Back in April, I have been paying a day trip to the city of Zlin – the original home of the nowadays globally present shoe-making company Bata. It is this originally Czechoslovak company that my great-uncle Silvestr Nemec started to work for at the age of 17, and that later dispatched him to it’s branch in Singapore at the end of 1938.
There have been three places that I was in particular eager to visit in Zlin.
First is the monument for the victims of the Second World War. Silvestr’s name is engraved on it’s panel dedicated to those who had fallen while fighting overseas. Despite that the monument has just been fenced off due to some restoration work, I could not have helped but to climb over and pay respect to Silvestr.
photo: Author Jan Beranek at the Zlin WW2 memorial, standing next to the panel with Silvestr’s name.
Today, I will be summarizing my visit of the villa.
Photo: Bata Villa today
My earlier inquiry with it’s secretariat had resulted in a prompt response by Ms Zvolska. She was pointing me primarily to the State Archives, which are the custodians of the preserved files of Bata company from 1930’s and 1940’s. However, the website of the Bata Villa also mentions that they own a small library and provides a list of the available publications. When I was scrolling through it, two of its items caught my eye: The archived editions of the Batanagar News from 1938, 1945 and 1946; and a publication named “The Fight and Fate of the Batamen in Singapore and Malaya”, written by Jan Baros and published in Canada in 1945.
Thanks to a military-historical essay published by Ivan Prochazka back in 1996 (available in Czech on a website here), I knew that the October 1945 edition of the Batanagar News published a report titled “The Story of Batamen in Malaya” that mentions Silvestr.
It was not so hard to find it, and here comes the first gem:
(you can find the scanned remaining pages at the end of this article)
Turns out that the above mentioned report was printed on the front page, and it continues on three additional pages inside the weekly newspaper.
The report begins:
“Just this week the first batch of Batamen from Malaya arrived to India after three and half years of internment in the Japanese prison camps. They arrived in such a condition that that the authorities had to send them to a hill station to enable them to recuperate at least partly their shattered health and over-strained nerves, before they could see their friends and families at Batanagar. Only two of the group were able to undertake the tour from the port of Madras to Batanagar. They are Mr. Bohman and Mr. Jedovnicky, both Graduates of the Bata School of Work, who gave us first hand information about the life under the Japanese in South East Asia.”
The text describes in quite some detail the events starting from the mobilization in Singapore in December 1941; through the last minute evacuation of civilians on ships, many of which were sunk by the Japanese shortly after departure; the fall of Singapore in February 1942; the horrors and tolls of the prison camps including some sabotage actions that Bata employees undertook when they were tasked with production of shoes for the Japanese soldiers; and ends with the liberation of the internment camps at the very end of August 1945.
There are two moments when the name of my great-uncle appears, first is the paragraph describing the intake of the Czechoslovak volunteers to the defense forces:
“In the beginning of December complete mobilisation was ordered all over Singapore. The Czechoslovak Batamen who were of military age and healthy, all joined the SSVF – the Straits Settlement Volunteer Force – and FMSVS – the Federated Malayan States Volunteer Services. The training was quick and hard, but they, and all the others who joined, undertook it with the greatest earnestness, as they felt the gravity of the situation. Matus, Bohman, Kozusnicek, Ambroz, Jedovnicky were in Machinegun Units; Vitek, Janacek, Nemec were with the Riffle Corps; Cepka, Mraz in Bomb Disposal Units; Zamara and others in the some other and so on. These units were posted for beach defense all along the coast.”
The second time that Silvestr Nemec’s name appears is in the paragraph about the February fights, and claims that he was killed by the Japanese in a hospital:
“Casualties – yes, there were many. It cannot be ascertained now who and how many were wounded, so far as we know, Kozisnicek, Vitek and Nemec were wounded. Nemec was sent to the military hospital, when later the Japanese captured it, in the rage of animal brutality they mercilessly killed all the wounded soldiers lying in beds. Here Nemec met his end.”
This text – along with the private letters from Pavel Ambroz and Antonin Jugas that I had already published and a hand written note in the list of Bata employees – is another contemporary document that places the death of Silvestr to the Alexandra hospital that was massacred by Japanese on 14th and 15th of February 1942.
The question however remains as to who or what is the primary source of this reoccurring information, probably. It’s quite obvious that neither Ambroz or Jugas, neither the unknown Bata clerk who was writing the note in Zlin headquarters, were present in the Alexandra hospital during that tragic day. Therefore, they could not have witnessed Silvestr being murdered there. Also, only a fraction of the hospital documents survived the war and only a minority of the names of patients and staff involved is known and documented (and Silvestr’s name is not among them).
This actually has been one of the main reasons why I wanted to read the original piece in the Batanagar News, hoping that it may reveal some additional clues. Unfortunately, it did not. Yet, having access to an original article that writes about Silvestr has been already a great reward for me!
The other chance was the second publication, written by Jan Baros. It turned out that it is just an expanded version of the piece from the Batanagar News. Its additional parts are dealing with the history of setting up the Bata branch in Singapore in 1932, the details of life and more stories from the internment camps, and also a lengthy section about the methods of torture of the prisoners by the Japanese. However, there is no additional information about Silvestr, neither about the last days of the fights for Singapore.
Photo: Scan of the front page copy of the Jan [John] Baros publication, found in the library at the Bata Villa
Importantly though, the extended version confirms that it is based on the testimonies of Bohman and Jedovnicky. Where did those two got the information about Silvestr’s murder in Alexandra Hospital remains unknown. The story must have been told and shared among the prisons in the camps. But what was its origin?
Could it be that Vitek or Kozusnicek – who too, according to the Batanagar News, were injured during the fights – were also admitted to the Alexandra Hospital? Then they could had been the surviving witnesses. That certainly sounds like a plausible scenario.
In order to verify that, could we somewhere find their first hand accounts? Vitek had not survived the imprisonment, having had died of malaria in Batu Litang prisoner camp on Borneo on 18th March 1945. However Kozusnicek was among the lucky ones who made it, and maybe he recorded his accounts – or someone else captured his authentic memories elsewhere. These could certainly contain some break through information, and I will continue searching for such documents if they exist.
Both versions of the text about Batamen in war were written by Jan Baros, who obviously had a good story telling talent. But this represents another potential question mark. Today’s reader can’t help but feel a certain over-dramatization and simplification of the story. Saying that, I want to express my full respect and gratitude to Jan Baros for capturing and publishing the history that otherwise would most likely be forgotten by now. It’s just that if we are serious about a historical research, we should keep a healthy amount of skepticism about the details described. The tendency to over-dramatize facts is for example obvious from the account of Alexandra Hospital massacre: “… when later the Japanese captured it, in the rage of animal brutality they mercilessly killed all the wounded soldiers lying in beds.” Although the merciless brutality of the hospital capture became known and well documented as one of the infamous war crimes, the fact is that by far not all patients were murdered – it is estimated that about 250 of over 800 of unarmed people present (both medical staff and patients) were intentionally killed by the Japanese troops.
Jan Baros, who wrote both texts, has also been the chief editor of the Batanagar News. This weekly had been published by the Bata Shoe company for it’s employees in India. Most of them lived and worked in Batanagar, a small town newly built by Bata on the bank of the Ganges River near Calcuta (by today, the area had already been incorporated into the modern megacity). Jan Baros also wrote several books documenting the early years of Bata company in the Far East, for example ” The First Decade of Batanagar”.
As I was turning the old pages of the Batanagar News, I came across many other interesting information about the Bata Company in India and Singapore, where it established its first two Asian branches in early 1930’s. At some point, when I will be trying to reconstruct the picture of late 1930’s when Silvestr was living and working there, I will be coming back to this newspaper as one of the useful references.
I will wrap up today by sharing this picture that really made me laugh. It had been published in November 1938:
As my Indian friends quickly confirmed and translated, the original text on the poster is written in Bengali, and translates as “Beware of Tetanus, even a small injury could be dangerous – so wear a shoe”.
To be continued. And don’t forget to wear shoes!
Annex: All four pages scanned from the Batanagar News