Czech Regardless

Matt Kriz
Matt Kriz
Dec 5, 2018 · 19 min read

When I was in grade 3, I think, I was assigned to do some kind of family history. It probably had something to do with all four of my grandparents, and not just my namesake ones, but I can’t recall what I wrote for the other ones. There was a time that I probably did know that my Powell great grandmother had been born in the US, that my Swedish grandmother had also been born in the US, and other such details. It’s even possible that I’ve gone through cycles of remembering and then forgetting this information. But one thing that stands out for me, that I have remembered consistently in the interim 32 years, is what I wrote for my Czech grandparents. The assignment we had to do was of the kind you still see for elementary school children today: it had typed out questions with some lines for the child to scribble his or her answer out. I cannot recall the other questions, but there was one that asked why your family came to Canada. Here’s what I wrote:

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“They feared the rise of Hitler and communism.”

The last part is an approximation, and there may have been more to the answer, but the first six words are verbatim, I’m almost certain.

So here’s the thing, and let’s keep in mind that this is before I do any “research.” This answer came from my dad, and of the many, many things I could say about my dad, what I can say here is that the way he remembers things and the way they actually happened are not always the same. So while it’s quite possible that this is what he heard from his grandparents, or it was common knowledge in the family, it’s also quite possible that he decided that this is why they came here.

My Kriz, no, Kříž, grandparents aren’t like the rest in my family history. They were both alive when I was born, though not by very much for my great grandfather, so their existence isn’t something I have to imagine, and they were first generation immigrants at a time when even Western Canada wasn’t seen as a (bleached) blank canvas. They also came by themselves. I mean, they probably didn’t come by themselves in the sense that they found other Czechs and places where other Czechs lived, but they had no family here, and no family ever came with them. So they left behind siblings, parents, friends, and, well, civilization. Two of my great grandmother’s favourite stories (and oh, do I wish, for all that I can wish, that I’d asked her more of this stuff when she was alive — why are young people so stupidly uncurious?) were that she came to Canada with a trunkload of electric appliances only to find that there was no electricity, and that she finished school at a young age but could help her children with trigonometry. Vhat is dis country?

***

I feel like I finally, after 15 years of being, in some way or other, a scholar, that I understand what it’s like to be a historian, in that I understand the visceral thrill of discovering a primary source. When you work with literature you’ve always got your primary source in front of you. You start there. But when you’re doing history you start with a time period, and almost an idea of what things were like in that period, and you hope for something that will either confirm or change that idea. My Powell book wasn’t really that, but I now have something that is.

In 1994 my great grandmother sat down for an interview with Sherm Ewing, my cousins’ grandfather and talked about her life. I had actually read this interview (it’s around 3000 words) before, but I hadn’t read it with any understanding whatsoever of “old country” as she puts it, or any real purpose. It sounded like her, sure, and for my dad and his siblings it must hold a lot more nostalgic value. They could read it and hear her, and I can too, but I also read it and see places. I see Brno, I see Doubravice and I see the Svitava river. These places, all of which I’ve never visited, are real to me in the way Cascade, Iowa is not (though it is now). I see myself, an English professor and someone who teaches Women’s Studies, and I see this:

I am thinking now that what I did was men’s work, but I never used to think about that, back then. Even when my brother was here — he was here about three times — Tony, our son, would try to speak Czech with him, just for fun, and once I heard him telling that his mother did the work of three good men. Well, he remembered what I was doing all those years when Grampa was gone.

I come from a family with a matriarch. You can see it between the lines, or not even so much between the lines as hanging over them. My great grandmother may have followed her husband to Canada, but she was the one who first made it possible for them to leave, and she was then the one who made it possible for them to stay. “Those years Grampa — I’m sorry, I know that’s how she must have said it but I’m just going to write “grandpa” now — those years Grandpa was gone,” were years he went off to fight the war, not his new country’s war, not the country he forced her to come to out of some crazy romantic delusion, but his old country’s war. He joined the Calgary Highlanders — they have a website and some exhibits at the Calgary military museum so I’ll probably go look — in 1941 and off he went. I’m not sure if he ever actually got back to Europe, but he didn’t come until 1944. My dad’s aunt Judy was born after he left, in May of 1942.

There’s a way of seeing this that is attractive to me. It’s probably only half true, but it fits with what I’ve been told and it’s narratively interesting. If you read my great grandmother’s story (and I have no cute name for her since I actually knew her, so she’s nothing shorter than “great grandma” for me) you’ll very quickly realize that the details of agricultural work, of livestock, breaking the land, and of machines, were very important to her. You’ll realize that work, tout court, was important to her. My great grandfather has no such history, but I’ve heard people talk about him. His life story wouldn’t be summarized by work. It would more likely be summarized by Great Grandma’s recounting:

Why we go to Canada? People couldn’t believe it, but it wasn’t my decision; it was Tony’s — maybe it was his age. First was planning to go to Argentina; then his uncle was writing from New York, where had butcher, and Tony got the idea to go to North America. Then Canada that was it! He want to go; and I don’t. He said, “Okay, if you don’t go, I’ll mortgage the farm, and you won’t be able to…” Then you should hear his parents! And my mother…!

So the way of seeing these two is of contrasts. Is of opposites. I keep wanting to say Dionysian and Apollonian, but that is a touch ridiculous. He was a romantic, let’s say that. You have to be… Well, let’s stop for a moment. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera (who is still alive???), who was born in Brno in 1929, thus in between my grandfather and his (older) brother, has a novel called Life is Elsewhere. The protagonist of this novel is silly and ineffectual, so much so that even his death at the end of the novel is inconsequential, but his plight, if you will, is the plight of the romantic. The belief that life is elsewhere may lead you all over the place, but you may never know what to do when you get there. We can see this in Antonin without knowing anything beyond the larger details of his life. He wants to go to Argentina, but a phone call changes his mind. He crosses the Atlantic (aboard the Montcalm, a detail I just picked up today) with his young family aboard a ship with a group of strangers. According to Government of Canada records, there were 96 immigrants to Canada aboard The Montcalm. Nine of those were Czech, with one Jaroslav Sevcik, 39, apparently travelling by himself, and another family of four, the Micaks. The records don’t show where they would have started from, but one certainty is that the ship didn’t embark in Czechoslovakia. *Update, it left from Liverpool, so even their journey within Europe must have been quite an undertaking.

But yes, he takes his family, against the wishes of his wife and all other members of his family, leaves everything behind (I’m assuming they didn’t have a goat) and then six years later leaves again to go off to war. He was 28, according to the government record, when he got to Halifax, and would have been 34 when he joined the army. He came back in 1945 and I don’t think he stayed in Rimbey ten years before he packed up again, this time taking Great Grandma and Judy with him, for Creton, BC, to try his hand at Orchard farming. And as Great Grandma not so subtly reminds us, all of this somehow worked, but it’s not because of him that it did.

***

I’m at something of an impasse at the moment because there are too many directions I could take, tales I could tell that people might not want telling, and things that, in what has long been tradition for me, feel like they’re not for telling now. Mostly everything I’ve ever written has been in service of the larger thing that I’m not currently writing. I’m in that phase right now. That larger thing is this whole Czech story I’ve been thinking about writing for probably five years now. That story is the story of my grandfather, “Anton” according to the immigration manifest, but Tony to almost anyone who ever met him, who came across the ocean at the same age that my younger son is now, who went to school in Canada three years later not really being able to speak English, who married a girl from “town,” but married her after their first (and possibly second) child was born, who spent the next thirty years building up the farm his parents left him, who went through a period of depression just before, I think, the time I was born, and who died, at the age of 55, in the ocean in Hawaii. Tony, whose father, Tony (we can’t seem to get away from this trend no matter what family we look at) left for four years right in the middle of his childhood, left a boy and came back to find, not a man, exactly, but probably not a child. Tony, my grandfather, who has been described to me both as a miserable SOB and as a man who was friends with everyone in the town. Tony, son of Apollo and Dionysus, a man I want to romanticize but of whom there might be very little to romanticize. See, I can’t even get him through this paragraph.

I wanted to tell his life story as something of a revisionist fiction, names changed to protect the innocent (me) from his family. You could see how it could be done. You set the scene in Doubravice, the family thinking Tony the elder is crazy, the disputes between him and Marie over his decision, young Tony not knowing what to do. You mostly skip the voyage itself and the younger years, but you pick it up in school, how he’s picked on, called “Bohunk,” and never fits in even if he could be a good student. He works on the farm and helps his mother, he admires her, and he’s always been more serious than his older brother, possibly because he never had the chance to be at ease. Somehow, I’d make it up or ask, he meets the girl from town. Her parents don’t approve of him, which has to wear on him, but they stay together, both surely stubborn (and how much does that explain?). Eventually things are smoothed over, he comes back, they have more children, they take over the farm. He makes a life for himself, but there’s always something there. So for some reason, at the age of 55, he goes to Hawaii, by himself. He drowns in the ocean, which happens, it’s said, to more tourists than you’d think. But still, one has to wonder. Why did he go there? Why was he alone? There are rumours of depression.

It’s a good story, but it’s uncomfortable.

***

The immediate connection I want to make is with place, and with place nationality. I want to say that the white people (those of European descent, if you like) the settlers of the “new world,” have something distinct about them in their history of mixed migration. They don’t all come from one place in the way, say, the Slavs who make up much of Eastern Europe do, or the Germanic tribes just next to the Slavic regions. All throughout the “old world” and all throughout the Indigenous tribes of North and South America, there was migration of peoples, but they moved together and they moved slowly. Late 19th and early 20th century migration, as the story of Marie and Tony would suggest, is much more rapid and fragmented. You have one family moving a great distance, starting up their own line and really passing very little of what might be called tribal customs on to their descendants. Perhaps that’s a comment on modernity, in that beyond language there wasn’t that much different between being a farm family in Moravia and one in Western Canada, but my hunch is it’s more to do with the community that surrounds you. When Great Grandma tells her stories there are certainly Czechs around — the Fajnors, who owned the quarter where my parents’ house now sits, maybe 500m from where the early Kriz homestead would have been, were also Czechs, or if not Czechs, Slovaks — but there are other characters. There’s “Mike the Russian” and “the Jew cattle buyer.” It’s a hodgepodge, a mishmash, and for the children the farm community would likely have been supplanted by the Canadianization of the school.

Anyway, all this to say there’s a distinctiveness to identity that exists for those who have roots in one place and one culture for a period of time. In Canada when the talk turns to Indian Residential Schools and the many horrors contained therein, one of the most damaging parts is the loss of connection with place and culture. There’s a fixedness to being Blackfoot or Cree that those schools tried to take away. But even to this day, if you ask a person from Siksika what it means to be Blackfoot, they’ll have something to say about it. If you ask someone in Canada what it means to be Canadian (and I know this because I’ve asked it in class more than once) you’ll get blank stares and platitudes about politeness and hockey. My supposition is that it takes generations to form the sense of identity that Great Grandma wouldn’t have thought twice about.

But, but! Here’s the other thing: while Great Grandma knows unquestionably that she is Czech, and she knows unquestionably what that means, she also notes in her history that she was born “in Austria.” Did she move? Well, she was born in 1911, so the keen amateur historian will quickly realize that she was born during the last years of the longstanding Hapsburg empire (in Social Studies class we knew it as Austria-Hungary). There’s currently a revisionist movement going on about the surprising viability of the seemingly archaic regime, and that would seem to be borne out by Grandma’s discussion of small towns having electricity before the the war. So anyway, my great grandmother, like everyone else who would call themselves a Czech, was born a citizen of Austria-Hungary, in the administrative district of Moravia. Moreover, Moravia (and Bohemia, for that matter) had been under Hapsburg rule since 1526. As in, William bloody Shakespeare had not yet been born when the Czech lands had first been considered part of Austria. For further proof of this, if proof is needed, Sigmund Freud, who is always, always identified as Austrian, was born in Moravia.

The point of all this, if it needs to be stated, is that identity is tricky, but in digging through a giant history book of “The Czech Lands” — I’ve determined that this particular appellation is a common one because, I think, it more closely approximates how the Czech people call themselves in Czech — I can say that the Slavic people who call themselves Czech have been doing this for quite some time. I still haven’t got to the point where I know how old the language is, or what its evolution is, but I’ll get to that point. At the moment what I’m trying to find is some of the history I can latch onto, and I’ll try my best to explain why that is, and why this is all so tricky. I’m not sure that when I get back I’ll still be in the same place, but bear with me.

***

For the most part, and probably, I realize with some chagrin, like most people, I’m more comfortable with the modern. I think this has to do with the place of the individual in society and the relative autonomy of modern living. Like anyone I have some nostalgia for the past I didn’t experience, but again like most I think that nostalgia can only go as far back as a world I can have a basic understanding of, a basic recognition. I grew up on a farm, so I can imagine the basic idea of farm life as it would have been for Great Grandma (point of fact, I grew up on the same farm, but more on that later), and I can imagine the feeling of controlling one’s own destiny (however fraught that might be with privileged complications) that came with that. That kind of life interests me, to an extent, but I also need to feel the sweep of it, I need to feel its place in history. I think I’ve always liked literature and well, stories, because it’s a comment on a place in history. The more modern it gets, the more the concerns are something I can recognize. This threatens to be an indulgence, but novels to me get much more interesting when the concern of the author went from the exterior, to place, to plot, to what happened and where, to the interior, to the mind. We don’t just know what happened, but why it happened, at least from the perspective of one person. This is a gross, and almost grotesque, oversimplification, especially to describe a phenomenon that is basically “relatability,” but from it I hope comes the root of my struggles with this journey through the past: in order to write this Czech story I need to understand something that is, for me, not as interesting to understand, to me, as things I’ve studied in the past. To put it another way I’ve never had much interest in either the lives of feudal lords or their vassals, and I don’t much care for kings and succession. I perhaps come directly from a place in the world that makes me uninterested in the part of the world from which I come indirectly.

But the conceptual, as I nag at my students about, is always aided by illustration, so let us try that. In trying to determine an origin for Czech identity I’m reading this weighty (literally) Czech history book. It’s been published quite recently by Czech academics, but with the express intention that it be translated. It’s thus both a Czech history for Czechs and one meant to be for the greater world. I’m not very far through it yet, so I’m at the beginning, and honestly I think the Powell story makes more sense to me. As I said, from 1526 onwards, the Czech lands were part of the Hapsburg empire, but before that there was… stuff. There were kings, I guess, with names like Boleslav, who was, maybe, from Bohemia, but before that there was a longer dynasty in Moravia with some guy named Samo, a “Frankish merchant” (aren’t those Germans? I wondered aloud), “leader of the rebellious Slavs against the Avars in the first half of the 7th century. The Avars (I just looked this up) were Eurasian nomads, and it’s not even clear where they came from. Or is this maybe the Pannonian Avars? Anyway, according to my book, “we can only demarcate Samo’s tribal union vaguely,” (ah, medieval history) so we leave Samo behind in the 7th century, and determine that the “Great Moravian Empire reached its utmost territorial and political extent in the era of Prince Svatopluk,” which, really, must be the Czech word for morning sickness, right? “Most probably after 883,” again, I love the certain inaccuracy of this period of history, “Svatopluk expanded his influence to Bohemia, as well as to the Serbian tribes settled along the river Saale and apparently [apparently] in they years 874–880 encroached upon the region of the Silesian tribes around the upper Oder and Vistula.”

At this point the history might as well be in Czech for as much sense as it makes to me, given I don’t know my Saale from my Oder and Vistula (are these all even rivers?), but I’m heartened by the fact that the historians don’t seem to know either, as Svatopluk’s brief reign ends, at least figuratively, as such:

Although the Great Moravian Empire was more powerful and its political system firmer than Samo’s tribal union, the demarcation of Great Moravia’s border remains a theoretical construct, founded as in the case of Samo’s empire, upon available archaeological and written sources. It is not possible to draw a map with any degree of exactitude those regions which are presumed to have formed part of the empire. (Emphasis absolutely my own)

So we have, it would seem, a theoretical empire with a theoretical border, but headed, we think, by an actual person. I’m not even sure if Bohemia was part of this empire (but then again, neither is anyone else) but it does seem that this was the height of power for we Moravians, as the Empire fell “by the beginning of the 10th century), or, well, less than twenty years after Svatopluk (possibly??) took control of Pannonia.[1] It’s then that we get into Přemyslid domain and our pal Boleslav.

It’s from here, it would appear that Bohemia and the Czech state (český stat) start to grow into what they basically would be in the present day, but it’s only during this Mediaeval period that the Czech state is really a thing. Since I don’t actually want to continue with this history for the sake of anything other than my own amusement, I’ll just add that the Přemyslid domain carried on in some form for the next 300–400 years (the uncertainty here is due more to my own laziness than to sketchy history). But it is still confusing. It’s a Czech state, but there’s intermingling. Germans show up (and Germans always, always show up), Moravia becomes not part of, then part of again, the larger Czech state. Parts of Poland seem to get added, and we get the reigns of Přemysl Otakar II (I love all these names) and king Wenceslas, yes the one from the song, but just how good he was seems up for debate since the history describes him as having a “desire for greater power.” At some point this guy’s son, maybe, accepts the Hungarian crown, but it’s unclear what that means in terms of territory. The territory gets ruled by a castle system, which seems to be the norm in medieval systems, and I would assume that these castles would have control over the land that the Czech serfs (hi, ancestors!) toiled upon. We move from the castle system to something called “Crown lands” once we reach the 14th century, and the names start to sound more Anglo-Saxon, where somehow the Crown Lands are ruled by someone named John of Luxemburg and Luxemburg itself becomes part of the Czech lands. After John of Luxemburg, whose father is Henry VII, but surely not Henry VII of England because we’re 200 years too early, we get Charles IV, whose name, I know, is on the most famous bridge in Prague.

In my admittedly grim understanding of all this, it seems like none of this is particular unusual for medieval Europe. The book points out that Czech territories were never a source of great power of influence — not even during the reign of the infamous Svatopluk — but that the lands themselves were often “important crossroads of cultural currents, political interests, and conflicts.” Once we start heading into what is popularly referred to as the early Modern stage of European history we find power shifting westward because of things coming from the Americas, and it seems the Czech lands get a little left behind. It’s around then, in the early 16th century, that they become part of the Hapsburg regime, which was a Czech-Austrian-Hungarian confederation. This lasts for four centuries, dissolving with World War I and the birth of Czechoslovakia. So, as I said earlier, my great grandparents managed to be born into the last decade of a 400-year regime. It’s hard to even really conceptualize what that would be like.

***

Here’s what, for me, is important in all this history, and I do understand that what’s important for me is hardly of primary importance for, say, a Czech historian, but I’m the one writing this, so here we are. Czech identity has pretty deep roots. The cities that make up modern day Czechia, Prague, Brno, Ostrava, Olomouc, were all there in the Medieval period. The regions themselves have been around for seemingly as long, and while they may have gained and lost (and gained again) in bureaucratic importance, they’ve existed more or less intact through myriad regimes. It’s as such reasonable to assume that my great grandparents, who grew up on opposite sides of the Svitava river in farming villages around 30 kilometres away from Brno, had ancestors from more or less that region dating back to Svatopluk. In my limited imagination I still have a hard time picturing the life these people led, beyond some sort of menial sowing and reaping and many, many children, but they were probably there. But I could be wrong. They were born, after all, into modernity, and there would have been railroads and the possibility of movement — Great Grandma went to school in Brno, for one thing — but the way Grandma talks about it it sounds like her family had been established.

I’m reading another book — this is the way, as a scholar, I do things; I don’t just read one book, I read several, and I rarely finish any of them because I’m always just looking for a thing, and once I find that thing I move on to the next one — and this book, Prague in Black, is about the German occupation of the Czech lands during the Second World War. This is of course after my direct descendants left, so in one way I’m as interested in those who stayed as I am in my distant relatives in Nebraska, but the thing about Nebraska is that it wasn’t occupied by the Nazis. Anyway, one interesting concept in this book is the idea of “acting nationally.” The author frequently describes the Czechs in the period leading up to the war as doing this, “acting nationally.” What he seems to mean by this is asserting their Czechness: shopping at Czech run stores, attending Czech church services, watching only Czech made films, etc. This had been, he argues the way Czechs had been asserting their nationality since the 19th century, while they were still part of the Hapsburg empire. They might live under, as they put it, “German rule” — they considered the Austrians German — but they were not German. It seemed to be their, and no doubt that of other politically unrecognized nationalities, way of maintaining a sense of national identity without officially having a nation. It’s a concept almost completely foreign to me — I have a nation but not a great sense of national identity — but one I can immediately understood upon reading Great Grandma talking about the Germans. I’ll come back to Grandma and her Germans later, but for now I’ll just note that it’s easy to see how the Czechs were able to suddenly form a nation despite none of them ever knowing one of their own, but how they also could fairly easy go back to not having one. They were Czech regardless.

That sounds good, doesn’t it? “They were Czech regardless.” It just might also not be true.

[1] Somewhere in present day Hungary, or possibly Austria — just, get out a map.

The Great Moravian Empire

A Canadian in his forties explores his Czech familial…

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