One of the many fruits of the “Australian Miracle” – the yet unpublished dossier about Singapore Batamen and my encounter with its author – has been some of the references that Olek Plesek used for his research.
Among them is a truly amazing tool: the online archives of the Singapore press http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers.
The Singapore government must had invested big resources into its development, because it contains more than 20 periodicals published in English, Malayan and Chinese, and it goes well back into the history. For example the oldest available editions of The Strait Times date back to July 1845, i.e. cover more than 170 years of the history.
And there is more: the archives are fully digitized and converted into text format, allowing a full-text search for keywords – across epochs, issues and publications. Thanks to that, one can easily search for articles covering Bata Shoe Company, reports about Czechoslovakia or Czech citizens, and even about Silvestr Nemec himself. It’s easy to get addicted to this sensational tool, and I have myself spent several evenings digging through its gems.
Overall, I have counted three direct mentions of Silvestr in the English contemporary press of Singapore.
First, his name appears in the list of donors to a war fund. It’s been published in The Straits Times on 8th June 1940:
The list of donors is printed in three columns, ordered from the highest contribution (which is 50,000 Singapore dollars from certain person named Eu Tong Sen). In the third column we can see that the same amount of 50 dollars was donated buy a number of Czechoslovaks – next to Silvestr (“S. Nemec”), we can spot the already familiar names of Rudolf Janecek, Josef Varmuza or Karel Vitek. We can therefore guess that the collection was coordinated by the Bata company, or these men contributed jointly as friends.
Two other direct mentions of Silvestr relate to the social events in the Bata community. According to the local press, Silvestr attended a wedding of Vlasta Sejbova with Georg Tarry, and also Vaclav Rojt’s funeral.
The information about the wedding was published in the Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser on 29th April 1941 and besides colorful depiction of the bride’s wedding dress and setup of the dinner table, it also lists names of some of the participants. The local journalists apparently struggled with the tricky spelling of the Czech names, therefore Josef Vyhnalek is mentioned as “G. Vyhnaler” and Vilem Zamara as “W. Zamada”. For the same reason, Silvestr’s name is mistyped as “S. Nomec”.
Finally, Silvestr is recorded as a guest of the funeral of Vaclav Rojt, director of the Singapore branch of Bata Shoe Company. Mr Rojt died suddenly at an age of 50. The farewell ceremony took place on 3rd July 1941 afternoon, when the mourning parade left at 5pm from the Cathedral of Good Shepherd and headed to the Bidadari cemetery. The Morning Times on that day also reminded readers that Mr Rojt had been a close fellow of Tomas Bata – the famous founder of the Bata Shoe Company – and was working for the company for 33 years (thus already from his age of 17!).
Among the list of participants, we can again see a number of Czech and Slovak names, some of which we know from earlier (the Jugas, Strangfeld and Boda couples; or messieurs Ambroz, Janecek, Vitek or Vyhnalek), some remain unknown to us.
The article also quotes the on the wraiths laid during the ceremony, where we should not miss some personal messages in – again mistyped – Czech language: “Drahema Tatinkovi Anicka” (which translates as “To my dear farther from Anicka”) or “Posledni Sboehem Batorel z Klangu” (“Last Farewell from Batamen in Klang”).
As for other events covered by the local press, we can only guess whether Silvestr was there. It’s for example quite likely that he attended the ceremonies for the anniversary of the Czechoslovakia on 28th October in 1939 and 1940 – i.e. at the time when our motherland was already being broken apart and occupied by the Nazi Germany (Czech lands) or had a form of a fascist puppit state (Slovakia).
The celebration in October 1939 took place at Singapore’s Cenotaph and was covered by the Malaya Tribune:
We can read that it was attended by 60 people and that the wraith was laid by Mr Rojt, assisted by his colleagues Kvapil and Vodak. The report also quotes from a congratulatory letter from the Asian staff of Bata company:
“On this National Day of the Czech Nation, we, the Asiatic staffs, extend to you our heart-felt wish that the successful conclusion of the present war against the Nazi regime may bring with it the speedy restoration of your country to you. May peace and prosperity be yours always. Long live the Czech nation!”
The Straits Times included even a photograph. There is likely Silvestr in the crowd of participants, though we cannot say for sure due to the limited resolution of the stock photo.
Czechoslovaks were also mentioned in the local press at other occasions. For example, there is a report about a mass application of the Bata employees to the Local Defence Corps. While nobody is mentioned by name, we know that Silvestr was among those Czechoslovaks who volunteered.
For example, The Straits Times on 26th November 1940 report that “no fewer than 31 out of the 50 odd Czechs in Singapore have applied”:
The contemporary press was also regularly reporting about the trainings of the volunteer corps – especially frequent are the invitations/announcements for weekend drills, but let me save these for another piece of my writing later.
The Straits Times were again mentioning the recruitment of many foreigners, including Czechoslovaks, on 17th April 1941:
At that time, the number of volunteers reached 300 men, and the newspapers says that these included “British, Dutch, French, Czech, Jews, Burasians, Burghers, Chinese, Malay, Tamil, Pathan, Bengali and Singhalese”.
Another footprint of the Czechoslovak compatriots dates to 29th April 1941, when The Straits Times reported about a war fund collection to the benefit of the Czechoslovak exile government in London:
The collection was organized as a beneficiary sale of a badge with a slogan that reads “Czechoslovakia Will Rise Again!”. According to the newspaper, it was organized by Mr Vilem Zamara and by that time, over 1,000 $ was collected. Given that it was being sold for 10 $ a piece, we can estimate that about 100 people contributed – this could amount to pretty much the whole Czechoslovak community in Singapore at that time.
Finally and for some fun, I would like to share couple of the numerous references on the sports pages of the local press. The Bata Shoe Company had established and sponsored a local soccer team named “The Moravians”. The team was largely built up from the locals, as the lists of names of the players published elsewhere suggests. One of the few exceptions however was Mr Zuna, who was a goalkeeper of The Moravians. (Mr Zuna was among those Czechoslovaks who, after the outbreak of the WW2, left for France to join the fight against the Germans in Europe.)
The “Moravians” were playing matches in the local 2nd league, and the newspapers were usually bringing only very short reports about the results of their efforts. However, I came across two photographs that capture some thrilling moments of the matches:
Next time, we will stay in Singapore and dive deeper into the life of the Bata Czechoslovak community in late 1930’s.