On Sunday, Nov. 11 at 11:11 a.m., church bells tolled in Gonzales and across the country to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I. For some area residents, the anniversary of the ending of the war had a special meaning for their ancestors and to their Czech-Slovakian heritage.
“This area has a rich history with Czech-Slovak lineage,” Sue Camarillo said last week. “They started coming over to America around 1900 and settled in this region. The Lesak’s, the Tomas’s, the Kopecky’s and the Malatek’s were some of the first Czech-Slovak settlers in Gonzales County. Through marriage, many of the families were inter-related, and by World War I, many of the Czech-Slovak men from these families served in the war. Many served, some were wounded, and we know that at least one of them died for their country.”
Czechs are the Slavic inhabitants of the old Austrian provinces of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia are generally referred to as Bohemians. Slovaks are Slavic peoples living in the northern part of Hungary bordering on Bohemia and Moravia.
Eugene Kopecky was one of the first in this area. He was born in Shiner on Jan. 9, 1888, the son of Joseph Frank and Ludmilla Kopecky. Joseph who had immigrated to Texas in 1870 from Halenkov.
Joe Malatek immigrated to the United States in 1896 from Horni Ujezd, which was part of the Austria-Hungarian Hohenzollern-Hapsburg empire at that time. He married Frances Polasek and lived here all his life. His brother Anton fought in World War I and was wounded in 1918 at the Battle of St. Mihiel in France.
Josef Lesak immigrated to the United States from Horni Netcice with his wife Petronilla Sehnalek Lesak and three children in October of 1900. He moved to Gonzales in 1910 and he and his wife had 10 children.
Josef Anton Tomas immigrated to the United States from Horni Ujezd in 1907. He was in Gonzales by 1910, and he married Annie Malatek and they had seven children.
From these four families came many of the descendants who still inhibit this area today. They were also very active in supporting the United States war effort and helping their fellow Czechs and Slovaks who stayed behind in the old country battling for their own independence and nation status.
At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Austrian-Hungarian empire made war against the Russians and the Slovaks in Croatia. Many of the men and women of Czech and Slovakian heritage rebelled and recoiled at the domination of the Kaiser and the Hapsburg king, preferring to fight with the Russians, the French and the British. As the war widened and the slaughter continue, the United States eventually entered the fray in 1917 after President Woodrow Wilson declared war on Germany and the Hapsburg empire.
Tens of thousands of men from all across America signed up to fight in the war, and men in Gonzales were no different. Many of the men from this area with Bohemian signed up to fight and marched off to war overseas in 1917 and 1918.
As the war widened and came to its climax in the summer and fall of 1918, local Czechs and Slovaks united in September of 1918 to form the Czecho-Slovak War Fund Association #889. The organization was one of many created across the United States whose purpose was to raise money for their fellow countrymen who were fighting, serving and dying in the Great War. In September and October of that year, meetings were held and over $300 was raised to be used to help feed, cloth and provide succor to fellow Czechs and Slovaks who were fighting against the Germans and Hapsburgs.
Over 300,000 soldiers from Bohemia were in need of shoes, clothing, rifles and bullets and the War Fund Associations were designed to help pay for the clothing and weaponry needed to defeat the enemy.
But money wasn’t the only thing the local Bohemians contributed. Anton Malatek and Anton Zela Jr. both went to war and started in Company L of the 36th division, a Texas and Oklahoma National Guard division that fought valiantly in the Meuse-Argonne breakout that led to the German defeat in November of 1918. 466 men were killed from this division and another 2,118 were wounded in action.
Zela was on the front with the 36th Division for 78 days and was in several battles. He was wounded seven times, lost one eye, and came home limping on one leg. He came home with two German bullets that were removed from his body.
Malatek went to war with the 36th Division, but later was transferred to the famous 42nd Division, or the Rainbow Division of Douglas MacArthur. He fought heroically at St. Mihiel on Sept. 12 and was wounded by a gun shot in his left thigh in the Argonne Forest. He recuperated at a hospital in Verdun.
Four men from this area were not so lucky, as they died in France. Stepan Darnak was killed in action and was buried in France, until he was later disinterred and reburied at the city cemetery here in Gonzales. Frank Maloch was killed in France on Sept. 22 while John Kalinec was killed in action on Sept. 13, 1918. Both men are buried in France. Another Gonzales resident, Theo Dylla, died of pneumonia during the war.
The War Fund Association stayed in existence until 1920 then disbanded. After the conclusion of World War I, Czechoslovakia was granted nationhood for its role in defeating the German and Hapsburg empires.