There are probably few Czechs or Slovaks in Toronto, Canada, who haven't - at one time or another - visited 'Masaryktown', a famous Czechoslovak haven originally founded on what was once outlying farmland but is now part of the so-called Mega-city. For almost 60 years Masaryktown, and its governing organisation, the Masaryk Memorial Institute, helped keep alive Czech and Slovak traditions in Canada, and they do so even today. Politics, culture, as well as recreation & sport, all form part of a unique tradition.
Before there was a Masaryktown there was simply an idea: to find a place where Czechs and Slovaks living in Canada could meet and Czechoslovak culture could thrive. It was early days: the mid-1940s. Members of the community in Toronto, many of whom had belonged to the National Alliance, helping raise money for Czechoslovakia, or even sending sons to fight in Europe, during World War II, could now turn to domestic issues. At the top of the list was finding a place in Toronto. Jan Travnicek - until recently president of the MMI explains - organisers then agreed on two early sites.
"They purchased a large unused hall downtown and that was a community centre for Czechs and Slovaks here in Toronto for many years. While the thing was prospering, they also wanted to have a recreation centre out of the city, so they bought a run-down farm in Scarborough far away from the centre. That was basically the beginning of Masaryktown as such."
At that time the site, which covered 60 acres, lay more that 20 miles outside of Toronto. Records show it was accessible only by a single unpaved road - not exactly pleasant travelling. Even today, when highways cut through the area, it still remains out of the way, though surrounded by hotels and glass office buildings in the distance. But, arguably, it's worth it. The site is a veritable oasis in the middle of the city: a park, a place for summer camp and swimming, and much more, continuing to bring together expatriates for significant events, even hosting Czech members of Parliament, Czech ambassadors, and the Czech president in the past. Other notable visitors have included famous Czech entertainers like Jiri Suchy or Waldemar Matuska - a lion of a singer who is one of most well-known personalities to have emigrated from Czechoslovakia.
On an annual basis many Czechs and Slovak families still also gather at the institute to honour long-held traditions, commemorating, for example, the founding date of Czechoslovakia, or the birthday of Czechoslovakia's first president, Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, whose ideals organisers espoused when founding their institute and site in his name.
"Today we'd say they were very sentimental. Masaryk was admired and that man couldn't make any mistake in their eyes. Well, it was a typically Czech approach: they made of their leader somebody who never made any mistakes and so on. But, anyway, it was a symbolic gesture to the founding of Czechoslovakia."
Nowadays, much of the patriotic fervour has waned and it's not all that difficult to understand why. Following the fall of communism in 1989 some Czechoslovak-Canadians, especially 1st generation born in Canada, lost some of the impetus to gather: many, after all, could now return to their homeland to hear spoken Czech, or reacquaint themselves with their homeland personally. Some visited, others came back to live.
I asked Jan Travnicek how the institute dealt with this shift in interest and he admitted it wasn't easy: that, indeed, many younger Czech-Canadians were losing touch with their heritage, many no longer speaking Czech, some no longer even interested in their roots. On the other hand, he argued that even Czechs and Slovaks who followed after his generation, for example in the late 60s, also had different opinions. Often new émigrés tended to be less socially active in the group:
"There is quite a difference. Of course those who came earlier still had that spirit of the First Republic which wasn't quite that way when people later on came in. Especially regarding volunteer work, the 'old-timers' - including myself - we were willing to put in a lot of hours to help the organisation. We still have some, but it's not quite the same."
At the same time, there is no question émigrés shared opposition to the regime that had driven them and their families out. To this day a statue titled "Crucified Again" commemorates political prisoners on the site: a man tortured not on a cross, but those two symbols of Soviet oppression: the infamous sickle and hammer. Everyone looked forward to the day communism would fall, it just took far longer than anyone expected.
"I am one of those who left after communism took over and we we're hoping that such a regime could not last. We hoped it would fall within five years. For many years we were hoping to go back. But, of course after all the decades we were forced to give up and now we have security here and it's impossible to go back. Many of us would love to do it, but we can't do it anymore."
One way Masaryktown and the Masaryk Memorial Institute remains relevant to the Czech-Canadian community today, is by continuing to publish Novy Domov - The New Homeland - a weekly with close to a 60 year history and a circulation of almost a thousand. Julia Novotna of the Masaryk Memorial Institute explains that many families couldn't be 'Czech in Toronto' without that weekly link:
"It's like a family newspaper and sometimes we are a little bit disappointed that people pass on the paper to friends and family and extended family instead of subscribing! But, you know, it's for generations, and especially for the older generation who are not in the internet this is their only connection with the Czech and Slovak Republics. They love it!"
The paper, too, has a new editor, Jan Rotbauer, who told me he hoped to find a balance in the paper that would address both new readers and old. But, he said he felt it wouldn't be easy.
"The paper has a very long tradition - at 55 years it's been around 10 years longer than myself! And that certainly poses a big burden on one hand and some obligation on myself. Because I can not just start publishing something different! As far as I can judge it has been serving readers quite well, not only in Canada but also in the US."
Back with Jan Travnicek, at the end of our conversation he was kind enough to show me around the main grounds - and, back in February, this meant tramping around in the snow. On a hill overlooking the space, I could not help wonder at all the hard work which had gone into the site over the years, to keep it maintained. Traditionally, linden trees - the national tree of the Czechs - have been planted around the site in honour of notable figures. Jan Travnicek is one of them. Scratching at the snow, we tried to uncover his plaque in the brilliant noon-day sun.
JV: It's actually a beautiful day here in Toronto... the snow is melting and it' all slush. It's almost spring.
JT: "In Toronto you never know! Tomorrow it could be 20 C below! This year, especially, it was up and down!"
JT: "Yeah, maybe!"
In the end we found the plaque commemorating Mr Travnicek's contributions. After more than 20 years as head of the Masaryk Memorial Institute and countless other endeavours in the Czech community, it's clear Mr Travnicek can look on Masaryktown with pride.
I was glad to have seen it, even in winter. It may have been cold and abandoned now, but I imagine it will be full of many visitors again, come the summer days.