The twist-filled plot of the film Ivan Syla (Power Ivan) is based on a real person, Ivan Firtsak, a Ukrainian from Transcarpathia who was a famous circus athlete and boxer and performed in 64 countries of the world. He became a legend in his own lifetime.
Forty years ago and two years after the death of the famous athlete, the Uzhgorod-based Karpaty Publishers presented the short novel Croton (Power Ivan). The book was written by Firtsak's close friend, the local journalist Anton Kopynets. The American press called Ivan Firtsak, whose stage name was Croton, the strongest man of the 20th century. Christened Ivan Power by the public, the athlete relished telling about his travels around the world and showing off photographs, paper clippings and posters.
In his preface to the book, the author admits: “The story is based largely on facts but also includes popular legends.” In fact, the book is the only source of biographical data about the athlete — it was written based on what he told about himself. Below are 20 facts about the man compiled by The Ukrainian Week:
1. Ivan was born in 1899 in the family of Fedor Firtsak who lived in village Bilky, Irshava region. The family had 10 children. His grandfather Ivan Vilkhovych once killed a bear with a log, earning him the nickname Power in the village.
2. Once, when he was a teenager, Ivan felt sorry for the family cow and ploughed the field himself instead. When a heifer hurt her leg, the young boy brought it home on his shoulders.
3. During a fight with Klyn, a fellow villager, Ivan pulled out an oak cross and used it to batter his opponent. For this he was put in prison, but he escaped by breaking the bars. The authorities sought to punish him with a flogging in front of the village administration, but Ivan refused to surrender himself.
4. The Czech official Vaclav Prochazka (Transcarpathia was part of Czechoslovakia at the time), a notary in Bilky, recognized that the young man was extraordinarily strong. He supplied him with a written request to his brother, who owned a plant in Prague and needed strong workers, and sent him to the Czech capital. Ivan went, even though he previously thought about employment in Belgium where his uncle was working.
5. Ivan did not stay with Prochazka for long, though he made a good name for himself turning the crank of a winch. When several workers were fired and he was offered to do their job alone (and he had the strength to do it). Later, Ivan had an argument with the owner and quit.
6. Then he went to work as a loader at a railway station where workers were paid a fixed rate for every kilogramme of weight they carried. He would do a day’s norm in half a day.
7. Ivan’s first sports match was a fight with itinerary strongman Vilet who made a living by performing in street arenas. The fight ended tragically for Vilet – he was carried off on stretchers. This was when coach Ondrej Neiman, whom Ivan later called “professor”, noticed him. The young man exercised using a 25-kilogramme dumbbell.
8. At 23, Ivan lifted 150 kg at a weight-lifting championship in Czechoslovakia, winning the gold medal. He was the first loader in the history of the Czechoslovak sport to win gold.
9. His main competitor was Kolar Hrdliczka, the reigning champion, with whom he later had a fight in a restaurant that resulted in a fine, because the Czech served in the police force. After winning gold, Ivan was also invited to join the police, but he refused.
10. Ivan spent six weeks in hospital after an automobile accident with Neiman behind the wheel on the way to Karlovy Vary. Neiman was killed in the accident. The police arrested him on charges of murder, but Neiman’s cousin, an attorney by the name of Geichel, found an entry in his diary in which Neiman spoke highly of Ivan. Geichel had Ivan released on bail.
11. Maczok Makler, a chief stage director who worked in the Gerzfert Circus for 30 years, invited Ivan to become a circus star. In the circus, Ivan performed his famous acts: “His chest for an anvil” (a rock was smashed with a sledge hammer on Ivan’s breast), “Mammoth teeth” (Firtsak drove 20cm long nails into an oak plank, attaching it to a table; after several men failed to tear it off, he would put a handkerchief on nailheads and pull them out with his teeth), “The stone heart” (Ivan put a three-metre long piece of metal on his shoulder and four assistants hung on it, trying to bend it; after they failed, Ivan would bend it into a heart-shaped figure). In Vienna, he pulled a flatcar loaded with furniture with his teeth, and in Geneva he stopped two cars with his hands. In front of the Czechoslovak president, Firtsak performed his “Neck under the rail” act – 10 men tried to bend a rail resting on Ivan’s nape as he lay prone on a table.
12. In the United States, he performed an advertisement act by lying down on the ground and having a passenger vehicle go over him with a wheel crossing over his throat. A photo of this act made headlines in a number of American newspapers. Ivan later added the “Man under the wheels of a car” act to his programme.
13. After the Herzfert Circus had performed in London for a month, the British Queen, who was in Blackpool with her retinue, invited the troupe to perform in the Tower Circus which sat 5,000 people. There Ivan pulled a lorry loaded filled with people.
14. After the performance, Ivan participated an improvised boxing match with John Jackson. The latter suffered a serious injury. When his circus was in Paris, Ivan was attacked by the fans of the English athlete, who had thrown himself out of a 10-storied building because his injured ribcage barred him from any more fights. In a cunning move, the Ukrainian was invited to a dinner and stoned in the street, where he then lay unconscious the entire night. His skull cracked, and a surgeon inserted a platinum plate to replace a part of the damaged skull bone. Ivan performed in a wig for two months while his bandaged head healed.
15. In Spain, Firtsak participated in a corrida where he killed a bull by pulling out its horns.
16. Firtsak won a fight with Japanese fighter Tokenzo who was 20kg heavier than him.
17. Firtsak married Czech gymnast Ruzena Ziklova whose father was a trapeze artist who died in the ring when his daughter was 12. Her mother contracted tuberculosis and died, leaving behind four orphans.
18. Ivan terminated a 10-year contract with the circus early and paid a large compensation (100,000 korunas) to the owner through court.
19. After he returned to his native village, various legends were told about him. One story caused women to be afraid to see him, because they believed the devil was helping him.
20. When the Hungarians occupied Transcarpathia in 1939 and wanted to confiscate Firtsak’s car, he smashed it with a sledge hammer. For this he was put in prison and beaten. In prison, he broke through a wall, letting himself and some other prisoners escape.
How truthful the information contained in the book is can be validated through further research. The life of Firtsak’s son was a major reason why his phenomenon was hushed by the Soviets. After the Second World War, Ivan Firtsak Jr., 18, was framed and sentenced to 25 years of penal labour for membership in the OUN. He served almost eight years. He was a great hope for his father and always performed in tandem with him. He was even the boxing champion of Ukraine in the first post-war years. But the Cheka provocation wreaked havoc with his life and affected his father’s biography. Until his death in 1970, his father was known as a folk hero. But the government made no attempt to officially popularize him, reducing his story to the level of comical accidents, eccentric strongman acts and jokes.