A Brief History
Sokol New York is the legacy left to Yorkville by the 19th and 20th century Czech and Slovak immigrants, their children, and grandchildren, and maintained today by them and your neighbors as volunteers, and as a non-profit organization, open to all. Sokol New York is a member of a national Sokol group: the American Sokol Organization (ASO), Oak Brook, Illinois., and maintains ties through it and the World Sokol Federation to Sokols in the USA and elsewhere. Sokol started in Prague in 1862. In 1865 the first Sokol in the USA was established in St. Louis, with New York following in 1867.
Olympics & Sokol New York
In 1911 Frank Kriz, joined Sokol at the age of 18. He was working as a polisher at the time and later joined the fire department. By 1920 he was off to the Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium with the U. S. Gymnastics team, and again in 1924 and 1928. Sokol New York helped fund his 1924 trip to the Paris Olympics with $100. (about 20% of the cash assets of Sokol at the time).
The vaulting boards were simple small ramps, with no spring. “The vaulter had to first clear a high jump cross bar prior to touching the long horse. Accordingly there very little time to do more than straddle the horse and land.” The jump bar was set at 1.7 meters or about 5’7”! He won the GOLD MEDAL in 1924 for the U.S. with a 9.98, squeaking by the silver and bronze medal winners Jan Koutny (9.97) and Bohumil Morkovsky (9.93) both from – you guessed it – Czechoslovakia!
He was one of the original gymnastics Hall of Fame honorees in 1959.
Other Sokol members became honorees in later years.
Frank Kriz vaulting to win an Olympic gold medal.
Note: From “History of Gymnastics in the United States” by Roy Moore, AAU Official Guide 1940-1941, provide by A. B. Frederick.
Note: From “History of Gymnastics: The Olympiads and the Intervening Years ( A Personal Review) by Frank J. Cuminskey, Frank Kriz and team’s coach Roy E. Moore.
Sokol New York Olympic participants. In addition to Frank Kriz, Laddie Bakanic was.on the U.S. team at the 1948 London Olympics. She is second from the right in the team photo. Jerry Hardy was a member of the U.S. Olympic Gymnastics Committee in 1940. He judged the compulsory pommel horse and the final floor exercise( 1968). Norma Zabka was Rhythmic Gymnastics judge at the 1984, 1988, 1992, and 1996 Olympics.
Note: Marie Provaznikova was not a athlete at the 1948 Olympics, rather a head of the international committee for gymnastics and took the opportunity to be the first to defect from a communist state at an Olympics.
At the 1948 London Olympics a future New York member, Marie Provaznikova, a Sokol leader from Prague, set a different sort of record by being the first to defect from a communist state during the Olympics. Her papers are a major section of Sokol archives.
The AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) & Sokol New York
The AAU championships were won by Sokol New York teams in 1909 and again in 1910 against teams from several YMCAs, New York Turnverein Turners, Pratt Institute, Yale University, etc. The championship banners and the team photo of Brothers Jirasek, Gregor, Heisler and Jahoda from 1909, with the addition of Brothers Skokan and Klar in 1910 are on display in Sokol New York’s upper hall, along with a clipping from the New York Times.
“A sound mind in a healthy body” is reflected in the many awards and championships that members have garnered. Not all awards could be listed here.
“The important thing in the Olympic games is not winning, but taking part. The essential thing in life is not conquering, but fighting well “
Baron de Coubetin.
Sokol New York Members in the Gymnastics Hall of Fame
Rudolf Hradecky -1994
Norma Zabka -1996
The Early Years: Sokol New York is formed in 1867
The Czechs came to New York, partly due to the political upheaval and frustrations of 1848, and settled in the Lower East Side, home to earlier immigrants from Central Europe. Social and fraternal organizations were established by the Czech immigrants. One of the more youthful groups, “Vcela” (The Bee), voted in October, 1867 to become a Sokol, similar to the Sokol formed in Prague by Dr. Miroslav Tyrs in 1862. Sokol is the Czech word for “falcon”, as a symbol of power, endurance and keen perception. An earlier Sokol in the USA was formed in St. Louis in 1865.
The “Slovanska Lipa” (Slavic Linden) was an organization with Pan-Slavic ideals that merged with the Bee, now a Sokol unit, and with a choral group: Hlahol (“Hum”). Shortly after, the “Hum” group became dissatisfied in a dispute (mercifully lost to history), and left the merged group. They quickly were replaced by a new choral group from the Sokols, since music was an essential. A sickness benefits organization was added, and became an issue (some saw conflict with the Sokol creed of “neither for profit nor fame”).
The next crisis was the enormous debts of a failed newspaper that the Slovanska Lipa invested in. This was too much for the Sokol members, and in 1877 they left the group, forming a completely independent Sokol with 60 members. Their share of the newspaper debts went with them. The members practiced at the National Hall on East 5th Street and Avenue A, at homes, or in back rooms of taverns.
In 1871 the Grand Duke Alexis of Czarist Russia, visited America. The Czech immigrants sent a delegation to greet him. The Czechs had a history of centuries living under the oppressive rule of the Austrian Emperor, with their language and culture suppressed. They saw the Grand Duke through the prism of Pan-Slavism, with thoughts of a better life under a Slavic emperor, rather than an Austrian one. The Poles were aghast, having lived under the Russian Czar. Unfortunately, this soured the relations between the Czechs and their Lower East Side neighbors.
Alois Wocal was President in 1877. He carried Sokol forward to ever larger membership, with a leading role in forming a national organization, improving instructions, and adding women classes with Anna Vesely in 1882. She was President of the separate women’s group for 50 years. In 1960 the men’s and women’s groups were merged.
The National Hall space was limited, and it was in much demand, and plans were discussed to build a new hall uptown on East 73rd Street in the 1890s. As the plans progressed, the Sokols realized they needed a dedicated space and went ahead with the plans for their own hall.
Note: Group of women in front of book cases caption: 1957 Sokol New York Women’s Group – 75th Anniversary.
The building designed by Architect Julius Franke was erected in 1896 at 420 East 71 Street between First and York Avenues (formerly Avenue A). It cost $200 to excavate the site and another $30,000 to erect the two story hall, with financial pledges from the almost 500 members. They each pledged $50, then about 10% of the average factory workers annual income.
The large gym, with its second story skylights, dominates the building. A balcony rings the gym, and has over 50 prints of the Czechoslovakia from 1923. The second floor has a restored “1896 Meeting Room”, a library and ballet room.
Sokol Hall- built 1896
The first floor has the remaining bar (there originally were three for the thirsty Sokols). It reminds one of a Prague pub, with its dark woods and the ancient emblems from the different kingdoms. In the basement there is a Tae-Kwon Do room, and Tots’ gym (formerly a billiards room). The stage is quiet now, except for a large wood display from the 1939 World Fair’s Czechoslovak pavilion. The Hussite motto is carved into it: Truth Prevails!
Note: Sokol’s architect Franke became noted for his later design of a warehouse building, converted to a factory loft, and made infamous by the “Triangle Shirt Waist Fire” of 1911. The news reports serve as a good introduction to working conditions at the time. The March 27, 1911 Cleveland Press report, available on Google, is recommended.
Cigarmaking, the Move to Yorkville and the “Golden Years”
Many of the immigrants now lived in the uptown “Yorkville” area. They moved closer to the jobs at cigar factories, owned mostly by Greeks and Armenians. In the 1873 it is estimated 95% of the New York Czech immigrants earned their livelihoods in the cigar trades, dropping to 15% by 1920. Men, women, and children all worked in the industry.
Yorkville was then roughly defined as East 65 Street, north to East 87 Street, between Second Avenue and the East River. It was serviced for a time by the Second Avenue El (demolished in 1939), and a ferry to the end of Astoria Boulevard across the river, before the 59th Street (Queensboro) bridge was built. Many of the Yorkville immigrants eventually moved to Astoria, still home today to Bohemian Hall with its delightful beer garden.
These were the early years of what have been called the “Golden Years of Czech American Immigrants”. The years from the late 1860s to the 1930s were a peak of Czech – American immigration and ethnic culture, not to be confused with living standards, or work conditions. Those were anything but golden Tomas Capek relates an interview with an old timer that spent decades in the cigar factories. He talked of everything except his work. When pressed, he referred to the work as “a song without a melody” and left it at that. It was a damning comment from a Czech who loved music.
Conditions for immigrants in the United States were harsh, and up to a quarter returned to Europe. There were no labor laws, no minimum wage, no workers compensation, and unions were just starting. There was no “social net” except for the fraternal organizations and family.
Sokol’s “Golden Years”
In 1904 Sokol New York had a schedule of 8 plays, several choral recitals, two public gymnastics exhibits, lectures and meetings, competitions in St. Louis, etc. Masaryk, Dvorak, and others notables included Sokol New York as a stop when in the city. Masaryk was a member of Sokol Prague for decades. The author Tomas Capek was a member of Sokol New York.
The Czech and Slovak community grew in Yorkville. The National Hall (“Narodni Budova”) was built later in 1896 on East 73 Street, and is being renovated now by the Czech government. Jan Hus Church is a short walk from Sokol, as is the site of the now demolished Catholic Church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help (the school was converted to apartments).
Note: Czechoslovak Day , 1939 at Randall’s Island.
The stained glass windows were reinstalled in a Pennsylvania church according to an unsubstantiated rumor. (Wish I knew where since I was baptized there)
The Turnverein Hall was nearby at 85th and Lexington, with frequent matches held by the teams. The St. John of Nepomuk Church is still nearby at East 66th Street. The Webster Branch of the New York Public Library had a large collection in Czech. At the end of East 72nd Street was the ferry that left for Astoria Boulevard, a short distance to Astoria’s Bohemian Hall.
- A famous report is in “How the other Half Lives” by Jacob A. Riis, 1890, is available at most libraries including Sokol New York’s library. See Chapter 12 for the “Bohemians”.
- More on Bohemian Hall in Astoria , and its beer garden can be found at the web site: BohemianHall.com
- Historical sections adapted from “New York’s Sokol Legacy from 1867” by Edward Chlanda, “Nase Rodina”, June, 2005, Volume 17, Number 2, Newsletter of the Czechoslovak Genealogical Society International.
As immigration restrictions grew in the 1920s, and assimilation took its toll, the immigrant community shrank. New York Hospital took the land from York Avenue to the East River, and the Second Avenue El was dismantled. Cigarettes replaced cigars. WWI and WWII increased the rate of assimilation and the membership shrank some. The other Sokols in Manhattan, Catholic Orel Sokol, Slovak Sokol, and D.A. Sokol, as well as the German immigrant’s Turnverein, are all gone now, but Sokol New York remains as a legacy for all.
The Sokol Movement & the Founding of Czechoslovakia
In addition to providing for a fine gymnastic program, the Czech and Slovaks Sokol New York members of the 19th century and 20th century played an important role, not only in their American civic life, but also in the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918 (now the two states: the Czech and Slovak Republics). The history of this role both here in the United States and in Europe was suppressed during the communist years (1948-1989), when Sokols were effectively banned in Czechoslovakia. Today the major Sokol role in their history is generally unknown among the citizens of the Czech and Slovak Republics. Hopefully with the revival of Sokols there, this will be corrected.
When Sokol was founded in Prague in 1862, it was then the Kingdom of Bohemia, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire (Hapsburg Empire), living under the autocratic rule of Emperor Franz Joseph.
During a period of liberalization the Austrian authorities allowed the first Prague Sokol as a gymnastic association in 1862. They were wary of its political undertones of democracy and self determination. Indeed, Clare E. Nolte titles her history on the early Sokols as “The Sokol in the Czech Lands to 1914- Training for the Nation.” The Prague police attended all the early Sokol meetings, and the authorities banned it for years in Slovakia, in their efforts to maintain the Empire. When WWI came it was Sokols that helped to form the core of an army in exile, and political leadership.
Note: A video tape of Claire E. Nolte’s related lecture, “Roots of Sokol”, Feb., 2004 is available at Sokol’s Library.
The New York Times report of May 23, 1918 reported the visit by “Dr.Thomas G. Masaryk, …head of the Czechoslovak National Committee, organizer of the Czechoslovak armies…likely to be first President of Bohemian republic” for a rally at Carnegie Hall. Before the rally, there was a march of thousands of Czechs, Slovaks, Yugoslavs and Russians from 71st Street and York Avenue to pass review by Masaryk from a balcony of the Plaza Hotel. A new flag for the new state was needed.
1918 Parade – Believed to be the May 25th rally and march from Sokol New York to Carnegie Hall. From the family photos of Zdenka Soukup.
Josef Knedlhans from Sokol New York designed the flag by adding a blue triangle to the old Bohemian flag. “Thus the Czechoslovak flag was first flown in America from the mast of the Plaza Hotel” on May 25, 1918 (from” The Czechs in America” by Vera Laska, 1978). Today it is the flag of the Czech Republic.
Note: Josef Knedlhans, (1874-1956). Designer of the Czechoslovakian Flag first flown May 25,1918 from a balcony at the Plaza Hotel, NYC during Tomas Masaryk’s review of the parade from Sokol NY to Carnegie Hall.
Photo dated July 6,1917
Sokol New York in WWI
When America declared war in WWI , 84 members of Sokol New York marched off as a group to Fort Slocum to enlist. Many were well beyond the enlistment age, but all passed the physical, with their Sokol training. They were active in raising funds and awareness, as well as serving. Look across the gym floor to the tablets that flank the stage on the left. The plaque lists the 60 members that served with the US forces, and continues with 9 more members serving with the Czechoslovak Army.
The Czechoslovak Army, or the Czechoslovak Legion as they were also known, was active with the allies in France, Italy, and Russia. The legions were called “The Army without a Country” by one historian of their Trans-Siberian campaign. In years after they met as veterans at Sokol New York, and their meeting minutes are part of our archives.
On the right of the stage is the plaque of 62 members that served in WWII, including the three who died in service: Valdemar Fursa, Leo Linhart, and Fred.Splach.
Note: 1943 visit by Jan Masaryk to Sokol New York (with Leo Linhart, Sokol New York member, to left at end of table). Br. Linhart’s plane with 4 aboard, left Scotland in Jan.,1945 bound for London . His wife of three weeks was to join him there, but the plane disappeared in the Scottish mountains. Climbers found the wreck in August 1945.
Sokol in the last 50 Years
In our newsletter “Memories” is a regular feature written by older members. We hope to reprint them someday, and make them available.
Sokol New York’s 138 year history was started by immigrants of the 19th and 20th centuries that settled in Yorkville. During the 2004 Annual Exhibition at Sokol Hall, President Norma Zabka announced Sokol’s future as “in the hands, and hearts” of the young participants that day. A “ Nazdar!” to them, from all us senior Sokols!
Your comments are appreciated. You can reach Ed Chlanda, by e-mail at: email@example.com