Jean Hruby of American Sokol: Attending slet is like coming home to meet your grandparents

Jean Hruby, photo: Ian Willoughby

The 16th all-Sokol slet (gathering) begins in Prague next Sunday and will bring together thousands of people from the Czech physical fitness organisation, which was founded in 1862. Among those attending the week-long jamboree – which this year celebrates the centenary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia – will be hundreds of members of American Sokol. Its president, Chicago-based Jean Hruby, stopped by at our studios ahead of the big event.

Jean Hruby,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I personally have been involved in Sokol since I was three years old.

“I started like any normal Czech-American, living in a Czech-American community.

“My parents put me in activities as early as they could – and the first one of course was Sokol, for the activity and the exercise.”

Under the Communists, Sokol was banned here. What role did American Sokol play in the overall organisation in those times?

“We took it upon ourselves. Having at the time many people who were born in Czechoslovakia, and who had come over in 1948 and during some of those times… they knew that we had to keep things going on our side.

“So we preceded to do everything like normal, to keep the slets growing in America, growing our programmes, growing our organisation and staying strong as Sokol worldwide.”

Given the size of the States, were these Sokol slets national or regional? How did that work?

“We have Sokol slets locally, in a district. We have a Sokol slet for every one unit.

“And every four years we have a national slet in America.”

Roughly how many members do you have today?

“American Sokol is still strong, with about 4,300 registered members.

“However our participation is multiples of that. I would say that amongst our activities throughout the year in our gyms we have a turnover of 100,000.”

You’re here for the 16th Sokol slet, which is taking place in Prague. How has American Sokol been preparing for that?

“I personally have been involved in Sokol since I was three years old.”

“We are very excited to be able to participate.

“And it’s a process – we have to perform with the Czech Sokols, therefore we need their instructional materials.

“That includes the prostná, which is our drill. It’s written in Czech so we must translate it into English.

“We also watch videos now on YouTube, but before we would get an instructional video on a DVD and before that of course VHS; actually it was Czech and we had to convert it to VHS at the time [laughs].”

I should explain, this is because every time there are different exercises that people do.

“Yes. Every Czech slet, every six years, there’s a new programme, a new set of performances for different age groups.

“California, New York and Chicago are the three big strongholds in filling those spots and performing.

“They get together in California. It’s so big and people are so spread out so they actually plan a weekend to get together at one person’s house or in one place.

“They work really hard for that weekend and they nail down the routines.

“We had someone from Chicago fly to New York to go help train those people to do the programme.

“So it becomes a strong group effort to have a strong presence. And it’s a big commitment for us to prepare and be here to do this.

“For one whole week, you’re practicing every day. Sometimes morning and night. So you don’t get much tourist time to go see the city.

15th all-Sokol slet,  photo: Chmee2,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“It’s a big obligation – and dedication.”

Now that you’re in Prague are you doing some kind of rehearsal of these routines?

“Not yet. Those rehearsals all happen during that slet week, during those six to seven days.

“Our California leader is hosting a separate practice for the American Sokols.

“He reserved a space in one of the local Sokol halls, so that now that we’re all together here, we can prepare.

“When we got on the field we’ll fit right in with the other, Czech Sokols, who have been practicing now for four or five years, preparing for this.”

I’ve never seen a Sokol slet. I have seen old images of Spartakiádas, which were Communist-organised and were very spectacular, featuring thousands of people doing coordinated exercises. How similar is a Sokol slet to that image people may have of a Spartakiáda?

“Well, it’s exactly the same.

“Let me just say the Spartakiáda was just a renaming. They renamed the Sokol organisation, so it was coordinated exercises from the very beginning.

“Spartakiáda was just a new name for the people who were controlling it at that time.

“So it has not changed. It’s the same. Filling a field with people doing the same coordinated movements and turning movement, the beauty of basic callisthenic movement in a small group… when you put it all together on a large field it creates a whole musical, magical colourful picture.

“American Sokol is still strong, with about 4,300 registered members.”

“I think people here, people of a certain age group, have a certain image of Spartakiáda.

“In the Spartakiáda era it was forced, you had to exercise and do this.

“The big difference is that when it was Sokol before that, and now with Sokol afterwards, people do it because they want to. Not because they’re forced to do it.

“They want to be a part of that historical organisation and to be able to say, I was there.”

I know in the States not all Sokol members are of Czech background. But I presume many who are coming here for this event must have Czech heritage?

“You’re right. I think that a lot of the people who are really excited about coming are people who have strong connections to Sokol – it’s been in their family forever.

“That isn’t to say that many of our people – maybe 25 percent who are coming – have no Czech background, no knowledge.

“They are just affiliated with Sokol and they want to be a part of it.”

Is accommodation coordinated or do people just do their own thing?

“I have been working very hard to manage all the coordination of our Sokols.

“Most of them will be staying in hotels in Prague. Then there are others who are doing a lot Airbnb – they’re doing their own coordinating.

“And while our Sokols are here, one of the things that American Sokol does is that we plan a tour for our people.

“We offer a tour before the weekend slet, so that they can travel and see part of Europe.

Photo: Barbora Němcová
“This year we’re going to Vienna and Budapest, and then we’re going to Bratislava and southern Moravia for some wine touring.

“During the weekend slet we have day tours that are going to different places that are within driving distance of Prague.

“We’re going to Český Krumlov, we’re going to Karlovy Vary, we’re going to Plzeň for a Pilsner Urquell beer tour – there are two buses going on that one [laughs].

“And then afterwards we’re going to Slovenia and Croatia.”

This year’s Sokol slet is a very big one because it’s marking the 100th anniversary of the foundation of Czechoslovakia. What do you think the feeling will be when it actual begins at Prague’s Eden stadium?

“The feeling will be joy. Heavy emotion. I expect to see a lot of people in tears, because it’s a very heart-felt moment for our people.

“In Sokol in America we have continued to pursue educating our members.

“It’s part of our programme that they know that Sokols even in America played a huge part in the formation of Czechoslovakia, with the Czechoslovak Legions.

“We had many American Sokols who marched along Cermak Avenue, which is a street named after the famous Czech mayor Cermak, in the city of Chicago to sign on the dotted line to say that they were going to go back home to their country to go fight for the Czechoslovak Legions.

“In result even after that there were many Czechoslovak Legion organisations in the Chicago area. They were Sokols who continued to remember everything.

“Our connection is deep. The roots are deep that come from this country, our homeland, so the feeling will be amazing.”

I presume it must be great to – every six years or whatever – meet some of the same people, who you haven’t seen for all that period?

“I expect to see a lot of people in tears, because it’s a very heart-felt moment for our people.”

“It’s like coming home. It’s like coming to visit your grandma or your grandpa.

“Yes, you do see the same people. Sadly we miss the people that have passed.

“We go through this year after year, every slet.

“When you see the people on the field – and the hug. The brotherhood and sisterhood is wonderful. It feels like home.”