A look at the history of the Sokol movement in Canada

In this Czechs in History we'll be looking at one of the most famous and enduring Czech organisations ever, the patriotic athletics body known as Sokol - or Falcon - a gymnastics organisation founded in Bohemia in 1862, that soon spread to various countries around the world, including Slovenia, Poland, the U.S., and Australia. For our purposes, though, we'll be looking at the Sokol movement in Canada, which is now 94 years old. Jan Velinger recently spent a month in Toronto meeting Czech-Canadians who had at least two things in common: membership in Sokol and a passion for volleyball!

Serve, set, & spike. Members from two mixed teams urge their fellow team mates on in a heated match at a Sokol gym. This could be anywhere in the Czech Republic but it isn't - this is west Toronto. The ball is set up yet again, and two players clash at the net.

Peter Kazik, 35, never belonged to Sokol in the Czech Republic, but discovered the organisation here: in Toronto. The organisation helped him meet other Czechs like himself, making a new start.

"I began in 1998 when I was here for a six month visit. I met nice people and we had a lot of fun. Volleyball, a couple beers, it was fun!"

He also got to know many Czechs who had been in Canada for generations, but who had never lost their Czech roots.

"That helped me very much, because here there aren't only people who care about money. It's about... Sokol here is about people, To get together, about community, about language, we can talk in Czech. It's really nice to be here."

Charlie Hajkl, a first generation Canadian agrees Sokol is important. He has also taken part in the organisation's most characteristic events: the so-called 'slets': large gymnastics festivals in which dozens of performers take to the field to perform carefully choreographed exercises that are a spectacle to see.

Photo: www.sokolcanada.orgPhoto: www.sokolcanada.org "Sokol for me has pretty much been a way of life since I was about 8 years old. I've been 'gyming' on Wednesdays and Saturdays and was actually the 'director' of men for about five years here in Toronto. I also met my wife through Sokol, we met in 1994, just before we went to the first 'slet' in Prague, the first that Prague had since the fall of communism."

RP: And, let me ask you, for someone who has never been to one of these 'slets' - to one of these huge events - what exactly do you do?

"We do callisthenics, we perform callisthenics, the 'slet' in Prague is the big one so there are between 20 - 30 numbers that various age groups that men and women, boys and girls, all perform. It's all about athleticism: a healthy mind is a healthy body and vice-versa."

Photo: www.sokolcanada.orgPhoto: www.sokolcanada.org RP: You find that to be true...

"I find that to be true! Mind you, I've only been back for about a month after a one-year hiatus, so I'm a little bit out of shape, but, yeah, a healthy mind is a healthy body!"

Part of Sokol's mystique abroad is precisely that it has maintained such a steadfast framework for Czech-Canadians to keep in touch with their European heritage. One of Sokol Canada's most prominent organisers, Jan Waldauf, explains the very first units were founded by Czech immigrants to Canada way back in 1911, seven years before the foundation of Czechoslovakia.

"It was in 1911, in western Canada, in a coal-mining region on the border between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia. There is a small village there called Frank, and in 1903 they had a very serious natural disaster there: a part of the mountain collapsed and wiped out the whole village. The miners thought the accident had been caused by mining and refused to go back. So, the company began recruiting miners from Europe and among them was a group from, that time, northern Bohemia, and they settled down there. As some of them were former Sokols, they established the first Sokol unit in Canada."

Photo: www.sokolcanada.orgPhoto: www.sokolcanada.org The miners founded two units that co-operated with U.S. counterparts to the south, where the Sokol organisation had taken root much earlier - 40 years before. According to Jan Waldauf several members then volunteered to fight in Europe during the First World War in the Bohemian Detachment of the 225th battalion. Such displays of courage and moral steadfastness were characteristic for an organisation that would be banned three times in Bohemia: first by the Austrians, then by the Nazis, and finally, by the Communist Party. Sokol members in Czechoslovakia, with their dedication to democratic principles, were naturally targeted for persecution: many ended up in prison under the communists or in Nazi concentration camps. The luckier ones escaped to the west.

"Sokol was - from its very inception - based on the idea of democracy, that was one of the objections that the Communists had against them. The other thing would be that Sokol, because of its loyalty to the Czechoslovak State, to the Czechoslovak nation, no matter where they were they were loyal to the values that denoted the First Republic of Masaryk and Benes. The physical fitness is really just a means for the other values that we have which is: a certain courage, endurance, honour, truthfulness, all values that Sokol tried to foster and was relatively successful in doing so."

Photo: www.sokolcanada.orgPhoto: www.sokolcanada.org In Canada additional waves of immigration in the 1920s and 1930s had led to the establishment of new Sokol units in the east of the country - in Toronto and Montreal, as well as the newly established town of Batawa. These centres only increased in importance after the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948. At that time Sokol membership in Czechoslovakia had swelled to one million - but it would be the organisation's last stand on home soil before many members and their families fled to places like Canada, Australia, the U.S..

Ivo Syptak a long-time member of the Toronto unit, recalls his father's own role in Sokol in Czechoslovakia. He says following the protest at Prague Castle in 1948, Sokol's fate at home was sealed.

Photo: www.sokolcanada.orgPhoto: www.sokolcanada.org "The Sokol movement went to the Castle to protest the killing of Jan Masaryk: so they were 'marked men' right there. The next day they took over my dad's businesses: he couldn't go to the bank, he couldn't go to his home. My dad was in denial more or less, and actually his cousins who had more of an overview of everything - what could happen - convinced him that we should leave Czechoslovakia right away."

Jan Waldauf agrees the protest in 1948 was the last stand. Sokol's activities then would shift to democratic countries, fuelled by new émigrés who hoped Communism in Czechoslovakia would not last. In the early 50s 'Sokol Abroad' was symbolically established to counter the dissolution of the organisation in Czechoslovakia. For their part Czech-Canadians would keep the tradition alive in Canada, holding their first 'slet' in Toronto in 1953. By earlier standards it was only a small gathering of just over one hundred gymnasts, still the message was clear. The organisation was determined to continue in the face of what was happening in Prague. Meanwhile, in the 50s newer and newer units were established, one of the most curious in Quebec.

Photo: www.sokolcanada.orgPhoto: www.sokolcanada.org "It was established in 1955, in Noranda, Quebec, a mining town, a mining city one could almost call it, and Noranda at that time certainly had one of the largest copper mines in the world. And, they had a lot of workers up there and they established a recreation centre for them. So I drove up there, about a ten hour drive from Toronto, an we did establish a Sokol unit up there that was very unusual in that only one member was Czech and one was Yugoslav."

The rest of the members were mostly French Canadians. The unit, however, did not last.

Sokol is deeply tied to the history of the Czechs and Slovaks and in its many local variations has of course changed over time: today the 'slet' festivals are far more modest than the famous displays of thousands of gymnasts in motion at Prague's enormous Strahov stadium. The exercises take less time and are set to music that is more modern. But, a certain mood of patriotism remains: in the Czech Republic, too, Sokol was revived after the fall of communism, and 2006 will see another 'slet' in Prague. Canadian Sokol members are already looking forward to displaying the country's maple leaf alongside the colours of the Czech flag. They may have found new lives in a new country, but they never forgot their allegiance to Sokol, founded so many years ago.

"I guess that's an old tradition and will probably stay as long as Sokol will be in existence. The 'red, white, and blue' or the blue, red, and white' - it doesn't matter how you take the combinations! But those colours are always shown and I would say displayed with pride."