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