Collecting Czechoslovakia's Cultural Jewels Heritage Lives on in Oak Brook

Article excerpt

Byline: Diane Dassow Daily Herald Correspondent

When she was a young girl in school, Jennifer Gaudio used to hide her true heritage.

"I would always say I was Russian," she said, "because people didn't know where Czechoslovakia was."

That may be changing since President Bill Clinton's appointment of Madeline Albright -who was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia - to the post of Secretary of State, she said.

But DuPage and other Chicago-area residents have, right in their midst, a way of learning about the country now known as the Czech and Slovak Federal Republic.

Tucked away in an Oak Brook office complex lies the Czechoslovak Heritage Museum, a little jewel rich in the cultural heritage of the Czechoslovakian people.

Gaudio is curator of its collection, which exceeds the portion currently on display.

"There's plenty in storage, and we're still counting," said Gaudio, an Oak Park resident.

The museum - along with its library and archives - provides resources for people of Czech origin who want to dig up their roots, according to Dagmar Bradac, its librarian and translator.

Folks who call and make an appointment can obtain assistance in doing their research. An archivist from the Czechoslovakian Genealogical Society also volunteers part time in the library.

Library visitors include school children doing projects, as well as more serious researchers, such as university students writing theses, Bradac said.

But many others, including people planning to travel to Europe, visit the museum's exhibits to learn about the three regions of Czechoslovakia: Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. And a recent 45-person delegation from the Chicago Historical Society just wanted to see another culture, Bradac said.

"People are just more interested in different ethnic groups," Gaudio said.

Visitors can view the little museum in less than an hour, quickly absorbing the painted glass, hand-cut crystal, laces, hand-embroidered leathers and hand-carved toys.

But those who have a little more time can take the tour with a docent and drink in the stories behind the artifacts - like how possessions of the late Chicago mayor, Anton Cermak, became part of the collection.

When she shows a visitor the first Czechoslovakian flag, Gaudio or Bradac can tell him how America played an important role in the establishment of independent Czechoslovakia, pointing out the fact that the Declaration of Independent Czechoslovakia was signed in Pittsburgh in 1918. …