Czech immigrants of the swan valley

7-8 2002 Naši ve světě English
obálka čísla

Two miles directly north of Minitonas stradding one of the lesser beaches of Lake Aggasiz, lies the peaceful cementery of the village of Minitonas where rest the pioneers and immigrants who helped tame the poplar forests of the Swan River Valley. Among the numerous graves in the cemetery stand the head stones of Czech immigrants to his region of Manitoba.

Adam * Koren Sevcenko
Andrs Kulhavy Slama
Boubelik * Lucan Slavik *
Bures Marek Springl
Dusanek Matejka Slepicka
Dvorak Moravec Sodomka *
Glajch Mucinsky Starostik *
Horta * Nemecek Svojanovsky
Hostasek * Nemez Trofimchuk
Hybrant Nikolaj Tucek *
Ilavsky Novak Valasek
Jahoda Novotny * Veselovsky
Janicek * Ozdan Vintr
Jelinek Pospisil Vondracek
Jersak Racinsky Zahradnicek
Kopecky Rejchrt
Koutecky Sebesta

Most of these same names may be seen on headstones or in official records of various registries in Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine, especially in the territory of Volyn (Volhynia). These headstones and records are the witnesses to a long and remarkable journey of the Czechs to the Swan River area of Canada.

Some of the immigrants do not belong to the original group since they came after the Second World War. A few of them do not share the same roots. The name of Zdenek Sodomka is unique in that he never came into contact with the Minitonas Czechs at all except after his death. He escaped from Communist Czechoslovakia to Canada and found work in a lumber camp in the Duck Mountains. There he was killed in an accident. His employer contacted the Czech Church to see if he were connected in any way, but no one in the church knew of him. However, the church was pleased to give Zdenek a full burial among the Czechs in the Minitonas cemetery. His headstone was made by Josef Dvorak.

Also a few of the names include some individuals and families that have attached themselves to the original group of immigrants through marriage, and only one of the partners shares the same roots as the majority.

Many Czech names have a colourful meaning quite obvious to those who understand Czech. Here are some examples: Jahoda (Strawberry), Jelinek (Small Deer), Kopecky (Hill Dweller), Koutecky (Corner Dweller), Koren (Root), Kulhavy (He Who Limps), Nemecek (Little German), Nemez (German), Novak (New Man), Pospisil (He Who Hurries), Slama (Straw), Slavik (Lark), Slepicka (Chicken -- Little Hen), Veselovsky (He Who is Happy), Zahradnicek (Gardiner).

The Czech immigrants mark their beginning with the year 1415 when John Hus, the renowned spiritual leader and reformer of the Czechs, was burned as a heretic at the stake. The flames ouf Hus´s stake swept across Bohemia and Moravia igniting a massive conversion of Czechs to Protestantism. Historians estimate that over 90 percent of Czech barons and landowners along with the villages within their domains both peasantry and tradesfolk became Protestant.

This unique Protestant enclave in the heart of Catholic Europe lasted for about 200 years until 1620 when Catholic forces defeated the Czech Protestants in the Battle of White Mountain. This marked the beginning of the Catholic Counter Reformation. After the battle came almost immediate and brutal persecution. Historians estimate that up to three quarters of all lands were confiscated and given to the Catholic church or Austro-Hungarian nobility backing the Hapsburg cause. The persecution was so brutal that major depopulation occurred in the two relatively small countries of Bohemia and Moravia. Thousands of families both noble and peasant were exiled. This era represented a major displacement of Czech people in central Europe.

During the next 150 years the Counter Reformation effectively stamped out Protestantism in Bohemia and Moravia, the Czech lands. The movement went underground in the Czech lands but flourished in exile. In terms of historic significance the Czech Protestants gave the world its most prominent modern pedagogue, Jan Amos Komensky (Komenius) and the first modern Protestant missionary movement, the Moravian Brethren who sent missionaries to every continent of the world. In a less significant sense, the Czech Protestants were known everywhere they resided for their love of peace, freedom of religion, their piety; their industrious ways, and their persistent preservation of the Czech tongue which is still spoken today in Canada by some third generation descendents. As near as can be ascertained, the Swan Valley group of Czech immigrants left their homeland under very difficult circumstances in the first quarter of the 1700´s along with thousands of other exiles. They were hunted down being brought to trial and under torture were forced to renounce their faith. Even women were tortured. The men usually received more severe punishments. One practice was to administer lashes until the accused renounced his faith. As many as 500 lashes were administered to those who would not recant. In such cases very few survived the lashing. At first large numbers were exiled from their country, but later even border crossings had to be done in secret. If caught the prisoners were given very harsh treatment often ending in death. Frequently they left everything behind except what they could load into wagons. Many left with only what they could carry on their person. Upon expulsion from one area, they would seek asylum in a neighboring county, but eventually they had to flee their homeland. When they made it across the border, they were not only homeless aliens, but they were also penniless because ultimatums to leave the county in a very short period did not allow them to sell their property at fair value. The most common destination where they found asylum was Lutheran Germany. Here they created several colonies some of the most noted being established in the vicinity of Berlin. Beginnings were very difficult; however, soon the colonies prospered, having their own schools and churches. They did not lose contact with the homeland. From their presses came Protestant literature and song books and the Bible which were sent by secret courier to their brethren in the Czech lands. When Protestant literature was found, it was burned by the authorities. The couriers risked their lives if caught.

Even in their new found sanctuary things did not go so well. In due time the German authorities began to exert pressure on the immigrants to assimilate. At first they were required to hire German teachers for their schools and soon thereafter they were requirement to have German pastors in their churches. The immigrants were not prepared to give up their faith, their language, and ethnic identity. In general the immigrants believed that someday soon they would be able to return to their homeland. This desire to return was a driving force behind what the exiles did and where they went; consequently, the immigrants began to consider leaving Germany.

Thus in the early 1800 ´s a stream of Czech immigrants began to move in the direction of Poland from their sanctuary in Lutheran Germany. Life in Poland was very hard. The most common occupation was working in the textile industry either in factories or working on looms in cottages. Frequently the whole family worked making cloth for meagre wages just to keep food on the table. Our family has a small magnifying glass kept from those days in Zelov which was used to examine the quality of the weave.

My grandfather´s whole family worked on the looms in their home, he and his eight sisters and father and mother. Their home was a veritable factory. Grandpa would tell stories about those days. He especially recalled the time a visiting pastor met in their home and invited him and his eight sisters to place their faith in Jesus Christ. The whole family knelt among the looms and prayed and experienced spiritual rebirth.

Here in Poland the immigrants began to take on their present identity as Baptists. The Czech Baptist movement appears to have started in Poland around the area of Zelov under the influence of German Baptist missionaries in the early 1800´s. Soon the Czechs broke with the German brethren and formed their own organizations. But unfortunately the Czech Baptists were not welcome in Poland where they suffered mild persecution such as public ridicule and frequent breaking of windows. This persecution along with poor economic conditions caused the Exiles to look for a more secure environment.

At this time Russia desired to put into production its rich soils in the Ukraine and to this end the government began to advertise for experienced farmers from western Europe. Many different national groups converged on Russia to better their economic circumstances at this time. By the middle of the 1800´s Czech Catholics from Moravia and Bohemia were also immigrating to Volyn. The Czech Baptists from Poland decided to make a move to Volyn as well.

My Great Grandfather, Josef Nesvarba, was given the responsibility to take a request to the Russian Czar for land grants. He came to the court where with many petitioners he waited for the Czar to emerge from the palace. However it was the Czarina who stepped into her couch and rode slowly through the throng listening to requests. Great Grandfather was able to place the written request into her gloved hand.

In not too long a time they were given sizable land grants and privileges to build their own village. Thus the villages of Michalovka and Mirotin were built in the middle of the holdings. These two villages were to provide the largest number of immigrants to Minitonas in the future. Other Czech villages grew up in a similar manner and from these came lesser numbers of families to Monitonas. In Volyn the Czechs experienced conditions that prepared them well for Canadian frontier. Much of Volyn resembled a frontier. Grandmother used to tell me stories of wolves which still were abundant in the forests. The immigrants were required to clear the land which was made up mostly of huge hardwood forests. Once cleared, however, they yielded some of the best soils in the world for agriculture. When they arrived in the Swan Valley, they simply put into practice what they had learned in Volyn.

It was here in Volyn that the Czech Baptists experienced the First World War and the struggles which led to the establishment of Communist power in Russia. Many of the men served in the Russian army against German forces on the eastern front. My Grandfather, Marek, served in the Czech Foreign Legion which fought alongside the Russian forces. The service record of these men did not serve them well when the communists took over. Of greater concern was the fact that the Czech farmer were prosperous and considered to be Kulaks, enemies of the people. Life for the Czechs once again became insecure.

by Jerry V. Marek

Vydavatelem Českého dialogu je Mezinárodní český klub

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