The Czech ethnic minority in Romania


The Czechs of Romania mainly inhabit the Banat region in the south of the country, along the River Danube. There are an estimated 2,000 of them living in six ethnically Czech villages: Svata Helena, Gernik, Rovensko, Bigr, Eibental and Sumice. In many ways their lives have been untouched by the modern world.

"They really lack modern amenities, like sewage systems, for instance, running water; people have to collect water from wells, and in Svata Helena even from rain water. One village lacked electricity until 1993, the other villages only had it periodically throughout the day. There's really no means of gainful cash employment, the cash economy is largely absent, so it's subsistence farming."

Dan Mair is an American scholar who has studied this subject extensively. He explains why Czechs first migrated from Bohemia to Romanian Banat in the 1820s.

"For various reasons. Generally there was a huge economic transformation underway in the Czech countryside. People were living longer and the population was aging. While at the same time there were a series of harvest failures and younger people were moving to the cities. Much the same reason people are leaving now, in a sense - the aging population, fewer opportunities and the desire for a better life."

But since the initial wave in the 1820s, and the trickle which followed until about 1850, most migration has been out of the Czech community in Romania.

"Initially most of the out-migration, rather than returning to the Czech Lands, was off to Argentina, America or even Serbia next door, where there are more fertile lowlands, instead of these highlands, this unproductive soil. Since World War II there have been two waves of people returning to Bohemia.

"We can only estimate how many have returned, because there has been no reliable census data. Estimates range from 20 percent to up to 40 percent since 1990 alone. Mainly young people."

Largely isolated from the majority Romanian population in almost two centuries in the Banat, the Czechs have traditionally married their own.

"They practice endogamy, so they only marry their relatives, oftentimes their cousins. I didn't hear of or notice any such problems, but before the first re-emigration wave after World War II there was a problem with birth defects, congenital disorders and the like, from inbreeding."

One rather more pleasant aspect of the Czechs of Romania is their language, which has not evolved in the same way as the Czech spoken in the Czech Republic. Dan Mair continues.

"The Czech is very quaint, actually. There are old archaisms, old Czech words that you might find in Erben or something like that. Germanisms as well - a lot of the initial settlers were German-speaking Bohemians. In addition to Czech-speaking Bohemians.

"And in addition to that - for new things, things that didn't exist in 1820 such as electricity, they use Romanian words or Serbian words; for instance, 'kurent' is electricity, rather than 'proud'."

The Romanian Czechs have also adapted a local diet, with foods such as goat-cheese, corn-bread and yeasted white bread, which are not common in Bohemia. Then there is religion - while Czechs are at least nominally Roman Catholic, some of the Romanian Czechs are Baptists.

"About fifty percent of the population of Svata Helena, which is the best known of the six villages, are Baptists. Originally they were Lutherans but they converted to Baptism initially because of the arrival of a Hungarian preacher, who was preaching in the Hungarian language.

"This was during a period of Magyarisation, and they reacted by going to a Baptist minister who spoke Slovak, which was more politically acceptable."

So are there any tensions between the Catholic Czechs and their Baptist neighbours?

"People there denied it, but I did hear little bits of gossip in the three-week period that I spent there. For instance, a Catholic Romanian Czech who I met in Svata Helena indicated that the Evangelicals, or the Baptists, 'don't drink, supposedly. But they drink in private'.

"Meanwhile, I heard from the Baptists that all the Catholics do is drink. That wasn't substantiated - there were about five guys who seemed to spend their days in the pub, but everyone else was mainly working."

But the Czechs of Romania don't have much work. Some have been lured to the Czech Republic in recent years by companies who sometimes recruit directly in Banat. When they arrive, however, they often find life difficult. So did their forefathers who were encouraged to populate the Czech-German border region after World War II. Returning to their homeland, they were surprised to be treated as second-class citizens, and dubbed "Romanian Gypsies".

By the way, the surname Nedved is common among Czech Romanians, and the post-World War II wave of re-immigrants included the grandfather of Pavel Nedved, the world famous Czech football player.

But getting back to the Czech community in the Banat today, how do they view the Czech Republic? Dan Mair again.

"Their feelings are ambivalent. The people left behind now - again, it's mainly older people, newly weds leave the day after their weddings to the Czech Republic, very frequently, they're just getting married and getting out - the older people now tend to resent the Czech Republic. And they tend to even blame some of the Czech aid for this out-migration, when of course there are fundamental economic reasons for it.

"The people who left for patriotic reasons did so immediately after 1989; there was a huge initial wave of people who were just itching to get out of the villages. And their main motivation - I interviewed one man in Cheb and he said it was patriotism, he didn't belong in Romania, he's Czech.

"People today express more of a local sort of patriotism, they're very tied to their villages, and what they would prefer would be some direct foreign investment from Czech firms, so they can stay there."

Some Czech companies have opened subsidiaries in the villages in recent years. What's more, the Romanian Czechs receive aid from the Czech state and non-governmental agencies like People in Need. But often it seems those trying to help are fighting a losing battle. A new schoolhouse was opened in Svata Helena in 1998, but attendance has already fallen from 150 to 70 pupils as the population declines.

Exchanges intended to encourage ties with the homeland don't always have the desired effect, with some young Banat Czechs deciding to stay in the Czech Republic. One man told Dan Mair about a group of ten young women who went on a visit. Only one returned to Romania.

The 2,000 Czechs who are still there seem to be becoming something of an endangered species. How do they believe their community can be saved?

"What they would like is either for the outside world, either those conveniences or those opportunities, to come to their villages, or they would like the Czech state to facilitate their departure a little more, provide a little support. They're pretty much on their own.

"After WWII the Czech state had a programme of re-emigrating people back to Czechoslovakia, to the Sudetenland mainly. Now they're pretty much on their own. And the Czech state...the aim, the object of the assistance is not to encourage them to return but rather to try to stimulate the villages.

"It's a noble effort but it's too little and a bit too late. It really needs to be done decisively. Otherwise many people there believe the villages will cease to exist."