Jitka Volavka-Illner (born Jitka Horčičková), 1939
Jitka Volavka-Illner was born in Prague in 1939. Her father, Václav, was a successful businessman who owned two coal mines while her mother, Věra, who had studied law, stayed home to raise Jitka and her three siblings. Jitka’s parents were avid art collectors and she remembers walking to museums and galleries with her father each week. Her family often went skiing in the Krkonoše mountains and, at the age of 14, Jitka won the junior national championships in giant slalom and downhill. That same year, Jitka was the national singles champion in tennis and she says that she had to decide between the two sports. Her father eventually steered her towards tennis and she went on to have a successful career on the international circuit; she first played at Wimbledon at age 16 and several times was ranked in the top 20 in the world.
Jitka studied linguistics at Charles University, focusing on English and Russian languages. After graduating, she taught at a high school for one year and then began teaching English to university students studying engineering. Jitka says this job was ‘great’ as it gave her time to train for tennis and compete internationally. In 1967, Jitka and her husband moved to London for one year where she taught English at an elementary school. They returned in the fall of 1967, a time which Jitka calls ‘wonderful’ because of the reforms that marked the Prague Spring. Immediately after the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968, Jitka and her husband left Czechoslovakia. While waiting for permission to immigrate to the United States, Jitka lived in Munich where she learned German and worked as a nanny. In March 1969, the pair moved to New York City. For one year Jitka worked as a Russian interpreter for the United Nations. She then began teaching lessons at a tennis club in Manhattan where her clients included Robert Redford and Walter Cronkite. Jitka says that her first years in the United States were ‘lonely’ and that she sought out Czech connections. She joined the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) in the 1970s and is currently the president of the New York chapter. In 1973, Jitka had her daughter Nicole and moved to Long Island where she continued to teach tennis. She became the tennis director at Cold Spring Harbor Beach Club and worked there until the late 1990s. For a short time she also worked for Christie’s interpreting for Russian art dealers.
Since moving to the United States, Jitka has become an art collector and has exhibited the work of Czech artists. She has been involved in charity work and often uses the connections she has made from tennis and with her fellow Czech émigrés for fundraisers and other events. Jitka has also hosted Czech students and opened her home to newly-arrived Czech immigrants. Although she loves to visit Prague, Jitka says that she ‘feels more American than Czech.’ She lives in Manhattan with her second husband, Pavel.
Jitka’s interest in languages and art was piqued by her father
“He really loved languages and he spoke about three, and my mother two. They all spoke, of course, German, and my father actually learned Russian because he loved Russian literature. So he read Tolstoy and Pushkin in Russian. So he always wanted us to learn languages. My brothers were not really oriented, but I liked it very, very much. He loved poetry. He recited poems and, as a little kid, I learned all the poems by heart. So when we went for a walk, which was usually on Sunday to the museums because he was a big art collector, we would recite poems on the way.”
Jitka talks about her university studies
“After I graduated high school, I applied to Charles University to study languages, and I was probably the most nervous because I kind of had to lie in my resume. I could never be truthful about my father’s past. Of course I said he was from a family of 14 and that kind of thing, but I never really talked about his business success. After the communists actually nationalized his business, he worked for quite a while at some business ministry because the communists didn’t know how to run things, so they needed people like my father, so he had a pretty good job. That was all in my resume and to my greatest relief I did get [admitted] to the faculty of philosophy to study linguistics. I wanted to study English and German or English and French, but they wouldn’t allow you to study two Western languages; you had to have one Slavic language. So I took Russian because we had Russian probably since the fifth grade, so it was no big deal. I was fluent already in Russian, so it was at least easy.”
In 1961, Jitka competed in the University Games in Bulgaria. She repeated the experience in Brazil in 1963
“That was awesome. I won the gold medal, and we were a very small Czech team. We only had one tennis player – that was me – and we had a men’s volleyball team and a runner, and we won most of the medals and the Brazilian government decided to give us a special prize and invited us for nine days to Rio de Janeiro. It was fantastic, and all the Czech immigrants who left before the War, after the War, they all looked us up; we were all over the newspaper. They celebrated us so much and we were not used to it. With the communists, you won and they never said a word of praise. They would almost say ‘Oh she won because the other one played so badly.’ That was their usual approach, and there, when I won, they lifted me up and carried me through the town and there were big billboards with a photo double my size. Wherever we came, they said ‘Oh my god, are you the tennis champion? Would you like some coffee?’ So that’s something I will never forget. The most precious victory.”
Jitka taught English to mechanical engineering students
“I started teaching on a university level. First I had to learn all the expressions for mechanical engineering, because that was something I never knew much about. So I studied the scripts and learned words in Czech and then in English. The great advantage was that at the university level, you only taught eight to ten hours a week and that was all, which was wonderful because I had all the time in the world for training for tennis. I had a special deal that I taught double the amount in the winter semester and I took off for tennis tournaments in spring. We started usually on the French Riviera, and then it was Italy, and then it was Paris, then it was London – Wimbledon – and then it was all in Germany and Austria, and then we always had some special trip, like to China. So I traveled, and then in September I resumed my teaching again. So that was wonderful.
“The other was, in the ‘60s, things were getting looser and looser so we were not feeling the communist oppression that much. People started traveling and the deans of the technical faculties in Czechoslovakia started traveling and they were very smart guys, engineers, but they were totally at a loss when they were traveling. They didn’t even know what “entrance” and “exit” were. They didn’t understand. So they were looking for somebody who could teach them English and they hired me. I had five deans from various faculty [and I was] teaching practical English to these guys, which was great fun, because I made my own vocabulary for them, and I taught them through jokes. It was just wonderful and they loved me to death. And then, I taught only four hours a week and just one class of students, so that was great.”
One of Jitka’s tennis students was well-connected
“He wanted a lesson and I said ‘I’m sorry, I can’t give you a lesson.’ He said ‘What is so important?’ I had no idea [who he was]; I never ask people what they do. I said ‘Well, they have a painting at Christie’s at auction which I want to bid for,’ and he said ‘Christie’s? Did you know that I’m the head of Christie’s?’ He was the chairman of Christie’s! I had no idea. So I went and I got the piece and we became kind of more personal, and then they offered me a job at Christie’s at the Russian department, because they said ‘There are Russians who come from Russia and they have lots of art and they bring it to Christie’s and nobody really speaks Russian. So you could actually accept that art and stuff.’ And that was a very interesting part of my life and I said ‘Yes, I will do it, but only if I can do it only in wintertime, because in summer I want to keep that job on Long Island.’ And that’s what I did for a few years. I worked at Christie’s and I learned more. It was fantastic because there was so much art every day. I would learn about antique furniture and paintings which you never saw because they went into auction, so that enriched my life too.”
Category: New York City, Oral History