Keeping Czech alive in Chicago

Celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Czech School in Chicago

America’s “Second City” has a long Czech history. Once home to a lively community of immigrants from Bohemia and Moravia, the suburb of Cicero still has a school named after the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Nearby “Cermak Road” honors the memory of Chicago mayor Anton Čermák who challenged the all-powerful mafia in the 1930s. Nevertheless, the struggle to keep the Czech language and traditions alive in the ever-diversifying city is not easy. Vít Pohanka spoke to Klára Moldová, a woman who is trying to do just that.

Let us start with the story of a Czech immigrant. Born in Kladno near Prague, Antonín Čermák was one of the many thousands of Czechs who made their way across the Atlantic. Since childhood, he worked as a miner, and later sold firewood in the streets of Chicago. Despite his humble background, he rose through the ruthless and often openly racist Chicago Democratic Party machine. He became one of the most prominent mayors in American history and one of the most famous Czech-Americans of all time. His story, as well as that of composer Antonín Dvořák, author of the famous New World Symphony reminds us of the role Czech and Moravian immigrants played in US history.

Antonín Čermák in Chicago,  1932 | Photo: Bundesarchiv,  Bild 102-13768,  CC BY-SA 3.0

Since Cermak’s days, however, the Czech community in Chicago has grown smaller and lost its prominence. Even the suburb of Cicero, once considered a Czech or Bohemian town, has become predominantly Hispanic. The Czechs barely make it as the fifth non-Hispanic minority after the Poles, the Irish, the Germans, and the Italians. Nevertheless, there is still the Czech School named after the first Czechoslovak president Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. For more than 9 years, teaching the Czech language and keeping the school and its traditions alive has been the job of a young lady sent and paid for by Dům zahraniční spolupráce, or the Czech National Agency for International Education and Research. Klára Moldová arrived in Chicago 9 years ago. Since then, she has been working hard to keep the Czech language and traditions in Cicero on the outskirts of Chicago alive:

“I think you need good leadership. People in the US are very busy, parents have their jobs and they have to drive their children to and from school, often travelling very far. As a result, it happens that they have no energy left for community activities. So our job is to organize something really interesting, and be pushy enough to make them come to our events. What we are trying really hard to do is to make these events fun. It is important that they learn something, but it has to be fun as well.” ( Listen to the full interview in audio)