Life's journey of an uninteresting man - By Milan Lorman

English version.    Slovak version.

Family background
Early Childhood
Boyhood in Lazy
Student years
Leaving the nest
Eastern front
Six Days Behind Enemy Lines
A Little Light Relief at the Front
A Close Brush With Disaster
The Story of the Lifesaving Grapes
Prisoner of War
My French and American experience / One year in Austria
Four years in England
To the end of the Earth

Student years

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

At the end of school holidays in 1936 my father and I have travelled by train to Košice where he enrolled me in the home for students from the countryside, run by the Jesuit Brothers and also as the second year student in the "gymnazium" (the equivalent of aust. High school or College). That school was also run by a religious order of teaching brothers, the Premonstrants. Not all the teachers were clerics, in fact our class professor and the most popular man in the whole institution was a lay teacher, prof. Vlado Uhlár. He was not only a fine teacher but also a great patriot and as excellent a role model as one would want to meet. The memory of the brief two years that I spent near him has stayed with me all my life. In connection with the Jesuit home for students let me mention the fact that it was the first time in my life that I became a "number". My mother had to mark all my belongings with the number 44, allocated to me. In subsequent years I was numbered many times, like all of us are these days, but that number 44 was the first for me.

Before we have actually arrived in Košice, my father and I have made a short detour to the city of Prešov for a two or three day long visit with his mother, my grandmother. It was my first meeting with her and for both of us it was a case of "love at first sight". Grandma's name was Maria, born Kvočak of minority Rusin nationality. She was a diminutive person - at the age of twelve I was already a little taller than she - but she had a heart as big as a barn. From the first I regretted that because of the distance between Prešov and Lazy I haven't been able to meet and get to know her earlier. I wasn't fortunate enough to know either of my grandfathers, my maternal grandmother had lived and died in America, and so my grandma in Prešov was all the more precious to me. In Košice my life very quickly began to change from the easygoing style of a carefree country boy. Life in the city takes a bit of getting used to. Košice, even in those far-off days, represented rather a large city on our Slovak scale.

But the Jesuit Brothers took the responsibility for us boys very seriously and they helped us adapt. Perhaps we thought at the time that we could do with a little less time spent in the chapel and on our knees, but looking back now I do not feel that it has done me any permanent damage. The Brothers not only controlled us, they cared for us. The school, run by the Premonstrant Brothers, strange to say, had even less religious feel about it. This was perhaps due in my case to the role played by professor Vlado Uhlár, whom I have already mentioned earlier. He taught us Slovak literature, history and Slovak grammar and composition. I like to think that he is even now helping me to write this story. He was a big man, veritable Jánošík, (slovak Robin Hood), but more importantly he was a big intellect and a great patriot. It is a pity that events, which were soon to unfold, prevented me from spending a few more years in his presence. He may have been able to make something useful out of me. I was certainly a willing student. It was largely due to his tutoring that I have ended my first year in Košice "top of the class".

But fate wasn't favourable, it would seem, to anybody at that time in history. I have entered that rough period with an additional handicap. My stay in the Jesuit home was costing my father a lot of money and at the end of one year he threw in the towel. He could not afford to leave me there any longer, especially when there was a cheaper alternative available in Prešov. This was a Home for students, sons of teachers, run by the teachers union or some such professional body. The school I was going to attend would be the State Gymnazium (High school). And so father had me transferred to Prešov and into drastically new surroundings. Without intending to be unduly critical of anyone, I must say that neither of the two institutions compared anywhere near favourably with their equivalents in Košice. In 1937 I was a 13-year old boy in need of strict guidelines and supervision as never before.
Milan Lorman 1941
Milan Lorman 1941

Unfortunately, the supervision in the Home was woeful and at school I must have spent most of my time dreaming about Košice. With the school-year soon to end, my prospects of passing exams were so clearly hopeless, that my father started pushing panic buttons. Early in May he came to Prešov, got some doctor, don't ask me how, to issue a certificate saying that I am heading for a nervous collapse and with that in hand he took me out of the school. We went back to Košice, he found for me accommodation with a family of one of his one-time school buddies and enrolled me back at the Premonstrant school as a private student. I could attend those classes, from which I felt I could benefit, but my main task was to study from a set of condensed books, one for each subject listed for end-of-year exams. Father then went back to his work leaving me with the simple instruction: "You have six weeks to catch up with all you have neglected since the start of the school year, and at the end of June pass the exams !" And I have duly passed them (which has probably saved my life. - I'm joking, of course).

That was in June 1938. After those end-of-year exams I did not return to Lazy. My father was transferred to another school, this time in Eastern Slovakia, in a small village of Kecerovske Peklany. Delving deeper into the names of towns and other features appearing on the maps of Central Europe may be a fascinating enterprise, but I wonder to what degree it is also informative. The name of this village, for instance, translates, as far as I can make it out, as Dissenters Hell. The place was not anything as dramatic as the name would suggest. It was a rather sleepy community surrounded by forests and fields, which isolated it from the rest of the world on all four sides except for a narrow dusty strip of an unsealed road heading north to Prešov and south to Košice.

On the southern side it was only narrowly separated from a similar settlement bearing the name Kecerovske Kostolany (Dissenters Church) and I leave both names for you to speculate about. It is all the more now an academic exercise because during the intervening years both villages grew together and the resulting common name now is Kecerovce. It is still a miserable hole in the landscape memorable only for the fact that it has the largest Gypsy (Roma, or Romany) population of all the towns in Eastern Slovakia. In the time when it was briefly my home town, that aspect of the situation was not quite so bad, at least I did not become aware of it. It is true, I have not spent a lot of time at home, except for school holidays in July and August of 1938.

From the time of those school holidays I must mention one little episode. Two of my school friends from the year that I spent in Presov lived nearby and one day the three of us have decided to go hiking to a nearby town of Červenica. Not so much to see the town itself as to pay a visit to the opal mines on its outskirts. We, in the outside world constantly hear about Australian opals, sometimes Mexican opals get a grudging mention, and the oldest known opal producing mines of Červenica are recorded only in the odd article in an encyclopaedia.

And they deserve better than that. Even the Emperors of ancient Rome were numbered among the proud owners of stones from these mines. We three boys were hoping to find some still good-looking chips in the mountains of tailings, extending from the (unfortunately barred and padlocked) entrances to the mine drives down to the road below.

We were hoping to be able to bring something interesting to school at the end of summer holidays. At that time the mines were not being worked. The leases then were held by some French concern, which has decided to suspend operations during one of the periodic slumps in demand for opals. From time to time people consider opals to be bringing bad luck. Of course it only means bad luck for people who are trying to sell them. On arrival in the vicinity of the mines we had to visit the area's forest engineer. In Červenica his duties included looking after the security of the mines.

Not more than perhaps two hours passed before we suddenly became very glad that we knew where the gentleman lives, because in his office was installed the only telephone that we could quickly reach. We needed ambulance and medical help urgently. One of my friends slipped on the loose surface of the heap of tailings and as he was sliding downhill, he ended up impaled through the flesh of his thigh on a broken stump of a tree branch sticking out of the loose dirt. One look at the poor boys leg was enough for me and leaving him in care of my other friend I set out on the three or four kilometre run to the foresters house to summon an ambulance. I have no idea now from how far it had to come to our aid, but the main thing is that everything ended well, without serious trauma. Even the schools minerals collection eventually received its opal samples.

Just one more story from Peklany (remember - Hell). My father, for the most part of his working life as a teacher in church-administered primary schools, was also employed as an organist for church services and other ceremonies, so that local priests were never far from our daily lives. The priest looking after the spiritual needs of the Peklany flock is forever engraved in my memory thanks to one sentence he once said. Let me first mention that he was a handsome fellow in his best years and I can only speculate why he was ever sent to work in that godforsaken place. In every household of a parish priest the worldly affairs are, as a rule, handled by a housekeeper.

In Peklany at that time this housekeeper was an elegant lady reputedly born and bred as a member of once noble family. In the new (then) post-WW1 democratic order there was no place for nobility and the young lady had to find something useful to do with her life. And so she ended up managing the young priests household. One day, at a social gathering of the local "upper crust" intelligentsia (men only), after a few drinks someone was feeling bold enough to ask: "Father, we know that each presbytery needs a housewife, but with all due respect, - does it have to be a countess?" And he replied: "When they decided to send me to work in hell, I thought I may as well ride on a thoroughbred instead of a cow."

"the German-controlled part of Europe"

In a normal course of events, after the holidays I would have started my fourth grade of High school in Kosice. I don't know how my father was planning to finance it, but in the end it never happened. In Munich Europe's Big Powers have decided to appease Hitler and have re-drawn Czechoslovakia's boundaries. In the process, not only Sudetenland was ceded to Germany but considerable part of Slovakia was annexed to Hungary. As a result, the city of Kosice, among others, became part of Hungary and a lot of people's plans had to change. The Technical High school of Kosice (at least its fourth through to seventh grades) were relocated to the city of Bardejov and my father ended up enrolling me into the fourth grade of that institution. Both of us especially liked one particular aspect about that move: the matriculation exams, which in classical High schools are held at the end of grade eight, in the technical high schools take place at the completion of grade seven.

That first year in Bardejov, 1938-39, while father was still teaching in Peklany I was living with a family of a taxi driver, one of my fathers childhood friends. One year later, when it was time to open the school gates on 1st September, a big surprise was waiting for everybody. All the classroom furniture was stacked up around the edges of the schoolyard and while a number of german soldiers were moving supplies, including bales of straw into the building, others were already exercising in the schoolyard and providing a new kind of spectacle for the passers-by. The Germans stayed in our school for the duration of the Polish campaign. Fortunately for us (though not for the Poles) that uneven contest did not last very long and we were able to start our school year before the end of September. That year, as well as the next, I was able to live once again for the last time (except for a brief two-month interlude later, in 1943) in a rented house in Bardejov with my mother and siblings. Father was teaching in a "one-horse-town" called Tročany, situated just a couple of kilometres east of the main road between Presov and Bardejov. Close enough for us to see him on weekends.

During those years (1939-42) I was a member of a youth organization called Hlinkova Mládež (engl.: Hlinka Youth). It was supposed to fill in young people's lives the gap left after the disappearance in the German-controlled part of Europe of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides. Of course, it was now war-time and the universal peace promoting character of Lord Baden-Powell's organization was replaced by a nationalistic flavour. But, a 15- year-old boy's brain does not work on that level. In the Bardejov troup I was one of a group of six or eight, (-can't remember which) fanfare players, and I enjoyed that status. The girls seemed to be duly impressed by the gleaming brass instruments. The Boy Scouts of old have never looked so good. And we were lapping up that, perhaps undeserved, admiration.

Sometime during the (northern) spring of 1941 the Bardejov and District Hlinka Youth organization has staged a Hlinka Youth Festival. I took part in that show as a member of a Folk Dance Ensemble and my partner was a lovely girl, Alina Ferdinandy. She was two years my junior, daughter of a Magistrate. One year later she consented to embroider my matriculation ribbon, which in those days of careful etiquette signified something. Poor girl, Alina, even then, lived a life marred by tragedy, Her only sibling, a brother, died when she was only twelve-year-old, and after the war she lived a lonely life of a creative artist sculpting and designing jewellery until in November 1974 she ended it by her own hand. She kept in touch with my mother and sister until the end.

Our dances in Bardejov pleased the supreme commander of the Hlinka Youth, who was in the audience, so much, that he decided to command our presence at the all-national HM Festival, which was to be held a few weeks later in the city of Martin. I am proud to say that all went well for us in Martin also. From about that time I recall one unforgettable occasion, which I feel I must mention. One weekend I was visiting my sister Božena, who lived in Presov with a family recommended by our paternal grandma. She lived only a few doors down the street. That day was a festive day for the city of Prešov, because the president of the then barely two-year-old Slovak Republic was in town. The main purpose of his visit, as I recall, was the pinning of medals and decorations on the chests of Slovak soldiers, who have distinguished themselves on the Eastern front fighting against the Red Army. One of the recipients was in fact sitting in a wheelchair during the proceedings. After the ceremony and appropriate speeches, the small group of VIP's, headed by the President, Dr Tiso, and including top city officials, walked the distance of about two hundred yards to the building right next door to the one where my sister lived, because that's where in a reception hall upstairs the City of Prešov staged the ceremonial dinner to honour our Head-of state. As the small party of dignitaries moved past the ground-floor windows, where we were standing, I, and possibly others as well in the room at the time, have lifted our arms in a salute, which was customary at the time. What I recall is that I was standing so close to the window that the tips of my fingers knocked on the glass. The president turned his head toward the sound, saw us, smiled and waved to us.

My last year at the High school, the matriculation year, I had to spend again away from the family, because, while I stayed in Bardejov for my final year, my father started teaching on a German minority ethnic school in a place called Mnišek nad Hnilcom (German name: Einsiedel). Too many of the younger ethnic German teachers have by then joined the war effort in the East and the German education authorities decided to recruit replacements from the ranks of Slovak teachers. The only special requirement was a reasonable command of the German language.

"my father had to provide proof of Aryan descent"

My father qualified and decided to take up the offer, mainly, I suspect, because it brought with it a substantial "social component" to his regular salary, which all German minority teachers received direct from Germany. As I have already mentioned, father was always struggling with financial problems. And, while at least some of the causes of his difficulties may have been self-inflicted, they were nevertheless real and having experienced my own financial drought during most of my life, I feel no temptation to blame him for accepting the (short-lived as it turned out) relief from financial worries that this German money represented. Now it was possible for my sisters to study in Presov and later in Bratislava at the Business Academy. And there were still my two brothers unstoppably growing up.

In the world where I live and at the time when I write these recollections, my immediate readers, my children and grandchildren especially, may find it a bit strange that the word University does not appear in my recollections when I talk about education. Believe me, sixty years ago in a struggling country, like Slovakia, in the time of war, tertiary education was something very few people could aspire to. Certainly not the children of a poor village schoolmaster.

As a public servant, even before he started teaching at that german school, but even more urgently afterwards, my father had to provide proof of Aryan descent back for I believe three generations. This can amount to quite an extensive piece of research. It is hard to believe how many names appear on your Family Tree diagram in only three generations. What we did not expect was the way father soon got fascinated by the whole activity. He didn't stop at three generations but continued pushing further and deeper back into all available records until he could not do any more in Slovakia. He would need to go to the German state of Westphalia from where the first mining family bearing the name Lohrmann arrived in the Slovak highlands at the invitation of the then Hungarian King some five centuries ago in order to help the local inhabitants establish a mining industry. I wish I could be more precise with the dates and other details, but, unfortunately, in the post-war decades all those interesting results of his detective work were lost, maybe even wilfully destroyed.

During the time when he was, like a bloodhound, sniffing out our family history, he found himself more and more affected by it and in the end decided to go "back to his roots". For my sisters and myself it was by then too late, he had made too good a job of bringing us up as good Slovaks and mum of course never had any german connection. So, he could only hope to make some impression on my two young brothers. As it turned out, the german Thousand Year Reich did not last quite that long and after the war, when the international Red Cross succeeded in re-establishing contact (by mail) between us, my father admitted that he had made a mistake and that he was sorry for having messed up my life. And, without hesitation or reserve - I forgave him.

The matriculation exams in Australia mark the beginning of Tertiary studies. In Slovakia they mark the winding up of Secondary studies. And so at the end of June 1942 I have matriculated aged 18 and was deemed ready to take on the world. The two months long summer holidays we still wanted to "waste" on getting a suntan and doing nothing much beyond that, but the government had different ideas and recruited us for our first useful activity. It was wartime, foodstuffs as well as a great number of other goods and products were rationed and the Big Brother needed to know just how much grain and other agricultural produce the harvest brings into the nations barns and cellars. So they took all of us, clever young people and after a week-long course of form-filling sent us out each to a particular harvesting machine and we had to record each bag of grain, or whatever, as it went into the storehouse.

I got my training in Gelnica and then was sent to one of the most picturesque Slovak villages, Očová. I count myself very fortunate for having had the opportunity to spend several weeks amongst some of the most fascinating, sincere, hospitable and everything else nice people in my home country. Living, working, eating, sleeping with them and never feeling like an outsider, in spite of the fact, that one was sent there by the "evil government". I even managed to visit the nearby town of Detva, the definitive central core of everything that is Slovak. And we, temporary government inspectors were not the only ones to benefit from that exercise. Each of us had the chance to send several parcels of good country food home to the family.

© 2006 Milan Lorman