Being Bata’s pedicurist

Before our story gets onto the battle of Singapore, which – as we today already know – brought a tragic death to Silvestr – let’s dwell some more upon his life. As I am still searching for more information and documents about his childhood, let’s also leave that era for some time later.

At the moment, we don’t even know where Silvestr – after graduating the secondary school in Vemyslice – finished his education. According to the preserved records of the Bata company, he had studied a business academy somewhere; it was not the Bata School in Zlin though, as he is not listed among its alumni.

Silvestr Nemec began to work for Bata on 21st September 1936, exactly a month before his seventeenth birthday. He was employed on a position of a salesman. At that time, the company was already among the biggest shoemaking brands in the world. In 1936, it had produced over 58 million pairs of shoes, of which 28 million were made directly in Czechoslovakia. Thanks to that, the country ranked globally number one in terms of lather shoe exports, and number three in terms of rubber shoe exports. At that time, Bata corporation was running several thousand of its own brand shops. It’s now known in which of these Silvestr worked.

The global success of Bata was, among other factors, building on a fast modernization of production (its founder Tomas Bata visited US in 1919, including Detroit, and was very inspired by Henry Ford at that time) as well as on a visionary expansion of its activities well beyond shoemaking itself. While at its very start, back in 1894, the company was nothing more than a tiny workshop making shoes manually, in 1930’s it has already been an established brand in dozens of diverse areas and industries, including aviation, publishing, insurance, chemical production, tyre production, education and health care. The genius of Bata entrepreneurship managed to create synergies across all these activities, allowing the company to provide unique, complex care and services not only to its customers, but also to his own employees (to whom Bata always referred to as his “co-workers”, stressing the importance of each and every person, regardless of her or his ranking within the company’s hierarchy).

Apart from the affordable prices and an attractive variety of shoes, the customers who entered the Bata shops could read a slogan “Our Customer – Our Master” on its wall and find a personnel offering them a variety of additional services.

reklama pediker.jpg
Photo: Advertisement of the newly introduced chiropodist services at Bata shops. The headline says “Fresh feet for the springtime”

Seen from the perspective of Silvestr’s story, one of the important milestones in Bata’s history was the introduction of the pedicurist/chiropodist care. According to the historical timeline published by the Bata Villa Foundation, it happened in 1929. It appears that Bata began to develop this domain while utilizing the doctors and experts who were hired to work in his Bata Hospital in Zlin that opened two years earlier.

A publication by the Bata Hospital says:

“The highest salary went to the chief physician, doctor F. Racansky, who was in charge of training of the workers in chiropody. At that time, every Bata shop in Czechoslovakia was already offering a chiropody care.”

When searching on internet, i came across a dissertation paper written by Barbora Mikoskova in 2009 at the Bata University in Zlin. She included some information about the history of foot care in the Bata company. This is how she described its beginnings:

“With the increasing experience in the area of anatomically designed shoes, the company was facing the need to better educate its workers. A special training was designed for designers, shoemakers, salesmen and everyone who had something to do with orthopedic aspects. Initially this was being organized by doctor Albert, however later doctor Racansky took over. He was regularly publishing educational articles in the weekly magazine for Bata employees.”

Bata maj 1928.jpg
Photo: The “fathers” of chiropody in Bata company. On the left is the director of the Bata Hospital Dr. Albert, in the middle Dr. Racansky, and on the right Tomas Bata. From the May Day celebration in 1928 in Zlin.

Barbora Mikosova outlines the initiative of doctor Racansky:

“An important step in setting up the educational activities was taken by Dr. Racansky when he established a cooperation with the Orthopedic Clinic of the Charles University in Prague, namely its chief Dr. Tobiasek. Dr. Tobiasek opened a course from 21st to 30th March 1929, and Dr. Racansky attended, along with ten other Bata employees.”

pediker1.png
Photo: Another advertisement of the chiropody services at Bata shops. The text reads: “This woman could serve as an example to all women in our towns and villages! She really knows what her feet need most. She is a regular at Bata chiropody care, and she is happy.” Reproduced with a kind permission of http://www.batuvodkaz.cz/

In order to increase the qualification of their salesmen and specialists in the area of chiropody, Bata was not only offering them trainings, but also published a special textbook written by Dr. Racansky. Given that this later became part of Silvestr’s job description, we can assume that he had one of its copies. That’s a good reason to learn more about it, again based on the paper by Ms Mikosova.

“The handbook contained facts about anatomy and healthcare of human feet, along with recommendations of procedures and suggestions to salesmen how to use it in order to rise regular clients who would then also keep buying Bata products. The shoe shops thus began to offer a wide range of services. The salesmen were trained to offer assistance and if necessary, facilitate a health check of customer’s feet by a proper doctor, who was also available at the shop. A chiropodist provided a consultation and a treatment, if necessary also advising on appropriate orthopedic shoe adjustments and aids. One of the services on offer was a foot massage – an enjoyable and relaxing experience for the customer.

A common standard at every larger Bata shop was a pedicure treatment. The salesmen were encouraged to convince their customers about the benefits of a preventive regular foot care. The first step was not easy, however once the clients became less shy, they often became regular visitors.”

And in a direct quote from the textbook by Dr. Racansky:

“Give a good massage to the customers with flatfoot, even if the first one is for free. Provide these clients with a lot of care, as they are your future regulars and subscribers to your weekly treatments. Also, keep good records about them, note down your every conversation and recommendation, and during their next visit, ask about improvements observed.”

If we take his textbook as a guideline, then the standard procedure offered at Bata shops looked like this:

“1) Wash clean and dry customer’s feet.
2) Painlessly and with no blood remove the hardened skin, calluses and corns. Prior to the intervention, ensure that a proper disinfection is applied.
3) Disinfect the nails all around.
4) Irradiate the feet with a blue-filter lamp for 5-10 minutes.
5) Provide a thorough massage of the feet, perhaps add a bit of physio-therapeutic movements, and refresh with a massage rub.”

Should the chiropodist accidentally cause an injury to the client, the shop manager was obliged to arrange a doctor check and write down a protocol about the incident.

The chiropody trainings were initially given by Dr. Racansky in a classroom of the Bata Hospital in Zlin. During the first year of the new service, i.e. 1929, Bata had trained 81 staff, however four years later, in 1933, it already had more than two thousand trained specialists. Starting in 1932, Bata began to introduce this service also at it shops overseas.

Silvestr might had undergone such training during his first years at Bata, though we only know for certain that he was assigned the new job of a salesman-pedicurist once he was transferred to Singapore at the end of 1938.

It must have been exactly around that time when Bata was introducing chiropody to its branches in the Far East, as we can observe from the front page article of the Batanagar News published in mid November 1938 (that is just two or three months prior to Silvestr’s arrival to Singapore). The headline speaks for itself: “Creation Of a New Profession: An Opportunity For Hundreds Of Surgeons And Experts”.

Batanagar News 19381119.jpgPhoto: Front page of The Batanagar News, 19th November 1938.

In that article, the Bata management appeals on their employees to sign up for a training in this new qualification:

“Every Pedicurist, our best salesman, will be a specialist, expert in the profession. Therefore he will receive also wages suited to his responsible work. Their high wages, possibility of earning and bettering their positions are seen even today through we are now in the beginning of the line of Chiropody. For instance, in the Bata Shop in Chowringhee, Calcutta, the Chiropodist is getting average weekly salary of Rs. 22 to 28. To reach this and even higher income is not a problem for any Pedicurist in any place, when he sees in his work the best fillip to his life and when his work will have the spirit of SERVICE TO PUBLIC.”

On page number 6 of the same edition of the Batanagar News, there is an English translation of a speech by Jan Antonin Bata delivered to the company’s staff. Part of the original speech, which was delivered in Czech in early 1930’s, was even recorded on a film that you can watch on Youtube here (note: please click on the link, my blog does not provide an option to directly embed a Youtube video).

bata-pedikura-film.png

Here is an excerpt of the motivating speech by Jan Antonin Bata:

“This new service will prove to be the most profitable business for yourselves. The proceeds from the practice of pedicure are left, for the most part, to yourselves. In addition, it helps you to increase the sale of shoes, stockings and small necessities. Start this work with courage and enthusiasm! Do not be afraid of treating people whose feet are in a very neglected conditions. Your service must be somewhat similar to that of a true physician, who treats with sacrifices, and truly, patients who are seriously ill, even when contact with them is, very often, not only disagreeable but possibly dangerous. The customer will be thankful to you for this service and leave the store as your most sincere friend and enthusiastic client. You will learn this service of foot-care by carrying it out every day. Like a priest starting his daily work with Service to God, you must also perform daily, personally, the service of foot care Service to the customer. You will become masters only by regular work, done methodically every day.”

Salesmen Pedicurists.jpg
Photo: The English translation of transcript of a speech by Jan Antonin Bata about the new profession of company’s pedicurist.

One of the doctors working in hte Bata Hospital was Dr. Evzen Straussler – a name we are already familiar with. He was hired by Bata in 1932 and seven years later moved on to work for the company in Singapore. While there is unfortunatelly not much to be found about Silvestr in the company’s archives, we can at least read some more information about Dr. Straussler and his final training before departure – here is the record:

“Induction of Dr. E. Straussler before going to Singapore.
1 week in the shoe-making school
1 week in the rubber processing school
1 week in the sales department (1/2 week in the main Zlin shop, 1/2 week in the chiropody section of the shop)
1 week assisting the personnel manager in the social department
Altogether 4 weeks of training. Accomplished on 1st March 1939.”

I found one group photograph from the Bata pedicurist course in the State Archives in Zlin-Klecuvka. It depicts about two dozens of Bata saleswomen and salesmen who graduated from a 10 day long training in January 1940. It’s quite likely that Silvestr attended a similar “crash” course, as opposed to the broader induction of Dr. Straussler who went for a more senior position and was therefore probably expected to learn about various other departments and functions of the Bata operation.

pedikeri 1940Photo: Participants of the pedicurist training by Bata company in January 1940. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

A second photograph related to this issue pictures the company director Jan Antonin Bata undergoing a chiropody treatment during his visit of the main Bata shop in Zlin. It was taken in 1938, i.e. about the same time when Silvestr was most likely being introduced to this profession.

Bata.jpg
Photo: Visit of Jan Antonin Bata at the chiropody section of their main shop in Zlin. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

The job based on taking care of the customers’ (often neglected and dirty) feet certainly does not sound like an attractive nor prestige occupation. I must admit that when I first learnt that this is what my great uncle was doing, I had mixed feelings about it. But, as one of my friends says, ” someone has to do even the worst kind of job”. And now, after learning some more details, also about the way Bata was approaching this profession, I came to peace with it as well.

 

 

Advertisements

Troubles among the Singapore Czechoslovaks

Ever since I launched this blog about my search for the traces of my great-uncle Silvestr, I have been receiving comments and messages from its readers. Putting the nonsensical ones aside, there has been roughly three types of responses. First are the words expressing interest, support and sympathy. Second, cynical comments and speculations as to what are the real interests behind my research, suggesting there must be some hidden, profit seeking motives. And the third category are doubts whether it makes any sense to come back to all that history and that perhaps it’s better to leave the past alone – otherwise, they say, I may perhaps even regret what I eventually find.

Were my motivation to idealize the past and uncritically celebrate the heroism of the dead, then I just reached a point – for the first time – that would make me wonder that indeed I went a bit too far on my journey of discovery. This is because I came to learn  some quite disturbing information about the contemporary Czechoslovak community in Singapore, as well as about some practices of the Bata company there during 1930’s and 1940’s.

batovciPhoto from the archives of Dr Emil Macel: A party for the occasion of opening of the new Bata Building in Singapore [it was opened in 1939, not in 1940 as the captions mistakenly says]. Sitting from the left: V. Rojt, Ms Cervinka, H. Cervinka, A. Dufek, M. Bohman, Ms Dufek, K. Vitek, Mr Vasica, K. Plhon. Standing from the left: Mr Gromnica, B. Martinec, S. Jedovnicky, B. Sokol, V. Kos.

However, I have set onto this road with a desire to discover and document the past events as accurately as possible, and that’s why I can’t just remain silent or even stop right here.

My biggest concern at the moment relates to a number of very lovely people that I had met while I was working on this project and who have a deep admiration of the Bata company – in case of many of them, their ancestors worked for Bata in its first years with remarkable loyalty and dedication in order to build up its success. I do not want to disappoint them, neither to loose their friendship. I therefore hope that they will understand that it is because of my deep respect to the people of the history and to the truth, why I can’t censor the inconvenient information. Nobody should take this personally; after all, I am not publishing the parts of documents and information that are most sensitive personally, I only pick what is necessary for the description of Silvestr’s story and what seems reasonably substantiated.

Let’s begin with something that should not come as a big surprise, because we can see these things happening around us today as well. After all, we, the Czech nation, haven’t changed much since the last century, have we? Apart from the friendships and enjoyable moments of life, about which I was writing last time, there was also quite some rivalry, jealousy and mutual denunciation within the community of several dozens of Czechoslovaks based in Singapore.

Sometimes, our compatriots were also stealing from others, as far as we can judge from the news published in The Straits Times in December 1938. According to it, a certain Czechoslovak citizen was prosecuted for a theft of 30 dollars.

czechs 19381218.pngPhoto: Newspaper clip from The Straits Times about the alleged thievery by a Czechoslovak citizen.

The archives of the Czechoslovak government exiled to London contain several items showing that the Czechoslovak community in Singapore was split into two fierce-fully confrontational groups.

The first and larger faction was represented by the Bata people, and was lead by their general manager Mr Rojt. The second faction was composed of those Czechoslovaks who came to Singapore for other reasons – they were independent merchants or representatives of other businesses, such as Skoda or Ceskoslovenska zbrojovka (Czechoslovak Arms Production Factory). This second group was lead by Mr Richard Reiser, a former co-owner of the Prvni Prazka Sladovna (The First Prague Malt Factory) and was sent to Singapore in 1935 by the Czechoslovak Export Institute. He later became independent and worked as an agent of a number of other companies.

The tensions grew even bigger when the Czechoslovak Consulate in Singapore was closed at the end of February 1939. As we can read in the article from The Straits Times from 27th November 1938 (see bellow), the consulate was established on 1st January 1935 and the first consul was Dr Pavel Stransky. He was later replaced by Mr Vladimir Polodna, whose mission was then canceled in March 1939. Whether or not was Mr Polodna transferred to the United States, as the newspaper suggests, is unknown to me. But I found a record of him heading the diplomatic mission in Peru, starting from October 1942. While being there, in 1943, he had also inaugurated a memorial of the annihilation of the village of Lidice (the massacre of all its citizens and total demolition of Lidice village was part of a retribution by the Nazis for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czechoslovak paratroopers). According to The Straits Times, there were some 65 Czechoslovak citizens in Singapore and Malaya in November 1938. From the later reports of the diplomatic mission, we know that in early 1940’s this number reached about a hundred, two thirds of which were people from the Bata company.

konzul
Photo: Newspaper clipping about the upcoming closure of the Czechoslovak consulate in Singapore.

It seems that after the consulate was closed, Mr Rojt often liaised with the Singapore government on behalf of the Czechoslovak community. This was disliked by the non-Bata compatriots who were then filing several complaints against him. A report by the Czechoslovak consul in Bombay, Mr Urban, informs the London based government in November 1940 that “Reiser, together with some other Czechoslovaks, submitted a grievance petition addressing the Czechoslovak government via the British secretary in Singapore. They request that an official representative of the government carries out a formal investigation of their complaints against Mr Rojt.”

The London exiled Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs received at least several pieces of correspondence and submissions as a result of the disputes within the Czechoslovak community in Singapore. Its document from February 1941 reads that:
“The consulate holds an opinion that it cannot step into the affairs that fall formally under the British jurisdiction – a position we fully support. The Bata company is employing Czechoslovak citizens who, according to the consulate, joined or support the resistance, all enrolled [to the military service], and make financial contributions to our war efforts, therefore there is no reason to act against them.”

In February 1941, the Ministry sent instructions to the consulate in Bombay saying:
“The Czechoslovak government has no intentions to deal with the affairs of the Bata Company, because we have no authorization to deal with matters under the British jurisdiction. As for the personal conflicts within the Czechoslovak community, it is up to the consulate to use its influence to reconcile those.”

depese.jpgPhoto: The instructions of the exiled Czechoslovak government to the consulate in Bombay regarding the disputes within Bata and the Czechoslovak community

The consulate in Bombay subsequently decided to dispatch Mr Josef Luley to Singapore to act there as its official agent. Mr Luley reached Singapore in March 1941 and remained there till early February 1942. As he we can read in his own report:
“By the time the Japanese army started to attack only 11 miles away, south of the Johore Strait, I had already lost my hopes to be able to evacuate. However I was lucky and managed to get on board of a military ship transport in the night from 6th to 7th of February.”

Today we know that unfortunately, the reconciliation mission of Mr Luley entirely failed. One of the reasons of its failure could be the fact that he did not arrive to act as a genuine independent mediator, but in fact, at least partly on behalf of the Bata company and its interests. The records have it that it was initially Bata’s directors who requested that the Bombay consulate dispatches Mr Luley to Singapore. The company was even paying for all of his costs from the very start. As consul Urban reported back to London:

“For the start, I have used the 5,000 Indian rupees that were confidentially provided by Jan Bartos, the director of Bata Shoe Company in Batanagar […] The whole amount was given to our consular agent Luley as cash advance. He had already used part of it to pay for the travel of himself as well as his family.”

Consul Urban was aware that such arrangement is quite dodgy, and came up with a proposal to the government how to cover it up:
“In order to diminish the controversy of the financial dependency of Luley on Bata company, I propose that Luley will continue to be paid through the general consulate in Bombay, while we agree with Bata company that it will be sending contributions to a war fund that will be at least equal to the cost of Luley and his operation”.
A copy of this proposal is kept in the archives with an additional note: “Passed on to the minister who agreed”.

Seen from today’s perspective, this is a clear example of a corruption of the state institutions by the corporate money. It’s however quite likely that the exiled government did not have enough resources to afford Luley’s mission. I think that the war circumstances put this into a bit different perspective: the official Czechoslovak representation in Singapore was clearly beneficial to all our citizens there, although there is little doubt that it was also working for the particular interests of the Bata company.

And so, the conflicts continued. The Czechoslovak community went through several attempts to found an association, however all failed due to disagreements over its bylaws and over the proposed people who were to chair it. At the end, Mr Reiser went ahead and established a Czechoslovak Association with his own followers. According to the reports collected by the ministry, it eventually had 33 members. The creation of the association was also one of the events that the local press covered in April 1941:

asociace.jpg

The Bata management responded by issuing an order to its employees that was forbidding them to join the association, which they dismissed as “a bunch of Jews”. (When I came across several names of its members in the reports, it indeed appeared from the family names that these were likely Jewish people.) Mr Reiser then reportedly continued his relentless efforts to recruit association members among those Bata employees who had conflicts with their management, or who were even fired from their jobs.

According to the files, several Batamen also became secret members of the association. Among the names mentioned, I have spotted also Rudolf Janecek and Karel Vitek. I am making an exception from the rule here and mention their names – it is because their presence suggests a potential involvement of Silvestr.

My hypothesis that Silvestr might also have been part of this, is building on two assumptions. First, it was exactly this trio that apparently signed up jointly for the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces (Vitek was registered as private No. 13777, Janecek as 13778 and Silvestr as 13779, i.e. they got three consecutive numbers). And second, I have further learnt that Silvestr was among those who had conflicts with the management of Bata in Singapore.

Two independent witnesses filed their statements with the exiled Ministry in which they talk about a dubious practice of the Bata company in Singapore to withhold part of the salaries of their staff:

“The employees of Bata arrived to Singapore before the occupation of Czechoslovakia [by Nazi Germany] and based on their contracts made in Zlin headquarters. But the local Singapore management refused to acknowledge these and was forcing them to sign local contracts with lower salaries. They were being threatened by statements like “we will send you back to Hitler” to force them to sign. The new arrivals, mostly single young man, then filed a complaint at the British Immigration Office. The British government had set a regulation that required Bata to pay a minimal wage of 60 dollars weekly. However, Bata management was bypassing it via a sophisticated scheme that left its employees with 30-35 dollars only. This was arranged by transferring the salaries to their private accounts, and when the balance reached 1000 dollars, the employee was requested to either return 500 dollars back to the company, or to donate it to the Czechoslovakian war fund. This was justified by statements that the staff does not have right to these money and that the company had to pay it to them ‘only because of the stupid English regulation’. Several employees refused to give their money back and were subsequently fired (Zuna, Rehor, Vackerman, Ambroz, Janecek, Nemec, Sedlackova and others).”

Another well-documented conflict between some of the employees and the company management relates to the enrollment to the volunteer forces. We can imagine that the Bata company was motivating its people to apply, either driven by patriotic interests, or because it wanted to shape a positive perception in the eyes of the British government – possibly for a combination of both of these reasons. It appears however that Bata was later caught by surprise when the single Batamen, who were assigned to the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces (SSVF), had to join a two months long retreat at a training camp in the spring of 1941 and the company was obliged to refund them their salaries for the entire period.

It happened that the company refused to pay their full salaries, and again, the Bata volunteers were complaining at the Colonial Secretary. We can again assume that Silvestr, who had joint SSVF along with Vitek and Janecek in the beginning of 1941, was also part of this dispute. The management of Bata responded by firing those ‘troublemakers’. The staff was then seeking support with the Czechoslovak Association (here come another indication that Silvestr might have been affiliated with it). It’s reported that after some time, certain Mr Bartos arrived from abroad to settle the dispute. Although it is not explicitly written, it’s most likely reference to Jan Bartos, the director of Bata in Batanagar, India. Finally they reached an agreement and the employees were then taken back to their jobs.

The last Bata trouble I would like to mention has also been well documented, because it resulted in a formal prosecution and court verdict. The management of Bata apparently bribed one of the colonial censors/confidants who were checking the incoming and outgoing mail for the British colonial government. He was of Polish origin and was in charge of the correspondence in Slavic languages. This censor then unlawfully began to read all the letters of the Bata employees, and was reporting their content to Bata directors. This malpractice was exposed when one day, the censor and the management withheld some official documents related to a court case lead by Mr Vanicek, one of the ex-Bata employees from Hong Kong. At the court hearing, the Bata managers pleaded guilty and the censor was sentenced to 3 months of jail.

There is actually many more stories and accusations captured in the archives, but I don’t think it’s right to publish them all. My reasoning is that these are getting increasingly  personal and it’s hard to judge to what extent the criticism and complaints were factual, or were just made up in personal vendettas. Also, the people involved have no means to defend themselves, having had passed away by now. I am also fully aware that picture reconstructed on random fragments can be very distorted and unfair. Finally, I also hold a healthy dose of skepticism towards some of these personal accusations – i.e. someone being blamed for being authoritarian, manipulative, fanatic or inhuman, machine-like person – based on my own personal experience, especially from the Green Party politics in which I was involved some years ago.

Last but not least, we should also look at all these events within their contemporary context. There are limits to which we are today positioned to judge them.

It is out of question a very sad and embarrassing to realize how our compatriots went into squabbling and used dirty tricks against each other. The scale of the problem – mind that we talk about a tiny community of a hundred people – still seem to be a bit extraordinary, given that even the government had to be dealing with it, despite its undoubtedly very different priorities during the times of war. On the other hand, we can try to appreciate the psychology of the situation when few dozens of mostly young, inexperienced people suddenly find themselves in a totally unknown and strange environment. They must have also been challenged with a language barrier, at least to some extent. The cohesion of the small community was further tested by the horrible developments taking place in their homes in Europe. The ever present escalation of hatred against the Jews, the rise of the Nazi Germany, the breakdown of their motherland Czechoslovakia, fear for their families living back in the war, and the overall uncertainty – it all must have catalyzed many tensions and divides in the community of people coming from very diverse backgrounds. (We know for example that several Czechoslovaks living in the Far East opted to apply for German passports as soon as Czechoslovakia got occupied – effectively they have decided to join the enemy.) The closure of the local Czechoslovak consulate was probably also one of the factors increasing their anxiety.

Seen from today’s perspective, it seems easy to judge the acts and decisions that people took under various pressures and circumstances, and label them as unethical or immoral. It would however be a very simplistic view, similar to today’s black and white perspectives on the problem of the forced removal of the Germans from the inner borders of Czechoslovakia after the war, or on the individual and tragic failures of people who were under the pressure of the communist secret services.

I have a similarly ambiguous perspective on the Bata company and its management. On one hand, it should be fully recognized that the company provided great and unique opportunity to thousands of children from the poor countryside families (particularly during the times of the economic depression), offering them not only a good job, but also decent education and care, as well as almost limitless carrier possibilities; it provided the masses with quality and affordable shoes; it has proven its ability to innovate and compete across all continents; and it was giving its employees even in places like India decent salaries, modern living infrastructure and additional care. On the other hand, it was demanding very hard work and unconditioned loyalty; the one who was not able to keep up was quickly replaced; the management was putting the company’s success and prosperity above all; and if the interests of the company demanded so (or at least its managers thought they do), they were ready to spy on its employees or corrupt the governments. The management, who opted to do so, was in most cases driven not by selfish personal interests, but by the ideology of the greater good of the company. This certainly can’t excuse all the wrongdoings, but it can help us to understand them better.

Lastly, we can find some reconciliation in the fact that once the war arrived in Malaya and Singapore, and especially during the horrible times at the internment camps, the compatriots came together again and had shown many great acts of mutual support. That however is yet another chapter of the bigger story.

 

The Life of Batamen and Silvestr in Singapore

What was life like for Silvestr and other Batamen in Singapore few years before the World War II? That is, besides attending weddings, funerals, observing Czechoslovak national holidays and watching the soccer matches of “Moravians” during the weekends – which we all covered last time based on the clippings from the contemporary Singapore press.

I am trying to imagine that also based on fragments of other information and memories of the Bata employees that were collected by the late Dr Emil Macel; his archives were kindly provided to me by Mr Ivan Prochazka.

Singapur pristav 2Photo from the archive of Emil Macel: Singapore port in 1930’s.

So for example A. Plhon, possibly a brother (?) of Klement Plhon who died tragically when the SS Redang ship was sunk by Japanese during evacuation of the Singapore civilians, captured in his notes:

“Singapore is famous for being one of the most beautiful ports in the South East Asia, located only 130 kilometers north of the equator. It is the world’s fourth largest port and a crucial trading center. It’s main export products are rubber and tin.

The expanding Bata shoe company from Zlin had established it’s presence in Singapore in 1930’s. The company bought a rubber plantation and built a new factory producing cheap rubber shoes for the local people. The higher quality leather shoes were being imported from Zlin to a number of Bata shops located in Malaya and in Singapore. At that time, the company had about 20 employees originating from Zlin, with several families accompanying the leading managers. Shortly before the outbreak of the WW2, i.e. in 1938 and 1939, the company dispatched there additional 20 or 30 of its core staff (part of them single, part of them with families) and also exported machinery for production of high quality leather shoes directly to Singapore. This move was partly driven by concerns that if the war starts in Europe, the shipments from Czechoslovakia could be paralyzed which would negatively impact the sales and market position of Bata in Singapore.

This scenario unfortunately came true. The Bata team quickly opened a new factory for leather shoes directly in Singapore, expanded the production of the rubber shoes, and in 1940 and 1941, when all the supplies from Europe froze, the company was doing well in Singapore and the employees with their families enjoyed life in peace and hope that they can avoid  the horrors of the war that was rampaging across Europe.”

For the Czechs and Slovaks, coming from a landlocked country in continental Europe, the tropical Singapore must have been an entirely different world. We also need to keep in mind that the company was sending overseas mostly young people, of which most – including Silvestr – originated from poor villages in the Moravian countryside. Silvestr himself was only 19 when he arrived in Singapore and as we have concluded from the list of employees overseas, most of the newcomers were between 20 and 30 years old.

This is how Josef Vyhnalek captured Singapore in his short memoirs:

“Singapore looks like a giant garden. It is green all year round, with some leaves falling while some others are budding at the same time. The coconut and oil palms climb high into the sky and offer their harvest during the whole year. The nature is beautiful and this magic corner of the world hosts about million people. Three quarters of these are Chinese, whose ancestors move south, following the trade opportunities. The Malayans were escaping this Chinese expansion by migrating to Java and Sumatra. Some Malayans however decided to stay and are now living in so-called “campongas” – indigenous villages, and make their livelihood from fishing. It is sufficient for a Malayan to have a good catch twice a week and he has enough to buy rice and feed his family, allowing him to just relax for the rest of the week. Some Malayans are also working as taxi drivers, but there is few of them in the trade […] The Indians were also moving into Singapore, in pursue of jobs and trade. Singapore is divided into quarters according to the ethnicity. Thus, before the war, it was possible to take a Sunday walk once in the Chinese quarter, next time in the Malayan, another time in the Indian, or even in the Japanese.”

 Singapur krizovatkaPhoto from the archive of Emil Macel: Center of Singapore in 1930’s. Notice the Bata sign on the corner of the building.

There is only one single letter from Silvestr that has been preserved in our family archive. He wrote it in March 1939, shortly after his arrival to Singapore. His impressions of the exotic country were as follows:

“Dear mother and father, first of all, many wholehearted regards and lovely memories of you. Thank you for your letter which arrived as late as 6th March 1939. I was very pleased to receive it, as I was already getting concerned that you might have forgotten me.

The city of Singapore lies on an island that is separated by a narrow strait from the rest of the country called Malaya. The inhabitants are the Chinese, the Indians, and there is also 8,000 of British people and 30,000 soldiers here. The main occupation is a salesman – these are the Indians, the Chinese are rather carpenters, blacksmiths, tailors etc. The shops here are organized in such a manner that one street is full of shops selling fabric – another street with stationary – and yet another street filled with kitchens. Let me explain you about the kitchens. There is a number of Chinese workers here who do not cook at home, therefore they go to eat out in these kitchens. But it is different than in home, it’s not the women, but the male who are cooking here […]

Every European family has its own cook, a boy-servant, a gardener, and if it has a car, then also a chauffeur. The houses are built either in a Chinese style or a European style, but almost of them have flat roofs. They have a nice airport here, a zoological garden, animals of all kinds, and a beautiful museum. Singapore is heavily fortified and there are many guns here, but they are hidden so that even the locals do not know where they are located. They also have a great port for big ships here. You can see English churches, as well as Chinese temples, even Indian ones – those are the dirtiest of all, because every Indian is spitting here on the ground, outdoors as well as indoors. A European can enter only exceptionally, and has to be barefoot […] The English and the Chinese dress up in a European style, but the women here wear a kind of pyjamas, with trousers and a longer jacket on top. The Indians wrap themselves in cloths similar to a bed sheet, a towel around their head to wipe the sweat, and they wear clogs that make a terrible noise.”

Silva dopisPhoto: First page of the only preserved letter from Silvestr to his parents, written shortly upon his arrival to Singapore.

The Czechoslovak community counted about a hundred people, majority of whom were Bata employees – there was about fifty of them, some accompanied with their families.

It was hard work in the company, but despite that, people found some time for fun. During their leisure time, they most likely stuck together and during Sundays, the colleagues and friends were going on trips outside of Singapore.

Singapur - Strangeldova,prodavacky, Wakerman,Vyhnalek
Photo from the archive of Emil Macel: A group of Bata employees from the sales department in Singapore during their trip. From the left are Ms Stranfgeld, two uknown saleswomen, Mr Wakerman and Mr Vyhnalek.

Vyhnalek also recollects such trips to the seaside:

“The beauty of the sea is impossible to capture. Imagine coral islands covered with greenery, trees and flowers of all kinds of colors. The sea is crystal clear, and along the coastline you can see through to the clean bottom and colorful coral reefs. Through them are swimming a variety of sea fish, jellyfish and other sea creatures. We were often going to these islands to take a swim. One day, a colleague took along his dog, who was full of the joy of swimming as all of us. He swam a bit further and then we heard a loud bark, the dog submerged and some blood appeared on the surface. He was swallowed by a shark! Imagine how quickly we were running out of the water.”

We know that Josef Vyhnalek was not only a colleague, but also a close friend of Silvestr. It’s quite possible that Silvestr was there when this adventure happened.

Vyhnalek remembers that next to the attractive islands, he and friends were sometimes also going inland for their trips:

“About 60 km from Singapore, a landscape of hills and jungles begins. This is also where you can find gorgeous Kota Tingi waterfalls. We have sometimes chosen this place for our Sunday trips. The waterfalls were part of a private reserve of the Johore Sultan. It was only possible to enter with his personal permit. We have therefore been using the opportunities when he came to our shoe shop, and asked him for his permission. He always very kindly agreed.”

The nature was without doubt magnificent, but it was not a paradise. Don’t forget that Singapore was a colony where the white Europeans represented only a small, highly privileged fragment of the overall population, majority of which was still living in poverty. Especially the British were infamous for their arrogance. At that time, it was also common to have a racial segregation, which did not go unnoticed by Vyhnalek:

“There were only about 7,000 English in Singapore before the war, including several thousand of military officers. The governmental bureaus were usually run by an English men, with the rest of the staff being Chinese or mulattoes. The swimming pool was for white Europeans only, all other races were banned from it. The Chinese however, in revenge to the British, built their own beautiful swimming pool.”

Silvestr also describes the Sunday trips in his letter:

“Every Sunday afternoon, we go out to the islands for swim. We take a small boat to get there. They have very nice sand beaches and swimming pools in the sea here. The sea is fenced off by a wire anchored in the seabed, and the nets reach out about 100 meters from the shore. The water is 6-7 meters deep there. We wear blue shorts, white shirts with red silk scarfs around our necks.” [in a clear reference to the colors on the Czechoslovak national flag]

Singapore Swimming ClubPhoto from the archive of Mr Plhon: The Swimming Club for Europeans in Singapore.

As Mr Plhon mentions in his record quoted above, the Bata company was running one large factory in Klang in Malaya, which was producing canvas shoes with rubber soles. According to a war report by the Czechoslovak consul from 1942, it was employing about 1200 local people and 8 Czechoslovak citizens. Another, smaller factory was in the Singapore port, producing leather shoes and providing 800 local jobs.

Klang BatovciPhoto from the archive of Emil Macel: Batamen visit to Klang, 1940. From the left V. Dvorak, F. Koblizek, A. Jugas, J. Boda, A. Bodova, J. Bartos, F. Hlobil, B. Sokol (chief of the factory), F. Mysak.

The latex for rubber production was initially sourced from the local suppliers, but in few years, the Bata Company established its own rubber plantation in Bukit Tiga, in the Johore kingdom in the southern Malaya.

Mr Stach recalls that:

“We bought about 700 hectars of rainforest in Johore-Malaya in 1935 with a plan to setup a rubber plantation there. The head of the plantation was Mr Raja […] First we had to burn down the rainforest and then on its ashes, we planted pineapple palms as a pioneer plant. At the time of my visit, the harvest of pineapples was so overwhelming that it did not pay off anymore to process them, so we simply dumped them into holes in the ground.”

Sadly, the methods of burning down the rainforest had changed little since. However the picture of plentiful ripe pineapples is fascinating. The following photograph may as well capture that very scene:

Batovci se Singapuru prijeli na ananasyPhoto from the archive of Bata company: “The Batamen from Singapore came for the pineapples”. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

The plantation had later 120,000 rubber trees and a workforce of 200 local people.

Bukit Tiga - SOkA Zlin, sbirka_fotografii_zlin, obalka c. 5655, por. c. 3.jpg
Photo from the archive of Bata company: “Bata’s rubber tree plantation in Bukit Tiga, Malaya”. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

When I was going through the archives in Zlin, I came across this photograph of the above mentioned Mr Raja:

Raj SOkA Zlin, sbirka_fotografii_zlin, obalka c. 5659, por. c. 2.jpg
Photo from the archive of Bata company: “Mr Raja from the procurement department sets off to check the rubber tree plantation near Singapore. He is accompanied by two dogs to protect him from the snakes”. Reproduced with a kind permission of the State archive in Zlin.

The Bata community was certainly coming together during many other occasions, as can be witnessed by the following picture (it seems Silvestr is not captured there, or he is hard to be recognized).

Singapore setkani Batovcu s rodinamiPhoto from the archive of Mr Plhon: The Batamen gather with their families in Singapore.

It is also likely that the social life of the management was quite different from that of the ordinary staff (to which Silvestr belonged being a salesman/pedicurist). Not everything was a rose garden though, and there have been some tensions within the Bata community as well as among the broader Czechoslovak community in Singapore – we will revisit some of these troubles next time.

Another interesting picture I discovered in the archives is from a visit of the Czechoslovak ambassador to Batanagar in India. The second man from the right remarkably resembles Silvestr, as we can see if we compare it with his portrait from late 1930’s (both bellow).

Batanagar navsteva velvyslancePhoto from the archive of Mr Plhon: The visit of Czechoslovak ambassador in Batanagar.

silva3
Photo: Silvestr’s portrait from late 1930’s, before his departure to Singapore. (It is also this photo that was also reproduced on the memorial for WW2 victims in his hometown of Vemyslice.)

It is either just a mistaken resemblance; or the picture was wrongly annotated and was in fact taken at another occasion in Singapore; or perhaps Silvestr might have traveled to Batanagar, not an impossible scenario given that it would had been on the opportunity of a visit of the Czechoslovak ambassador to the company’s regional center.

 

Silvestr in the Singapore press

One of the many fruits of the “Australian Miracle” – the yet unpublished dossier about Singapore Batamen and my encounter with its author – has been some of the references that Olek Plesek used for his research.

Among them is a truly amazing tool: the online archives of the Singapore press http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers.

The Singapore government must had invested big resources into its development, because it contains more than 20 periodicals published in English, Malayan and Chinese, and it goes well back into the history. For example the oldest available editions of The Strait Times date back to July 1845, i.e. cover more than 170 years of the history.

And there is more: the archives are fully digitized and converted into text format, allowing a full-text search for keywords – across epochs, issues and publications. Thanks to that, one can easily search for articles covering Bata Shoe Company, reports about Czechoslovakia or Czech citizens, and even about Silvestr Nemec himself. It’s easy to get addicted to this sensational tool, and I have myself spent several evenings digging through its gems.

Overall, I have counted three direct mentions of Silvestr in the English contemporary press of Singapore.

First, his name appears in the list of donors to a war fund. It’s been published in The Straits Times on 8th June 1940:

Silva_Straits Times 19400608 p10.png

The list of donors is printed in three columns, ordered from the highest contribution (which is 50,000 Singapore dollars from certain person named Eu Tong Sen). In the third column we can see that the same amount of 50 dollars was donated buy a number of Czechoslovaks – next to Silvestr (“S. Nemec”), we can spot the already familiar names of Rudolf Janecek, Josef Varmuza or Karel Vitek. We can therefore guess that the collection was coordinated by the Bata company, or these men contributed jointly as friends.

Two other direct mentions of Silvestr relate to the social events in the Bata community. According to the local press, Silvestr attended a wedding of Vlasta Sejbova with Georg Tarry, and also Vaclav Rojt’s funeral.

The information about the wedding was published in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on 29th April 1941 and besides colorful depiction of the bride’s wedding dress and setup of the dinner table, it also lists names of some of the participants. The local journalists apparently struggled with the tricky spelling of the Czech names, therefore Josef Vyhnalek is mentioned as “G. Vyhnaler” and Vilem Zamara as “W. Zamada”. For the same reason, Silvestr’s name is mistyped as “S. Nomec”.

wedding

Finally, Silvestr is recorded as a guest of the funeral of Vaclav Rojt, director of the Singapore branch of Bata Shoe Company. Mr Rojt died suddenly at an age of 50. The farewell ceremony took place on 3rd July 1941 afternoon, when the mourning parade left at 5pm from the Cathedral of Good Shepherd and headed to the Bidadari cemetery. The Morning Times on that day also reminded readers that Mr Rojt had been a close fellow of Tomas Bata – the famous founder of the Bata Shoe Company –  and was working for the company for 33 years (thus already from his age of 17!).

funeral.jpg

Among the list of participants, we can again see a number of Czech and Slovak names, some of which we know from earlier (the Jugas, Strangfeld and Boda couples; or messieurs Ambroz, Janecek, Vitek or Vyhnalek), some remain unknown to us.

The article also quotes the on the wraiths laid during the ceremony, where we should not miss some personal messages in – again mistyped – Czech language: “Drahema Tatinkovi Anicka” (which translates as “To my dear farther from Anicka”) or “Posledni Sboehem Batorel z Klangu” (“Last Farewell from Batamen in Klang”).

As for other events covered by the local press, we can only guess whether Silvestr was there. It’s for example quite likely that he attended the ceremonies for the anniversary of the Czechoslovakia on 28th October in 1939 and 1940 – i.e. at the time when our motherland was already being broken apart and occupied by the Nazi Germany (Czech lands) or had a form of a fascist puppit state (Slovakia).

The celebration in October 1939 took place at Singapore’s Cenotaph and was covered by the Malaya Tribune:

1939

We can read that it was attended by 60 people and that the wraith was laid by Mr Rojt, assisted by his colleagues Kvapil and Vodak. The report also quotes from a congratulatory letter from the Asian staff of Bata company:

“On this National Day of the Czech Nation, we, the Asiatic staffs, extend to you our heart-felt wish that the successful conclusion of the present war against the Nazi regime may bring with it the speedy restoration of your country to you. May peace and prosperity be yours always. Long live the Czech nation!”

The Straits Times included even a photograph. There is likely Silvestr in the crowd of participants, though we cannot say for sure due to the limited resolution of the stock photo.

1939 Times.jpg

Czechoslovaks were also mentioned in the local press at other occasions. For example, there is a report about a mass application of the Bata employees to the Local Defence Corps. While nobody is mentioned by name, we know that Silvestr was among those Czechoslovaks who volunteered.

For example, The Straits Times on 26th November 1940 report that “no fewer than 31 out of the 50 odd Czechs in Singapore have applied”:

czech vols 19401126.png

The contemporary press was also regularly reporting about the trainings of the volunteer corps – especially frequent are the invitations/announcements for weekend drills, but let me save these for another piece of my writing later.

The Straits Times were again mentioning the recruitment of many foreigners, including Czechoslovaks, on 17th April 1941:

vols_19410417A.png

At that time, the number of volunteers reached 300 men, and the newspapers says that these included “British, Dutch, French, Czech, Jews, Burasians, Burghers, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, Pathan, Bengali and Singhalese”.

Another footprint of the Czechoslovak compatriots dates to 29th April 1941, when The Straits Times reported about a war fund collection to the benefit of the Czechoslovak exile government in London:

badge

The collection was organized as a beneficiary sale of a badge with a slogan that reads “Czechoslovakia Will Rise Again!”. According to the newspaper, it was organized by Mr Vilem Zamara and by that time, over 1,000 $ was collected. Given that it was being sold for 10 $ a piece, we can estimate that about 100 people contributed – this could amount to pretty much the whole Czechoslovak community in Singapore at that time.

Finally and for some fun, I would like to share couple of the numerous references on the sports pages of the local press. The Bata Shoe Company had established and sponsored a local soccer team named “The Moravians”. The team was largely built up from the locals, as the lists of names of the players published elsewhere suggests. One of the few exceptions however was Mr Zuna, who was a goalkeeper of The Moravians. (Mr Zuna was among those Czechoslovaks who, after the outbreak of the WW2, left for France to join the fight against the Germans in Europe.)

The “Moravians” were playing matches in the local 2nd league, and the newspapers were usually bringing only very short reports about the results of their efforts. However, I came across two photographs that capture some thrilling moments of the matches:

moravian 19380907.png

 

moravian 19390417.png

Next time, we will stay in Singapore and dive deeper into the life of the Bata Czechoslovak community in late 1930’s.

The Australian Miracle of Silvestr Nemec

My last writing was about a trip to Prague, where I have met with several key people, including a journalist Ms Judita Matyasova. I have also promised you to come back to a miraculous moment in my search for Silvestr that she had facilitated.

silva7
Photo: A portrait of young Silvestr, one of the photographs I have retrieved during my April visit to his home village of Vemyslice.

After my first contact with her, we had quickly exchanged couple of emails. Within less than two days, she sent me a download link to a large file, accompanied with a note saying that she had just met a certain woman from the network of Batanagar families’ descendants and seen something that could be of an interest to me.

When I opened the document, I was staring in disbelief at its front page. My heart began to pound quickly, and it’s hard to describe my amazement and excitement at that moment! In front of me was a mobile phone camera copy of a printout of a Word document in English, title of which is this:

title2

Remembering Private Nemec – 1st Btn., SSVF, Salesman, Bata Shoe Company, Singapore. A 75th Anniversary Memorial Document to the Bata Czechoslovaks in Singapore and Malaya during The Fall of Singapore in February 1942″.

How unbelievable!

The author was certain “O. Plesek”. It did not take long and I have got hold of a contact to this mysterious person, who I was told is living in Australia. I have immediately written to him, introducing myself and outlining the project of search for my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec, and that I had just seen a copy of his dossier, which – as he can imagine – came as a pure magic to me.

The answer did not take long, actually it came literally overnight (thanks to the difference in time zones) and was a start of our ongoing lively and warm correspondence. The shock of this unexpected encounter apparently worked both ways, as the first lines of an email with subject “The Miracle of Silvestr Nemec” reads:

“Hi Jan. You have no idea, absolutely no idea of what your email has done for me. It has brought me the greatest feeling of satisfaction over the two years or so that I have been working on this document. To get such a result is beyond the realm of expectation.”

Apart from an updated version of his document – which is still a draft yet to be published – Mr Olek Plesek also sent me information about his background.

Olek (Oldrich) was born in 1943 in Batanagar, where both of his parents worked for the Bata company. The family was relocated to Calcutta in 1950, when his father was promoted. Young Olek then left to Australia in early 1960’s. He later married a daughter of the Mr and Mrs Boda, who worked for Bata in the Klang factory in Malaya (and fled to Singapore when the Japanese army was approaching through Malaya).

Olek
Photo: Two photos of young Olek Plesek, published in the Batanagar News in July 1945.

Olek is 74 years now and he had spent last three years researching the fate of the Czechoslovak Batamen from the Far East. He began by documenting his native Batanagar, that has mostly disappeared by now, following its purchase by a developer who used the estate to build high rise apartments, golf villas and commercial center.

The scope of his research later expanded to Singapore. First when he was tracing the background of the family of his wife, later when he got in contact with a historian Michael Pether and was working with him in an attempt to reconstruct a list of passengers on the unfortunate ship SS Redang that was evacuating civilians from Singapore in February 1942 and was sunk by the Japanese navy. It appears that a number of Czechoslovaks was onboard among its passengers, some of which have not survived the tragic sinking.

Olek also recollects the family gatherings, when friends of his parents came for visit and were playing cards into the evening, often recalling shared stories from India but rarely of the Singapore siege and subsequent internment in the camps by the Japanese. And a little bit like me, also he was not interested in these stories when he was young, and now there is nobody left to ask.

The information that he began to collect few years ago motivated him for a more systematic research, outcome of which is the document he had drafted at the beginning of this year. Olek had put its publication on hold now, waiting to see what additional information about Silvestr (or others) we can gather, so that he can include that in the final version.

The 30 pages long draft publication summarizes information about the three Batamen who enrolled to the volunteer defense force and have not survived till the liberation. We are already familiar with their names: Silvestr Nemec, Rudolf Janecek and Karel Vitek. The paper also outlines the fates of other Batamen who met their death during evacuation, all likely on board of the unfortunate SS Redang: Bedrich Heim, Klement Plhon, Oldrich Smrzak, Josef Strangfeld and Eugen Straussler (he was father of the famous author Tom Stoppard, who was born as Tomas Straussler). Besides that, Mr Plesek’s work also documents the name of survivors from the Bata staff and summarizes information about their 3.5 years long internment in the infamous Changi camp.

Mr Plesek, while working on his paper, also put a meticulous effort to compile a (as much comprehensive as possible, given the difficulties to track them due to lack of full original documentation) list with basic data of every single Czechoslovak from Bata based in Singapore – his list currently counts 70 people. Once Mr Plesek finalizes and publishes his impressive piece work, I will be glad to share and spread it around as well.

As for specific information about Silvestr, the document contains one reference that has so far been unknown to me:

“Marus Bohman’s memoirs note that Larry Kent, formerly Ladislav Kvapil, recalled that a Czech boy was among those who were cold-bloodedly bayoneted in their hospital beds.”

Of course I have asked for the original document, and Mr Plesek has kindly shared it with me. The quoted sentence did not make it to the final publication, which means that if it was not for Mr Plesek, I would never be able to find it. Another of the multiple gains of our miraculous encounter.

bohmanPhoto: Editing preview of two pages from the memoirs of Ms Bohman, including a sentence referring to Ladislav Kvapil and his recollection that did not make it to the final publication.

There is of course one more crucial question, apart from the fascinating coincidence that brought us together. Why did Mr Plesek choose to dedicate his paper to my great-uncle Silvestr? Here is how he answers that:

“I was asked this by one of the descendants of a personal friend whose father was a Changi survivor. I believe it is more attention-getting than some of the past ones such as “History of the Batamen in Malaya”. I want people to read this document. I specifically chose Silvestr Nemec because of his young age, and the horrific alleged circumstances of his brutal death at the Alexandra hospital. This does not diminish in any way the lingering deaths of those in POW camps, the horrors of dying at sea on a boat that has been bombed, or the traumatic 3.5 years in Changi and Sime Road internment camps. Silvestr Nemec epitomises the very worst outcome in a tragedy we will never be able to comprehend. On 15th February this year was the commemoration of the 75th Anniversary of the Surrender of Singapore. I wonder how many from Bata, especially Bata Singapore, paused to remember those that had died, or suffered terrible privation, as a result of trying to defend Singapore and protect Bata assets in the region.

So far my initial correspondence with Mr Plesek. I am so grateful for the coincidence that helped us to come across each other, and that was facilitated by Ms Matyasova. Because what were the chances of that? Without her, we would most likely have never got to learn about each other and about our parallel efforts to trace the past of the nearly forgotten Czechoslovak heroes from Singapore.

 

 

Three Prague encounters

Next steps in my search for Silvestr lead me to Prague.

My first stop there has been at the National Library. I spotted several potentially useful publications in its catalogue, among them a book by Gilbert Mant “The Singapore Surrender – the Greatest Disaster in British Military History”. It’s one of the countless publications about the fall of the former British colonies in Malaya and Singapore to the hands of Japanese during their blitz offensive between December 1941 and February 1942.

hajny2mPhoto: Mr Pavel Hajny and Ms Judita Matyasova during their meeting with me in Prague

At that time, Singapore was considered to be an unconquerable fortress – both due to its massive defense systems, and also because of the strategic priority it had for the British Empire. General Arthur Percival had a 100,000 strong army at hand, majority of which were well-trained British and Australian troops. Yet, in only ten weeks of fighting, he had surrended to a 40,000 strong army of general Yamashita. A comparable number of soldiers capitulated in Stalingrad on the side of marshal Paulus. The subtitle of Mant’s book is therefore no exaggeration – it indeed was the biggest and possibly the most humiliating military defeat for the British in their history. No wonder so many documents, analysis and other publications were written on the subject. Most of them put the blame on the indecisiveness, or even incompetence, of the British command.

singapore.jpg

Besides getting an insight into the above mentioned Mant’s book, I was hoping to discover some authentic reports about the Czechoslovaks who – like my great uncle – fought to defend Singapore in 1940’s. The most promising appeared to be “Newsletter – a Diary of the Czechoslovak army unit” from 1942 and 1943. However it turned out that this newsletter solely deals with the Czechoslovak fighting in the Middle East, mostly Palestine, and there was no mention of the events in the Far East. The library catalogues also listed more than 20 contemporary periodicals published in 1930’s in Zlin by the Bata company. I may at some point come back to these and browse through, just to get a better sense of the realities in which Silvestr was working and living in late 1930’s.

Of course I also enjoyed my visit to the library in Klementinum also to admire its historical spaces, including the beautiful reading room.

klementinum.jpgPhoto: The reading room of the National Library in Prague’s Klementinum

It was not just the library what brought me to Prague. Even more important reason for my trip were three appointments that I made there in advance of my trip.

The first one was a meeting with a Czech journalist Judita Matyasova. The suggestion to meet her, along with contact details, came from Mr Smid. He works for the  association Pamet Naroda (“Memory of the Nation”) and upon my initial inquiry, he also wrote me that for their project, Silvestr’s story does not qualify because they only focus on capturing audiovisual testimonies of those still living. A bit weird I must say, however I am grateful that he had passed on me this incredibly important contact. Ms Matyasova is a freelance journalist who reports about forgotten stories of the past, mostly related to the first half of the 20th century. Her passion for the first two decades of modern Czechoslovakia (the period before 1st and 2nd world war) goes beyond her professional work. In addition to a number of articles and interviews, Ms Matyasova had also published several books, including for example “Friendship despite Hitler” (a story about 80 Czech/Jewish children who escaped from Nazi occupied Prague to Denmark, and about the encounter of some of them that 70 years later organized Ms Matyasova as a part of her work); she also shares some of her research on a personal blog site.

It turned out to be a really lucky encounter. One of the issues of particular interest to Ms Matyasova is the history of Bata people in Batanagar – the first company branch established in the Far East in early 1930’s. She has for example published a story of Josef Kramolis, who was sent from the Zlin headquarters to Calcuta on a mission to establish its presence there in 1932, and he then went on to Singapore as well. I was impressed by the amount of literature and other documents she is already familiar with – and that she was very happy to share with me. In addition, during her work, Ms Matyasova had also established contacts and network with several descendants of the “Bata families” from Batanagar, who are today scattered across the world, from Canada to Australia. One of her contacts lead us to a a true miracle, about which I will tell you more next time.

Our meeting with Ms Matyasova became even more exciting when my next guest joined us – Mr Pavel Hajny, administrator of the webpage www.batastory.net dedicated to the history Bata and its people. Mr Hajny is a nephew of Jan Baros – that very same Baros who had been the chief editor of the Batanagar News and who wrote several books about the history of Bata in India, for example “The Czechoslovaks on the banks of Ganges”.

My third appointment was with Mr Ivan Prochazka, author of an essential essay “Compatriots in the Far East” that was published in the Czech magazine History and Military in 1996 and from which I was already quoting some crucial parts. My direct contact with Mr Prochazka was kindly facilitated by Mr Jaroslav Beranek, chief editor of this magazine, whom I wrote earlier about my case.

Earlier the day, I also used my visit to the National Library to make a copy of the original article – unlike its unofficial web version, it contains direct references as well as several unique photographs.

The personal encounter with Mr Prochazka had been yet another fantastic experiences, and also resulted in some break-throughs in my search. His personal passion for the history of the WW2 era is even stronger than that of Ms Mayasova. Unlike her, it is a pure hobby for Mr Prochazka – he actually works as a locksmith, therefore he is not a historian by education nor by profession. However, he dedicates his free time to an incredibly meticulous research of various Czech archives. Once every few years, he summarizes his findings in a form of an essay or even a book. He is, like me, in his 40’s, and his essay about the Far East in 1996 was his first published work. His most recent publication is a book about Czechoslovak women serving in the British Army during WW2. The Czech Institute of a Military History has published it in April 2016.

Mr Prochazka spent literally years of his time digging through archives of several Czech institutions, most of which I had barely heard of. He has provided me with a number of tips and personal contacts, but not only that. As a follow up of our meeting, he also sent me parts of his own archive related to Singapure in 1940’s – some of the documents he had not even previously used for his 1996 essay. While I will need to spend time more on them, I already noticed that they contain several true gems, including information directly linked to Silvestr. This for example includes part of collection of the late Dr Emil Macel, or authentic 14 pages long report by Josef Vyhnalek – a key witness and Silvestr’s colleague and friend – that he wrote on a typewriter in 1966.

All these documents were shared with me by Mr Prochazka very generously. His only ask was that once I conclude my research, that I publish it in some way – perhaps, he suggested, in the magazine History and Military as a sequel of his own 1996 essay. That was something I was very happy to promise to him, because I already had been considering some form of publication of Silvestr’s story.

Thus, hereby, I am also making my public pledge to publish the story of Silvestr, one day…

 

Visiting Silvestr’s family and his home in Vemyslice

Next to the Bata Villa in Zlin and the State archives in nearby Klecuvka, my April trip to my motherland included two other locations related to the search for Silvestr: his home at the village of Vemyslice, and Prague where I was researching in the National Library and also met several crucial contacts.

Vemyslice, where Silvestr was born and grew up, is a small town (current population just bellow 700 people) located near Moravsky Krumlov in the southern Moravia. I know this place by heart from my own childhood – over the years, I had spent countless weekends and every summer holidays there, roaming around on my bicycle and experiencing the most thrilling countryside adventures a small boy can get. I loved that place so much, including the house and the garden of my grandparents! There, in the entrance hall of the house, I had been walking (or perhaps running) pass a portrait of Silvestr, without paying much attention to it. It was hung on the wall by my grandmother, who was Silvestr’s older sister.

silva2.jpgPhoto: Portrait of Silvestr, dated mid February 1938 – less than a year before his departure to Singapore. This photograph was displayed in the house of my grandmother in Vemyslice.

The house of my grandmother was different than the one in which Nemec family used to live. Ours is on the “upper end” of the village and had been build by my grandparents after they got married (my grandfather moved in from a poor family in a nearby village of Dukovany).

mvemyslice7Photo: The house on the left is number 23 – the home of the Nemec family. It is situated in the center of Vemyslice village.

The original house of the Nemec family can be found in the center of the village, a “downtown” where we were going to for shopping and where my grandfather used to play cards every Sunday afternoon at a local pub.

It was here, in the house number 23, where Silvestr was born on October 1919 to his father Silvestr Nemec and mother Frantiska (born Netouskova). Silvestr was the youngest among their four children: he was born after the oldest son Frantisek (*1908), daughter Julie (*1911, she died tragically around 1923 as a result of an accident she had suffered when she was a little baby) and my grandmother Frantiska (*1914).

I did not have a chance to meet Silvestr’s parents, who were my great-grandfather and great-grandmother, as they have passed away already in 1968 and in 1970, respectively. However my mother told me some of her memories: that the old grandparents were living and sleeping in the front room on the right wing of the house; that Silvestr senior used to smoke a pipe; and that there had been some thick book with pictures related to the Bata shoe company on a shelve in their room.

mvemyslice5Photo: The boxes with old family photographs in Vemyslice. On the top is a miniature portrait of young Silvestr.

When I was a boy, we used to come for occasional visit to this house “downtown”, and I had been also knocking on its door every spring during the traditional Easter festivities. This April, after many years had passed, I paid a visit there again. Although we were an unexpected visit, my aunt offered us special home made cookies that I used to love – and here we go, more than a quarter of century, I could enjoy them once again! I have also noticed that the hunter trophies that I remembered from my childhood were still hanging on the walls of their entrance hall.

We used my visit to have a small chat about Silvestr. It turned out that my aunt also collected few documents, primarily a print-out of the historical essay about Czechoslovaks in the Far East during the WW2, written in Czech by Ivan Prochazka, that I had mentioned earlier and that had provided me with some valuable leads.

mvemyslice6Photo: Looking at the old family photographs during my visit in the house of Nemec family in Vemyslice. On the left is my mom (Silvestr’s niece) and on the right in the background my aunt (also Silvestr’s niece). On the right bottom corner you can also spot a plate of my favorite cookies.

The most valuable documentation that I had retrieved and scanned there was a set of historical photographs: four portraits of Silvestr and two family snapshots – without Silvestr though, as he was not born yet when they were taken:

rodina1.jpgPhoto: Silvestr’s parents with his three older siblings (the youngest on the picture is Frantiska, my grandmother).

What caught my eye was also what I find to be an impressive picture of Silvestr’s father. Posing in the garden, with a nice hat sitting on his head and with a cigar in his hand – he is standing tall and reminds me a hero of some western movie.

rodina2.jpgPhoto: Silvestr Nemec senior, father of Silvestr and of my grandmother Frantiska

Because we were visiting Vemyslice only for the weekend, I had not been able to go to the town hall and inquire there for some other documents, such as a record of Silvestr’s birth in the register, or local chronicles from 1930’s and 1940’s. Once I have another opportunity, I really will revisit this, as I hope to find some additional details and information there.

While I was in Vemyslice, I also went to visit the local memorial for the victims of the WW1 and WW2. It’s located close to the center, a bit uphill, facing the church. Along with the war memorials in Zlin and in Singapore’s Kranji, this is the third (known to me at least) monument that carries Silvestr’s name.

mvemyslice2Photo: Memorial of the war victims in Vemyslice.

My grandmother used to come to the memorial from time to time, bringing fresh flowers, watering the patch and tidying it up. When I was a child, I was gazing at the small portraits of the victims, reproduced in the small ovals on the side of their names. Unfortunately, by today, all those photos have been totally bleached.

As you can see from the photo bellow, the marble panel has sixteen names on it. These are those citizens of Vemyslice who perished as a result of the World War II. Turned out I was very lucky because at the time of my visit, there was an excerpt from the local chronicles about the local WW2 events pinned on the information board of the town hall.

mvemyslice4.jpgPhoto: Close up of the war victims memorial in Vemyslice with the names of 16 locals who lost their lives between 1939 and 1945 – being executed by Nazis or killed during the fightings. Silvestr (‘Sylva’) Nemec is marked as “killed in the foreign army”.

The article mentions the tragic stories of some of these victims. This helps us to learn more about those otherwise quite abstract names. Here is my English translation of the given war local chronicle:

“Already the events of late 1938 impacted Vemyslice very badly. The Munich Agreement  meant that our state borders were redrawn and moved very close to our town. As a result, we had lost contact with our regional capital of Moravsky Krumlov. Krumlov, despite that a Czech majority was living there, was annexed to the Nazi Germany. Vemyslice then had to be administrativelly attached to Moravske Budejovice, although that regional capital was very far away. Another complication resulted from the fact that our citizens were not able to use the railway anymore – the nearest station in Raksice now belonged to Germany, and only those with special permits were able to access it.

Our Vemyslice parish then also had to take care of the church in the neighbouring village of Rybniky, which was left up in the air after the Moravsky Krumlov parish suddenly found itself on a Germany’s territory

The persecution came upon Vemyslice in the same way as to all other cities. Two local families, the Vybiral’s and the Neruda’s, declared themselves German. Both families were recent arrivals.

On December 10, 1942, ten additional German families arrived, coming from Constanz in Romania – so called Besarabians. They took over the farms and houses that were previously confiscated from those who were childless or committed an offense against the Germans. Local citizens was not welcoming those newcomers and kept ignoring them.

On 23rd January, 1943, a German primary school and a German kindergarten were established to serve the children of the Besarabian families. Additional German pupils were coming from the other villages nearby. Those German school institutions were operating until the very end of the German rule, when the Besarabians fled to the west in order to escape from the approaching Red Army.

The local municipality was abolished on 9th June 1943, and the mayor Josef Basta was deposed. The government appointed a local fascist, Frantisek Podhradsky from the Rybniky village, as an official commissar; however the actual power was in the hands of the renegade Stephan Vybiral.

National associations, such as Sokol, Orel or National Unity, were also dissolved and their property confiscated. On 18th March 1943, the villagers had to say goodbye to their church bells as they were taken away for the purposes of war.

The resistance was taking place under the umbrella of the National Defence (‘Obrana naroda’), however its activities were silenced during the prosecution. Two citizens from Vemyslice joined foreign armies as sergeants: Ota Hrdina from house number 168 went into England, and Frantisek Sobotka from house number 165 joined the partisans in Italy. When the front was passing by, the locals cut twice the German telephone lines in order to interrupt their communication.

The upcoming prosecution was landing on Vemyslice when the storm troops of SS Sturmpolizei from Nemecke Jablonne appeared early June 1941, lead by SS sturmfuhrer Herold. They ransacked the garage number 254 and took a freight car from there.

Twelve of our citizens were arrested for political reasons, including eight members of the family of Kubis who were inlucky just because of their surname (Kubis was coincidentally one of the patriots who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich). During the Nazi revenge that followed Heydrich’s assassination, the couple of Cyril and Frantiska Vafek, as well as their son Frantisek, were executed on 1st July 1942 in Kounic Dorms in Brno.

Dr. Jaroslav Kotbauer, Karel Basta, couple Cyril and Jana Vafek’s, and teacher Josef Sedlacek died in the concentration camps. Also, a Jew Jakub Neumann perished in Auschwitz.

As the Red Army was advancing through Hungary, several young man from Vemyslice were mobilized and forced to build defense trenches near the Nezider Lake. Several machine gun posts were later established around our village, and an anti-tank barrier placed near the church.

On 18th April 1945, the German civilians fled the village, while the Czech citizens were eagerly expecting the arrival of the Red Army. Vemyslice however found itself on a sideline of the main military operations, as the Russians made a surprise advance through the city of Ivancice north of Vemyslice. In any case, the locals prepared their shelters against air raids.

On 7th May, from 7 o’clock morning hours, the Russian airforce began to drop bombs Vemyslice, using light fragmentation and flammable bombs. During this air raid, two civilians were unfortunatelly killed: Antonin Basta and Josef Plachy. Fifteen houses caught fire.

During the whole night from 7th to 8th of May, the German troops were retreating towards the village of Tulesice. Only on the hills near Rybniky, in Ledvice and on the southern and western edges of Vemyslice, the Germans mounted a brief resistance. Shortly after 8am on 8th of May, the Red Army took over Vemyslice. The Russians had no casualties, while the Germans lost four soldiers. During the fights, Jan Vybiral was also killed. The Russians established a field hospital in our local school, in which two Russian officers succumbed to their earlier wounds.

On 9th May 1945, the first local national council was established under the chairmanship of Josef Bradac.”

[ENDS]

We can notice that the narrative does not mention all of the sixteen names that are engraved on the war memorial. Without any doubt, the most remarkable story among those not told is that of Viktor Jarolim.

Jarolim was owning a mill on the Rokytna River, sitting halfway between Vemyslice and Tulesice villages. He became a father of the famous Adolf Opalka, a parachutist from the “Out Distance” commando that participated in the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in Prague. That is also the reason why the Germans executed Viktor Jarolim during their furious retribution. The story of Jarolim and Opalka is a sad one also because the young Opalka (born in 1915) was Jarolim’s illegitimate son, and he was growing up without a father. His mother died when he was only eight years old, and subsequently, his mother’s sister Marie took care of him. For the same reasons as Jarolim – being a close family member of Adolf – Marie was also executed by the Germans in 1942.

The war chronicle above is quoted from a publication “The Town of Vemyslice, 1234-1947”. It was released in 1947, on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of a special privilege that was awarded to Vemyslice by the Abbess from Tisnov, Barbora Konicka of Svabenice.

Let me use this moment to dive even deeper into the interesting moments in the history of Vemyslice: Half of the village, along with all its land, was donated in 1234 (this is also the oldest preserved record about Vemyslice) by the Moravian ruler Premysl Otakar II to the Porta Coeli women’s monastery, which was newly established near the city of Tisnov. It is often thought that the Abbess in 1547 awarded Vemyslice a special privilege that lifted the peasants from the duty of corve, i.e. the duty of unpaid work for their feudal lords. However, according to some scholars, her written declaration was only reconfirming the privilege that was granted much earlier.

“The monastery has been build as a colonizing one, meaning on a green field, so that a settlement can be later developed around it. Because there was no castle or fortress nearby, the monastery itself had to be fortified with a defense system. The defense system included a watch and defense tower. That’s where the need to man the tower and the gate emerged. The monastery’s convent took a decision to assign this duty to the men from Vemyslice. In order to compensate them for such hardship, they have been granted the exemption from the duty of corve. We suggest that the corve exemption was granted to Vemyslice as early as in 1239. The duty of the village to man the Porta Coeli fortification continued until 1746,” writes a historian Tibor Slama in an article I found in the local Vemyslice newsletter from June 2014.

That’s enough for today about Vemyslice, the hometown of Silvestr.

My next piece will be about my stop in Prague, where I met several people to gain some key new information and documents to advance my search.

 

 

Discoveries in the Czech State Archives in Klecuvka

The third stop of my trip to Zlin earlier in April has been the regional branch of the State Archive in Klecuvka. By that time, I already had some email exchange with one of its custodians, Dr. Marek, who was answering my initial inquiry regarding Silvestr.

Dr Marek is not just the custodian of the state archives, but also historian who is pursuing some research of his own. One of the areas of his academic work is the past of the Bata company, including some of its darker moments: for example it using force labor of the Jews from the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Uncovering and naming those old wounds makes him quite a controversial person in the view of some people. I was therefore quite keen to meet him in person.

My visit of the archive has been very fruitful on other accounts as well. During several hours of scrolling through various documents, I came across several fascinating pieces and some unique photographs (due to restrictions on their further sharing, I will be posting some of them later in the future, once I clear all the procedures).

machiv1Photo: The author leafing through one of the Bata publications in the State Archives in Klecuvka; photo courtesy of Pavel Stojar.

The first document for me to seek has been a list of Bata employees that were dispatched overseas. The list is quite a heavy dossier, with hard leather cover. The title in golden capital says “The List of Employees Overseas”.

zlin_seznam_desky

As we can read on the first page, it has been created in September 1944, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the German Nazis. The list contains names of all employees who were sent abroad from Zlin (Germany, for obvious reasons, was not considered as being abroad).

Doctor Marek explained to me that as the Bata staff was sent to work abroad, so went their personal files with them. That means, in the case of Silvestr, that his files were further kept in Singapore and it is futile to try to find them here in Zlin. My initial attempts to get in contact with the nowadays branch of Bata in Singapore had unfortunately not been successful. Despite that the likelihood of them keeping at least some fragments of old company archives from 1930’s and 1940’s is very low, I believe it is still worth checking, and I will continue to do so.

seznam3.jpg

Next page in the list captures statistics about how many employees and to what destinations were sent during the first half of 1939 – that means it already included a period of time of the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, but yet before the World War II officially began. In the first six months of 1939, in total 502 people were sent abroad by Bata from Zlin. Most of them were heading for US and Canada. As we already know, Bata was also establishing its base in Asia since early 1930’s, first in India and then in Singapore. The statistics say that 22 employees went to Singapore in early 1939 (while 30 others to India, both British and Dutch colonies combined). In total, 50 employees were sent from Zlin to Singapore during 1930’s.

Before we move on to the individual records, let’s spend some more time on the introductory pages where some more statistics is summarized. There is in total 1032 employees of Bata documented as working abroad. That means that about half of them were transferred there just in the first half of 1939 (Silvestr himself departed for Singapore on 31st December 1938).

seznam4

While these are still quite abstract numbers, I keep trying to imagine the real life and stories behind them. For example:

  • An overwhelming majority of these were men. Of the only 34 women listed, only one was married. The other 33 women were moving out alone, and as we can read elsewhere, many of them married abroad and left not only Bata, but also Czechoslovakia permanently.
  • The racial identification says that there were 79 non-Aryan people (= read Jews). Their departure from Europe, on the very eve of the outbreak of the WW2, almost certainly saved their lives.
  • Most of them were quite young, between 20 and 30 years old at the moment of their departure (Silvestr was only 19 when he sailed off to Asia). That means these must have been rather young talents than experienced managers. And indeed, according to the records provided, there were only 36 staff (out of 1032) who were 40 years or older when they were transferred.
  • That makes an interesting contrast with another fact: about 75% of them had already had 5 to 15 years of service for Bata upon their departure – meaning that they worked for the company from a very young age (some of them probably in parallel to attending the school).
  • Therefore it is not surprising that 125 had only primary, and another 516 only secondary school education. Having a higher or university degree was quite rare among the group. However, 315 of the listed staff (some 30%) had graduated from the “Bata School of Work” – a special system that Bata created for young people. It was providing them with an education while they were already working for the company.
  • The vast majority of them left from Czechoslovakia before the WW2 started. The biggest wave of departures took place in the first half of 1939 (574 people) and a year earlier (191). After 1940, only 18 people were sent to work abroad.
  • Regarding the professions, most of the employees who went overseas worked in the sales department (433), followed by shoe fabrication (176). There are only 30 people recorded as managers or directors who are in the group.
  • The list also says that in total 23 people were dispatched for a particular job of the pedicurist – a position that Silvestr was assigned in Singapore.
  • The Bata company registered 67 family members who accompanied it’s employees sent abroad. In 1944, these were also receiving allowances paid by the company, totaling 51 000 Czechoslovak crowns per month (i.e. on average 760 crowns per person per month)

seznam5

One other thing that caught my attention was a small box on the bottom right that talks about “enemy property”. It sums the property of 447 employees, valued at 48 million Czechoslovak crowns. I can only guess what was the definition of an “enemy person”, perhaps those that refused to confirm their citizenship under the Nazi Empire? It’s however very likely that the “enemy employees” included those Batamen in Singapore who volunteered to join the British defense forces.

After the introduction and summary pages, the details of individuals follow. Every entry for each individual is captured on a very long line or strip, and one has to unfold the page to open it in full length. The document is made with quite some high precision, and includes a miniature photograph attached next to each name.

Thus, we are opening the pages starting with letter N… and here comes Silvestr – we can even see his young face!

Silva1

Every page also has an additional sheet of paper that was attached later and contains some hand written notes. The Bata clerks also made two crosses next to Silvestr’s name to indicate that he had died (same can be found for others who did not survive the war). The record of Silvestr contains his name, states 20th October 1919 as his date of birth, and says that he had graduated from a business school (with a sign suggesting it was not the Bata School of Work, therefore must have been some other school).

Pictures bellow are the cropped photographs of the long strip with the data about  Silvestr. Further it says that he was unmarried when he was leaving, that he was heading to the “Singapore Straits Settlement”, and that he departed on 31st December 1938. His previous position at Bata was of a salesman, while his upcoming position in Singapore would be a pedicurist.

Silva2.jpg

We can further see that he was organized under the sales department, and that the company organized his pension insurance in Singapore, starting on 1st October 1940.

Silva3.jpg

Finally, there is an address of the next-of-kin, naming and giving the home address of Silvestr’s father:

Silva4.jpg

So much for the initial record produced on a typewriter.

The hint of the dramatic events that followed, including how the news were gradually arriving to Zlin, are captured on the attached strip in a series of four hand-written notes:

Silva5.jpg

Here is what they say when translated into English:

  1. To an inquiry we replied that we will inform later upon finding ourselves.
  2. Mr Lachs says that he was in Singapore in 1943
  3. Report from Bata Batanagar, via Bata Limited London – Mr Nemec who suffered a serious injury when he was fighting in Singapore was reportedly killed when the Japanese occupied the hospital in which he was finding himself as a patient
  4. Killed at action in Singapore – according to a telegram from Mr Jugas

Putting the slightly bizarre bureaucratic style aside, I read this as a miniature drama of four acts, condensed into telegraphic sentences.

The first of the notes most likely refers to the post-war inquiry by the family.

The third note might be dated to November 1945 – which is when Mr. Vyhnalek reached London after several weeks on board a ship from Singapore. In London, he was filling his liberation questionnaire at the War Office. It is quite likely that, once being in town, he also visited the Bata company there and shared his stories. It also seems natural that the company would then pass on the information to it’s headquarters in Zlin, where it was eventually recorded. The list of Bata overseas employees also has this note next to Mr Vyhnalek’s record: “Bata Ltd London reports that he was liberated as a prisoner of war and is on his way to Europe – letter is dated 4th November, delivered to us on 7th November.”

The fourth note then may be from early 1946, because Mr Jugas sent a personal letter with a similar content to the family on 22nd January 1946.

What I find very strange though is the second note, capturing a bit mysterious information from Mr Lachs that “was in 1943 in Singapore”. First of all, it will be interesting to find out who Mr Lachs was, as he does not appear on the list of Batamen who were stationed in Singapore in 1940’s. In addition, I found almost an identical note next to the name of Rudolf Janecek – another Bata employee who also signed up for the volunteer defense forces and did not make it, having had died as POW on malaria and beriberi in February 1945. Maybe Mr Lachs, or maybe the clerk noting his information down, had mistaken 1943 with 1942? It would then make much more sense. The other interpretation though is that indeed, Silvestr was seen and recorded as alive in Singapore in 1943. This however conflicts with majority of other reports and documents that suggest he had gone missing on 15th February 1942, possibly having been actually murdered in the Alexandra Hospital on 14th or 15th February. One way or the other, trying to identify this Mr Lachs will be yet another directions of my further search.

And here is where I stop for today.

None of the additional findings in the State archives in Klecuvka provided any further specific information about Silvestr. Despite that, they will be very handy when I will be trying to describe the operation of Bata in Malaya in 1930’s and how the Czechoslovaks have perceived the Far East at that time. What will also be useful are the contemporary photographs commissioned by the Bata company and available today in the State Archives. And last but not least, similar to some of my discoveries in the Batanagar News, I also found some noteworthy and fun stories about Bata that I will share at some point in the future. So, stay tuned (and share please).

 

 

 

Visiting Bata Villa, and finding the first treasures of the Batanagar News

Back in April, I have been paying a day trip to the city of Zlin – the original home of the nowadays globally present shoe-making company Bata. It is this originally Czechoslovak company that my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec started to work for at the age of 17, and that later dispatched him to it’s branch in Singapore at the end of 1938.

There have been three places that I was in particular eager to visit in Zlin.

First is the monument for the victims of the Second World War. Silvestr’s name is engraved on it’s panel dedicated to those who had fallen while fighting overseas. Despite that the monument has just been fenced off due to some restoration work, I could not have helped but to climb over and pay respect to Silvestr.

zlin_pamatnik_mensi.jpgphoto: Author Jan Beranek at the Zlin WW2 memorial, standing next to the panel with Silvestr’s name.

The other two locations – Villa of Tomas Bata, and the local branch of the State Archives in Klecuvka – were promising to provide some materials and documents for my search.

Today, I will be summarizing my visit of the villa.

Batova_vila_panorama.jpgPhoto: Bata Villa today

My earlier inquiry with it’s secretariat had resulted in a prompt response by Ms Zvolska. She was pointing me primarily to the State Archives, which are the custodians of the preserved files of Bata company from 1930’s and 1940’s. However, the website of the Bata Villa also mentions that they own a small library and provides a list of the available publications. When I was scrolling through it, two of its items caught my eye: The archived editions of the Batanagar News from 1938, 1945 and 1946; and a publication named “The Fight and Fate of the Batamen in Singapore and Malaya”, written by Jan Baros and published in Canada in 1945.

Thanks to a military-historical essay published by Ivan Prochazka back in 1996 (available in Czech on a website here), I knew that the October 1945 edition of the Batanagar News published a report titled “The Story of Batamen in Malaya” that mentions Silvestr.

It was not so hard to find it, and here comes the first gem:

Batamen 1.jpg(you can find the scanned remaining pages at the end of this article)

Turns out that the above mentioned report was printed on the front page, and it continues on three additional pages inside the weekly newspaper.

The report begins:

“Just this week the first batch of Batamen from Malaya arrived to India after three and half years of internment in the Japanese prison camps. They arrived in such a condition that that the authorities had to send them to a hill station to enable them to recuperate at least partly their shattered health and over-strained nerves, before they could see their friends and families at Batanagar. Only two of the group were able to undertake the tour from the port of Madras to Batanagar. They are Mr. Bohman and Mr. Jedovnicky, both Graduates of the Bata School of Work, who gave us first hand information about the life under the Japanese in South East Asia.”

The text describes in quite some detail the events starting from the mobilization in Singapore in December 1941; through the last minute evacuation of civilians on ships, many of which were sunk by the Japanese shortly after departure; the fall of Singapore in February 1942; the horrors and tolls of the prison camps including some sabotage actions that  Bata employees undertook when they were tasked with production of shoes for the Japanese soldiers; and ends with the liberation of the internment camps at the very end of August 1945.

There are two moments when the name of my great-uncle appears, first is the paragraph describing the intake of the Czechoslovak volunteers to the defense forces:

“In the beginning of December complete mobilisation was ordered all over Singapore. The Czechoslovak Batamen who were of military age and healthy, all joined the SSVF – the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force – and FMSVS – the Federated Malayan States Volunteer Services. The training was quick and hard, but they, and all the others who joined, undertook it with the greatest earnestness, as they felt the gravity of the situation. Matus, Bohman, Kozusnicek, Ambroz, Jedovnicky were in Machinegun Units; Vitek, Janacek, Nemec were with the Riffle Corps; Cepka, Mraz in Bomb Disposal Units; Zamara and others in the some other and so on. These units were posted for beach defense all along the coast.”

The second time that Silvestr Nemec’s name appears is in the paragraph about the February fights, and claims that he was killed by the Japanese in a hospital:

“Casualties – yes, there were many. It cannot be ascertained now who and how many were wounded, so far as we know, Kozisnicek, Vitek and Nemec were wounded. Nemec was sent to the military hospital, when later the Japanese captured it, in the rage of animal brutality they mercilessly killed all the wounded soldiers lying in beds. Here Nemec met his end.”

This text – along with the private letters from Pavel Ambroz and Antonin Jugas that I had already published and a hand written note in the list of Bata employees – is another contemporary document that places the death of Silvestr to the Alexandra hospital that was massacred by Japanese on 14th and 15th of February 1942.

The question however remains as to who or what is the primary source of this reoccurring information, probably. It’s quite obvious that neither Ambroz or Jugas, neither the unknown Bata clerk who was writing the note in Zlin headquarters, were present in the Alexandra hospital during that tragic day. Therefore, they could not have witnessed Silvestr being murdered there. Also, only a fraction of the hospital documents survived the war and only a minority of the names of patients and staff involved is known and documented (and Silvestr’s name is not among them).

This actually has been one of the main reasons why I wanted to read the original piece in the Batanagar News, hoping that it may reveal some additional clues. Unfortunately, it did not. Yet, having access to an original article that writes about Silvestr has been already a great reward for me!

The other chance was the second publication, written by Jan Baros. It turned out that it is just an expanded version of the piece from the Batanagar News. Its additional parts are dealing with the history of setting up the Bata branch in Singapore in 1932, the details of life and more stories from the internment camps, and also a lengthy section about the methods of torture of the prisoners by the Japanese. However, there is no additional information about Silvestr, neither about the last days of the fights for Singapore.

baros1.jpgPhoto: Scan of the front page copy of the Jan [John] Baros publication, found in the library at the Bata Villa

Importantly though, the extended version confirms that it is based on the testimonies of Bohman and Jedovnicky. Where did those two got the information about Silvestr’s murder in Alexandra Hospital remains unknown. The story must have been told and shared among the prisons in the camps. But what was its origin?

Could it be that Vitek or Kozusnicek – who too, according to the Batanagar News, were  injured during the fights – were also admitted to the Alexandra Hospital? Then they could had been the surviving witnesses. That certainly sounds like a plausible scenario.

In order to verify that, could we somewhere find their first hand accounts? Vitek had not survived the imprisonment, having had died of malaria in Batu Litang prisoner camp on Borneo on 18th March 1945. However Kozusnicek was among the lucky ones who made it, and maybe he recorded his accounts – or someone else captured his authentic memories elsewhere. These could certainly contain some break through information, and I will continue searching for such documents if they exist.

Both versions of the text about Batamen in war were written by Jan Baros, who obviously had a good story telling talent. But this represents another potential question mark. Today’s reader can’t help but feel a certain over-dramatization and simplification of the story. Saying that, I want to express my full respect and gratitude to Jan Baros for capturing and publishing the history that otherwise would most likely be forgotten by now. It’s just that if we are serious about a historical research, we should keep a healthy amount of skepticism about the details described. The tendency to over-dramatize facts is for example obvious from the account of Alexandra Hospital massacre: “… when later the Japanese captured it, in the rage of animal brutality they mercilessly killed all the wounded soldiers lying in beds.” Although the merciless brutality of the hospital capture became known and well documented as one of the infamous war crimes, the fact is that by far not all patients were murdered – it is estimated that about 250 of over 800 of unarmed people present (both medical staff and patients) were intentionally killed by the Japanese troops.

Jan Baros, who wrote both texts, has also been the chief editor of the Batanagar News. This weekly had been published by the Bata Shoe company for it’s employees in India. Most of them lived and worked in Batanagar, a small town newly built by Bata on the bank of the Ganges River near Calcuta (by today, the area had already been incorporated into the modern megacity). Jan Baros also wrote several books documenting the early years of Bata company in the Far East, for example ” The First Decade of Batanagar”.

As I was turning the old pages of the Batanagar News, I came across many other interesting information about the Bata Company in India and Singapore, where it established its first two Asian branches in early 1930’s. At some point, when I will be trying to reconstruct the picture of late 1930’s when Silvestr was living and working there, I will be coming back to this newspaper as one of the useful references.

I will wrap up today by sharing this picture that really made me laugh. It had been published in November 1938:

smrtka.jpg

As my Indian friends quickly confirmed and translated, the original text on the poster is written in Bengali, and translates as “Beware of Tetanus, even a small injury could be dangerous – so wear a shoe”.

To be continued. And don’t forget to wear shoes!

Annex: All four pages scanned from the Batanagar News

Batamen 1.jpg

Batamen 2.jpg

 

Batamen 3.jpg

 

Batamen 4.jpg

 

1947: When the Hope Ends

While the preserved correspondence from 1946 bears witness about the desperate attempts of the Němec family to find any clues about the fate of their son, a year later the letters already carry a ruthless conclusion – Silvestr had not emerged even after the liberation of Singapore, and had been officially declared dead. The hopes planted in 1945 had unfortunately proven to be false.

The first letter of 1947 came from the Downing Street, and is addressed to Františka Němcová, Silvestr’s mom. The Under Secretary of State informs the family that the Colonial Office does not know anything more than the fact that Silvestr had been reported missing on 15th February 1942.

19470704 london

Silvestr’s father then forwards this letter to Mr. Josef Vyhnálek – a colleague and close friend of Silvestr from Singapore. Mr. Vyhnálek was among several people from the Bata company who got in touch with the family after the war ended. He had been particularly helping the poorly educated family from countryside to communicate with institutions and arrange matters overseas.

The most heartbreaking note can be found on the other side of the letter. It brings me nearly to tears every time I look at it. Here, we can see Mr. Němec’s handwritten note to Mr. Vyhnálek:

„Mr. Vyhnálek, we are sending you our warm greetings along this letter that we had received from London. One professor who came to Vémyslice [our village] helped us to read it. We are supposed to write to the Governor, you can see this and also other things we ought to do in the letter. Mr. Vyhnálek, all [word “all” is crossed] is lost, this our searching and writing is futile, our dear Sylva is certainly dead!!!”

Less than two weeks later, the Social Welfare Department of Singapore files an official Certificate of Death.

19470717 certificate

It’s not clear whether this is in response to the inquiries from London and Vémyslice, or it had been done anyway due to the fact that nearly two years had passed since the liberation of Singapore (September 1945) and Silvestr had not been seen nor did he report anywhere.

However, the Singapore government obviously does not have any additional information either to confirm Silvestr’s death. The uncertainties are captured by the formulations in the Certificate of Death that reads: “it has been presumed… [that Silvestr] died in or around Singapore… on or about 15th February 1942….”.

Shortly after that, the family receives a letter from Mr. Vyhnálek. It appears that he might have been the last person to ever see Silvestr – and that was during the fierce fight over the Pasir Panjang ridge along the southern coast of the Singapore Island (these fights took place on 13th and 14th February).

19470821 Vyhnalek

Mr. Vyhnálek refers to Silvestr’s Certificate of Death and adds:

“This is an information from the official record, I can only add that the chances of him to be still alive are very small, because it’s almost two years since the war and he has not reported yet. It is a very sad report, I wish to share with you details of his death if only they were known to me. Unfortunately I do not know more than I have already told you during your visit to Zlín. I remember well how we were attacking the Japanese, he [Silvestr] was very pale, so it seemed to me that he might have felt that something would happen. It was when we were attacking the hill CAP [correct reference is Gap Hill – note by JB] near Pasir Panjang in Singapore, when we reached about half [of the slope], thousands of airplanes spotted us and what followed was that we were heavily bombed and fired upon from the machine guns. During that bombing we ran and scattered into the rubber plantations and that was the last time I have seen your Silva. During all the time of my captivity I thought he might have escaped to India or Australia, but after the liberation I have unfortunately learnt that nothing is known about his fate.”

As far as I know, the family had never learnt anything more than this.

Mr. Vyhnálek, as we can also see from his letter, was a gifted storyteller. As I will share later, he had recorded his memories elsewhere, and thanks to those we will learn more about the battle of Singapore as well as about his years of captivity as the Japanese Prisoner of War.

* * *

In the meantime, my own search focus on the Czech city of Zlín. Several of my initial contacts recommended me to get in touch with Dr. Marek from the State Archive in Klecuvka near Zlin, which holds a large collection of historical files of the Bata company. So i did. About a week later following my short inquiry email, I had received a remarkable reply:

— QUOTE —

Dear Mr. Beranek,

thank you for your inquiry dated 14th March 2017 regarding Silvestr Němec, a former employee of the Bata company, who died on 12th February 1942 in Singapore.

We had looked into the inventory of the Bata archives and searched for Silvestr Němec, however his employee card had not been preserved.

At the same time, we looked into the available lists and catalogues of selected Bata staff. We are holding eleven so called “Personal catalogues” that contain biographical and professional records of 1,100 employees who were selected for further carrier growth, as well as catalogues of “Employees in Progress” that contain copies of the personal cards. Unfortunately, neither of these mention Silvestr Němec.

Finally, we searched in the “List of Overseas Staff” that contain records of staff sent overseas before or around the beginning of the WW2 and who had still been residing overseas by 1944. These files contain some basic information, and luckily Silvestr’s name is among them, along with these facts:

Name and Surname: Silvestr Němec

Date of birth: 20 October 1919

Marital status upon departure: Not married, no children

Education: business academy

Starting date with Bata company: 21 September 1936

Position before the departure: salesman

Date of departure and destination: 31 December 1938, Singapore Str. Settlement

Position upon arrival: pedicurist

Contact address: Němec Silvestr, Vémyslice 23, okr. Moravský Krumlov (father)

After the war, four hand written notes had been added to his record:

1) Following an inquiry, we replied that we will inform upon learning more

2) Mr Lachs reports that in 1943 he was in Singapore

3) Report by Bata office in Batanagar, via Bata Limited London – Mr. Němec who suffered a serious injury when he was fighting in Singapore, was supposed to be killed when the Japanese occupied a hospital where he was lying as a patient

4) Killed in action in Singapore – according to a cable by Mr. Jugas

— END QUOTE —

Further in his letter, Mr. Marek helpfully suggests some additional archives for further search.

This went much beyond my expectations! I had not expected a state institution to investigate and prepare such a detailed answer. Thanks to it, I am learning some new facts about my great-uncle: his date of birth, when he started to work for Bata, when did he leave (on New Years Eve of 1938, which had been his name day!) and what jobs did he perform. Particularly the four additional notes are crucial and very valuable in learning about his final destiny!

This had of course encouraged me a lot, so I had added Zlín to the itinerary of my trip, planned for late April 2017 when I was going with my children for a week to our motherland.

I will report back about my visit to Zlín, as well as to the Vémyslice village where Silvestr was born and raised, next time.