Two Brothers–The Czech Letters of Jan and Ferdinand Pribyl
A Presentation by Bette Stockbauer at the SVU Regional Conference at Texas A&M University, June 6, 2009

            <<Slide 1>>In our family, we have a precious heritage, a treasure of over 200 letters written between my paternal great-grandfather, Jan Pribyl, and his brother, Ferdinand, both of whom grew up in Frenstat, Moravia. <<Slide 2-Jan>>In 1873, Jan, the elder brother, immigrated with his family to Texas, landing at Galveston and settling in Ross Prairie, south of Fayetteville.

            During Jan’s first 12 years in Texas, Ferdinand was still in Moravia, with no plans or desire to come to America, and during those years we have a remarkable correspondence between the two. Because of their separation, I believe that each were able to convey ideas and feelings that may not have been expressed between them face-to-face. Jan’s letters are replete with descriptions of the new land and difficult labors he had undertaken, and Ferdinand describes his gradually debilitating circumstances in Europe that finally led him to also immigrate in 1885.

            These letters were located and preserved by my mother, Elizabeth Stockbauer, who also arranged for translation. My mother was able to join us today and I would like to extend to her my thanks for her diligence in preserving this unique family heritage.

            <<Slide 3 - Ferdinand & Anna>>Dr. Machann was kind enough to publish some of these letters in the Fall 2007 issue of Kosmas. In that article there were many descriptions of the physical challenges of life in America, the vagaries of weather, crops, snakes, centipedes, and scorpions. But there are many aspects to these letters, and for this presentation, I have chosen a few that expose a more philosophical, literary, and spiritual side.

            Despite their difficult circumstances, both brothers were well aware that refinements of the mind and creative pursuits are necessary to keep the inner life of soul and spirit vibrant and progressing, and each made considerable effort to integrate those cultural values into the life they had undertaken. Both were avid readers and vividly descriptive writers. And Ferdinand, in his later years, left an artistic legacy that is treasured by our whole family.

            <<Slide 4 – Pribyl Homestead>>Eventually the brothers bought land together in Victoria County, where I grew up, and became successful farmers. I believe their lives demonstrated a great skill in integrating the best that could be found on either continent, combining the rough and wild freedom of America with the cultural aspects of their European legacy.

Ross Prairie

            <<Slide 5 - Letters>>This letter from Jan describes his surroundings in Fayetteville in 1880:

“… the region around Fayetteville is getting year-by-year more of the Slavic stamp. In the countryside around here it is almost peculiar to hear the English language spoken. Therefore one encounters here people from the old country that have been living here for ten or fifteen years and they can hardly say or understand a word of English, and because they can get away without it, the majority shows very little interest in learning it. ….. We have here a Czech school, Czech churches and chapels, Czech clubs and associations, Czech periodicals, even Czech legal representation in the mayor Haidushek in the county seat. Also in La Grange we have the political magazine Slovan. ….

Already in February 1878 has appeared my article wherein I am describing our lot and fortune here. As I have already written since 1878, the settlements with Czech majority and influence are spread over many and many miles. The entire surroundings of  Fayetteville, Ross Prairie, Oak Hill, Dale Creek and Warrenton, all of these are like one chain, ….one settlement is close at hand to the other, all people there are Czechs or Moravians so that one’s heart jumps up in his chest. The number of Slavic inhabitants in our county is about six thousand souls and most of them are in good standing and are doing well and we even have many well to do among us.”

Literary Pursuits

            Jan quickly discovered Czech magazines and newspapers. Within 3 years of his arrival, he was already mailing to Ferdinand these publications: American Slav, Progress, Progress of the West, Amerikan, The Voice of the Liberal-minded Union, The Voice, and Slavie.

            When subscribing to one magazine, Jan wrote the editor that, “My contemporaries find pleasure in drinking and card playing; I am content if I can save a few cents for good reading.” In 1879 he submitted an article to the Amerikan Narodny Kalendar, with this letter to the editor, Mr. August Geringer, “Esteemed Sir! After reading your appeal and invitation that the fellow countrymen living in America should make their contribution of talent according to their possibilities and abilities in order for this worthy endeavor of yours, which we all hold in high esteem, to prosper, I have put my foot forward speedily even though I don’t have the ability to dilate upon weighty matters and events. I have but written a small piece from the lives of our immigrants here. ...”

            The article is a humorous description, in letter form, of a Czech pioneer’s journey from Galveston to Columbus. Of special note is his crossing of the Galveston railroad bridge, which apparently was a frightful creation, as it was constructed of mud and reinforced only with sticks and timbers.

“Dear Michael!

            You have already heard from Georgie what kind of a journey we went through on the way to America. ….as soon as he found out that we had to go across that bridge over which the railroad is going into Texas he got so scared that he was delirious and turned around and ran back to the ship; in a little while he came back and said that he would be going back and that he had already made arrangements and paid for the return voyage to the captain and so he said good bye to all of us.

            “.…Michael, you know me though, anyone who has served in the military for ten years as I have isn’t an old wimp; I have a strong nature, thank god, but as we were going across that thing there arose some noise on the train and I looked out the window and Holy Virgin from Friedek! My head was spinning and I got so dizzy that I didn’t know what was going on around me until we were for a while back on land. Luckily, during the tumult all the kids were shrieking and yelling and most of all our Jake, so that my old woman didn’t have a chance to look from the window; (if she had) she would have been hit much harder, we might not have been able to revive her after that. May the Lord bless us and keep evil away - that would have been some kind of a funeral. …and who knows if they would have refunded me the five dollars we had to pay beforehand for each grownup person; that is a pile of money and it would have been a shame to lose that much.”

On Returning to Europe

            <<Slide 6 – Jan & Wilhelmina>>These passages are a discussion precipitated by Jan’s difficulties in his first years in Texas. Alarmed, Ferdinand urges him to return to Europe:

“My opinion is this: If you don’t seem to be having any luck and if you don’t expect to get any compensation for your losses then you should return. It’s better for you to be miserable here than over there. It’s better to be poor in your own country than in a foreign one. And if you were to ever gain something over there, do you think that it would make up for all the things you had here and couldn’t have there? After we die can we take anything with us? And what of your children? Will they appreciate you for suffering for them? ….All creatures have to fight for life and if the fight here is tougher then we learn from an early age to fight that much harder. To suffer all your life for some little hope at the end is pointless.”

            And Jan answers:
“The content of your letter.... is very enticing and one needs for it lots of self-denial in order not to be swept away by such an illusory current. These are some of the flaws that are a hindrance on our path and if one is …looking for …some bliss and contentment too strongly, he might never achieve it but he might trample on the good that is to be found all around us as he is blindly rushing toward the illusory happiness. We are fickle and unstable as well as insatiable and we pay very little attention to present opportunities and we recognize and appreciate them only in the past. With our troubles and afflictions it is the opposite: we feel them and experience them very strongly in the present but we tend to practically forget them in the past. ….But since it has already happened and it cannot be changed for now I would like not to complain about my fate, as it is customary here ‘the American way’ because it has been said about the American: he is not alarmed even in the most difficult circumstances, he takes fate as it comes at him and selects out of it the best, he feels within him the strength to overcome even seemingly impossible things …; he doesn’t despair, doesn’t complain or whine and never ends up helpless.”

On Fate

            Ferdinand and Jan had an ongoing philosophical argument about whether people’s fortunes are determined by a capricious fate or strictly by self-determination, with Ferdinand favoring self-determination and Jan more willing to integrate the idea of fate as a factor. Towards the close of the discussion, Jan finally wrote this to Ferdinand, giving him examples of how fate or chance can undermine self-determination:

“For example, two enemy commanders with equal numbers of troops, equally trained, and let’s say using the same strategy, but the first commander has better abilities and experience than the other one. They begin the fierce battle and all of a sudden a strong wind blocks the view of the first army but the number two has the best view over the entire battlefield. Can one be surprised if the second commander wins the battle? Can we count it as ability alone? Here is another example. Two farmers are working under the same conditions; one is brighter and succeeds with a better planting. A big storm comes and beats up his fields, the lightning strikes the house and burns all the buildings, the insurance company he uses goes bankrupt. The other suffered only a small damage. Was the first one’s intelligence and diligence of any help to him? How should I call it, fate, luck, chance or misfortune? Would that family say that all is directed by some invisible force? I am confessing a lot to you.”

On Acculturation

            <<Slide 7 – Lebusa & Antonia>>Jan comments on attitudes he has observed in many of the new immigrants:
“I am quite convinced that the people over there imagine the situation here in the most pink and rosy light; one can best observe it by their actions. The young people from over there are proving my point the best way; such lads come here, with some exceptions, and are trying to put on the air of junior lords, they are looking for work only in shops, business or with merchants, working on farms is onerous for them or they are ashamed of it, saying: in Europe I have been such and such! I have gotten through this many schools! Oh, you poor lamentable wretch! The position you used to have over there is but a ruinous detriment over here and even the schooling isn’t for now of much benefit to you either. This country here is somewhat outlandish and requires an outlandish way of making a living; at least it appears so to the greenhorn immigrants but their perceptions are (quite) subject to… European influence.”

Anna’s Death

            <<Slide 8 – Ferdinand/Anna/children>>In 1875 Ferdinand’s first wife, Anna, died after an agonizing illness following childbirth. These are excerpts from a long and touching letter that Ferdinand wrote to Jan inquiring if Anna had made an appearance to him after her death:

            “I can gather from your above mentioned letter that you didn’t receive any tidings or signs at your place that are given to us in many different ways by our acquaintances when they have finished playing their role in this world, ….But may you forgive the poor one – surely the voyage over the great waters has appeared very difficult to her after she has passed through many days of suffering…! Yet this appears to me to be hard to believe, that she of all people, who has taken your fate over there so much to heart that it weighed very heavy on her, and she has taken an affectionate part in all of your struggles and many times tears have welled up in her eyes when she heard about your suffering and troublesome situation over there, …that such a soul wouldn’t have flown to the very edge of the world in order to announce to her husband’s brother and his family that she has returned again unto herself… .”

            After this there follows a beautiful passage in which Ferdinand relates an imaginary conversation of what Anna might have said to Jan’s family had she come to them across the ocean. This is an excerpt:

             “Don’t be alarmed, I am the faithful companion of one of those …who is closely befriended…with him who is the household-head of your members. After I have been put within delusion by chance, nature has returned me to the truth, and I am free again! I have believed in superstitions only unwillingly, yet I have been overcome already as a child with a foreboding that my life would be completed when I reach my twenty-second year, and when I have known myself that I am with child; it has practically turned into certainty.

            When I have felt that the connection between the body and the spirit cannot be maintained much longer I have reminded (my Ferdinand) …how truthful has my premonition been that giving birth to new life is going to be my undoing. ….However, it has been also for him painful beyond measure, I could see that he would have gladly sacrificed anything should it be sufficient to keep me alive, so his struggle had to be dreadful. For he knew that I am burning with uncommon love for him and that my dying is not even close as awful as is the knowing that I have to leave him. ….”

            Ferdinand concludes by saying, “I have promised myself as I have been writing these very lines that I am not going to mention the deceased ever, not even with one word in any of the next letters so these have been the very last words about her. What has been has been, what is done is done, and blessed are those who can forget things that cannot be handled any other way, however, I cannot count myself to those blessed ones.

            My brother, such an event is more terrible that one can imagine even if one would try to imagine beforehand such eventual reality but has to say afterwards that our mental capacity is insufficient and our mind has to declare bankruptcy after such suffering.”

            Ferdinand eventually remarried another woman named Anna (pictured here). They had a son, Anton, and immigrated together to America. They also raised my paternal grandfather, Albert Stockbauer, who had been orphaned in Europe.

            <<Slide 9 – Albert/Antonia/children/Jan>>Albert married Jan’s daughter, Antonia, so we have a family connection with both brothers. This photo shows Albert and Antonia’s family in Victoria, with Jan in his elder years.

Ferdinand’s Art

            Although we have no mention in any of the letters that Ferdinand had artistic leanings, in his older years he painted at least 7 panoramic Bethlehem scenes in the Czech folk-art tradition. These range in size from 10-18 feet long and are 3-dimensional in that they are composed of numerous figures and background scenes set up on a baseboard in successive layers.

            <<Slides 10-11-12-13Stockbauer/Hauboldt/Staha/Blasche>>Each figure in these Bethlehem scenes has been individually cut out and painted, usually on cardboard, from oatmeal boxes, shirt boxes, anything he had at hand. Looking at the backs can be almost as entertaining as looking at the fronts. The manger scene is set up in the center. On one side are town scenes and the people coming to worship are carrying typical gifts that would be brought by townspeople, such as bakery goods and purchased items. On the other side are scenes from the countryside with people bringing gifts from their farms of animals, eggs, and produce. The countryside and architecture are typical of Ferdinand’s European roots.

            Two or three of these Bethlehem’s will be displayed at the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio this coming Christmas season.

            <<Slides 14-15Mt. Rip/Father-Son-Poem>>He also painted a number of canvasses, mainly of scenes from Moravia.

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