On both my mom and dad’s side of the family, Czechoslovakian culture defines much of who I am. Though my grandparents immigrated due to conflict in Czechoslovakia immediately before World War II, I claim my heritage from the nation of “Czechia,” since the two nations, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, split in 1993. Czechia and Slovakia are situated between Germany and Ukraine in Eastern Europe.
As a child growing up, it was hard to talk to my grandparents because their broken English could not be reconciled with my incompetence in the Slavic language. While my mom could speak small amounts of Slavic, it wasn’t until I was older that I could truly communicate and learn more about my heritage.
I learned from them that Czech culture is heavily influenced by Eastern European culture, as each country is geographically nearby and historically intertwined. Food, dance and music all have a strong significance in Czech culture and are a large part of how the community comes together. As long as I can remember, cooking and being merry have been an integral thread in family gatherings. Both men and women come together to cook traditional Czechoslovakian dishes, such as perogies and baklava. Traditional Czech music has both Polka and Orthodox church influence, resulting in upbeat, meaningful songs to dance to together. Though Czech culture has unique musical influence and traditional dance, there are many parallels between Czech and Ukrainian culture.
When my grandparents on my mother’s side immigrated from Ukraine, they came due to famine and poverty in Ukraine. When they came to America, they brought no belongings from home, so their culture and national identity became more important than ever. Settling in Northern New Jersey, my family started a Ukrainian deli and began to meet people in the community who could identify with the country that they left behind.
Ukrainian culture is steeped in the traditions of the Orthodox Church in most Ukrainian communities. Many Ukrainian communities purposefully form communities upon immigration to America, in order to enjoy fellowship in a traditionally Ukrainian church. In these churches, there are several cultural differences from American churches. These differences include the use of incense and extremely formal attire, as well as sermons spoken almost entirely in Ukrainian. After church, many Ukrainian families get together to cook perogies and smoke kielbasa to sell for church fundraisers or elaborate Sunday lunches.
Being raised in a Ukrainian-American and Czechoslovakian-American family gives me a better understanding of Eastern European culture, and a hunger to travel and see where my family lived and died. It gives me a compassion for immigrants who do not speak English in America, and an understanding of how challenging uprooting your home and leaving your family to escape occupation and poverty must be. My heritage has left a resounding mark on who I am, more than just the traditionally crooked nose my family has always joked that each true Czechoslovakian inherits.