Baltimore's Czech and Slovak Festival is a surprising reflection on heritage
By Andrew Holter
Oct 26, 2016 | 3:00 AM
The whole room stood for the national anthems of three countries in a row as rendered by a church-basement keyboard and a small choir: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and our poor, busted-ass USA.
The title of the Czech national anthem translates to "Where is my home?" which, given the centuries of displacement and occupation that have marked that pocket of Europe, is a better question than "O say can you see" and more poignant than the war reportage that follows. Many of those in attendance knew the words to all three songs and no one took a knee during any of them, not even for Slovakia, as the flags were carried onstage.
One day a year for the past 30, home for Baltimore's Czech and Slovak community has been the festival of food, music, dancing, and trilingualism sponsored by the Czech-Slovak Heritage Association of Baltimore. And two Sundays ago, for far more than the thirtieth time in these parts, a roomful of Czechs, Slovaks, and Americans at varying degrees of remove from the old country sat down to hit the hard stuff. These were authentic Bohemians in the house, after all, known to make living pleasant no matter which land they're in.
Some came to the festival as unaffiliated spectators and friends, but beer had its own powers of naturalization. Near the stage, Mary Jane McDermott was relishing a bag of Czech rice crackers similar to a kind sold in her native Philippines as her husband Julian, who could pass for the late actor Ray Walston, watched the dance floor heat up. I asked Mr. McDermott if he, like the vast majority of those in the room, was a Czech or a Slovak. He nodded to the empty bottle of Staropramen in front of him.
Before white people in Baltimore City were just white, a lot of them were other things, too, like German or Italian or Polish. Plenty of them still are those things, of course, but in numbers and neighborhoods they're nothing like they used to be. A few generations of American Dreaming and a lot of white flight has left us Moravia Road with no Moravians and Frank C. Bocek Park, near the former Little Bohemia neighborhood in East Baltimore, with no clue who Frank C. Bocek ever was. Prague Avenue will lead you to a romantic asphalt parking lot and a few dumpsters in Rosedale.
Because the Czechs and Slovaks of Baltimore have no Lithuanian Hall or Polish Home Club in the city anymore, the venue for their festival is a Masonic Lodge at one end of a Parkville strip mall with concertina wire running along the edge of its roof like bunting. While in Little Bohemia they may have reveled down the street from fellow Slavs, in the Putty Hill Shopping Center their neighbors are the Dominican Express Hair Salon, El Trovador Mercado Latino, Winli Asian Restaurant, and an Irish bar whose clientele is more Hells Angels than Angela's Ashes. The Czechs and Slovaks are a Baltimore community without a Baltimore geography, but for the festival they turned out in droves—family and old kamarádi—to recolonize under the fluorescent lights.
Jeanne Taborsky was there with a tri-fold board about the Bohemian National Cemetery in Armistead Gardens. Taborsky and her organization, the Grand Lodge Cesko Slovanska Podporujici Spolecnost (CSPS), have worked hard in the last decade to maintain the grounds and turn a small building on the lot into a cultural center and museum. A few years ago, they successfully lobbied to have the cemetery added to the National Register of Historic Places. Besides the Pilsner Urquell tap at Mount Royal Tavern, it may be the only place in the city where the Czech language can be found printed on a sign.
Growing up, Taborsky remembered, "we could walk from our grandparents' street in Baltimore City to the cemetery." But there's no Little Bohemia to walk from anymore, no community of caretakers left. "The Czech houses got bought up by Johns Hopkins," she explained, although the neighborhood had been changing hands for decades before the present-day empire of Pax Hopkinsiana on the east side.
"The older people of Bohemian extraction still live in the houses they own," a Sun reporter observed in 1969, "but they share the neighborhood with black people whom they do not seem to appreciate or understand."
They were the last generation to consider sharing.
With the Bohemian National Cemetery one of the last stamps of ground rooting the Czech and Slovak community to the city, the CSPS has little choice but to focus its energy on preservation, not just celebration. Ethnic heritage groups connected to cities across the country are the same way. Many people I spoke to at this year's festival confirmed it's not easy getting young people involved or even interested in their Czech and Slovak heritage, and the average age this year was, well, old enough to remember when the average age was a little younger.
"It's the same people, different band," according to George Mojzisek, a Czech tutor and translator who's been coming to the festival for years. "Same pivo (beer)."
I remembered Mojzisek as a teacher at the Czech-Slovak Heritage Association's language school in Perry Hall, one of a few points of entry into the Slavic scene here. In the class I took a few years ago, where I drank coffee from Styrofoam cups and filled a notebook with the linguistic astrophysics of Czech, I was easily the youngest person by 25 years.
Part of the problem attracting new blood, in Mojzisek's view, is that "young people don't want to donate their time gratis" to heritage organizations like theirs that rely heavily on volunteers. And the well may be running dry in other ways: "The Czechs [in Baltimore] are becoming Americanized," he said. "They want rock and roll and rap, not polka." (The upright bass player of the festival band looked like he had found a happy medium, though, between a Slovak folk costume and haircut-goatee combo that could land him a gig moonlighting with Killswitch Engage.)
Jeanne Taborsky was optimistic. "Our oldest member is 94 and our youngest member is 12," she said, and showed me photos of local fraternity and sorority groups that have helped care for the cemetery. Still, who's going to unlock the gate for Phi Kappa Sigma in 2040?
I asked Taborsky what it was like to grow up in a family so tied to another country. "For me, I never felt 100 percent American," she said, which made me wonder how many other Americans in the room grew up feeling the same way, and how dangerous a sentiment that sounds in the fall of 2016, even coming from a middle-aged white woman with no accent and a tri-fold board.
As a child, Karolina Linares didn't feel 100 percent American either. Unlike Taborsky, she was born in what was then Czechoslovakia before coming to Baltimore at the age of two with her Czech parents, a true Cold War baby. Her mother and father are both active members of the CSHA, but being a single mother who works full-time as a graphic designer doesn't leave her with much time to throw around gratis.
Her last trip to Prague was years ago, but she'd like to go back with her young son and maybe her boyfriend, Brien Nevins.
"I have more family there than I do here," she said.
Nevins—who is German, Irish, and Hampden—wore an O's hat, a Prague T-shirt, and had enough Staropramen bottles in front of him to build a xylophone. By rights he should be drafted as Baltimore City's official ambassador to the Czech Republic.
Hannah Cann, 27, was one of the few people her age at the festival. She accompanied her grandmother, a second-generation Baltimore Czech, and brought her boyfriend along, too.
"Where I grew up, it was a little redneck," Cann said, referring to one of the more bucolic hamlets of Harford County. Being Czech helped bring her into the world, and professionally, "I've always worked with immigrants and refugees and my family being immigrants is part of that."
Cann and her boyfriend have just moved to Patterson Park, and at the festival her aunts could barely contain their pride. "[They] feel like we've gone full circle since that's where they all grew up," she told me later.
Cann's family keeps culinary traditions like baking braided houska bread for Christmas, lamb-shaped beranek cake for Easter, and—no special occasion needed—lots of kolache, little fruit pastries that were in high demand at the festival. No other culture can claim a more aggressive pastry inheritance. Plus, "the Czech Republic, they have some of the coolest writers and artists. Mucha, Kafka. . ."
Just at that moment, I was sure the pilsner had me in its thrall as I spotted a man whose head appeared to have metamorphosed into a wiener dog, from ears to tail and wiener in-between.
Upon closer inspection it was just Bill Schuman, who's been coming to the festival since 1984. In defiance of the occasion, he wore a hat with a plush dachshund attached to it as a nod to his own German heritage. From below the dog he surveyed the room:
"The crowd looks like it's getting thinner each year."
Where is everybody?
"I think everybody's on Facebook."
Beside him sat an empty glass of slivovice, an often homemade plum brandy that could fuel a Cessna from here to Brno and back.
"It'll hit you hard," he warned, and judging by the droop of the wiener dog's head I feared there had been collateral damage already.
The slivovice was sold out by the time I made it to the bar, where Thomas Frey was taking drink orders in Czech and English. There was still Becherovka, renowned for its medicinal qualities, which tastes "somewhere between Chartreuse and Jaeger."
"Not only does it make you feel good, it's good for you," Frey assured me. I had heard that one before. What about slivovice?
"Slivovice is more like a slap in the face."
Frey began learning Czech in the military. His superiors told him that communism was over, "but you can still make friends." He's now one of the younger members of the CSHA and goes to the Saturday morning language school classes. I was surprised to hear he was working the festival, all day, as a volunteer.
"You have to keep it up somehow."
How do you know you're Czech or Slovak?
"Love of music, a good work ethic, and not accumulating bills," one man told me.
Another answer: "People can't pronounce my last name."
How do you know you're not Czech or Slovak?
Nathaniel Williamson was selling fine jewelry he makes out of silverware at a table near the bar. He does good business at small festivals like these, as long as the organizers aren't the kind to obsess over ethnic purity. A few years ago, Williamson, who is black, was invited to sell at a Welsh heritage festival in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and then promptly uninvited when his jewelry was deemed not Welsh enough for the occasion. (The organizers welshed on Williamson, they might have said back in Little Bohemia. But those were different times.) Here the customers were eager to buy and he was pleased with them.
The music, the dancing, the costumes were "different," he said, but "it's nice to get out of your box."
Earlier in the day a man had asked Williamson what he was doing there at the Czech and Slovak Festival, seeing that none of his jewelry was of obvious Czech or Slovak origin.
"What part of Czechoslovakia are you from?" he demanded of Williamson.
"The part of Czechoslovakia you haven't been to yet."
Sales for the day exceeded his expectations.
It's 1989: the end of communism.
For the past 15 years, famine and state terror have killed over a million people in your native Ethiopia and the government is starting to fall apart without the support of the Soviet Union. Through the channels of proletarian brotherhood, you arrive in Czechoslovakia to study science and computers and there, too, the government is starting to fall apart. No sooner are your bags unpacked than a full-scale revolution is on that is so miraculously free of bloodshed they call it sametová—velvet.
You keep studying as the country rearranges itself from communism to capitalism; as the address on your letters home changes from Czechoslovakia to the Czech Republic or Slovakia; as skinheads chase you through your city (perhaps you're the first black person they have ever seen); as three, then four, then five kinds of breakfast cereal appear in the shops but still nothing remotely close to Ethiopian food.
And so you become an expert in Czech cuisine—the dumplings, the sauces, the kolache. In fact you know Czech food better than the Czechs know it themselves because you are hostage to an intimate knowledge of everything that Czech food is not, which is, in a word, spicy.
"They try to do their best," Negussie Tesfaye said of the caterers at the Czech-Slovak festival. His tone was apologetic. He knew that the sirloin with cream sauce wasn't quite the real deal, but compassion wouldn't allow him to stand for my goading about it being worse than the stuff Over There.
Tesfaye's friend Yohannes Assefa gave me a look as if to say, Come on, you're taking a potshot.
"It's just different," said Elfagid Tekaligne. The goulash he makes at home in Owings Mills has different ingredients than what he can find back in Slovakia, but that doesn't make it any worse, he explains. Just different.
Tesfaye, Tekaligne, and Assefa belong to a small cohort of Ethiopian men who spent the 1990s in the Czech Republic and Slovakia before emigrating together to Baltimore. They work in different industries; Tekaligne is an instructor at Baltimore City Community College, Tesfaye works for the Army Corps of Engineers. Several married their Czech or Slovak girlfriends and are now raising American children here.
They're regulars at the festival, where this year they and their children were among the only people of color in the room. I lived in the Czech Republic for one year, with Wi-Fi. The levels of patience, intelligence, wits, and fortitude these men must have sustained on a daily basis over 10 years cannot be calculated; they all deserve some kind of civilian honor from the UN for worldliness.
Despite the skinheads and racial profiling that hounded them abroad, their warmth for the Czech Republic and Slovakia was effusive. "The people were wonderful. We had friends and family members [care for us]. We were close," said Tekaligne, who met his wife, a Slovak, as student in the Czech city of Brno. "It's like our second country."
This festival, though—wasn't this strange as hell? Surely these men had as much claim to Czech and Slovak "heritage" as anyone whose great-grandmother lived next door to a black person on Ashland Avenue in 1969. But they wouldn't condescend to it. "It's just the culture of people who are far away from home," Tesfaye said. "I mean, people do it everywhere in the world. If you have an American community in Japan, they do it."
Earlier in the day, a Czech woman who forced some pastries on me admitted that she had no interest in ever returning to her home country. She came here decades ago and insisted I note that she spoke for many other emigres in her concern that a too generous welfare system was causing the Czech Republic to slide back into communism. And, she added gravely, "we're hoping that's not going to happen to this country."
Prague held no appeal for her anymore because of all the "Arabs and Muslims," though combined there are about as many Arabs and Muslims in Prague as there are Czechs and Slovaks in Baltimore City. I chased the dragon on both sides of the Vltava not so long ago, and by my recollection it was crackers all the way to Little Hanoi; for years, the largest group of non-white people in the Czech Republic has been Vietnamese.
If she ever decides to go back, no doubt Negussie Tesfaye and his friends could give her some good survival tips.
I expected to leave the Czech and Slovak Festival feeling a little pity for this community that's struggling to keep its history and stay relevant amid the temptations, and the amnesia, of assimilation. I also expected to be frustrated by the historically hazardous exercise of white Americans of any stripe congratulating themselves on the provenance of their blood. (My name is Andy and I'm a German gentile.) Frustrated also because I knew the slivovice would run out.
I didn't expect to find so many people, like Hannah Cann and Thomas Frey and Yohannes Assefa, who seemed to be there as much to celebrate the idea of an America where no one has to be 100 percent anything as to celebrate themselves. That's a message I'll drink to any day of the year, and if ethnic heritage festivals around the country can become its loudest broadcasters, there's a possibility they can survive as inclusive, even cosmopolitan spaces. And then, in ways their great-grandparents could never have imagined, the Czechs and Slovaks will keep finding home here.