Earlier this year I flew to New York to record a series of special reports about Czechs in the city, visiting several important Czech institutions and speaking to dozens of interesting individuals. This special programme revisits some of those places and people.
Let’s begin in what used to be the heart of the Czech community in the city, the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One of the remnants of that now departed world is Sokol New York. The Sokol exercise and fitness organisation began in Prague in 1862 during the Czech National Revival. Just five years later a NYC branch was opened.
Ed Chlanda is president of Sokol New York’s library and knows a lot about the branch’s history.
"Originally it started on East 5th St in lower Manhattan. Because when the Czech community first came here they established themselves on the Lower East Side.
"However, the work was up here [on the Upper East Side]. Many of them were cigar cutters and many had come from the area of Kutná Hora where there was a tobacco industry too. The cigar cutting industry was uptown, in Yorkville, so they moved up here. Eventually it was a trip to go downtown for the gymnastics etceteras.
"At one point they realised they would have to build a new building and they wound up buying some land here. This piece of land cost 200 dollars - it would cost a little bit more today. They put up the building in one year. They had a subscription and all these working people - who were not very wealthy at all, they struggled...if you read How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, there's a chapter in there about the Bohemian community in New York and you can see that mom, dad and the kids all worked rolling cigars, very hard, on a piece-work basis."
And there would have been I guess tens of thousands of Czechs in this area at that time.
"There were forty thousand at the high point, forty or fifty thousand."
At its high point, how many people were members of Sokol?
"I would guesstimate that there were a thousand members, maximum. That's a rough guess, though - I'd have to look into the archives."
Tell us, who were your most notable members?
"Actually our first member was Wocal. He was one of the first presidents and he was an officer here, and he was very instrumental in setting up a national Sokol organisation, the predecessor to the American Sokol Organization.
"Another person that's very interesting is Josef Knedlhans, because the Czech flag today basically follows his design, with one small change.
“In 1918 [Czechoslovakia's founder T.G.] Masaryk was speaking at Carnegie Hall and the Sokols – all the Sokols, not just the Czech ones but the Croatian, Slovenian, all the ones from the different Hapsburg Empire…areas came and marched from this area here over to Carnegie Hall, where Masaryk was going to speak.
"In doing so they were going to pass the Plaza hotel and he was going to review the parade from the balcony there. They needed a new flag, because the old Bohemian flag, red and white, was similar to the flags of Russia and Poland.
"Now with Slovakia they wanted to make a new flag, so they added a blue triangle for the blue skies of Slovakia. And Josef Knedlhans, who was a member of Sokol here, he designed one with the triangle going one third the length of the flag.
"They hung it from the balcony at the Plaza hotel and the people marched by. That's how the flag got started, though eventually it was officially adopted with the blue triangle at half that length."
When I visited Sokol New York there were dozens of little girls of various ethnic backgrounds happily exercising in the main hall, while a small women’s group were limbering up. Among the latter were the organisation's starosta or president Norma Zabka (in Czech Norma Žabková) and first vice president Irene Mergl (Irena Merglová).
How long have you been members of Sokol?
Irene: "Since I was five and a half years old." Norma: “Four years old.”
How far back does your family connection with the organisation go back?
Norma: “When we had an archivist here from Prague I found out that my grandfather was one of the early members of Sokol New York. And I could be a great grandmother myself (laughs).” Irene: “We lived two doors down from Sokol Hall, so it was a rite of passage at age five and a half to become a member. My father was a member in Czechoslovakia – I’m first generation – so it was an automatic thing for me to go to Sokol. There was no question about whether I wanted to go or not.”
Irene: “I would say it’s almost nil. When they register in September on the application it asks whether they are of Czechoslovak descent. Norma went through the applications just recently and we discovered there are a few whose grandparents or great-grandparents were of Czechoslovak descent. It was Norma’s idea to get this group together, so we can form some kind of…group that would help us to retain the Czech and Slovak heritage.”
Do you think it’s a bit of a pity that there aren’t so many Czechs here any more?
Norma: “It’s because the neighbourhood has changed. Originally when this building was built it was a Czechoslovak neighbourhood. As a matter of fact I couldn’t speak English before I went to school – it wasn’t necessary in this neighbourhood. Then the UN came in and changed the whole East Side, buildings were torn down and high rises went up. The Czechoslovak community – like other communities, like the Hungarian community and the German community – moved out to the suburbs or the outer boroughs. Very few are currently in the city.”
You’ve been members for many decades – what has Sokol given you over the years?
Irene: “Well, first of all it gave me a husband (laughs). And a fulfillment that is indescribable. It’s a part of my life – a big part of my life.”
Sokol New York is on East 71st St. A stone’s throw away, on East 73rd St, you’ll find the Bohemian National Hall, which is now home to the Czech Center, the Consulate General and other institutions and is the pride of Czech New York. The fine five-storey building was officially opened just over two months ago, after a long renovation project. The few times I was there in April, much of the Bohemian National Hall still resembled a construction site. But on one floor that was more or less finished, I met Joseph Balaz, the head of the body that oversees it, the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association. He told me why 80 or more Czech groups had come together to form the association in 1892.
“It was just a simple act of putting together these organisations under one management. The general purpose was to collect money and build this building, the Bohemian National Hall, in the same fashion that the National Theatre in Prague was built [by public collection].”
The original name was the Benevolent and Educational Society – what were its educational activities?
“This was the centre of a Czech community of maybe over 30,000 people living in the neighbourhood and what it did was teaching pupils English, while at the same time they were maintaining Czech and Slovak through classes and things like that.”
Today what does the BBLA do?
“It still functions as an umbrella organisation but not for 85. The number is much smaller – there are nine active organisations. For instance, there is Sokol, then we have a group that functions as the Czech and Slovak Fund for Refugees – currently it supports students. Then we have a group that promotes Dvořák’s music, we have sports organisations, etc, etc.”
The body which promotes Dvořák’s music is the Dvořák American Heritage Association. Their room at the Bohemian National Hall was only half-finished when I stopped by on a sunny Saturday morning. My host, the association’s Dr Susan Lucak, told me about the great composer’s connection to New York.
“Antonín Dvořák was brought here by Jeanette Thurber in 1892 to encourage American composers to create their own American music, rather than look towards Europe for musical inspiration.
“So Dvořák was the director of the National Conservatory and he listened to the music and the sounds that he heard here in America. He was impressed by the music of black Americans, which were called Negro Spirituals at that time. He also went to Spillville, Iowa, where he heard the music of American Natives.
“These sounds very much impressed him and he incorporated the spirit of this music, of these sounds, in his works.
“In the house on East 17th St he composed masterpieces including the New World Symphony, the American Quartet, the Biblical Songs, and other masterpieces.”
The interviews above were all conducted in Yorkville on the Upper East Side, the former heart of the Czech community in New York. Now let’s take the N train out to Astoria in Queens, where a lot of Czechs moved to from Manhattan. Perhaps THE centre of the Czech community in Queens-Astoria is the Bohemian Hall, which is run by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society.
Every Friday during the school year children travel from around New York and even further afield to the Bohemian Hall for Czech lessons. When I visited, I first met some parents waiting outside.
Mother: “The teachers are wonderful, we are really happy with the quality of teaching. They’re good with the children, they’re very gentle, understanding.”
Do you have trouble motivating them to come here after school? It’s Friday, 5 o’clock.
“No, not at all. My daughter loves it especially.”
Father: “It’s a good opportunity to meet other children. But I think the community is so small in New York…I think it would be ideal if the groups were divided much more according to ability, and they just don’t have the possibility of doing that. It’s a little like being in a one-room schoolhouse, in some ways.”
What about the other aspects, apart from language teaching – what does your kid get out of the cultural side of things?
“She learns some songs, she learns how to sign the anthem, and sort of has a sense that there is a place to which she has a family connection.”
The Czech school is free to all children of Czech and Slovak descent and is funded from the profits of the Bohemian Hall’s extremely popular beer garden. It draws huge crowds from all over New York.
“Bohemian Hall first opened well after the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society was established . The land it’s built on was donated by a farmer of I believe Czech descent. The society’s first intention was to build a school and a gathering place for Czech people. “Their hope was to give Czech citizens who had migrated to the US a place they could educate their children, and also to help them to be good responsible American citizens and represent their culture in a positive way.”
How was the building funded?
“A lot of the funding came directly from the immigrants themselves. They built themselves, they didn’t hire people, and they donated any goods or materials needed to do the projects.”
Also I believe not long after this place was opened America introduced a ban on drinking, with prohibition.
“Yeah, I’m sure some of the earlier members thought it was kind of doomed, because just as the beer garden had reached completion prohibition came into being and it wasn’t legal to serve alcohol.”
Prohibition of course ended 75 years ago and many things have changed since then. Including the profile of visitors to the Bohemian Hall pub and its adjacent beer garden, both of which have been run since their inception by the Bohemian Citizens Benevolent Society. General manager John Argento says the clientele isn’t as Czech as it used to be.
“Especially in the summer time the percentage goes way down, because Astoria has been changing over the last five years.
“A lot of young, what we’d call yuppies, upwardly mobile people, have moved here because there are cheaper rents. There are a lot of students – it’s just a whole new population for Astoria, which was formerly some Czechs and a lot of Greeks.
“We’re finding that it’s young people with their first jobs, a lot of college guys just starting out, and this is a great neighbourhood.
“We’re also getting a lot of people because of the popularity of Bohemian Hall, they’ve found out about it, it’s like a gem, there’s nothing like it in New York City. We get people coming in from all over, from Manhattan, from Brooklyn, from all the boroughs, because there’s just nothing like it.
“Real estate is so expensive in Manhattan that in NYC something like the Bohemian Beer Garden just doesn’t make sense economically to exist anywhere else. But here it does, because it’s owned by the society.”
As well as visiting Czech institutions in New York, I also had the pleasure of meeting many extremely interesting individuals. Among them was the renowned photographer Antonín Kratochvíl, who had an amazing life before ever picking up a camera; coming from a family persecuted by the communists, Kratochvíl escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1967 at the age of 19.
“I was already thinking about it since I was 15, actually. I was getting more and more depressed and finally I saw an opportunity and I left.”
You were then at a refugee camp in Austria – what was that like?
“It was tough going. Basically you had to always fight for your life and always be on your toes, because there was a lot of animosity between, a lot of ethnic…problems. My cousin was killed by the Albanians in that camp in Traiskirchen.”
After that you ended up in Sweden you were put in prison for a while for the smuggling of soft drugs…
“It was never proven, it was never proven. I was convicted on the testimony of somebody else.”
In any case, you found yourself with no papers travelling around Europe. In France they gave you a choice – go back to the camp in Austria or join the Foreign Legion. You chose the latter.
“That’s right. I was actually in prison in the south of France for being in the country illegally. And this guy came around and that’s the choice I had to make.”
For me the French Foreign Legion is a kind of image of horror, something I could never survive – how hard was it?
“I’d lived through some hard times before that and I was in really good shape, so for me it was not really that hard. But just the…obeying…they try to break your will, they try to make you into a fighting machine. So I resisted that and I deserted.”
This is after you were injured in Chad, was it?
“Yes, during the campaign in 1969 I was injured and I was rotated back to Marseilles and from there I escaped.”
Another thing I’ve always believed is that if you desert the French Foreign Legion they come and get you, they find you.
“For the first 48 hours they look for you, the legionnaires, the police, and then they give it to the civilian police. But by that time I was already in Belgium, and I crossed illegally to Holland where I got refugee status and political asylum.”
The stories film director Vojtěch Jasný told me were even more incredible, including tales of working for the resistance during World War II, when he was a teenager. Jasný knew the Czechoslovak communist leaders Antonín Novotný and Alexander Dubček personally. He said the former protected him from the secret police, while the latter allowed him to make the somewhat anti-communist film All My Good Countrymen.
“Antonín Novotný, our president and secretary then of the Communist Party, was during the Second World War in Mauthausen, a terrible death camp. But the Czechs had their specialty – there was a lagerschreiber who was a friend of the SS, but he was a communist and he helped all Czechs and especially communists...
“I made a film written by Jariš, who was also a survivor, and Novotný loved me because of this film.”
What film are we talking about now?
“I am talking I Survived My Own Death [also known as I Survived Certain Death, Přežil jsem svou smrt] with a screenplay by Milan Jariš. I made it with my cameraman Jaroslav Kučera, and it is one of my best movies ever.
“Novotný loved this film. When he became president there later came a situation in which I needed Jan Werich [for Až přijde kocour], who was banned from acting because he talked on stage against the party. So I asked President Novotný to make him free. He did it, for me.”
Can you please tell us about Dubček and the making of All My Good Countrymen, which you had written years previously.
“I owe him everything. When he became chief of the party he was with Brezhnev in political school in Moscow. They were friends and Brezhnev thought he would obey him. But Dubček joined us, with his ‘human face’, and he was really, really for [reform].
“He called me himself and said, now Jasný, you can make your film and you’ll get everything for it. I waited for it 12 years. It was Dubček, I owe him my film. But to Novotný I owe my life. That’s how it is. It is not so simple with communism. They were also humans!”
Communism shaped the most recent book by the Prague-born children’s author and illustrator Peter Sís. It’s called The Wall: Growing up behind the Iron Curtain. At his office in Soho, I asked Sís if The Wall was hard to write.
“It is hard because I get angry now thinking about things I didn’t angry about back then, when I was a child or a young man. You take for a fact some things that are so stupid and so ridiculous. You just know that’s the rule and you sort of follow the rules.
“At the same time I feel embarrassed by the fact that when we were into rock music and we would go drinking and talking about Led Zeppelin, there was this whole group of dissidents with Václav Havel and we thought these guys were pathetic.
“Then I somehow got the memoirs of my friend Mejla Hlavsa, who played with [underground rock group] the Plastic People of the Universe, and I had tears in my eyes because really the book is about him being a working class guy who just wanted to play rock music and wanted to grow long hair.
“And by all these circumstances and the rules, when he didn’t fit into the system, he became a political hero and they tortured him to the point that he died at age 50. So all these things make me angry now but they didn’t make me angry then.
“It’s sometimes a surprise to people of my generation who say – oh, it wasn’t such a big deal and we had great fun and don’t you remember you were in love with this girl when you were 19.
“But it sort of reminds me of the stories of the Czech writer Arnošt Lustig who was in Auschwitz at the age of 16, 17 and he fell in love then too. It’s a wonderful thing to fall in love, but it’s not the right thing to be in Auschwitz.
“There is a Czech expression…when people say – didn’t we have fun too? I always say yes, but it was ‘sranda v marnici’, which would be something like ‘fun in the morgue’.”
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