Here is my final paper for the Prague Memory and Identity class that took me to the heart of Europe and back. This is a story of my mother’s side of my family, Grandpa Tibor, Great Auntie Edith, and their parents as they found themselves cast away from their rural village in Czechoslovakia to a German refugee camp and finally to Montreal, Canada. Here is their story with some historical analysis on my part. Enjoy:
From Janček To Jantschek
The history of Czechoslovakia is a story of different nationalities, ethnicities, and minorities redefining their identities within a changing social and political climate. Towards the end of the First World War, the Czech population of 6.7 million people demanded their own state after belonging to the large multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 1918, World War I officially ended and Czechoslovakia was formed. By drawing the boundaries around the Kingdom of Bohemia and Moravia, Czechoslovakia claimed German, Hungarian, and Romanian minorities (Library of Congress 2005). The 3.2 million Sudeten Germans called for self-determination to remain with the Austrian State, now the Republic of German Austria (Simkin 2009). After bloody demonstrations put down by the Czech military, the Sudetenland was officially assigned to Czechoslovakia in the Treaty of St. Germaine in 1919 (Library of Congress 2005). The Czech and German segregation of political, social, and educational institutions existed until the Second World War. Isolated German communities existed throughout Czechoslovakia (Koralka 1992:1034). However, mixed communities of German, Czech, and Slovak backgrounds blurred the ethnic and cultural distinctions between Czechs and Germans, complicating nationalist movements during and after WWII. Czechoslovakia’s history of ethnic and linguistic amalgamation allowed people to strategically shift their identities between German and Czech during times of mounting national tension.
The geographic spread of Czechoslovakia created a diverse situation of people with different ethnicities, languages, and religions with only their Czechoslovakian nationality in common. However, the Nazi campaign established national identity with ethnicity and race. This construction of ethnic-based citizenship permeated Czechoslovakian policies after the Second World War and legitimized the German population transfers of 1945-46 (Identity 106). Nationality was determined by “party membership, census responses, language usage, Nazi citizenship, behavior during the occupation, and supposed heritage” (Identity 105). In Czechoslovakia, these laws of nationality differentiated German Reich citizens, Volkgemeinschaft, from Czech nationals of the state, Staatsangehorige. These differential categories of nationality were used to establish citizenship in 1939 for the acquisition of the Sudetenland into Germany and in 1945 for the transfer of German-speakers back “home” to Germany (Identity 109). But the transitory nature of nationality and loose enforcement of the 1939 law allowed Bohemian Germans to opt out of registration as Volkgemeinschaft, especially when German nationality was undesirable under the newly formed Protectorate (Identity 107). However, by 1940 German registration had increased as Reich citizenship became politically and economically advantageous (Identity 108). In response to this obvious transience of nationality, Nazis established methods of ethnic screening, the results of which would be used again for the 1945 German transfers.
However, the isolation of many rural and mountainous villages in Czechoslovakia allowed its residents a more advantageous mixed identity. My family, the Jančeks, used this shifting identity to their advantage in the mid-1940s. Oma and Opa Janček, with their children Tibor and Edith, owned a mill in Nitrianske Pravno, a small village in the mountains of Slovakia. Nitrianske Pravno is north of Nitra, just past Prievidza, and was under Hungarian rule until 1918. With the formation of Czechoslovakia, Nitrianske Pravno was enveloped into the Slovakian region of the state. The village is first mentioned in 1393 and became prosperous in the 15th century from a nearby gold-mine (Nitrianske Pravno 2009). In the 16th century, the village declined considerably with the exhaustion of mines and several uprisings. In 1886, the town was degraded to a large municipality status (Nitrianske Pravno 2009).
Nitrianske Pravno is a unique village of mixed Slovak and German ethnicities. According to Edith, Germans had settled in that part of Slovakia many years ago. A language of mixed German and Slovak developed into a dialect that neither Germans nor Slovaks can understand (email to author, March 11, 2009). The language demonstrates a German and Slovak ethnic mixture, present in the village since the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Nykl 1944:102). It is this mixed identity and non-cohesive state that allowed my family to escape Czechoslovakia as the state changed around them. The mountainous landscape of Slovakia created enclaves of language different from the national German and Czech languages. Since language became a marker of nationality under Nazi and communist policy, rural populations experienced more flexibility in national allegiances.
My great-grandparents, Oma and Opa, lived in Nitrianske Pravno, during the end of WWI and the formation of the First Republic. My grandpa Tibertius, Tibor for short, was born in 1929 and grew up during the economic crisis of the early 1930s, when Czechoslovakia and the rest of Europe looked to Hitler to solve the global problems. The mountainous location of Nitrianske Pravno sheltered the Jančeks from the effects of World War Two as they carried on their lives like families in other small villages. My relative’s friend from the Sudetenland was even unaware of the war until he was forced to leave in 1945. The German occupation of Czechoslovakia since 1939 was welcomed and inconsequential to the Jančeks who enjoyed protection under the mixed German and Slovak identity and isolation of Nitrianske Pravno.
In 1944, Russians liberated Czechoslovakia from German influence after the Second World War and a Communist coalition took over the government (Library of Congress 2005). While most Czechoslovakians welcomed communism and the end of the Nazi regime, Oma and Opa Janček did not “because everything is taken from you” as Edith described it (email to author, March 5, 2009). Under communism, society revolves around industry and laborer is the hero (Library of Congress 2005). In 1949, agriculture was nationalized, forming uniform agricultural cooperatives where farmers shared property and work (Srb 1962:147). “Kulaks”, families with acquired property in villages, were scorned and persecuted (Simkin 2009). Because the Jančeks would lose their mill in Czechoslovakia under communism, they decided to escape to Germany in 1944. They changed their name to Jantschek, a more German version of Janček, and moved to Ludwigsburg, Germany. Edith says that “in Germany we were in a refuge camp that was run by the Americans. Opa changed his name because the German Government recommended it.” (email to author, March 11, 2009). The Jantscheks lived in this camp until 1952. Tibor and Edith attended school in the city where they learned to read, write, and speak German.
Like many other displaced persons after the Second World War, the Jantscheks looked to other countries accepting refugees. Opa’s sister had lived in Canada since 1926, making it easier for the Jantscheks to obtain visas. Canada implemented a bulk-labor program to accept labor qualified refugees and also a close-relatives plan, which became the sponsorship plan through which my family entered the country (Simkin 2009). Tibor came to Montreal first and sponsored the family to leave Germany for Canada. By the end of 1952, Canada had accepted around 158,000 refugees (Simkin 2009). Although other countries like Belgium, the UK, and Australia accepted refugees, over 250,000 refugees in poor health were still in Europe by 1953. Many of these refugees were resettled as citizens in Austria and Germany (Simkin 2009).
While some Czechoslovakians, such as the Jantscheks (Jančeks), were able to use their mixed identities to choose to leave the Communist state, Sudeten Germans were not given the choice. As German-speakers they were condemned as Nazi sympathizers and required to return “home” to Germany (Brown 1953:612). Between 1945 and 1947, ethnically German Czechoslovakians were exported for alleged collaboration with Nazi Germany and Hungary during their succession and annexation in 1938 (Identity 105). 2.5 million Germans were exported from the Sudetenland and it is estimated that 27,000 Germans were killed (Identity 106). The Benes Decrees called for the removal of property and citizenship of ethnic Germans and Hungarians. The confiscation of property and expulsion applied to 90% of Germans in Czechoslovakia who sympathized with the Sudeten German Party (Library of Congress 2005). Suspicions raised by Hitler’s regime confirmed drastic actions to put ethnic Germans back in their “home-land”. Thus, Sudeten Germans identity as Germans criminalized them as Nazis and required relocation back to Germany. Yet, Germans in Czechoslovakia have been a minority since the institution of the state in 1918 (Simkin 2009). The separation of Germans and Czechs has always been an integral part of the society and politics of Czechoslovakia (Identity 91-92). The “perceived” differences between the Czechs and Germans, legitimized by language as a marker of nationality, were only intensified by Hitler’s ethnic cleansing.
While the Czech and German distinction marked Czechoslovakian politics, many Sudetenland and other rural villages were isolated in mountainous regions and consequently unaware of the larger political climate. Speaking of Nitrianske Pravno, Edith said, “our village was not bombarded with Hitler Propaganda like the German people were” (email to author, March 11, 2009). This lack of propaganda and German influence in rural areas created enclaves of mixed languages distinct from the national discourse. The Jantscheks were ok with the German occupation because it had little effect on their lives. However, the mixed Slovak and German dialect of Nitrianske Pravno allowed the Jantscheks to make strategic choices when the state politics threatened this way of life. Once communism took over Czechoslovakia, people like the Jantscheks could choose whether or not to adopt their Slovak or German identity. My family rejected communism as mill owners and ultimately chose their German identity by changing their name as a ticket out of the country. Edith confirms this choice and says, “Oma and Opa did not want to live under the Russians and Communism. So, anybody that wanted to leave and was able to, left” (email to author, March 11, 2009). It is difficult to say whether or not these people were actually given a choice by the communist government or not.
The politics of Czechoslovakian nationality and the story of my family illustrate the flexibility of identity when tied to nationality and language. In such an ethnically and linguistically diverse state such as Czechoslovakia, mixed and flexible identities allowed people autonomy through times of severe fascism, communism, and nationalism. Czechoslovakians living in rural villages like Nitrianske Pravno, outside the sphere of political influence, had a flexible identity unrelated to national identity through linguistic unity. Many of these villages were geographically isolated, agriculturally based, linguistically mixed, and ethnically mixed. Under the Nazi and communist definitions of nationality, this diversity allowed a level of flexibility and choice. Because of this autonomy, my family was able to reject communism and leave Czechoslovakia by choice. Because of this choice, I have the privilege of being alive today.