Next steps in my search for Silvestr lead me to Prague.
My first stop there has been at the National Library. I spotted several potentially useful publications in its catalogue, among them a book by Gilbert Mant “The Singapore Surrender – the Greatest Disaster in British Military History”. It’s one of the countless publications about the fall of the former British colonies in Malaya and Singapore to the hands of Japanese during their blitz offensive between December 1941 and February 1942.
Photo: Mr Pavel Hajny and Ms Judita Matyasova during their meeting with me in Prague
At that time, Singapore was considered to be an unconquerable fortress – both due to its massive defense systems, and also because of the strategic priority it had for the British Empire. General Arthur Percival had a 100,000 strong army at hand, majority of which were well-trained British and Australian troops. Yet, in only ten weeks of fighting, he had surrended to a 40,000 strong army of general Yamashita. A comparable number of soldiers capitulated in Stalingrad on the side of marshal Paulus. The subtitle of Mant’s book is therefore no exaggeration – it indeed was the biggest and possibly the most humiliating military defeat for the British in their history. No wonder so many documents, analysis and other publications were written on the subject. Most of them put the blame on the indecisiveness, or even incompetence, of the British command.
Besides getting an insight into the above mentioned Mant’s book, I was hoping to discover some authentic reports about the Czechoslovaks who – like my great uncle – fought to defend Singapore in 1940’s. The most promising appeared to be “Newsletter – a Diary of the Czechoslovak army unit” from 1942 and 1943. However it turned out that this newsletter solely deals with the Czechoslovak fighting in the Middle East, mostly Palestine, and there was no mention of the events in the Far East. The library catalogues also listed more than 20 contemporary periodicals published in 1930’s in Zlin by the Bata company. I may at some point come back to these and browse through, just to get a better sense of the realities in which Silvestr was working and living in late 1930’s.
Of course I also enjoyed my visit to the library in Klementinum also to admire its historical spaces, including the beautiful reading room.
Photo: The reading room of the National Library in Prague’s Klementinum
It was not just the library what brought me to Prague. Even more important reason for my trip were three appointments that I made there in advance of my trip.
The first one was a meeting with a Czech journalist Judita Matyasova. The suggestion to meet her, along with contact details, came from Mr Smid. He works for the association Pamet Naroda (“Memory of the Nation”) and upon my initial inquiry, he also wrote me that for their project, Silvestr’s story does not qualify because they only focus on capturing audiovisual testimonies of those still living. A bit weird I must say, however I am grateful that he had passed on me this incredibly important contact. Ms Matyasova is a freelance journalist who reports about forgotten stories of the past, mostly related to the first half of the 20th century. Her passion for the first two decades of modern Czechoslovakia (the period before 1st and 2nd world war) goes beyond her professional work. In addition to a number of articles and interviews, Ms Matyasova had also published several books, including for example “Friendship despite Hitler” (a story about 80 Czech/Jewish children who escaped from Nazi occupied Prague to Denmark, and about the encounter of some of them that 70 years later organized Ms Matyasova as a part of her work); she also shares some of her research on a personal blog site.
It turned out to be a really lucky encounter. One of the issues of particular interest to Ms Matyasova is the history of Bata people in Batanagar – the first company branch established in the Far East in early 1930’s. She has for example published a story of Josef Kramolis, who was sent from the Zlin headquarters to Calcuta on a mission to establish its presence there in 1932, and he then went on to Singapore as well. I was impressed by the amount of literature and other documents she is already familiar with – and that she was very happy to share with me. In addition, during her work, Ms Matyasova had also established contacts and network with several descendants of the “Bata families” from Batanagar, who are today scattered across the world, from Canada to Australia. One of her contacts lead us to a a true miracle, about which I will tell you more next time.
Our meeting with Ms Matyasova became even more exciting when my next guest joined us – Mr Pavel Hajny, administrator of the webpage www.batastory.net dedicated to the history Bata and its people. Mr Hajny is a nephew of Jan Baros – that very same Baros who had been the chief editor of the Batanagar News and who wrote several books about the history of Bata in India, for example “The Czechoslovaks on the banks of Ganges”.
My third appointment was with Mr Ivan Prochazka, author of an essential essay “Compatriots in the Far East” that was published in the Czech magazine History and Military in 1996 and from which I was already quoting some crucial parts. My direct contact with Mr Prochazka was kindly facilitated by Mr Jaroslav Beranek, chief editor of this magazine, whom I wrote earlier about my case.
Earlier the day, I also used my visit to the National Library to make a copy of the original article – unlike its unofficial web version, it contains direct references as well as several unique photographs.
The personal encounter with Mr Prochazka had been yet another fantastic experiences, and also resulted in some break-throughs in my search. His personal passion for the history of the WW2 era is even stronger than that of Ms Mayasova. Unlike her, it is a pure hobby for Mr Prochazka – he actually works as a locksmith, therefore he is not a historian by education nor by profession. However, he dedicates his free time to an incredibly meticulous research of various Czech archives. Once every few years, he summarizes his findings in a form of an essay or even a book. He is, like me, in his 40’s, and his essay about the Far East in 1996 was his first published work. His most recent publication is a book about Czechoslovak women serving in the British Army during WW2. The Czech Institute of a Military History has published it in April 2016.
Mr Prochazka spent literally years of his time digging through archives of several Czech institutions, most of which I had barely heard of. He has provided me with a number of tips and personal contacts, but not only that. As a follow up of our meeting, he also sent me parts of his own archive related to Singapure in 1940’s – some of the documents he had not even previously used for his 1996 essay. While I will need to spend time more on them, I already noticed that they contain several true gems, including information directly linked to Silvestr. This for example includes part of collection of the late Dr Emil Macel, or authentic 14 pages long report by Josef Vyhnalek – a key witness and Silvestr’s colleague and friend – that he wrote on a typewriter in 1966.
All these documents were shared with me by Mr Prochazka very generously. His only ask was that once I conclude my research, that I publish it in some way – perhaps, he suggested, in the magazine History and Military as a sequel of his own 1996 essay. That was something I was very happy to promise to him, because I already had been considering some form of publication of Silvestr’s story.
Thus, hereby, I am also making my public pledge to publish the story of Silvestr, one day…