CR 2 CR: floods forge stronger bonds between Czech expats and old homeland

National Czech & Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids during the floods in 2008, photo: archive of National Czech & Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids

Charity organizations say that Czechs are particularly generous in times of crisis – aid to tsunami, flood and earthquake victims has always been fast and generous, all the more so, when they have a special affinity to the town or region in need. When Cedar Rapids, Iowa, which has a large community of Czech expats, was ravaged by floods in 2008 Czechs promptly donated close to a million crowns in aid for the town.

National Czech & Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids during the floods in 2008,  photo: archive of National Czech & Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids
Steve Groner of Cedar Rapids says the locals have not forgotten this effort.

“(Help from) the Czech Republic was the first governmental help we got after the flood, before city, state or US government. So it was quite a surprise and we used that as a kind of impetus for our government to get into action. Please move forward, because the Czech government is already here. So that helped us get things moving.”

Five years later –in the wake of this year’s devastating June floods – the people of Cedar Rapids moved to return the favour. At the initiative of two citizens – Steve Groner and Tom Hansen - the Cedar Rapids Public Library Foundation, Sokol Cedar Rapids, the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library and St. Wenceslaus Church joined forces for CR2CR(Cedar Rapids to Czech Republic), a flood-relief effort that raised $50,000 for the flood-ravaged library in the town of Dečín. And a group of donors came over in person to deliver the gift to the people of Dečín. Tom and Steve explain how it came about:

“I was working with the library and that’s how I knew about the donation from the Czech government and then Steve’s wife and my wife used to be on the Czech Museum board and so the two of us had those connections from 2008. And so we got all four organizations together to do this collection to help out the Czech people. Your ambassador said: well, rather than just giving the money wherever why not give it to the library in Dečín? He is the one who designated the library as a focus point and it was symbolic because it was library to library.”

Cedar Rapids and the Czech Republic are now in a way tied by tragedy –you say you know what it feels like – has that strengthened interaction in recent years?

Tom : I hope so, I mean we are here.”

Děčín | Photo: Ondrej.konicek,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY 3.0
Steve: That was part of our goal. There’s a sign we are presenting to the library in Dečín tomorrow that reads “Friends through Adversity” or, basically, friends through tragic events is the way we’ve become close. We hope that this is not always the case but we want to bring a stronger tie from Cedar Rapids to the Czech Republic.

You are going to Dečín tomorrow – is this the beginning of closer cooperation and a follow-up visit maybe?

Steve: Hopefully this will be the first of many exchanges with Dečín. We hope to let them know we are here and we understand what they have gone through and hopefully, at some point, have a small contingent from Dečín to come to Cedar Rapids to see what kind of flood recovery we’ve done and we want to see what they have done as well, so we steal ideas from one another that way. It’s a good thing.

I had the impression that only the Czech community, or people with Czech roots, actually collected money to help the Dečín library out but I find that there were many others. What was the response like?

Steve: Over 300 individuals gave money and we raised over 50,000 US dollars in six weeks. So it was incredible – the entire community was behind it and they came with open arms.

Jason Wright, vice-president for development at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library says the reason for this generous response goes back to the 2008 floods.

“The reason that the generous response happened, I truly believe, was that even before the Cedar Rapids flood had subsided we had received a call from the Czech ambassador to the US saying we are behind you, we are with you, the Czech people know about you. That was inspirational. Then, the first significant gift that any of these organizations from Cedar Rapids received was from the Czech Republic. Now, we don’t forget. So as soon as the call was had –to help –the response in that first week especially was extraordinary. As I said my museum served as the fiscal agent so we received all the money and that’s all my staff did that week – tabulate and calculate the money. I think it had a lot to do with the fact that the Czech Republic stepped forward first for us, and we were able to step forward first for you.”

Jason Wright,  photo: Milena Štráfeldová
Do you feel that the common experience has helped strengthen ties –do you see closer cooperation in the future with the library in Dečín?

“I think this opens all doors for cooperation and building relationships and frankly that’s the reason I am here right now. We want to have the strongest relationship that we can with Dečín, with the Czech Republic –I’m speaking for my museum right now. For example, I would like to have a conversation with the director of the Dečín library about how the library in my museum can have a really strong connection to their library. And I love the notion of our education departments also getting together so that there could be some interactive between the youths of Cedar Rapids and the youths of Dečín – of exchanging cultural ideas.”

In Prague the group of visitors from Cedar Rapids was received at the Czech Foreign Ministry by Karel Kuhnl, the government’s commissioner for Czechs living abroad. He says ties between this community and the Czech Republic are very close.

“Obviously the ties, the links are still very strong and that is shown not only by this wonderful idea of the people of Cedar Rapids to support the Dečín library, but of course the Czech Republic is still proud of having helped Cedar Rapids after the 2008 floods. I remember that even back in 2002 the Czech Republic got some financial support from Czech-Americans living in the US. So the links are still perceived as very strong, very vivid and I would like all my compatriots here in the Czech Republic to remember that.”

You are the government’s commissioner for Czechs living abroad – and basically the Czech Republic started re-establishing ties with Czech communities abroad only after the fall of communism. How difficult has that been? Did the long break present a problem and what are the problems involved? I understand that none of the people here today speak any Czech…

“The process was a bit more difficult with respect to our political émigrés of the 20th century –because there were several waves of political immigrants. It was a little bit easier to establish links with the so-called old Czech communities –Czechs who settled abroad in the 18 – 19th centuries and formed communities of Czechs living in one place – in the Ukraine, in Russia, Romania, Croatia, Serbia and so on. Establishing links with them proved to be a bit easier because it was not “contaminated” with the politics of the 20th century. And I can easily understand Czechs in Western Europe and Northern America who feel that they would like to get more attention from the Czech state. I will certainly work on it and try to improve the situation, within our limited means. “

Karel Kühnl  (left),  photo: Milena Štráfeldová
When you say more attention – do you mean more interaction?

“More interaction is the first step, but I mean really listening to the needs of Czechs living abroad because their needs are not uniform. Some communities need help in maintaining their schools, sending teachers, other communities are more interested in being able to better exercise their voting right if they are Czech citizens, so their needs are very different and we have to listen to all of them and to try to improve the situation and strengthen the links –all within our limited means.”

How would you describe the Czech community in Cedar Rapids?

“This is actually our first meeting because I have only been in office for two months, but what I see is that most of them are –in one way or another –of Czech origin, they feel this link very strongly, they don’t necessarily speak Czech, or not very well, but that does not prevent them from having a strong emotional link to the Czech Republic which can best be seen in their support of the Dečín library now.