the composition and performance of music continued to exercise a formidable influence in Czech politics and society throughout the 20th century. The gratuitous trial and imprisonment in 1976 of the members of the Czech rock band “the Plastic People of the Universe,” including their principal lyricist Milan Hlavasa, was the occasion for the formation of Charter 77, the first public protest since 1969 against the incompetence and viciousness of Communist Czechoslovak rule. In November 1989, Michael Kocáb, a composer and popular performer of rock music, served as Václav Havel’s emissary to Communist Prime Minister Ladislav Adamec in negotiations that soon led to the resignation of Czechoslovakia’s last Communist government, memorably described as not having among its members anyone with an IQ above room temperature.
One of America’s most beloved authors, Willa Cather captured many of the more appealing qualities of Nebraska’s rural Czech citizens in her novel “My Antonia,” and in shorter fiction like “Neighbor Rosický.” The latter work also addressed the tragedy of suicide, whose relatively frequent occurrence among such peoples as Czechs and Swedes was already becoming evident in governmental statistics compiled in Europe and America after the mid-19th century. On the other hand, neither Cather nor other English-language authors chose to examine thoroughly the intense involvement of Czech and Slovak Americans in the political, intellectual and artistic endeavors of their compatriots in Europe—endeavors that were daily discussed in the Czech and Slovak language newspapers of the United States. Not until World War I did the increasing threat of Imperial Germany and Austria-Hungary to American national security oblige Americans to pay attention to the political interests and goals of the smaller European nations that were subject to German and Austro-Hungarian rule.
Even less well 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 best-selling 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. See the illustrations of the top and bottom halves of the front cover of the Feb. 9, 1916 issue of “Hospodář” (Vol. XXVI, No. 1), a cover that clearly reveals the differences between traditional Old World farming practices of the early 19th century in contrast to the mechanized farming of the early 20th century in the trans-Mississippi West. The top quarter of this cover portrays “a harvest during olden times” (Žně za starých dob). At the center of this part of the cover appears the city of Pardubice’s large sculptural group celebrating the Veverka cousins (Sousoší bratranců Veverkových v Pardubicích), whose family name is also the Czech word for “squirrel.” In 1827 Václav Veverka (1790–1849) and František Veverka (1799–1849), both from Rybitví, Bohemia, invented an improved wheeled plough called the “vynález ruchadla” or the “ruchadlo” (the “hustler”) for short. This “hustler” in action appears in the small circular lithograph on the left and is described by the caption “Český vynález 1827” (“A Czech invention, 1827”). The circle to the right illustrates “tillage in America in the year 1916” (“Orba v Americe roku 1916”) and the fact that Czech farmers on both sides of the Atlantic continued to make very effective use of industrial technology. The image of the bottom half of the cover depicts “a modern harvest” (“Žně moderní” ) accomplished with a steam-powered tractor.
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 slight majority of Czech immigrants who did not affiliate with any organized religion called themselves Czech freethinkers (svobodomyslní Češi). Every aspect of their history in Europe as well as in the United States remains controversial, including the extent to which they conditioned Czech-American acculturation, politics, journalism and society up to 1948, by which time their influence was rapidly diminishing. These Czech freethinkers had drawn their inspiration primarily from the liberalism and nationalism of the 1848 revolutions and retained these ideals during and after the decade of absolutist rule that followed the Habsburg Monarchy’s suppression of these revolutions in 1849 with the help of Russian armies. To a lesser degree, 19th-century Czech free thought grew out of resentment toward the Catholic Counter Reformation and the Habsburgs for having in the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) eradicated Czech Hussite and Protestant congregations and driven their few remaining adherents underground. The revival of Czech nationalism, liberalism and free thought began with the establishment of constitutional rule in the Habsburg Monarchy after the defeat of its armies by the French and Piedmontese at Magenta and Solferino in June 1859. Anti-clericalism became an essential part of Czech liberalism and nationalism, not only because of the close association of the Catholic Church with the Habsburg Monarchy but also on account of the reactionary politics and theology practiced by Pope Pius IX (1846–1878). Even the extensive reforms of Pope Leo XIII (1878–1903), including the endorsement of the Americanist movement within the Catholic Church in the United States, did little to moderate the anti-clericalism of Czech-American freethinkers.
The Czech National Liberal—or Young Czech—party, established in 1874, became the principal advocate of industrialization as well as liberalism, national autonomy and free thought in the Czech lands of Austria-Hungary until the outbreak of World War I. This party’s political and religious views strongly influenced at least half of all Czechs who came to the United States between 1865 and 1914, where most Czech immigrant communities became fairly evenly divided between Catholics and freethinkers and also included small minorities of Protestants and Jews. In lieu of association with any church, Czech freethinkers established their own periodicals, fraternal and mutual-aid societies, like the Czecho-Slavonic Benevolent Society (ČSPS) and the Western Bohemian Fraternal Association (ZČBJ), and educational and physical fitness organizations, notably the Sokol. These societies and organizations promoted fellowship, civic responsibility, charitable work, adult education and many other tasks comparable to those undertaken by churches. Such activities were facilitated by the fact that over 90 percent of Czech immigrants were literate, and at least half had arrived with small amounts of capital.
As many as 90 percent of Czech freethinkers were agnostic in matters of religion and tolerant of all religious faiths. Some of the relatively few militantly atheistic Czech freethinkers nonetheless exercised a large influence in the editorial content of the Czech-language press in the United States. Both Czech-American Catholics and Protestants criticized the relatively high rate of suicide among freethinkers, as well as what they perceived to be the preference of freethinkers for weekend dancing and drinking as opposed to keeping the Sabbath holy. Such criticism often overlooked the strong secularly ethical imperatives of free thought, as well as its efforts to promote community service. On balance, Czech free thought may have somewhat retarded Czech-American acculturation, at least to the extent that freethinking weekend schools promoted the study of Czech language and the extent to which the freethinkers’ disinterest in organized religion was in marked contrast to the majority of non-English-speaking immigrants who affiliated with churches.
Freethinkers constituted a majority of Czech immigrants in the states of Nebraska, Kansas and South Dakota and in the cities of Chicago, Cleveland, New York and Omaha, where free thought and anti-clericalism also exercised some influence among skilled Czech workers who had been social democrats in Bohemia and Moravia. But many Czech social democrats as well as Czech progressives, like T. G. Masaryk, were also among the most vocal critics of Czech free thought on account of what they perceived to be its materialistic and individualistic outlook and its disinclination to support social solidarity and social reform. Nevertheless, Czech-American freethinkers, with few exceptions, supported the ultimately successful efforts of Masaryk and Československé národní sdružení from 1915 to 1918 to destroy Austria-Hungary and create an independent Czechoslovak state.
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. Furthermore, the Vatican’s reconciliation to the Czechoslovak Republic in the mid-1920s diminished anti-clericalism not only among Czechoslovak citizens but also among Czech-American freethinkers. Moreover, the latter found it increasingly difficult to withstand the growing attractions of the booming American consumer economy of the 1920s, along with the accelerating acculturation of the children and grandchildren of Czech immigrants. Finally, the advent of Einstein’s theory of relativity and also of quantum mechanics, as well as other new scientific theories, were already helping to demolish what was left of the materialistic and mechanistic philosophical bases of Czech 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 four-decades-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.
Not until the first stirrings of de-Stalinization in Prague and Bratislava in 1962 did the Czechoslovak government begin tentatively and cautiously to undertake domestic economic reforms, to enlarge trade with the NATO nations, and to reinstitute the international exchange of students and professors in the arts and sciences. Meanwhile, Czech- and Slovak-Americans appreciation of their ethnic heritage from the Old World and the New had begun to grow, less because of Communist efforts at reform and more as a consequence of the renewal of old and the founding of new ethnic associations, periodicals and publishing houses by the tens of thousands of European-born Czech and Slovak immigrants, who had become American or Canadian citizens after having fled either Nazi or Czechoslovak Communist tyranny. In contrast to 19th- and early 20th-century immigrants, many of the newly arrived refugees were university graduates who readily found employment in the learned professions. A majority settled in the larger cities of the northeastern United States, in Chicago or on the West Coast; and some made their homes in Canada, especially in greater Toronto.
It has been my pleasure to have known personally many of these immigrants, five of whom—professors Peter Demetz, Hana Demetzová, Zdenka Pospišilová, Karl Deutsch and René Wellek—were among my mentors at Yale University, and two of whom—Joseph Svoboda and Vladimír Kučera—worked in different ways to stimulate a revival of enthusiasm among Czech-American Nebraskans for their rich ethnic heritage. In the early 1950s, Kučera began to publish booklets about such subjects as Czech immigrant churches, cemeteries and theaters, as he simultaneously encouraged the successful reestablishment of annual Czech ethnic festivals and the formation of Nebraska Czechs, Incorporated, to facilitate cooperation among all of the local Czech-American organizations in our state. Beginning in the early 1960s, Joseph Svoboda became the first archivist of the University of Nebraska’s Archives and Special Collections, where he created the Czech Heritage Collection at Love Library and built it into one of the three largest repositories in North America for manuscripts, books, periodicals and taped interviews by and about Czech and Slovak immigrants. In achieving this project, Joe enlisted the assistance of many Nebraskans, most notably Sen. Roman Hruska, whose generous gifts made possible the purchase of the archive and library of Dr. Henry John of Cleveland, and facilitated the acquisition of the archives and publications of such leaders in the third struggle (třetí odboj) for Czechoslovak independence as Josef Martínek, Velen Fanderlík and Rudolf Kopecký. Furthermore, Joe worked cooperatively with Dr. Zdeněk Hruban, professor of pathology at the University of Chicago, in coordinating the development of UNL’s Czech Heritage Collection in conjunction with the Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad that Dr. Hruban founded and managed at the Regenstein Library of the University of Chicago.
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-century-old 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.
Established and generously funded by Paul Robitschek in 1996 at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the Robitschek Czech Study Program annually funds scholarships to enable university students in good standing in the Czech and Slovak republics to come to the United States as Robitschek scholars to study for two consecutive semesters at UNL. The Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU), founded in Washington, D.C., in 1958, has a worldwide membership of approximately 3,000 and has effectively encouraged scholarship and sponsored annual conferences concerning the history, arts and letters, and scientific work of Czechs and Slovaks, as well as of Americans of Czech or Slovak ancestry. Its principal scholarly publication, “Kosmas: Czechoslovak and Central European Journal,” is now in its 24th year and is edited at Texas A & M University by Clinton Machan, David Z. Chroust and Mary Hrabík Šámal. Among the active local affiliates of the SVU is the Nebraska chapter headquartered in Lincoln, Neb., whose former president, Cathy Oslzly, and present president John Fiala and other members have worked to achieve mutual objectives with members of Nebraska Czechs, Incorporated, and faculty members at several campuses of the University of Nebraska.
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.
Given the constraints of time and space, this article has addressed only a few of the many important topics to be discussed at the Center for Great Plains Studies’ April 7 to 9 Interdisciplinary Symposium on the subject of “Czech and Slovak Americans: International perspectives from the Great Plains.” Symbolic of today’s relationship between the Czech and Slovak Republics and United States is the fact that one of the keynote speakers at this symposium is Martin Mejstřík, a senator in the Parliament of the Czech Republic, who in 1989 was a leading organizer of the student strikes and demonstrations that initiated the Velvet Revolution. Everyone is urged to attend the symposium, ask questions of the speakers and enjoy conversations with fellow participants.
“Czech and Slovak Americans: International perspectives from the Great Plains,” the 36th Interdisciplinary Symposium sponsored by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln will be held April 7–9 at the Nebraska Union, 1400 R Street in Lincoln, Neb. For more information and to register, visit http://www.unl.edu/plains or call (402) 472-3965.