They are the country’s unsung war heroes: thousands of men and women who fled Nazi-occupation to serve in foreign armies during the Second World War. Those who returned to communist Czechoslovakia after the war were branded enemies of the state, those who stayed away were given no credit, unless they had fought alongside the Soviet forces on the Eastern front. Historians are now working on an internet project which aims to map the fate of some 83 thousand Czechs and Slovaks who fought against Nazi oppression in different parts of the world.
They flew with the RAF, fought in Poland, France, North Africa and the Pacific and received more credit from foreign governments than they did from their own country. After the fall of communism in 1989, archives opened and Czech historians slowly started filling in the blanks - a difficult process hampered by the fact that few veterans were alive to tell their tale and many of their descendants were scattered the world over after facing persecution from the communist regime. In 2004 a Czech NGO collected the testimonies of those still living, producing a unique oral history project called “Voices of Heroes”. In March of this year the Czech Defense Ministry made available a database of known Czech war graves outside the Czech Republic. These databases are, of course, far from complete. The Military History Archive and the Association of Czechoslovak Legionaries are now working on a database mapping the fate of some 83, 000 thousand Czechs and Slovaks who fought abroad in WWII.
Julius Baláž, the director of the Czech Military History Archive, heads the project:
“The idea to create a complete database of Czechs and Slovaks who fought abroad in WWII was first discussed in 2004, shortly after we finished compiling a database of Czech and Slovak soldiers killed in the war. Logically the next step was to try and produce an overall data base to include all Czechs and Slovaks who fought abroad. Our primary sources are recruitment files, medical records and we also have at our disposal databases collected after the war documenting people’s role in the resistance movement and active service in the war against Nazi Germany.“
Work on a complete data base is bringing out files that have not seen light of day in over half a century. They have to be checked against all other available records and in some cases historians rely on the public to correct available information. One of the problems that often crops up is that soldiers serving in foreign units often got recruited under false names in order to protect their families in Nazi-occupied Bohemia should they fall into enemy hands. They also often gave the wrong age – young men made themselves older, old men younger, so as to get recruited. They all had ID numbers, but even that can be tricky because it sometimes happened that a dead soldier’s ID number was passed on to a new recruit. Despite all these complications, historians are slowly producing the most complete database to date of Czechs and Slovaks who fought abroad between 1939 and 1945.
Some names are instantly recognizable such as that of Jan Masaryk, the son of president Tomáš G. Masaryk, or Jozef Gabčík, one of the paratroopers who took part in the assassination of Nazi governor Reinhard Heydrich. Thousands of others remain anonymous. Julius Baláž says he wants to give many of these unsung war heroes a face and name.
“We are considering embellishing this data base in time. Soldiers of a certain rank –say from the rank of lieutenant – or those who were awarded for bravery would rate a small profile with a photograph that would give more than just the dry facts about when they were recruited, wounded in battle, or raised to the rank of general. We want to use all the information available in our archives to give these heroes names and tell their stories, so that they are given the credit they deserve.”
Compilation work on the project is far from over and if all goes according to plan the database should be accessible sometime next year on the website of the Czech Military History Archive. Together with the other data bases emerging it is expected to create a more accurate picture of the country’s World War II history and possibly even provide valuable information to people who have not been successful in tracing the fate of ancestors who fought and died far from home.
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