by Dr. Míla Sasková-Pierce, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

The University of Nebraska was one of the first universities in the United States to offer Czech language instruction. The Czech language and culture program was inaugurated in 1907, and has continued up until now except for a short interruption in the 1920s.

The program has been headed by a number of outstanding and dedicated professors, such as Sarah Hrbek (Šárka Hrbková), Orin Štepánek and Vladimír Kučera.  There have also been a number of outstanding lecturers:  Věra Stromšíková-Petráčková, Chris Sempek, Jim Koubek, Katya Koubek, Jan Biderman, Jitka Stiles, Helena Hubičková, Jan Topor, Tomáš Bartulec, Katarina Čermáková and Martin Starý.

The program has been a very successful one, thanks to its instructors and a number of outstanding students who have also been engaged in the programs of the Czech Komenský Club. The history of Czech language instruction in Nebraska is closely tied to the history of the club (named for Jan Amos Komenský, or Comenius, the pioneer educator, b. 3-28-1592 and d. 11-15-1670) at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and the involvement of its members.

Conceived in December 1903, and officially established in 1904, the Komenský Club became a nursery for influential personalities in Nebraska political and cultural life, for example state and U.S. politicians Roman Hruška, Otto Kotouč, Joseph Vosoba, and Rudy Vrtiška; poets Ferdinand Musil, Jeffrey Hrbek, and Hrbek's sister the writer, politician, and educator, Dr. Sarah Hrbek (Šárka Hrbková). According to the club constitution, its aim was to form a bond among Czech-Americans and to provide a model of cultural association to other university settings, where students could study Czech language, history and literature first informally, and later formally, in regular courses.

The Komenský Club cultural program was quickly espoused by students and intellectuals in other towns and universities and resulted in the foundation of 28 other groups throughout the North American continent by the end of the WW I. Initially the club was founded to offer university and college students of Czech origin a chance to cultivate Czech culture. To meet this goal the club organized poetry readings, musical performances, and other activities for university students and the Czech community in Lincoln. The Komenský Club activities became a model for other academic groups in other states. The resulting clubs joined in the Komenský Educational Clubs Association that was founded by Prof. Bohumil Šimek of the State University of Iowa, F.J. Pípal, a student of the Nebraska University, who later became a professor at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana.

By 1909, the club members started to publish the monthly Komenský. In it they announced the news of their and other Komenský Clubs that continued to be founded in Nebraska (Lincoln, Omaha, Crete, and later other places) and in other states.

Very quickly, however, the members realized that there was a need not only to cultivate their mother tongue, but also to communicate with the Anglo-Saxon community about the achievements of Czechs in the USA as well as in Europe. This was done in programs for the English speaking community, such as public concerts and lectures in English.

From the beginning of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Komenský Club’s existence, there was a plan to have Czech language and culture offered as a subject at the University in Lincoln and at Omaha Creighton University. The establishment of Czech language study, as legitimate course work, became a rallying cause for several reasons. 

First of all, there was a genuine need for the children of the Czech settlers to study the literary form of the Czech language, if the new generation was to take over the cultural work of their parents, the first and second generation of settlers. There were Czech newspapers and journals, the Rosický Publishing House in Omaha, and several amateur theatrical groups in the state of Nebraska. There were theater halls in the Western Fraternal Association or Sokol Halls in many towns that would either host one of the traveling theater troupes, or perform periodically with local talents. There were schools with Czech children who had a poor knowledge of English, if any, when they started instruction, and who needed Czech-speaking teachers. Churches were in need of priests and ministers who could perform services in Czech. All these institutions, in order to maintain their professional level and their cultural role, called for new educated and devoted Czech youth, with a good knowledge of the Czech language.

The second reason was a political one. An admission of Czech language as a subject of study at the university constituted de facto a recognition of Czech culture at the university pantheon as being on a par with English and French. It is sufficient to read Anglo-American authors, or the English language press from the beginning of the twentieth century to see that the Czechs, like other new immigrants, were not perceived as the most "cultured" part of the citizenry. There was a palpable scorn for the "Bohemians" in the state, and for this reason it was hard to convince the state government and university officials that the Czech language and culture were a valid subject for university study. No doubt in order to give the idea of Czech Culture Studies greater weight, the Komenský Club youth and the Nebraska Czech politicians called for the foundation of a Slavic Department of which Czech would be a part.

In 1907 John Rosický, the owner and chief editor of the Omaha weekly Pokrok Západu, the so-called Czech University of the Great Plains, politician Václav Buresš and a representative of Lancaster County, Frank Rejcha, requested from the regents of the University of Nebraska that a new Czech program be established. Chancellor Andrews struck with the Czech politicians a deal, following which the legislature would pass a school levy in support of the state universities in exchange for the Czech program. Thanks to adroit maneuvering by Frank Rejcha, who had secretly obtained ten votes, the levy bill passed by 56 votes, opposed by 55.  Following this vote the chancellor established the Slavonic program of which the Czech program became a part.

In the fall of l907 the translator, poet, and scholar, Jeffrey Doležal Hrbek, became professor of the new department. Unfortunately he died from typhoid fever on December 4, l907. His sister, Dr. Sarah Hrbek (Šárka Hrbková) succeeded him. She was totally devoted to the Czech program and the Komenský Club, often single-handedly publishing the issues of the Komenský monthly. During the First World War, when instruction of most of the foreign languages within the whole state of Nebraska was discontinued, the Czech language program was abolished. Professor Šárka Hrbková left Nebraska, and in l9l9 she became director of the Foreign Language Information Service in New York.

In 1920, professor Orin Štepánek was offered the position of professor of Czech and Russian. In the 1920s he added English to his teaching load, which he taught until his death in 1956.

In the 1950s the journalist and politician, and political refuge, Dr. Vladimír Kucera from Brno arrived in Nebraska. From the very beginning he decided that it was time to reawaken the Czech ethnic life in the state. Czech cultural life in Nebraska was at low ebb, because Czechoslovakia, after the Communist takeover in 1948, was in the coldest time of Stalinist repression.   Contacts between the Nebraska Czech community and the Old World relatives had become disrupted first during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia, and then the Soviet take over. It was incomprehensible to Nebraska Czechs why many Czechs and Slovaks in the ancestral country had been seduced by Communist propaganda. Czechoslovakia became a member of the Warsaw Pact in 1955, and it became psychologically difficult to teach one's children the language of the official enemy. Immigration from Czechoslovakia ceased and there was a lack of young educated Czechs who could help to lead the cultural life in the Czech associations which had started to age as there was very little enthusiasm, or opportunity for the younger generation to learn their ancestral language.

Dr. Vladimír Kučera had a talent for organizing the Czech ethnic life in the state. He started instruction of the Czech language in several locations in Nebraska, and after the death of professor Štepánek, at the University of Nebraska program.   He appealed to the parents and grandparents to send him new students. He helped to organize a number of Czech festivals in the state, notably Czech Days in Wilber. By the time he became sick with Alzheimer's in the late 1970s, he left behind many programs, such as a dozen of Czech festivals in Nebraska, museums, and publications dealing with the history of Czechs in Nebraska.

After Dr. Kucera's retirement, the teaching of Czech was continued by a new immigrant, Vera Stromšíková-Petráčková. She revived the Komenský Club activities and taught in other institutions, such as the Community Colleges. She restarted a successful student exchange program with Czechoslovakia. During her tenure at UNL, there was an attempt to discontinue the instruction of Czech. The program survived thanks to the vocal opposition of the Czech community.

In 1988 Vera Stromšíková-Petráčková accepted a position in the Defense Language Institute in California. Dr. Míla Šašková-Pierce was hired. The enrollments increased by 140%.  In 1993 the university of Nebraska faced budget cuts and the Czech program was slated for discontinuation.  Because of protests by the Czech community, it was transferred to the Division of Continuing Education.  From 1993 to 2003 it was administered jointly by the Department of Modern Languages and the Division of Continuing Studies, and when the Division of Continuing Education was discontinued, the Czech program was transferred back into the Department of Modern Languages.      

To give the program permanency, the Czech Community has been conducting a drive to collect money for a Chair of Czech language. At the forefront of this effort has been the Czech Language Foundation which raises money for scholarships and helps provide for instruction at the university through an agreement with UNL and the Czech Ministry of Education

Also providing important assistance is the Lincoln Czechs, a cultural organization that has supported the language program for the past twenty years.  All these efforts have been successful. At present the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Czech Program offers three years of undergraduate instruction, and a minor in the Czech Language. It also offers several exchange programs between UNL and the Czech Republic.

The future of the Czech language in Nebraska depends on several factors. On the one hand it will depend on the interest of Nebraskans in the Czech ethnic life in the state, which in turn will create an infusion of young people into the ethnic associations.  These young people will then be interested in learning the Czech language and culture. The development of a commercial and cultural exchange with the Czech Republic will also create a demand for the knowledge of the Czech language.

In conclusion, the University of Nebraska Czech program has lasted over hundred years. From a program that was one among several in Nebraska it became the sole program in the whole state that teaches the language that draws students from other Nebraska institutions, and indeed from all the states in the U.S. University of Nebraska-Lincoln students of Czech have been professionally successful in their use of their language skills. They became translators, film makers, university professors, and diplomats.   The program plays an important role in the state of Nebraska: upon the return to their communities of origin, the graduates organize new, or take over the existing cultural activities, that make life in Nebraska more interesting for many of its citizens. An example is the Nemec family in Prague, Nebraska, whose children, University of Nebraska Czech program graduates, single-handedly restarted the Prague Czech festival. The Czech program students are also involved in the digitization of the Czech archival materials published on the Czech Heritage Project Site, that include oral history recordings and other materials researched or preserved by students of Czech. All this make the Czech Language Program a valuable part of Nebraska cultural life.