From Bohemia: Ma and Pa Karas
by Louis Adamic, Survey Graphic, October 1, 1940
Note: Two years ago (1938) Louis Adamic, author of “My America” and editor of Common Ground, undertook one of the most ambitious writing projects of our time—an analysis of America’s great melting-pot experiment, based upon 9,500 questionnaires, 20,000 letters of inquiry, 38,000 miles of travel, with the assistance of the Rockefeller and Carnegie foundations. This chapter, abridged from the resultant book, “From Many Lands” (to be brought out by Harper & Brothers) affords a wholesome sidelight upon the traditional American resolution of some of Europe’s individual minority problems of a generation ago.
HELENA TOPINKA WAS BORN IN THE LATE EIGHTIES in Kozlany, an average Bohemian town midway between Pilsen and Prague. Decades later it took on fame as the birthplace of Eduard Benes, whom Helena then remembered as a pleasant-mannered boy two or three years her senior.
During the Nineties, when Helena Topinka was a child, her father was a well-to-do brewmaster who at various times leased and operated small breweries in different parts of Bohemia and Moravia. He was a proud Czech, a business man with rigid Central European middle-class standards and values: thorough, industrious, and honorable.
Between Helena’s tenth and twelfth years the Topinkas resided in Pomoklé, a town near Prague. Attending school there, she met her future husband, though at the time no one could have dreamed they ever would marry. His name was Frantisek Karas. His father owned little house, two cows, a few acres of not the most fertile land in the nearby village of Buciny, and a trumpet which he played at local dances and weddings. This meant that young Frantisek was fathoms beneath Helena Topinka in social and economic standing, and their early acquaintance was mostly a matter of tentative grins and fugitive words.
About 1900, Papa Topinka experienced serious business verses. Small breweries were being absorbed by large ones, and in 1903 the family found itself in critical circumstances.
Just then a relative returned for a visit from Chicago, here she had lived for years and done well in marriage and business. She suggested that some of the Topinka youngsters come with her to the United States. She described America as a land rich in opportunities for people of afraid of hard work, especially for industrious wide-awake young folk.
Helena, then sixteen, and one of her younger brothers, Alois, decided to go to America. The Chicago relative offered to loan them passage money and, after some hesitation, the parents gave their approval. When I asked Helena thirty-seven years later what had prompted her to make the decision, she said: “I was only a burden on my father; what could I have done at home? Wait for a man to turn up who might marry me without a dot? I figured I might do a little better in America than in Bohemia.”
In the old country Helena could not very well have become a servant girl, regardless of the urgency of her economic plight. On arriving in Chicago, however, she discovered that hundreds of Bohemian women in Chicago, now married, had on first coming over served for a few years as maids in old-stock American and German and Jewish American families. The Bohemian American Household Help Agency, the office of which was in the heart of the Czech neighborhood, had no trouble placing Bohemian girls as fast as they came over. It placed Helena Topinka in the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sam Levy as nurse to their three children.
In writing to her parents about this, she took care to explain that this was all right in Chicago—America was “different”—and by and by Papa and Mama Topinka seemed to become reconciled to the idea. Helena and Alois sent them small sums of money and later helped to bring to the United States almost all of the other young Topinkas. Two of the boys died in France as American soldiers during the First World War. . . .
The Levys were also immigrants: Mr. Levy from Russian Poland, Mrs. Levy from Vienna. Their children were American-born. Helen—as they called her—found them fine, open-hearted people. Virtually a member of the family, she stayed with them for seven years, till all the youngsters had outgrown the need of a nurse . . . and she married.
FRANTISEK KARAS’S FATHER WHO EVIDENTLY HAD A NATURAL passion for music, wanted his oldest son to become a violinist. His mother sang Czech folksongs all day long, in the field, at her cooking, at the crib of her latest infants; and she also favored giving Frantisek a musical education. If they could only send him to Prague! But that was out of the question.
When the boy was twelve, the older Karas heard of a man in the adjacent town of Beroun who gave violin lessons as a hobby. Peasant Karas took his son to see the man, who agreed to take the boy into his shop as an apprentice file-maker and give him three violin lessons weekly.
Young Frantisek stayed in Beroun for three and a half years, working in the shop and studying the violin. But he realized he could not, in the long run, be both a filemaker and a musician. Also, no matter how expert he might become at his trade, he could not hope, anywhere in Austria to make more than the equivalent of three dollars a week.
At this point, a native of Buciny returned home for a visit. He told the Karases of some American-born relatives of theirs in Chicago by the name of Kolar, one of whom had a harness shop while the other was a factory foreman. He met Frantisek and, returning to Chicago, told the Kolars about the boy.
The Kolars promptly wrote the Karases: would Frantisek like to come to America? If so, they would send the money for his passage. With his parents’ approval, Frantisek jumped at the chance, and he arrived in Chicago the same week as Helena Topinka—but the two remained unaware of each other’s presence in the New World for several months. In fact, they had all but forgotten one another and their encounters during their school years in Pomoklé.
Frantisek Karas became Frank Karas. His American-born cousin, Louis Kolar, the factory foreman, promptly found Frank a job in his department. The young greenhorn began at $10.25 a week and thought he would soon be a millionaire and organize an orchestra. Then a strike broke out in the machine industry of Chicago and lasted eight months.
During most of the strike Frank Karas worked as pants-presser in a tailor shop at six dollars a week. Nearly all the patrons were Czechs. Living and working in the neighborhood was almost like being back home in Bohemia.
The strike over, Frank returned to his former job at $10.25 a week, which in the course of the next two and a half years was raised to $14.75.
Two days before he quit the pants-pressing job a young man brought in a suit to be cleaned. He gave his name: Alois Topinka. They recognized one another, for Alois had also attended school in Pomoklé.
Alois told Frank that Helen was in America too. The following Sunday all three got together and thereafter Frank, now seventeen, had something to live for besides music.
He had started taking violin lessons the first week in Chicago. His teacher, with whom he studied for two years, was a Czech, Frank Kolbaba, who had a studio in the Bohemian section and later became professor of music at Washburn College in Topeka, Kan. His second teacher, Horymir Chapek, also a Czech, played the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
A good part of Frank’s wages went for music lessons for his violin which he acquired on the installment plan and for concert and opera tickets for Helen and himself. His ambition to be a musician persisted.
On the way to and from work he passed a United States Army recruiting and one day noticed a special sign on the poster: “Wanted—Musicians for Army Bands.” The recruiting sergeant assured Frank that if he enlisted he would have plenty of opportunity to study music.
Frank Karas was nineteen; the enlistment was for three years. He had a talk with Helen. Would she wait for him? That settled, he joined the army and was sent to a regiment in Wyoming, which soon after was ordered to the Philippines.
Frank was disappointed in the army. It had no real interest in music. Outside of an occasional officers’ dance, was no demand for string or orchestral music. Frank took up the cornet and, by the end of the enlistment, learned to play it well.
Helen and he exchanged weekly letters. On his release from the service they married in Chicago. Helen’s father, who disapproved of the marriage because Frank Karas was nothing but a peasant’s son with no clear future ahead of him, was gently reminded that this was America where one’s background whether peasant or aristocratic, was of slight moment.
HELEN AND FRANK WERE TWENTY-TWO AND VERY MUCH IN love, citizens of the United States, with something two thousand dollars to their name. They had saved this money serving Uncle Sam and the Sam Levys, respectively. They furnished a modest flat in the Bohemian section.
Chicago was full of excellent musicians, most of them were Germans, Italians, Jews, and Czechs, and Frank Karas soon realized he was not yet good enough either a violinist or cornetist to find steady musical employment. As a violinist, he had, in fact, grown rusty in the army. So he went back to the factory. He made fifteen dollars a week and resumed lessons, now both in violin and cornet, with the best teachers in Chicago. In 1911, partly with the aid of his instructors, he began to get temporary evening jobs with small orchestras playing in hotel restaurants, stock company theaters and at special affairs.
In 1912 a machine clipped off a half-inch of Frank’s thumb and he quit the factory for good. The accident only temporarily affected his ability to play and soon he found a permanent position as a cornetist in the orchestra of the famous Rector Cafe. Frank received thirty-six dollars a week, and the future looked bright to him and to Helen.
The Karases’ first-born, in 1911, was a boy, William; r later came a girl, Elsie. Expecting to stay in Chicago the rest of their lives, they bought a home. But ,a few months later—in 1913—hard times hit Chicago along the rest of the country. For musicians the period was one of panic.
Except for brief engagements at long intervals, Frank Karas was out of employment the better part of a year. Determined to “make a go of it” as a musician, he tried to teach violin and cornet, and discovered he liked teaching. But the lessons Frank gave were not enough to meet the obligations on his new home and to support his family.
Like all unemployed musicians, Frank Karas read carefully the want-ads and notices in the monthly paper issued by the Chicago Federation of Musicians’ Unions. Early in 1914 he came upon an item to effect that the town band Menominee, in northern Michigan, needed a cornet soloist. No salary went with job, the band being an amateur organization; but a good soloist would be guaranteed employment and a wage of fifteen dollars a week in a local factory. Besides, he might pick up some extra money playing in the band when it was engaged professionally for lodge affairs, weddings, and picnics. Also, he might give lessons in cornet and other instruments, and thus add to his income.
Frank showed the notice to Helen. They looked up Menominee on the map: a small city on Lake Michigan’s Green Bay. It would be nice to live in such a community. Of course that might mean he never would get in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but—
IN MENOMINEE TWO MORE CHILDREN WERE BORN TO THE Karases—another girl, Clara, and another boy, Frank. The family liked northern Michigan very much. Menominee was a pleasant, busy community with a population between ten and twelve thousand, including two thousand Bohemian immigrants and their American-born children.
Now in his late twenties, Frank Karas at once became busy and popular citizen of Menominee. He was put in charge of the band and a string orchestra the boys organized. He worked in the factory only the first few years, and was treated with much deference, given a leave whenever his factory job threatened to interfere with his music. He made good money and, having sold the place in Chicago, he bought a home in Menominee. The town was ideal for raising a family; everyone was friendly, and he and Helen felt much happier living in a small city than they had in Chicago.
Frank Karas took on more and more pupils, and he and his orchestra were out playing three or four nights a week, till early in the 1920’s overwork brought him to the verge of a breakdown. He tried vainly to give up some of his activities. He had become so definitely a center of all musical life in Menominee that he could not extricate himself.
He suddenly decided—with the approval of his worried wife—to quit Menominee and accept the job of orchestra leader which had been offered him repeatedly by the largest movie theater in Escanaba, a city of sixteen thousand about seventy miles north of Menominee.
The Karases sold the house in Menominee and bought one in Escanaba. Mr. Karas’ new job took only a few hours in the evening, giving him a chance to rebuild his health. Then he began to take pupils once more—only one or two a day—because he liked to teach. The four Karas children were growing into healthy, good-looking boys and girls, all going to school, and the family was one of the most content in Escanaba.
Thus till early in 1929, when the talkies, with their “canned music,” plunged the musicians throughout the United States into another panic. Mr. Karas lost his job in the movie house, and the family’s scheme of living was disrupted once more.
In the large cities this panic was fatal to the careers of tens of thousands of musicians. To Mr. Karas in Escanaba, Mich., the loss of his job was another piece of good luck, although it did not instantly appear so. He promptly took on all the pupils who had been wanting to study violin and cornet with him, including a number of high school youngsters. Presently his work with these boys and girls was noticed by the superintendent of schools and the high school principal. They suggested he qualify for an appointment as music teacher in the city school system. He took the state examination, got the appointment, and has been a school teacher ever since. He also became director of the Escanaba Municipal Band.
But before Mr. Karas was drawn into the school system, he and Mrs. Karas realized his income from violin and cornet lessons would not be enough to educate the children. Bill and Elsie were finishing high school, while Clara and Frank would be ready for college in a few years. So Mrs. Karas decided to go into business.
THEY SOLD THEIR HOME AND BOUGHT A RAMSHACKLE LITTLE frame structure on a small lot near the Escanaba High school, with the idea of turning it into a store which would cater to the approximately eight hundred students, most of whom passed the spot twice every school day.
The Karases put up a tiny addition in front for the new store, made repairs on the old part, painted everything; and in the fall of 1929 Mrs. Karas opened for business. She carried “light groceries” for the chance neighborhood customers, but her chief stock was made up of pencils, notebooks, erasers, and other school supplies, soda pop, ice cream, milk, fruit, candy, cookies, pie, cakes, and sandwiches. The family moved into the repaired old part of the building, which included a fairly big kitchen with room enough for the dining table, a couple of small bedrooms and the bath upstairs, and the parlor on whose window Mr. Karas painted his name and “Violin and Cornet Lessons.” Behind the building was a yard with a few trees and space for vegetables and flowers.
The new store was an immediate hit with the high school boys and girls. That first winter they named it “The Igloo,” because their football team was called The Eskymos and because it was often approachable only through a tunnel cut into the deep, hard snow promptly became, and still is, an institution in Escanaba. The youngsters heard Mrs. Karas’s children call her “Ma,” and so in no time they all took to calling her Ma, too.
Now, in her mid-fifties, more than a decade after the inception of The Igloo, Ma Karas is a healthy, buxom, graying woman with spectacles and a mild, kind smile. She wears print dresses and New England aprons. Her movements are unhurried even when The Igloo is jammed with youthful customers crying “Ma, give me a cone! Come on, Ma! . . . Ma, give me a piece of that pie; hurry up, will you, Ma! Do I gotta wait all day? . . . Here’s the nickel I owe you, Ma, and don’t say I never gave you nothin’! . . .”
The Igloo is open fourteen to sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, and the profit from it is meager—averaging eighteen dollars a week, which Ma does not need. Pa Karas now makes enough to maintain them in comfort. But Ma goes on running The Igloo. She says she would feel lost if she gave it up. “I don’t know how to play bridge. I’d wonder about the kids.”
Ma knows most of the eight hundred high school youngsters and an additional hundred or so of the younger children who live in the immediate vicinity: The Igloo. A good half she knows in intimately; not by prying into the facts of their home life, but intuitively through her brief contacts with them as they come in from day to day for penny sticks of candy, milk shakes, pencils and erasers.
She likes the youngsters; but not in any sentimental way which might involve a semi-morbid “motherly” desire to fuss and fret over them, or imply they are young and therefore inferior and in need of her. There is nothing morbid or neurotic about Ma. Her mother instincts and needs have been, and are being, satisfied in her own family.
She does have a sense of responsibility toward her customers. And being a deep disciplined and actively moral person, as well as natural, matter-of-fact, and full of common sense, she has become an influence in their lives. They come to her with their difficulties and misunderstandings. Her manner encourages them to talk; she listens patiently to whatever they have to say. In turn, they listen to her and quote her to one another. They know she is more interested in them than in their pennies and nickels. She laughs with them; she can take a joke, but keeps an eye on possible mischief.
On the counter is a basket of eggs, and one of the favorite pastimes of the youthf1 Igloo clientele is to decorate them with faces, wisecracks, and dates. Ma tells them not to, but not very emphatically, and they slip on such legends as “Laid—1492” or “Ready to Hatch—Don’t Buy Me.” Another Igloo sport is to take an egg and play catch with it, tossing it from one to the other. By-and-by someone misses it, then comes Ma inevitable exclamation: “What did I tell you!” They feel sheepish for a moment, gladly pay the three cents for the broken egg; someone gets the pail, brush, and mop from the kitchen and cleans up the mess. Off and on Ma has to take the broom and literally sweep everyone out. Nobody minds; they all come back again.
Once in a while they make fun of her accent, which sometimes becomes quite heavy, or of her pronunciation of certain words. She takes this kidding good-naturedly and asks them to teach her, or inquires how they think they would make out in the Czech language should they move to Bohemia.
Ma has no favorites. She gives no credit above a nickel, sells no cigarettes to youngsters of high school age or under.
When the kids come to her for advice, she appeals to their intelligence. “Was that a smart thing to do?”—or, “What do you think you should do now?” She has a knack of simultaneously praising and scolding without raising her voice. One young man, now out of high school for several years, has been able to get an objective view of Ma’s effect on him. “She used to make me feel at once proud that I was I,” he told me, “and ashamed like the dickens that I wasn’t better. I used to love to have her talk to me, even, if not especially, when she scolded me. . . .” The young people have no guards before her. They tell her everything; in many cases more than they tell their parents. She knows most of their boy-girl troubles and could be a source of endless gossip, but even her own family never learns what she hears in The Igloo.
Ma has no sympathy with classifying people, and especially youngsters, as “good” and “bad.” To her notion, everybody is good for something; the question is, for what? Early in her career as The Igloo proprietress, she studied a boy who was labeled “bad” and conducted a quiet campaign in his behalf for several years. At the same time she “worked” on him; nobody knows just how (she doesn’t talk about it), but perhaps merely by showing an interest in him and asking him, “Was that a smart thing to do?” Edward Edick, the principal, is sure the boy straightened out during his last year in high school largely because of her. Today the young man has overcome the unfortunate family circumstances which were at the bottom of his early behavior. He moved to another town after finishing college, but he never visits Escanaba without calling on Ma; now and then he sends her a card, always a gift on her birthday.
There are dozens of similar cases in Escanaba. They were told to me (not by Ma) in very general terms with the request that I do not mention them even that way.
Mr. Edick freely admits that but for Ma his job as principal of the high school might be a good deal harder than it is. A couple of years ago he asked her to come to a “pep” assembly. She thought he meant to have her sit in the audience. But Mr. Edick took her onto the platform and had her take the seat next to John Lemmer, the superintendent of schools. When the students saw her, they gave her the biggest hand anyone had ever received in that school. The ovation lasted several minutes. It embarrassed and surprised Ma. On Mr. Edick’s insistence she has been attending occasional general assemblies and graduation exercises ever since.
The events in Ma’s life, such as her occasional trip to Chicago, are reported in the high school paper. Every now and then some student writes a poem entitled “To Ma Karas.” In the last eight years she has been honorary president of numerous student clubs. She is invited to class reunions. Three or four times a year various student groups give dinners for her, and the Escanaba Press sends a reporter to cover them.
During the Czech crisis in the fall of 1938, while Ma sat by the radio, tears running down her face as she listened to the reports of the drastic developments in Berlin, London, Paris, and Munich, her young friends stood about her. “Don’t cry, Ma!” . . . “Don’t worry, Ma; Czechoslovakia will be free again. . . .”
BILL KARAS IS TWENTY-NINE, A MODEST-MANNERED YOUNG man, graduate of the Michigan College of Mining at Houghton, where he met a Scotch-Irish girl and later married her. He is the engineer in charge of the Delta County roads. He and his wife live next door to The Igloo, which is pleasant and handy all around. They have a baby and when they want to go out, they take it over to Ma; and the daughter-in-law takes charge of the store when Mr. and Mrs. Karas go to a movie.
Elsie Karas is the teacher of singing in the public school system in Muskegon Heights, Mich.; early in 1940 she published her first song. Clara, who seems to be a copy of Ma in temperament, finished her college course at Marquette in 1939 and received a Michigan teaching appointment. Twenty and a six-footer, Frank is in the grip of an ambition to be a football coach.
All four of the Karas children are identified with Menominee and Escanaba, with Lake Michigan, the green woods, the deep snows, the cool summer winds. They speak of the complexity of circumstances which brought the Karas family to Upper Michigan with good-humored gratitude. They proudly “kid” Pa Karas, who, with but a few years of formal schooling back in Pomoklé, Bohemia, has become a school teacher in America; and their mother, who has become a local institution called Ma.
They are Americans. But they are conscious of their Bohemian background. They speak Czech. Their mother has told them scores of Bohemian folk tales. All share keenly their parents’ agony over the status of Bohemia since 1938.
Ma and Pa Karas are Americans, yet they are also Czechs and immigrants. On a wall in the little hall between the kitchen and the parlor is the Czech national motto: “Truth Will Prevail.” On festive occasions Mrs. Karas roasts a goose and serves it with Bohemian bread or potato dumplings and sauerkraut—a combination that tastes better than it may sound to non-Czechs.
Mr. Karas subscribes to Svornost, a Czech-language newspaper published and edited by my friend Vladimir Geringer in Chicago. On the Karases’ bookshelves several Czech books, including a biography of Dr. Eduard Benes, which contains a number of pictures of town of Kozlany, his and Helena Topinka’s birthplace. Mrs. Karas likes to show these pictures.
When she shows them to some of her young friends in The Igloo, they remark that the houses in Kozlany are rather different from the houses in Escanaba. Ma agrees, but adds that in many ways, perhaps, Kozlany is in Bohemia what Escanaba is in Michigan or, for that matter, in America—an average town.
“Which house were you born in, Ma?”
She points to one of the largest dwellings, made of stone. Then the following wisecracks are in order:
“Gee, whiz, Ma; do you mean to say you were born in this great big palace. . . . Let me touch the hem your garment, Mrs. Karas. . . . Now look where you live; right here in The Igloo. What a come-down, Ma! What a come-down! . . .”
They all laugh, including Ma. Whereupon Pa Karas, who is giving a music lesson in the parlor, raps on the wall, begging that the racket cease.
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Source: Adamic, Louis, “From Bohemia: Ma and Pa Karas,” Survey Graphic, Vol. 29, No. 10, p. 489 (October 1, 1940).