Our modern conception of Nebraska as the heart of America might make it hard to imagine, but less than 150 years ago one quarter of the population of the Cornhusker State was born in a foreign country.
Of all the 19th Century immigrants who did not stop their journeys in the major US cities but made their way inland to the heart of the Great Plains, of particular significance were those coming from a tiny piece of terrain between Germany, Poland, and Austria. Between 1856 and World War I, 50,000 Bohemians and Moravians came to Nebraska, ranking the state first in the country in per capita Czech immigration.
Bohemia and Moravia (along with Czech Silesia) make up the “Czech Lands”, which are more or less the present day Czech Republic. In the 19th century, immigration from this territory dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire was primarily political. As Nebraskan author Willa Cather wrote, “The political emigration resulting from the revolutionary disturbances of 1848 was distinctly different from the emigration resulting from economic causes, and brought to the United States brilliant young men from both Germany and Bohemia.” For this reason many Czechs ended up in the wide expanses of Midwestern farmland rather than the factories of New York and Chicago.
Descendants of pioneers such as the Shimerda family depicted in Cather’s classic novel My Ántonia still live in small Nebraskan towns such as Wilber, population 1,855 and 37% Čechoameričané. At the beginning of the 21st century, Nebraska is the state with greatest percentage of citizens of Czech descent and continues to celebrate its heritage with lively Czech festivals every year.
40 miles away from Wilber at the 25,000-student University of Nebraska-Lincoln, being Czech takes on an academic luster. It was here that students eager to apply their simple knowledge of the language learned at home to literary studies founded the Komensky Club in 1903. The group soon took up the cause of adding Czech language studies to the University’s offerings, winning their petition in 1907 with effects which have lasted up to the present day.
The first head of the newly-organized Department of Slavonic was the young Jeffrey Hrbek, a scholar of the Czech and German languages and a poet who expressed his unique Czech-American heritage with a visionary zeal. The University would surely have benefited from his passion but alas it was not to be- Professor Jeffrey Hrbek passed away in December of 1907 at the age of 25.
Only a few short years earlier as a student at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, Hrbek had gone to visit a nearby Bohemian Cemetery, remembrance of Czechs who had immigrated to the Lehigh Valley in the 18th Century and whose culture had been absorbed into the colonial melting pot and thence forgotten. The site of the tombstones inspired the young poet to write these lines (from “The Bohemian Cemetery”):
And the epitaphs and wreathed rhymes
In the Chechish tongue are writ
That the men and women of future times
May muse and wonder a bit.
For, the dialect sweet of the pioneers old
Is giving slowly but surely way
To the plain smooth speech of the Saxon bold
— The Chechish weakens day by day.
Some day these stone-carved tearful rhymes
Shall be a riddle — a puzzle — nay
Folk will doubt that in by-gone times
Many could read each tombstone’s lay.
Still, here on the hill in the burial ground
The Chechish dead in their last long sleep
‘Neath grass-o ‘ergrown, forgotten mound
The eternal watch will keep.
Professor Mila Saskova-Pierce, Other Languages Section Head and faculty advisor of the Komensky Club at the University of Nebraska, thinks that, in the state of Nebraska at least, the day that “folk will doubt that in by-gone times many could read each tombstone’s lay” is distant. She is enthusiastic about her Czech Language program: “I think that with the enthusiastic people that we have on this side of the ocean, and the kind and supportive relationship coming from the Czechs on the other side of the ocean, we have the best outlook possible for the next 100 years.”