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

Leaving the nest

Life's journey of an uninteresting man
By Milan Lorman

Before I get started on the next segment of my story I shall touch briefly on a minor detail from the earlier years. I wrote about a ceremony of dedication of a memorial to the victims of World War One in Semerovo (or was it Ďúrad?). I mentioned the VIP from Prague, who spoke from the platform. Recently, as I was browsing on the Internet, quite unexpectedly I came across a mention of him, which proves, that my memories of those distant times, though not perfect, are still pretty reliable. I gave his name as Antonin Kolisek, while his first name was, in fact, Alois. But the text speaks of him as being a priest, which confirms my recollection of his black clothes and hat. Before I translate the quote, I must mention for the benefit of non-Slovak readers that Father Hlinka, mentoned in it, was the leading figure in Slovak public life for the whole first three decades of the twentieth century.

This is what they say about Mr. Kolisek: He was Fr. Hlinka's best friend in the Czech Lands both during the pre-war Hungarian rule as also later in the first Czecho-Slovak Republic. Moravian priest and college professor. When Hlinka was imprisoned in the newly formed "democratic" Czecho-Slovakia he fought at every level from president Masaryk, through the Prime Minister and Minister for the Interior for his release from prison. This was after Hlinka's memorable trip to Paris in 1919 when he was pressing for the inclusion in the agenda for the peace talks between the Great Powers of Slovakia's right to Autonomy. From that time dates also Kolisek's characterisation of his friend: "Andrej Hlinka – priest like an apostle, Slovak like crystal, politician like a child".

And now, as an introduction to this fifth part of my story, a few words. The editor of "Vatra" using his judgment and prerogative has deleted my mention of one episode from the Slovak version of chapter four of my story. I am pleading with him not to do it in the future. What I write is the "truth, the whole truth – within the available space, - and nothing but the truth". The ranks of my contemporaries, who have lived through the war years are getting ever thinner as time passes and pretty soon younger people won't be able to hear any first-hand testimony. The official version of events, after every war, is written by the victors and it is a wise person who wants to hear the rest of the story. Those readers who "…know it all, thank you" need not read the story to the end. Some people have already told me that they find it interesting. Censorship is a dangerous notion. So much for that.

In September 1942 my parents have found for me my first job with the Danube River Navigation Company. Not in Bratislava, but in Vienna. The idea was to force me to learn to speak German. As we all know, the foreign language one learns at school is little more than an introduction, on which it is necessary to build by living and conversing with its native users. In my last year at school I had in fact better marks in French than in German and today I barely remember a dozen French words. But, that's how it goes with languages. The first ship, to which I was posted as a trainee purser was M.S. March (read the "ch" as in Loch). It had a complement of four officers (plus myself as a cadet) and a crew of 18.

The responsibilities of the purser were mainly paying everyone's wages in the currency of whatever country we were in at the time when people wanted to go ashore, attend to customs and other formalities, like water police and health checks, whenever we crossed international borders and in each port through the Company's agency communicate with the Head office in Vienna. The Head office also required the lodgement, once a month of a detailed graphic report on the ship's and crew's activities in ¼-hour time segments day and night. Where and what and who and why. I am especially mentioning those monthly reports, because they have eventually proved to be my undoing. After the first six weeks, one round trip to the Romanian port of Giurgiu and back to Vienna as a trainee, I was sent to really start working as Purser aboard M.S.March's sister ship, M.S.Kamp. To look at the two ships, they were identical twins, but there was a huge difference in general atmosphere, mood and working conditions. Not only because now I had to do all the work of a purser by myself but mostly because the Captain and almost everyone else on M.S.Kamp were Hungarians, while M.S.March was run by Austrians.

The main thorn in my side was the Captain. He was a drunkard of the roughest kind and it seemed to me that from the moment when I introduced myself to him and he found out that I was a Slovak, the main aim in his life became making my life as miserable as possible. The first round trip from Vienna to Giurgiu was bad enough, but things were about to get worse. Sometime in the first half of December '42 the Captain told me to prepare and send to the Head office outstanding monthly reports for as far back as March that year and this had to be completed before the end of December. It turned out that my predecessor in the job of Purser, his bosom buddy and fellow alcoholic was dismissed and I was sent to replace him, because his last report was dated end of February that year.

"a son of military age and that he is expected to contribute to the war effort"

When I recovered from the shock I said to the Captain that it is quite impossible for me to cope with such burden of additional work in such a short time, that as a beginner I am doing my utmost performing my own normal duties and that he can't complain about my work. He yelled back at me that HE shall decide what my duties are or are not. I would not give in and the result was that in the nearest port, southern Hungarian city of Mohacs he set me ashore, without my passport and without my paybook. Danube just started to freeze over, he has decided to tie up for the few winter weeks in Hungary and I started to "hitchhike" upstream to Vienna aboard whatever ship was still battling the thickening ice and as the guest of whichever Captain lent favourable ear to my story. My recollections from that trip back to Vienna and eventually home to Mnišek are very foggy. What I do remember though is the feeling of helplessness and hopelessness as I trudged through foreign land, 18-year old lad in wartime, without documents and penniless and not speaking the local language. Even so, eventually I managed to reach Vienna. There it took a few days before the bureaucracy arranged the necessary paperwork and I could travel on to Slovakia. To be fair I must mention that my ogre of a Captain was decent enough to forward by mail to the Head office my Passport and Paybook.

While I was waiting in Vienna for my papers, I was given accommodation and meals on one of the company's "retired" ships permanently tied up in the Port and serving just that purpose. I was sharing its comforts with a number of other employees of the Company similarly "in transit" and all – I suppose – strangers to one another. From the storeroom I have received for the duration of my stay, as I understood, my bedding: blankets, sheets, pillow and pillowcase. After a nights sleep in reasonable comfort I made-up my bed neatly, as my mum would have expected me to leave it, ate my breakfast and went off about my business dealings connected with my return home. When I returned in late afternoon I found on my bunk just a bare mattress. Now, when it was too late, someone kindly contributed to my education by informing me that bedding should go back to the storeroom each morning. After my return to Mnišek my poor dad had to pay for it. The cost for him represented about one week's salary and for a long time afterwards I felt, that I was in his debt.

I was at home about two months, doing nothing in particular, when one day my father handed me a letter, which he had just received from some German source. As I have mentioned earlier, he was at that stage teaching at an ethnic German minority school. To put the content of that letter into condensed form it "reminded" my father that one member of his family is a son of military age and that he is expected to contribute to the war effort by persuading me to "volunteer" for service in the German armed forces. Being a Slovak national I could not be drafted into German Army (the Wehrmacht). But "volunteering" unfortunately meant automatic enlistment in the ranks of the Waffen SS, which, by then, was rapidly becoming the German equivalent of the French Foreign Legion.

The letter ended by saying that in case I should not do what is expected of me, they (whoever "they" were) would assume that our family was not sufficiently patriotic and would no longer continue receiving the social benefit payments from the Reich. Without that money my father's budgeting would have come crashing about his ears, but he still said to me, that he does not want to influence my decision beyond letting me know that my refusal would mean the end of any further studies for my two sisters. They were at the time attending Business Academy in Bratislava. I had before me two choices: refuse to volunteer, which would cause serious hardship for the family and – what was quite likely - within a few months be drafted into the Slovak army and still end up fighting on the Russian front, or submit to this blackmail and join the ranks of the Waffen-SS. It does not seem to me to be unreasonable to remind my readers at this point, that in 1943 the sound of the name of that organization did not produce in people's minds the same images, with which it became overloaded in the post-war decades. I was joining an "elite" organization, not a "criminal" one.

In the event, about one month later, 23-rd March 1943. I have reported in the town of Poprad at the recruiting office and from there, with about sixty others, "volunteers" to a man, travelled by train to the German city of Dresden. Here, on the outskirts, in the suburb called Dresdner Neustadt (Dresden New Town) stood a large complex of barracks, which were, I believe, exclusively used for the training of Waffen-SS Field Engineers (Sappers). The whole complement from Slovakia, all sixty-odd of us, ended up in the same company. It was further composed of a similar number of young men from various parts of Germany and the remainder came from several other, mainly central European countries, such as Rumania, Yugoslavia and Hungary. The fact that we were allowed to remain all together in the same company was very good for our morale, especially for those about fifteen of our number who could barely speak a few words of German. This way they could relax at least at the end of the day and converse with their closest friends in Slovak.

Our home-grown German comrades were irritated by that, but it never quite came to fisticuffs, because the discipline in our ranks did not allow any internal squabbles and beside that, most of the time, after a hard days training we all wanted a little rest more than anything else. The basic field craft exercises took place in a sprawling sandy wasteland on the outskirts of the city, called "Sandplatz". I am sure that it is now all covered by concrete, bricks and bitumen. The art of bridge construction we were learning on the banks of the river Elbe, which runs through the city. After the initial training lasting about three months our company was moved to the sharp-shooting training area south of Prague. We were accommodated in a schoolhouse in a pleasant little town of Davle situated about 20 km south of Prague. Short distance south of that town the river Sazava flows into a larger river named Vltava (better known in the outside world under the name Moldau). The area formed by the confluence was in those years occupied by the German Army Command, most of the population was re-located and the villages, fields, forests etc. were turned into a live munition training area.

"we were now attached to the SS-Polizei Division"

It was in Davle that my annual malaria attacks recurred as expected and I was hoping that somebody in their right mind will decide to arrange for a discharge and send me back home to mama. Well, people in their right mind were thin on the ground in those days and I had to carry on as best I could. After about ten weeks re-learning the training manual and getting used to live ammunition we were finally considered to be ready for our first engagement.

Just when Italy's prime minister, Marshal Badoglio was getting ready to sign a separate peace with the Allied Powers, the German intelligence services were a step ahead of events and our company was without any particular preparation loaded on a train and took off in all haste in the general direction of Greece. It turned out that we were now attached to the SS-Polizei Division and our task was to take over the occupation of Greece from the Italian troops, which would now be returning home. And, in fact, few of the Italians made it, except for those who crossed the Adriatic Sea by boat. On our way, through Yugoslavia we were taking them prisoner and redirecting their transports north to German PoW camps. It was during that journey through Yugoslavia that I, and also the rest of the recruits in our company underwent, what is known as "baptism by fire". One evening, soon after dusk, in a small railway station our train pulled up alongside another one stationary on a side line.

This one was carrying a company of Regular army ("Wehrmacht") troups. The area command has decided that we were better prepared to face the partisans, who apparently waited in ambush for the next train just a couple of kilometres south of the town. And so we have set out in the dark in an unknown terrain into what was supposed to be a trap. Of course, knowing that it was set and where, helped us a lot. The locomotive was pushing before it a flatcar, which would set off the explosives on the tracks, followed by another flatcar carrying replacement lengths of rail tracks and also the repair crew.

We were sitting, rifles at the ready, most of us in the open doors of freight wagons, feet dangling in the air. And soon things started happening as if according to some script. The charges laid under the railway tracks exploded, the train screeched to a halt, we have jumped to the ground on both sides of the train just as the partisans, only some 100 metres away started firing at us. And that is the moment of truth and momentary disbelief. These people, whoever they are, are not playing games.

They are shooting at me. Real bullets! Why? I never did them any harm, I don't even know them. Where are the police when you need them… But this only lasts a few seconds. Pretty soon you are shooting back, your training takes over, and you realise that now you are a real soldier. On this occasion the whole drama only lasted some twenty minutes. The repair crew have finished their work, we have pushed the partisans back about another 100 metres into the forest on both sides of the track, climbed back into the wagons and continued on our journey. Our losses were minimal.

Two of our men were wounded. They both took position behind the same bush. Understandably they wanted to stay close together. And why not? – they were brothers. The Walker brothers were both wounded, one in his left leg and the other in the right by the same hand grenade. They went together to hospital and from there home, I presume. They may still be alive today, 60 years later.

Almost our entire stay in Greece our company spent in and around a small fishing village named Agria on the shores of the Aegean sea, near the port city of Volos. Here our lives were relatively uneventful, if we accept the fact that we were after all occupiers in a foreign country in time of war. We stayed there almost exactly twelve months. Our main responsibilities were keeping the roads in our area free of mines, and also check and map old mine fields laid by the Italians, who "have forgotten" to hand over their records when they left the country. Re-mapping existing mine fields is almost as dangerous an activity as is the clearing of them.

Mines were the main part of our "bag" also during the periodic trips, which the command of our division, headquartered in the city of Larissa sent out into the partisan-held (for the most part) areas in the mountainous northern and north-western districts. These "flag-showing" exercises were intended simply to remind the inhabitants of those areas that Greece was still an occupied country. We were never during these outings confronted by any partisan units, they were never numerous enough to face up to a full battalion of German troops. They were, however, very good at the laying of mines in the territory, of which they knew every square inch and in which we were strangers.

"we saw a column of dust and rocks falling back to earth"

Apart from the mines and the occasional booby traps we had to check and secure all bridges along the way and, if needed, repair or strengthen them sufficiently for our heavy vehicles to pass over them. The mines that we from time to time did come across were buried under the surface of the road and camouflaged as best as possible. That task was made a lot easier for the mine layers than it otherwise would have been, by the fact that, in general, all roads were in poor state of repair. Road maintenance was by then for a number of years very low on the list of Greek government's priorities. At the same time this made the task of detecting them at a distance from a moving vehicle all the more difficult. It was clearly quite unrealistic for us to stop the convoy every time we saw up ahead something that was most likely nothing more dangerous than a pothole recently filled with loose dirt and gravel.

In order to keep the column of vehicles moving at a reasonable pace, it was necessary for us, sappers, to develop a kind of sixth sense or a "nose" for mines. Of course, this didn't always work and now and again we have suffered casualties. One day I had a narrow escape. Try and visualize: a line of trucks, armoured vehicles and a number of officers' command cars stretched along a winding road for about 2 to 3 kilometres and at the front, about 100meters ahead of the first, Battalion Commander's, open 6-seater Mercedes a motorbike and sidecar carrying three sappers, all craning their necks, examining the road surface up ahead for any signs of recent disturbance.

This day I was the man on the pillion seat behind the rider and, as usual, the third man, sitting in the sidecar, was equipped with the electronic mine detector. Suddenly, with the first buildings of the city of Joanina only about two kilometres distant, the Commandant's Mercedes speeded up and as he was passing us he waved and called out something like: Thank you, but I am taking over the lead now. No one will ever know why he was in such a hurry, because only seconds later, as we have rounded the next bend, we saw a column of dust and rocks falling back to earth, the Command car upended in the ditch, dead driver pinned at the wheel and - dying in the dust in the middle of the road – the colonel and another high-ranking officer who was with him just "for the ride". I can still recall the sight of an agitated divisional medical officer actually pleading with us, (not ordering) to ensure that there are no other mines blocking the way, so that the dying officers can be moved to hospital as quickly as possible.

We did locate two more mines nearby, guided the ambulance safely past them and only then got to work disarming them. Sadly, both wounded men died before they reached the hospital. Still, apart from such occasional disruption of routine, our life in Greece was much more relaxed than was life at the front. Life of a field engineer brings with almost each new day a lot of hard physical work and our unit didn't escape it either. Probably the most exhausting construction activity for us took up the three months starting from June '44. As a high priority we were given the task of constructing a line of defences along a several kilometres long segment of the eastern coastline. Naturally, other units also were allocated their stretches of the coast.

We had to learn some new skills very quickly, because the construction of bunkers was not included in our training up to that time. Of course, we knew how to handle explosives and that was a large part of this job. Using only dynamite and muscle, huge holes had to be excavated along the line of rocky slopes, before we could start pouring cement. For the concreting it was necessary for each man to carry up and down trackless hillsides countless wooden formes and bags of cement on his back. We had some mules but never enough of them and in any case, some of the precipitous locations even the mules could not reach.

And here I had a little bit of luck. Our Regimental Command has decided to send the best two riflemen from each of its 15 companies to a three-week sharpshooting (sniper) course. And I was the top rifleman in our company. This course was conducted in the live-firing area south of Davle, where our company spent some ten weeks about a year earlier. And so I travelled north feeling as if I had just won a three-weeks' holiday.

Immediately on my return from the course, about halfway through August it was time for my annual bout with malaria and, sure enough, it hit me and I was admitted to the regimental field hospital located in a nice private house in Volos. That is the last thing that happened to me in Greece. In the first days of September 1944, just twelve months after our arrival in that country, the developments on the Eastern front forced our re-deployment north to Siebenburgen area in Romania. When eventually British troops from Crete landed in Greece and stepped inside our spanking new bunkers, not one of them was so much as scratched by a single bullet.

© 2006 Milan Lorman