Czech New York, pt. 1: New book shines light on fascinating history

New York, photo: Jo Wiggijo, Pixabay / CC0

The Czech community in Manhattan once numbered up to 40,000 people, served by Czech stores, newspapers and cultural organisations – and even cops who spoke their language. Historian Martin Nekola dives into the rich history of Czechs in the Big Apple in Český New York (Czech New York), a new book packed with fascinating facts and reproductions of wonderful period ads and other materials. Nekola discusses the first Czech immigrants to New York – and a whole lot more – in the first part of a two-part interview.

You write that the first known Czech in New York was Augustin Heřman from the Kokořín in Bohemia. He was there in 1640s. But when did Czechs begin arriving in the city in significant numbers?

“I think it was in the mid-19th century. After the revolution in 1848 there was a massive wave of emigration from Bohemia and many of the people headed to America.

“Of course, New York City was the main welcoming port for all European immigrants.

“A lot of them continued to Pennsylvania or Ohio, or they arrived in Galveston or New Orleans and continued via the Mississippi to Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, etcetera, to buy cheap farmland.

“Whole families, including small kids, worked as cigar makers.”

“But the ones who remained in New York City or then headed to Chicago or Cleveland, the bigger cities, started to work as cigar makers or workers in factories.

“So yes, probably we are talking about the 1850s, 1860s, when the first dozens and hundreds of Czechs arrived.”

The Czech community in the mid-19th century was centred on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. As you say, many worked making cigars. In fact, you say, at one point up to 90 percent of them were working making cigars. Why cigars?

“Actually even the tobacco manufacturers, the owners of the factories, knew about the expertise and the knowledge of Czech cigar makers, so they even hired them in the Kutná Hora region, in the town of Sedlec, and a number of families were invited to America just to improve this tobacco business.

Martin Nekola,  photo: Zdeňka Kuchyňová

“For them it was good, because they had the opportunity to earn some money in the beginning, because they had no knowledge of the English language, of course, and it was a new life for them.

“But this tobacco business offered them a regular income: not a lot of money, but nice money for the beginning.

“So whole families, including small kids, worked as cigar makers.

“I found this old photograph [points to book] from a basement or from a living room, where an entire family is sitting behind a desk and making cigars.

“It was nothing nice for the kids to spend 14 or 16 hours per day doing this, but again, when the kids grew up the second generation definitely had a better life than the first newcomers, who had to start as cigar makers or workers in factories.

“There was a Czech guy who made the best coffee in Manhattan, at least according to the newspaper ad.”

“After some time they got used to life in America, they learned English – and they were living in a Czech neighbourhood.

“That was the most important thing: the feeling of loneliness and the feeling of being lost wasn’t so strong, because you went out into the street and you had the opportunity to speak Czech, you had the opportunity to buy Czech newspapers, to go to Czech restaurants.

“There were Czech businesses, Czech pubs, there was Sokol, there was a Czech church.

“So that was one of the reasons why so many people remained in New York City in the Czech neighbourhoods.”

'Český New York',  photo: Universum publishing

There’s one detail in the book that I really loved, which is that the second generation Czech children, who were kind of ashamed of their parents’ poor English would call them “Bohoes”.

“Yes, logically the second generation got assimilated.

“They were Americans. They were born Americans, or they moved to the US with their parents when they were just little kids.

“So they considered themselves Americans.

“They knew that their parents still spoke Czech and they kept the Czech traditions that they brought from Europe – but for them it was something strange.

“Even though they followed their parents to the church and to Sokol and they understood Czech, they tried to become real Americans.”

The Czech community later moved from the Lower East Side and migrated up that side of Manhattan and settled on the Upper East Side in the area known as Yorkville. At that stage there was something like 40,000 Czechs living in that area. What did that change of location mean for the community? What was the significance of that move up the island of Manhattan?

“The first financial contribution to Masaryk’s operations abroad came from New York City.”

“Well, the first Czech neighbourhood, if we can call it that, was located between avenues A and C and 18th St. and Houston St. on the Lower East Side.

“But later there were some reconstruction projects and the cost of living down there simply became too high.

“So that was the reason why they moved up to the north. And also there were some factories and the main employers were in the north, so that was another reason they moved there.

“The three neighourhoods we are talking about – the Upper East Side, Yorkville and Lennox Hill, roughly from 60th St. up to 78th St. – already had some diverse Central European enclaves.

“There were some Germans and Hungarians and Poles and Jews, but, as you mentioned, the Czechs and the Slovaks dominated in this neighbourhood soon after.

“And as I mentioned, the newly arriving immigrants didn’t have feelings of isolation and homesickness, because there were so many Czechs around.

Photo: Universum publishing

“This remained until the end of World War II, I guess – the idea of a pure Czech neighbourhood, with all the services and merchandise and businesses and pubs and restaurants.”

One of my favourite aspects of the book is the reproductions of advertisements for Czech shops and other businesses that were on the Upper East Side. If somebody had walked around that area where 1st Avenue meets 73rd St., what kind of Czech stores and so on would they have encountered?

“Many of them. There was a grocery store, there was a bakery, there was a butcher, there was a florist, there was a guy who made the best coffee in Manhattan, at least according to the newspaper advertisement.

“Yes, it was great. I found these clippings and these ads in Newyorkské listy, the New York Gazette, probably the most important Czech newspaper; on the back cover there were always these advertisements.

“It was incredible that in just a few streets, just a few blocks, there so many Czech businesses.

“There was also a baker whose name was Josef Nekola; I’m not sure if it was somebody from my family.

“The D.A. Sokol, the Red Sokol, educated its members towards socialism.”

“I know that the brother of my great-great-grandfather, who used to live in a small village near Plzeň, moved to America, in the 1860s, probably.

“I know that there are many Nekolas living in Iowa, in Minnesota, in New York, in Texas, and I always try to reach them and to compare our family trees, if their ancestor was the same Nekola.

“I’m not sure yet, but I’m still doing research on this.

“So yes, there were many businesses. I think that we could write a book only about this topic.”

But also there were Czech police, or Czech-speaking police, in the district, you write in the book?

“Yes. There was even Frank Frištenský, who was the brother of Gustav Frištenský, the famous fighter [and strongman].

“This brother became the deputy commander of the New York police.”

Again about the main community in the Yorkville area – they also started a collection and built the Bohemian National Hall, which is on East 73rd St. Today it’s really magnificent and is once again the centre of Czech New York. But what kind of events would have taken place at the Bohemian National Hall back in the day, when it was first built, when the Czechs collected the money to build it?

Bohemian National Hall,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“The Bohemian National Hall is and always has been the beating heart of the Czech quarter.

“The Czechs knew that they wanted to build some headquarters, or some centre of Czech culture, so they collected money, the same as the Czechs here did with the National Theatre.

“It was opened in 1896 and contained a restaurant, a hall for theatre plays, concerts and balls, a number of rooms where up to 90 Czech clubs and associations held their meetings and assemblies.

“There were also three classrooms of the Freethinkers School on the first floor.

“So this building served the Czech community for many decades.”

A couple of streets away from the Bohemian National Hall is a Sokol hall and I’m interested in one aspect of that, which is the librarian at the Sokol, a man called Josef Knedlhans. I know he involved was somehow in the creation of the Czechoslovak flag, but what exactly did he do?

“I think he was actually the one who showed the Czech flag as we know it today.

“It was in the spring of 1918, when Tomáš Masaryk visited New York City; he held some meetings and he had some interviews with journalists, and also met businessmen and politicians.

Sokol Hall,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“And of course the Sokols supported him from the very beginning.

“Actually the first money, the first financial contribution to Masaryk’s operations abroad came from New York City.

“[In the book] there is a scan of the cheque that Emanuel Voska and the others sent to Masaryk in October of 1914.

“Masaryk was then the liberator, the saviour, the one who would bring liberation to the Czech nation, so they were supporting him from the very beginning.

“And Knedlhans was close to Masaryk. He accompanied him during his stay in New York City and he was the one who held the Czech flag when Masaryk was signing some agreements in June of 1918.

“Czech Wikipedia, for example, says that creator, or the one behind the idea of the Czech flag as we know it today, was someone else.

“But I think that Knedlhans was really the person who was behind it.

“But unfortunately he didn’t make any patent or didn’t, you know, tell the information, I was the first one.

“And then in the middle of all the actions and the end of World War I and the creation of the Czechoslovak state, he simply didn’t care who was the first who invented the Czech flag.

Jan Hus Church,  photo: Ian Willoughby

“But I think he was happy that he also participated in this.

“And yes, Sokol – there were actually two Sokol halls, at 71st St. and 72nd St.

“It was very interesting, because the first one, at 71st St. belonged to T.J. Sokol, or Tělocvičná jednota Sokol, or the ‘Blue’ Sokol.

“And the other one was D.A. Sokol, or Dělnicko-americký, or Czech-American Working Men’s Sokol, or ‘Red’ Sokol

“We have to understand that Sokol never was a sports association only. It also had an important and above all political role in the community – and people expressed their political views through their membership.

“Thus the D.A. Sokol, the Red Sokol, educated its members towards socialism and was focused on the working class, while the T.J. Sokol was rather, I would say, middle class, bourgeois.

“Political contradictions caused long-term tension between these two organisations, not only in New York, but also elsewhere in the US.

“Membership, inherited in families through generations and participation in sports contests, was a kind of question of prestige.

“So it was interesting that there two Sokols…actually there were three Sokols, because then Catholics made their own Catholic Sokol, which renamed itself Orel – Eagle – later.

“So this was kind of symbolic for Czech neighbourhoods in New York, or in Chicago or in Cleveland, that they were actually three Czech communities.

“There were the Catholics, the Freethinkers – the Socialists, and the Protestants, and they were not living together; they were living next to each other.

“And World War I brought for the first time brought the need to talk to each other and unify and just fight together for a common goal – the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia.

“It’s a great topic for sociological research, because the Czech community was so split for decades and World War 1 and then World War II – the Nazi occupation of Bohemia and Moravia – brought them together.”

Next week, in part two of this interview, Martin Nekola discusses the purely Czech farming settlement of Bohemia on Long Island, what post-1948 and post-1968 émigrés brought to Czech New York – and the internment on Ellis Island of famous actor Jiří/George Voskovec on suspicion he was working for the Communists.

At present there are no plans to publish the book in English.