Part IV: The Slovak Community of Cleveland
In spite of the problems Slovaks encountered in American society, they could and did make use of the relative national freedom that prevailed here to agitate for and achieve the independence of their brethren from Hungary. Although this was covered in the historical background, we hope to bring fresh insights as to the feelings of Slovaks in America, especially those living in Cleveland. The liberation movement in America began in newspapers, spread into the lodges and churches, crystallized in the Slovak League and reached its zenith during World War I. Once free from Hungary and united with the Czechs in 1918, many Slovaks grew disillusioned and began a second “liberation” movement on behalf of their countrymen in Europe. This move shattered the fragile unity reached by their community during the war and persists to this day.
By 1900 Slovak patriots in the Old Country were fighting for their very survival. Using America as a base against oppression, the Slovaks entered into the fray using the most effective tool at their disposal — the press. The weekly Jednota, founded in 1891 and edited until 1911 by Father Stephen Furdek of Our Lady of Lourdes parish in Cleveland, took an early lead in this battle. Ján Pankuch’s many Cleveland newspapers, including the Hlas and Denny Hlas, described in a previous chapter, joined the cause as did Kritika (later Obrana), published by the Reverend Ján M. Liščinský of St. Andrew’s parish. During World War I this periodical lashed out unmercifully against Slovak “Magyaroni” priests who opposed freedom from Hungary. Thus, together with newspapers published in other American cities, Cleveland Slovaks distinguished themselves in the press war against their enemies.
Very soon after their arrival in America, Cleveland Slovaks also began to quarrel with Magyar parishioners. At St. Ladislas parish, alluded to earlier, both groups had tried initially to worship in the same church for financial reasons. By 1890, however, so much tension had built up between them that they began to go their separate ways. The Magyars caused the final rift when they tried to force Father Ján Martvoň to preach only in their language. The Slovaks rejected this attempted takeover, and the Bishop was called in to arbitrate. The Magyars were paid $1,000 in compensation and then built their own St. Elizabeth’s parish a few blocks away. Slovak Calvinists in Lakewood did likewise. In 1917 they broke with the local Magyar fraternal-benefit society and in 1921 ceased to attend Magyar church services, choosing to establish their own Slovak Calvinist Presbyterian parish instead. Lutherans avoided such conflicts by rejecting any contacts with the Magyars from the start.
Hostility to Magyar Politicians
Besides quarreling with Magyar immigrants in America, Slovaks also reacted negatively to politicians from Hungary seeking support for their cause. When Count Albert Apponyi, former Hungarian Minister of Education, arrived in the United States in 1911 to promote his people’s independence, Slovaks greeted him with hisses at the Cleveland railroad station, they held a public demonstration at Gray’s Armory and denounced him in the Plain Dealer. Only the calming hand of Father Stephen Furdek kept them from physically assaulting Apponyi, as their countrymen did in Chigaco. Count Michael Károlyi, arriving on a similar mission in 1914, received comparable treatment.
This boycott of Magyar politicians reminded many Slovaks of an earlier struggle over a statue at Public Square. In 1902 Hungarians of Cleveland received permission from the city government to erect a statue to their hero of the 1848 Revolution — Lajos Kossuth. The Slovaks regarded this as an affront because Kossuth was a Magyarized Slovak and, hence, a “renegade.” As a result, Stephen Furdek, Ján Pankuch, and other leaders of the community secured the aid of other Slavic peoples of the city to protest. So successful was this campaign that City Council subsequently withdrew its permission to the Magyars and suggested that they erect the statue at Euclid Avenue and East Boulevard which they did.
The depth of American-Slovak nationalism, as revealed by the statue affair and the Apponyi and Károlyi visits, soon crystallized into direct action against Hungary itself. As early as 1906 , Cleveland Slovaks, led by Stephen Furdek and Ján Pankuch, began to collect money for politicians back home. They sent more than $2,000 that year and helped elect several of their countrymen to the Budapest Parliament. In 1907 immigrants from allover America met in Cleveland and founded an umbrella organization — the Slovak League of America — which then elected Stephen Furdek its first president. This League subsequently took the lead in demanding home-rule for the minorities of Hungary.
Czech-Slovak Unification Attempts
While the Slovak League worked for autonomy in Hungary, other countrymen, whether in Europe or in America, had different plans. Ever since the 1848 Revolution in Austria-Hungary, a small group of Czechs and Slovaks had dreamed of uniting their peoples into a new state. They based their arguments on the close similarity of the Czech and Slovak languages and also on the fact that in the 9th century these peoples had been briefly united in the Kingdom of Great Moravia. In Europe, Thomas G. Masaryk, a professor of philosophy at Charles IV University in Prague, led the movement. Vávro Srobár was his most faithful disciple in Slovakia while Milan Getting, an official of the Slovak Gymnastic Union of America, championed this idea here. These individuals liked to call themselves “Czechoslovaks,” emphasizing the unity of the two peoples and denying their separate nationhood.
The majority of Slovaks in both worlds rejected these ideas. They stressed the cultural differences between the two groups (the Czechs had shared in German culture and the Slovaks in Magyar for a thousand years) and especially the anti-clericalism of many Czechs in comparison to the deep religious orientation of the Slovaks.
The outbreak of World War I afforded the Slovak League its greatest opportunity for success and, therefore, after some hesitation, it grasped the opportunity and began to engage in a liberation movement. While in the first years of the war the League contented itself in raising a collection for widows and orphans of the conflict, in the second year, bowing to pressure by certain individuals, it entered into an historic agreement with the Czechs. On October 22, 1915, officers of the Slovak League and the Bohemian National Alliance met in Cleveland and resolved to work for the destruction of Austria-Hungary and the creation of a Czecho-Slovak state. This “Cleveland Agreement” further stipulated that the new state would be a federation of the Czech and Slovak lands wherein the two groups would have local autonomy. Thus, although the League agreed to work with the Czechs, it rejected the notion of a unitary “Czechoslovak” state. And, although Czechs and Slovaks would have several more such historic meetings as the war progressed, the Cleveland conference would go down in history as the first in the world to call for a new Czecho-Slovakia and its provisions would remain an inspiration to Slovaks in the Old World as they struggled for equality in the new Republic for generations to come.
Besides participating in conferences concerned with freedom, Cleveland Slovaks also contributed materially to the cause. In the Fall of 1917 Milan Rastislav Stefánik, an officer in the French army-air-force and the leading Slovak figure in the European movement for independence came to America and called for the establishment of a Czecho-Slovak Legion to fight the Central Powers. His Cleveland countrymen responded by supplying 96 men for this force which eventually contained 6,000 soldiers, and they were outfitted by local women’s organizations calling themselves “Včielky” (Bees). Besides providing for the uniforms and upkeep of these men, Cleveland Slovaks also raised $30,000 for the “Million Dollar Fund” for Czechs and Slovak independence during the war. Finally, after the war had ended and General Stefanik met an untimely death in an airplane crash in 1919, his Cleveland brethren erected a statue costing several thousand dollars to his memory in Wade Park, on Liberty Boulevard.
Hardly had the war ended when American Slovaks found themselves divided over conditions in the new Republic of Czecho-Slovakia. In tne last year of the war, Thomas G. Masaryk, the leading Czech figure in the European independence movement, came to America and concluded another agreement with the Slovaks. Meeting with representatives of the Czech and Slovak liberation movement in Pittsburgh on May 30, 1918, Masaryk rejected the Cleveland Agreement as unrealistic. Instead, he drafted a new “Pittsburgh Agreement” which only implicitly promised the Slovaks home rule in the proposed new Republic. While certain Slovak representatives had misgivings about this new agreement, they submerged their true feelings in or der to present a united front against the Central Powers. After the Allied and Associated Powers recognized the existence of the new Czecho-Slovak Republic in the Fall of 1918, Masaryk and the Czechs reneged on their promises. A Czech-dominated Constitutional Convention drafted a centralist Constitution and proclaimed a unitary “Czechoslovakia” in 1920. The Slovaks did not receive their promised autonomy. As a result, a majority of Slovaks, especially the Roman Catholics, grew disgusted with the new state and began to demand the implementation of the Pittsburgh Agreement. A small minority, both in the United States and Slovakia, supported the form of the new Republic.
While the debate over the merits of the new country continued in the 1920’s and 1930’s, American Slovaks received a delegation from the Old World that helped perpetuate their culture in the New. In 1935 five emissaries of the “Matica slovenská,” the foremost cultural organization of their homeland, visited the American community. Many Clevelanders welcomed these representatives with open arms for they remembered that back in 1893 Father Stephen Furdek had established a “Matica” in America, only to see it collapse because of the bickering of its leaders. Now, in 1936, the new “Matica” sent thousands of books and pamphlets for the use of its American countrymen to help preserve their language and culture. The Benedictine monks of Cleveland agreed to house these gifts and eventually they became the basis for a Slovak Institute at the Abbey.
A Short but Genuine Independence
Meanwhile, as war clouds hovered over Europe, American Slovaks had to face a painful decision. In the Autumn of 1938 the Czechs finally granted the Slovaks their long-sought autonomy and put the hyphen back into Czecho-Slovakia. This arrangement las ted only until March of 1939 when the Germans invaded Bohemia-Moravia. Hitler had no immediate interest in Slovakia and permitted its autonomous Parliament to declare independence. Some American countrymen, largely Catholic, supported the new state while Protestants and secularists generally opposed it because its President, Jozef Tiso, was a Catholic priest and his People’s Party was closely tied to the Catholic Church. When the United States entered the war against Germany in 1941, American Slovaks had to oppose the new Republic because of its close links with Germany.
After World War II had ended and “Czechoslovakia” was restored by Russian arms, American Slovaks continued to face a dilemma. Some among them were happy with the new order while others were disappointed by the loss of their countrymen’s independence. When the Communists seized control of the country in 1948 both sides were disappointed. Since 1948 many Slovak refugees settled permanently in the greater Cleveland area and integrated within the existing Slovak community.