Sunday, July 20, 2008

How the history and culture of my Bohemian Austel Family almost floated away

Image: The National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library (NCSM&L), Cedar Rapids, Iowa, was inaugurated in 1995. I own a postcard which shows the Presidents of three countries standing on an outside terrace waving to a crowd gathered for the event: Bill Clinton (US), Michael Kovac (Slovak Republic) and Vaclav Havel (Czech Rep.).

In June, 2008, our country experienced record flooding in Iowa and Missouri and raging wild fires in Northern California. The environment seemed to be angry at us. And I can’t say that we have been exactly kind to the environment. But this is not to be a diatribe on the conflict between man and the environment- just one of its disastrous consequences.

When I heard that the Cedar River in Iowa crested several feet above flood stage, I was immediately concerned about the Czech and Slovak Museum in Cedar Rapids. Three years ago, in 2005, I was returning from a two month job at a nuclear plant in Blair, Nebraska. As I traveled east along Interstate 80, crossing Iowa, I took a side track and stayed the night near the historic German immigrant community of Amana. Next morning, I took an early hike on the nature trail at Amana, and then drove about 20 miles further north to the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids. I spent most of the day touring the museum and the adjoining Czech Village.

The Museum proved to be an excellent way to learn about the culture and history into which my great grandfather was born in the mid 19th century. JOSEPH AUSTEL was born in 1851 in the former village of Haindorf, Boehmen (or Bohemia in English) which then was part of the Austrian Hungarian Empire. Franz Joseph was both the Emperor of Austria and the King of Bohemia. The name of the village was changed from Haindorf (from village in the woods in German) to Hejnice, in the Slovakian tongue when Czechoslovakia was re-established after WW I. In the 1990s, the country was split during the so-called velvet divorce into two countries: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. So, there is a lot of history and changes to absorb for the family historian who is trying to understand where his Bohemian ancestors came from. For the greater part of a day, I delved into the history and culture of my ancestral homelands. The displays were artistically created and very informative. I collected stamps as a kid- and still do on occasion. So, I was quite pleased when I saw enlarged reproductions of commemorative stamps being used as part of the displays.

Image: Historical Time line shows events during the last 80 years for Czechoslovakia beginning before its establishment in 1918. Commemorative stamps are used to illustrate various events and personalities.

My favorite displays were the mannequins dressed in the folk costumes (Tracht in German or Kojke in Slovakian) for the various regions of the county. When they dressed up, the Bohemians wore material of embroidry and lace. I learned that lace and other textiles were significant export items from Bohemia, and then I could understand WHY my great grandfather, born in Bohemia, worked in a Textile Mill in the latter part of the 19th century in Canton Thurgau, Switzerland. However, I still cannot say why he and his wife MIGRATED to Swizterland around 1875, but at least he had a trade when he got there.

I was particularly impressed by a statue of the founder and first president of the re-established Republic of Czechoslovakia: Thomas Garrique Masaryk. The statue has a fantastic history; it was designed by Jan Vitele and cast in bronze by Bartak shortly after the death of Masaryk in 1937. However, when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia at the beginning of WW II, the owner of the statue, Vaclav Ilk, had to bury it in his backyard garden during the German occupation. The statue was moved and re-buried three times to keep it from being discovered. Ilk would have been executed by the Nazis if his secret was ever discovered. After WW II, the Russians confiscated the statue from a local town square and it was “lost” until the late 1960s. It was then that Ilk read about three statues of Thomas Masaryk which had been stored at a Museum in Prague. His sculpture was identified and returned to him. The statue was gifted to the Iowa museum in 1995 by Jira and Anne Jilick in memory of Ilk, and it now stood in front of this visitor for a digital picture (see image).

Paired with the image of the statue is a picture of an historical marker in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, indicating the Pittsburgh Agreement which was signed by Mazaryk among others in 1918. It established the intention to form the democratic country of Czechoslovakia. At the time of the signing my immigrant Bohemian great grandfather, JOSEPH AUSTEL, was residing just a couple of miles away in Braddock Borough- interesting how history weaves itself.

By the way, Thomas Masaryk has an interesting genealogy which includes his disputed parentage and his marriage to an American, Charlotte Garrigue, from whom he took his middle name.

As I was leaving the museum, I took a closer look at two panels showing portraits of famous persons of Czech and Slovak birth or descent. I am sure you will recognize a few: photographer, Ansel Adams; actor Robert Urich; astronaut Eugene Cernan; athletes Martina Navratilova and George Blanda; artist Andy Warhol, playwright Havel; military leader, Stefanik; “Good King” St. Wenceslaus; McDonald’s founder, Ray Kroc; blogger, Bob Kramp- hey wait minute, I know that guy.

After my tour of the museum, I wandered over to the nearby Czech Village to buy some postcards and have a snack. The Bakery looked- and smelled good. I decided to assimilate myself into some enticing, ethnic food. There seemed to be a lot of pastries with poppy seeds. One pastry looked like a patty of dark chocolate on a bun. The lady behind the counter explained it was a “Bohemian Burger” made from a patty of mushed poppy seeds. Fearing I might fail the security drug test at my next nuke job, I opted for a cream puff of some sort- with fewer poppy seeds. Actually the baker gave me a complimentary cookie. Everybody knows the way to my heart is through my stomach, so I can say I really admired these people. I scribbled the name of the pasty on my museum brochure- looks like “Kalajke” or “Kalachee”. The latter is probably a phonetic spelling. If your grandma makes them, put a few in a box and mail to the address on my home page.

So, what happened to this fantastic learning and research center during the floods last month? Take a look at the image below- and you may gasp for air. Moreover, you may gasp and wonder what in the world was lost in this disaster. There are plenty of images and videos of the flood and its aftermath at the references and Internet links below. One can see the determination of the friends of the NCSM&L who are committed to preserving the museum. I know it must be depressing to look at the water damage, but please, hang in there. I certainly appreciate how much you have given to me and my family- for generations to come.


Flood Damage assessment and clean-up: images, news updates, and how you can help.

Story and interviews regarding the NCSML flood on National Public Radio.

The original Czech and Slovak Museum and Library Web site

Permanent exhibit on "Homelands: The Story of the Czech and Slovak People" and a free guide downloadable in pdf format. If you have ancestors from the area of Czechoslovakia, you have to go here. I downloaded and saved all 6 pages of the full page spread.

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