Officers and Trustees
Josef Baláž - Joseph Balaz - was born on December 22nd 1960 in Prague. He first studied at the Transport Technical College on Dušní street in Prague and then Civil Engineering at ČVUT (Czech Technical University). In 1982 he emigrated to West Germany where he lived for a year and a half before traveling to Canada. From Montreal he moved to New York, where he lives today. After arriving in NYC he found employment with a firm of developers. With a partner he later set up his first construction firm which concentrated on renovation work. Next he established J. Balaz Associates Ltd., which specializes in exclusive residential projects for wealthy clients. The company performed the major reconstruction of one of New York's most famous recording studios, the Hit Factory, which has hosted such stars as Frank Sinatra, John Lennon, Steve Wonder and Michael Jackson. In December 2005 Joseph Balaz was elected delegate to the BBLA for the American Fund for Czech and Slovak Leadership Studies. He was then elected head of the committee responsible for administration of Bohemian National Hall. In October 2006 he became president of the BBLA and participated in negotiations with the Czech government on the final phase of repairs to Bohemian National Hall.
First Vice President
Susan is also President of the Dvorak American Heritage Association (DAHA). She was one of the founding members of DAHA, an organization that was created in 1990. Its goal is to honor the American musical legacy of the Czech-born composer Antonin Dvorak who lived in New York City from 1892 to 1895 when he was the Director of the National Conservatory of Music of America. Susan has been President of DAHA since 2006 and has recruited into the organization a cadre of talented and devoted professionals. DAHA has furnished the beautiful Dvorak Room in the Bohemian National Hall and each season has unique concerts and lectures on a variety of musical subjects. Susan was born in the Czech Republic and immigrated to the USA in 1969. By profession, she is a physician with subspecialty in gastrointestinal disorders. She spent twenty-four years at Columbia University Medical Center where she is still a Special Lecturer. Since 2010, she has been in private practice on the upper east side of Manhattan where she is affiliated with Weill Cornell Medicine and Lenox Hill Hospital.
Second Vice President
A native New Yorker born in the Yorkville neighborhood of Manhattan to Czechoslovak immigrant parents. As a result is fluent in Czech and Slovak. Attended schools in the area from Kindergarten to College including Czech/Slovak School at the Bohemian National Hall.
A member of Sokol New York from the age of 6. Was an active gymnastic competitor, Instructor, Physical Director and presently 1st Vice President plus Historian, Public Relations and Leader of the 50+ Women's Class. Performed in the 1994 Slet in Praha at Strahov Stadium, the first Sokol Slet to be held in 40 years following the fall of communism in Czechoslovakia.
Retired, after a long and fulfilling career in Nursing Administration at The New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center. Wife of Stanley J. Mergl (deceased) who was a dedicated leader in Sokol and the Czech community. Mother of two sons and three grandchildren.
Blanka Suchanek, Secretary, born in New York City and grew up in the Yorkville area of Manhattan. As a child, was a student at the Czech School in the Narodni Budova and a gymnast at Sokol New York. In 1998, Ms. Suchanek became a member of the BBLA. Ms. Suchanek is a trustee to the BBLA representing Sokol New York.
Jirina Silhanova-Sager was born in Ostrava in former Czechoslovakia. Right after her moving to the United States in 1969, she became involved with the Czech-Slovak community in New York. Since 1973, she has been a member of the Association of Free Czechoslovak Sportsmen as a Secretary and a Treasurer. Together with Dr. Alex Cech and Arch.Jan Hird Pokorny, she supported the efforts to restore the Bohemian National Hall. She has been a Treasurer of the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association since 1976, a member of World Cruise Society, a member of Sokol New York and a volunteer for Visiting Nurses of New York. In 2012, she was awarded “Distinguished Czech Woman in the Western World” and from the Minister of Foreign Affairs, she received a silver medal of Jan Masaryk.
Trustees and Delegates
Dr. Vlado Simko
Vlado Simko, M.D., trustee, served on the Board of the American Fund for Czechoslovak Relief and as a trustee of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association (BBLA) for reconstruction of the historic Bohemian Hall in New York City. Professor of Clinical Medicine at State University New York, Downstate Medical Center at Brooklyn was born in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia in 1931. After medical and research training and after obtaining boards in internal medicine and clinical chemistry he became research investigator and Head, Laboratory Department at the Research institute for Human Nutrition in Bratislava. Here he earned a C.Sc. (Ph.D.) for research on metabolic effects of heated fat in food. In addition to teaching the graduate students he participated in research on diets for man in space. Since 1982 Dr. Simko is the Chief, Section of Gastroenterology at the Veterans medical center in Brooklyn, NY. He actively joined several Czechoslovak exile organizations, publishing numerous socio-political essays in Slovak democratic exile periodical Nase snahy and in other journals. He is the past and present vice president of the Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU) and organizes the biomedical symposia at the world congresses of SVU where he regularly reports on his research. Vlado Simko pledged a grant to the BBLA and its Study Center/Library, in memory of his wife Mary and his son Daniel and recently made another generous donation towards renovation and remodeling of BBLA’s Library.
Suzanna (Zuzana) Halsey
Executive Secretary and Event Producer, Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences, NY Chapter/ SVU NY. A native of Czechoslovakia and graduate of Charles University in Prague, Suzanna is a woman of many trades: before she came to the United States in 1978, she worked as an editor in a publishing house in Prague. Later, she studied filmmaking at New York University SCPS and worked several years as a film and video editor. She produced several cultural shows at Symphony Space and a reading series at the World Financial Center in New York. She teaches the Czech language at New York University and privately, including diction coaching for opera and theater. Suzanna also works for the nonprofit organization Friends of Czech Greenways, promoting cultural and environmental preservation along the Prague Vienna Greenways route. She promotes cross-cultural understanding and enjoys bringing together smart, creative and positive people. www.czechmatters.com"
Norma B. Zabka
President Sokol New York; Associate Professor (Education) Hunter College of the City University of N.Y.; International Rhythmic Gymnastics Judge, having judged at 4 Olympic Games; Member, USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame; and Co-author “Gymnastics Activities with Hand Apparatus”.
Vit Horejs, trustee, moved to New York from Prague via Paris in 1979 and toured the world with Ta Fantastika Black Light Theatre during the 1980s. In 1990 he co-founded the Czechoslovak-American Theatre (CAMT) and has been the company's artistic director ever since. Performing at the Bohemian National Hall starting in 1992, when it was still a decrepit hulk with pigeons flying above the puppeteers' heads, has been one of the greatest adventures of his life. Vit has translated, written, adapted and directed a dozen plays, including: The New World Symphony, Dvorak in America; The Bass Saxophone; The Life and Times of Lee Harvey Oswald; The Historye of Queen Ester; Don Juan, or The Wages of Debauchery; Twelfth Night; The Prose of the Transiberian and of the Little Joan of France; Twelve Iron Sandals; Golem; an experimental interpretation of Shakespeare's Hamlet; Rusalka, the Little Rivermaid; The White Doe; and the biggest his of itinerant Czech puppeteers, Faust. Vit has performed on stage, in films, and on TV. On screen, he played Krojack in Woody Allen's Don't Drink the Water. His published works include fairy tales, poetry and essays in both Czech and English. He co-produced Faust on a String, an award-winning documentary film about Czech puppetry.
George Suchanek was born in Prague in 1940. After graduating from primary school, George says that only three professions were available to him: bricklayer, miner, or steelworker. However, a well-placed friend of the family was able to help him enroll in culinary school. In June 1965 George participated in a tourist trip to Austria. Although he says it was never his intention to leave Czechoslovakia, at the end of the trip George left the group and made his way to the police station where he claimed asylum. He was sent to Traiskirchen refugee camp. While living in Austria, George saw an advertisement for a job at Vasata, a Czech restaurant in New York City. He was accepted as a cook and, in November 1965, traveled to the United States. George worked in several restaurants in New York and Los Angeles. In New York, George started his own construction company and also built and ran several restaurants, the last of which was Zlata Praha, in Queens. George also acted as a manager and promoter for Czechoslovak entertainers performing in the United States and Canada. He organized several tours and concerts for Karel Gott, among others. Today George lives in New York City with his wife and daughter.
Christopher Harwood has been Lecturer in Czech in the Slavic Department of Columbia University since 2001. He received his PhD in Russian literature with a minor in Czech language and literature from Columbia in 2000. His research and teaching focus on methods and materials development for teaching Czech as a foreign language, and on 20th-21st-century Czech literature and culture. He is a member and former co-president of the International Association of Teachers of Czech (IATC) and a member of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages (AATSEEL), the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES), the Czechoslovak Studies Association (CSA), and the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU). In December 2015 he was elected to serve a two-year term as president of the New York chapter of the Czechoslovak Society of Arts and Sciences (SVU NY), on the executive board of which he has served since 2011.
Majda Kallab Whitaker
Majda Kallab Whitaker serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors of the Dvořák American Heritage Association as well as Board Member of the Bohemian Benevolent & Literary Association. She is an independent scholar and museum consultant specializing in late nineteenth and early twentieth century cultural and design history, and has acted as an advisor for DAHA’s Dvořák Room project in the Bohemian National Hall since 2006. Since the Grand Opening of the Dvořák Room in 2011, she has presented lectures, walking tours, and exhibits including New World Diplomacy: The Contract that Brought Antonín Dvořák to America; DAHA: Twenty-Five Years of Celebrating Composer Antonín Dvořák and his American Legacy; and Mythic Bohemia: Dvořák’s Villa and Lake Rusalka. Born in Prague, she is a graduate of Vassar College and Bard Graduate Center in New York City.
Aja Vrzanova-Steindler (1931 - 2015)
Aja Vrzanova-Steindler was born in Prague. Among her many figure skating triumphs, she was National Figure Skating Champion four times, a European Champion, Olympian 1948 (4th place), two times World Champion 1949 - 1950, star of Ice Follies 1951-1954 and star of Ice Capades 1954-1968. She was honored by Czech president Vaclav Klaus. She was the chairperson of the International Coordination Committee for Czechs Abroad. The Czech Government also honored her as an Outstanding Czech Woman in the World. In 2006, she was named by COMENIUS European Company for Arts and Sciences as Lady PRO of 2006 in the Czech Republic. She was a member of Zonta Int., a Czech charitable organization for Czech business women. Last but not least, she was named Outstanding Woman "Czech 100 Best" in 2006.
Jan Hird Pokorny (1914 - 2008)
Jan Hird Pokorny was a commissioner of the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission for 10 years and was involved in the efforts to save Sailors’ Snug Harbor and the Dvorak House. He was a Czech-born architect whose New York firm became known for restoring and adapting historic buildings. Among the historic buildings restored and redesigned or modernized under his supervision are Lewisohn Hall at Columbia University, the Schermerhorn Row block at the South Street Seaport, the Brooklyn Historical Society building, the National Lighthouse Museum on Staten Island and the Battery Maritime Building in Lower Manhattan. He was the President of BBLA and of the American Fund for Czech and Slovak Leadership Studies. He managed to rescue a statue of the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak, by the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic, from benign neglect on the roof of Avery Fisher Hall. It was given a home in Stuyvesant Square Park on a pedestal of green granite designed by Mr. Pokorny, an amateur classical pianist.
Alex Cech (1927 - 2012)
Alex Cech was an active member of the Czech community in New York. He was president of the Association of Free Czechoslovak Sportsmen, an organization that sponsored skiing competitions and tennis matches. Alex was also instrumental in the revival of the Bohemian Benevolent and Literary Association and served as the President of the Association. He lived in New York with his wife since 1958 until his death in late 2012. He escaped from Czechoslovakia in 1949, spent some time in Germany and Venezuela and then moved to New York. Alex’s first job in the United States was as head waiter at the Golden Door restaurant. He later bought a company that imported steel into the United States. After the fall of communism in his homeland, Alex began working for Pfizer as a liaison between the company and private buyers in Czechoslovakia.