Ája Vrzáňová, photo: Czech Television

Today in Mailbox: WW2 fighters interviewed by Czechoslovak/Czech Radio in the past, answers to Radio Prague's listeners' quiz question, a new question for the coming weeks. Listeners/readers quoted: Alan Keith, Wendy Parez, Syed Khizar Hayat Shah, Shahzad Shabbir, Jayanta Chakrabarty, Hans Verner Lollike, Dipita Chakrabarty, Hamad Kiani, Deblina Biswas, Colin Law, Mary Lou Krenek.

Photo: Public Domain
Hello and welcome to Mailbox, Radio Prague’s monthly programme for your views, questions and comments.

Recently we’ve been approached by Alan Keith from Scotland whose father fought in WW2, was captured in North Africa and sent to a prisoner of war camp somewhere in or near occupied Czechoslovakia. He escaped and found his way to Prague where he made contact with the Czech underground movement and assisted them in their fight against the occupying German forces until the city was liberated towards the end of the war. Mr Keith writes:

“I am wondering if you can help. I am researching my father's wartime history and believe he took part in a radio programme around 1967–1968 during which he recounted his experiences in Prague during the latter part of WW2. Do you have any records of programmes during that period, particularly recordings? I appreciate that the history of Czech Radio has had its own difficulties, but though it was worth a try.”

At about the same time a similar e-mail arrived from Wendy Parez from London:

“My father was Josef Parez who was in the Czech RAF Coastal Command during WWII. Some years ago my father visited Prague during a reunion of the Czech RAF airmen. I understand that he was interviewed on your radio station at the time. My father died some eight years ago and if I am correct in my assumption that he was in fact interviewed for your radio station, it would be wonderful if I could receive a copy of the interview so that I can hear his voice again.”

Thank you for sharing your family history with us. You will need to turn to the Czech Radio Archive Department. You will find the contact details in the respective e-mails we’ve sent you.

As every month in Mailbox, let’s hear your correct answers to our mystery person quiz question. Here’s what Syed Khizar Hayat Shah from Pakistan wrote:

“She started sports at the age of three when her parents bought her skis. They spent each winter in the Krkonoše Mountains. In 1969, she married Czech-born innkeeper Pavel Steindler; they adopted two children. They ran the Duck Joint restaurant in New York City, and later the Czech Pavilion. She died on 30 July 2015 at the age of 84 while living in New York City. The name of the great leady is Alena Vrzáňová.”

Ája Vrzáňová, photo: Czech Television
Shahzad Shabbir from Pakistan sent us a quote by Alena Vrzáňová:

“In 1949 I won the worlds for the first time, and I also won the European title, in 1950. Like every sportsperson, 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 to win 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.”

Jayanta Chakrabarty from India wrote a detailed answer:

“Alena Vrzáňová will ever remain an exponent of the surrealistic technique of modern figure skating. This outstanding Czech who was also an accomplished pianist and ballet dancer is an iconic figure in the sports history of the Czech Republic. With her inimitable style and elegance, dynamism, refined technique, dedication and astute professionalism she has contributed much to the cause of her Motherland.

“As a child prodigy she began to show promise from the age of three when her father, a professional cello player, bought her skiing gear. Enduring the most inhospitable harsh winter and inclement weather conditions of the Krkonoše Mountains in north of the country, Alena began practising every year till the outbreak of the Second World War. She achieved early success when at the tender age of 15 she won the Czechoslovak Junior Figure Skating Championships and the National Championships the very next year.

“The chequered career of this elite figure skater includes her representation at the 1948 Winter Olympics at St Moritz, Switzerland, winning the World Figure Skating Championships in 1949 and 1950 and also the European Figure Skating Championships in 1950. She also bagged the Czechoslovak Championships from 1946 to 1950. The dreaded communist-era secret police stb wanted her to give up her career to work as a coach in Moscow. Thus she was compelled to seek political asylum after winning the 1950 Wembley World Championships.

Ája Vrzáňová, photo: Barbora Kmentová
“However, as a true patriot she returned to her beloved homeland soon after the Velvet Revolution. For her invaluable contribution, Alena was awarded the title of Sports Legend of the Czech Republic in 2009 and was also inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame.”

Hans Verner Lollike from Denmark writes:

“She was born in Prague on May 16th, 1931. She became known as the one and only Ladies World Champion figure skater from Czech Republic, in Paris 1949, and successfully defended her title in 1950 in London. Her parents advised her not to return to Prague after her victory in London. Before that the communists wanted her to go to Moscow to teach the Russian youth, which her parents did not accept. There was an attempt to kidnap her in London, but she got asylum.

“Her figure skating career was then ended because you had to represent your country, and at that time citizenship was not given away as easily as it is today. She went to the USA, and first she travelled with ice-shows, then married a Czech man in New York, Pavel Steindler. They had a famous restaurant, Duck Joint, which became a meeting point for Czechs and people from the ice skating world. Her mother left on a plane that was hijacked to Germany, but her father stayed. Alena was not allowed to go back for his funeral. In 1990 after the Velvet revolution she came back to her hometown. She worked all her life for Czechs abroad. She was honored both for her ice skating contribution with a place in the World Hall of Fame and for her national involvement by the Czech government.”

Dipita Chakrabarty from India sent us this answer:

“Alena Vrzáňova will be remembered as an international figure skater of the highest order. For her yeoman service for promoting the name of her country she received the 16th annual Gratias Agit Award. Amongst her outstanding achievements are winning the gold medal at the World Championships in 1949 and 1950 and at the Oslo European Championship in 1950. She is credited to be the first woman to land a double Lutz jump – a counter-rotated toe jump – said to be one of the most difficult figure skating jumps pioneered by the Austrian skater Alois Lutz.”

Hamad Kiani from Pakistan wrote:

Ája Vrzáňová, photo: Czech Television
“The figure to be identified in this month's quiz is Alena ‘Ája’ Vrzáňová who was born on 16 May 1931 in Prague. She was a Czech figure skater who represented the then Czechoslovakia in competition. She is the 1949 and 1950 World champion and 1950 European champion. In addition to figure skating, she also played piano and attended ballet school. On her father’s advice, she decided not to return from the upcoming World Championships and defected from Czechoslovakia during the 1950 World Championships in London. She was eventually offered political asylum.”

Deblina Biswas follows Radio Prague in India:

“Her name was Alena Vrzáňová. She was born in Prague on 16th of May 1931. Her childhood nickname was Ája. When she took up athletics as a skier, her mother Anna who was an opera singer was her first coach. Her father Miroslav was a cellist. Ája went to London alone in 1947 for world standard coaching under the supervision of Swiss coach Arnold Gerschwilder. She defected to the UK in March 1958 and stayed in London where she was granted political asylum.

“She married Paul Steindler, a chef from Czechoslovakia, in 1969. He owned two restaurants. He died in 1983. Ája returned to Prague in 1990 after the Velvet Revolution. She received the medal of merit in 2004. Alena died [in July] at Mount Sinai St. Luke hospital following a stroke in May this year at the age of 84.”

This answer is from Colin Law from New Zealand:

“Alena went to London in 1950 and defended her title. Her success there was tainted by the fact that she followed her father’s advice to defect – a good move for her career, but a devastating one for her family. Before Alena left Prague she met her father on the Charles Bridge, where they were watched from a distance by two Czechoslovak special services agents. Her father advised her to stay in England and not return to Prague. After she was given political asylum in London the security officers of the Czechoslovak Communist Government raided her home in Prague and removed all her trophies. They were lost forever and during Alena’s time in London officials of the Czechoslovak Embassy threatened revenge against her parents.

“She emigrated to the USA in 1950. Ája's mother followed her in seeking asylum in London after escaping from Czechoslovakia to Germany and having survived a plane hijacking. However her father, a Principal Administrator at the Ministry of Finance, could not leave and was held as a political prisoner for 13 years and forced to work in a coal mine. Many years later he met his daughter again when he was allowed to visit the USA. When he died in 1978 the Czechoslovak government refused permission for Ája to return to Prague for his funeral.

Ája Vrzáňová, photo: Jan Sklenář
“In the USA Ája and shortened her surname to Zanova. She worked on Ice Capades, a travelling entertainment show which included ice skating performances by retired and amateur skaters. She married Czech-born innkeeper Paul Steindler in New York in 1969 and together they opened a restaurant called Kačárna. In 1983 Paul died from a liver ailment at the age of 62. Ája did not return to Prague until the end of 1989, following the Velvet Revolution.

“In 2004, Ája received from President Vaclav Klaus the Medal of Merit II degree. In 2009 in Los Angeles, she was listed as the first Czech skater in the Hall of Fame. Former world champion Alena 'Ája' Vrzáňová died in New York City at the age of 84.”

And finally Mary Lou Krenek from the United States writes:

“After her husband's death, she continued her work with the Ice Capades and led New York City's largest public ice rink, the Wollman Rink. She was inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 2009 and also received the title of Sports Legend of the Czech Republic. In 2012, she was presented with the 16th Annual Gratias Agit Award in recognition for promoting the Czech Republic abroad.”

Thank you all very much for your answers and this time our prize goes to Arne Timm from Estonia. Congratulations and your prize is in the post. For the rest of you here’s another chance to take part in our mystery person quiz.

In October we would like to know the name of the Bohemian painter, born in 1839 in Pilsen. At the age of 35 he moved to New Zealand where he became known mainly for his portraits of the Maori. He died in 1926 in Woodville, New Zealand.

If you want to be included in our lucky draw, please make sure your answer reaches us by October 28th at the usual address

Mailbox will be back in four weeks’ time and in the meantime we’ll be looking forward to your reception reports, questions and comments, both in the mail and on our Facebook page. Until then, happy listening and take care.