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Editorial: South Omaha's Czech heritage receives a worthy national salute

Editorial: South Omaha's Czech heritage receives a worthy national salute

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13th and William Streets in Little Bohemia, where many of the buildings date to the 1800s.

Buildings connect communities to the past — to their heritage. It’s fitting that the National Register of Historic Places now includes one of Omaha’s most culturally rich neighborhoods: Little Bohemia, for generations the vibrant center of Czech life in our city.

The Czech experience in Omaha extends back to our city’s earliest decades, and Czech life in South Omaha’s Little Bohemia neighborhood gathered particular momentum in the late 1880s. Today, the neighborhood is notable for the large number of existing structures dating from 1885 to 1900.

A standout is the Prague Hotel, a three-story Renaissance Revival structure built in 1898 and in use in our era as apartments. In the early 20th century, the hotel was well known throughout Czech circles worldwide; it hosted many prominent travelers including the foreign minister of Czechoslovakia.

Before long, the hotel became became the epicenter of a thriving Czech community. Local businesses included Kalcik’s tailor shop, Kuncl’s meat market, Polan’s hardware store, Nemec’s shoe store, Masek’s bakery, Michka’s eatery and Stenicka’s hat shop.

In 1926, South Omaha community life took a major step forward with construction of Sokol Auditorium at 13th and Martha Streets, giving Czech residents a landmark social gathering center, still in use today.

Notable, too, was the Bohemian Cafe, which served up generous helpings of Old World hospitality along with its boiled beef, dill gravy and Czech goulash. The beloved restaurant closed in 2016 after 92 years.

Nebraska as a whole stands out for the richness of its Czech heritage. About 5.1% of Nebraska residents claim some kind of Czech heritage, well above the national average of 0.6%, according to U.S. Census data. Nebraska communities such as Wilber and Dwight come alive each year with local Czech festivals amid the merry pulse of polka music and the swirl of dancers in traditional costuming.

Given this heritage, it’s fitting that in 2018 the University of Nebraska-Lincoln hosted an ambitious four-day event on Czech history and culture, attended by a delegation of Czech scholars and government officials.

Omaha and Nebraska are fortunate to have a notable mosaic of ethnic cultures, with Czech heritage among the most vibrant.

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