History of German-Bohemian Emigration to America
Border People: The Böhmisch (German-Bohemians) in America
The first published history of German-Bohemian emigration to the U.S.
Published by Crossroads Resource Center
in collaboration with the German-Bohemian Heritage Society
©1993 Ken Meter and Robert Paulson
In 1882, dozens of simple wood frame houses dotted the floodplain of the pristine Minnesota River that snaked alongside the south central Minnesota town of New Ulm. Nearby were the quarry, the brick yard, the grain mills, railyards and cargo docks where the residents, German-speaking Bohemians, worked.
Around each house the Böhmisch clustered the essentials of their self-determined life: immense lush gardens; outbuildings just large enough for a milk cow to settle for the night; chicken coops; fenced hog yards; tool sheds and outhouses. The settlement’s distinctive features, however, were its roving flocks of geese and the U-shaped, red brick smokehouses where families cured their own bacon and ham.
Goosetown (the Gänseviertl) also spawned an original, rollicking form of polka music known as “Old Tyme” or “Hoolerei” music. Based on Austrian folk traditions, its carefree rhythms and free improvisation became a foundation for rural Minnesota dance music. All told, over 28 bands were born in the Germanic community of New Ulm; most of them were German-Bohemian.
Despite their Germanic roots, however, the German-Bohemian inhabitants of New Ulm were held at a distance by the more proper, more prominent Germans who dominated the town, whose closely-kept, substantial brick homes stood up the hill from Goosetown, near the thriving market section. The upwardly aspiring Germans distanced themselves from the German-Bohemians, and the Böhmisch shied away from the Germans’ main social center, the Turnhalle.
In the same year, roughly 400 miles due east, another German-Bohemian community was taking root. Though their home villages were just a few kilometers away from those of the Minnesota settlers, these Böhmisch families expressed their roots quite differently. Here, on the sandy plain between Green Bay and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, these Böhmisch bought land that had been farmed by early Irish and English homesteaders. They opened stores, plied their crafts, and joined the core of this farm community. Here in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, one could buy cheese or flour made by Böhmisch hands, or stay in a Böhmisch hotel. Later, German-Bohemian businessmen would also open up harness, shoe, and butcher shops, a general store, a dance hall, a cider press and a smithy in wood-frame stores. Böhmisch men were among the directors of the local bank. Böhmisch could gather at a bar run by one of their own. Their French-Canadian and Luxembourgeois neighbors welcomed the Böhmisch as brethren.
The Böhmisch worshipped together at St. Mary’s Church, south of the main commercial district, and built their homes nearby. Some of their homesteads had square farmyards reminiscent of those they had known in Bohemia. Some had rooflines like those of the old country. Others merely adopted the American pioneer style with a long, south-facing porch.
Of course, there was also music. An entire band, the Stahl band, had emigrated from the homeland and they played processional marches for weddings and funerals. The community also boasted a violinist who had trained at a conservatory in Wien (Vienna).
There was no single “Böhmisch” way of life in America, because Böhmisch communities in the old world were border settlements. Each ancestral locale had been shaped by shifting winds of power. The German-Bohemian emigrants were classic border people, with one foot walking in each of two conflicting identities. Their home villages were close to the border between Bavaria and Bohemia. Some knew how to speak both Czech and German. Many had learned to change political and religious loyalties rapidly after a new landlord purchased or conquered their lands. Many were expert in bi-cultural commerce. Many traveled on the same ships, and settled in the same towns, as Czech-identified Bohemians who had lived in the neighboring old-world towns. Some were related to these Czechs by marriage. When they chose their new world homes, they were adept at fitting in. The texture of their community life reflected the realities of power and climate in their new settlements.
Even the Böhmisch who had once lived in tightly germanic enclaves in the old country—many of them settled in Minnesota —lived with the knowledge that their home villages were on the border of someone else’s nation.
By being so flexible, however, the German-Bohemians also became a lost people. It is extremely difficult to track their life in America. Few libraries or archives even recognize the existence of these Böhmisch as a distinct cultural group. Usually, they were lumped in with other nationalities. Some census takers listed them as “Austrians,” since their homeland was under the rule of the Austrian empire when they emigrated. Some were labeled “Germans.” Still others were called “Bohemians,” a term that seldom distinguished them from the Czechs. In rare cases, census takers precisely designated our people as “Bohemian Germans.”
Such confusing categories mirrored the split loyalties of the German-Bohemians themselves. Some clung fiercely to their Austrian identity, especially when Americans were persecuting Germans. Others shied away from being identified as Bohemians, due to the vicious stereotype that hateful Americans often dumped on that moniker. Some called their old world dialect Bavarian (Bayerisch), while others said they spoke Bohemian (Böhmisch).
In 1984, the Minnesota German-Bohemian community organized the German-Bohemian Heritage Society. The name reflects the fact that our people came from Bohemia, no matter who was in power over those lands when they left. We feel this expresses our kinship to the Czechs who live in our ancestral lands—though in the past harsh enmity has at times flared between the two peoples. In this article, we interchangeably use the term “German-Bohemians” with the name German-Bohemians gave themselves in their own tongue: the Böhmisch.
In America, the Böhmisch usually clustered in German Catholic parishes. Often they became known as Germans, ensnared in tensions that flared as Germany and America clashed during two world wars. The Böhmisch were both looked down upon by some German-Americans for not being German enough, and also mistrusted by some Americans for being too German.
Their sense of home was elusive. The emigrants watched as their “Austrian” homeland was divided in 1918. They never identified with the new state of Czechoslovakia. After World War II, their countrymen were forced out of their homes, and many of their villages were bulldozed to the ground, by Czechs retaliating for Nazi oppression. In these postwar years more than 11 million ethnic Germans were forced out of Eastern Europe, and over 2 million died. From Czechoslovakia alone, 3 million Germanic people were expelled, and 250,000 died.
The Böhmisch culture is as endangered as that of any rare species. It has survived in quiet, intimate ways as families passed on their deeply-held values to their children—even as generations of Böhmisch learned to adopt the false front demanded by whatever power was currently dominating them.
This booklet is an effort to help reclaim and preserve our cultural taproot, and is a call for assistance from anybody who knows other important chapters of our history.
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Border People: The Böhmisch in America
by Ken Meter and Robert Paulson (1993)
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