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Czech heritage conference preserves roots, aids family tree research

By BY JJ VELASQUEZ
July 31, 2010 at 2:31 a.m.

Bette Stockbauer-Harris speaks at Saturday's Czech Heritage Society conference about her ancestors Jan and Ferdinand Pribyl. Their history in Victoria traces back to the late 1800s when they settled in Victoria County.

SHILLERVILLE CEMETERYA historical marker at the Shillerville Cemetery in southeast Victoria County recognizes the site as one of the early Czech settlements here.

From the Czech Heritage Society of Texas' website: "The community of Shillerville began when several Czechoslovakian families came to this area in 1894. Among the first settlers was Jan Shiller, for whom the farm community was named. The first burial, that of Rosalie Balcar Jirasek, took place in 1897 on land given by Josef Lesikar and wife, Terezie Marek Lesikar. The graveyard was originally known as the Lesikar or Bohemian Burial ground. Additional land was donated in 1954 which increased the size of the cemetery to one acre. Some of the early grave markers are inscribed in Czech."

In an ode to her Czech ancestry, Gladys Orsak donned a kroj at Saturday's State Czech Heritage Society conference in Victoria.

Wearing the traditional Czech dress is a way the Czech-American preserves her culture, which time tends to whittle away. As children, Orsak said she and her siblings thought speaking Czech was silly, but now she wishes she would have picked up more of it.

"We don't realize how hard our ancestors worked," Orsak said, "especially how hard the Czechs worked."

Saturday's conference took place at Holy Family Catholic Church, which drew Texans with Czech ancestry from some of the state organization's 15 chapters. Booths were set up with library materials so that those interested could research their genealogy.

TJ Slansky, of San Antonio, took an interest in genealogy in the late 1980s. The advent of personal computers helped further his research.

Slansky picked up little by little with the help of a genealogy program on his computer and became more involved after he retired. By 2000, he found where his paternal grandfather came from.

In October 2001, he visited the village his ancestors emigrated from and the relatives who had remained there.

Slansky hired a Czech researcher to help him track down his family lines, and now most of his family tree is complete. Genealogy research has satisfied the Czech-American's curiosity about his ancestors, he said.

"It's something I just enjoy, to know who these people were and what became of them," he said.

Czechoslovakian immigrants began arriving in Victoria County and the Crossroads in the late 19th century in small communities, according to Marjorie Matula, a former president of the local chapter.

The local chapter was founded in 1984 and has grown ever since, Matula said.

Tracing back genealogy and preserving their ancestors' culture are things the older Czech-American generations take interest in, but younger generations get involved, too, she said.

"You want the older people, but you want the youth so you can carry on" Czech heritage, Matula said.

Attending conferences and listening to the presentations helps even people with deep knowledge of their ancestry, she said.

"You know some things," she said, "but you find out a lot of things here."

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