They came in droves to the Cornhusker State, looking for a chance to preserve their way of life.
Residents of Bohemia and Moravia, today part of the Czech Republic, and some from neighboring Slovakia came to Nebraska in the late 1800s, fleeing overpopulation and economic depression. They came here because their neighbors were coming here. Because advertisements in Czech-language newspapers promised large tracts of land and fertile soil.
Their sons and daughters remain.
The Czech and Slovak Educational Center and Cultural Museum, located in Crossroads Mall, stands as a testament to Nebraska’s rich Czech history. The museum, which opened October 2014, encapsulates the state’s Czech heritage in books, food and traveling exhibits.
“We try to have things to educate people on their ancestry,” said John Rocarek, executive director of the museum.
And Nebraska tops the list when it comes to Czech ancestry. About 5.1 percent of Nebraska residents claim some kind of Czech heritage, far above the national average of 0.6 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the eight-county Omaha metropolitan area alone, about 4.5 percent of residents declare themselves Czech.
“When the Czechs first came here ... they wanted to live with their own people,” Rocarek said. Most settled in South Omaha, and the area remained predominately Czech for decades.
The ethnic ties in the neighborhood have weakened over the past several years. So, Rocarek said, it made sense to build a museum to celebrate the entire city’s Czech roots.
The center is currently open only on Saturdays and Sundays. But Rocarek said he’s looking to expand as its volunteer base grows and he expects to be open seven days a week in 2016.
Rocarek said the plan is for center to move to the Brentwood Square Shopping Center in La Vista when developers move on plans to raze much of Crossroads Mall and build Crossroads Village.
For now, there are kolaches for sale. There are marionettes and glassware — two icons of Czech culture — to view and buy. There are many books about iconic figures with Czech heritage, such as Andy Warhol and Neil Armstrong.
In many instances, the center doubles as a museum and gift shop, with some wares available for purchase. Other exhibits are donated by Czech families in the area.
Currently the center is displaying artifacts from the Eddie Janak Orchestra, a famous 20th century polka band, and an exhibit of the book “The History of the Brave Czech Nation” by Lucy Seifert.
Shifts are mostly staffed by volunteers. Anthony Naprstek, a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, began volunteering at the center shortly before it opened last year. He gives tours to newcomers and often asks if they have any ties to Czech culture.
He does it, he said, to spread awareness of Czech influence in Nebraska.
“That’s one thing that I love doing. I get people aware of how much of the culture’s around here,” he said.
The center also doubles as a classroom most weekends, with Rocarek or another volunteer teaching beginner Czech language courses to visitors. Some of the attendees, Rocarek said, spoke Czech when they were young and forgot it as they learned English. Others are just looking to learn a few phrases before taking a trip to eastern Europe. Still others are looking to connect with their roots, many trying to recall the phrases they heard growing up with their babi — short for babicka, or “grandmother,” in Czech.
Mildred Marne, a member of the Omaha Czech Cultural Club since the 1980s, also volunteers at the museum. Some visitors, she said, don’t have Czech heritage, but learning about those who do sparks an interest in their own genealogy.
“The immigrants that came here to create a better life for themselves and their families made a lot of sacrifices,” Rocarek said. “This is a way we can honor those people — by showing what their lives were like.”