Tomas G. Masaryk — the first president of Czechoslovakia — and his family had a long, personal connection to Cedar Rapids.
Masaryk was a professor of philosophy at Prague University when he embarked on a five-month lecture tour in 1902 of the United States. He had already visited Boston, New York, Baltimore, Chicago and St. Louis when he arrived in Cedar Rapids, stopping in The Gazette offices the morning of July 15.
“I am not among strangers here,” he said. “I came to New York 24 years ago and took home an American girl as my wife. I have relatives in several of the cities. ... Our Bohemian people all seem to be doing splendidly and to be recognized everywhere as good American citizens, which is very gratifying. I advise them to learn the English language just as quickly as possible after coming here and to become full-fledged American citizens. Yet we like to see them preserve the best that there is in the Bohemian customs and to remember with thankfulness the patriots who are so many and conspicuous in our national history. ”
Masaryk’s two-night engagement at the CSPS Hall drew overflow crowds despite the summer heat.
His determination to establish a unified, independent Czecho-Slovak nation was just beginning. His wife, Charlotte Garrigue, and their four children, Alice, Herbert, Jan and Olga, were his staunchest supporters.
His daughter, Alice Masaryk, was born in Vienna in 1879. She held a doctorate in philosophy from Berlin University. After a graduate course in Chicago in 1905, she spent a year working there at the University Settlement, organizing crews to clean up the alleys around the stockyards and starting a Young Bohemian Women club.
She lectured in Cedar Rapids in 1906. Her appearance was sponsored by the city’s Minerva Literary Society. The club, founded in 1901, mirrored the progressive organization in Prague.
Among Alice’s Cedar Rapids friends were Sara Hrbek, who became head of the Department of Slavic languages at the University of Nebraska, and Anna Heyberger, professor of languages at Coe College.
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In 1907, Tomas Masaryk returned to the United States, speaking to Coe students Sept. 14 and also to the Czech school in Cedar Rapids. By then, he was Bohemia’s representative in the Austrian parliament.
His association with the German-controlled Austria, however, turned sour when he refused to support the nation’s conflict against Serbia and consistently advocated Bohemian nationality. He was exiled to London with his youngest daughter, Olga.
He became a professor at King’s College in London, thinking his separation from his wife and the rest of his children would be temporary. Instead, he was charged with treason after he issued the Bohemian Declaration of Independence.
With her father absent, Alice — then in her mid-30s — took charge of his library in Prague. Authorities searched the Masaryk home and arrested Alice on Nov. 6, 1915, charging her with high treason. It was feared she would be executed.
Organizations across the United States immediately began petitioning Washington to intercede on Alice’s behalf. A contingent of Cedar Rapidians — including Coe’s Dr. John Marquis and Dean of Women Maria Leonard, and the Rev. Edward Burkhalter — asked Iowa’s U.S. Rep. James W. Good to help.
She was freed July 3, 1916, after more than a year in captivity.
Meanwhile, the campaign for Bohemian independence gained traction in the United States. The Bohemian National Alliance, with 250 branches across the country, was among the backers. Fundraisers for the organization included an October 1917 bazaar at the CSPS Hall that included music, coffee and kolaches.
After Germany was defeated in World War I, Czechoslovakia became a republic, with Masaryk sworn in as the country’s first president on Dec. 22, 1918. With his wife too ill to serve as first lady, his daughter Alice assumed those responsibilities.
Alice also was chairman of the Czech Red Cross and of the Coe Camp, a Cedar Rapids-sponsored camp set up to fight tuberculosis among war orphans.
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In 1923, Coe College became the first American institution to award President Masaryk an honorary degree. The Czech ambassador accepted the award during commencement.
In 1935, Masaryk resigned as president, a post he was entitled to hold for life. He felt it was his duty to help citizens acclimate to a new leader. He died in 1937 at age 87.
A year later, in 1938, his life’s work collapsed when the Munich Pact ceded Czechoslovakia to Nazi Germany in an effort to avoid war.
When World War II started, the Czech government collapsed. In 1943, Jan Masaryk — a son of Tomas, brother of Alice — joined Frantisek Nemec, minister of economic reconstruction for the exiled Czech government, to speak at CSPS on Dec. 8.
After the war, Czechoslovakia dropped behind the Iron Curtain. Many of those opposed to Communist rule escaped, but Jan Masaryk waited too long. On March 10, 1948, the Communist government announced he had died, a suicide, a statement met with skepticism, especially after Masaryk’s friend and personal physician revealed he and Masaryk had been planning to flee the night of his death.
It wouldn’t be until 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, that the Czech Republic would once again form.
Alice Masaryk, who lived in New York City, would visit Cedar Rapids one more time, in 1955, to attend the annual Coe College band concert performed in memory of her father. In her 70s, she arrived by plane for the Sunday, April 17, concert. She visited City Hall the next day.
In a brief talk during the concert’s intermission, she said, “We think America has a great deal to give to the world. Not just money. Not just in efficiency. Not just in technical assistance. But in the spirit that lives here. For this we are deeply grateful.”
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