Czech Genealogy: A Brief Primer for Better Understanding Your Slavic Roots
“My ancestors are Slavs.” While this is not a description you hear very often, if you have Bohemian (Czech) roots you might want to get to know and understand the history of Slavs a bit better.
Long before Czech Republic, the brief 27,094 days of Czechoslovakia, and the decades of Austro-Hungarian attempted genocide against the Bohemians, these people were, and still are, Slavs. So who are, and were, the Slavs?
While we genealogists like our history defined by solid, relatively unbending lines of country borders, villages, etc. historically Slavs have a more fluid identity. Slavs, as a group, are identified by language rather than simply national borders, but our understanding of them remains crucial to our genealogy work.
The dictionary definition, according to Merriam-Webster, for Slavic languages is as follows: “A branch of the Indo-European language family containing Belarusian, Bulgarian, Czech, Polish, Serbian and Croatian, Slovene, Russian, and Ukrainian.” All of these languages descended from their immediate parent language, which is termed ‘Proto-Slavic’. The first known Slavic words have been found in Greek writings from the Byzantine Empire.
In case you think following this mixture of nationalities could make for daunting research, how about this? According to Valentin V. Sedov, in his 1994 book Slavyane v drevnosti (Moscow), to understand the roots of the Slavic people you need to research a combination of “linguistics, etymology, onomastics, ethnology, archaeology, anthropology, history, and folkloristics.”
Perhaps you might believe the Slavs are “Johnny-Come-Latelies” to history, noted Lithuanian-American archeologist Marija Gimbutas (1821-1994), former Professor Emeritus of Archeology at UCLA, mentions in her research a probable Slav homeland is Anatolia, beginning about 8,000 BC. Now THIS is old and should make us incredibly proud of being Slav descendants today for sure.
One of the earliest written references to the Slavs were conducted by the 1st Century Roman historian Pliny the Elder, a contemporary of Emperor Nero (23-79 AD). Pliny, in his work Natural History described the early Slavs, their home along the Vistula River, and their participation in the economy through the valuable Mediterranean amber trade.
According to Dr. Mitja Gustin, of the Koper Scientific Research Center there have been archeological discoveries of uniquely Slavic pottery cooking vessels definitively linked to the Slavs dating between 580 and 620 AD. This would correspond to the historic event of the Slavs invading and fighting against the Roman Empire.
Between the 5th and 7th centuries, following the fall of the Roman Empire, the Slavs greatly expanded their territory and moved in three directions; northward, southward, and westward.
Today scholars divide the Slavic languages (and people) into three main branches, based on geography and their languages. They are East Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian); West Slavic (Czech, Slovak, Upper and Lower Sorbian, Polish, Pomeranian/Kashubian, Silesian, and the extinct Polabian); and South Slavic (Slovene, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Bulgarian, Macedonian, and the literary language of Old Church Slavonic).
With such deep roots, why do we ignore identifying as Slavs?
Quite a history isn’t it? So with this incredibly deep taproot why do you so rarely hear folks with Slavic heritage trumpeting ‘I am a Slav’?
Could it be that the word ‘slob’ came from Slav? No, slob comes from the Irish.
Perhaps it might be that ‘sloven’ comes from Slav? Whoops, nope again! Sloven comes from Dutch.
I have my own theory, which I readily admit needs much more study. I believe it goes all the way back to the early days of the Slavs when they were ‘found’ by Christian peoples and their forced conversion began, the preponderance of Freethinkers among some of the Slav immigrants, and of course, the often hateful, but unfound, prejudices against anyone who is ‘not like me’. But as I said, this is only my personal theory.
The United States Joint Immigration Commission (often referred to as the Dillingham Commission, inasmuch as its Chair was Senator William P. Dillingham R-NH) spent the years between 1907 and 1911 studying immigration and immigrant groups in the United States. In their work, they reported 14 Slavic groups in America: Bohemians/Moravians, Bulgarians, Serbians, Montenegrins, Dalmatians, Bosnians, Herzegovinians, Croatians, Slovenes, Poles, Russians, Ruthenians (Ukrainians), and Slovaks. When this Commission finished its work in 1911, it issued a 41-volume report (that is not a typo, 41 volumes!), concluded that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe posed a significant threat to American society and culture. This report would be used as the rationale for the sweeping immigration restrictions in the 1920s against southern and eastern Europeans as well as Asian.
For a much more learned view, it is worthwhile to read (or reread) an article written by one of my favorite academics who spent a good portion of his teaching career as a Professor of History at Marquette University, Dr. Karel Denis Bicha. The article is titled “Hunkies: Stereotyping Slavic Immigrants in America 1850-1920” (Journal of American Ethnic History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Fall, 1982), pp. 16-38.
One of the many valuable points Dr. Bicha makes in this work is the following:
“Secondly, ethnic stereotypes serve as indices of deviation. They convey to the concerned members of the host society, however inaccurately, a sense of how far the stereotyped group diverges from the value system and expected pattern of behavior of the host society.”
He then continues to explain:
“The image of the Slavic immigrant which emerged in the generation after 1890 was that of ‘hunky.’ Like the terms ‘wop’ and ‘kike,’ the epithet ‘hunky’ had entirely derogatory implications. It probably originated in the 1880s in the Pennsylvania anthracite region as a generic expression depicting all unskilled laborers of eastern European origins. Since slang terms do not often derive from discernible root words, it is difficult to subject them to linguistic analysis. ‘Hunky is no exception. It was probably a shortened form of the epithet ‘bohunk,’ which, in turn, was probably a conflated corruption of ‘Bohemian’ and ‘Hungarian’…”
Dr. Bicha also explains that Slavs, while linguistically related were remarkably diverse and historically the Slavs of Europe lived under circumstances that more often than not precluded any sense of commonality.
Coming up …. More on our Slavic roots right here at Onward To Our Past®