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.”
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.
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)