Sokol movement celebrates Memorial Day in honour of Nazi victims

Sokol slet in 1932, photo: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-13621 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Thursday is Sokol Memorial Day, an official “day of significance” on the Czech calendar since last year. It honours the memory of hundreds of members of the nation’s oldest athletics association arrested by the Gestapo on the night of October 7 to 8, 1941, tortured and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Few survived the war.

The gymnastics and sport movement Sokol, which means falcon in Czech, was founded in 1862 by two leading figures of the National Revival movement. Its festivals, known as slety, or flockings, have been major manifestations of national pride, especially in troubled times.

Some 350,000 athletes took part in Sokol’s final slet before the Second World War, held at Prague’s Strahov stadium on the eve of the Munich Agreement of 1938, at which the Allies handed over the Sudetenland to Hitler. Unaware of the “betrayal”, as it came to be known, they had pledged to defend the homeland.

Sokol slet in 1938, photo: archive of Czech Radio

Sokol was banned after the occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, But it was not until October 1941, shortly after the arrival of Reinhard Heydrich, the new governor of the so-called Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, that it was dissolved, and rank-and-file Sokol members arrested.

Some 1,500 were arrested by the Gestapo, including the father of Dagmar Evaldová who was imprisoned in Terezín. Although initially released, he would be transferred to Auschwitz, where he died along with nine out of ten Sokols arrested that first night.

“It was October 8 and the Sokols were arrested. They came for my dad. A few Sokol prisoners were released from Terezín, and by some miracle, he was among them.

“Even though they closed Sokol, he would meet with groups of teenage members. If anyone asked, I was to say they were my friends – and we were celebrating someone’s birthday.

“After his third arrest, my dad said, ‘This time, I will not return before the war ends. If I don’t come back at all, don’t forget that I wanted to make a real Sokol of you.’ That is a lifetime bond.”

Sokol flag in 1938, photo: ThecentreCZ CC BY-SA 4.0

Earlier in 1941, the SD security service SS general Reinhard Heydrich commanded had been given responsibility for carrying out the “Nacht und Nebel” decree, according to which “persons endangering German security” were to be arrested “under the cover of night and fog”.

It was not until after Operation Barbarossa, the German attack on the Soviet Union that began on June 22, that resistance in the Protectorate and other occupied territory developed on a noticeable scale.

Heydrich set out to crush it, ordering that “hostile Czechs, Poles, Communists and other scumbags be transferred to concentration camps for longer periods”. He imposed martial law in the Protectorate on October 2 to facilitate the process.

A few years after the war, the Communists seized power and banned the Sokol movement, replacing it with the Spartakiáda – similar mass gymnastics events held under the banner of building socialism. After the fall of communism, Sokol was revived, and Dagmar Evaldová re-joined, fulfilling her late father’s wishes.

"Sokol is not just physical training, for us it is Masaryk’s legacy. Without Sokol, there would be no Czechoslovak legion, and without the legion, no republic. It's something binding. You have to do everything to keep the idea going.”