Prague is currently hosting thousands of athletes—mostly gymnasts—who belong to the Sokol association, and they've descended on the Czech capital from various corners of the world. SOKOL—which means "falcon" in Czech—was first established in 1862, as part of the Czech national revival. Today, it has branches throughout the world, in many European countries as well as in Australia, Canada, and the United States.
After a glorious opening ceremony at the SAZKA Arena last Saturday evening, members of the Sokol movement gathered on Prague's Vaclavske namesti—or Wenceslaus Square—on Sunday morning, in preparation for their traditional march through the old town. I mingled amongst the crowd as they got themselves organized, and took the opportunity to talk to a number of people about the Sokol associations abroad:
"We came to Prague for the slet because of family tradition. My grandfather was involved years and years ago, as well as my mom, and when we immigrated to Australia we joined the Czech Sokol in Australia and we've just continued. We used to go to the slets in Zurich, Paris, and Vienna, and when the Iron Curtain came down, we started coming here."
Have you been involved in Sokol since you were a child?
"Yes, very much so. I used to go to Letna na Studance—that's where I went to Sokol to do my exercises as a little kid."
Do you know how many members you have in Australia?
"Maybe 200 or 300."
And how many branches of Sokol?
"Three. Sydney, Melbourne, and we're part of Sydney Canberra. Three of us are doing the programs here at the slet, and there are supposed to be about seventeen to nineteen marching through Prague."
If you can start by telling me where you're from?
"I'm Helen Shiftsu from the suburb of Chicago, and I belong to the Sokol Spirit in Brookfield, Illinois. I've been a member of Sokol since 1940, so I'm an old-time member. I'm not drilling this year, but I'm parading and I'm enjoying everything."
"I'm Marie Hyntnaus from Los Angeles, and I have been a Los Angeles chapter member for 50 years already. But I was born in Czechoslovakia, and I came to the United States via Brazil."
Have you both attended the Sokol slets regularly?
MH: "Oh, yes. This is my third one after the communists left."
How many of you are here today?
MH: "Only four from the Los Angeles chapter."
HS: "There is a group of us. I don't know how many. Each Sokol has different members coming. Our own chapter has about twenty-some members, and our young team performed last night at the Gala Praha—there were ten members and they did a beautiful job. We're very proud of them."
What has made you keep this tradition alive for so long? Both of you have been Sokol member for over half a century.
HS: "Well, we're both proud of our heritage and Sokol is a part of our heritage."
MH: "There can not be anything better than little ones practicing gymnastics and performing, as well as people who are 90 years old!. You just don't find anything like that."
What sort of role does keeping Czech culture alive play in American Sokol? Is it still a Czech and Slovak organization, or has it become integrated as an American institution?
HS: "It has become integrated. Because of the laws you can't keep the Czech language in the classes, and our area has turned Latino a bit, so we've accepted the Latino children into the association. But we still have a lot of Czech people in the Sokol group."
MH: "My children grew up in Sokol Los Angeles, and they were both Olympians. My son, was a pole vaulter in 1980 and 1984, and my daughter was a gymnast in 1972. And that was Sokol!"
"My name is John Bazanta, and I'm from Sokol Spirit, in a suburb of Chicago, Illinois."
How long have you been a member of American Sokol?
"I grew up in the program, from a little boy on and I've been a member for 32 years. It's a very important program—the physical fitness for the kids, especially now in America with the TV and computers and video games, the children just don't have an opportunity to get that physical exercise. It's very important to maintain the gym and keep the program open for all the kids."
During the opening ceremony, I realized that the original concept of the Sokol movement has adapted to modern times. Could you explain to me what some of the most popular sporting programs are in your organization, and how you attract the American youth of today?
"Well, we do have programs throughout the course of the year. Early in the year, in September and October, we run track and field events, and then the girls have their rhythmic gymnastics and the boys work on basketball. Then we have volleyball, and usually in the winter months we learn our calisthenics, and at the end of the year we have our regular artistic gymnastics. So there are different segments throughout the course of the year."
How does it work for the members—does everybody participate in every sport?
"We encourage our children to participate year-round, in all of the sports, whether they can't do anything or whether they're very good. We want to get them to participate. The older members—the adults—they'll pick out the things that they like to do, and that's what they'll do. But everybody has to do calisthenics."
And what's your favorite aspect of Sokol?
"After class we go down to the club room and we have social, where we have food and drink until the wee hours of the morning. That's the bonding part—it's a lot of fun and it's important."
What kind of role would you say that Czech and Slovak heritage still plays in American Falcon?
"It's still very important to recognize the roots. The Sokol system was around way before we had physical education in our schools, so they have a long tradition in that type of discipline and development of character, and that's a good thing for everybody."
How do you go about attracting new members? Is it through advertising, or word of mouth—how does the word spread?
"Well, we try to get in the public eye. If we can perform somewhere, we march in our 4th of July parade, things like that. So that the people in the local community can see that we're actually doing something in the gymnasium."
"My name is Vlasta Sustkova."
So, you're from Sokol Australia. Which section?
"I'm from Sokol Melbourne, which was started in 1975. We started it after we came there and it is still alive. We don't exercise much but we have many activities for children, such as camps, and we try to revive it."
How many members do you have?
"We have 150 members now and over half of them are active - sometimes even one hundred of them are active."
What has made you travel all this way from Australia to Prague?
"I have been a Sokol member for sixty years. I also exercised in 1948 in the last Sokol in Prague. It's in my heart and will be for the rest of my life. I was brought up by Sokol."
What about your family? Do they have a connection to Sokol?
"Yes. My family here has. My children were also in Sokol when they were young. My sister-in-law leads a Sokol troop here in the Czech Republic."
What about Australian Sokol? Does it maintain a sense of Czech or Slovak heritage?
"It does but it lives mainly in the older members. It's our big task now to revive it with new exercises for children and the youth and to bring back some glory again."
How long have you been a member of Sokol?
"I have been a member from the age of four. I was born in Yugoslavia, today Croatia. In 1946 we emigrated to Czechoslovakia and I became a member of Sokol Vysehrad. From Prague I moved to Chicago. I started school there and thought I was going to stay for three years. I have been there for 57 years now."
Your life story certainly tells part of the story of 20th century Europe. But you've carried with you the tradition of Sokol.
"Very much so. Everywhere I go, I always try to find a Sokol group because it is an outstanding elite organisation."
Does it remind you of, or keep with you, a piece of home?
"To a certain extent, yes. A piece of home and friendship."
Alice: "We're Alice, Robert, Erika and John Tmej and we're from Mississauga, Ontario."
Why have you come all this way to participate in the Prague Sokol slet?
Alice: "My daughter is in Sokol Canada. She is learning gymnastics and she is doing very well. They've got wonderful coaches there. As a matter of fact, my husband was even inspired to become a coach. So, we're really participating in the whole Sokol event."
Are you Czech by heritage?
Robert: "My parents are Czech. This is my first trip to Prague as I was born in Canada. We are here for Sokol cultural gymnastics events and for the beer and schnitzel, or rizek [Czech name for schnitzel]."
What about your daughter? Is she old enough to speak?
Alice: "Yes, she speaks English. But part of the Sokol tradition is also some education in the Czech culture and she is learning Czech songs."
What is your name?[speaking to the little girl]
"My name is Erika."
And how long have you been a member of Sokol Toronto?
"For about two weeks."
How fun is it? Do you like it?
What do you learn there?
"I learn how to do tummy drops and seat drops and other stuff."
Have you made some friends in the gymnastics class?
And do you think you will continue with it?
Alice: "Absolutely. We love going too. It's a family outing."
I'm speaking to Joe Cermak from Sokol Toronto. You've been attending the Sokol slets regularly. What brings you to Prague again?
"Well, I suppose it's the Sokol slet [laughs] and also the congress of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, the SVU."
Did you give a paper at the SVU congress?
"Yes. I actually prepared two papers. One of them was 'a walk through centuries with Hana and Premyk Pelnar'."
Let's return to Sokol Toronto for a few minutes. How long have you been a member?
"I think ever since I moved to Toronto, which was in 1949."
Why did you join?
"I was a Sokol member in Czechoslovakia and I thought it was one of the most magnificent organisations that we ever produced. I think it played an incredibly important role in the development of the Czech nation in the early 20th century. Most legionnaires in Siberia, Russia, were Sokol members. So, I think it is incredibly sad that the Nazis practically destroyed the organisation because they murdered, in fact, the whole leadership. And then, when the Communists came they finished it off.
"It's no longer what it was back then, not even back in 1948. In 1948, Sokol had over one million members. I remember we had a really huge and great slet when Gottwald [Klement Gottwald was Czechoslovakia's first Communist president] and the Communist Party were already in power. We were marching by the tribune with Gottwald and all these idiots. As we marched by we all turned our heads to the left, away from the tribune. It was without any order to do so. We just instinctively did that. That was one of the finest memories I have, apart from the march to the castle just before Benes [Edvard benes was the second Czechoslovak president] signed the resignation."
What you describe is certainly an anti-Communist move, an instinctive one, by the Sokol members. What kind of a role did that impression or motivation play once you were in exile?
"I think it was one of the streams in my consciousness. To me, being a Sokol member meant being a Czech."
Once everyone was lined-up, Australian, American, Canadian, Austrian, Swiss and other flags proudly flying, I marched with the Sokol troops and as we walked through Prague's Old Town, they shared their feelings on this important day:
"I'm a legionnaire. I was fighting for the country and I'm very proud that I'm back. I've been living in Canada for 56 years and I'm a proud Czech and a proud Canadian."
How long have you been a member of Sokol Canada?
"I'm just...I'm not a member, I'm just a friend of Sokol. I support them."
What does it mean to you to be walking down Narodni Street right now?
"Well, it's a great feeling. The people around, greeting us—those of us who live in different countries now—it's really a great feeling."
There are people in the crowd crying...
"Yes, something comes to me as well..."
How long have you been a member of Sokol Canada?
"I've actually been a member since the pre-war time, since 1938. I came to Canada in 1968, after the invasion of the Soviet armies. Since then we are in Toronto."
Are you closely involved with Sokol and the Czech community?
"Yes, of course. Actually, we were here in Prague for the slet in 2000, and now we'll be exercising again at the Strahov stadium. We perform on Wednesday evening, and also on Thursday at 14:00."
Do you visit Prague often since 1989?
"Almost annually. We have to catch up on the twenty years that we were not allowed to visit."
During the time you were in exile in Canada after 1968, did membership in Sokol represent something political to you, or was it just a cultural association?
"Well, it was both. Culture, fitness, and getting together with others—that's most important because during the first few years abroad, you are a bit isolated from the rest of society."
And what about the political aspects?
"I'll tell you something: the Czech and Slovak Association in Canada is now proposing to be involved in an initiative to create a museum of communist shame here in Prague. This museum is mainly meant to address the young generation, so they learn what happened during the 40 years of communism."
Would you support such a project?
"I am one of the authors."
What's you're name?
The highly emotional Sokol parade through Prague ended in the Old Town Square, where I eventually caught up with Jan Waldauf, the long-time President of Canadian Sokol. Jan Waldauf told me a little more about his history with Sokol Canada, and what the organization looks like today:
"Well, I was involved ever since I came to Canada, which was in 1949. I had to spend the first year on a farm but after that, from 1951, I was with Sokol Toronto where I held the position of Director of Men, which means that I was in charge of the men's gymnastics. I was also involved with the association of Canadian Sokol units or individual organisations of Sokol in various Canadian cities."
How political was Sokol Canada after 1948?
"It had to be political because Sokol in Czechoslovakia was dissolved and banned by the Communists. So, one of our functions was not only to do gymnastics but also to try to promote efforts to get Sokol revived again in Czechoslovakia. We exerted influence where we could, whether it was political or otherwise."
In terms of membership, if you were to compare the 1960s to today's era, is there any difference in terms of the ease of recruitment?
"I think there is quite a difference, as a matter of fact, because up to the 1960s we always had an influx of refugees from Czechoslovakia into Canada. A number of them either knew Sokol, heard of Sokol, or their parents were in Sokol, so they joined our group."
At the opening ceremony we saw that the breadth of Sokol sports has expanded a lot since its inception in the 19th century here in the Czech lands. What kinds of sports activities does Canadian Sokol incorporate? Is it as wide a selection as those that we saw? For example Asian sports like Karate and Aikido as well as sports like volleyball, basketball, etc?
"No, not at all, we are quite limited. First of all, we don't have our own building or gymnasium. We have to rent school facilities and we only have two evenings in a week. We mainly spend Mondays on volleyball and Wednesdays on aerobics and other mainly classic gymnastics."
"I would say, essentially, it still is mainly a Czech and Slovak organisation even though some of our members are already second or maybe even third generation Canadians. Of course, they consider themselves Canadians and not Czechs and Slovaks. There still is a sentimental attachment to the original idea but it is becoming a Canadian organisation just as Sokol in the United States is really a truly American organisation. We too have members that are not of Czech or Slovak background. This will have to be because Sokol would not continue to function otherwise."
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