Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Kids living in Seward in the 1960s used the word bohunk like kids everywhere use the word doofus now. As an insult, we would say What a bohunk he is! or You bohunk!. The word indicated that the person was stupid and uncouth.

The word bohunk comes from the word Bohemian and is primarily a slang name for a member of that ethnic group -- like the word kraut is for a German or the word spic is for a Spaniard. When we Seward kids used the word bohunk in the 1960s, though, we usually did not mean that the person was a Bohemian, but rather that he was a doofus.

The relatively common and abstract use of this word in Seward was, however, a result of the historical circumstance that Seward was a mostly German town surrounded by a heavily Bohemian countryside.

The country Czechoslovakia consisted of three parts -- Bohemia on the west, Moravia in the middle and Slovakia on the east. The Bohemians and Moravians speak the same language, which is called Czech, and the Slovaks speak a very similar language, Slovak. Before World War One, these three regions were separate parts of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. After World War One, they comprised one sovereign country, Czechoslovakia. In 1992 Czechoslovakia split into two countries; Bohemia and Moravia became The Czech Republic, and Slovakia became independent Slovakia.

During the 1800s and early 1900s, a large number of Czech-speaking Bohemians and Moravians emigrated to the United States and settled in southeast Nebraska. The 1920 population census of the USA found that about one-eighth of all the US residents of Czech ethnicity lived in Nebraska. The numbers from that census were used to annotate a map showing how many Czech-speaking families lived in each Nebraska county. Below is a portion of that map.

As you can see Seward County had about 100 Czech families, whereas Saline County and Fillmore County to our south had 1,675 Czech families and Butler County, Colfax County and Saunders County to our north had a total of 3,010 families. The map does not show a census count for York County, but the number there was relatively high too. Seward County was populated overwhemingly by German immigrants, but was surrounded by heavily Czech populations.

The west bank of the Missouri River that runs along Nebraska's southeast border is called The Bohemian Alps. Ted Kooser, Nebraska's Poet Laureate, has written a book titled Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps about the Bohemian Alps.

The book Czechs in Nebraska provides this explanation for the heavy settlement of Czechs in southeast Nebraska:

At the time our state [Nebraska] was being settled by Czechs, Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota (to name but a few states in the same section) also were open to settlers. Why then, did they come to Nebraska in such large numbers?

Several forces combined to bring this about. One was the homestead law, the principal cause. A settler in Nebraska in 1854 could take 160 acres and after living on it six months, buy it from the United States for $1.25 an acre. ... In 1862 the free homestead law was passed and went into effect in 1863. Under this law a settler could take 160 acres for but $14.00 filing fee, and have it free by living upon it five years. In 1873 the timber claim act was passed. Under it a settler could get 160 acres by planting 10 acres of it to trees and taking care of them for eight years. All three of these laws were in force from 1873 to 1891, and under them a settler could in a few years get 480 acres of land.

... Czechs are, in the main, an agricultural people and Czechoslovakia, like all old-world countries, is overpopulated, so its soil-loving but soil-starved inhabitants flocked to our shores in quest of fertile, virgin land. This applies to those who came to the middle west. The first Czech rural settlements in this country were formed in Wisconsin and the next in Iowa (as to the middle west) and the first Nebraska pioneers came from either of those states. They were followed by friends and relatives in this and the mother country.

Czech newspapers were a great force in aiding immigrants to find new homes. These papers in those days (and some have yet) had a department devoted to communications from subscribers, and such communications often dealt with the subject of good locations. Their importance, as a lever, can easily be appreciated, when we consider that their readers knew little or no English.

The history of the counties most heavily settled by Czechs shows that they began coming here between 1865 and 1880. Prior to 1871 there was no Czech paper here and the leading journal was the weekly Slavie in Racine, Wisconsin .... The first pioneers wrote letters to friends, or for publication in the Slavie, for the purpose of attracting others, and it was but natural that immigrants, not knowing English, placed utmost reliance in their own people and readily followed them into newly-established colonies.

Colonization clubs also were formed. The one in Chicago, in the late sixties, was called Ceska Osada (Czech Colony) and numbered over five hundred members. In the early seventies a club of this kind existed in Omaha, called Slovania ... The object of both clubs was to find land for settlement, through investigating committees.

In 1871 Edward Rosewater founded a Czech paper in Omaha, the Pokrok Zapadu (Progress of the West), although at first it was more in the nature of a land advertising sheet. It was supported by the Burlington and Missouri and Union Pacific railroad companies .... The paper was set up in Iowa City, Iowa, where the Czech weekly Slovan Americky [American Slav] was being published ... and mailed (free) out of Omaha to whatever addresses of prospective settlers could be gathered. It may be mentioned here that a German paper Beobachter am Missouri [Observer on the Missouri River] was published under the same circumstances. ....

Vaclav L. Vodicka (born in Techonice, Bohemia...) came to Omaha in 1868. From 1877 to 1885 he was a land agent for the Burlington & Missouri Railroad Company. By that time most of the good homesteads had been taken and railroad lands were the next best thing. The Burlington offered special inducements to immigrants, for people did not like to settle far away from the Missouri river. Settlers on this company's land were refunded freight charges paid on immigrant movables and passenger fares paid for their families. Besides that, a discount of twenty percent was given on the first payment applied on the principal. .... No other railroad company in Nebraska offered any special inducements. What wonder then that Mr. Vodicka, who was of irreproachable honesty, who was one of them and spoke their language, in whom they had the utmost faith, helped to settle many Czechs and established several colonies?

When a colony was effected, even though it consisted of a mere handful of pioneers, its numbers were soon augmented by friends and relatives, in this and the mother country. Personal letters and communications published in Czech papers, plus the attraction of cheap, good lands, produced a veritable influx all through the seventies. Mr. F. J. Sadilek, Wilber, Nebraska, a pioneer and competent authority, estimates that up to 1880 fully three-fourths of the entire number of Czech immigrants came to our state.

The same book says also that the first Czechs in Seward County came from Saline County, which is the adjacent country to the south. Czechs began to accumulate in Bee, nine miles north of Seward, in about 1910.

Most of the Czechs in Nebraska were Roman Catholics, and they established parochial schools that taught in the Czech language. The book lists these Czech schools in counties near Seward county:

Brainard in Butler County -- a ten-grade and high school, with school of music in connection. Built in 1915, consecrated August 23, 1916, and sessions commenced September 5, 1916, with an attendance of 147 pupils. Later two grades were added (Junior High School) and in 1917-1919 there were 200 pupils. At present about 150 day and boarding pupils. Czech is still taught half an hour daily.

Dodge in Dodge County -- an eight-grade school, built in 1911. Taught by Sisters de Notre Dame. 126 pupils attend.

Prague in Saunders County -- taught by three Sisters de Notre Dame and one secular teacher. 120 pupils attend.

Schuyler in Colfax County -- a school for music, art, foreign languages, etc. Taught by Sisters de Notre Dame.

Wahoo in Saunders County -- a twelve-grade school. Business course taught also. Taught by Sisters de Notre Dame. 164 day pupils and sixty-one boarding pupils attend.

The schools at Brainard, Prague and Wahoo are grade and high schools, that in Schuyler is for music, art, foreign languages, etc., the rest are grade schools.

In Bohemia and Moravia, the cities were populated predominantly by German-speaking people and the rural areas were populated predominantly by Czech-speaking people. In Slovakia, the towns were occupied by Hungarian-speaking people and the rural areas by Slovak-speaking people. The German speakers and Hungarian speakers looked down on the Czech and Slovak speakers as culturally inferior.

It's therefore no wonder than that the ethnic-German population of Seward, Nebraska, used the word bohunk in the casually insulting manner that I heard and used the word during my childhood.

The Czech-speaking town that was closest to Seward was Bee, which is about nine miles to the north. Its population of about 200 was almost entirely Czech. The prominent families have Czech names -- Ruzicka, Barcel, Kudrna, Stava, Dolezal, Plisek, Pelan, Sedlak, Kavan, Styskal, Makovicka, Krenk, Zavodny, Bushek, Rezac, Bila, Vampola, Vondra, Pavel, and Policky.

One of my classmates, William Reynolds, lived in Bee. The name Reynolds is English, not Czech, but William acted just like a ... bohunk.

William Reynolds, eighth-grade student at St John Elementary School in Seward, Nebraska

His hero was one of the Three Stooges -- Curly Howard.

Curly Howard of the Three Stooges. Image taken from http://boxoffice.com/blogs/steve/2009/03/les-troisieme-stooges.php

William always loved to do Three Stooges humor. He loved to laugh nyuk nyuk and hum the theme song from the Three Stooges television show -- a shem and a dem, a shem and a dem. He loved to hit his head on things. He would run across the room and bonk his head against a wall. I think his behavior was normal for the bohunks in Bee, but it always seem strange to us, his non-Bohunk classmates in Seward.

Most of my friends and I had more sophisticated, urbane senses of humor. We preferred the Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby. However, we couldn't help ourselves when William did his low-class, slap-stick, bohunk Three Stooges jokes -- we laughed.

In St John school's list of graduates, I found the following names that certainly or probably indicate Czechoslovak ancestry.


These might be families that Czech-speaking when they immigrated to the USA and then moved into Seward. Or they might be families that Germanized while still in Europe.

In 1975 my brother Steve Sylwester married Koe Heinicke in Seward, so I visited Seward for a few days to attend the wedding. My family had moved away from Seward in 1968, and I had visited Seward only a few times since then.

During this visit in 1975, I dropped by the Marxhausen home for a visit, and during my conversation with Dorris Marxhausen, I mentioned that I had studied Czech during the previous years. I had attended summer school at the University of Brno in 1973 and then had taught a first-year Czech class at the University of Oregon. I regularly read Czech newspapers and novels, and so I spoke Czech quite well.

Mrs. Marxhausen mentioned that she knew some people of Czech ancestry in other towns in the area, and she asked me whether I would like to meet some of them to discuss their continued use of the Czech language. I said I would like to do so, and on the next day she told me that she had arranged for me to meet a friend of hers who spoke Czech

Mrs. Marxhausen drove me about a half hour to some town, the name of which I have forgotten. We did not stop in the town, but rather drove into the surrounding countryside, to a farm. There, she introduced me to a woman, maybe about fifty years old, who lived in a farmhouse. Mrs. Marxhausen introduced us and left, saying that she would return when I called that I was done.

I spent the afternoon talking with this woman in Czech. I don't remember the details well, but basically her ancestors had immigrated from Czechoslovakia several generations earlier. Her grandparents and parents had married within the Czech-speaking community, and so she herself had grown up speaking Czech. She herself had married a Czech-speaking man, and they had spoken Czech with their own children.

Now, however, the language was dying out in her town. One factor that had maintained the language was that the local Roman Catholic church always had a Czech-speaking priest, who conducted the church services and chuch activities in Czech. In the late 1940s, however, the last Czech-speaking priest had left and had been replaced by a priest who did not speak Czech.

She introduced me to her son, who was about in his mid-twenties. He too spoke Czech, but not as well as his mother. He would speak a sentence or two of Czech and then switch into English. He did not speak Czech in a sustained manner.

He and his mother both spoke Czech with many Englishized words. Their grammar was Czech, but their vocabulary was very English. For example, the Czech word for barber is holič, but I remember that they said barber. Likewise, the Czech word for car is vůz, but I remember that they said car. They thought my Czech was somewhat comical because I used the real Czech words, which they considered to be old-fashioned -- they said I talked like a recent immigrant who still did not know American ways.

The son drove me around the area for a few hours. We would stop in at local bars and drink beer and play pool. Whenever he recognized someone who still spoke Czech, he would introduce me, and we would have a brief conversation in Czech, so that I could see that people in that area really did still know how to speak Czech.

The Czech language looks funny to Americans, because it has diacritical marks over many of the letters and because many of the words do not seem to have vowels. For example, our sentence Stick a finger through your neck is Strč prst skrz krk in Czech. Here is the Lord's Prayer in Czech:

Otče náš, jenž jsi na nebesích,
posvěť jméno Tvé.
Přijď království Tvé.
Buď vůle Tvá jako v nebi, tak i na zemi.
Chléb náš vezdejší dej nám dnes.
A odpusť nám naše viny;
jako i my odpouštíme našim viníkům.
A neuveď nás v pokušení, ale zbav nás od zlého.
Nebo tvé jest království i moc i sláva na věku.

The word Bohemian is used also to refer to people who live an artsy, unambitious, poor life. This use of the word developed in France during the 1800s, when a lot of Gypsies migrated from Bohemia to France and called themselves Bohemians. The English word Gypsy developed in a similar manner, when people of that same nationality -- they call themselves Roma -- migrated from Egypt to England and called themselves Egyptians or the slang equivalent, 'Gyptsies.

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