Georgina Šilhánová-Sager (born Jiřina Stránská), 1931
Georgina Šilhánová-Sager was born in Ostrava in 1931. Her mother owned a business in the city while her father, an electrical engineer, was building a power plant for Škoda Works. In 1939, Georgina moved with her family to Prague and, two years later, she moved to Třebíč with her mother and two sisters to live with her mother’s parents for the remainder of WWII. Georgina says that during liberation 45 Russian soldiers camped on her grandparents’ property. Georgina attended a business school in Třebíč and, although she hoped to study at university, she was denied admission because of her family’s ‘bourgeois’ position. While working in a factory, Georgina, along with her sister, was arrested for saying that the Soviets had been taking uranium from Czechoslovakia for years. She spent three months in prison in Opava and three months on a farm outside Ostrava. Georgina then returned to Ostrava where she married her first husband and had a son.
Georgina says that she wanted to ‘re-establish’ herself and her family, due to her imprisonment and her husband’s position working the mines (he was not allowed to finish his university studies because of family connections to the Beneš Party). Active in Sokol through the years, Georgina began coaching gymnastics with the local sports organization, Baník, and, in 1955, directed 2000 women from the Ostrava region in the first Spartakiáda. She also traveled to the Soviet Union in 1960 for a Spartakiáda there. Georgina also worked in the ASO department store for several years. In 1969, Georgina was able to secure a visa to visit her sister in New York, who had moved to the United States a few years earlier. She arrived in New York by herself and got a job running the coat check in the Czechoslovak restaurant Praha, and taught herself English with the help of a dictionary. After working as a sales representative for a Czechoslovak gift company, Georgina opened a souvenir shop of her own. She then started Midtown Candy Company, eventually owning three stores. In 1985, Georgina married Dr. Herman Sager, an eye doctor.
Immediately after moving to the United States, Georgina became involved with the Czechoslovak community in New York. She served as treasurer of the Bohemian Benevolent Literary Association (BBLA) for over 20 years and was instrumental in the restoration of the Bohemian National Hall. She has been a member of the Association of Free Czechoslovak Sportsmen for many years and is currently a trustee of the BBLA. Georgina says that the leadership of BBLA is ‘great’ and is pleased to see the success of the organization. She also volunteers for the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. Georgina returns to the Czech Republic every year to visit her family, which still lives in the villa her parents built in Ostrava. Now widowed, she lives in Manhattan.
Georgina recalls an incident with a Nazi soldier during WWII
“One time they were bringing through the town soldiers which they had captured – and when I remember that, this was absolute horror. They needed water and they needed bread; they were asking. I ran home and brought all the bread and all the water and I was running to them, and the Nazi [said] ‘Halt! Halt, halt!’ and he had the revolver ready to shoot. And I said to myself ‘What can I do now, because if I turn and run, he will shoot me in the back?’ and I said ‘No’ and I looked at his eyes, straight to his eyes – he was a tall fellow, in a Nazi uniform – and then I started to see that the hand with the revolver was slowly going down. Perhaps he had some daughter or something like that. And after the revolver came down, I very slowly turned and walked away.”
After being imprisoned, Georgina tried to rehabilitate her image in her hometown
“Because I was a big gymnast and swimmer as a young girl, I said to myself ‘I have to go back because somehow we have to establish ourselves [again]’ – I already had my son – and I went to Baník, which was a sports group in Ostrava and they took me. At that time I was living in Radvanice, and I was a leader for the Spartakiad, which was in 1955. From the Ostrava region, all the Baník, I got 2000 girls exercising in Prague in the Spartakiad.”
And you had been a gymnast for many years?
“Well, I was a gymnast in Sokol in Třebíč and I also went to the Tyršův school for Sokol, which means that I know what it is all about and I was also established to be a leader of the camps, and I got all the certificates from the Tyršův dům, Tyrš House, in Prague. Then I said to myself ‘I have to do something with it,’ because my husband still worked in the mines, and then I started to learn the piece for the ladies and go twice a week to exercising groups, and traveled also because it wasn’t only Radvanice; it was all kraj [region] of Ostrava. All of the little villages had people who I had to test.”
Georgina’s first job in the United States led to her starting her first business in New York
“Because this was right in the middle of all immigrants, I met a lot of Czech people and I met the owner of the Amerix company, which also had a little office on 73rd Street and they were bringing a gift line from the Czech Republic. I started to work for them as a representative of the gift line and started to sell the things to the gift store in Manhattan and in Long Island – I bought a car already – and then I also opened Georgina’s Gift Shop on 73rd Street.”
Category: New York City, Oral History