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Downtown marker celebrates historic Czech-Slovak compact

Friday, June 01, 2001

By Marylynne Pitz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

When her husband served as U.S. ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the mid-1980s, hearing the Czech and Slovak anthems made Wendy Luers cry.

Descendants of the original signers of the Pittsburgh Agreement unveil a marker commemorating the document, which sparked the founding of an independent Czechoslovakia in 1918. At far left is Thomas Kotik, of Brooklyn, N.Y., a great-great grandson of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia. Next to Kotik is Marcia Getting Sutherland of Montclair, N.J., a granddaughter of Milan Getting, who founded Slovak gymnastic clubs known as sokols and edited a Slovak newspaper. At far right is Sutherland's brother, Thomas Masaryk Getting of Ross. Getting is a grandson of Milan Getting. Next to Thomas Getting is his 10-year-old son, Jackson Thomas Masaryk Getting. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Yesterday brought more of the same.

As Cynthia Maleski sang the melodies Downtown, Luers could hear old, reedy voices and see a walled graveyard near the castle in Lany, the official presidential retreat outside Prague.

Every year in March, old men and women who remembered freedom and suffered under communism braved a gantlet of secret police to sing the anthems and honor the memory of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia.

Flanked by bodyguards, Luers and her husband accompanied Herberta and Ana Masaryk to lay a wreath at the grave of their famous ancestor so that secret police would not stop the women every block to ask for identification.

Every year, the secret police flooded the cemetery with water, forcing people to walk through ice or mud to pay their respects.

"The whole idea of communism was to eradicate memory," Luers said yesterday after local Czechs and Slovaks gathered to watch the unveiling of a historic marker that honors Masaryk and a historic document called the Pittsburgh Agreement.

Signed in Pittsburgh's Loyal Order of Moose lodge on May 31, 1918, the agreement prompted President Woodrow Wilson to support creation of a new country called Czechoslovakia.

Yesterday, memories abounded as two descendants of the original signers of the Pittsburgh Agreement unveiled the blue and gold marker in the plaza outside Dominion Tower.

On one side stood Thomas Kotik, a 32-year-old artist who was born in Prague and lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. Kotik is the great-great grandson of Masaryk.

On the other was Thomas Getting, a 51-year-old environmental engineer whose grandfather, Milan A. Getting, signed the Pittsburgh Agreement, founded gymnastic clubs called sokols and edited a Slovak newspaper. Next to Getting stood his 10-year-old son, Jackson Thomas Masaryk Getting.

In light of recent history, the gathering seemed a bit contradictory.

In 1993, Czechoslovakia split peacefully, following the collapse of communism during the Velvet Revolution of 1989.

But Kotik said the Pittsburgh Agreement is even more relevant now because so much blood has been shed in Eastern Europe during the past decade.

The agreement, Kotik said, "is an important symbol of how different nationalities can come together to create a free and open society."

That was Masaryk's mission when he arrived in Pittsburgh 83 years ago on May 30, 1918, and rallied Czechs and Slovaks to the cause of creating an independent Czechoslovakia.

In this city that still loves parades, about 20,000 Czechs and Slovaks marched from Bohemian Hall on the North Side to the Point to welcome the statesman and hear his stirring speech.

The Pittsburgh Agreement was signed the next day. The marker honoring the event will be installed at Seventh and Penn avenues, the former site of the Moose lodge where the document was signed.

Jarmila and John Maiorana, a Mt. Lebanon couple, donated $650 toward the marker and the state matched that amount.

Stories and memories, the glue that binds families and nations together, abounded yesterday in the plaza outside Dominion Tower and during a luncheon Dominion hosted after the ceremony.

Thomas Getting recalled that his grandfather, who worked as a machinist in Pittsburgh's North Side rail yards after emigrating from Slovakia in 1902, lost his left eye during an accident.

Despite that injury, Milan Getting founded the Slovensky Sokol in 1903 and served as its newspaper's editor for 15 years. He also recruited Czechs and Slovaks to serve during World War I.

Kotik, who has traveled regularly to the Czech Republic since he was a high school student, studied at Prague's School of Applied Arts in 1989 and witnessed the Velvet Revolution.

"It was the first time in my life that I saw real bravery," Kotik said, adding that dissidents risked their lives to overthrow communism with peaceful protests, petitions and signs that ridiculed the repressive regime.

Now that Vaclav Havel is president of the Czech Republic and freedom has returned, the Lany castle where Masaryk is buried is once again the presidential retreat.

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