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Thousands left former Czechoslovakia in the aftermath of Soviet invasion
As Czech and Slovak republics approach the 45th anniversary of the Prague Spring invasion of Soviet and Warsaw Pact troops on Aug. 21, I continue to work on my memoir “Greenwich Meridian.”
The memoir tracks the history and present of our family immigration saga which now spans three generations. It was directly spurred by the Soviet invasion in 1968 also known as Prague Spring.
Like many other Czech expatriates living around the world, our family left the country as a result of the Soviet occupation of former Czechoslovakia.
Here is an excerpt from the second chapter of the memoir titled:
“On the run”
The 1968 Prague Spring was looming over Czechoslovakia. On August 21st, the country was invaded by Soviet tanks from the East and the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Hundreds of tanks roared all over the country in the full- blown invasion that impacted an entire generation of immigrants to the US, Germany, Canada and Australia. The country was occupied, and the Russians set up bases both in Slovakia and in the Czech part. The Russians were out to punish the Czechoslovak liberal government for creating “socialism with human face.” The movement was led by Alexander Dubcek, and late president Vaclav Havel was part of a signatory group called Charta 1968. A series of reforms were meant to ease restrictions on media, free speech and travel.
At the time of the occupation, my mother was on a spa stay in Carlsbad in Western Bohemia, a famed town known for its 12 healing springs.
“I went to the colonnade in the morning,” mom said. “People were crying, listening to the radio. There were huge demonstrations, as people knocked down statues of the communist leaders.”
Mom had to stay three more days, because the roads were closed due to tanks. Then she took a detour bus through Sumava to Brno.
“We had a new apartment in Brno, but I left for Vizovice to be with my parents,” she said.
There was no telephone connection, according to mom. But, the borders were open for anyone to leave freely.
“ My friends were leaving the country, crossing the border on foot with just a suitcase in their hands,” she said. “I didn’t want to go anywhere.”
PlumFest in Vizovice, Czech Republic features contest in eating plum dumplings
Every year at the end of August, my mom’s native town of Vizovice in Czech Republic celebrates a big plum extravaganza that lasts three days. The annual PlumFest traditionally attracted thousands of people because of its free-spirited nature.
We stayed at my grandparents’ summer house at Krnovska 111. My grandpa Joseph called the old house a ranch, which was a stretch of imagination but it stuck.
I always invited a lot of friends for the festival from the secondary school in Zlin. So, the three days were a big party inside and outside all over the town. We picked up those who didn’t know where ranch was at the local train station.
Grandpa always looked forward to the PlumFest as much as we did, because he liked to party with us. I only remember him once really getting angry at us, and that was when someone on a Saturday night locked us up and threw the key to the ranch inside a rubber shoe. The next morning that person didn’t remember a thing, and just jumped out the window to catch the first bus.
The rest of us didn’t know where the key was, so we couldn’t let grandpa in. Grandpa thought we just didn’t want to let him inside his own home.
“Let me in you hooligans,” he pounded on the door.
Other than that incident, everything always went smooth. The program usually consisted of different bands including at the time famous band Olympic in the evening.
The town is also home to well-known comedian and mime Borek Polivka, and he quite often made a cameo appearance.
But, mainly Vizovice is known for the famous liquor company Jelinek that makes plum brandy. Plum brandy is exported around the world, and can be easily recognized by the plums on the vignette. Plum brandy also called slivovice was presented as a gift at the Heritage Mass at St. Cyril’s last week at the Czech Harvest Festival in Bannister, Michigan.
The major event on Sundays was the plum dumpling eating contest. Brave men sat at a long table on the stage. Assistants brought out plates with batches of 20 dumplings at a time. The rest of us cheered them and encouraged them to eat more.
One champion ate 60 plum dumplings, and then received a certificate and a paid hot dog at the local establishment. I never found out if he ate the hot dog. He could hardly stand up from the table.
The tradition of the PlumFest continues to this day. It takes place at the Jelinek liquor company, and it has been shortened to two days. So, if you want to test your eating capabilities, the contest in plum dumpling eating is this year on Saturday, Aug. 24 at 1 p.m. on Starobrno Stage.
I went to a traditional Czech costumed wedding called “veselka” approximately 30 years ago. It was in a castle in the small town of Holesov. The bride Miroslava was 17 and the groom was 27. His name was Vojtech and he was from the region where these customs originate right on the border of Moravia and Slovakia.
By Czech standards it was a huge wedding of close to 100 people. They had a classic polka band with accordions and trumpets. The acoustics in the castle were amazing.
The men wore hats called “burinka,” embroidered vests with ribbons on them. The women had festive costumes and small caps on their heads. After years I finally remembered the significance of the cap as opposed to a wreath from fresh flowers on younger women. The cap signifies that a woman is married, while the women with fresh flowers are single.
Many years later, as I watched the dancers in Bannister this past Sunday, listened to the accordions, enjoyed Czech food, and checked out the old paintings in ZCBJ Lodge in the middle of nowhere, I admired the people behind this event. Most of them have never been in Czech Republic let alone at a classic “veselka.”
What they have recreated, preserved and continue to carry on to next generations is more than triumphant. I can safely say that most people in the old country don’t know how to dance polka, czardas, or mazurka. The Czech Harvest in Bannister is a testimony that human spirit will always prevail.
According to the chairman of the festival Tom Bradley’s “Pamatnik” published for the 100th anniversary of the ZCBJ Lodge in 2011,the Czechs and Slovaks immigrated to Central Michigan around 1904 from Chicago and Cleveland. They were recruited to work the sugar beet fields. Eventually they worked on their own farms. And the recruiters had to look for different workers from big cities.
My parents Ella & Vaclav Konecny have always had a cucumber patch here in Michigan. When they came to the United States four decades ago, they did not like American pickles because either they were too sour, too sweet or both.
Coming from the Moravian region in Czechoslovakia which produces one of the best canning goods around, they decided to take the matter into their own hands. They had a recipe from Czech Republic, so they put it to use.
The real big deal annually was the fact that during the ripening season of cucumbers, they would leave for vacation. It was either left up to us to pick the cucumbers, and leave them in the fridge to be canned. Later, they switched their vacationing habit to accommodate the almighty cucumber. At their peak, they made hundreds of jars of pickles that they usually gave away. Most recently, they took an entire box of pickles to Florida.
When my mom had a surgery with her back three years ago, the pickling task was up to us. I canned before but never quite as much. Living up to their expectations hasn’t always been easy, but this was a very definite challenge. Since then, my husband and I have developed a knack for canning to the point of loving it. Even though my back is killing me, and I probably should be writing another chapter in my memoir, I still like the down to earth business of canning. I have expanded from Czech pickles to gardinieras, marinaras and salsas. The biggest surprise is yet ahead.
I like the joy of making a true Czech American product in my own backyard.
Follow me on my blog, I will be broadcasting live this Sunday from Czech Harvest in Bannister.
One of the best kept Czech secrets hides approximately 20 miles east of highway 127 amidst grain, corn fields and sugar beets in Central Michigan. Small farm houses sit on the flat farming land tucked away from the roads. The only noise is the wind whistling through the fields.
But, every year on the first Sunday of August, the small unincorporated village of Bannister, comes alive with polka music and traditional folk dances. The men and women put on traditional folk costumes and celebrate the Harvest Festival, in Czech known as Dozinky.
Most of the 100 people who live in Bannister are of Czech origin, and they have been looking forward to the celebration all year long.
Tom Bradley, dance troop leader, proudly polishes up his Russian dance shoes.
“A dancer is only good as his shoes,” he laughed.
Tom Bradley and his wife Dianne are at the head of preserving the century-old tradition of celebrating the wheat harvest with Dozinky. Dianne leads the kids in dancing to the music of accordionist Linda Quarderer.
The day starts with a polka mass at St. Cyril’s Catholic Church. The musicians just like the dancers wear authentic custom made costumes rich with embroidered ribbons. The church is decorated with Czech dolls in folk costumes and with harvest wreaths.
The hymns are arranged to polka music. The first time I heard the Czech hymns here deep in the Midwest fields, I had tears in my eyes. I realized what this small group of people, who has been far away from home for more than a century, was doing.
Yes, they were preserving something that is dying out back in the old country. Similar harvest celebrations in Czech Republic can be found only in tiny villages on the border of Moravia and Slovakia.
The center of all happenings is the ZCBJ Lodge, home of the Western Bohemian Fraternity. It is also the only building on Main Street that stands out. It has united the Czech immigrants for more than 100 years.
Right after the mass, the traditional Czech dinner is served both inside and outside the hall from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. The food consists of ham and chicken, dumplings, sauerkraut, mashed potatoes and gravy, and for dessert either kolache or poppy seed and apple turnovers.
I was amazed how authentically the ladies of the hall recreated a traditional Czech meal. Most of them have never set foot in the old country. But, the recipes have been handed down from generation to generation, much like the dance, and the music. The only thing that didn’t make it throughout the decades was the language.
The parade gathers in front of the ZCBJ hall, and it is led by both flag bearers and wreath bearers. The giant wreath has been made from wheat stalks and wild flowers. Other participants in the parade carry the ancient tools of wheat harvest, a scythe and a rake, adorned with ribbons.
The parade stops at the podium created from a decorated wagon with all three flags; Czech, USA and Slovak. Then the choir leader starts to sing the Czech & Slovak hymn;
“Kde domov muj, kde domov muj.
Voda huci po lucinach, bory sumi po skalinach………”
Translated it means:
“Where is my home, where is my home,
Water roars over the meadows, forests murmur over the rocks..”
The dancers range from two years of age to more than 60. They perform traditional folk dances in couples or in a circle around the maypole. They could make any true Czech turn green with envy. Czech songs accompany the performance.
In the heat of more than 90 fahrenheit, the women sport black stockings, several support skirts under the main one, fluffy three-quarter length sleeves, lace caps, and men and boys wear black hats and vests over fluffy shirts and baggy pants.
After the official performance, a polka band plays for the public to dance inside the hall. The hall itself is decorated with paintings of old Czech leaders like Jan Zizka and others.
Czechs love to pick anything and on anyone. That’s what I like about the legacy of my predecessors.
I have fond memories of picking currant as a child along with my brother Vas in my uncles’ garden in the Moravian town of Vizovice. The summers were hot, and the small berries were ripe right around mid July. We spent all our summer breaks at grandma and grandpa’s house.
“You have to go and pick currant for the pie,” said grandma Ann.
“But, we don’t want to,” we both whined. “It’s just too hot.”
There was no fooling about it. We had to go, if we wanted to eat. We crawled up the hill to uncles’ garden. The bushes were huge. We each had a pale, and whenever I wasn’t watching, Vas stole the small berries from my pale and put it in his. I slapped him on his hand. I was sweating like a pig.
“What are you doing, pick your own,” I was upset.
I wanted to go out on the street Krnovska and play with the rest of the gang. The tiny berries were getting on my nerves. They were sour, and they left red stains on my shirt.
To make things worse, my brother kicked my pale and the berries rolled into the grass.
“You fool,” I slapped him again.
We started fighting in the heat of the day. I could hear from the cellar just a few feet away, the berries in a barrel fermenting. Not only did the family bake and cook using currant, the uncles also made currant wine. When I got married a few years later, I was surprised that my mother-in-law Julie also made currant wine.
“You make that too?” I asked annoyed. “Who picks the currant?”
“You will,” she laughed. “Luda said you love to do that.”
We grew three types of currant, the most common red, black and white. We also had gooseberries; bizarre looking greenish white fuzzy berries that were used for making fruit cocktail along with apples.
There’s a saying that Czechs love to pick just about anything. I am beginning to believe that. Every year, my mom and dad go picking blueberries on the farms in West Michigan near Holland and Muskegon. As a child, mom too was forced to pick wild blueberries in the woods near Vizovice. Now, she loves to pick them, and makes tons of products from blueberries.
When I couldn’t find currant in the stores here in US, I planted a red currant bush of my own some six years ago. This year, I added a black currant bush. As I meticulously picked the red berries sweating in the July heat, I thought about my childhood. I could even smell the old sweat of yesteryear along with the new one. There’s always something that we like to bring back from the past; something that somehow keeps us connected.
Old timers along with younger people gathered by the White’s Covered Bridge near Smyrna last week to reflect on the bridge’s glory. It only took a few hours for the flames to consume the wooden structure and to collapse the charred deck into the Flat River.
“It’s a shame,” said one local gentleman.
Others talked about their good times by the bridge. For many it served as a picnic site, a kayak and canoe launch site or just plain time for a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
Annually on July 4th, people gathered from far and near for tubing and kayaking.
A local woman recalled a time when the bridge was lighted for the holidays and even had Santa Claus giving out presents. The bridge was also embedded in a legend that it was haunted. According to the accounts of some Kent County residents, when driving across the bridge at night, and stopping on it, ghosts would leave their hand prints on the window shield.
A flag nailed to the bridge’s guarding railing reads:
“We loved you so much and will miss your grace and beauty coming home.”
The Baylis Family
Following is the inscription on the Michigan historic site landmark:
This picturesque covered bridge, one of the last of its kind in Michigan, was built-in 1867 by Jared N. Brazee and J.N. Walker, builders of several covered bridges in this area. The name of the bridge derives from the White family, a prominent pioneer family. The crossing of the Flat River here, was known as White’s Crossing before the first primitive bridge was built. In 1840, a bridge of log-corduroy construction was erected. It was replaced by this covered bridge, costing $1700. It is of the through-truss type with a gable roof. The hand-hewed trusses are sheeted over with rough pine boards. Wooden pegs and hand cut square iron nails are used to secure the various parts of the bridge. White’s Bridge has been in constant use since 1867 , proof that it was well made.
Copyright (c) story and photos by Emma Palova
I am also conducting a survey about the future destiny of the crossing at White’s Bridge road:
As I mentioned in part one of the travel stories, Czechs love to travel in the era after communism. So, do my parents who started the entire family immigration saga in 1968.
However, after my father Vaclav Konecny’s second escape from the communist homeland in 1976, I wasn’t allowed to travel to the countries in the West. Dad could not get visa to visit Czechoslovakia in spite of his very sick mother.
So, we set up a secret rendezvous in the border town of Gyor in Hungary not far from Slovakia exactly 10 years after he defected. Both dad and I could travel to other eastern countries, but the officials feared that he would spread dissident ideas and western propaganda inside his own country.
We headed out to Gyor across southern Moravia and Slovakia in the late fall of 1986. There were five of us travelling in a small Skoda car. I remember my late uncle Franta asking my grandma to buy him some hot Hungarian paprika, so it fires up his brain power.
We packed some kolache for the road. Gyor was much like many medieval towns in Czechoslovakia. It had the same colorful facades and squares with statues of saints.
When I got out of the car, I was surprised how much dad had aged in those 10 years. He always had a receding hairline, a great smile and gentle grayish blue eyes, that looked sad this time.
Dad spent last few days with his mother in the hotel.
“This is the last time I see her,” he said.
We had farewell dinner at a restaurant with a band that played cszardas, a classical Hungarian spirited dance. We ordered goulash, a traditional Hungarian dish of stewed beef in lots of onion and paprika.
Going to the restroom was a definite challenge. I stood helplessly in front of two doors with two long words, no pictures. And nobody was coming out. I plunged ahead, only to find myself in men’s bathroom.
The language in Hungary, which has a lot in common with Finnish remains a mystery to me, even though I consider myself a good linguist. I remember writing a letter to my mother behind the hotel room desk. I was pregnant with our son Jake, and I could barely wait to be reunited with my parents in USA.
Dad said goodbye to the rest of the family and we boarded a train to Budapest, the capital of Hungary. I love Budapest. The architecture is very similar to Vienna and Prague, since all three capitals were part of the Austro-Hungarian empire until the end of World War I in 1918.
In Budapest, we ate the awesome world-famous Hungarian salamis and czabajkas. We visited the posh shopping street where I bought a white leather suit. The suit later travelled with me to the USA.
We walked to the monument on Heroe’s Square in the November chill. We had a lot to talk about. In those 10 years that I haven’t seen my father, many relatives had died. My dad couldn’t come to my wedding, graduation or to the christening of my daughter. He was hard through and through.
“You know Emma, you have to follow your dreams and be prepared for them,” he said. “But there will be hard times no matter how prepared you are.”
We continued our talk next day over a delicious Hungarian coffee and dessert at a restaurant pitched high atop the left bank overlooking the magnificent Danube River.
During the time dad was gone from home, his older brother Tony and his father had died. He could not come to any of the funerals. That’s the price of expatriation.
In a recent interview in Venice, Florida dad had no regrets over leaving his native land, but did admit to being sometimes homesick.
“All I have left now are memories,” he said.
Copyright (c) story by Emma Palova, photos Internet