Czech Americans

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by Christine Molinari


Under Communist rule until 1989, the Czech Republic (Ceska Republika), which shared a common federal government with Slovakia until 1992, is now an independent state with democratic, multiparty institutions. Located in central Europe and occupying a territory of 78,864 square kilometers, it is bordered on the northwest and southwest by the Federal Republic of Germany, on the south by Austria, on the southeast by Slovakia, and on the north by Poland.

The Czech Republic has a population of 10,339,000. Of that number, 81.3 percent claim to be of Czech ethnic origin; 13.2 percent are Moravian; and the remaining 4.5 percent belong to other groups, notably Slovak, Polish, German, Silesian, Romany (Gypsy), Hungarian, or Ukrainian. The majority of Czechs (39.2 percent) are Roman Catholic, with a smaller number (4.1 percent) adhering to Protestant denominations. Czech is the official language. The capital city, Prague, preserves one of the oldest and richest architectural traditions in Europe, with many buildings, such as the Romanesque Church of St. George and the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, dating back to the Middle Ages. The flag of the Czech Republic, designed and first flown in New York to honor the visit of the World War I patriot Tomaš G. Masaryk, consists of a blue triangle on a rectilinear background of white and red.


The Czechs are a Slavic people, closely related to the Slovaks in speech and custom, but with a distinct history and national identity. The term "Czech" denotes the inhabitants of historic Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia, while "Slovak" is reserved for those people who settled on the southern slopes of the Carpathian Mountains and who historically were dominated by the Hungarians.

Between the fifth and seventh centuries, the Slavic ancestors of the Czechs swept across the region that subsequently became known as Bohemia. Although for a time assimilated into the neighboring Moravian Empire, Bohemia emerged as the stronger power and absorbed Moravia in the eleventh century. Under its ruling dynasty, the Přemsylides, Bohemia became Christian in the ninth century and a member of the Holy Roman Empire in the eleventh century, led by the German kings but retaining its own monarchy. Two prominent rulers of the House of Přemsyl were Wenceslas the Holy (c. 907-929) and Otaker II (1253-78), who extended Bohemia's territorial borders to the Adriatic. After the decline of the Přemsylides, Bohemia was ruled for a time by the House of Luxembourg. The union of King John of Luxembourg with the Czech princess Elizabeth produced a son, Charles IV (1346-1378), who, as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, established Bohemia as the center of the empire and made Prague its cultural center. He founded the University of Prague in 1348. In the fifteenth century the university became the center of a church reform movement led by Jan Hus (1369-1415), who was burned as a heretic in 1415. Divided between the followers of Husthe Hussitesand the Catholics, the country was attacked by crusaders and plunged into turmoil.

Through a dynastic union with the Jagiello family in Poland, the kings of Bohemia eventually became linked to the House of the Austrian Habsburgs, which ruled there from 1526 to 1918. Favoring monarchical control over the Protestant Reformation, the Habsburgs opposed the Bohemian estates, a struggle that resulted in the defeat of the Bohemian Protestant insurgents at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. Many thousands of noblemen were expelled from the country, and Bohemia was completely absorbed into the Habsburg empire, with German becoming the primary language of instruction in the schools. However, a national awakening in the nineteenth century, culminating in the political protest movement of 1848, reestablished a sense of Czech identity. After the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia and Russia in 1914, the Czechs and Slovaks, in a struggle to establish a common republic, joined the side of the Allies. Under the leadership of Masaryk, Edvard Beneš (1884-1948), and Milan Rastislav Štefanik, they were able to persuade the Allied governments to dissolve the Habsburg Empire. With the surrender of Austria on October 28, 1918, a revolutionary committee in Prague declared the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic.


The Czechoslovak Republic, a parliamentary democracy, was governed from 1918 to 1935 by Masaryk, who was succeeded by his pupil Beneš. But after occupation by the invading forces of Adolph Hitler in 1939, the republic never completely regained autonomy. In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviet Union began to tighten its control over central Europe, and in February 1948 it staged a governmental crisis in Czechoslovakia that solidified Communist control over the Czech government. A trend toward democratic liberalization in the 1960s culminated in the events of the Prague Spring in 1968, when a cultural revolution headed by the reformer Alexander Dubček was suppressed by the military intervention of the Soviet Union. Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, a further period of liberalization began in the 1980s that led to the downfall of Communism in 1989, when largely peaceful strikes and demonstrations in Prague swept aside the old regime and elevated dissident playwright Vaclav Havel to the presidency. After a brief coexistence in a federation with Slovakia, the Czech Republic became fully independent in 1992.


Prior to the nineteenth century, few Czechs had immigrated to the United States, and evidence of their presence during the colonial and revolutionary periods is sketchy. Hermann Augustine (1605-1686), one of the founders of the Virginia tobacco trade and compiler of the first map of Maryland and Virginia, is thought to be the first Czech immigrant. In 1638 Czech Protestant exiles, who had set sail for America in the service of the Swedish army, assisted in the building of Fort Christina on a tributary of the Delaware River.

The first major immigration wave occurred in 1848 when the Czech "Forty Eighters" fled to the United States to escape political persecution by the Habsburgs. This year also saw the arrival of Vojta Naprstek, a radical free thinker and a vocal opponent of the Austrian government who, as part of a general amnesty extended to political refugees, returned in 1857 to his native land where he opened an American museum to acquaint European Czechs with America.

By the late 1850s there were an estimated 10,000 Czechs living in the United States. Chicago, tied to the West by rail and more readily accessible to the immigrants, became the most populous Czech settlement. By 1870, other cities with Czech concentrations included St. Louis, Cleveland, New York, and Milwaukee.

At the turn of the century, Czech immigrants were more likely to make the journey to the United States with their families. This marks a contrast with the immigration patterns of other ethnic groups, such as the Germans, English, Poles, and Slovaks, who tended to come over individually, as exhibited by the high ratio of male to female immigrants in the U.S. demographic statistics of the period. Moreover, it was not uncommon in large families for the head of the household to make more than one trip to the United States, bringing along one or more children each time. In addition, many of those who immigrated in the late nineteenth century were of Moravian ancestry. One important characteristic of this group was their staunch adherence to the Catholic faith at a time when membership among Czech Americans was declining and a distinct anti-Catholic spirit prevailed.


By the turn of the century, a widening gap between the first and second generations was already in evidence. In 1900 there were 199,939 American-born Czechs as opposed to 156,640 Czechs who had been born in Europe. The number of Czechs entering the country was further reduced by the temporary Emergency Quota Act, legislated by Congress in 1921, and the National Origins Act of 1924. Settlement patterns were also changing. Perhaps as a reflection of the growing trend toward urbanization in the United States, two-thirds of Czech Americans now lived in urban areas.

The next major immigration to the United States occurred during the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, when approximately 20,000 fled to escape Nazi persecution. About one-quarter of these were professionals, including scholars and artists.

Between 1946 and 1975, 27,048 Czechs immigrated to the United States. With the Communist takeover in 1948, a large number of refugees, many of them students, teachers, journalists, and professional people, began pouring into the United States. Financial support for these refugees was provided by the American Fund for Czechoslovakia, established with the assistance of Eleanor Roosevelt. Subsequent immigration of refugees was supported by the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, which permitted the admission of refugees of Communist countries.

In 1968 the relaxed atmosphere in Czechoslovakia under the Dubček regime was conducive to the immigration of hundreds of refugees to the United States. Many of them were middle-aged, skilled, and educated; consequently, they had little difficulty finding employment. Although they made significant contributions to American society, this recent community of immigrants has been characterized more by its capacity for assimilation than by its ability to stimulate a resurgence in Czech American culture.

According to the 1990 U.S. Census, 1,296,000 Americans reported themselves to be of Czech ancestry, with 52 percent residing in the Midwest, 22 percent in the South, 16 percent in the West, and ten percent in the Northeast. The number of foreign-born Czechs in the United States has been steadily decreasing, and with the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, Czech immigration to the United States has significantly slowed.


The oldest significant Czech colony in the United States is in New York, which by 1854 had about 40 families. In Texas, the first Czech settlement was established at Catspring in 1847. In 1848 the Czechs settled alongside Germans, Irish, and Norwegians in Wisconsin, mainly in the counties of Adams, Kewaunee, Manitowok, Marathon, and Oconto, with the first major Czech farming town established at Caledonia, north of Racine. Other settlements followed in Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. The first Czech settlers to arrive in Chicago in 1852 settled in what is today the Lincoln Park area, assisting in local building by cutting trees and loading lumber. Minnesota Territory was populated by the first Czechs in 1855, while the Dakota Territory saw its first Czech settlements in 1870. Czech Americans also lent names to several U.S. towns and cities in which they settled, including New Prague and Litomysl in Minnesota, and Pilsens, Iowa, to name a few.

Acculturation and Assimilation

The Czechs were uniquely suited to assimilate into American society. Although they lacked direct experience with democratic institutions, the first generationmany of whom left their homeland to escape the oppression of the Austrian Habsburgs nevertheless brought with them a love of liberty and social equality. A relatively large proportion of nineteenth-century Czech immigrants were literate, a result of the educational policies of the Austrian regime that made education compulsory to age fourteen throughout Bohemia and Moravia.

On arrival, many Czechs Americanized their last names. Some last names were translated into English (e.g., Jablečnik became Appleton or Krejči became Taylor), while others were changed to American-sounding equivalents (e.g., Červeny became Sweeney, and Vlk became Wolf).

The years between 1914 and 1941 marked a turning point for the Czech community in two important ways. First, as a result of World War I, the Czech community became less isolated. A growing trend toward Americanization could be seen in the second and third generations, which were already moving out of the Czech communities and marrying into families with ethnic backgrounds that differed from their own. Second, perhaps partially in response to this trend, the Czech American community was becoming more protective of its traditions, emphasizing the study of Czech language and culture.

As relatively recent arrivals in the United States, the Czechs were forced to deal with prejudice as they established their homes in the midst of other immigrant communities. The self-sufficiency of Czech urban settlements, with their assemblage of Czech-owned banks, theaters, amusement halls, and shops, may have contributed to a perception of Czechs as "clannish." Despite the Czechs' insistence that they be referred to as "Czechs," many Americans persisted in calling them by the pejorative "Bohunks" or by the less pejorative, but equally unacceptable "Bohemians." When the Czechs began moving out of urban neighborhoods into the suburbs after World War II, their search for new homes was not always greeted with enthusiasm. Some efforts at community expansion were met with strong prejudice, as when a Czech real-estate developer attempting to purchase land in a Chicago suburb returned home to find a burning cross on his land.

To many early twentieth-century observers, the Czechs were a relatively "successful" immigrant community. They were perceived as law-abiding and family- and community-oriented, and because they were dedicated to becoming fully Americanized, their assimilation into American culture was relatively smooth and complete.


Community festivals such as polka celebrations and houby (mushroom) hunting contests continue to play a prominent role in Czech American culture. Some traditions celebrated in the early days of immigration were centered around the church. At box-supper church fund raisers, women baked their fanciest dinners and put them into boxes decorated with crepe paper, hearts, and ribbons to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Customs frequently were derived from old pagan traditions. On Palm Sunday, children created an effigy of Smrt ("death"), a lifesize straw doll that might be dressed in rags and have a necklace of eggs. The straw woman, who symbolized the end of winter, was then cast into a river as the children sang a welcome to the beginning of spring. On New Year's Eve, young men would gather in circles and fire their rifles into the air three times, a practice known as "shooting the witches."

Czech superstitions include the belief that a bird that flies into a house is an omen of death. A dream about a body of water could also mean that a death would occur. Pebbles were placed inside eggshell rattles made for children, to drive away evil spirits. A garnet that dimmed while worn on the body was thought be a sign of melancholy.


Czech proverbs express popular wisdom on themes such as the family, labor, fortune, and benevolence. Common proverbs among Czech Americans in the United States include: Father and mother have taught us how to speak, and the world how to keep quiet; Too much wisdom does not produce courage; A pocketful of right needs a pocketful of gold; The poor are heaven's messengers; He who has daughters has a family, and he who has sons has strangers; If there were no children, there would be no tears; All the rivers do what they can for the sea; Better a lie that heals than a truth that wounds; As long as the language lives, the nation is not dead.


Czech American cooking boasts a range of savory meat dishes and rich, flavorful desserts that can be prepared with simple ingredients. Potatoes, mushrooms, and cabbage are the staples of Czech cooking. To make a potato strudel, flour was added to mashed potatoes to form a stiff dough, which was then sprinkled with cinnamon and melted goat's milk butter and baked in the oven. Mushrooms picked during autumn field trips were brought home in bushels and set out in neat rows to dry. They were then turned into a sour mushroom soup which contained sauerkraut juice and fried onions. Sauerkraut, made from boiled cabbage, could also be mixed with pork and rice to make a cabbage roll.

The best-known Czech dessert is kolače, a sweet, squared-shaped dough bread filled with cheese; stewed prunes, apricots, or other fruit; or a mixture of poppy seed, custard pudding, and honey. Traditional at Christmas time was vanočka, a Christmas twist loaf flavored with mace, anise, and lemon and sprinkled with almonds and seedless raisins.


Czech American traditional costumes were worn as everyday apparel in some parts of the country until the twentieth century, when they were worn only on ceremonial occasions. Women's billowy skirts, multicolored or solid, were topped by a gold-trimmed black vests and blouses with full puffed sleeves that might be trimmed in gold or lace and embroidered with a floral geometric motif. Women's bright caps were worn flat on the head and had flaps on either side. Men's trousers were of a solid hue but often were decorated according to individual taste. Men wore a black vest over a full embroidered shirt.

Bridal costumes were particularly ornate. The bride wore a crown covered with rosemary wreaths made by the groom; this crown might also be strewn with long, flowing ribbons. Her white vest was covered with light sea beads or with red, yellow, or green streamers. The groom wore a close-fitting blue or red vest and a plumed hat.


Most Americans are familiar with the polka, but few of them know that it is a Czech courtship dance. The polka originated in Prague in 1837. Derived from the Czech word for "half," it is danced with a half step to music written in two-quarter time, with the accent on the first three eighth notes. Another popular Czech dance is the beseda, a collection of mazurkas, polkas, and waltzes arranged according to local tradition and performed at festivals.

Czech melodies, strongly Western European in character, were usually composed to accompany dances. The koledy ritual carols that were sung at Christmas, the New Year, and Easterdate back to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A typical rustic band included a clarinet, violins, and the dudy, a shepherd's bagpipe that had a goat's head on top. Another traditional Czech instrument played in the United States is the tamburash, a stringed instrument similar to the lute.


For Czech Americans, Christmas began on December 24 with a Christmas dinner that was served as soon as the first stars came out. Before dining, it was customary to eat consecrated bread dipped in honey; extra place settings were made for deceased members of the family, who were said to be present in spirit. Christmas Day, December 25, was celebrated at church in an extended ceremony where the women and girls stood in front of the altar for the duration of the service. New Year's Eve (sometimes called St. Sylvester's) was celebrated in the streets, with revelers spending all night in song and dance. Also commemorated were Epiphany (January 6), to honor the journey of the Magi; St. Valentine's Day; and Whit-sunday, in remembrance of the Ascension. On Sprinkling Day, the first Monday of Easter week, boys would go through the town spraying the girls with little homemade "spritzers" or, if lucky enough to abduct one of them, would throw her into the river; the girl was required to show her gratitude for this treatment by baking the boy a homecooked meal. Czechs also observe St. Joseph's Day (March 19), a day honoring their national heritage.

Mother's Day was more than just the promotional holiday it is today. It was celebrated either at church, if it fell on a Sunday, or at a separate festival, and was marked by the wearing of red and white carnations grown especially for the occasion, a red carnation signifying that one's mother was living, the white carnation that she was no longer living.

A festival celebrated by Czech Americans in Iowa and Minnesota is the Rogation Daysthe Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday before the Feast of the Ascension. After the mass, the congregation would follow the priest through the fields, reciting the Litany of the Saints and praying for a good harvest.


Czech immigrants sometimes turned to home remedies to cure common ailments. A wedding ring tied around the neck of a child was believed to cure fever. Poultices made of bread and milk were used to heal cuts. Concern about scoliosis prompted Czech women to ensure that their babies had adequate calcium, and at one time it was mandatory for newborns to have their hips examined to see whether they would develop the disease. Czech Americans have always been very diet conscious. When fruits were in scarce supply in the winter, they served rosehip tea as well as sauerkraut, a rich source of vitamin C.

Czech Americans believe that there is a strong connection between mental and physical wellbeing. Their commitment to physical fitness led to the establishment of the Sokol (Falcon) gymnastic organization, which strives to develop a person "perfect physically, spiritually, and morally, of a firm and noble character, whose word is irrevocable, like the law."


Czech is a Slavic language with a declension system based on seven cases. The present orthographic system was introduced in the fourteenth century by the religious reformer Jan Hus, who instituted a system of diacritical markings to eliminate consonant clusters. Thus, the consonants "ž," "š," "č," "ř," "ň," "t "' and "d "' stand for "sh," "ch," "rzh," "zh," "ny," "ty," and "dy," respectively. Czech is a phonetic language; every sound is pronounced exactly as it is written, with the accent always on the first syllable.

Because of the differences between Czech and EnglishCzech is a Slavic language, while English is Germanicthe acquisition of English as a second language presents a challenge to Czech Americans. The U.S. public school system and Czech American benevolent organizations have provided systematic English-language instruction to assist Czech American immigrants in learning English. Numerous American colleges and universities also teach the Czech language, including Stanford University, Yale University, the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan, and Harvard University.


Greetings and expressions include dobre jitro good morning; dobrý den good afternoon; dobrou noc good night; nazdar hello; s Bohem good-bye; na shle-da-nou till we meet again; prosim please; and děkuji pěkne thank you very much. Other polite expressions are Jak se mate? a polite form of "How are you?"), and Jak se maš (the familiar form); Jak se jmenujete? What's your name? (polite form), and Jak se jmenujěs (familiar form); Těši mne Nice to meet you; and Dobre chutnani Enjoy your meal.

Family and Community Dynamics

The lifestyle of nineteenth-century Czech immigrants was determined by the region and community in which they settled. Those who came to New York in the 1860s lived in sparsely furnished rented quarters, and it was not uncommon to find two families sharing the same small apartment. Immigrants who came to Chicago in the early 1850s had trouble settling permanently there: driven from place to place, they resided in makeshift housing until they could find permanent lodging. While the men loaded lumber to assist in the new building in the area, the women and children did the chores and went to the slaughterhouse where they could obtain the poorer cuts of meat, often purchased on a cooperative plan.

Hardships also were endured in rural communities. Dwellings in Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa were simple sod housesno more than underground burrows. Immigrants to rural Wisconsin built log cabins and lived off meager provisions, in some cases subsisting on cornbread and on the "coffee" that they made from ground roasted corn.

The accumulation of wealth by first-generation families made it easier for the second generation to purchase property. They began by building wood-frame homes and eventually saved enough money to build with brick. In the early twentieth century, an estimated 64 percent of Czech families living in Chicago owned their own dwellings, a high proportion for an immigrant community at that time. Children were sent to college and frequently went on to pursue professional vocations, such as law, education, or medicine.

Historically, the Czechs have been markedly active in community groups that have assisted immigrants and have promoted greater familiarity with Czech culture. In 1854 Czechs in Ripon, Wisconsin, formed the Czech-Slavonic Benevolent Society, the oldest continuous benevolent society in the United States, to provide insurance and aid to immigrants, as well as social services to the young, the elderly, and the poor. The Sokol (Falcon) gymnastic organization, established in St. Louis in 1865, continues to attract people of all ethnic backgrounds to its sponsored gymnastic meets.

Czech American women have played an exceptionally important role in community life, forming a number of active social and political organizations. By 1930 approximately one-third of the membership of Czech American benevolent societies was consisted of women. The National Council of Women in Exile, convened in 1948, provided assistance to Czech refugees. Although Czech women were prominent in their communities, the women's suffrage movement in the early twentieth century was viewed with either polite tolerance or outright scorn and had difficulty winning acceptance among Czech Americans.


Traditional Czech weddings were announced by the groom's attendants, who would go from house to house extending the invitations. Food and drink were prepared days in advance. On the day of the wedding, the couple, their parents, and the bridal party would gather for the wedding breakfast. The groom was not allowed to see the bride in her gown until 2:00 in the afternoon, when the sponsor would present the bride and the parents to the groom, admonishing him to be kind, gentle, and worthy, and telling the bride to be moral, obedient, and submissive. After the wedding ceremony, as the guests proceeded to the feast, friends of the couple would stand along the path and tie a ribbon from one side to the other, requesting a donation. This gift was later presented to the couple or was sometimes given to the musicians as a gratuity. At the wedding feast, the bridesmaids would present the guests with sprigs of rosemary, a symbol of fidelity, and a collection would be taken up for the birth of the first child.


Preparation for the birth of a child traditionally began even before the wedding, when the bride-tobe would knit a set of white bonnets, boots, jackets, and shawlssometimes enough for a family of six childrenwhich were then carefully arranged in neat, ribbon-tied bundles and set aside until the arrival of the firstborn. Baptisms occurred a week after birth. They were followed by baptismal parties, where the godfather recited a customary toast and the godmother presented the gifts. Godparents adhered to their pledge to safeguard the child in the event of the parents' death. Six weeks after the baptism, the baby was taken to the church, where the religious officiant joined with the parents at the altar to say prayers of thanksgiving for the baby's arrival and health.


In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, vigils were still kept in the home, a custom brought over from Europe. The casket might be brought to the home by the undertaker, if the village were prosperous enough to have one; in some villages, the caskets were kept in the general store. Family members would take turns sitting by the side of the deceased, who was waked in the home for a period of days.

On the day of the funeral, the religious officiant came to pray over the coffin with the family. In some rural areas, as in central Texas, businesses might be closed one hour before a funeral. The town bells summoned the townsfolk to the service. After the procession to the cemetery, the family would gather around the grave and sing hymns while the earth was shoveled into the grave. In My Ántonia, a novel about the life of a Czech immigrant family on the Nebraska plain, Willa Cather related the superstition that a suicide could not be buried in the cemetery, but only at a crossroads. In populous areas, the Czechs sometimes established their own national cemeteries; Bohemian National Cemetery in Chicago is one example.

After the funeral, not just the surviving husband or wife, but the entire family would observe a period of mourning, usually for several months. Widows observed the custom of wearing black; other family members, children included, were expected to preserve an atmosphere of deep solemnity, neither laughing nor indulging in games or amusement.


The earliest immigrants settled in proximity to ethnic groups for whom they had a strong affinity. In an important early study on Czech immigration (The Čechs (Bohemians) in America. ), Thomas Čapek noted that many Czech settlements were located near German settlements (e.g., in St. Louis and Milwaukee) and observed that "the Čechs were drawn to the Germans by a similarity, if not identity, in customs and mode of life." By 1900, intermarriages with other nationalities were more common, most of them occurring with Germans, but also with Austrians, Hungarians, and Poles.

During World War II, Czech Americans participated in the national American Slav Congress, which convened in Detroit in 1940 and 1942. The war effort brought them closer to other Slavic ethnic groups, particularly to the Poles, an alliance that had its international parallel in a European concord of November 1940, when Czech and Polish refugees living in Europe agreed to establish friendly relations after the conclusion of the war.


Many of the Czechs who immigrated to the United States were Roman Catholic when they arrived. But the Czech immigration movement is unique in that as many as 50 percent of the Czechs immigrants broke their religious ties when they arrived in the United States. Their arrival in this country gave many Czechs an opportunity to sever their relationships with the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that was closely associated with the oppressive Habsburg regime that they had left behind. Some of them were also influenced by movements that questioned all forms of religious dogma.

The first Roman Catholic church was established in St. Louis. According to Kenneth Miller in The Czech-Slovaks in America, in 1920, Katolik, the official almanac of the Czech Benedictines, listed as many as 338 Roman Catholic parishes and related organizations. Traditionally, the Roman Catholic Church was strong in Texas, Wisconsin, Nebraska, and Minnesota and had a greater following in rural than urban areas. Among urban centers, Chicago and St. Louis had the strongest Czech Roman Catholic following. The Roman Catholic Church maintained its following by establishing churches or mission stations, founding benevolent chapters, publishing Catholic periodicals, and opening schools, which included a Czech college and seminary: Illinois Benedictine College (formerly St. Procopius), located in Lisle, Illinois.

In the early part of the twentieth century, approximately two percent of the Czechs living in the United States were Protestant. Unlike the Slovaks, who tended to adhere to the old-world Calvinist and Lutheran denominations, Czech Protestants tended to affiliate with American denominations. Common affiliations were Presbyterian, Methodist, the Bohemian Moravian Brethren, and Congregational. The predominantly high number of Presbyterian adherents was due both to the perceived similarities between the Presbyterian Church and the old-world Reformed Church and to early missionary efforts.

The Moravian Brethren, who settled in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, were descendants of the followers of Jan Hus, the initiator of the reform movement. During the persecution of Protestants by the Habsburg dynasty in the seventeenth century, the Moravians, who had converted many German Waldensians living in Moravia, emigrated to Saxony. In time, members of this group, the majority of whom were German, made their way to Pennsylvania, where they purchased a large tract of land from William Penn. The Brethren established a number of schools; in keeping with the precepts of the educator Comenius, who believed in equal education for women, they founded the first American preparatory school for girls in 1742.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Many of the Czechs who immigrated to the United States in the late 1850s were farmers or laborers. Of the three classes of Czech peasants who lived in Europethe sedlak, or upper-class farmer, who owned 25-100 acres and a farmhouse; the chalupnik, or cottager, who owned 5-25 acres and a small cottage; and the nadenici, or day laborer, who dwelt on the nobleman's estate or on the farm of the sedlak and owned no propertyCzech immigrants to the United States most frequently derived from the middle, or cottager, class. This was probably because the sedlak had little to gain by leaving behind his rich farmland, while the nadenici did not have the means to emigrate.

Settlers who came to the Midwest lived in log cabins; those on the plains resided in dugouts and sod houses. With no tools at their disposal, farmers were limited to hard manual labor. In the off-season they focused on survival, migrating to the cities or to the lumber and mining camps to find what work they could.

Occasionally, Czechs specializing in a certain industrysuch as the cigar-making industry in New Yorkhad emigrated from a particular region, in this case, Kutna Hora, which was preeminent in the cigar trade. In the 1870s, 95 percent of the Czechs in New York were employed in the cigar-making industry. Working conditions were harsh, and wages poor. Joseph Chada noted that it took the average Czech industrial laborer ten years to attain the economic status of the average American laborer. Many women and children were also employed in these factories.

Urban-dwellers were eager to purchase property. Community-minded and thrifty, the Czechs created the building and loan association, an institution which became one of their most significant contributions to U.S. economic life. The building and loan association, introduced in Chicago in 1873, was a small cooperative agency to which shareholders made minimal weekly contributions with an aim toward eventually purchasing a home. So successful were these agencies that during the Great Depression, when other banks were failing, Czech building and loan associations posted a total of $32,000,000 in deposits, a substantial figure for that period.

"T he factories in the regions of Seventieth street, New York, are filled with Bohemian women and girls employed in the making of cigars.... [They] dread going into the cigar factories. The hygiene is bad, the moral influences are not often the best, and the work is exhausting."

Jane E. Robbins, "The Bohemian Women in New York," cited in The Czechs in America, 1633-1977, edited by Vera Laska (Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, 1978, p. 111).

By the first half of the twentieth century, Czech businesses were flourishing. Czech breweries (Pilsen and Budweiser are both derived from Czech place names) kept pace with the best German establishments. The Bulova watch company, a Czech enterprise, is an example of a successful, well-stablished Czech American business. And the character of the Czech labor force was changing as well. By the second generation, among Czech laborers, there was a greater proportion of salesmen, machinists, and white-collar laborers.

Politics and Government

The Czechs were relatively slow to take part in U.S. political life. By the 1880s, however, Czechs were playing an increasingly active role in government, both at the state and local levels. Most Czechs voted the Democratic ticket, in part because of the perception that the Democrats favored labor. Some Czechs ran successfully for high public office. Charles Jonaš served as senator of Wisconsin in 1883 and as governor of Wisconsin in 1890.

By the 1880s support had grown among Czech American labor for the socialist movement. But in the aftermath of the Haymarket Riot of 1886a violent confrontation between labor protesters and police in Haymarket Square in Chicago, initially triggered by the crusade for the eight-hour work daythe movement was forced underground. With the emergence of the American Socialist Party, Czech Americans renewed their membership, many of them recruited by appeals in the ethnic press. By 1910, Czech American socialists numbered approximately 10,000. They reduced their activities during World War I, however, as the concerns of nationalism began to loom over those of internationalism. And as the lifestyle of second- and third-generation Czech Americans improved, they became less concerned with the labor situation. By the 1920s the movement had all but come to a standstill.

The prospect of establishing Czech independence from Austria led Czech Americans fervently to support the Allied cause during World War I. Prior to the outbreak of the war, Czech Americans openly demonstrated their support for the Serbs and rallied for the establishment of an independent Czech homeland. The Czech National Alliance was established in Chicago to provide political and financial support to the Czech cause in Europe. Also characteristic of this period was the willingness of the Czech American community to band together with the Slovak American community to establish a common political framework that would unite Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia under a single government. On October 25, 1915, the Czechs and Slovaks met in Cleveland to agree on such a program. In April 1917, the Czechs succeeded in gaining the introduction of resolutions in Congress supporting the establishment of an independent European homeland.

Czech Americans also played an active role in supporting the cause of Czechoslovakia during World War II. During the Munich Crisis, Czechs organized a protest rally of 65,000 at Chicago Stadium. The war efforts of Czech Americans were coordinated primarily by the Czechoslovak National Council. In addition to publishing News Flashes from Czechoslovakia, with a circulation of 5,000-105,000, the council aided soldiers and refugees who participated in the Allied campaign. Czech Americans effectively used propaganda to direct world attention to the Nazi massacre of the village of Lidice.

After the Soviet takeover of Czechoslovakia, Czechs were admitted to the United States under the American Displaced Persons Act. The Czechoslovak National Council assisted these individuals in their struggle to regain their homeland, primarily through the publication of anti-Communist propaganda. In addition to requesting that members of the Czech American community sign affidavits that would assist refugees in obtaining shelter and employment, on June 3, 1949, the Council presented a memorandum to President Harry Truman, asking that the United States push for United Nations-sponsored free elections in Czechoslovakia.


Czech Americans on the whole were opposed to slavery and therefore supported the North during the U.S. Civil War, serving at Chancellorsville, Fredericksburg, and Bull Run. Many of those living in the Confederacy (primarily in Texas) avoided conscription into the Southern army at enormous cost to their lives, hiding in the woods or swamps or serving as drivers on perilous journeys to Mexico.

Czech Americans in the First World War either served in the Czechoslovak Army on the Western Front (if they were immigrants) or enlisted as draftees in the U.S. Army. Approximately 2,300 Czech immigrants served in European Czech contingents. During World War II Czech American loyalties were divided between providing active military service to their country and providing moral support to the Czech community in Europe, both duties which they admirably fulfilled. They also made a financial contribution to the war effort by investing substantially in war loans.

Individual and Group Contributions


Aleš Hrdlička (1869-1943), curator of the physical anthropology division at the Smithsonian Institution, developed the theory that Native Americans migrated to North America from Asia across the Bering land bridge and did extensive research on Neanderthal man. Jaroslav Pelikan (1923 ) is the author of the five-volume The Christian Tradition, an authoritative work on the history of Christian doctrine. Francis Dvornik (1893-1975) was a noted Byzantine scholar affiliated with the Dumbarton Oaks Center for Byzantine Studies. Managed by Harvard University, the center is located in Washington, D.C.


Miloš Forman (1932 ), who immigrated to the United States in 1969, won Academy Awards for best direction for One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) and Amadeus (1984). Actress Kim Novak (1933), who made her screen debut in 1954, starred in such films as Pal Joey and Boys Night Out. Television and screen actor Tom Selleck (1945 ) is best known for his role in the television series "Magnum P.I." (1980-1988). John Kriza (1919-1975) was a ballet dancer who performed with the American Ballet Theater and the Chicago Opera Ballet.


Charles Jonaš (1840-1896), who served in the Wisconsin state legislature, founded Pokrok (Progress), an anticlerical weekly. In 1869 Frank Kořizek (1820-1899) established the weekly Slowan Amerikanský in Iowa City. Lev J. Palda (1847-1912), the founder of Czech American socialism, established the first Czech social-democratic or socialist newspaper, Narodni noviny (National Newspaper ), in St. Louis, Missouri. Josephine Humpal-Zeman (1870-1906), an important figure in the women's suffrage movement, founded the ŽZenske Listy (Woman's Gazette ).


Rene Wellek (1903 ), a member of the Prague Linguistic Circle, settled in the United States in 1939, where he established the field of comparative literature at Yale University. Bartoš Bittner (1861-1912) was an essayist and political satirist. Paul Albieri (1861-1901) wrote stories of military life.


The composer Antonin Dvořak (1842-1904) lived in the United States from 1892 to 1895, where he wrote the New World Symphony, a piece inspired by American folk motifs, particularly Native American rhythms and African-American melodies. Rafael Kubelik (1914 ), son of the violinist Jan Kubelik, studied music at the Prague Conservatory and conducted the Czech Philharmonic (1936-39, 1942-48) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1950-53). In 1973-74 he was musical director of the Metropolitan Opera. Bohuslav Martinu (1890-1950), a contemporary composer whose music exhibits French and Czech influences, wrote the Double Concerto (1940), an expression of grief at the partition of Czechoslovakia. Jarmila Novotna Dauberk (1907-1993) was an opera singer with the Metropolitan Opera Company who studied under the renowned Czech opera singer Emmy Destinn; she also performed at the Salzburg Festival and the National Theater in Prague. Ardis Krainik (1929 ) is general director of the Lyric Opera in Chicago. The pianist Rudolf Firkušny (1912-1993) made his first appearance with the Czech Philharmonic in 1922 and played with numerous orchestras in the United States, including those in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit.


Ray Kroc (1902-1984), founder of McDonald's restaurants, was a pioneer in the establishment of the fast-food industry. Francis Korbel (1830-1920), who entered the United States in cognito to avoid an arrest warrant, purchased redwood forest in northern California and established the Korbel winery. Louis D. Brandeis (1856-1941), descended from a Jewish family that immigrated to the United States in 1849, became the first Jewish Supreme Court Justice (1916-39). He helped to draft the Czechoslovak Declaration of Independence, issued in 1918. Anton Joseph Cermak (1873-1933), a mayor of Chicago who established Illinois as a stronghold of support for Franklin D. Roosevelt, was killed in Miami by an assassin intending to kill President Roosevelt. Eugene A. Cernan (1934 ) was copilot on the Gemini 9 mission, lunar module pilot of the Apollo 10 mission, and spacecraft commander of Apollo 17. James Lovell (1928 ) served on the Apollo 8 mission, the first manned flight around the moon.


Biochemists Gerty Cori (1896-1957) and Carl Cori (1896-1984) won the 1946 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, for their studies on sugar metabolism. The physician Joseph Goldberger (1874-1929) discovered a cure for pellagra, which he correctly attributed to diet deficiency, against the prevailing view that it was due to infection. Frederick George Novy (1864-1957) made important contributions to the field of microbiology. Joseph Murgaš (1864-1930) was a pioneer in wireless technology who, although never able to amass sufficient resources to carry out his research, shared research with Guglielmo Marconi that contributed to the invention and patenting of the device.


George Halas (1895-1983) was founder and owner of the Chicago Bears football team. As head coach he led his team to seven championship seasons. Jack Root (1876-1963) was the first world champion lightweight boxer in 1903. Stan Musial (1920 ) was an outstanding baseball hitter and outfielder with the St. Louis Cardinals who won seven batting championships. Martina Navratilova (1956 ) dominated women's tennis in the 1970s and 1980s, winning the U.S. Open and Wimbledon numerous times and becoming only the fifth person in history to win the Grand Slam. Ivan Lendl (1960 ) has likewise dominated men's tennis in the 1980s, winning the U.S. Open in 1985 and the Australian Open in 1989. Stan Mikita (1940 ) was an outstanding hockey center with the Chicago Black-hawks, with 541 career goals.


Andy Warhol (1927-87) was an artist and filmmaker whose name is particularly associated with the Pop art movement. He is perhaps most famous for his paintings of mass-produced images of consumer goods, such as the Campbell's soup can. Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939) was an Art Nouveau decorative artist, recognized for his posters promoting the actress Sarah Bernhardt.



Hlas Naroda (Voice of the Nation).

Publishes items related to religious and political topics and events in both the United States and the Czech Republic.

Contact: Vojtech Vit, Editor.

Address: 2340 South 61st Avenue, Cicero, Illinois 60650-2608.

Telephone: (708) 656-1050.


Prints general news, letters, and features on farm topics.

Contact: Jan Vaculik, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 301, West, Texas 76691.

Nedelni Hlasatel (Czechoslovak Herald).

Subtitled "The Oldest Czechoslovak Newspaper in the World." General interest newspaper published in Czech, English, and Slovak.

Contact: Josef Kucera, Editor and Publisher.

Address: 5906 West 26th Street, Cicero, Illinois 60804.

Telephone: (708) 863-1891.

Fax: (708) 863-1893.


KMIL-AM (1330).

Broadcasts eight hours weekly in Czech.

Contact: Joe Smitherman.

Address: Drawer 832, Cameron, Texas 76520.

Telephone: (817) 697-6633.

Fax: (254) 697-6330.

E-mail: [email protected].


WCEV-AM (1450).

"Czechoslovak Sunday Radio Hour" in Chicago is a weekly one-hour broadcast in Czech.

Contact: Diana Migala.

Address: 5356 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60641-4103.

Telephone: (773) 282-6700.

Fax: (773) 282-0123 .

WRMR-AM (850).

"Czech Voice of Cleveland" broadcasts in Czech on Sunday, 11:00 to 12:00 p.m.

Contact: Thomas J. Embrescia.

Address: 1 Radio Lane, Cleveland, Ohio 44114.

Telephone: (216) 696-0123.

Fax: (216) 566-0764.

E-mail: [email protected].

Organizations and Associations

American Sokol Educational and Physical Culture Organization (ASEPCO).

Founded in 1865, ASEPCO is a physical fitness organization for children and adults of all ages, with 8,500 adult members and 8,000 gymnasts. It sponsors gymnastic meets and competitions, clinics, workshops, and schools; conducts educational activities; and offers lectures and films.

Contact: Mildred Mentzer, Secretary.

Address: 6424 South Cermak Road, Berwyn, Illinois 60402.

Telephone: (708) 795-6671.

Fax: (708) 795-0539.

E-mail: [email protected].

CSA - Fraternal Life (Ceskoslovenske spolky americke).

Founded in 1854, CSA is a fraternal benefit life insurance society that hosts contests, including a Miss National CSA competition; bestows awards; and coordinates scholarship programs. The CSA also maintains a museum, biographical archives, and a library of Czech books and periodicals.

Contact: Vera A. Wilt, President.

Address: 122 West 22nd, Oak Brook, Illinois 60523-1557.

Telephone: (630) 472-0500.

Fax: (630) 472-1100.

Czech Catholic Union (CCU).

Founded in 1879, the CSU is a Catholic fraternal benefit life insurance society that makes an annual donation to the Holy Family Cancer Home, bestows awards, participates in local civic and cultural events, and provides services for children.

Contact: Mary Ann Mahoney, President.

Address: 5349 Dolloff Road, Cleveland, Ohio 44127.

Telephone: (216) 341-0444.

Fax: (216) 341-0711.

Czech Heritage Foundation.

Individuals interested in Czechoslovak heritage and culture. Purpose is to foster interest in Czechoslovak culture, heritage, language, and the collection of artifacts of Czechoslovak origin, especially in the Cedar Rapids area.

Contact: Russell Novotny, President.

Address: P.O. Box 761, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52406.

Telephone: (319) 365-0868.

Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International (CGSI).

Founded in 1988, CGSI supports research in Czechoslovakian culture and genealogy, hosts workshops, and maintains a research library. Publishes a quarterly newsletter, Nase rodina and a journal entitled, Rocenka.

Contact: Mark Bigaouette.

Address: P.O. Box 16225, St. Paul, Minnesota 55116-0225.

Telephone: (612) 595-7799.

E-mail: [email protected].


Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (CSAS).

Founded in 1958. CSAS sponsors lectures, concerts, and exhibitions. It promotes the activities of professors, writers, artists, and scientists interested in Czech or Slovak concerns.

Contact: Dr. Vera Ulbrecht, Secretary General.

Address: 1703 Mark Lane, Rockville, Maryland 20852-4106.

Telephone: (301) 279-2498.

Fax: (301) 279-8973.

Museums and Research Centers

Czechoslovak Heritage Museum and Library.

Founded in 1854, the museum houses a large collection of books, periodicals, and historic documents, as well as costumes, dolls, and antiques.

Contact: Dagmar Bradac.

Address: 2701 South Harlem Avenue, Berwyn, Illinois 60402.

Telephone: (708) 795-5800.

Moravian Historical Society.

Hosts guided tours through its collection of art and artifacts on the history of the Moravian Church. The museum also exhibits paintings by John Valentine Haidt, as well as early musical instruments.

Contact: Rev. Charles Zichman, President.

Address: 214 East Center Street, Nazareth, Pennsylvania 18064.

Telephone: (215) 754-5070.

National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library.

Located in the restored home of a Czech immigrant, this museum preserves national costumes, as well as porcelain ethnic dolls, handwork, wood-carved items, paintings, prints, maps, and farm tools. There is also a library with reference materials and oral history videotapes.

Contact: John Dusek.

Address: P.O. Box 5398, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52406-5398.

Telephone: (319) 362-8500.

The Western Fraternal Life Association.

Houses a library and archives and sponsors educational lectures on Czech language and culture.

Contact: Charles H. Vyskocil.

Address: 1900 First Avenue, N.E., Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52402.

Wilber Czech Museum.

Maintains a collection of dolls, dishes, murals, pictures, laces, costumes, and replicas of early homes and businesses.

Contact: Irma Ourecky, Chairman.

Address: 102 West Third Street, Wilber, Nebraska 68465.

Telephone: (402) 821-2183.

Sources for Additional Study

Čapek, Thomas. The Čechs (Bohemians) in America. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1920.

Chada, Joseph. The Czechs in the United States. Chicago: SVU Press, 1981.

Dvornik, Francis. Czech Contributions to the Growth of the United States. Washington, D.C., 1961.

Habenicht, Jan. History of Czechs in America. St. Paul, Minnesota: Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International 1996.

Laska, Vera. The Czechs in America, 1633-1977. Dobbs Ferry, New York: Oceana Publications, 1978.

Writers' Program of the Work Projects Administration in the State of Minnesota. The Bohemian Flats. St. Paul, Minnesota: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1986.