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THE NATIVE IMMIGRANT

Reflections on the
immigrant experience

 

 

Through the eyes of the third generation

My name is Wendy Jedlicka and I am Czech. Oh I'm American too, but if you ask me I'll say I'm Czech. I'm not ashamed of my American heritage (mother's paternal side), I'm a daughter of the American Revolution. Members of my family fought for the Union in the Civil War, and in all wars America has found itself in since we arrived in the 1600's. One of my great grandfathers on that side of my family, was the first white child born in the Ohio Territory.

For me though, the connection of being 50% Czech, like some sort of racial distinction, held much more tangible appeal than being some combination of French, English, Swiss, and a few mystery ingredients - that which composes my American half. Besides, I had that beautiful, unwieldy name. But more on that later.

I'm writing this for my newly found Czech cousins, to share with them what it means to be a hyphenated American. To help them understand they are not the few million or so left in the Czech Republic, but tens of millions scattered all over the world. This is a piece of their story too.

Welcome to the new - a little slice of the old

In 1872 my great grandparents emigrated from Podoli 1 and Stryckovice in Bohemia, at that time part of Austria. I still don't know why they chose to leave, or if they were engaged before they left, or met on the ship to America.* What I do know is that the farms they lived on were very small, and the families they were born into were every large. There was no hope of inheriting a small piece of land to farm, and very little opportunity for the Czech peasant classes under the Habsburgs of Austria.

Two years after arriving in the US, my great grandparents Anton Jedlicka, and Magdelena Kolackova were married in the first Czech church in the US, St. Jan Nepomuk, in the Pilsen neighborhood of Central Chicago. It was in this Czech speaking neighborhood that they raised 5 children. Church services were in Czech, shops, restaurants, even the news was in Czech. Pilsen was all of the opportunity afforded by the freedoms in America, with the flavors, smells and sounds of home.

Melting pot or tasty stew?

In 1917 my grandfather married a nice Czech girl from the Pilsen neighborhood, Agnes Pavlckova (her father helped found Fox River Grove Illinois, another Czech community outside of Chicago), and tried to pass on to their children the Czech language and traditions that their parents were careful to pass on to them. That is until my aunt and father revolted! "We're not immigrant peasants, we're Americans! Speak like an American!"

Melted, homoginised, sanitised for your protection

After my aunt died, my cousin came across a small stash of letters from our grandmother (she was killed in an auto accident before I was born). Coupled with the letters I discovered myself after my father's death, plus conversations I had with my grandfather, father, and aunt before their deaths, I think I have a pretty good understanding of what happened. A story very typical of immigrants in America.

No longer living in the old Czech neighborhood, and feeling the pressure to conform to the very homogeneous community that was 1940's Minneapolis, my grandparents gave in to my father and aunt's constant harassment to be real "Americans."

I remember one of several occasions, where my father spoke with disdain about my grandparent's. This particular instance he spoke of his parents trying to converse with the locals during a visit to Karlovy Vary after the war (WWII), and his complete hatred for all things foreign - including his parents. In my grandmother's letters though, she talks of her great sadness during that experience, and how she truly regretted letting her language, and heritage slip though her fingers.

Visiting the Czech lands, reawakened her sense of belonging to a greater, older community than the one she lived in the US, but it also reopening the wounds left by her children running away from the heritage she and their father represented.

 
 
 

My father and grandmother at Spring #4,
Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), just after WWII

What was melted is molded fresh

After my mother remarried, and before my grandfather died, I had the chance to spend time with him. Just us two, at our cabin in the North woods of Minnesota. I tried to pump him for information about his family, his childhood, to tell me stories about them, anything. But he just glossed over the whole thing. I suppose thinking I was just a silly little girl. He did though teach me how to say our name correctly, and promised to send me the Czech dictionary and language books he used when he was younger. I in turn, promised him I would go back to the original spelling (a simple matter of accent marks) and pronunciation of our name - and more importantly - learn Czech. But the look in his eyes was one of sad resignation - silly little girl.

It took over 20 years, but I kept my promise. Studying first German (to be able to read the records of my family written under the Habsburgs), then eventually Czech (I'm still working on this one), I've located our distant cousins in Bohemia, and returned to the correct spelling and pronunciation of our name. Currently, I'm researching our regional traditions to revive in my own home and to share with my fellow Czech and Slovak Society members. (The Czechoslovak Genealogical Society is as much about maintaining and learning about our cultural heritage as it is researching family ties.)

The truly ironic twist to all of this, is while visiting my aunt in the nursing home after returning from a trip to one of our ancestral villages, she was happy to hear every detail. Paralyzed from a stroke, I was flipping pages for her, showing her pictures in a Czech book I had gotten about the area. I told her I couldn't really translate it very well, but instead, she asked me to read to her the passages written in Czech. She said with a sigh, it reminded her of her mother, and happier times.

Stumbling over the words, doing all that I could, and trying very hard, I read in my best Czech, probably the first she'd heard in 40 years, as she drifted off to sleep.

 

*Update 2003: Anton emigrated with 3 of his brothers in 1872. The reason I've never been able to find his passage on any ship's manifest is that according to a family entry in the Verdigre (Nebraska) Centennial Book, the three were shipwrecked! It stands to reason then that Anton and Magdalena met, courted and married in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago. Which all goes far to explaining: why it was 2 years between their emigration and marriage, the distance in their home villages, and the fact that they married here in the US rather than back in Bohemia as they were both of age when they emigrated (and Magdalena a bit old for a first time bride of her era - 22).


A little note I sent this Christmas to my Czech friends and "Cousins" . . .

Subject: Ahoj ze Amerika! Cast Dva (hello from America Part 2)
Date: Wed, 26 Dec 2001 17:20:26 ­0600

Ahoj moji US a CF bratranci a setrenice, a cesky pratelé!
(Hello my US and Czech cousins, and Czech friends!)

Dnes je Stedry vecer. Za pisu ten dopis, posloucham cecsky vancoce pisen CD.
(Today is Christmas Eve. As I write this letter I am listening to a Czech Christmas Carol CD.)

Moj pritel (milacek) - Mark* - a je jsme v Montane. Jeho rodice bydli v Montane, u Glacier Park. Glacier je v sverni US Rocky Hora. V zime Montana je nudny kdyby lyzovame. Je nelyzovam - spatny kolenni jablko problem.
(My boyfriend - Mark* - and I are in Montana. His parents live in Montana, near Glacier Park. Glacier is in the Northern US Rockies. In the Winter, Montana is boring if you don't ski. I don't ski - bad knees.)

Zitra (vanoce) rano vstavujeme, otevrneme vanocni dareky, a velky snidame.
(Tomorrow (Christmas) morning we will get up, open gifts, and have a big breakfast)

Stedry vecer vecere jideme peci hovezi.
(Christmas evening dinner we eat roast beef [actually standing rib roast, but I can't figure out how to say that. And to be honest I think I wrote 'baked cow', but they'll get the idea.])

Otec od Marka je Irsky-Amerikan. Stedry vecer vecere je stale Britansky. Mam rada ten vecere.
(Mark's father is Irish-America. Christmas dinner is always British. I like this dinner.)

Ale Matka od Marka je Swedka/Nemcka-Americanka. Vanoce sladke neje Britansky, to je dobry vec. Nemam rada britansky sladke.
(But Mark's mother is Swedish/German-American. Christmas sweets are not British, a good thing. I'm not fond of British sweets.)

Muj oblibeny Stedry vecer vecere je od moje Matky rodiny. Vareny kure a rucne vyrobeny nudle (podobny do necmecsky spaetzel).
(My favorite Christmas dinner is of my mother's family. Stewed chicken and handmade noodles (similar to German spaetzel).

Vim cesky Stedry vecer vecere je kapr paneva se maslo.
(I know about the Czech Christmas dinner of butter fried carp.)

Vim cesky tradice vanocka, oplatky, a vanoce hra. Ale nedelame tento.
(I know about Czech sweet bread and honey waffles, and Christmas games. But we never did these.)

Muj Otec se stdi za byl cesky. "Nejsem cizinec rolnik, jsem amerikan!"
(My father was ashamed of being Czech. "I am not a foreign peasant, I'm an American!")

Muj ceska babicka (Agnes Pavlicek Jedlicka) zemral pred muj narozeni, a muj cesky dedecek bydlil vzdaleny (3300km).
(My Czech grandmother died before I was born, and my Czech grandfather lived far away (2000 miles).

Dedecek, otec a je oslavime dohromady. Nepamatuji Stedry vecer vecere, ale pamatuji vanocni dareky v me bot!
(We had only one Christmas together [Grandpa, dad and I]. I don't remember the food, but I remember presents in my shoes!)

Prosim, povidame vsechno nad tvoji Vanoce tradice. Co je vsude cesky, a co je jedinecny v tvoji mesta? Mate fotos?
(Please tell me everything about your Christmas tradtions. What are everywhere Czech, and what are unique for your town?)

Stastny novy rok!
(Happy New Year!)

Wendy

 


"We're all related, it just depends how far back you go."
Miroslav Koudelka, Czech Genealogist


©1999 W.L. Jedlicka