Czechs, Slovaks to mark Pittsburgh pact 100 years ago

May 29, 2018
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In a May 24, 2018 photo, Joseph Senko, 83, of Mt. Lebanon, who is honorary counsel of Slovakia, and Carol Hochman, 73, of Swisshelm Park, are photographed at the Senator John Heinz History Center, in the Strip District of Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Agreement, center, was signed 100 years ago on May 31, 1918, and cleared the way for creation of the nation of Czechoslovakia. (Lake Fong/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette via AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) — Simply putting a pen to paper doesn’t create a nation. Such an undertaking takes inspirational leadership and dedicated followers.

One hundred years ago, Pittsburgh was the scene of just such forces, coming together to draw up the Pittsburgh Agreement — the historic one-page document that outlined the unification of the Czech Republic and Slovakia into one nation: Czechoslovakia.

And even though they have since separated, the bond reflected in that momentous pact is being remembered and celebrated here this week and later this year in the two nations.

“It’s fascinating, really, that it happened in Pittsburgh,” said author Robert W. Doubek, founding president of the American Friends of the Czech Republic. “But it couldn’t happen in Europe. The Czechs and Slovaks were in an occupied territory, and calling for political activity could get you in trouble.”

It was 1918, and World War I was ending. The nations and empires of Europe were about to change. Some would vanish and others would be created.

The people of the Czech Republic and Slovakia saw both a risk and an opportunity. Fearful of being assimilated by the shifting boundaries of neighboring nations, there was a movement to unite as they had in the form of the “Czechoslovak Legion” during the war.

“They had been recruited out of POW camps in France, Russia and Italy to form this allegiance to fight on the side of the Allies,” Doubek said from his office in Washington, D.C. “That gave them a tremendous amount of credibility, and they were considered part of the victorious nations.”

The champion of the independence movement was Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, a wildly popular politician who traveled to America to prevail on President Woodrow Wilson for support. Masaryk also toured the country, making stops in Chicago, home of the largest number of Czech emigres, and Pittsburgh, which had the greatest Slovak population in the States.

“Masaryk was half-Czech and half-Slovak and both sides could identify with him. There was a huge rally at Grant Park in Chicago in early May. There were tens of thousands of people,” said Doubek, whose grandfather was among those in attendance.

Masaryk’s visit to Pittsburgh a few weeks later coincided with the Memorial Day holiday. Ten thousand jubilant Slovaks and Czechs paraded through the streets of the North Side and Downtown before Masaryk’s address at the Exposition Music Hall, according to the Pittsburgh Press. History was in the making.

But why Pittsburgh?

As similar as they might have been, the Czech Republic and Slovakia had their differences, which were reflected in the immigrants who came here. The Czechs had been part of Europe’s industrial revolution, Doubek said, and “they became the most literate ethnic group to arrive at Ellis Island.” They were craftsmen, blacksmiths and tailors.

“The Czech families came mostly from the Bohemia area, and they came to a part of Troy Hill called Bohemia Hill on the very edge, facing the city,” said Carol Hochman, 78, of Swisshelm Park and an honorary consul of the Czech Republic since 2007. “Troy Hill was part of Deutschtown, where the Germans were, and these folks were familiar with Germany. It was like home.”

The Slovaks, on the other hand, were of a more rural background. “They were among the ethnic groups that did the hardest work,” Doubek said.

“The Slovaks in Pittsburgh settled in Homestead because of the language and because it was close to the steel mills and coal mines,” said Joe Senko, 82, of Mt. Lebanon and an honorary consul of the Slovak Republic for 20 years. “They also settled on the South Side.”

Like so many of Pittsburgh’s old neighborhoods, the communities were defined and kept together by their jobs, churches, schools, languages, markets and pubs.

The immigrants came to Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century for economic and political reasons. They came together on Penn Avenue in May 1918 to form a new nation.

The Pittsburgh Agreement, which is displayed at the Heinz History Center in the Strip District, is relatively short. Its six points include the formation of Czechoslovakia as a republic with the assurance that the Slovak language would be retained. It was signed by 29 individuals, including Masaryk, who would return to Czechoslovakia to serve as its first president.

The transition was surprisingly smooth.

“From my reading of history,” Doubek said, “the Czechs and Slovaks (in Europe) were celebrating so hard, the authorities had to tell them to quit celebrating and go back to work. The Austrians sort of accepted it, and the military and government representatives in Prague packed up and left peacefully. They turned the whole thing over to the locals.”

On Thursday, the 100th anniversary of the signing, the University of Pittsburgh will hold a symposium on its importance at Posvar Hall, Room 4130 in Oakland. Panelists will be Hugh Agnew, of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University; Matej Hanula, of the Institute of History of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava; and Milada Polisenska, of the Anglo-American University in Prague. Doubek will be in town to serve as moderator for the event, which is free and open to the public.

Hochman and Mr. Senko also have planned an evening reception at the history center with more than 250 people, including Slovak Ambassador Peter Kmec, Czech Ambassador Hynek Kmonicek and other dignitaries from the two nations.

Interest in the events has been high, they said, especially considering that the ethnic personalities of the neighborhoods has been diluted by the years.

“At one time, I think there were 21 Slovak churches in the area,” Senko said. “Now, there might be one left.

“I remember Bohemia Hall on Vinial Street,” Hochman said. “It was the centerplace for Czech gatherings. But it burned down in the 1960s. And the young people got cars and moved away. You still hear the Czech names around Pittsburgh, but we’re not gathered much anymore.”

“A lot of these people who are coming are older,” Mr. Senko said. “They remember their grandparents being from there, but they don’t speak the language anymore.”

There’s also the fact that Czechoslovakia — the nation penciled out in Pittsburgh — no longer exists. Hitler overran it during World War II and then the nation re-divided in the 1990s.

“They called it the Velvet Revolution because nobody got killed,” Doubek said. “And each country was happy to retain its own identity.”

And each country is planning to exhibit the Pittsburgh Agreement. It will be sent to the Slovak National Museum in Bratislava next month and then to the National Museum in Prague in October.

“Today, they’re like a pair of brothers,” Doubek said of the two nations. “They probably have the best relations of any two countries in Europe.”





Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, http://www.post-gazette.com

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