as recounted by one of our founding members, Sister Mildred Barcal, and by Sister Lucia Levendis
Early in 1956 Brother Matthew Neumann and Brother Vojtech Nevlud, under the auspices of American Sokol Washington DC, organized a Czechoslovak School to acquaint the children of families within the Czechoslovak American Community in the Washington, DC area with their heritage and to teach them the languages and the songs and customs of their ancestors. Classes were held every Saturday morning at the All Souls Unitarian Church, 16th and Harvard Streets, NW, Washington DC. The project was well received and in September of 1956 delegates from all other Czechoslovak groups formed a committee, with Brother General Eret, as chairman, which led the School successfully for many years. Later, adult classes also were organized. The teaching staff was comprised of able volunteers from the Czechoslovak community. Mrs. J. Feierabend and Brother V. Fleischer taught the children a short play based on Babička, by Božena Němcová, which they performed on November 18, 1956. The children also learned many folk songs and poems, which they presented at various programs. The Children’s Choir even performed at the White House in front of the Christmas Tree. They were thanked personally by Mayor Washington. However, as the children became older, their collective interest waned, and after several years of inactivity the School was discontinued in November 1975.
With the influx of new emigrants, post 1968, including a new generation of young families with small children, the interest in school revived and the Czechoslovak School was reactivated on May 10, 1986. It was financed primarily by American Sokol Washington DC, with regular contributions from the Czechoslovak Society for Arts and Sciences (SVU) and the Czechoslovak National Council of America (CNCA), as well as by fees from students’ families. Sister Tanja Sturmanova arranged for the use of the facilities of the Emanuel Lutheran Church in Bethesda. The first session, on September 13, 1986, had 15 children in attendance. Spearheaded by Brother Tony Bartos and Sister Lucia Levendis, the school program progressed rapidly under the professional direction of Mrs. Dana Sablikova and Brother Jan Kocvara and their able assistants. In addition to Czech and Slovak language classes (which eventually were also offered to adults), the children were introduced to poetry, folk songs, dance and traditions and customs of their parents. Soon the children were performing at such special events as the 40th Anniversary of our Unit (and, later, at our 50th Anniversary celebration) and the opening ceremonies of the Sokol USA Slet. The children also presented programs at the annual Mikulašská parties and were often included in the T. G. Masaryk Birthday Commemorations, M. R. Štefánik Commemorations, and Czechoslovak Independence Day programs. In 1989, the school moved to Wood Acres Elementary School, in Bethesda, Maryland, in order to offer to the children a gymnastics program, which would immediately follow the language classes. In November 1991, the school moved temporarily to Julius West Middle School in Rockville, Maryland, but by September of 1992 was back at Wood Acres Elementary School, where it meets to this day. The schedule consisted of language classes, folk singing and dancing, and gym classes. Among the School’s and Sokol Washington’s proudest moments have been the children’s participation in the welcoming ceremonies (dressed in traditional kroje) for the Honorable Rita Klimová, first Czechoslovak Federal Republic Ambassador to the U.S., and the welcoming ceremonies for President Vaclav Havel and for Alexander Dubček on their first visits to the United States.
Yet again, as before, the children attending the school grew up and interest in the school waned. By the late 90’s the School ceased to operate and only the gymnastics classes continued. The first inkling that there again was interest in the school came in the fall of 2007 when, under the leadership of Mrs. Sablikova and Sister Levendis, the children who were then attending gymnastics classes prepared a cultural program for the 60th Anniversary celebration of our Unit. Brother Bartos recognized the opportunity and began exploring the possibility of reactivation of the School. Again, with Sokol Washington’s endorsement and a commitment from SVU to assist with finances, the School resumed operations in September of 2008. Under the provisional leadership of Brother Bartos and Sister Levendis, and with the help of Mrs. Sablikova, the first task of the School was to prepare a program of songs, poetry and dance for the Commemoration of the 90th Anniversary of the Czecho-Slovak Republic. While Mrs. Sablikova and Sister Levendis, and numerous adult volunteers, prepared the program, Brother Bartos proceeded to compile a list of prospective students and teachers to get the school underway. Within a few weeks, it was obvious that the interest in Czech and Slovak language instruction as well as in various cultural activities was even greater than had been anticipated. In November, the School commenced instruction in the Czech and Slovak languages. Singing and folk dancing continued along with language instruction. Sister Simona Marchant-Dest and Sister Michelle Perschbacher volunteered to take over the management of the school with assistance from Brother Bartos. In 2009 Sister Andrea Kohlmayer took over the operations of the school. She was succeeded by Sister Michaela Kiss in 2011. Sister Kiss is the School’s Director through date. The Czech and Slovak School, as in the past, is financed by our Unit through our fundraising efforts, together with annual grants from SVU, the Czech Republic and Slovak Republic, as well through fees paid by students’ families Thanks to many volunteers, able teachers and, of course, the hard work of the students, the School has been enjoying great success and recognition during the past few years. Aside from the presentation of the program for the Commemoration of the 90th Anniversary of the Czecho-Slovak Republic, the children have demonstrated their skills in language through singing and poetry, as well as their love of folklore through dancing and the wearing of “kroje”, at various other events, such as their performances at Sokol Washington’s annual Mikulašská Party, Slavic Festival in 2010 and the International Club’s Evening at the Slovak Embassy in 2010. The School’s children are also becoming a staple at the annual European Union Embassies Open House, which takes place in May, performing at both the Slovak and Czech Embassies.
We are proud that our Czech and Slovak School has been flourishing and is benefiting many children and families in the Washington, DC metropolitan area.