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When is a Czech not a Czech?

I grew up in a Czech- or, more precisely, a Bohemian- neighborhood. Prasky was the default lunchmeat of my childhood; kolachky was as much a staple of life as donuts, and smoked butt with rutabega was regularly encountered on the Waters family table. I doubt that my sister will ever let her husband forget the time he - Grace Lutheran's pastor at the time, newly arrived from Southern California by way of the St. Louis seminary- attended the reception which followed one of his first weddings, and instead of pouring pork gravy over his Bohemian dumpling, picked it up off his plate and buttered it!

Bohemian cooking is wonderful. Denise and I still make it a point when we get to Chicago to have dinner one night at Klaas's- a wonderful Bohemian restauraunt on Cermak Road (formerly 22nd Street; named after Tony Cermak, Chicago's assassinated anti-Capone Mayor back in the day). The restaurant, ironically, was one of Big Al's hangouts; a picture of him still adorns the wall in the entrance. That particular stretch of Cermak Road is in Cicero, the suburb where Capone got his start.

Cermak- as far as I know, Chicago's only Bohemian mayor- was a folk hero among the people in whose midst I was raised. He wasn't merely somebody who got himself shot for opposing Capone (and no Chicagoan is naive enough to actually believe the generally-repeated story that Giuseppe Zangara was shooting at President-elect Franklin Roosevelt that night in Miami!). This "reform mayor" was a reformer only in the sense that he opposed Capone and his ilk; Cermak was, in fact, the true founder of Chicago's Democratic Machine. It was he who first figured out that if you put together an ethnically-balanced ticket in city elections, you could bind the communities from which each of the candidates came to the ticket as a whole.

But I digress. Nearly all of the people in the Bohemian part of South Lawndale (aka "Little Village") were- like Cermak himself- Roman Catholic. Catholicism was not an optional feature of Bohemian identity; from the chimes from the steeple of Epiphany, the local Catholic church, every quarter hour (by which we always knew the time- and thus, when to come home for dinner- no matter where we were in the neighborhood) to the games interrupted for playmates' catechism classes and the meatless dinners at friend's houses on Friday evenings, it was something which flavored life in the community as much as the garlic flavored the prasky. There were few, if any, Hussites in South Lawndale!

There were, to be sure, a few of us "Publics" here and there (religion in South Lawndale was spoken of in terms neither of theology nor ecclesiastical affiliation, but rather in terms of the type of school to which one sent one's kids; the German Lutheran community which surrounded Grace, and sent its children to its own parochial school, was an aberration nobody quite knew what to do with). Our neighborhood was not only a Bohemian neighborhood, but a Catholic one. The thought that the first could be separated from the second would never have occurred to the people of Bohemian South Lawndale.

Not spoken of much was the fact that the homeland of our neighborhood's culture was behind the Iron Curtain, and that a goodly percentage of the people who lived there had relatives for whom that was also true. Not even 1968's "Prague Spring," which took place while I still lived there, was much discussed- at least with the "Publics."

The Old Neighborhood was ceasing to be Bohemian by the time we moved to the Northwest Side, closer to my father's relatives (we had been the last of my mother's family to remain in South Lawndale). There, the community was Polish rather than Bohemian. There were many, many more Poles than Bohemians in Chicago, of course; only Warsaw has more. They were just as Catholic- and, at least in the eyes of a "Public" like myself, there were many cultural resemblances. But kielbasa and bigos replaced the prasky and smoked butt, and the roast pork and dumplings somehow didn't taste quite the same. Non-Catholics were not the oddities they were in Little Village, either. Belmont-Cragin and Jefferson Park were just not monolithic ethnic enclaves, the way South Lawndale had been.

South Lawndale was changing, too. Chicago's Mexican community had moved right up Milwaukee Road through what once was the South Side's Polish neighborhood, and from there up 26th Street- the "main drag" of South Lawndale- in a path which traced the bus route I used to take home from the Loop. Before long, South Lawndale would be a Mexican neighborhood, as it remains to this day- the largest such community, in fact, in the Midwest.

Bohemia and the Czech Republic as a whole are free now. The Iron Curtain and the Russians are gone. But what it is to be a Bohemian, it seems, has changed during the years they were there in ways the people back in South Lawndale wouldn't have thought possible.

It doesn't mean being Catholic anymore. It doesn't even mean being Christian. The Czech Republic, alas, is just one more part of that extended and unprecedentedly atheistic society known as modern Europe.

Despite the European Union' s refusal to officially acknowledge it, Christianity has been played an utterly foundational role in Europe's history. That affectedly world-weary, dreary materialism and cynical, anti-religious pseudo-sophistication which afflicts contemporary Europe involves a denial of a central part of its own historical identity. The years of Communism seem to have left the Czech Republic even more bereft of that vital part of its own identity than is the rest of Europe. Only Lutheran Estonia seems to have been more thoroughly de-Christianized by its decades under Communist rule.

I am not Bohemian myself. But having grown up where I did, I cannot imagine that such a Bohemia is truly still itself. A pastor I once knew used to say that unbelief is a form of mental illness, an irrational rejection of reality which also inherently involves a rejection of our truest selves. I hope Bohemia-and all of the Czech Republic- eventually find themselves again.

I hope Europe does. If the truth be told, neither Germany nor the Six Counties of Northern Ireland are the most Christian of places these days, either- and those are my people. They, too, are poorer for having forgotten who they are.


Joe Fremer said…
I used to go swimming once in a while at Cermak Lake. Did I ever mention, when we were revisiting our shared stomping grounds, that before I got Lutheranized and relocated to Lawndale, I grew up near 47th & Cicero? That neighborhood changed too. It was a nice mix back then. But the last time I drove through there (not lingering!) I saw my old school, Phoebe E. Hearst elementary, had several windows shot out. Lots of crack houses in the neighborhood. Sigh.

Good comments on Europe.
"That affectedly world-weary, dreary materialism and cynical, anti-religous pseudo-sophistication"
Yep. But America, too, is headed in that direction. But we don't care, as long as the handbasket we're traveling in has all the entertainment options.
Bob Waters said…
South Lawndale/Little Village had a bad period, too- graffiti, rats, you name it. But it's coming back. The apartment building where I grew up, at 4126 W. 24th Place, looks nicer today than it did then. Last time I saw it, the other place we lived during the Grace era- 2758 S. Keeler- looked halfway decent again, too.

America is indeed heading in the same direction. But we are thankfully very far from being as far gone as Europe is. From this preserve us, Heavenly Father!

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