Norma Zabka: Attending Sokol New York since the early 1930s

Norma Zabka, photo: Ian Willoughby

Norma Zabka was born 90 years ago in the heart of what was then the heavily Czech district of Yorkville on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Though now possessed of a soft but distinctive New York accent, she actually spoke only Czech for the first few years of her life, despite the fact her parents had been born in the US. Since her early childhood Norma has been attending a branch of the Czech Sokol gymnastics organisation on East 71st St., which she also headed for over a quarter of century. It was there, surrounded by loads of old photos and trophies in the Sokol library, that we spoke recently.

Norma Zabka,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“My parents were both born in the United States. My father was born in New York State and my mother was born in Baltimore, Maryland.

“We lived and I was born across the street in what we called Yorkville.

“And this section was very Czech. As a matter of fact, the avenue that we lived on was called Bohemian Broadway; at least we called it that.

“We spoke Czech in the neighbourhood and I could not speak English before going to school.”

What were your parents’ names?

“My father’s name was Frank Briza – Bříza. And my mother was Helen Newman.”

When you say that this district was Czech, how Czech was it? Were there Czech shops, Czech butchers, that kind of stuff?

“Oh, very Czech. There were Czech cultural things. The vendors were all Czech. And so on.”

Was it possible to, I don’t know, buy Czech books here, that kind of thing?

“Oh, certainly. As a matter of fact the library on York Avenue on 78th St. had one floor that was entirely Czech.

“All the books were Czech. It’s no longer that way. Of course they have some Czech books there now, but it was certainly all Czech at that time.”

“The avenue that we lived on was called Bohemian Broadway; at least we called it that.”

Were there Czech schools in this neighbourhood?

“Yes. There were Czech schools. At the Bohemian National Hall they had Bohemian school.

“And there was a Slovak school, though I don’t know where that was located.”

When did your own Czech start do decline, if it did start to decline?

“When I went to school I was speaking English there. And my mother then turned to speaking English at home.

“So that’s where it changed.”

Do you still live in this neighbourhood?

“Yes. I moved out of this neighbourhood for some years but I live here right now.”

Today, are there any Czechs living here?

Entrance at 420 E 71st St. in Manhattan,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Yes, there certainly are. But when the UN was built, down on 42nd St., the whole neighbourhood changed.

“So now where there were walk-ups and so on they started to build high-rises, because it changed the neighbourhood.

“Now it’s a luxury neighbourhood.”

Where did all the Czechs go?

“Most of them went to Queens, or out to Long Island.”

You’ve been coming here to Sokol for your whole life. When you were a child, was Sokol conducted in the Czech language?

“Yes. Even when I went to instructors’ course as a teenager, the entire curriculum was in Czech.

“I was learning commands and learning words… As a matter of fact, from having that experience I was able to read Czech, although I may not have been able to tell you what I was reading [laughs].”

I understand that you are not the first generation of your family who’s been a member of this Sokol?

“Exactly. My mother was a member down in Baltimore.”

But I heard in an interview with you that your grandfather attended, too.

“An archivist or librarian who came from Prague found my grandfather’s name in our registration book from way back when – 1895, I believe.”

“That was a great big surprise, as a matter of fact.

“An archivist or librarian who came from Prague found his name in our registration book from way back when – 1895, I believe.”

When you were a child, how often were you coming here to Sokol?

“As a child, I guess it was two days a week.”

Was it free, or did you have to pay?

“Ten cents a month.”

Was Sokol fifty-fifty boys and girls? Or was there a predominance of one?

“At that time I would say it was fifty-fifty.

“Now I would say there are more girls involved. There seem to be more girls involved in a lot of things [laughs].”

When you were at Sokol were you doing only gymnastics? Or were there other activities also taking place here?

“Oh, we did everything. We did track and field. We did dance.

“We did the whole physical education curriculum, just as Sokol should be, with a whole variety of things.

Main hall at Sokol NY,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“As a matter of fact, at one time we had an indoor pole vault here [laughs].

“Not for too long, it was a little bit too noisy, but we did have that.”

When you were growing up, did many of your friendships stem from Sokol?

“Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. When we went to the courses we met people from other Sokols.

“We especially became friends with those who came from Astoria. So there was a lot of interaction between the various neighbourhoods.”

Would that have been in a competitive way? Would your Sokol have competed against the other New York Sokols in certain disciplines or something?

“Oh, absolutely. One big competition was between D.A. Sokol, Dělnický Americký Sokol, and our Sokol.”

Which one was the best?

“Of course the Blue Sokols. We were called the Blue Turners.

“I guess we got that term from the Germans calling themselves Turners [Turners are a German-American gymnastics club].

“We considered ourselves the Blue Turners and the D.A. were the Red Turners.”

I presume it was a friendly rivalry?

“One big competition was between D.A. Sokol, Dělnický Americký Sokol, and our T.J. Sokol.”

“Yes. But when we were younger it wasn’t so friendly.

“We didn’t mingle with them. But then as you became teenagers you did.”

I first met you 10 years ago here at Sokol with another lady called Irene, and she was telling me she had met her husband through Sokol. But then I subsequently learned that you also met your husband here. Could you tell us about that, please?

“Yes, I met him as a teenager here. And that was it [laughs].”

And he was Zabka or Žabka?

“Yes. He was at that time from Slovenský [Slovak] Sokol.

“That’s right – we had Slovenský Sokol, D.A. Sokol and we called ourselves T.J. Sokol, Tělocvičná jednota Sokol.”

So he was of Slovak extraction?

“His parents, yes.”

Were there a lot of such Sokol romances?

A century of Sokol medals,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Absolutely. We were all teenagers and that was an important time for… making friends.”

You then became an instructor. What was your specialisation?

“Teaching Sokol classes. We had to do the general Sokol programme – we were taught that at the instructors’ course.

“So whatever was being introduced was what we taught.

“We call it a Bohemian gymnastic association, but actually it includes all kinds of physical activities.

“It’s just that gymnastics at that time was really all-inclusive. It included other activities.

“So we’re not only a gymnastics club. You could call us a physical education club. Volleyball, soccer, softball – whatever you wanted to do was included.”

Who are the Sokol members today? What are their ethnic backgrounds? I presume there are few, if any, Czechs coming here.

“There are very few new Czechs coming here. Actually you have more Slovaks coming here in the last 10 years, I would say.

“But as for our officers, if I go down the list I think almost every one has some Czech background.

“It’s not necessary, but that’s the way it is.”

“Children can’t come down here on their own. I could come down every day or every night, if I wanted to.”

Are you optimistic for the future of Sokol here in New York?

“Well, I think it can go on. We need more experiences like going to the slet [meeting] to get people more involved.

“I think education is lacking as far as Sokol is concerned.

“It gets to be that we’re not down here as often. People live away.

“Children can’t come down here on their own. They have to be escorted by their parents, which makes it very different.

“I remember coming down here – I could come down every day or every night, if I wanted to.

“But you can’t do that now. Children can’t do that. They depend on their parents to take care of whatever activities they’re involved in.”

Have you ever been to any Sokol events in the Czech Republic?

Note the spelling of Czech,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“Yes, I’ve been to a slet.

“That’s quite an experience, it really is. It’s very, very impressive.”

What influence did your membership of Sokol have on your career?

“I didn’t want to be involved in physical education, because I wanted to be more rounded.

“But then when I found that I was going to be working for the rest of my life I thought I’d better do something that I really like.

“So I started teaching and I ended up teaching at Hunter College for 30 years, as a result of my interest in Sokol.”

You’re 90 years old. I guess that means you’ve been coming here to this place, associated with this organisation for 85 years or something like that?

“Exactly, yes. Except for about six months when I lived in Chicago.”

You must have missed it at that time.

“Well, I went to Sokol in Chicago [laughs].”

Sign at the back of the main hall at Sokol NY,  photo: Ian Willoughby
Is there much interaction between the different Sokols in the US?

“Yes. We have our slets.

“As a matter of fact the Slovak Sokol is having a slet next June. So we participate in that.

“So yes, there is quite a bit [of interation]. And at the Sokol courses you meet people from all around the US.”

What has being involved with Sokol your whole life given you?

“An enjoyable life, I guess. Yes, you could say that. And friends.”