In the early summer of 1938 an unprepared visitor would have found it hard to find a hotel in Prague. Tens of thousands of people from dozens of countries, including Yugoslavia, France and the United States had gathered in the city. This was tenth international gathering of the Sokol movement, which had been founded in Prague back in the 1860s with the idea of using physical exercise to build a sense of patriotism. Sokol took its inspiration from Ancient Greece, but in 1938 the event also had more than a hint of pan-Slav solidarity in the face of an increasingly aggressive Nazi Germany. At the vast Strahov Stadium literally tens of thousands of people engaged in simultaneous gymnastic displays. Czechoslovak radio was there, reporting live on the events as they happened, amid the constant cheers of the crowd in the background.
One of the many Czech Americans who had crossed the Atlantic especially for the event was Louise Hersom from St Louis, Missouri: “We are almost crying with joy,” she told the reporter, speaking Czech with just a hint of an American accent. And via Prague’s shortwave broadcasts she went on to greet those Czech Americans who had not been able to make the long journey.
One outsider who witnessed the Sokol gathering was J. Scott a visitor from Scotland.
“We were fortunate enough to see the last part of the Sokol demonstrations, and they made a great impression on us. For example, the elaborate preparatory work involved, which produced such perfection in action. Then there’s the fact that it is all voluntary and spontaneous, and then the widespread interest and enthusiasm evoked. In Scotland we can muster an enormous crowd for an important football match, but your Sokol crowd beats us hollow.”
Some people, like this Irish visitor, Andrew Byrne, sounded a bit overwhelmed by the whole thing.
“Those costumes we passed along the street strike the western visitor as rather highly coloured, but in time the eye accustoms itself to the high colouring and you get the details – the beautiful embroidery, the harmonization of colouring, the manner in which the design of the clothing has been made to fit. For instance, the trousers and the long skirts and small jackets. All these things have been made to harmonize in such a way that you get the 20th century against a Greek background.”
And I should add that Sokol is still going strong. Nearly seventy years later, in 2006, some 20,000 people took part in the 14th international Sokol gathering in Prague.
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