Bořek Lizec, Consul General of the Czech Republic in Chicago, has unearthed and preserved remarkable stories of Czech-American friendships and come to believe that, quite possibly, Czechoslovakia would not have gained its independence had it not been for efforts of the people of Chicago and the Midwest. To honour their individual and collective contributions and legacies, he is helping put together centenary celebrations in “the windy city” this autumn requiring two weekends to pack it all in.
Chicago, the biggest city in the American Midwest, has been a major centre of Czech immigration to the United States since the 1850s and was something of a second home to Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk at the turn of the last century before he became president of the Czechoslovak Republic. The friendships that Masaryk made there, as a visiting professor in the early 1900s, would prove instrumental in helping to bring President Woodrow Wilson around to the cause of Czechoslovak independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
“Chicago played a very important, and I would even say key role. Maybe, if there was not the help from the Midwest – both from our American friends as well as Czech-Americans – Czechoslovakia might not have been created. So, from the very beginning, I felt a responsibility, but also I felt a really positive motivation that I should try to prepare special celebrations at which we could thank those who 100 years ago helped us our modern statehood and also to retell the stories, which were sometimes, unfortunately, forgotten.”
Bořek Lizec has been with the Consulate of the Czech Republic in Chicago since it reopened in 2005 and Consul General since September 2014. Around 750,000 people in the Midwest claim Czech ancestry, with the greatest concentration in Chicago. During his tenure at the Consulate, Mr Lizec has met countless Americans of whose ancestors fought for Czechoslovak independence, whether on the battlefield of the First World War, or on the home front – whether lobbying Washington to the cause, raising money to support the fledgling country’s troops and institutions, or sewing them uniform and sending them packages.
“It is still possible to find Czech-speaking Americans in the Midwest whose ancestors came in the 19th Century… So, I’m really privileged to be able to serve there. I’m always received incredibly kindly. The usual scenario of my meetings with a Czech-American – in Nebraska, South Dakota, Minnesota, wherever – the conversation starts with ‘My great-great-great-grandmother would have been very pleased if she knew that I met you’ and ‘Is there anything that I can do for you?’ And I certainly don’t take this for granted. I greatly appreciate it. In my work, I really rely often on the help of Czech-Americans – who still feel very patriotic about their heritage.”
Perhaps the ultimate celebration of that heritage, the Czech Centennial Gala, will be held in Chicago on the weekend of September 28th, Czech Statehood Day. The half dozen local Sokol organisations, and groups such the United Moravian Societies, which since the late 1930s have helped generations in the United States preserve or connect with their roots, will all certainly be out in force, flying the flag of their ancestors.
Apart from assembling a stellar line-up of musicians, the Consulate and its partner organisations will also commemorate fascinating stories associated with the creation of the Czechoslovak state in 1918 and its rebirth after falling under Nazi occupation in World War II. Honoured guests will include representatives of American and Czech-American families and institutions in Chicago and the greater Midwest who Mr Lizec says deserve the country’s everlasting thanks.
Among the prominent historical Chicago figures who he says is deserving of special recognition is Charles Crane, the American entrepreneur who helped the University of Chicago establish its Slavic Studies department, and was a patron of Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha who commissioned the famous Slav Epic cycle. It was Crane, in fact, who brought then Professor Masaryk to Chicago and who later provided him with critical start-up funding for his Czechoslovak independence drive.
“Probably the most important help was that there were people in the Midwest and Chicago who were able to help Prof. Masaryk to gain access to President Woodrow Wilson. Masaryk really believed that the U.S. would have the main voice, the main decision-making voice, in how Europe would look after the First World War. And with that, he came to the U.S. in 1918, and his friend who invited him to the University of Chicago already in 1902 – Charles Crane – then introduced him to President Wilson, and convinced him that Masaryk would be a great asset as an advisor on Russia and developments in Europe. And Masaryk really managed to change Woodrow Wilson’s position – Wilson originally believed that Austria-Hungary should remain in existence.”
“Others who helped include Congressman Adolph Sabath, who later became Dean of the U.S. House of Representatives and held that record in length of serving until a bit beyond the new millennium, and also a judge of the U.S. Constitutional Court, Louis Brandeis – there were both Czech-Americans who helped Masaryk a lot in his campaign to convince the American administration.”
Before arriving in the US in 1918 to drum up support for the Czechoslovak cause, Masaryk had travelled abroad widely – from Moscow to Vladivostok, from Tokyo to Vancouver – seeking committed support for his dream of an independent homeland. In particular, though, he sought support from American president Woodrow Wilson, who in his famous “Fourteen Points” from January that year had demanded the nationalities of the rapidly disintegrating Austro-Hungarian Empire enjoy the “freest opportunity to autonomous development”.
But both times that Masaryk taught in Chicago –in 1902 and in 1907 – he had toured the Midwest extensively and was struck by how large and strong a Czechoslovak community there was. So when he began looking for concrete aid, says Mr Lizec, he knew where to go: Chicago.
“In 1914, when he decided he wanted to fight for Czech independence, he someone to turn to for help. And the first help he needed was really financial help. And this is actually what America really did – America paid, we can say, for our independence, and a large amount of these resources came from the Midwest. Chicago was also a centre of all these campaigns. Czech-Americans collected 1.5 million dollars during the war and another 7 million dollars’ worth of material, aide and financing in the first year of the Czechoslovak Republic.”
What would that translate to in today’s currency?
“I was trying to figure it out and was never able to do that. But the amount was really, really high – because we were able to cover with it the cost of Czech independence. That means this money was also used to sustain the Czech troops in Siberia, to sustain the Czechoslovak Legions. And the Czech women, who called themselves the ‘Bees’ – Včelky – who were packing big boxes of aid to Czech soldiers throughout the war.”
And these ‘Bees’ – was that a nationwide movement, or specific to Chicago?
“As far as I know, probably nationwide, but the distribution centre was in Chicago. In Nebraska, for example, I know that the ‘Bees’ were also very active. And Nebraska, until today, has the highest Czechs population in the U.S. – around six per cent claim Czech ancestry. And, of course, really we must note that when Masaryk called on Czech-American men to enlist in the Army – both American and Czechoslovak men – about 40,000 did that. So that was another major support.”
“If we look at the census, in absolute numbers Texas has more Czech-Americans than Illinois. But I think in terms of concentration, it would be greatest in the Chicago area still. There are still many active organisations that work quite nicely together. They also kind of represent the different waves of immigration. The oldest generations from the 19th Century are mainly centred around genealogical societies – and the Bohemian National Cemetery, which may be the largest Czech cemetery in the world. There are over 100,000 gravestones in that cemetery, many memorials of the life of Czech-Americans – also to those soldiers who fought for Czechoslovak independence in the First World War and were born in Chicago.”
Masaryk (1932 radio address): “When we severed the bonds binding us to the old Habsburg monarchy, I was aware that our decision must not be less motivated than the resolution taken by the founder of American liberty, and having recovered our liberty, we again follow the example of Washington in that we must no longer feel the old antagonism and anger, which originated in the suppression of our liberty. It is one of the great experiences of my life that I was allowed to claim the principles of our revolutionary liberation in the Independence Hall, the place where Washington and his friends used to meet. [...] My hearty wishes to the American people.”
Masaryk proclaimed the creation of the new sovereign state of Czechoslovakia in Philadelphia – at the site where both the American Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were adopted. And The May 1918 memorandum of understanding between the Czech and Slovak immigrant communities to create an independent republic bears the name of the place it was signed – the “Pittsburgh Agreement” – so perhaps it’s about time the role of Chicago and the Midwest got special recognition.
Among the lesser known, if not forgotten, times that the people of “the windy city” played a role in shaping Czech history came in 1939. Some six months after Edvard Beneš had resigned as Czechoslovak president following Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland, he visited Chicago, where – like Masaryk before him – he collected money from Czechoslovak immigrants and their decedents, only this time to fund the anti-Nazi resistance movement. (Like Masaryk, he too had taught at the University of Chicago).
Apart from special historic presentations highlighting such stories, the Czech Centennial Gala events will also feature and an art exhibition, commemorating artists with strong Chicago connections who also made their marks also in terms of their Czech patriotism – painter Alfons Mucha, sculptor Albín Polášek, and graphic artist and designer Vojtěch Preissig. And of course, no celebration would be complete without star music performances, says Mr. Lizec.
“We have been able to really prepare what I believe will be special celebrations. We will have two weekends of programmes; one at the end of September, when also the main gala evening will take place, on the Day of Czech Statehood, September 28th; and on the second weekend, at the beginning of November, and this celebration will include the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and the Czech swing singer Jan Smigmator.”
“In the September part, we are also fortunate to have a quite impressive list of stars. We will have probably the greatest Czech rock star, Petra Janda, with the greatest Czech-American rock star, Jim Peterik, who wrote one of the – I think – nicest rock melodies of all time, ‘The Eye of the Tiger’, known from the series of ‘Rocky’ movies.”
Among the living Czech-American legends on the guest list is a film starlet who appeared opposite the likes of Frank Sinatra in Preminger’s ‘The Man with the Golden Arm’ and Jimmy Stewart in Hitchcock’s ‘Vertigo’ – and one of only three people on Earth to have twice flown to the Moon.
“Kim Novak, the Hollywood star of the film ‘Vertigo’ also, I hope, will be with us, but she’s already recorded for us a video message to promote the celebrations. We also invited other prominent Czech-Americans who, symbolize, as I said, the success in later generations.”
“We are still quite hoping that they will all make it, so I don’t want to say too much in advance – but you can see in front of you there’s a newspaper that we prepared and there are many Czech-Americans from Chicago, such as the legendary astronaut from the Apollo 13 mission James Lovell, who was played by Tom Hanks in movie.”
“Also, of course, current ice hockey players who play in Chicago – Jan Rutta and David Kämpf – will be at the gala evening as well. And I’m really only naming just a few of those who are in touch with me.”
For more information on the Czech Centennial Celebration in Chicago, see https://czechcentennialchicago.cz/