Czech Honza and his Time Machine

Last year's winning drawing by Dan Pomahac, photo: archive of Czech Honza competition

For the third year now children of Czech origin living abroad are taking part in a competition that aims to help them connect with their roots. The Czech Honza competition, named after a popular Czech fairytale character who went out into the world to come back much wiser, is the brainchild of Iva Crookston, who has lived in the US for over ten years. I talked to Iva about the project and first asked her how the idea of holding a competition for Czech children abroad emerged.

Iva Crookston,  photo: Milena Štráfeldová
“I felt like I wanted to do something more for Czech children living abroad. I started a Czech school in California and I felt like we needed something more fun, something that would be a link to their country of origin, something exciting that would let them compete, be creative and have fun – and that’s when the idea of Czech Honza came to us. And we did it. We decided that we were going to start a competition and invite all kids with Czech roots to come together and be connected in this way.”

From all over the world, not just the United States?

“Of course, from all over the world, that was the idea.”

And why is the competition called Czech Honza?

“The reason is that Czech Honza is a popular Czech fairytale character, every child knows the story of Honza who went into the world to learn new things and who eventually came home much wiser. He came back because his heart led him home. Now we don’t expect all the Czech kids or kids of Czech origin around the world to come home, but we hope that part of their heart will always be here.”

What kind of response have you had in the past two years?

“We were really surprised by the number of people who wanted to be part of this. It was mostly the parents who heard about it and told their children about it or else the kids learnt about it at school if they go to a Czech school. Right now we have about 120 entries from all over the world and we think that is pretty cool, because it is only the third year that we are doing it and not that many people know about this opportunity and so we are thankful for all the kids who have participated so far.”

I believe it is still open – so what kind of things can children send, what kind of things do they send?

“Each year we announce a theme –something that Czech Honza does – and this time it involves a Time Machine.”

“Yes, it is still open, they still have a couple of months to apply. Each year we announce a theme –something that Czech Honza does – and this time it involves a Time Machine. Somehow Honza got hold of a Time Machine that can take him back to any period of Czech history. So the kids have to pick a theme from Czech history and they can either write about it, a poem, an essay, or be creative in a different way, they can draw or paint, whatever they are good at or feel would be a good way to tell their story. In the past children sent drawings, sculptures, and also sewing which is a cool idea and we were surprised by what kids can do with it. And, of course, there were written entries, a poem, a fairytale – you can send whatever you feel is a good way of expressing yourself on the subject.”

You said it was the parents who responded first and maybe pushed their children a little into taking part. What do Czech children abroad know about the Czech Republic – do they even speak Czech?

“I would say yes. We were actually really surprised. Most of the parents really support their kids in keeping the language alive, maybe not to the extent of sending their kid to a Czech school but they speak to them in Czech and the kids are able to understand. And most of them come home, they come to visit their grandparents in the Czech Republic and a great many of them speak much better than we would expect. They are actually doing really well.”

Where do these children seek inspiration for the stuff they send – their parents – their grandparents? From the stories they hear?

“I would say it is probably from their grandparents and from their own experience when they visit the country to see their family here. Because when they go back -that’s what they remember. What they did with their grandma, their memories of the Czech Republic and so on.”

Last year's winning drawing by Dan Pomahac,  photo: archive of Czech Honza competition
Why do you feel it is so important to keep this legacy, this heritage alive for them –as you are obviously helping to do with your project?

“I think it is a part of them. It will always be a part of them, even though they may not recognize this when they are kids, let us say if the parents do not keep it alive for some reason –it will come back. I have seen this so many times myself because we organized Czech language classes in the Czech School in California and half of the class were older people who never spoke Czech. Their parents were Czech but they never taught them. But now they were 60 and sitting in the class feeling – I need to know this, this is part of me, this is who my parents were. And that was so interesting, so inspiring to me – it was when I really realized that it will always be part of us.”

Czech communities abroad are often more proud of their country’s culture and history than people here – why do you think that is?

“Yes, that’s very true. I think the same thing. It seems that once you have the opportunity to go abroad you realize how much you had, how much you are leaving, how many things in our history we should be proud of, that it is much more than we were able to see close-up so to speak. And why that is so – I do not know, it may be the lifestyle, maybe we were not taught to look for the positive things and be proud of something, maybe we are more critical and more ready to see the negative side of things. I really don’t know.”

Are Czech communities abroad close-knit or more inclined to integrating with the locals?

“I think it depends, maybe the older people –those who came in 1968 or before- they seem to integrate more with the local culture and community, but as regards the younger generation, they want to fit in of course and they do everything with the locals and are part of the new culture as well, but they do not see a problem having both “worlds” in their lives. Especially if there is some kind of Czech organization in the locality, something to say hey, you are not alone here there are other Czechs and this is what we can do together. So this is when it all comes together and they are actually proud to be part of the community.”

You yourself are married to an American – do you feel it is important for your children to connect with their Czech roots –and is it difficult to bring this about?

Photo: archive of Czech Honza competition
“I don’t think so because they are already part of it. I never separated those two “worlds”. Yes, mum is Czech and dad is American but those worlds do not have to be separated. We live with both cultures and pick the best from both worlds and it works. And we recently moved to the Czech Republic so our children know that we will be here for some time and one day we may go back to the States, but that this is their home too.”