Thursday, July 16, 2015

Notes from the Czech Republic

Judy and I have just returned after a month in the Czech Republic – I made contact last year with a new found second cousin…and this blog describes our encounter experience.

Photos are  still not processed - coming soon...

Can you imagine living in a location where you knew that untold generations of your ancestors had lived on the same land – knew the same hills and streams – all the back into the dim mists of the mythical past?  This is the relationship between Czech people and Czech lands… I thought of this as we pulled up to the house in Stepanice where the ancestral Zlatnik family had lived for past generations… Here I saw steep hills, small fields, meadows, and pine forests… everything appeared green and lush and productive…but it is hard to work the land because of the steepness – in the past it required a great deal of hand work.  It was best worked in early years with a one-horse plow and a large hand scythe.   The current family living there purchased the farm from the Zlatniks in about 1880.  Over the years they  found ways to mechanize the farming.  

During the communist period the fields were rejected for adding to the collective farms because of the hillside slope and the family was allowed to work the land as normal.

We were invited into the large central room of the previous Zlatnik house… relatives and neighbors continued to arrive until we had a grand party – trays of kolach and others of delicious small open faced sandwiches, served with small glasses of plum brandy. There were questions and stories to be told, there was a lot of laughter and hugs .  Wonderful old photos came out.  It was absolutely amazing that these people knew all the same ancestor we know. 

One old uncle took me out to see the land and the tractors. We couldn't speak one word of the others language – and was all OK – we got along just great.  He showed me a tractor that he had built –Later with a translator I learned that the chassis was from an old Russian truck body, the engine was from an old American car, tires were whatever he had - there was no real casing over the engine – but he swore that it was strong enough to be effective.  Most of the time Milos, the son of my cousin Helena, was the major translator for the group…but several spoke a bit of English.  After some time we were invited to the home of another cousin who lived near by… More friendly people, more good food, more stories… I really liked the people I was meeting –  They are a diverse group – but all appear to hard workers who knew the  challenges of the past and have made a better life now that it is possible. 

At times they talked about living during the Nazi period and during the Communist period…  Not only have these people suffered hard times – but they are survivors who came through. Now, they take advantage of education and hard work. All of these relatives lived in the “Sudetenland”.  During the Nazi period all Czechs were required to move away and go to central Czechoslovakia.  Those that swore loyalty to the Nazis could stay – none of my relatives stayed.  The Nazi also required in depth identity checks to ‘seek out’ those with Jewish identity… Evangelic church records provided evidence for the family. After the war the Germans were forced out and the Czechs could return.  But the time of Russian control followed immediately.

 I learned of one relative that defied the Communists. Here is one of the stories told… The Communists  said – “these trees on your land now belong to the State” –(The family today likes to compare him to a fictional national hero – Schweik… ) Uncle “Schweik” said ‘No these trees belong to me.  The communists came with a saw to cut down the trees… Uncle “Schweik” took their saw – they sent a telegram telling him that he must come to a court hearing – he answered that he didn't have time – they sent a police car to take him – and they put him in a mental hospital for a few days – a common punishment for such offenses. When they released him, he thought – "well here I am in Prague – I might as well go visit my cousin ", The communists didn't know where he had gone and went looking for him – in the mean time he returned to his family and farm and maintained an uneasy peace with the communists until the end of their influence.  When I was told of the eras of privation, it makes me so aware of the advantages that we American Zlatniks have had…I am filled with admiration for their perseverance and resilience.

That day we visited 3 different cousins + the Zlatnik home…such kind hospitable people! All of them expressed a hope that we can reestablish contact between the Czech family and the American family.

Another day we visited Liebstat – the home village of the Sadek family.  Both my grandmother Julie and her sister Anna grew up here.  Anna is the grandmother of our new found second cousins.  We found the old family farm – Large farmhouse, also large barn with hay and grain, and a third large barn for equipment, horses, and cows.  Today the house is not used and it is surrounded by weeds – but it still has a solid roof and solid walls.  I love to hear the bird songs and the sound of the nearby stream – and imagine how familiar these sounds were to my ancestors.

We also visited both the Evangelical churches near the Zlatnik home and the Sadeks… The Zlatnik church is small and well maintained – a beautiful setting surrounded by a few dozen grave markers –  well tended with flowers and herbs.  It is an active church community to this day… The Sadek church was opened for us – and it reminded me so much of the Delia church – it is used now only occasionally for special events – Today the Evangelicals use the “Zlatnik” church… I learned that there were 3 branches of the Evangelical church – our families belonged to the Reformed branch – which followed the ways of John Calvin…not the Lutheran path.  The graveyards of neither church had any Zlatnik markers – although there were other familiar family name and Delia family names.

The mystery of the Zlatnik family continues – Helena using Evangelical church records established that Antonine Agust Adolph had several brothers and sisters… We know about the family home In Stepanice…We know the Antonine married Julie in Boratin… We know that the Zlatniks had a long history with many generations in the Evangelic church… But what happened to them between 1880 and today… there is no firm evidence – I am told that the name is not common but definitely Bohemian.  I told everyone I spoke to to be on the look out for Zlatniks – and we certainly have good support here now to help us in our search.  The best guess that I can find is that in those years many Czechs to immigrating to various parts of the world – Argentina, Australia, Canada and the US… their older brother did it – they could have followed his example.  Best guess – somewhere on this green earth – there have lived generations of Zlatnik that we know nothing about…  Our challenge is to find them.

I thought at times about American Czech groups that today have Czech celebrations where everyone comes dressed in the clothing of 1880 and listen to polkas… that is as ludicrous as someone thinking that all Americans go around looking like Theodore Roosevelt era America, listening to rag time piano.  The Czechs of today are modern, innovators,  and full members of the world community.  They are proud of their land and their accomplishments… but they also know how to enjoy life.