Special Ája Vrzáňová-Steindler: Former ice skating world champion recalls 1950s defection – and much more
Ája Vrzáňová-Steindler is a remarkable woman. Now aged 81, she was twice crowned world figure skating champion, in 1949 and 1950, while still in her teens. Immediately after taking her second world title, she won political asylum in the U.K., before moving to the United States, where she has spent much of her life. Her mother soon followed her to the West – in a dramatic escape on one of three civilian planes simultaneously hijacked by their pilots and flown to an airbase near Munich. Her father, however, remained in Czechoslovakia.
“I was born in Prague, and am very proud of that. My father was a vrchní rada [chief advisor] at the Ministry of Finance. Mommy was my mom – mothers didn't work in those days. They met at the conservatory of music. My mother studied piano and voice, and my father cello.
“I was really brought up in a musical family. I played piano, and I loved it. I had a wonderful, wonderful life, a very sheltered life. I was the only child. My grandparents lived in Husinec in south Bohemia.”
You were born in 1931. What are you strongest memories of the period before the war, and of the war itself, here in Prague?
“Well, before the war what I remember is just family, spending summers in Husinec, Prachatice–Husinec, that area. As I said, I was very sheltered from all the unpleasant things, like the beginning of the war. I was what, six or seven, something like that. I remember the SS soldiers marching in, with the goose step. I remember those things, even though I was very young.
“It was difficult, it was really difficult during the war. There were blackouts. I started skating when I was seven years old, outdoors. And because of the blackouts there was only one lamp. There were four of us girls who were working hard to win the national title. It was actually the Protektorát; it wasn't called Czechoslovakia then.
“Mommy got me up at 5 o'clock, and no child wants to get up at 5 o'clock and freeze your toes and nose. Just to get to the ice rink at Štvanice, to get there early before the other girls get there with their mothers and get that spot under that one lamp.”
What did you do against the cold? It must have been really freezing in those times.
“What my mom found out, or she knew, was that newspapers are wonderful for keeping your feet warm. So she wrapped my feet in newspapers and put my foot into the skating boot. And the skating boots were not the best either, and I got a lot of corns and I really suffered with pain from the boots, until my feet just got numb!
“Then I skated for three hours, four hours. Then I went to school. Then I ate my lunch on the tram going back to the rink for one more hour. That's how it was. Then I had to do my school work at night, go to piano lessons, and go to bed at 8 o'clock, and then get up again at 5:30.”
When did it become apparent that you had a particular talent for skating?
“That was – and I remember it so well – when I was 8. I beat a girl of 12 and it was a competition for children under 12. It was sort of her year, I suppose, and I got this wonderful little trophy that was no bigger than the palm of your hand.
“I think that started the whole thing. I used to take it to school. That's when it started: more work and more hours. And we added ballet. My mother said, you've got to have ballet, because they go together. That's how it went.”
You went to train in London in your teens. That must have been unusual in those days.
“That was much later. The war ended in 1945, so I was here until 1945. Then 1946 was my first competition, in Norway. In 1947, I became Czechoslovak national champion for the first time, and I held the title for four years running.
“But at the beginning of 1947 I went to London. A wonderful lady, Mrs. Pachlová, told my mother who the coach was, and he was a renowned skating coach, who was Swiss and taught in Richmond, in London. She said, if you give me your daughter to take with us…because mommy couldn’t go, they wouldn’t give us two passports.
“So I went and I spent two months under his care. And Mrs. Pachlová of course looked after me – I was not alone there. In the end the coach, Mr. Gerschwiller, said Ája, if you work as hard as I’ve seen you work in the last two months, in three years you will be world champion. And I made it in two.”
What was the reaction at home from the authorities? I guess the Communists were gradually becoming more powerful at that time .
“Oh yes, without a doubt. In 1949 I won the worlds for the first time, and I also won the European title, in 1950. Like every sportsman, you want to try to defend your title, which is much harder than winning it the first time, in any sport.
“I said, I want to try to defend my world title. I was the first female skater that won a world title in the history of Czechoslovakia, and I still am the only one to this day. But the authorities told mommy, no, she’s going to go to Russia and teach skaters in Russia. A world champion is supposed to know everything about everything. At that time, they didn’t have one figure skater, or one hockey player.”
They wanted you at 19 to be their coach?
“They wanted me… I was 19, I was 18 the first time I won, and 19 when I defended the title. But mommy said, no way. The idea was that my parents would stay in Prague and I was going to stay there, in a strange country, in Russia, by myself and teach.
“But mother said, definitely not. She really was amazing. She said, you’ll get more out of my daughter if she is twice world champion; I’m confident that the way she’s going she will defend the title. Well, finally they let me go, to defend the title in London. And that’s where I stayed. I didn’t come back.”
Was that a hard decision, or did you feel that you had been forced into it?
“My goodness, no. This was the genius of my parents [who had told her to stay in the U.K. after the competition]. A lot of parents try to keep you in the nest, but my parents kindly and sweetly and gently pushed me out of the nest, so to speak.
“They never told me that we wouldn’t see each other for 13 years, in the case of my father. And that my mother would also be leaving the country. I had no idea. They said, you just stay there, represent Czechoslovakia to the best of your ability. (They always told me that – make sure that you represent your country the best you can). And we’ll see you soon.
“If they had told me that they wouldn’t see me for so long... Politically I was very sheltered. They didn’t talk about politics at home in front of me. If they had told me something like that, I don’t think I would have had the mind to win it again. I wouldn’t have left if I knew that I wouldn’t see my father for 13 years. And I didn’t know my mother was so brave as to leave the way she did.”
About your leaving – when you defected in 1950, was that a big story here? Was it a big scandal?
“Yes, it was, it was. They tried kidnapping me in London. The police, or whoever was watching me, I had two men watching me all the time… I was staying in the private residence of Arnold Gerschwiller, my coach and his wife. It was an English residence, so they could not enter it, unlike if I had been at a hotel.
“It was really scary. They almost got me one time, put me in a car, and I would have been gone. But luckily Arnold Gerschwiller went to the English authorities. Rather than us going to them, they came to us at the residence in Richmond and gave me political asylum on the spot. That was very unusual, and very helpful, because I couldn’t leave the house for 10 days at all.”
“They were Czech. They were politically…”
They were secret police.
Did they grab you? Could you describe the actual circumstances of the attempted kidnapping?
“Oh, it sounds like a bad movie. Arnold left, but we didn’t know that he was going to get these fellows from the authorities. I thought that he was going to teach. He said, don’t go out, just stay here and I’ll be back shortly.
“I had sort of cabin fever and I said to Mrs. Gerschwiller, please let me go, just to the corner drugstore, I’ll be right back. She said, you know what Arnold said, we shouldn’t leave. But anyway, she let me go.
“I got a few little unimportant things on the corner, just to get out of the house. And I was coming back I could hear that car that we’d heard so many times going back and forth; it was a quiet street.
“Two men jumped out and started yelling in Czech. And I drop everything and I’m running. I get to the house and, you know, the latch on the little gate, I had opened it a million times, but I could not get it open.
“And really luckily, the men and Arnold Gerschwiller came out and grabbed the men. They held on to me and said, she’s under our political protection and you’re going to get in a lot of trouble if you try to contact her again.
“That was the first time that I realised that this was a very serious business. I really didn’t know. I was always sheltered from things that would upset me or my thoughts about my family – we were very close. I just started to cry. When I think of it now, I get very emotional still.”
I read that the StB, the Communist secret police, in their infinite pettiness went to your home in Prague and essentially stole your medals and other souvenirs of your success.
“Yes. I don’t know where you heard that, but it’s true. There were two young men that came, and father was at home. They were quite rude and said that they were supposed to pick up the trophies that I at that time had. That included my 1949 World Cup. I did want to take it with me, since father had told me to stay there and that they would be there soon.
“I said maybe I should take my ’49 silver cup. Daddy said, no, that is not a good idea, because they will ask you at the airport why you are taking the 1949 prize with you. You’re meant to be coming back, maybe with a 1950 one.
“So they took that. That was a beautiful cup, that I got in Paris. And other medals – I had quite a few already after 10 years of heavy competing. Well, we never found it anywhere. I even went on television a couple of times and I offered a reward – maybe somebody had in an attic, completely black [laughs], not clean or anything. But nobody came forward.
“That was that. It was very unpleasant for my father. And of course he lost everything. He lost his position at the Ministry of Finance. Luckily, because of his talent, he started the Mařák String Quartet and it was very popular, very well known. But it was very difficult for him.”
Your mother left shortly after you, in very dramatic circumstances. She was on a hijacked plane?
“Yes, she was on one of the three aeroplanes…well, they were hijacked, yes. There were three planes piloted by Czech pilots that had been in England during the war. They I guess made this plan...from three different cities they were flying to Prague, with I guess 25 or 30 people on each plane. Only two or three people knew on each plane, not more.
“They met in the air at some point and flew under the radar to West Germany, Erding. That’s how mommy got out. They couldn’t take two. Because it was already known that I wasn’t coming back. And two Vrzáňs on a plane – it would never have taken off.”
This was a planned mass defection?
“Yes, the three pilots planned it. My mom told me later that a lot of the other people were crying. They said, why didn’t you tell us? We would have put our wife on another plane, or our children, or used different names and so on. But they said they couldn’t really tell everybody. It probably wouldn’t have worked.”
If we could get back to skating for a moment, after coming fifth at the 1948 Olympics and then becoming world champion twice, were you regretful that you couldn’t compete in the 1952 Winter Olympics, when you would have had a great chance of going for gold?
“Good question [laughs]. I sure was. I sure was. I thought, I’m twice world champion and I talked about it with my coach Arnold Gerschwiler and I said, let’s try for the ’52. It seemed like, unless somebody would come out from under a rock, as we say, that it would be the same competitors. And I wasn’t really that afraid. The thought was that perhaps I could manage it.
“But I couldn’t do that because you have to represent your country. That cancelled the Olympics out.”
You went then to America, where you performed in the Ice Follies show. For our listeners who don’t know it, what was the Ice Follies?
“The Ice Follies was the name of an ice show which was something extremely beautiful – costumes, 32 girls in the chorus, about 20 boys, about 15 stars. It was an extremely glamorous ice show, on the road 10 months in the year. At that time, it was known as the best ice show in the world.
“After three years I got another contract that was even better from another ice show, which was called Ice Capades. It was a little bigger even, a bit more I would say, professional, like showbiz. It was wonderful.
“I was so thrilled and I called my coach and asked what he thought. He said, just carry on. Well, I did – I stayed with Ice Follies for three years and Ice Capades the rest of the time. I was really on top of the professional skating world for 18, 19 years, which is extremely unusual in our business.”
Later you got into the restaurant business, through your Czech husband Pavel Steindler. You had the famous Duck Joint, and later the Czech Pavilion [in New York]. Was that something you enjoyed?
“Yes, I loved it. Number one, I was so lucky to meet a Czech in New York. He had a restaurant already in New York, called La Popote. And he spoke perfect Czech. It wasn’t like somebody living there a long time and sort of mixing English words and Czech words – he spoke perfect Czech. He came from Prague. He left in 1948.”
I read that you had many famous names coming through the doors at the Duck Joint. Can you tell us some of the celebrities who ate at your restaurant?
“Oh my goodness, yes. First of all, I must say that I loved what I was doing. I was in the front and it was like my stage. I greeted friends and we had a lot of skating photos – of other stars, not just mine.
“They used to come, every time they were in New York, whether it was Holiday on Ice or Ice Capades. One time the Vienna Ice Revue was in America, and they all came to visit our Duck Joint. That was great.
“Of course then Miloš Forman, our dear friend, he was there. And Ivan Passer…”
“A great director. As a matter of fact I saw him last week with his wife Anne, here in Prague. He’s preparing a new movie. They were coming to the Duck Joint. So was Mikhail Baryshnikov, the fantastic Russian dancer. Who else? We had Paul Newman. Marlene Dietrich came a couple of times – she loved the roast duck we served. The whole half of duck [laughs].”
In 1978 your father sadly passed away and the Communists wouldn’t let you attend his funeral.
“That’s a sad part of my life. Yes. I asked for a visa. Of course, I had been in the U.S. for a long time by then. It came back crossed out, a big line across the letter that I wrote. Undesirable. Absolutely not – I wouldn’t get a visa.”
That must have been very hard to take.
“That was very hard, yes. What he went through was not pleasant here. He was just, I would say, a broken man. Older than his age. He tried to explain it to my mom, who was teaching voice, she was even warming up one of The Beatles. She was really going on, teaching singing and piano. And she thought, dad can teach cello. I built her a nice studio and bought her a home in Los Angeles.
“But he said, I just can’t start over. I did not understand it then. But when I started coming here after 1990 and I saw his life here, I could understand it. He practiced. It was a nice life.
“He had good friends. He said that he went for a deci, a little glass of red wine, with his friends every day at 11 o’clock or 12. He said, we talk about what’s new in the world. And I understood that. It’s a big hassle – in America you work very hard and you try to succeed, and sometimes you don’t.
“It’s a very different life over there. You really have to be good to succeed, and to be sincere in it… He was good, but he was starting at 70 or something, and that is just too late. It was too fast for him. Life was too different and too fast.
“I understood after I got here that he had a pretty OK life here. It wasn’t perfect, but he had his music, and that’s what he loved, and he had his friends. That’s very important in older age: good friends and good music – and a good deci of wine! [laughs]”
You mentioned coming back here in 1990, which was a full 40 years after you had left. How was that?
“That was overwhelming, let me tell you. I said, I left alone, so I’m going to come back alone. When I arrived at Ruzyně [airport] who was waiting for me was my best friend from school, who I’d met in third grade, Svata Hrubcová-Chalupská. She was during communism the best sound lady in television.
“She was with her husband, Jan Chalupský. They were waiting for me and it was like I hadn’t seen her for a week, or two weeks. It was amazing. I started to cry and she said, don’t cry, don’t cry, there are about 30 newsmen waiting for you. I said, really? That was a wonderful homecoming.”
Today you are a wonderful 81 years of age. Do you spend much time here these days?
“Yes, I come every Christmas, from 1990. And in the fall, in the spring. This is a sort of unusual time for me, because I have work to do. We organize very two years get-togethers for Czechs living abroad. They can come at certain times and have meetings with not only the media but also people in the government.
“It’s very healthy and very good. They leave Prague very happy, because they feel they have talked to the right people, face to face. They’re really great days that they spend with the top people in the government.
“Also every two years we pick outstanding Czech women living abroad and honour them. That is very special. It started 10 years ago, and I was fortunate enough to be among the first five, so I’m very proud of that. Now I’m the chairwoman.”
Do you feel at home now in Prague, say when you walk around Vinohrady here, where your flat is?
“I always felt like this is my home. I have a lovely home in the United States, but it’s always your home where you were born, where you start out, where you go to school, where your beginning is, that always stays your home. That’s always your home.”