Sokol New York


The first New York Sokol opened its doors in 1867, only five years after the Sokol youth and gymnastics organisation was founded in Prague as an important element in the Czech National Revival nationalist movement. Sokol New York’s homely sports and social hall is on East 71st St in Manhattan. But that wasn’t the group’s first location.

Ed Chlanda
Ed Chlanda is president of Sokol New York’s library and knows a lot about the branch’s history.

"Originally it started on East 5th St in lower Manhattan. Because when the Czech community first came here they established themselves on the Lower East Side.

"However, the work was up here [on the Upper East Side]. Many of them were cigar cutters and many had come from the area of Kutná Hora where there was a tobacco industry too. The cigar cutting industry was uptown, in Yorkville, so they moved up here. Eventually it was a trip to go downtown for the gymnastics etceteras.

Sokol Hall
"At one point they realised they would have to build a new building and they wound up buying some land here. This piece of land cost 200 dollars - it would cost a little bit more today. They put up the building in one year. They had a subscription and all these working people - who were not very wealthy at all, they struggled...if you read How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, there's a chapter in there about the Bohemian community in New York and you can see that mom, dad and the kids all worked rolling cigars, very hard, on a piece-work basis."

And there would have been I guess tens of thousands of Czechs in this area at that time.

"There were forty thousand at the high point, forty or fifty thousand."

At its high point, how many people were members of Sokol?

"I would guesstimate that there were a thousand members, maximum. That's a rough guess, though - I'd have to look into the archives."

Tell us, who were your most notable members?

"Actually our first member was Wocal. He was one of the first presidents and he was an officer here, and he was very instrumental in setting up a national Sokol organisation, the predecessor to the American Sokol Organization.

"Another person that's very interesting is Josef Knedlhans, because the Czech flag today basically follows his design, with one small change.

"In 1918 [Czechoslovakia's founder T.G.] Masaryk was speaking at Carnegie Hall and the Sokols – all the Sokols, not just the Czech ones but the Croatian, Slovenian, all the ones from the different Hapsburg Empire…areas came and marched from this area here over to Carnegie Hall, where Masaryk was going to speak.

"In doing so they were going to pass the Plaza hotel and he was going to review the parade from the balcony there. They needed a new flag, because the old Bohemian flag, red and white, was similar to the flags of Russia and Poland.

"Now with Slovakia they wanted to make a new flag, so they added a blue triangle for the blue skies of Slovakia. And Josef Knedlhans, who was a member of Sokol here, he designed one with the triangle going one third the length of the flag.

"They hung it from the balcony at the Plaza hotel and the people marched by. That's how the flag got started, though eventually it was officially adopted with the blue triangle at half that length."

And one of your members was an Olympic champion?

"Yes, Frank Kriz, who was a metal polisher at the time, was sent to Antwerp and to Brussels I believe in 1920 and 1924 for the USA team. He won the gold medal in 1924 for the long horse vault. Second and third were members of the Czechoslovak team, but he was first for the USA."

Norma Zabka
When I visited Sokol New York there were dozens of little girls of various ethnic backgrounds happily exercising in the main hall, while a small women’s group were limbering up. Among the latter were the organisation's starosta or president Norma Zabka (in Czech Norma Žabková) and first vice president Irene Mergl (Irena Merglová).

How long have you been members of Sokol?

Irene: "Since I was five and a half years old."

Norma: “Four years old.”

Irene Mergl
How far back does your family connection with the organisation go back?

Norma: “When we had an archivist here from Prague I found out that my grandfather was one of the early members of Sokol New York. And I could be a great grandmother myself (laughs).”

Irene: “We lived two doors down from Sokol Hall, so it was a rite of passage at age five and a half to become a member. My father was a member in Czechoslovakia – I’m first generation – so it was an automatic thing for me to go to Sokol. There was no question about whether I wanted to go or not.”

What are the main activities today of Sokol in New York?

Norma: “The core programme of course is the gymnastics programme, but then we have what I would call the auxiliary programmes, which are ballet, taekwondo, we have a tots programme starting at the age of ten months, we have a folk dance class, volleyball, basketball on Sunday. The core programme is children, juniors and seniors.”

Of the kids who are here now exercising, how many would be from a Czech background?

Irene: “I would say it’s almost nil. When they register in September on the application it asks whether they are of Czechoslovak descent. Norma went through the applications just recently and we discovered there are a few whose grandparents or great-grandparents were of Czechoslovak descent. It was Norma’s idea to get this group together, so we can form some kind of…group that would help us to retain the Czech and Slovak heritage.”

Do you think it’s a bit of a pity that there aren’t so many Czechs here any more?

Norma: “It’s because the neighbourhood has changed. Originally when this building was built it was a Czechoslovak neighbourhood. As a matter of fact I couldn’t speak English before I went to school – it wasn’t necessary in this neighbourhood. Then the UN came in and changed the whole East Side, buildings were torn down and high rises went up. The Czechoslovak community – like other communities, like the Hungarian community and the German community – moved out to the suburbs or the outer boroughs. Very few are currently in the city.”

Given that there aren’t that many Czechs involved any more, how do you see the future of Sokol?

Sokol Hall
Irene: “We do our best to keep up the heritage and the people who are not of Czech or Slovak descent have really been fascinated by what we do here, and we absolutely have no difficulty in attracting people. So our future is very bright – and it is American Sokol.”

Norma: “I think it depends on us. It’s our aim right now with a heritage day where we’re calling on people who have Czechoslovak backgrounds, whether it be themselves or their grandparents…Hopefully we can get them involved. I would say that we probably are more American than most units in the US.”

You’ve been members for many decades – what has Sokol given you over the years?

Irene: “Well, first of all it gave me a husband (laughs). And a fulfillment that is indescribable. It’s a part of my life – a big part of my life.”