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.”

Silvestr_letter_from_Ambroz_19460221.jpg

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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One thought on “1946, A Year of Uncertainty

  1. Pingback: 1947: Where the Hope Ends | Seaching for Silvestr

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