Ája Vrzáňová-Steindler (born Alena Vrzáňová), 1931
Ája Vrzáňová-Steindler was born in Prague in 1931. She began ice skating as a young girl and recalls training during WWII with little light due to blackouts. She says she felt a ‘whole new attitude’ that accompanied the end of WWII, as many international figure skaters came to Prague. In 1947, Ája moved to London to be coached by Arnold Gerschwiler. She lived and trained in London for six months of the year, and spent the rest of her time in Prague and Davos, Switzerland. Ája held the title of Czechoslovak national champion from 1947 to 1950 and competed in the 1948 Olympics. She won the World Championships in 1949 and, although Soviet authorities wanted her to travel to the Soviet Union to teach and coach figure skating, her mother convinced them to allow Ája to go to London in March 1950 to defend her title. Ája says that her parents encouraged her not to return to Czechoslovakia and so, after winning the championships, Ája stayed on with her coach in London. She says that after receiving threatening phone calls, she did not leave the house until receiving political asylum ten days later. Ája’s mother was able to leave the country as well; she was a passenger on an airplane that was hijacked en route to Prague and landed in Erding, Germany at a U.S. Army base. Ája’s father lost his job in the Ministry of Finance and ultimately decided not to leave Czechoslovakia permanently. It would be 13 years before Ája saw her father again.
Ája signed a contract with the Ice Follies, moved to the United States, and skated with the tour for three years. She then joined the Ice Capades. During her 15 years with the Ice Capades, Ája was known as Ája Zanová. Ája’s mother, who had accompanied her on the Ice Follies tour, settled in Los Angeles where she became a voice and music teacher. Ája spent her breaks from the tour with her mother in California. In the late 1960s, Ája met her future Czech-born husband, Paul (Pavel) Steindler on a blind date. She married him in 1969, after leaving the Ice Capades. The couple lived in New York City where Paul owned several restaurants. Ája says that many Czechs congregated at their restaurants, which began her lifelong activity in the New York Czech community. After Paul’s death, Ája returned to the skating world, working as a judge, consultant and rink manager. She is a trustee of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Assocation (BBLA) and involved in the Association of Free Czechoslovak Sportsmen. In 2012, Ája received the Gratias Agit award from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs, given to her for her “promotion of the good name of the Czech Republic abroad.” She was also awarded the Medal of Merit in Sports by the Czech president Václav Klaus in 2004. Ája has also been inducted into the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Today, Ája lives in Manhattan and frequently visits the Czech Republic.
Ája remembers training in adverse conditions during WWII
“My training was very difficult because it was the War. I was very young, but I remember the SS soldiers coming into Prague with the goosestep and all of that. I was standing, holding on to my dad’s hand and we were all sort of amazed and watching and [thinking] what’s going to happen and all that. I’m the only child so I must say I was protected from a lot that was going on; of course, many things I saw and heard. But the training was very difficult because of the blackout during the War and we had only an outdoor ice rink. There was only one lamp in the middle of the rink and whoever got there first could take the better spot under the lamp. And we did figure eights and all that, very quiet, no music, just the figure eights following the patterns.
“I loved skating. I really loved jumping and I was not afraid. And it was cold. It was cold as could be. Mami [mom] used to wake me up at 5:00 [and I’d be] on the ice at 6:30. I remember she used to wrap my feet with newspapers, because newspapers are warm. I never knew that, but she wrapped my feet in newspaper before she put them in the boot, and that helped a lot but the boots were not that good either and I had so many corns and so many bloody toes. I don’t know how we did it, but we did.”
In March 1950, Ája traveled to London to compete in the Figure Skating World Championships
“Mami and Dad told me not to come back. They said ‘Don’t worry about it;’ they didn’t say that I’ll never see Dad for 13 years; they never did tell me that it’s going to be difficult and all that. They said ‘We’ll see you soon and just concentrate on defending the world title,’ because I think if they would have told me what actually happened, I would never have gone because I would never leave them alone to go through what they went through, but I didn’t know. I said ‘Ok!’ and I left them. I said goodbye and they said ‘Good luck’ and all that and I said ‘Ok, we’ll be talking’ and that’s how I left. There was no drama leaving because I never, never thought that it would come to what it came to.”
After deciding not to return to Czechoslovakia, Ája stayed with her coach in London
“We had threatening phone calls [saying] they’re going to shoot my mother – it was from the [Czechoslovak] Consulate from somewhere, from England; I would think it was the consulate – and ‘You’ll never see your parents again’ and all of the sudden I said ‘My god! What have I done?’ So my coach said ‘From now on, you’re not going out,’ so for ten days I was in the house. We were in a very quiet street in Richmond and Twickenham in London, and the car was going back and forth and back and forth and we knew that they were watching me, waiting for me to come out, and there were people coming into the house saying ‘Where is Ája? Can we see her?’ I was never home for anybody. I was either in the attic or in the cellar but for anybody, I was not home.
“After ten days, Arnold said ‘I’m leaving and I’ll be back in about half hour and don’t leave. Don’t go away. Don’t go out of the house,’ and I said ‘Ok, ok.’ So he left. We thought he went to teach, to the rink. ‘Mrs. Gerschwiler,’ I said. ‘Please let me go to the corner drugstore, just to buy a couple of things. I have cabin fever.’ And she said ‘No, you’re not supposed to go, but if you hurry, I mean, really hurry…’ I said ‘Yes, yes.’ Well, on the way back, I’ve got a bag of something and I hear the car and I turn around and they speed up and I recognize. I started running and I get to the picket fence and the little gate that I opened so many times. The latch wouldn’t open, and I’m yelling; I’m holding on to the picket fence. They come and they were trying to pull me off that. It was a terrible scene and then, at that moment, I mean, if it was ten minutes later it would have been too late, but at that moment, Arnold Gerschwiler and two men came out of the house and ran towards me, and they were from the British Home Office. He didn’t go teach; he went to the Home Office. I couldn’t go out, so he brought the two men into the Richmond Twickenham house to give me my political asylum. And that was a huge, huge thing that they did for me. One was still holding on to me, the other went into the car and they were saying ‘You’re going to ruin the sport of Czechoslovakia,’ and I was beside myself. I thought a thing like that would never come to anything like that, and I came to the house and I broke down. I really cried. I said ‘What have I done? What are they going to do to Mami and Dad?’ and then I couldn’t find them on the phone. It was the most difficult time of my life, I think.”
Ája describes some of her involvement in the Czech community
“I’m so proud to be a part of our Czech community here. I was always somehow connected with the Czech community, even when I was with Ice Follies or Ice Capades, because they used to do… It helped them because they advertised me as defected from behind the Iron Curtain, and they did Ája Vrzanova Night at the Ice Follies [sic.] The first three years, every city had Ája Vrzanova Evening and you’d be surprised how many Czechs came to the show. It was so heart-warming; it was really wonderful. In Ice Capades, I always visited the Czech community in every city. They didn’t do Ája Zanova – by then I had the shorter name – Ája Zanova Evening. They didn’t do that, but I myself went and looked up the Czech community. Chicago, Omaha, I had lots of wonderful friends that I visited every year.
“And then, of course, Paul was a very big Czech. He had no accent; he defected in 1948. When the communists came in, he left the Czech Republic and first he went to Vienna and then he made his way to America and was a renowned chef. When I met him he had three restaurants and then he built me a restaurant called The Duck Joint and I worked there, because I loved it. It was like my stage. I had my own restaurant; I loved every minute of it. We had a lot of Czech people coming to the restaurant, like Milos Forman; we had Ivan Passer, Martina Navratilova, Ivan Lendl, whoever was here. The ice show came through and they came to the restaurant, so it really was a great 15, 18 years.”
Category: New York City, Oral History