Pittsburgh is 4,500 miles and an ocean away from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but they are inextricably linked.
So deep are the roots that only a few months ago Point State Park served as a location for a protest over concerns about government corruption in the countries that were once combined as Czechoslovakia. About 25 Slovak and Czech expatriates, some with their American-born children, carried signs and their nations’ flags to support demonstrations in their native countries.
Like the protests sweeping Slovakia since February, the rally at the Point was organized by a Slovak student, 27-year-old Jakub Lonsky. He is working on his doctorate in economics at the University of Pittsburgh.
“The process that brought down communists was organized by university students, so now my generation, the Millennials, feel it’s our turn to fix the country,” Lonsky said.
Lonsky’s sentiment is only fitting given that Pittsburgh is home to the agreement that helped give birth to Czechoslovakia 100 years ago — an accomplishment that will be celebrated at the Heinz History Center the evening of May 31.
Earlier this year, thousands of Czechs demonstrated in the Czech Republic against Prime Minister Andrej Babis, a billionaire businessman accused of fraud and being a former Communist secret police agent. And tens of thousands of Slovaks marched in the Slovak capital of Bratislava and across the country to protest the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova. Kuciak had been investigating possible links between the Slovak government and the mafia.
Ross Township resident Otilia Golis, 33, had been watching with goose bumps and envy the videos and photos of her family protesting back home in Kosice, the second-largest city in Slovakia. She jumped at the chance to join the demonstration in Pittsburgh.
“I felt really proud that I could send a picture to my family of us protesting for them, too,” said Golis, now an American citizen. “I could tell them we have your back in Pittsburgh, too.”
One hundred years ago, expatriates of what are now the Czech and Slovak republics who were living in Pittsburgh showed support for their homeland in grand fashion. On May 30, 1918, about 20,000 residents of Czech or Slovak descent marched from the North Side to the former Exposition Hall on the Point. They rallied to support representatives of local and national Czech and Slovak fraternal groups who were meeting to establish the ground rules for forming a united and independent nation from the ashes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The document that led to the birth of the nation of Czechoslovakia was signed here and aptly named the Pittsburgh Agreement. About 200 area residents of Czech or Slovak descent and dignitaries from the countries are expected to meet at the Heinz History Center to commemorate the signing of the Pittsburgh Agreement.
The founding fathers of Czechoslovakia chose Pittsburgh as the site for the signing because of its strong Slovak roots. In 1990, Allegheny County still boasted the highest density of people reporting full or partial Slovak heritage in the United States, according to the Slovak Studies Program at the University of Pittsburgh.
But today’s gala comes as current events in the two countries cast a shadow on their future. Will these countries lean toward the West and the democracies that helped forge them or toward the East and the one-man rule and corruption of Vladimir Putin in Russia?
Part of my story
I, like others of Slovak descent in the Pittsburgh area, have a vested interest in how the countries of Slovakia and the Czech Republic fare. I was born from a combustible mix of Scotch-Irish, Hoosier farmers on my mother’s side and the urban but not urbane Slovak immigrants on my father’s side. My paternal grandfather, Stefan, came to America in 1902 with $5 in his pocket and settled in Chicago.
He worked hard and saved enough money to return to Slovakia. In 1904, he boarded an ocean liner with his wife and daughter in the port of Bremen and steamed back to America. My father, William Sr., was born 11 years later in Chicago, one of 12 children who survived to adulthood.
By 1979, tales of the old country and the television series “Roots” (a series about a black family from slavery to the 1960s) fanned my curiosity about my own roots and the kin left behind in what became the Iron Curtain.
On my first day in Slovakia, a police roadblock stopped my cousin’s car. The inquisitive officer studied our faces, examined our passports and opened up the trunk. What was that about, I asked my cousin after they waved us on. They were looking for escaped political prisoners, he answered.
Welcome to communism, I thought.
We later visited Dulov and Pruske, the ancestral villages of my grandparents. We went from home to home where each family prepared elaborate meals and toasted us with slivovice, a powerful plum brandy that I diluted with orange juice – much to their amusement. We told stories and sang into the night.
I have been to Czechoslovakia, now Slovakia and the Czech Republic, five times, and I always visit the cemeteries, meticulously groomed, adorned with flowers and somberly illuminated with candles, to pay my respects to deceased relatives. How people treat their dead says a lot about them. When one of my American uncles died, my aunt in Slovakia received a portion of the inheritance, a fabulous sum for folks there. Rather than buy a car or take a cruise, she bought a magnificent headstone for the family grave.
On a drive to Pruske on my last visit, a procession of residents streamed out to the cemetery for no apparent reason. I asked my family why. On Aug. 8, 1831, a cholera pandemic was ravaging the world. The survivors of Pruske promised the Virgin Mary that if she spared them, they would honor her every year on that day.
And there they were, more than a century and a half later. Though not religious, I have to love a people who keep a promise, especially when they weren’t the ones who made it.
The 100th anniversary
The Pittsburgh Agreement is so important to the Czech and Slovak republics that children still learn about it in school. The original document housed at the Heinz History Center will travel to the national museums of both countries for their own celebrations of the pact, starting in June.
Anne Madarasz, chief historian of the Heinz History Center, said a half million Slovaks immigrated to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Many settled in the Pittsburgh area.
Tomas G. Masaryk, chairman of the Czechoslovak National Council in Paris, used the political strength of immigrant Czechs and Slovaks in America to convince President Woodrow Wilson to support the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. Masaryk, a university professor of philosophy, became the new nation’s first president.
Masaryk was one of 29 people who signed the Pittsburgh Agreement on May 31, 1918, at the former Loyal Order of Moose Building in downtown Pittsburgh. Another signer of the agreement was Milan Getting, a Slovak journalist. Two of his grandchildren who live locally – Thomas Masaryk Getting, 68, of Ross Township, and Marcia Getting Sutherland, 80, of Oakland – are expected to attend the 100th anniversary celebration at the history center.
Since 1918, the political landscape for the Czech and Slovak republics has changed.
“They’ve got to deal with the reality of their geography and the bear that’s [near] their border,” Madarasz said, referring to Russia. “But if you’ve got people marching in the streets, then clearly you still have a belief in the tenets this document represents of openness and democracy and the people having a voice in the operation and formation of their government.”
A problem for many Czech and Slovak expatriates is the rampant corruption, a vestige of communism, that plagues both countries.
“People in Slovakia are so accustomed to corruption, everybody takes it as normal,” Golis said. “For me, living in America for 12 years, the level of corruption [in Slovakia] is not acceptable.”
Franklin Park resident Alice Zdrale, 35, runs the Czech and Slovak School of Pittsburgh. Now an American citizen, she sees her attendance at the March protest here as an extension of being a mother.
“I‘m always trying to teach my kids if you see something bad happening or someone is mistreating somebody, you should speak up,” she said. “You shouldn’t just sit back and do nothing.”
In an email from his native Slovakia, Martin Votruba, an adviser in the Slovak Studies Program at Pitt, updated the situation there. He said the double murder and weekly protests brought about the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico; the minister of the interior, whose position is bigger than the head of the FBI, and his replacement; the minister of culture; an adviser to the prime minister; the secretary of the state security council; and the chief of the National Crime Agency’s anti-corruption unit.
Despite the apparent success of the marches, many Slovaks are wary. The country's president appointed a replacement from Fico's party, and many Slovaks worry Fico is still pulling the strings.
“Slovaks have been quite voiceful about what party and government they do not want, but do not see a party that a large number of them do want,” Votruba said.
James Krapfl, associate professor of European history at McGill University in Montreal, considers Slovakia as having the most robust democracy of the former communist countries in Central Europe and the Czech Republic as the second. He considers Hungary lost and Poland ailing.
In January, the Czechs re-elected pro-Russian President Milos Zeman over pro-Western Jiri Drahos, former head of the Czech Academy of Sciences, in a close race. Kremlin Watch, a Prague-based nonprofit group, attributed the defeat to a disinformation campaign in social media and chain emails that falsely accused Drahos of being a pedophile, supporter of unrestricted immigration and a former collaborator with the Czech secret police during communism.
Krapfl expressed confidence in Slovakia’s future because of its people’s faith in citizens over government. He views the religiosity of Slovak culture as contributing to a strong "moral compass." But Czechs may see little alternative, even if frustrated by the situation.
“The Czech Republic is at the edge of a knife,” Krapfl said. “It could go one way or another.”
Bill Zlatos is a freelance writer in Ross Township. He can be reached at email@example.com. He worked at newspapers in Indiana, including the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, when the staff won a Pulitzer Prize. He also worked at the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and the former Pittsburgh Press. This story was fact-checked by Jeffrey Benzing.
The Pittsburgh Agreement a century later
A symposium on the historical background of the Pittsburgh Agreement
1:30 to 3:30 p.m. Thursday, May 31
University of Pittsburgh, Wesley W. Posvar Hall, Room 4130
Admission is free and open to the public.
A program honoring the 100th anniversary of the Pittsburgh Agreement
6 p.m. Thursday, May 31
Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St.
Admission is $35.