Ever since I launched this blog about my search for the traces of my great-uncle Silvestr, I have been receiving comments and messages from its readers. Putting the nonsensical ones aside, there has been roughly three types of responses. First are the words expressing interest, support and sympathy. Second, cynical comments and speculations as to what are the real interests behind my research, suggesting there must be some hidden, profit seeking motives. And the third category are doubts whether it makes any sense to come back to all that history and that perhaps it’s better to leave the past alone – otherwise, they say, I may perhaps even regret what I eventually find.
Were my motivation to idealize the past and uncritically celebrate the heroism of the dead, then I just reached a point – for the first time – that would make me wonder that indeed I went a bit too far on my journey of discovery. This is because I came to learn some quite disturbing information about the contemporary Czechoslovak community in Singapore, as well as about some practices of the Bata company there during 1930’s and 1940’s.
Photo from the archives of Dr Emil Macel: A party for the occasion of opening of the new Bata Building in Singapore [it was opened in 1939, not in 1940 as the captions mistakenly says]. Sitting from the left: V. Rojt, Ms Cervinka, H. Cervinka, A. Dufek, M. Bohman, Ms Dufek, K. Vitek, Mr Vasica, K. Plhon. Standing from the left: Mr Gromnica, B. Martinec, S. Jedovnicky, B. Sokol, V. Kos.
However, I have set onto this road with a desire to discover and document the past events as accurately as possible, and that’s why I can’t just remain silent or even stop right here.
My biggest concern at the moment relates to a number of very lovely people that I had met while I was working on this project and who have a deep admiration of the Bata company – in case of many of them, their ancestors worked for Bata in its first years with remarkable loyalty and dedication in order to build up its success. I do not want to disappoint them, neither to loose their friendship. I therefore hope that they will understand that it is because of my deep respect to the people of the history and to the truth, why I can’t censor the inconvenient information. Nobody should take this personally; after all, I am not publishing the parts of documents and information that are most sensitive personally, I only pick what is necessary for the description of Silvestr’s story and what seems reasonably substantiated.
Let’s begin with something that should not come as a big surprise, because we can see these things happening around us today as well. After all, we, the Czech nation, haven’t changed much since the last century, have we? Apart from the friendships and enjoyable moments of life, about which I was writing last time, there was also quite some rivalry, jealousy and mutual denunciation within the community of several dozens of Czechoslovaks based in Singapore.
Sometimes, our compatriots were also stealing from others, as far as we can judge from the news published in The Straits Times in December 1938. According to it, a certain Czechoslovak citizen was prosecuted for a theft of 30 dollars.
Photo: Newspaper clip from The Straits Times about the alleged thievery by a Czechoslovak citizen.
The archives of the Czechoslovak government exiled to London contain several items showing that the Czechoslovak community in Singapore was split into two fierce-fully confrontational groups.
The first and larger faction was represented by the Bata people, and was lead by their general manager Mr Rojt. The second faction was composed of those Czechoslovaks who came to Singapore for other reasons – they were independent merchants or representatives of other businesses, such as Skoda or Ceskoslovenska zbrojovka (Czechoslovak Arms Production Factory). This second group was lead by Mr Richard Reiser, a former co-owner of the Prvni Prazka Sladovna (The First Prague Malt Factory) and was sent to Singapore in 1935 by the Czechoslovak Export Institute. He later became independent and worked as an agent of a number of other companies.
The tensions grew even bigger when the Czechoslovak Consulate in Singapore was closed at the end of February 1939. As we can read in the article from The Straits Times from 27th November 1938 (see bellow), the consulate was established on 1st January 1935 and the first consul was Dr Pavel Stransky. He was later replaced by Mr Vladimir Polodna, whose mission was then canceled in March 1939. Whether or not was Mr Polodna transferred to the United States, as the newspaper suggests, is unknown to me. But I found a record of him heading the diplomatic mission in Peru, starting from October 1942. While being there, in 1943, he had also inaugurated a memorial of the annihilation of the village of Lidice (the massacre of all its citizens and total demolition of Lidice village was part of a retribution by the Nazis for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by the Czechoslovak paratroopers). According to The Straits Times, there were some 65 Czechoslovak citizens in Singapore and Malaya in November 1938. From the later reports of the diplomatic mission, we know that in early 1940’s this number reached about a hundred, two thirds of which were people from the Bata company.
Photo: Newspaper clipping about the upcoming closure of the Czechoslovak consulate in Singapore.
It seems that after the consulate was closed, Mr Rojt often liaised with the Singapore government on behalf of the Czechoslovak community. This was disliked by the non-Bata compatriots who were then filing several complaints against him. A report by the Czechoslovak consul in Bombay, Mr Urban, informs the London based government in November 1940 that “Reiser, together with some other Czechoslovaks, submitted a grievance petition addressing the Czechoslovak government via the British secretary in Singapore. They request that an official representative of the government carries out a formal investigation of their complaints against Mr Rojt.”
The London exiled Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs received at least several pieces of correspondence and submissions as a result of the disputes within the Czechoslovak community in Singapore. Its document from February 1941 reads that:
“The consulate holds an opinion that it cannot step into the affairs that fall formally under the British jurisdiction – a position we fully support. The Bata company is employing Czechoslovak citizens who, according to the consulate, joined or support the resistance, all enrolled [to the military service], and make financial contributions to our war efforts, therefore there is no reason to act against them.”
In February 1941, the Ministry sent instructions to the consulate in Bombay saying:
“The Czechoslovak government has no intentions to deal with the affairs of the Bata Company, because we have no authorization to deal with matters under the British jurisdiction. As for the personal conflicts within the Czechoslovak community, it is up to the consulate to use its influence to reconcile those.”
Photo: The instructions of the exiled Czechoslovak government to the consulate in Bombay regarding the disputes within Bata and the Czechoslovak community
The consulate in Bombay subsequently decided to dispatch Mr Josef Luley to Singapore to act there as its official agent. Mr Luley reached Singapore in March 1941 and remained there till early February 1942. As he we can read in his own report:
“By the time the Japanese army started to attack only 11 miles away, south of the Johore Strait, I had already lost my hopes to be able to evacuate. However I was lucky and managed to get on board of a military ship transport in the night from 6th to 7th of February.”
Today we know that unfortunately, the reconciliation mission of Mr Luley entirely failed. One of the reasons of its failure could be the fact that he did not arrive to act as a genuine independent mediator, but in fact, at least partly on behalf of the Bata company and its interests. The records have it that it was initially Bata’s directors who requested that the Bombay consulate dispatches Mr Luley to Singapore. The company was even paying for all of his costs from the very start. As consul Urban reported back to London:
“For the start, I have used the 5,000 Indian rupees that were confidentially provided by Jan Bartos, the director of Bata Shoe Company in Batanagar […] The whole amount was given to our consular agent Luley as cash advance. He had already used part of it to pay for the travel of himself as well as his family.”
Consul Urban was aware that such arrangement is quite dodgy, and came up with a proposal to the government how to cover it up:
“In order to diminish the controversy of the financial dependency of Luley on Bata company, I propose that Luley will continue to be paid through the general consulate in Bombay, while we agree with Bata company that it will be sending contributions to a war fund that will be at least equal to the cost of Luley and his operation”.
A copy of this proposal is kept in the archives with an additional note: “Passed on to the minister who agreed”.
Seen from today’s perspective, this is a clear example of a corruption of the state institutions by the corporate money. It’s however quite likely that the exiled government did not have enough resources to afford Luley’s mission. I think that the war circumstances put this into a bit different perspective: the official Czechoslovak representation in Singapore was clearly beneficial to all our citizens there, although there is little doubt that it was also working for the particular interests of the Bata company.
And so, the conflicts continued. The Czechoslovak community went through several attempts to found an association, however all failed due to disagreements over its bylaws and over the proposed people who were to chair it. At the end, Mr Reiser went ahead and established a Czechoslovak Association with his own followers. According to the reports collected by the ministry, it eventually had 33 members. The creation of the association was also one of the events that the local press covered in April 1941:
The Bata management responded by issuing an order to its employees that was forbidding them to join the association, which they dismissed as “a bunch of Jews”. (When I came across several names of its members in the reports, it indeed appeared from the family names that these were likely Jewish people.) Mr Reiser then reportedly continued his relentless efforts to recruit association members among those Bata employees who had conflicts with their management, or who were even fired from their jobs.
According to the files, several Batamen also became secret members of the association. Among the names mentioned, I have spotted also Rudolf Janecek and Karel Vitek. I am making an exception from the rule here and mention their names – it is because their presence suggests a potential involvement of Silvestr.
My hypothesis that Silvestr might also have been part of this, is building on two assumptions. First, it was exactly this trio that apparently signed up jointly for the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces (Vitek was registered as private No. 13777, Janecek as 13778 and Silvestr as 13779, i.e. they got three consecutive numbers). And second, I have further learnt that Silvestr was among those who had conflicts with the management of Bata in Singapore.
Two independent witnesses filed their statements with the exiled Ministry in which they talk about a dubious practice of the Bata company in Singapore to withhold part of the salaries of their staff:
“The employees of Bata arrived to Singapore before the occupation of Czechoslovakia [by Nazi Germany] and based on their contracts made in Zlin headquarters. But the local Singapore management refused to acknowledge these and was forcing them to sign local contracts with lower salaries. They were being threatened by statements like “we will send you back to Hitler” to force them to sign. The new arrivals, mostly single young man, then filed a complaint at the British Immigration Office. The British government had set a regulation that required Bata to pay a minimal wage of 60 dollars weekly. However, Bata management was bypassing it via a sophisticated scheme that left its employees with 30-35 dollars only. This was arranged by transferring the salaries to their private accounts, and when the balance reached 1000 dollars, the employee was requested to either return 500 dollars back to the company, or to donate it to the Czechoslovakian war fund. This was justified by statements that the staff does not have right to these money and that the company had to pay it to them ‘only because of the stupid English regulation’. Several employees refused to give their money back and were subsequently fired (Zuna, Rehor, Vackerman, Ambroz, Janecek, Nemec, Sedlackova and others).”
Another well-documented conflict between some of the employees and the company management relates to the enrollment to the volunteer forces. We can imagine that the Bata company was motivating its people to apply, either driven by patriotic interests, or because it wanted to shape a positive perception in the eyes of the British government – possibly for a combination of both of these reasons. It appears however that Bata was later caught by surprise when the single Batamen, who were assigned to the Straits Settlement Volunteer Forces (SSVF), had to join a two months long retreat at a training camp in the spring of 1941 and the company was obliged to refund them their salaries for the entire period.
It happened that the company refused to pay their full salaries, and again, the Bata volunteers were complaining at the Colonial Secretary. We can again assume that Silvestr, who had joint SSVF along with Vitek and Janecek in the beginning of 1941, was also part of this dispute. The management of Bata responded by firing those ‘troublemakers’. The staff was then seeking support with the Czechoslovak Association (here come another indication that Silvestr might have been affiliated with it). It’s reported that after some time, certain Mr Bartos arrived from abroad to settle the dispute. Although it is not explicitly written, it’s most likely reference to Jan Bartos, the director of Bata in Batanagar, India. Finally they reached an agreement and the employees were then taken back to their jobs.
The last Bata trouble I would like to mention has also been well documented, because it resulted in a formal prosecution and court verdict. The management of Bata apparently bribed one of the colonial censors/confidants who were checking the incoming and outgoing mail for the British colonial government. He was of Polish origin and was in charge of the correspondence in Slavic languages. This censor then unlawfully began to read all the letters of the Bata employees, and was reporting their content to Bata directors. This malpractice was exposed when one day, the censor and the management withheld some official documents related to a court case lead by Mr Vanicek, one of the ex-Bata employees from Hong Kong. At the court hearing, the Bata managers pleaded guilty and the censor was sentenced to 3 months of jail.
There is actually many more stories and accusations captured in the archives, but I don’t think it’s right to publish them all. My reasoning is that these are getting increasingly personal and it’s hard to judge to what extent the criticism and complaints were factual, or were just made up in personal vendettas. Also, the people involved have no means to defend themselves, having had passed away by now. I am also fully aware that picture reconstructed on random fragments can be very distorted and unfair. Finally, I also hold a healthy dose of skepticism towards some of these personal accusations – i.e. someone being blamed for being authoritarian, manipulative, fanatic or inhuman, machine-like person – based on my own personal experience, especially from the Green Party politics in which I was involved some years ago.
Last but not least, we should also look at all these events within their contemporary context. There are limits to which we are today positioned to judge them.
It is out of question a very sad and embarrassing to realize how our compatriots went into squabbling and used dirty tricks against each other. The scale of the problem – mind that we talk about a tiny community of a hundred people – still seem to be a bit extraordinary, given that even the government had to be dealing with it, despite its undoubtedly very different priorities during the times of war. On the other hand, we can try to appreciate the psychology of the situation when few dozens of mostly young, inexperienced people suddenly find themselves in a totally unknown and strange environment. They must have also been challenged with a language barrier, at least to some extent. The cohesion of the small community was further tested by the horrible developments taking place in their homes in Europe. The ever present escalation of hatred against the Jews, the rise of the Nazi Germany, the breakdown of their motherland Czechoslovakia, fear for their families living back in the war, and the overall uncertainty – it all must have catalyzed many tensions and divides in the community of people coming from very diverse backgrounds. (We know for example that several Czechoslovaks living in the Far East opted to apply for German passports as soon as Czechoslovakia got occupied – effectively they have decided to join the enemy.) The closure of the local Czechoslovak consulate was probably also one of the factors increasing their anxiety.
Seen from today’s perspective, it seems easy to judge the acts and decisions that people took under various pressures and circumstances, and label them as unethical or immoral. It would however be a very simplistic view, similar to today’s black and white perspectives on the problem of the forced removal of the Germans from the inner borders of Czechoslovakia after the war, or on the individual and tragic failures of people who were under the pressure of the communist secret services.
I have a similarly ambiguous perspective on the Bata company and its management. On one hand, it should be fully recognized that the company provided great and unique opportunity to thousands of children from the poor countryside families (particularly during the times of the economic depression), offering them not only a good job, but also decent education and care, as well as almost limitless carrier possibilities; it provided the masses with quality and affordable shoes; it has proven its ability to innovate and compete across all continents; and it was giving its employees even in places like India decent salaries, modern living infrastructure and additional care. On the other hand, it was demanding very hard work and unconditioned loyalty; the one who was not able to keep up was quickly replaced; the management was putting the company’s success and prosperity above all; and if the interests of the company demanded so (or at least its managers thought they do), they were ready to spy on its employees or corrupt the governments. The management, who opted to do so, was in most cases driven not by selfish personal interests, but by the ideology of the greater good of the company. This certainly can’t excuse all the wrongdoings, but it can help us to understand them better.
Lastly, we can find some reconciliation in the fact that once the war arrived in Malaya and Singapore, and especially during the horrible times at the internment camps, the compatriots came together again and had shown many great acts of mutual support. That however is yet another chapter of the bigger story.