The third stop of my trip to Zlin earlier in April has been the regional branch of the State Archive in Klecuvka. By that time, I already had some email exchange with one of its custodians, Dr. Marek, who was answering my initial inquiry regarding Silvestr.
Dr Marek is not just the custodian of the state archives, but also historian who is pursuing some research of his own. One of the areas of his academic work is the past of the Bata company, including some of its darker moments: for example it using force labor of the Jews from the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Uncovering and naming those old wounds makes him quite a controversial person in the view of some people. I was therefore quite keen to meet him in person.
My visit of the archive has been very fruitful on other accounts as well. During several hours of scrolling through various documents, I came across several fascinating pieces and some unique photographs (due to restrictions on their further sharing, I will be posting some of them later in the future, once I clear all the procedures).
Photo: The author leafing through one of the Bata publications in the State Archives in Klecuvka; photo courtesy of Pavel Stojar.
The first document for me to seek has been a list of Bata employees that were dispatched overseas. The list is quite a heavy dossier, with hard leather cover. The title in golden capital says “The List of Employees Overseas”.
As we can read on the first page, it has been created in September 1944, during the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the German Nazis. The list contains names of all employees who were sent abroad from Zlin (Germany, for obvious reasons, was not considered as being abroad).
Doctor Marek explained to me that as the Bata staff was sent to work abroad, so went their personal files with them. That means, in the case of Silvestr, that his files were further kept in Singapore and it is futile to try to find them here in Zlin. My initial attempts to get in contact with the nowadays branch of Bata in Singapore had unfortunately not been successful. Despite that the likelihood of them keeping at least some fragments of old company archives from 1930’s and 1940’s is very low, I believe it is still worth checking, and I will continue to do so.
Next page in the list captures statistics about how many employees and to what destinations were sent during the first half of 1939 – that means it already included a period of time of the establishment of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, but yet before the World War II officially began. In the first six months of 1939, in total 502 people were sent abroad by Bata from Zlin. Most of them were heading for US and Canada. As we already know, Bata was also establishing its base in Asia since early 1930’s, first in India and then in Singapore. The statistics say that 22 employees went to Singapore in early 1939 (while 30 others to India, both British and Dutch colonies combined). In total, 50 employees were sent from Zlin to Singapore during 1930’s.
Before we move on to the individual records, let’s spend some more time on the introductory pages where some more statistics is summarized. There is in total 1032 employees of Bata documented as working abroad. That means that about half of them were transferred there just in the first half of 1939 (Silvestr himself departed for Singapore on 31st December 1938).
While these are still quite abstract numbers, I keep trying to imagine the real life and stories behind them. For example:
- An overwhelming majority of these were men. Of the only 34 women listed, only one was married. The other 33 women were moving out alone, and as we can read elsewhere, many of them married abroad and left not only Bata, but also Czechoslovakia permanently.
- The racial identification says that there were 79 non-Aryan people (= read Jews). Their departure from Europe, on the very eve of the outbreak of the WW2, almost certainly saved their lives.
- Most of them were quite young, between 20 and 30 years old at the moment of their departure (Silvestr was only 19 when he sailed off to Asia). That means these must have been rather young talents than experienced managers. And indeed, according to the records provided, there were only 36 staff (out of 1032) who were 40 years or older when they were transferred.
- That makes an interesting contrast with another fact: about 75% of them had already had 5 to 15 years of service for Bata upon their departure – meaning that they worked for the company from a very young age (some of them probably in parallel to attending the school).
- Therefore it is not surprising that 125 had only primary, and another 516 only secondary school education. Having a higher or university degree was quite rare among the group. However, 315 of the listed staff (some 30%) had graduated from the “Bata School of Work” – a special system that Bata created for young people. It was providing them with an education while they were already working for the company.
- The vast majority of them left from Czechoslovakia before the WW2 started. The biggest wave of departures took place in the first half of 1939 (574 people) and a year earlier (191). After 1940, only 18 people were sent to work abroad.
- Regarding the professions, most of the employees who went overseas worked in the sales department (433), followed by shoe fabrication (176). There are only 30 people recorded as managers or directors who are in the group.
- The list also says that in total 23 people were dispatched for a particular job of the pedicurist – a position that Silvestr was assigned in Singapore.
- The Bata company registered 67 family members who accompanied it’s employees sent abroad. In 1944, these were also receiving allowances paid by the company, totaling 51 000 Czechoslovak crowns per month (i.e. on average 760 crowns per person per month)
One other thing that caught my attention was a small box on the bottom right that talks about “enemy property”. It sums the property of 447 employees, valued at 48 million Czechoslovak crowns. I can only guess what was the definition of an “enemy person”, perhaps those that refused to confirm their citizenship under the Nazi Empire? It’s however very likely that the “enemy employees” included those Batamen in Singapore who volunteered to join the British defense forces.
After the introduction and summary pages, the details of individuals follow. Every entry for each individual is captured on a very long line or strip, and one has to unfold the page to open it in full length. The document is made with quite some high precision, and includes a miniature photograph attached next to each name.
Thus, we are opening the pages starting with letter N… and here comes Silvestr – we can even see his young face!
Every page also has an additional sheet of paper that was attached later and contains some hand written notes. The Bata clerks also made two crosses next to Silvestr’s name to indicate that he had died (same can be found for others who did not survive the war). The record of Silvestr contains his name, states 20th October 1919 as his date of birth, and says that he had graduated from a business school (with a sign suggesting it was not the Bata School of Work, therefore must have been some other school).
Pictures bellow are the cropped photographs of the long strip with the data about Silvestr. Further it says that he was unmarried when he was leaving, that he was heading to the “Singapore Straits Settlement”, and that he departed on 31st December 1938. His previous position at Bata was of a salesman, while his upcoming position in Singapore would be a pedicurist.
We can further see that he was organized under the sales department, and that the company organized his pension insurance in Singapore, starting on 1st October 1940.
Finally, there is an address of the next-of-kin, naming and giving the home address of Silvestr’s father:
So much for the initial record produced on a typewriter.
The hint of the dramatic events that followed, including how the news were gradually arriving to Zlin, are captured on the attached strip in a series of four hand-written notes:
Here is what they say when translated into English:
- To an inquiry we replied that we will inform later upon finding ourselves.
- Mr Lachs says that he was in Singapore in 1943
- Report from Bata Batanagar, via Bata Limited London – Mr Nemec who suffered a serious injury when he was fighting in Singapore was reportedly killed when the Japanese occupied the hospital in which he was finding himself as a patient
- Killed at action in Singapore – according to a telegram from Mr Jugas
Putting the slightly bizarre bureaucratic style aside, I read this as a miniature drama of four acts, condensed into telegraphic sentences.
The first of the notes most likely refers to the post-war inquiry by the family.
The third note might be dated to November 1945 – which is when Mr. Vyhnalek reached London after several weeks on board a ship from Singapore. In London, he was filling his liberation questionnaire at the War Office. It is quite likely that, once being in town, he also visited the Bata company there and shared his stories. It also seems natural that the company would then pass on the information to it’s headquarters in Zlin, where it was eventually recorded. The list of Bata overseas employees also has this note next to Mr Vyhnalek’s record: “Bata Ltd London reports that he was liberated as a prisoner of war and is on his way to Europe – letter is dated 4th November, delivered to us on 7th November.”
The fourth note then may be from early 1946, because Mr Jugas sent a personal letter with a similar content to the family on 22nd January 1946.
What I find very strange though is the second note, capturing a bit mysterious information from Mr Lachs that “was in 1943 in Singapore”. First of all, it will be interesting to find out who Mr Lachs was, as he does not appear on the list of Batamen who were stationed in Singapore in 1940’s. In addition, I found almost an identical note next to the name of Rudolf Janecek – another Bata employee who also signed up for the volunteer defense forces and did not make it, having had died as POW on malaria and beriberi in February 1945. Maybe Mr Lachs, or maybe the clerk noting his information down, had mistaken 1943 with 1942? It would then make much more sense. The other interpretation though is that indeed, Silvestr was seen and recorded as alive in Singapore in 1943. This however conflicts with majority of other reports and documents that suggest he had gone missing on 15th February 1942, possibly having been actually murdered in the Alexandra Hospital on 14th or 15th February. One way or the other, trying to identify this Mr Lachs will be yet another directions of my further search.
And here is where I stop for today.
None of the additional findings in the State archives in Klecuvka provided any further specific information about Silvestr. Despite that, they will be very handy when I will be trying to describe the operation of Bata in Malaya in 1930’s and how the Czechoslovaks have perceived the Far East at that time. What will also be useful are the contemporary photographs commissioned by the Bata company and available today in the State Archives. And last but not least, similar to some of my discoveries in the Batanagar News, I also found some noteworthy and fun stories about Bata that I will share at some point in the future. So, stay tuned (and share please).