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News > Czech New York for the Independence of Czechoslovakia

Czech New York for the Independence of Czechoslovakia

Martin Nekola 27 February, 2018

Before the First World War, more than 50,000 Czechs lived in New York City. When the moment of the struggle for national self-determination came, these Americans generously supported the anti-Habsburg resistance led by Professor Tomas Garrigue Masaryk.


Czechs and Slovaks began to settle in New York in the second half of the 19th century. The great immigration wave came as a result of the Revolution of 1848 and the so-called “Bach's absolutism,” the oppressive regime of Austrian interior minister Alexander von Bach. These immigrants showed an extraordinary desire to associate, founding a number of compatriot associations, schools, churches, and also pubs with popular Czech beer, of course. In the so-called Little Bohemia neighborhood around Tompkins Square on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an increasing number of Poles and Ukrainians began to settle. Czechs began to move north, to the part of the Upper East Side called Yorkville. The area between 65th and 77th Street, between First and Second Avenues, became a unique ethnic neighborhood, where even the policemen spoke Czech, the smell of roasted pork, dumplings and sauerkraut wafted through the air, and glasses of beer tinkled. In addition, Czech families also lived in Morrisania in the South Bronx, and Winfield and Astoria, both in Queens.


Bohemian immigrants heading to New York, not dated. Image courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad - University of Chicago.


Small Nation in a Big City

Many Czechs made their way in New York through distilling, in the large-scale production of buttons, ropes, clothes, pianos and, more surprisingly, also in the tobacco industry. Also, Czech stonemasons, bakers, butchers, locksmiths, and carpenters were known as skilled craftsmen.


From the 1870s on, many Czech periodicals such as Lucerna, Patriot, Proletář, Volné listy, Český svět or Věk rozumu were published. Probably the most famous, New Yorské Listy with its wide readership base, began publishing on June 25, 1874, and was published for almost a century. New York City also had the largest Czech library in America. It served as part of the New York Public Library – the Webster Branch on York Avenue and 78th Street. After its foundation in 1906 it contained around 1,600 books. Thanks to the generous support of banker and historian Tomas Capek and other wealthy patrons, the library soon gained another 14,000 volumes. 


Czech Library – New York Public Library Webster Branch – 1910. Image courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.


In the 1880s, the rented club-rooms did not meet the needs of the growing community, so Czech associations and organizations decided to buy a piece of land in the heart of Yorkville. Like the National Theater in Prague, the Bohemian National Hall was built on 73rd Street thanks to enthusiastic voluntary contributions under the motto “The Nation for Itself.” The building of the Sokol sports association is located nearby and the Protestant Church of Jan Hus, founded in 1877, another important meeting place of the Czechs, is based on the very next street.


Jan Hus Presbytarian Church on 74th Street, 1900. From the book: Habenicht, Jan: Dějiny Čechů amerických, St. Louis, 1904.


In the Great War

The assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand d'Este, in Sarajevo on 28 June, 1914, brought Europe and then the whole world into devastating conflict. Representatives of Czech clubs in New York met on August 24 and agreed to support war refugees and orphans, to establish contact with compatriots across the United States and to lay the groundwork of an umbrella organization for better co-ordination. In September of the same year, the American Committee for the Liberation of the Czech People was established in New York, followed in the spring of 1915 by the Czech National Alliance, based in Chicago. Soon it grew to three hundred and fifty regional branches across the United States. When Professor Masaryk appeared in exile in late 1914, Czech New Yorkers immediately sent him over 5,000 dollars to launch a foreign resistance action. Masaryk insisted that the Czechoslovak revolution must be paid by its own sources, from Czechs and Slovaks at home and abroad, and funds offered by foreign governments were out of the question. In the following months, Czech New York diligently worked for the resistance. Compatriots organized charity collections and balls, Christmas bazaars, educational campaigns and lectures, and collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.


By the time the USA entered the war on April 6, 1917, the focus changed and the compatriots redoubled their efforts to convince the American public to help the Czechoslovak people. Czech New York stood at the forefront of this movement. A new press office called Slav Press Bureau was founded and undertook important promotional and propaganda work. Also, the newly established Czechoslovak Art Club exhibited posters with Czech liberation themes, which filled shop windows on Fifth Avenue, where they were seen daily by the passing thousands of New Yorkers.


Czechs in parade, 5th Avenue, May 1917. Image courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad - University of Chicago.


When one of the leaders of the resistance, General Milan Rastislav Stefanik arrived in New York on June 15, 1917, he was surrounded by cheering compatriots and, on the basis of his appeal, the local Sokols sent, as the very first ones from America, volunteers who joined the Czechoslovak legions in France.


Tomas Garrigue Masaryk visited a number of places in the USA with strong Czech, Slovak and Ruthenian minorities in late spring and summer 1918. He was welcomed by President Woodrow Wilson at the White House on June 18. He spent some time in New York in the fall. Let us remember that Masaryk had close links with the city. He was married in Brooklyn in 1878 and had several lecture tours there as a Professor of Charles University in later years.


Madison Square Garden Hall hosted a massive demonstration meeting on September 6, 1918, where a number of well-known personalities, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, appeared. The Czechoslovak nation had received diplomatic recognition from the U.S. government only four days earlier, and Masaryk and his military advisor Vladimir Hurban would attend the meeting as official representatives of the state. A week later, Masaryk spoke at a meeting at Carnegie Hall. American officials sought to bring the Central European nations closer together, and on September 15 organized a meeting of their leading figures who had the opportunity to present their national and political agendas, to outline future cooperation and to discuss the peaceful integration of the European continent. Besides Masaryk, there were representatives of Romanians, Poles, South Slavs and other nations taking part.


Manhattan in 1918. Image courtesy of New York Public Library Digital Collections.


Presidents Masaryk and Wilson - Liberators of Czechoslovak Nation, 1919, promotional postcards. Image courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad - University of Chicago. 


When the independent Czechoslovak Republic was proclaimed on October 28, 1918, Masaryk still resided in the United States and led key negotiations. In mid-November, his triumphant return to Prague was finally prepared. He left the Vanderbilt Hotel at Park Avenue and moved to the harbor, while his car was accompanied by cheering crowds. The American mission had successfully ended. Masaryk sailed to Europe aboard the ocean liner Carmania.


The first Czechoslovak consulate abroad began to operate in New York on November 1, 1918, and the close cooperation of the compatriot community with the homeland continued. Czech New York always watched over the preservation of freedom and democracy in the republic. When Masaryk´s successor, former President Edvard Benes, broken-hearted by the Munich Agreement and the break-up of Czechoslovakia, arrived to New York in February 1939, he was solemnly welcomed by Mayor La Guardia and Czech New Yorkers, who gave him the necessary drive and strength to set up the foundations of another, this time anti-Nazi resistance.


T.G. Masaryk with Czech-Americans who decided to join the Czechoslovak Legion in France – 1917. Image courtesy of Archives of Czechs and Slovaks Abroad - University of Chicago.


Dr. Martin Nekola, Ph.D. received his doctorate in political science at the Charles University in Prague. His research is focused on non-democratic regimes, the era of Communism, and the East-European anti-communist exiles in the United States during the Cold War. He is the author of numerous articles and has published nine books, the most recent of which are Petr Zenkl: Politik a člověk (Petr Zenkl: Politician and Man), 2014, Krvavé století (Bloody Century), 2015, and České Chicago (Czech Chicago), 2017.

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