Monday, June 22, 2009

Czech Please! Klas Restaurant! "The Accidental Army"; Goulash and Great Conversation with Steve Jordan and Elias Crim: Save Our History! Czech Please!

I had a most memorable Father's Day Dinner with Ms. Terry Sullivan; Susan and Steve Jordan of Oak Park; historian, editor and executive network operator Elias Crim and his three beautiful and talented daughters at the landmark Bohemian restaurant Klas in Cicero, IL.

Klas is a family operated restaurant that is a museum of Czech Culture and a delight of Old World service and atmosphere. Klas* is " the largest Czech Restaurant in the U.S.A. and a reminder of Chicago's debt to Bohemian people who brought skilled craftsmanship to the building trades and examples of personal and family thrift as an ethic - too long ignored.

The first Czech in Chicago is reported to have arrived before 1850:

Jan Habenicht in his Czech publication Dejiny Cechüv americkych (History of American Czechs) published in Si. Louis in 1910, categorically wrote that the first Czech settler in Chicago was a Moravian native Dr. Frantisek Adolf Valenta. This claim was generally accepted even by such eminent scholars as Professor Francis Dvornik.

Dr. Frantisek A. Valenta originally came to America in 1849 and, after a brief stay in New York City, he settled in August of the same year on the north side of Chicago. Later on he established a pharmacy on the corner of State and Van Buren Streets. His knowledge of German enabled him to practice medicine especially among Germans. After fourteen years of medical practice, he was quite rich and returned to Bohemia, reportedly with some $50,000. There he purchased a farm and in 1870 he died. Habenicht harshly
criticized Valenta's German orientation, however, if we look at it from a different perspective, we ought to give him credit for his entrepreneurship and be comforted by the fact that his presumed riches did not come from the back of poor Czech settlers.
Chicago's Czech immigrants possessed few locally marketable skills, and in the 1880s, working at unsteady jobs, notably as lumber shovers in the “lumber district” adjoining Pilsen, they earned less than nearly all other major ethnic group in the city. Eschewing traditional craft unions, they readily employed the mass strike to better their economic situation, drawing on their dense associational network. Whole neighborhoods joined to keep out strikebreakers, playing a prominent part in street fighting with police and militia in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and other labor conflicts. The event that precipitated the Haymarket tragedy was a violent clash between heavily Bohemian lumber shovers and the police. Led by socialist-leaning freethinkers, Bohemians turned readily to the Socialist Labor Party at the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1910s and 1920s, however, Czechs earned more and worked at a wider range of occupations, including as operatives at Western Electric. Their energies were devoted more to ethnic and neighborhood organizations than to radical or unionist activity.

Early Czech immigrants largely voted for the Republican Party because of their opposition to slavery. However, Chicago Czechs changed their allegiance in local politics after the Democratic Party nominated a Czech for alderman in 1883. Czech support for the Democrats continued well into the twentieth century, peaking with the election of Anton Cermak, a Czech immigrant, as the Democratic mayor of Chicago in 1931.

Klas is located on the street named for Chicago's best known Bohemian - Anton Cermak.

Terry, the Jordan's and the Crims had attended Mass and a play at St. Odilo's Catholic Church, while I had spent a few hours wishing my Dad a Happy Father's Day - "Hell, yes it's Happy - for Crissake, I'm still on top of the grass!"

I dropped my girls off at home and took Cicero Ave. up to Cermak Road and West eight blocks to the massive Klas and and quaffed samples the fine 'Shirley Temples' in the masterfully carved deep dark wooden bar festooned with carved statuary, memorabilia and Bohemian/Moravian Welcome!

The Jordans arrived and so also the beautiful and elegant Ms. Sullivan and Crims of Valparaiso, Indiana!

Steve Jordan is Boston-born banker who was raised Irish Catholic in San Francisco and his beautiful wife Susan is an native San Franciscan. Steve Jordan spent many years in South East Asia - Singapore primarily - and is man with wealth of historical knowledge and eclectic discernment's on all manner of cultural interests - governmental as well as gastronomical.

Steve pointed out the photos of Czech soldiers in Czarist Russian winter gear and identified them as members of the famous Czech Legion (Česká družina). 'These were giants!, remarked the talented Mr. Jordan. "The Czech Legion fought an epic battle against the Red Armies all along the Trans-Siberian Railroad route from Asia to Europe and yet very few people have ever heard of them. They fought an epic paralleled only by the Anabasis of Xenophon and Chosin Reservoir of Chesty Puller - God I love this place! You get a real sense of history here!"

Chicago film-maker Bruce Bendinger has made a film about the Czech Legion - The Accidental Army, which opened here in Chicago on June 20th at the Gene Siskel Center.

Ed Koziarki of Chicago Reader has written a splendid piece about this film and Chicago's debt to the Czechs of Chicago - here is an excerpt of Ed's review:

“Here was a story that almost nobody knows,” Bendinger says. “You pull a thread and the more you pull, the more interesting it got. Even in the Czech and Slovak republics, it’s become a historical blind spot.”

The Chicago connection goes back to 1902, when local plumbing magnate Charles Crane recruited Tomáš Masaryk, a philosophy professor and Czech nationalist who’d served in the Austro-Hungarian parliament, to lecture at the University of Chicago. (A memorial to Masaryk and the Czechoslovak Legion now stands on campus, at the east end of the Midway Plaisance). The Slavs of Central Europe had no state of their own at the time: most Czechs and Slovaks were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, while a sizable minority lived in Russia. Nearly 100,000 Czechs had immigrated to Chicago, giving the city the world’s second-highest Czech population after Prague.

After his summer stint at the U. of C., Masaryk returned to Austro-Hungary and resumed his political activities. When the empire invaded Serbia in 1914, initiating World War I, he fled to England, becoming leader of an Allied spy network and the foremost international spokesman for the Czechoslovak independence movement.

On the day the war broke out, thousands of Chicago Slavs gathered in Pilsen Park at 26th and Albany—in Little Village, then called Czech California—to urge the United States to join the Allied effort against Austro-Hungary and the Central Powers. They launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at getting their relatives in Europe to resist conscription into the Austro-Hungarian army, or to desert and fight for the Allies. “The letters [showed] how people were feeling,” Bendinger says. “Thousands of [Slavic] Austro-Hungarian soldiers surrendered as quickly as they could.” Chicago Czechs and other Slavs “were at the forefront of being on the Allied side in World War I. Their relatives were the ones being killed, or being drafted to fight for the Germans and Austro-Hungarians.”

The first Czechoslovak Legion was a force of 10,000 in the Russian army—ostensibly volunteers, though many were pressured to fight under threat of losing their land. Their ranks swelled after Masaryk convinced the Russian government to allow 50,000 Czech and Slovak POWs from the Austro-Hungarian army to defect and fight for Russia. The Czechoslovak Legion is credited with helping to tie up German forces on the Eastern front, giving the Allies a crucial edge on the Western front. Their service, Bendinger says, also gave the Czech independence movement vital “skin in the game.”

In May 1918, Masaryk went on a barnstorming tour of the U.S. to raise political and financial backing for Czech independence. In downtown Chicago, outside the Blackstone Hotel, he addressed a crowd of 150,000 supporters, demonstrating the independence movement’s political muscle and turning American political discourse in favor of a Czechoslovak nation.

(Standing before a statue of Masaryk in Prague on April 5, President Obama said, “Masaryk spoke to a crowd in Chicago that was estimated to be over 100,000. I don’t think I can match Masaryk’s record, but I’m honored to follow his footsteps from Chicago to Prague.”)

Steve Jordan knew the story. Elias Crim knew the story. I had heard about the Czech Legion, but as with most things in my life managed to place that thought in the top drawer of my Brain Dresser - the one that holds treasures; baby teeth, match boxes from memorable places; ear rings lost and stepped upon & etc.

America needs to open that drawer often. We are losing our sense of History. President Obama has a very poor sense of history** and swats at historical facts like so many flies. Jimmy Carter also took a paddle to the rabbit of Historical sense, and allowed an Iranian Revolution that still seems to hold America hostage. That's history, folks! Learn it or live it . . .over and over again.

Too many Americans like to believe the things that they are told to them by ersatz authorities ( Look, Bill Ayers is called an Academic! Have you ever read his nonsense?)- like America is murderous, racist, greedy, opportunistic, Imperialist. Americans like to embrace icons like Margaret Sanger, who was as twisted a Eugenics racist as Hitler on a bad day, yet she is padded with Planned Parenthood coins in the memory slot; that Jane Addams was more than just a self-absorbed and bitter person; that Saul Alinsky really mattered to anyone while he was alive and that he actually improved the lives of the people that he used.

Open your eyes to history. At Klas Restaurant on Cermak Road it is all around you.
However it also helps to have interested and interesting people like Jordans and the Crims when enjoying the Goulash.

*Klas Restaurant
5734 W Cermak Rd
Cicero, IL 60804
(708) 652-0795

Days into his presidency, it should be recalled, Mr. Obama had spoken of his desire to restore to America's relation with the Muslim world the respect and mutual interest that had existed 30 or 20 years earlier. It so happened that he was speaking, almost to the day, on the 30th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution -- and that the time span he was referring to, his golden age, covered the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the American standoff with Libya, the fall of Beirut to the forces of terror, and the downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Liberal opinion would have howled had this history been offered by George W. Bush, but Barack Obama was granted a waiver.

Little more than three decades ago, Jimmy Carter, another American president convinced that what had come before him could be annulled and wished away, called on the nation to shed its "inordinate fear of communism," and to put aside its concern with "traditional issues of war and peace" in favor of "new global issues of justice, equity and human rights." We had betrayed our principles in the course of the Cold War, he said, "fought fire with fire, never thinking that fire is quenched with water." The Soviet answer to that brave, new world was the invasion of Afghanistan in December of 1979.

Mr. Carter would try an atonement in the last year of his presidency. He would pose as a born-again hawk. It was too late in the hour for such redemption. It would take another standard-bearer, Ronald Reagan, to see that great struggle to victory.

Iran's ordeal and its ways shattered the Carter presidency. President Obama's Persian tutorial has just begun.

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