1946, A Year of Uncertainty

The letter from Pavel Ambroz, received by the Nemec family in December 1945, suggested the option that Silvestr might still be alive in one of the intern or prisoner of war camps in the Far East. This was of course a strong motivation for Silvestr’s parents to set on a search for their son’s fate, as much as they could – but let’s not forget about their limitations, living in a small village in the Czechoslovak countryside and speaking no foreign language.

The family archive contains also a copy of their reply to Pavel Ambroz, sent to Batanagar shortly after the New Year, on January 12, 1946:

(Batanagar was established in 1934 as a small town built by Bata company in India, serving the needs of its newly opened leather shoe production factory. Nowadays, Batanagar became a part of the larger suburban area around Calcutta. The whole community of Bata employees in Batanagar, and its role in documenting the stories of Czechoslovak compatriots in the Far East, is worth a more detailed description – I would like to come back to that at some point later.)

“Your kind letter from 21st December 1945 brought us a great joy, both because we have learnt something more about our son, as well as because you poured at least some hope into our hearts that he might still be alive […] We are grateful for the photograph you sent and hopefully you won’t mind if we ask you to send us five more copies, so that we can share them with the family and his friends,” writes Silvestr’s father back to Mr. Ambroz.

He also asks for any additional information and invites Mr. Ambroz, in case he would come to the region, to come and visit the family in Vemyslice village, so that they can talk about Silvestr in person.

Ambroz reply from Batanagar comes soon after this, dated 21st February 1946 – he sends additional four photographs and the original negative, and adds a sweet note worth quoting:

“Please, forgive my that I am writing you these letters in a business style, but I do not have talent to write personal letters. My mother is complaining about this all the time.”

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Setting upon another direction of search, Silvestr’s father also writes a letter to a remote Singapore. Dated 2nd January 1946 and addressed to Antonin Jugas, the head of Bata representation in Singapore, the letter mentions the possibility of Silvestr being killed and reads:

“Hopefully you will be able to understand us, old parents, who do not want to believe such an agonizing report and therefore grab any opportunity so that the report [about Silvestr’s death] can either be confirmed, or pronounced as false.”

By the end of the month , Jugas responds with a quite elaborated letter that also contains some new details about Silvestr’s role in the Singapore defense military forces. Jugas also mentions some steps he had already taken in the search:

“Dear Mr. Nemec.

I had received your letter yesterday and I am terribly sorry that it has to be me to give you the report that is so sad not only for you, but also for all of us. The barbarian war had claimed in total 8 lives from our “Bata family” here in Singapore.

I will try – as much as I am able – to give you a true picture about what had happened since he was mobilized, however I apologize if some details that you would be interested in are missing, I will gladly answer if you write me back with questions. We, all the Czechoslovaks, were interned by the Japanese and were went through tremendous suffering, until we were liberated by the British army.

Your son, as well as all ours who volunteered, was mobilized on 4th December 1941 and was assigned to the armored vehicles (B company) as a private number 13779.

Up until the end of January 1942, we were receiving regular information about everyone, but after the fight for the Singapore island started, all reporting stopped. It was only from other our people that we had learnt after the capitulation that your son was injured and taken to a hospital. Since then nobody has ever heard of him, a real hell stormed over the Singapore that time. It took about a week until they emerged, one by one – all dirty, ragged, exhausted, but not everyone, as we expected [hoped]. That was in January 1942.

In the early September 1945, as soon as we were liberated by the British army, we searched for information about all from our family who were missing.

On the day of 12th November 1945, we sent a written inquiry about your son to the main command in Singapore, and we received a written reply that until they obtain a formal army report, they cannot provide us with any information.

As a result, I am not able to give you any information either, nor positive nor negative. We are however keeping in mind [or recording?] the fate of all of our people and I will not forget to inform you once an official army report arrives.

We had also taken steps to take care in the matter of all the estates of your son, particularly the financial matters, with banks and post office. As for the personal property in his apartment, there is almost no hope, all the houses were occupied by the Japanese who took what they liked and destroyed the rest. We all lost all of our personal belongings, except of few small pieces that we kept carrying with us at all times. However I will make an attempt on this as well to see whether anything could still be recovered.

Attached please find also one photograph, which I took from his record in our files, I think it might be his last photograph and you may appreciate it.

Despite the fact that I have no official information, I am writing you in order to not keep you in an uncertainty for too long. I know how it feels, all of my family was evacuated to India for 3 ½ years, and I did not get any single line from them for the whole time. My wife kept writing every month, but the Japanese probably threw all the correspondence to the sea.

As I have already informed you, we have a complete register of all the Czechoslovaks here, and I will share every detail immediately with you.

With my deepest condolences, yours,

A. Jugas”

 Silvestr_letter_from_Jugas_19460122.jpg

What I find interesting on this letter is not only the very kind tone of Mr. Jugas, but also the fact that the Bata company apparently gave a great care for “their” Czechoslovak people.

Shortly after I started my own search, I began to come across other documents and stories that illustrate the strong bongs within the Czechoslovak community in the Far East – they were spending their free time together, organizing sports, weekend activities, dinners and public cultural events, some of them even exhibiting the traditional Moravian folk costumes that they brought along, or that the women made upon their arrival in Singapore. The Bata company was contributing to it a lot; among other things, it established and sponsored a local soccer team called “Moravians”, whose matches were reported in the local newspapers. That’s one of the topics I definitely want to return to later – it seems there is plenty of information and documents that might help to reconstruct how Silvestr’s daily life might have looked like in the years 1939-1941 in Singapore.

Finally, as far as the family archive shows, the Nemec parents sent a pleading letter also to the Czechoslovak Ministry of Defense, which took four months to reply in May 1946 in the most formal and bureaucratic style:

“The British Ministry of War – in order that it can investigate your case, requests more information about the military unit at which your son had been serving. Therefore please provide the known information to the Czechoslovak Ministry of Defense, especially about at which military unit your son had been allocated.”

* * *

As far as my own investigation goes, following the two leads I had mentioned in the previous post, my attention went to several different directions.

The first steps were focusing on the Bata company. Perhaps they might keep an archive of their old files, either in their headquarters in Zlin, or with their Far East representation?

I am keen to get hold of anything that might either provide any new information and clues about Silvestr, or can document and confirm what we already know. There are many questions I would love to learn. When did the company employ him for the first time? When and why exactly was he dispatched from Zlin to Singapore? Was he among those who were attending a special practical school that Bata had opened for young kids and his future employees? Has any correspondence or files survived in some archives, either pre-war or post-war, such as letters between Mr. Jugas and the British Colonial Office? Did the company collect some memories of it’s staff after the war, and could these contain some recollections about Silvestr?

Thus, one late March night, after I was done with my business correspondence, I sent an email with few questions to the universal contact address kontakt@bata.cz, having no particular expectation. I have to admit it was not a through-through move, but rather a few minutes’ effort done mechanically before turning the computer off. There were good reasons to be skeptical, because we all know how these hotlines of large companies work: there are people on the other side of the line, doing not very inspiring job and being under the pressure to deal with as many requests as possible, and they tend to follow quite rigidly the standardized scripts of usual consumer’s demands. That’s why I was very pleasantly surprised when I got a reply from Ms. Rajchova in less than 24 hours:

“I did a check upon your inquiry. The information about former Bata employees can be found in the State Archives in Klecuvka near Zlin, or possibly through the Tomas Bata Foundation. Here are their contacts: http://zlin.mza.cz and http://www.batova-vila.cz.”

Inspired by her mention of these two institutions in Zlin, I quickly checked and found one more that might be helpful – the Bata Information Center established under the Tomas Bata University in Zlin.

Very soon, all three had replied.

The Batova Vila suggested me to look at the Klecuvka State Archives. The Bata Information Center made the same recommendation, but also included few basic information, some of which were already new to me:

“According to the information available to us, your great uncle Silvestr Nemec was born on October 20, 1919, graduated from a business school and at the age of 17 year joined the Bata company as a salesman. This happened on 21st September 1936. On 31st December 1938, he sailed off to Singapore to work there as a pedicurist. The post war information suggests that he was severely wounded in the battle and taken to a hospital. When the Japanese arrived, they killed him in that hospital, among many others.”

Next time, we will follow up on the State Archives in Klecuvka, and other things.

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Hopes after the war

My rediscovery of Silvestr’s story began this February. I realized only retrospectively that it was just few days from the very date of the 75th anniversary of his presumed death. Although this timing therefore was not part of any plan, it turns out to be one of the multiple strange coincidences that I have already observed since.

It was late February, during my last travel to my motherland. When I was visiting my relatives, my mother brought with her a folder with some old family documents. She knew that I have been trying to map our ancestors recently, therefore those old marriage and death certificates came handy.

However it also turned out that the folder contained about two dozen of papers related to my nearly  forgotten great uncle Silvestr Nemec. This includes one letter that Silvestr sent back home upon his arrival to Singapore in March 1939, and then several letters that his friends and colleagues from the Bata company branch in Singapore wrote to his parents after war ended, trying to provide them with recollections about their missing son.

In a letter dated in December 1945, Mr. Pavel Ambroz writes:

“About three days before the occupation of Singapore by the Japanese, [Silvestr] was wounded and moved to a field hospital. After the fall of Singapore (15 February 1942) I was looking for him in all hospitals but did not find him. Now that the British took over Singapore again, I was searching military records and found that he had been listed as missing.

It is possible that he had left on one of the ships that were evacuating the Europeans out of Singapore, got captured on the sea by the Japanese war ships and were interned at various prison camps on Java, Sumatra and various places in Indonesia. There is about 250,000 prisoners on Java, and there are no precise lists of all names yet. The fighting is still going on there.

After the Japanese occupied Singapore, I went to look at my and your son’s apartment. Both were pillaged. […] . I am very sorry that I cannot give you any more details. I do however hope that once the allies accomplish the occupation of Java, they will find him in one of the prison camps there.”

Silvestr_letter_from_Ambroz_19451221

This is the first of the letters that were delivered back to Silvestr’s home after the war. We don’t know whether the parents received previously any information about their son, but quite possibly this has been the first news that reached to them.

Today we already know that the hopes of Silvestr reporting and coming back were futile. However we can vividly imagine the pain and hopelessness that his parents must have been feeling, as well as the desperate hope outlined in Mr. Ambroz’s letter to which they were surely clinging.

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An old postcard from the Vemyslice village in the Czech Republic, where Silvestr was born and raised.

The first information I found at the beginning of my search has been a page of the Czech Association for Military Graves (http://www.vets.cz/vpm/silvestr-nemec-1202). Silvestr is in their records thanks to his name being engraved on a memorial monument for the victims of WW2 in Zlin. This is a great discovery! I will have to visit that place during one of my upcoming trips to Czech Republic and pay my respect to him.

The association also published a short compilation of information about Czechoslovak citizens who were defending Singapore in 1942, quoted from an essay by a historian Ivan Prochazka, who had published it back in 1996. Many of those Czechoslovaks were then taken as Prisoners of War, and most of these were lucky enough to also survive the horrible conditions of the Japanese war camps.

Notably, there is also a direct reference to Silvestr Nemec in the work by Prochazka:

“By 2nd February 1942, almost all volunteer units were deployed on the front in order to stop the advance of the Japanese army. During the first battles, under constants shelling of artillery, three Czechoslovaks were injured: Kozisnicek, Vitek and Nemec. […] During the occupation of Singapore, the private Nemec was killed along with many other injured soldiers as well as medical staff in the Alexandra hospital”.

Poor parents, they have probably never learnt even this much about the fate of their son!

The admirable work of the Czech Association for Military Graves also led me directly to the record of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission on Silvestr: http://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/2140339/NEMEC. From this we learn that he was fighting as a private number 13779 under the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force.

What is interesting is that they recorded February 17th 1942 as the date of Silvestr’s death, which is three days after the massacre in the Alexandra hospital. Upon my inquiry, the Commission replied that unfortunately they don’t keep any additional details or information other than those already available online.

It’s been however also another nice discovery that Silvestr’s name is also engraved on the Kranji cemetery Singapore Memorial. I have already got in touch with several compatriots there and asked them to take and send me a photo of Silvestr’s name on the memorial.

That’s it for today. Next, I will cover what was happening in 1946, as well as some of my other recent findings.

(Note: this blog is being published both in English as well as in the Czech language)

 

Start of the journey

Few weeks ago, I have decided to launch a quest for information and documents related to the life and death of my great-uncle, Silvestr Nemec.

In 1939, the Bata Shoe company sent Silvestr from it’s home base in Zlin, Czech Republic, to it’s newly established branch in Singapore. This is also where the war eventually found him at the end of 1941, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Silvestr volunteered and was mobilized to the army to defend Singapore against the Japanese invasion. Then, by mid February, during the fall of Singapore, he was most probably killed. The only thing known for certain though is that he had gone missing, and after the war he had never returned.

For his family living in the village of Vemyslice, in the southern Moravia of the Czechoslovakia, it was a deeply traumatizing story. The parents had not only lost their young son, but even after the war, they never learnt much information about his fate either. Silvestr had been formally declared dead by the British government two years after the war, in July 1947:

silvestr_death_certificate

Later, in 1951, the British government awarded the family a small compensation, which was based on the estimated value of the lost Silvestr’s property. However at the end of the complicated bureaucratic process, perhaps also because it was a poor family with only limited education and no knowledge of foreign language, living in a countryside – and by that time already behind the iron curtain – only a fraction of the awarded amount eventually reached the parents. The feeling that eventually someone had even robbed them of the little legacy left behind by their dead son only deepened their despair and bitterness.

That’s probably one of the reasons why Silvestr was almost never talked about in the family. The horrible and traumatizing story was to be suppressed and pushed out of their minds as much as possible.

My mother never had a chance to meet her uncle Silvestr: he had disappeared three months before she was born, and that happened more than six thousand miles away. I myself can only vaguely recall few occasional mentions of Silvestr’s name, mostly when my grandmother – who was a sister of his – went to lay flowers and maintain the small war memorial in the center of the village. Silvestr’s name is engraved there, among dozen other local citizens who died during the WW2.

Although I spent a great deal of my childhood at my grandmother’s place in the village – almost all of the weekends and vacations, enjoying a magic time on the farm there that I loved so much! – Silvestr Nemec has been nothing more to me than a vague, abstract name. It somehow belonged to a distant story of my grandmother’s brother, who I knew perished in a similarly abstract, distant battle of the world war. Nothing of an interest for a young boy exploring the outdoor adventures of a beautiful countryside.

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Postcard from Vemyslice, dated 1934, picturing the center of the village as Silvestr have known it. The house of his family is to the right, hidden behind the tree.

From the larger historical perspective, the story of Silvestr is a barely noteworthy one. There were hundreds of thousands and millions of people who perished during the hell of the Second World War. Silvestr himself joined the volunteer defense units in Singapore and fought, registered as a private, a short hopeless battle; his role in it was most likely very limited, with no outstanding achievement or heroism.

Had I began my search for the facts and evidence twenty years ago, I still might had a reasonable chance to find some living witnesses and capture their first-hand  accounts about those particular events and perhaps even memories of my great uncle. Today, 75 years later, it’s unfortunately too late as probably none of them is alive.

Yet, I have decided to set upon this journey. Determined to discover and collect whatever I can. I wish to do that in order to pay my respect to Silvestr Nemec, whose tragic story got almost forgotten, and to bring it back to my family and to those who will now learn about it as a result of my effort.

I am not hoping that my efforts will bring additional clarity and truth about the events of the past. However I believe that the encounters with people and institutions along my way, as well as the exploration itself of whatever evidence there might be in archives and scattered around, will become an exciting story on its own: a story happening today, seventy five years after Silvestr’s pronounced death, yet an equally open ended and interesting story.

I am setting off on this journey now, and will be sharing my reports here on this blog as I go. I would like to thank you for your interest, as well as any advice or encouragement you would like to share.

Jan Beranek

(Note: this blog is being published both in English as well as in the Czech language)