Letter from Prague, Nebraska
One summer day in 1994, a van stopped outside my aunt and uncle’s house in a village near Třebíč, in western Moravia. Four men got out, knocked on the door, and addressed my relatives “Ahoj, jak se máš”, in Czech without an accent. They were the Vrbka brothers, with a cousin, from Nebraska, looking for their roots in the old country. This summer, I got to repay the visit and see the long-lost part of the family for myself.
My mother’s family, who come from the Třebíč area, are also Vrbkas, and the American Vrbkas believed that there was a connection. I don’t know if there was one or not, and I don’t think it’s important. The important thing is that our families have been in touch ever since, and so we included Nebraska in our summer itinerary.
We arrived in the Cornhusker State in early September, after a journey through the South and a relaxing week in Austin, Texas. I only saw my distant Nebraskan relatives briefly during their visit back in the 1990s, but we immediately got on and felt as if we’d known each other for a long time.
The first relative we visited, Lawrence Vrbka, actually lives in a small town in Iowa, but the next day we set out for a tour of Czech heritage sights in Nebraska, just across the Missouri River. Our first stop was Plasi, one of the first Czech settlements in the region, of which only the church of SS Cyril and Methodius remains, with a cemetery where the Vrbkas are buried.
Next was Prague, Nebraska, a small community with some 500 inhabitants. Small it may be but it has something no other place has – the Kolače Korner. It’s a family restaurant, run by Mark Nemec, with Czech beer on tap, Czech posters on the wall, and kolače on the menu. We said dobrý den upon entering, and several guests did actually answer back in Czech. Larry treated us for lunch, which was not very Czech, I think we had prime rib sandwich, but we sure had some kolače after that. The Kolače Korner was also about the only place in the United States that allows people could smoke.
Mark Nemec was dubbed the Prince of Prague by a local radio station. He told us all about the history of the town, about the fact that young people don’t care about their Czech heritage any more, and also about the visit of Petr Kolář, the Czech ambassador to the United States, to the Koláče Korner.
After Prague we went to David City, a town where the rest of the family live. Geraldine, Virgil and Lawrence were all very nice, took us around, and we spent the rest of our stay in Nebraska with them. They can still speak Czech, and they don’t have an accent! Our visit to Nebraska was definitely a highlight of the trip.