A Czech Century of Migration

A Czech Century of Migration

Our society is currently experiencing a state of dangerous hysteria. We will leave to one side for the moment that this tidal wave of refugees consists of only thirteen people at Prague’s main railway station and some fifteen hundred accepted Syrians to arrive gradually in the coming years. Nor will we get into the fact that the supposed Islamification takes the form of a few kebab stalls.

Let us contemplate the arguments of the type “migration is unnatural, undesirable and dangerous”. Let’s look at it from a different perspective: today perhaps people are fleeing war in the Middle East or Africa or setting out from the Balkans or tropical Africa for a better life. Nonetheless for a long period, and even quite recently, the people in their shoes were – wait for it – Czechs. And by no means only Comenius, Kundera or Navrátilová.

In Bohemia and Moravia people also fled persecution and famine, but as well they left seeking adventure and a chance to find themselves, which may have been the case for the first person from there to reach the New World, Joachim Gans of Prague. He had already gone to England at an early age, where he discovered a new way of smelting copper ore, and in 1585 he disembarked in what is now North Carolina. The wave of Czech emigration to North America began a half century later in the religious intolerance that followed the Battle of White Mountain. One complete community of the Unity of the Brethren left for America and today a Moravian Church with a million worshippers and extensive missionary work is among the significant American congregations.

In the first half of the nineteenth century the flow of immigrants from the Czech lands began to increase significantly, among other reasons because transport had become more accessible. In the year 1907 alone some 13 554 Bohemians and Moravians arrived in the land of unlimited opportunities, so that in 1940 some 1 764 000 Americans were part of the Czech community, from among which have been drawn many notable figures in a wide range of fields – for example the mayor of Chicago, a distinguished astronaut or a still respected head of state – the Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek, who also happened to have some Romani ancestry.

When looking at emigration from Bohemia and in particular from Moravia we don’t have to cross the pond. Most often people left for the big city, in this case Vienna. At the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries it was said of the metropolis on the Danube that it was the biggest Czech city. Taken in terms of mother-tongue or origins in the Czech kingdom there were apparently some four to six hundred thousand people. More confident estimates speak of perhaps half this number, but whatever the truth the number of Czechs in Vienna was not insignificant.

The clichés about Czech housekeepers and “Ziegelböhm” (a term referring to Czech building workers) contained an element of truth. Ordinary Moravians tended to earn a living in the city as labourers, especially in building work, or in some cases the women were servants or cooks. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that it was mainly Czech hands that built the monumental Ringstrasse and were responsible for Austrian cuisine being almost identical to Czech.

Members of the more educated classes also went to Vienna, to study or to further their careers. Tomáš Masaryk for example studied there, and Ignaz Czapka from Libavá near Olomouc went there, going on to become mayor in the years 1838–1848, and both Sigmund Freud and Leo Slezak were born in Moravia. Slezak, famed as a tenor both in Europe and further afield, is apparently the originator of the oft-repeated remark that anyone Viennese who is worth anything comes from Brno.

While in the first third of the twentieth century Czechs mostly left in search of a better life, after 1948 the main spur to emigration was the political situation. In 1968 Vienna alone received some 162 thousand Czechs fleeing before the tanks of the Warsaw Pact. The vast majority of these returned to Czechoslovakia more or less voluntarily, since Austrian offices accepted only about three thousand people. This flow of Czech asylum seekers continued over the next two decades, and in the 1980s amounted to some two and a half thousand refugees a year.

Czechs of course are still crossing the border even today. At least for now this is mainly for economic reasons. Some leave to make careers in multinational corporations, others to Brussels institutions, and some just for the experience, for example to London. After a few years possibly to return. Or not, and so what? People have always migrated and always will.

Photo: ÖNB
Text: Jaroslav Ostrčilík