Saturday, September 28, 2002

Letters offer glimpse of Old World life

Artist's discovery turns into fascination

By Thomas J. Sheeran
The Associated Press

        CLEVELAND — The letters tell a trans-Atlantic love story between a Czech woman facing a new life in the United States and her family in the Old World.

        The package turned up at a house sale — 110 letters written from Czechoslovakia during 1909 to 1947 to Anna Kohout, a Czech immigrant and spinster who devoted her life in Cleveland to housekeeping work, her devout Roman Catholic faith and sending money to her family.

        A friend bought the package for Karen Donovan Godt, an artist who uses old letters to design postcards and collages.

        Ms. Godt planned to use Ms. Kohout's letters in her art work. The art work turned into a labor of love for Ms. Godt, who became fascinated by the story the letters told.

        “I had to find out about her,” Ms. Godt said.

        Ms. Godt enlisted Winston C. Christlock, a University of St. Thomas professor in St. Paul, Minn., to translate the letters.

        Through surviving friends, immigration records and tidbits mentioned in the letters, Ms. Godt pieced together a portrait of Ms. Kohout as a thrifty, prayerful, single-minded woman who once turned aside an engagement offer from a man in Omaha, Neb., in favor of cleaning house for a wealthy Cleveland family.

        Ms. Godt, who thinks of Ms. Kohout as a kindred spirit, hopes to produce a coffee-table book about the letters and the life of a simple immigrant forever separated from a beloved family.

        Ms. Kohout was born July 8, 1888, and grew up in the farming village of Hory Matky Bozi, located south of Pilsen and too small for some contemporary maps of the Czech Republic, now split from Slovakia.

        She left her extended family and went to the United States at age 16, worked for a harsh boss in New York City and returned to her homeland.

        After one year home, she returned to the United States in 1905. She settled in Cleveland, a city then expanding with immigrants attracted to jobs in steel mills and factories.

        “She's always sending them money,” said Mr. Christlock, who sometimes struggled for five hours on a four-page letter with florid handwriting, outdated syntax and phonetic spellings by the writers, Ms. Kohout's four sisters and four brothers.

        The hardships come through in the letters, as Czechoslovakia struggles through World War I, disease, depression, Nazi dismemberment of their homeland and then war again.

        “And now we have, thanks to God, a free republic and we expect it to be better,” the family wrote in 1919 after World War I.

        Czech freedom lasted 20 years until Nazi Germany expanded, eventually leading to World War II.

        In America, Ms. Kohout was working, going to church and the opera and loyally sending money to her family as they struggled.

        Their return letters often include thanks “many times for the quick and willing help” and provide a glimpse of life: family events, the crop prospects, the weather, village gossip.

        “It's unusual to get the documentation of everyday life from everyman's perspective,” said Carmen Langel, curator of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

        The letters to Ms. Kohout stopped in 1947, as the Communists consolidated their control over postwar Czechoslovakia.

        There's no clue about how much later contact Ms. Kohout had with her family, although it likely declined as her siblings died, Ms. Godt said. Ms. Kohout lived to age 97.

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