The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 3/The Czech Heart

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2928486The Czechoslovak Review, volume 3, no. 5 — The Czech Heart1919

The Czech Heart

People in America cannot possibly grasp in their imagination the awful depths of misery and destitution prevailing in the entire war area of Europe. A great deal has been told about conditions in Belgium, much also about the devastated regions of Poland and Serbia. And Armenia is in a class of its own. But there are other large sections of Europe of which no mention is ever seen in the American press, where famine stalks by day and night and old people and children are dying of exhaustion and hunger typhoid by the thousands. Only a few days ago official reports were received in this country of the activities of a Czechoslovak organization known as the “Czech Heart”, and these reports present a vivid picture of human misery and human charity in a country which has not so far made an appeal for help to America.

Czechoslovak lands are fertile and well cultivated and under normal conditions they produce more food stuffs than are needed for their dense population. But during the war the Austrian government requisitioned most of the crops for the use of the army and for feeding the barren lands of German Austria and the great capital city of Vienna. Czech cities, and especially Prague, were starved by the central authorities, because the Czechs were considered rebels and traitors to the emperor. Only the farmers managed to get enough to eat, for they early learned the trick of hiding some of the grain, butter and eggs raised by them.

During the fourth year of the war living conditions in Prague and many smaller industrial cities became truly terrible. Most of the men, fathers of families, had been dragged away as unwilling conscripts for the Austrian army ; tens of thousands were dead by this time and other tens of thousands were fighting in the recently created Czechoslovak armies in Russia, France and Italy. Their wives and children spent their days and sometimes their nights in trying to get enough food to keep body and soul together. Stores selling food were closed and padlocked, for they had nothing to sell; the death rate doubled and tripled, and grave diggers had to hire assistants. People were wearing out the last of the clothes which they possessed at the beginning of the war. Women stood in line all night long in the severest freezing weather in the hope that they would be in time to get something for their money and bread tickets, when stores opened in the morning. They shivered in their light, torn clothing, and little babies froze on their backs as they stood waiting all night. And if they were lucky enough, they got half of a small loaf of bread made of some sticky material looking and tasting like clay. There has been practically no milk in Prague since 1915. Imagine the fate of babies born during the war; their mortality has been terribly high and those that live are really slowing dying. Of course mothers protected their children as well as they could and gave them food which they drew for themselves. But under such circumstances they could not nurse their babies and there was no milk to be bought or other substitute to be given to the wailing little ones. Nor did drug stores have drugs for the sick and the few inadequate hospitals were always crowded. There are today hundreds of thousands of children in the Czechoslovak Republic who have not worn any shirt for several years. Their little bodies are wound in dirty rags and during the winter, as well as in summer, they walk barefooted. There is no underwear, there is no bed linen, neither in homes nor in hospitals and charitable institutions.

To cope with all this misery seemed a hopeless task. But the attempt was made. An organization that sprang out of charitable hearts, and called itself the “Czech Heart” proved that even in a general condition of hunger and privation self-sacrificing charity could do a great deal to alleviate human misery. On November 17, 1917, the organization of this society was undertaken mainly for the purpose of even ing up the varied levels of privation on which the different classes of the nation stood. The main task was to obtain some food from the country for the poor of Prague and other cities by an appeal both to human sympathy and to Czech patriotism. In a short while there were twenty-eight branches in Prague distributing food stuffs to the most needy and there were over one hundred district organizations in the country which were sending a little of the small stock of eatables saved from the Austrian requisitioning officers. Thus we read in the annual report of the “Czech Heart” that on a certain day a village in Moravia sent 3 loaves of bread and 6 pounds of peas, another village 20 eggs, a larger and richer town sent 60 loaves, 410 eggs, 100 pounds of potatoes and 14 pieces of clothing, another village sent 600 pounds of cherries, etc. Rich people in cities sent contributions in money and with these funds certain foodstuffs were bought which were not taken over by the state or sold only on cards. From 50,000 to 70,000 crowns a week were received for this purpose. But where public provisioning failed, it was hopeless to expect that charity on this small scale could accomplish much in combating famine. Elderly people especially were dying either directly of hunger or of diseases brought on by insufficient nutrition. And so workers of the “Czech Heart” sorrowfully concentrated their efforts on saving the children.

There was no possible way of feeding the children in the cities. The only thing that could be done for them was to send them out to the country, to farmers who would take children as free guests. This step was taken as early as December, 1917, but not until the following Spring was the principal activity of the society devoted to placing children in the country. A powerful campaign was carried on in all of the newspapers to induce the country people to take in the children of Prague and other cities as “national guests”. Soon the agrarian party was enlisted and lent its powerful political organization in all the Czechoslovak counties toward organizing district and village committees to place city children in country homes. Over 7,000 little ones were sent out to the country in the spring of last year.

At first the offices of the “Czech Heart” in Prague had considerable trouble in convincing mothers, who saw in this a new scheme of Austrian authorities, to allow their children to be taken away from them. But with the incessant newspaper campaigns the aims of the society were made clear to every one, and soon the offices were crowded with mothers bringing hungry children, bringing sick and even dying children in their arms, all actuated with the hope that the society could save them. New offices had to be opened in various quarters of the city of Praque and from 1,500 to 2,000 mothers and children applied there for help every day.

Some of the scenes taking place daily in the Prague offices of the “Czech Heart” are described in a booklet written by Rose Svoboda, the noble woman who organized the work for children of this great society. She speaks eloquently of those children with the ashen color in their faces and big eyes burning with the dying flame of life. The ideal of the Prague children is no longer home, but country and a good woman who will give them bread and milk. Hundreds of children come every day hoping that it is their turn to be sent out where there was something to eat. Some of them look pretty full in their faces, but the arm is a mere bone. “You look well”, says the worker to a little girl. And the girl answered seriously: “But we really do not have any breakfast or supper, we eat only once a day.” “And what do you eat?” “Oats.” And how poor workers in the offices feel, when invitations from the country fall off and the children are told that there is no chance for a long time of sending them out. The children won’t believe that they are doomed and the mothers beg for a chance for their children, refusing to go back home deprived of all hope.

Those that go to the country are indeed saved. A boy writes to his mother: “I eat now so much that I am fit to burst and I will be soon as fat as the viceroy.” Other children try to send something to their mothers in Prague, and if they can’t get any bread they at least pick mushrooms and send dried mushrooms to their old homes. Mrs. Svoboda tells of a small emaciated girl from a Prague suburb. Her father, an ordinary working man, was in the army and mother was dead. Five children kept house in one small room. The eldest girl was 18 and was the housekeeper, a boy of 16 was working in a munition factory and there was a smaller boy with highly developed consumption. This little girl had to sleep in one bed with the consumptive boy. She. was sent out to one of the farmer’s homes and a few weeks later her brother wrote to the society to thank them for what they did. He said: “Mrs. W . asked me to visit my sister for Easter. When I came there I could not recognize Ella, for she was dressed nicely and had full rosy cheeks. At home she would hardly say a word and now she kept telling me what a great time she had. She whispered to me that her new ‘aunt’ was like mother used to be. And then she said that she would have liked poor Frank to come out instead of her, that he would get well in the country. She has a good heart and told me that sometimes she could hardly eat dumplings and cake and milk, when she thought that we had black, unsweetened coffee and corn bread at home.”

Conditions have not improved by the overthrow of Austrian rule and today life is still as hard and death as common in the Czechoslovak Republic as it was under the Hapsburgs. There is not one-third of the necessary food in the country, for crops were poor by reason of lack of cattle and lack of fertilizers and a great deal of the insufficient crops was taken by the last requisitions of the Austrian government in September and October. From the very day of the revolution on October 28, 1918, the principal business of the new Czechoslovak authorities was to increase the rations of the people and get food from the outside. But not till March did the first few carloads arrive, principally from America, and while several train loads with meats, flour, and fats come each day from Trieste and more is expected to come on barges from Hamburg, it is all far from enough. People are still dying of hunger in Prague, and in the industrial cities of northern Bohemia the mortality of children under five years is more than 50 per cent.

An appeal has been made recently by the “Czech Heart” to the Czechoslovaks in the United States for quick and substantial relief and now this appeal is reinforced by a call issued by Dr. Alice Masaryk, daughter of the President of the Czechoslovak Republic. Alice Masaryk is the woman who three years ago was in danger of execution by the Austrian government and who was saved by a mighty protest of American women to the Austrian ambassador. Today Alice Masaryk who spent some years in Chicago as a settlement worker is head of the Czechoslovak Red Cross. In her letter to her countrymen in America she says:

“We still have hundreds of children dying of hunger; there are hundreds of children dressed in rags, there are entire districts where the children are almost all dead. Did you realize how many sighs each minute are given out in Prague, do you ever see the pitiable smiles of emaciated children, living skeletons? Austria sucked out our blood, you must nurse us back to life. You must have faith and you must get to work. Awaken your fellow-citizens, whether they are of Czechoslovak origin or Anglo-Saxon. Send food, under wear, clothing and shoes for children, new things or second-hand. Send money also, for our needs are immense.” Much money has been collected during the war by the Czechoslovak people in this country; they alone maintained for four years the revolutionary campaign for the disruption of Austria and the liberation of Bohemia, the campaign led by Masaryk, so gloriously successful in the end. Now they are turning all their efforts toward collecting millions in food, clothing and money for the relief of the awful misery among their brothers and sisters in the Czechoslovak Republic. The work is done through the Czechoslovak Relief Committee, 436 West 23rd street, New York City. The immediate plan is to send out a ship in June which will be loaded partly with food and clothing bought from money collected, partly by old clothing which the American Red Cross will allot to the needy in Czechovakia, and partly by packages of clothing and food sent by Czechoslovak immigrants here to their needy relations and friends.

Up to this time no attempt was made by the Czechoslovaks in America to enlist the charity of others. The entire work of libration was paid for by their own gifts; they took care of their own soldiers and their families. But now they feel in view of the desperate conditions in the old country and the urgent appeals of the Czech Heart and the Czechoslovak Red Cross that they must tell the American people what great sufferings are still borne by those Czechoslovaks who have merited so well of the Allies. Will America which so gen erously gave its admiration to the brave Czechoslovak soldiers give also of its wealth for the saving of Czechoslovak children?

This work was published in 1919 and is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 104 years or less since publication.

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