Czech community in Romania struggles to survive

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A small community of Czechs have been living in the Banat region of south-western Romania for almost two hundred years. In many ways the area looks like the Czech lands would have looked a century ago, with most of the work still done by hand. Alena Gecse, a local school teacher has co-authored a book for school children about the Czech minority in Romania. She told Radio Prague how the first wave of immigration began.

"About two hundred years ago in 1823, southern Banat was very unpopulated. At this time, there lived a very rich man who rented large amounts of land from the government and was in the forestry business. Of course he needed lumberjacks and others to work the land. So he sent agents to the Czech lands to recruit workers. They were promised fertile land and free wood, so that they could build their houses. They were told they would be free of debt in ten years time and that they could avoid army service. It was touted as the promised land for Czech peasants."

A second migration began in the latter half of the 1820s. But, after that point, they steadily decreased until virtually stopping in the 1850s. Alena Gecse.

Alena Gecse (left)

"The second wave of colonization was in the year 1826. This time, the army directed the settlers to this area and established five other villages, the first of which was Svata Helena."

Today, there are about two thousand Czechs living in six different communities. Svata Helena is the largest; the other villages are Gernik, Rovensko, Bigr, Eibental, and Sumice. Despite their small size, they have managed to avoid assimilation and keep their language and cultural uniqueness. The communities have also set up schools, where Czech is taught. Veroslava Timorova, an employee for the school board in the area, explains.

"We have seven schools. The children start in preschool and go all the way to grade eight. We also have a secondary school. There are classes in Czech at all levels."

Emil Flaska, a Czech-Romanian man, has three children who are in the local education system.

"My kids go to a Romanian school, but they have an hour of Czech lessons taught by a Czech teacher. They speak it well, because we speak it at home, but I can't say which language they speak better. They probably speak both at the same level. When they are in school, they have to speak Romanian."

The Czech government and non-governmental organizations have been instrumental in giving aid to these communities. However, when a new school house opened in Svata Helena, the attendance quickly fell by half, due to a rapid decline in population. Alena Gecse again.

"The children I teach are good students. They all pass elementary and secondary school, like the kids in big cities. Some of them even go on to post-secondary schools. But, very few of them come back, because there is nowhere to work."

Many of the villagers feel the importance of keeping Czech traditions and passing them down to their children. The cooking and baking is traditional Czech and not Romanian. Also, many of the old Catholic traditions are still very prevalent here. Alena Gecse speaks about the importance of bringing children up with a sense of tradition and belonging.

"Yes, it is very important for us, because in that way we strengthen our Czech identity. Of course we teach our children our traditions; they will only learn them from us."

Banat
Local man Emil Flaska hints as to why there is so little foreign influence.

"The traditional way of life remains in Banat because the villages are difficult to get to. Not many foreigners come here; we live high in the hills, so we are isolated. The biggest tradition is 'cervene svatky', when we all get together. There is a lot of cooperation between the villages in Banat."

Although some aid has been given to the communities, some still feel the Czech government could do more. The longer people are settled here, the more they become tied to their communities. Veroslava Timorova again.

"We had a lot of help from the Czech government; they built us a school in the area of Saint Helena. In addition we also have two teachers from the Czech Republic. They came to us with through a program which was set up by the ministry of education in Prague."

Although the communities have been settled for almost two hundred years, their populations are steadily decreasing. Even if the rivers are full of fish and the forests full of game, the younger generations want to leave. Farming, fishing, or coal mining are sometimes the only way to survive. In addition, the ageing population and the desire for a better life inspire many people to leave. In Saint Helena the 1991 population was 800; less than a decade later in the year 2000 it had fallen to only 500. Emil Flaska says that his community has lost less young people than others.

"We can say we are lucky because we have work. So even though some young have already left, it is still less than from other communities. It's because they can still make some money here, so only about 50 of them left."

The Gernik folk dancers
The drop in the total population shows a different story. Although there is no reliable data, estimates show that anywhere from 20 per cent to 40 per cent have left in the past fifteen years. The first huge wave was after 1989. But, even if people leave, it does not mean they do better in the Czech Republic, Many times they are treated as second class citizens and sometimes their families must send them money for support. Petr Lubas explains.

"In Rovensko, there are only a few people left; they all leave for the Czech Republic. They have nowhere to work, everything is closed, and when they leave they don't return. An agrarian life is hard and you can't make any money. Life is hard with no money. That is the problem-no work."

The future is difficult to predict for these fragile communities. Some say the Gernik has the best chance for survival, because it is well populated, the land is fertile, and it is home to a small Czech-Romanian factory. The communities have not been idly standing by. They have been successful in setting up a small tourism industry among the six villages. Many people have been opening up their homes to tourists, offering meals and guided tours of the area. Alena Gecse again.

"We hope that we will be able to survive here, but a lot of that depends on if people come here to open businesses, so the youth have somewhere to work. The potential is definitely here, it's just that the young leave when they are done school to work in the Czech Republic. Right now, they can't survive here."

Youth are the future of any vibrant community and the villages in the Banat region will not have a chance for survival, if they can't somehow keep them. So far, the communities are hanging on. For more information about the Banat area or the tourism it offers, go to: www.banat.cz.