One hundred years of Czech at the University of Nebraska

18-09-2007

All of this week, the University of Nebraska is celebrating 100 years of Czech teaching on campus. The language course was set up by Nebraska's large expatriate Czech community at the turn of the 20th century, with emigrants wanting to ensure that their descendants received schooling in their own mother tongue. A century on, and the Czech language is still thriving in the American Midwest. Between lectures, I spoke to the university's Czech professor Mila Saskova-Pierce, who has also been organizing the centenary celebrations. I started by asking her what festivities she had planned in the coming days:

Mila Saskova-Pierce, photo: www.unl.eduMila Saskova-Pierce, photo: www.unl.edu "We have a nice programme. Firstly, we have on loan a wonderful exhibit by Lucy Seifert - "The History of the Brave Czech Nation" - which is the biggest book in the world, I understand. We have the English version, and it is being exhibited now at the university. Then, the governor of the State of Nebraska has declared that this week is the week of the Czech programme here at the university, so the whole state is celebrating the Czech programme, and the Czech-ness of part, of 20% of the state's population."

"And then Thursday, the students of Czech and I will all get together and we will spend the whole afternoon cooking, and in the evening, we have invited all of the rest of the students from the whole of the university - hopefully not all 25 thousand students will come, we hope to get around 150 to 200 students - to share a Czech meal which is 'vepro knedlo zelo' [pork, dumplings and sauerkraut]"

There aren't that many people in the world that speak Czech - maybe around 10 million in the Czech Republic - so why do you think it is important for young Nebraskans and students from elsewhere to learn the language?

"I think that there are 2 reasons that I can think of very quickly. One is that there was always a great cooperation between Nebraska and the Czech Republic. In fact, in 1916, farmers - that is people who were sending their children barefoot to school - collected half a million dollars to send to Masaryk's government in exile, because somebody had to pay for the cabinet's time abroad. And it was those farmers that sent that unbelievable contribution."

"They were even publishing "The Czechoslovak", and they even sent people to fight for the former Czechoslovakia. There was always this big support here. It was interrupted during the communist era, but now we are retying this very fertile link between the two lands."

Do you think that Czech studies at the University of Nebraska will survive for the next 100 years?

"I am sure. Well, we don't know, but I think that with the enthusiastic people that we have on this side of the ocean, and the kind and supportive relationship coming from the Czechs on the other side of the ocean, we have the best outlook possible for the next 100 years."

18-09-2007