Part IV: The Slovak Community of Cleveland
The third major component of the Slovak community was its newspaper press. In the last one hundred years these people have published thirty newspapers and periodicals, among them four that enjoyed a national circulation.
First Slovak Newspaper
Credit for the first Slovak periodical in the United States is given to Ján Slovenský (Yan SLO-ven-skey), a former school teacher, who with his friend Julius Wolf had planned on going on a “lion safari” and landed in America instead. After “sweating it out” in the Pittsburgh steel mills, Ján luckily found employment in the Hungarian consulate where he began to realize how important it was to publish information for the many Slovaks who needed answers to their questions in this new and strange land. So, in 1885, he launched the Bulletin, a mimeographed information sheet written in the eastern Slovak dialect as the movement from Slovakia had begun in the northeastern part of the Slovak district of Zemplin, Šariš, Spiš, and Ung. According to Slabey the most neglected districts were in eastern Slovakia where the Hungarian government cared little or nothing for the education and welfare of these poor people, and, as he so aptly puts it, “In 1880 a Slovak of the upper class was as rare as a white crow.”
The first issues of the Bulletin appeared in the commonest of gathering places — the local tavern. After the proprietor read his copy, he shared its reading with his patrons and then usually posted it on the front window so that it coul be read easily by interested persons on the sidewalk outside.
Little by little, men who had always thought that newspapers were a luxury that could be indulged only by the leisure class and the gentry, began to take an avid interest in appropriating that privilege and in reading the news. So more and more of them subscribed. Pleased with the evidence of this gratifying interest, the editing partnership of Wolf and Slovenský took the next step in their journalistic careers.
In 1886, the first printed newspaper Amerikanszko-Szlovenszke Noviny (American-Slovak Gazette) made its debut. In 1889 they were joined by Peter Rovnianek, a brilliant student for the Roman Catholic priesthood, who had been expelled from the Hungarian Theological Seminary in Budapest for no other reason than reading Slovak literature which was proscribed in Hungarian colleges due to the government policy of Magyarization. He was residing in Cleveland at this time, but upon the pleading of Slovenský, Rovnianek left St. Mary’s Seminary and went to Pittsburgh to begin his duties as editor of the American-Slovak Gazette. And his duties entailed more than just seeing that the paper was printed. He and the other workers packed the papers for mailing. They also had to go out among the people and solicit subscriptions and advertisements. Their average working day was 18 hours instead of 8, and they worked from early morn till midnight for the small pay of $9.
Rovnianek brought new life to the paper. He had a vivid, popular, style and a magnetic personality. He was a fiery orator, a fearless fighter for human rights, and a great lover of his Slovak nation. Even the Hungarian government feared his paper because of his attacks on their feudal system of oppression. They forbade his paper through the Hungarian mail, and even tried to suppress it here by writing to the Pittsburgh Police Department to forbid the publication of Rovnianek’s paper. This caused much laughter in the American press in 1895, and Pulitzer, who also came from Hungary, had an editorial in his New York World to this effect:
Francis Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary, Bohemia, etc., etc., is a great sovereign, a mighty monarch, ruler of life and death of millions; but where an insignificant, poor Slovak paper is concerned, published in Pittsburgh, he is absolutely powerless, because in America we have freedom of the press and politics.
Out of this simple and rather unlikely beginning there evolved an impressive history of Slovak-American journalism. The following listing includes some of the earliest enterprises in Slovak journalism in the United States, some of which were rather short-lived:
|1885 – Pittsburgh, Pa.||Slovenský’s mimeographed Bulletin. After 20 issues it developed into the printed paper American Slovak News (1886-1922)|
|1888 – Streator, Ill.||Nová vlasť – The New Homeland (May to Dec. 1888)|
|1889 – Plymouth, Pa.||Zástava – The Flag|
|1889 – Plymouth, Pa.||Slovák v Amerike – The Slovak in America (This is the oldest surviving Slovak newspaper in the United States, enjoying a healthy weekly circulation.)|
|1889 – Hazleton, Pa.||Katolícke noviny – The Catholic News (to 1891)|
|1889 – Connellsville, Pa.||Robotník – The Worker (short-lived)|
|1891 – Cleveland, O.||Jednota – Official organ of the JEDNOTA organization. Enjoys an enviable weekly circulation.|
|1892 – Jersey City, N.J.||Slovenské listy – Slovak Letters (short-lived)|
|1892 – Cleveland, O.||Americký Slovák – The American Slovak (to 1894)|
|1893 – Connellsville, Pa.||Slovenská svornosť – Slovak Harmony (to 1897)|
|1894 – Cleveland, O.||Cirkevné listy – Church Letters (to 1899)|
|1894 – New York, N.Y.||Fakľa – The Torch (6 issues)|
|1894 – Pittsburgh, Pa.||Slovensky hlas – The Slovak Voice (to 1898)|
|1894 – Pittsburgh, Pa.||Maják – The Beacon (6 issues or so)|
|1894 – Freeland, Pa.||Slovenská pravda – Slovak Truth (to 1904)|
|1895 – Cleveland, O.||Rodina – The Family (5 issues)|
|1897 – Cleveland, O.||Čarodejník – The Wizard (to 1898)|
|1910 – Pittsburgh, Pa.||Národné noviny – National News Official organ of the National Slovak Society. In current circulation.|
Statistics indicate that in 1910 there were twelve Slovak weeklies in the United States, having a combined circulation of 112,500. By 1920 Slovak American journalism offered its readership these types of publications: 6 dailies, 25 weeklies, 5 issued fortnightly, and 16 issued monthly. This is an astounding commentary on the intellectual capacity of a people who had been denied learning and cultural development of this kind on native territory.
Among his blessings in the new world, the Slovak then counted not only better earnings and improved material assets but also this bonus of a free Slovak press which became a tremendous educative force. The wonder of it is that the history of Slovak American journalism took root so strongly among immigrants who had come to the new world with minimal or no formal education. Many of them were illiterate because they came from a region where schooling was generally denied them. In the decade 1899-1910 there was still a 24% rate of illiteracy among the Slovaks, who ranked second highest in literacy among Slavic immigrants in the states. The clear vision of leaders and a will to compensate for what had been denied in the past now worked wonders.
Instructing the Ignorant
Often as staff people worked to prepare useful, informative and interesting copy, subscription agents were busy canvassing on a man to man, house to house basis to promote the publication. Contact with the worker, who was a potential subscriber, could be made only after long working hours or on Sundays. When the average prospect argued that newspapers were a privilege of the rich and that it would be quite senseless for him to subscribe for a paper that he could not read, the soliciting agent would take the time to sit down and patiently teach the mystery of the alphabet and the secret of reading from the printed page to an unbelieving learner. Such lessons would be continued from visit to visit until the skills were mastered and diligent persistence brought its own rewards.
Every working man who learned how to read had the capacity for further enlightenment and cultural growth by drawing upon the editorials, the news reports, the informative articles, the lessons in American citizenship and history that his newspaper brought him regularly. Those who wrote the newspapers and magazines put to good use the powerful potentialities of this medium.
Newspapers More Than News
Many editors and publishers were deeply concerned and capable leaders who conscientiously handled their responsibility to the reading public. They filled the issues of their publication not only with news items, matters of general interest, and entertaining features, but they also took care to include worthwile reading matter that would improve the mind, expanding its horizons with essays on topics of historic, literary and scientific content. They wrote on subjects of current concern and arranged practical lessons in citizenship and government by way of encouraging their readers to educate themselves and work for naturalization. The religious press also nurtured devotion and Christian morality. Passages of scriptural reading were published for their innate value, and homiletic paraphrases of the weekly gospel often supplemented or compensated for pulpit preaching, especially in areas where a priest was not available for regular services.
Even fierce polemics that occasionally broke out in the press could serve as a kind of learning experience. The airing of pros and cons, and even personal attacks on individuals and their ideas made the readers think, compare ideologies, evaluate arguments, judge the merits of positions as they were presented, and come to a personal decision to endorse or to oppose a contested issue. This too had educative value because it exemplified freedom of the press in a free country — a totally new concept for people who had come out of a thousand years of repression and subjection.
Some of the growth and possibly some of the influence of the press can be judged from this simple statistic:
Circulation record for the newspaper Slovak v Amerike
Slovak Journalism in Cleveland
Father Stefan Furdek established the Jednota (Union) the official organ of the First Catholic Slovak Union in 1891. He edited this weekly here until 1911 when it moved to Middletown, Pennsylvania. It soon became the largest-circulation Slovak newspaper in America and it survives to this day.
Ján Pankuch followed closely on Furdek’s heels in establishing several newspapers. Americký Slovák, lasting from 1892 to 1894, represented Pankuch’s first attempt at publishing an independent newspaper. After it folded due to his admitted lack of business acumen, he established the Lutheran weekly Cirkevné listy (Church Letters) which lasted from 1894 to 1899. Having sold the latter to a competitor who moved it out of Cleveland, Pankuch tried his luck again with Lutherán, which enjoyed a very brief run from 1900 to 1902. This and the former newspaper were merged in 1904 in Pittsburgh and became the national Slovenský hlásnik (Slovak Herald), official organ of the Slovak Evangelical Union.
The third national newspaper that originated in Cleveland was Ženská jednota (Women’s Union) in 1914. Father Ján M. Liščinský established it as the official organ of the First Catholic Slovak Ladies Union. Finally, Cleveland also gave birth to the Slovenská obrana (Slovak Defense). It began in 1914 as the monthly Kritika which sharply criticized anyone who disagreed with its publisher and editor, the Reverend Ján Liščinský. The Bishop of Cleveland disapproved of Liščinský’ s critical journalism and forced him to relinquish control over it in 1915 whereupon it changed its name to Obrana (Defense), and in 1917 it was moved to Scranton, Pennsylvania were in 1920, Michal Bosák, one of America’s first Slovak millionaires, brought it into the family. This newspaper then became the largest-circulation independent Slovak weekly in the country, lasting until 1972.
Among the many specialized Slovak periodicals that flourished in Cleveland, two still survive. One is the Ave Maria, a Catholic monthly which the Reverend Gašpar Pánik of Bridgeport, Connecticut, established in 1917 and which the Slovak Benedictines acquired in 1929. The other is the cultural quarterly Most (Bridge), founded by the emigré Society of Slovak Writers in 1954 and edited by the Reverend Mikuláš Šprinc.
Cleveland Slovaks also established many newspapers that catered to the local community. Among them were Ján Paknuch’s Hlas (Voice) and Denný hlas (Daily Voice) which lasted from 1907 to 1947 and 1915 to 1925 respectively. Michal Senko, meanwhile, edited the Clevelandská Slovenská jednota, official organ of the fraternal of the same name, from 1920 to 1945 when this organization merged with the First Catholic Slovak Ladies Union. Finally, between 1949 and 959 the Benedictines published Slovenské noviny (Slovak News), a weekly edited by the Reverend Andrew Pír.
Thus, after Slovaks first arrived in this city in the 1870’s, they lost no time in establishing their own communities. Locating initially near the Central Business District where most of the jobs were, Slovaks gradually spread out into the rest of Cleveland, following the opening of new factories with the result that by 1920 they were located in eight distinct areas, all having at least one Roman Catholic parish and sometimes one or more Protestant ones. Religious fraternals led in the founding of these parishes and helped to sustain them. The vitality of the Cleveland Slovak community showed itself in its periodical press — four national newspapers originated here while 26 others saw the light of day in the years 1891-1975. These three elements — the fraternal, the church and the newspaper — reflected the religious splintering of Slovaks in Cleveland, as well as in the rest of the country, but at the same time they helped the individual components survive well into the second generation. Whether the third generation will preserve them remains to be seen.
- Kona: "The Oldest Newspaper..." Slovakia. 1965, pp. 49-50. also N.W. Ayer & Sons: Directory of Newspapers & Periodicals. Philadelphia, 1894-1918. ↵