Tuesday, July 26, 2016

It's not just me whining about access

I recently returned home from my first trip to the Czech Republic with my husband. It was a perfect trip. I would not change anything.
Me with my 5th cousin Roman in front of our ancestor's church in Vratimov

If I could sum up the most important thing that I learned from this trip it would be, "I knew nothing." 

This realization is, of course, very humbling. I think I had already started to realize how little I know and understand about my Czech ancestors, and how much there is left for me to know when I started this blog. I have always felt that I was not so much setting myself up on the pedestal of being an expert Czech family historian, but that by writing about my discoveries and sharing them online I was making valuable knowledge more accessible to others. I knew then, and I certainly know now that I am not alone in my desire to research and truly understand my Czech heritage.

However, it was not until actually seeing and experiencing it for myself that I was able to begin to grasp how little I actually know. I thought I knew more, and it's so very painful to realize that I'm such a novice. 

Fortunately, I'm young. I'm only 29. I have a lot of years ahead of me in which to gain knowledge and experience. I'm also very persistent and tenacious when I pursue my interests, and this interest has evolved into more than a hobby: it is my dream to become a true expert, a scholar, on Czech family history, which is inseparably linked to history, the Czech language, politics, culture, art, religion, etc. 

Here's an analogy: my husband and I photographed 75% of the Vratimov cemetery, including all of the oldest section. This is the village of origin of my maiden name Vašíček ancestors. It took us several days and many hours to photograph thousands of headstones. Each headstone averages 3-4 names, some with many more. We skipped some headstones that had no information whatsoever on them besides, "Rodina Kallusová." 

The goal of photographing these headstones is to eventually put them all onto Find A Grave, a large, free, volunteer-based database of cemeteries and images their headstones. It is going to take many, many hours to do this. It is going to be difficult. And at the end of the day, what will we have accomplished? We will have added 75% of one cemetery from one tiny Moravian town, representing perhaps one 1-billionth of all Czech cemeteries. 

Currently, there are only 116 Czech graves on the site, and those were all for famous Czechs. I laugh to think that my peasant ancestors will join the ranks of people like Jan Hus, Gregor Mendel, Antonín Dvořak, etc!!! I suppose it has to start somewhere.

Just like my acquisition of knowledge has to start somewhere. Gawking at the sheer mass of knowledge I need to pursue, gain, and master to become the kind of expert I want to be is as daunting as the prospect of being single-handedly responsible to photograph and upload all the graves from all the cemeteries in the entire Czech Republic to Find a Grave. It feels impossible. 

Intuitively, I know that the reason I have so much left to learn is not all my fault. I know information exists, but I have thought for some time now that it is not nearly as accessible as scholarly knowledge about other topics in history. I am always hesitant to blame anybody but myself for my lack of knowledge, though, because it feels like whining.

Today my inter-library loan books came in. The first one that I am reading is called, "Between Lipany and White Mountain: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Modern Bohemian History in Modern Czech Scholarship" by James R Palmitessa (Editor), Barbara Day (Translator), and Christopher Hopkinson (Translator). It was published in 2014 and explores precisely the ideas that I need to understand better in order to be a truly knowledgeable Czech family historian.

The preface was very validating to me because it gave several explicit reasons why knowledge about Czech history is limited and inaccessible:
  • Czech is not one of the common research languages which historians and other scholars in the humanities and social sciences learn, so non-Czech speakers have to turn to comparatively limited body of scholarship in English and German.
  • Unfortunately, the history of the Czech lands has been relegated to the margins of western civilization, for many complex and fascinating reasons, but especially because of communism.
  • Communism isolated Czech historians and Czech scholarship from western historiography. 
Basically: it's not just me whining about access; gaining the knowledge I want is a legitimately difficult task

But it is worth the struggle.



  1. Kate: You will find much and open doors to others. I do not know how well known it is but a few years ago the Catholic records were closed to Mormons. When they fully realized why the church wanted copies of their records they decided there was no reason to make it easy to baptize people who died as Catholics. I suspect that most of the old records are already in our church archives.

  2. Actually, until this past decade, almost zero Czech records, Catholic or Protestant or Jewish, were acquired into the granite vault archives of the LDS church. In 1948, right as the genealogical society of Utah began to microfilm records in the states and most of western Europe, the Czech lands fell under communism, and became isolated from the western world by the "iron curtain." Three digitization efforts have been recent, and the church has digital copies of only a small percentage of the records that exist. Most of the digitized records are more easily researched on the individual archives sites than on FamilySearch. The only Czech researcher I knew about who worked for FamilySearch has left and they have done a truly terrible job with labeling jurisdictions. It's really frustrating.

    It would be totally unfair to characterize the Catholic church as either having the kind of influence in the Czech Republic in the second half of the 20th century to curtail microfilm efforts, or to blame the previous dearth of records on bad feelings towards LDS temple ordinances. Most Catholics who are archivists welcome all efforts at preserving and disseminating valuable heritage material. While it's true that some in high leadership in the Catholic church (who are probably not archivists) have made record acquisition difficult for the LDS church, I think in this case the fault lies squarely with the communist regime. Catholics were persecuted under communism in Czechoslovakia; surely they have more in common with the LDS church and indeed any who are interested in cultural preservation than with a regime that claims to seek to equalize everybody by throwing away the culture.

    I can totally appreciate why Czechs who were anxious to preserve their precious records would be hesitant to let a foreign American church sweep in and take their records, especially so soon after they had literally been used to find and murder thousands of ethnic Jews or those of Jewish descent. "What right do they have to tell the story of our people, especially if there is no trust that this will not be a giant case of cultural appropriation, with no responsibility to continue to preserve and tell the story?"

    You and I trust the LDS church and its leadership, but that is not a universal attitude. It's understandable that it took such a long time for the records to be digitized, and it's not as simple as "Catholics hate Mormons" (which they don't.) Mormons also need to not think so myopically; while our church has the world's largest repository of genealogical records, it still has only a fraction of the records that exist globally. While some 90-something percent of British Isles records may be represented, assuming that it is the same percentage of representation for EVERY country is naïve.