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.

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