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Czech Republic: Historian confims remarkable story of Romani war hero Imrich Horváth with military archival documents

22.3.2017 9:49
Imrich Horváth in a photograph from his personal identification card as a member of the Czechoslovak resistance abroad and at home. (Source:  Military History Archive Prague)
Imrich Horváth in a photograph from his personal identification card as a member of the Czechoslovak resistance abroad and at home. (Source: Military History Archive Prague)

This article sheds light on the story of Romani war hero Imrich Horváth, about whom news server Romea.cz first reported in February, by discussing documents and records from military archives about him. We are publishing in full translation the complete interview done for Czech Radio with historian Zdenko Maršálek from the Institute for Contemporary History of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic.

Imrich Horváth, whose Christian name is listed as Imre in several documents, joined the Czechoslovak troops in the USSR at the end of 1943. He fought in the Battle of the Dukla Pass and in the Slovak National Uprising, where he was injured and captured by German soldiers.

After the war and his return to Czechoslovakia he was inducted into the Czechoslovak Army and in September 1945 he was assigned to the guard battalion of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA). "It is absolutely comprehensible that the story of Imrich Horváth, especially in the version presented in the interview [Editor's Note: The previously-reported interview with a relative of Horváth's during a panel discussion for Romani Holocaust Remembrance Day in the summer of 2016] seems unbelievable at first glance; the story of what happened to him during the war has many interesting offshoots that would be worth documenting in detail and then presenting as a whole. The discovery of documentation, therefore, is something I consider an important action, not just as part of documenting the history of the Romani population, but also the history of the Czechoslovak resistance fighting abroad during the Second World War," said Maršálek.

Interview with historian Zdenko Maršálek about Imrich Horváth, conducted by Iveta Demeterová for Czech Radio

Q: Dr Maršálek, I am now holding in my hand a little registration card with the name Horváth, Imre, which documents that he saw battle during the Second World War?

A: From that little card, or rather, from the accompanying records, we can somehow reconstruct his participation in the Czechoslovak units. The personnel records kept for each soldier are sometimes full of material and sometimes sparse. As far as the records of Mr Horváth go, we can see from them that he was born in 1912 in Košice and served in the Czechoslovak Army during the interwar period, joining in 1934 and completing his basic military service, which is what full-time military service was called then.

THE DOCUMENTS

After the Vienna arbitrage, and after 15 March 1939, part of Slovakia and Sub-Carpathian Rus and later all of Sub-Carpathian Rus became Hungary, or rather, they were invaded and then occupied by Hungary, and Košice was then incorporated into Horthy's Hungary [Editor's Note: The Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary who served for most of WWII]. All of the population on that territory, whether they were citizens of Hungarian nationality, or Jewish nationality, or Roma, or Ruthenians, or Ukrainians, became subjects of Hungarian law and the Hungarian state. The Hungarians conscripted those citizens into the Hungarian Army, but their treatment of Jews and Roma was very cavalier, and they did not assign many of them to fighting units, but instead to auxiliary ones - construction units that were more like penal brigades, as we would call them today. Many of those units were sent to the eastern front with the Hungarian Army, which was fighting against the Soviet Union, and those units were supposed to perform digging work, de-mining, various construction works, building and extending trenches, etc. Many of those persons later recalled that sometimes the Hungarians would send them into no man's land to clear any mine fields between them and Red Army. That's how Imre Horváth got into the Hungarian Army and became a Soviet prisoner. It cannot be ascertained from these records whether he voluntarily joined the Red Army, or was captured, or what the circumstances were of his getting into the prison camp (that would take much more research). What is certain is that he joined the Czechoslovak Army from that prisoner of war camp - on the basis of a bilateral Czechoslovak-Soviet agreement that process was possible so that the Czechoslovak Army or its units on the eastern front could be supplemented by captives who were former Czechoslovak citizens and had been forced to serve in the German, Hungarian or Slovak Armies, and who joined from prisoner-of-war camps. That was Imre Horváth's case.

Q: So that means Mr Imre Horváth joined the First Czechoslovak Army Corps in 1943.

A: Yes. That corps didn't exist yet though - at that time what existed was the so-called Czechoslovak Troop Command in the Soviet Union, and back then there was just one field formation or field unit, the First Independent Czechoslovak Brigade in the USSR, which fought from October/November 1943 in the Kiev operation and in December 1943 continued to remain at the front. The logistics equipment, the reinforcements, and other departments of that unit were still in Buzuluk, where the unit originated. The newly-inducted soldiers, volunteers, were sent to Buzuluk. There, on 21 December 1943, a few days before Christmas, they were presented in the Czechoslovak units. That's the date on which Imre Horváth joined the Czechoslovak Army in exile. After that he underwent some brief training, which was actually very short - it might have just been a kind of retraining, because he had already been trained in the Czechoslovak Army during the interwar period and had then served in the Hungarian penal battalion, so he was already an experienced soldier at that time.

Q: Where was Mr Horváth then assigned?

A: After undergoing training he was assigned to the newly-created brigade, which was #2 and was established as an airborne brigade called the Second Czechoslovak Independent Airborne Brigade in the USSR - that was its official title. It was mainly comprised of defectors and prisoners from the Slovak units on the eastern front to whom other soldiers were assigned, mainly soliders who were available in Buzuluk. Together, they created this new brigade, which underwent thorough training. They were meant to be landed by plane to aid the upcoming Uprising, and depending on the circumstances of the Uprising - the Slovak National Uprising - it was anticipated that the brigade would be sent to assist it. First and foremost, it was not clear what the situation in Slovakia was, so probably the General Staff of the Red Army did not plan to set up an air bridge to send the entire brigade there - and those are the probable reasons, still speculated about to this day, as to why the brigade was not deployed immediately. It was assigned to ground battle, however, because it was considered that a rapid penetration through the Carpathian Mountains might aid the Slovak National Uprising most. That particular brigade was at the Battle of the Dukla Pass, at a different section of the front than the rest of the Army Corps, and did well. However, they also suffered big losses because as an airborne brigade their weapons were basically lighter and they did not have equipment of the same strength as a regular infantry unit.

Q: So from these documents it's possible to tell that Mr Horváth was at Dukla?

A: Yes. As part of the airborne brigade, Mr Horváth participated in the Battle of the Dukla Pass. The brigade was then withdrawn to the rear over the course of several days, rapidly reorganized, and sent by air to aid the Slovak National Uprising. They made it to Slovakia, although unfortunately at a moment in time when the Uprising had already been gradually suppressed, and those units that had risen up were pushed back. Nevertheless, the landing of the brigade aided the Slovak insurgents significantly, and they not only stopped the German advance at several key points, but briefly pushed their incursions back several kilometers. During the Slovak National Uprising the brigade never fought as a whole, but its various parts were sent to the most-endangered sections of the fighting, so the brigade was basically dispersed and could not fight as a compact unit as they had trained. After the Uprising was pushed back into the mountains, its individual sections did their best to evade capture by the Germans, and most of the brigade soldiers managed to do that and to wait out the very harsh winter in the mountains, most of them in the Low Tatras. Many soldiers, however, also were captured as they were falling back, which was also what happened to Imre Horváth.

Q: So Mr Horváth, after the battles in Slovakia, was captured...

A: Yes. That's even recorded on that very brief little registration card, that on 10 October 1944 he was captured by the Germans. I believe that 10 October date is probably not accurate and that it should read 10 November or something else, because on 10 October the brigade had just begun to gradually arrive in Slovakia. If the date of 10 October is accurate, he would have been captured immediately during the first battles of the brigade in Slovakia. That might have happened, it would take more thorough research to find out. Nevertheless, it's certain that, as a Czechoslovak soldier of that brigade fighting in Slovakia, he was captured by the Germans.

Q: Fine, so in Slovakia the Germans captured him - and what happened next?

A: According to the military materials that are available to me - because his main personnel materials are in Slovakia, in Bratislava, where they can be requested, and they would probably give a more thorough answer - but on the basis of the fragmentary information in the registration indexes and in the recruitment protocols that we have, we can see that after capture, like many others, he took advantage of the German offer to avoid the dismal conditions of the prison camp and exchange them for the less-poor conditions at a German factory working for the war industry, where many prisoners were forcibly enslaved. The prison camps were mostly in Silesia, and were evacuated because the Red Army was advancing. At that point I imagine, or it's my opinion, that he was probably transferred along with the prisoner columns and sent to a military factory.

Q: When I look at his personal record I see he also was given some honors, some medals.

A: He has here the Czechoslovak War Cross 1939-1945, with the year of its award listed as 1944... the date of the actions for which he was bestowed this honor. Then there is a record of his being awarded a Czechoslovak Commemorative Medal for participating in the campaign at the eastern front. In 1959 there is a record of his receiving a Dukla Commemorative Medal. To me, it's important that this story, which sounds like a fairytale on first hearing, or very improbable, almost impossible - well, now it seems absolutely relevant, in the light of these records, that this is actually what happened.

HONORS

  • 1944 - The Czechoslovak War Cross 1939-1945
  • 1949 - Czechoslovak Commemorative Medal
  • 1959 - Dukla Commemorative Medal

We all know the famous film "The Elementary School" (Obecná škola, 1991) and it has that character in it, the teacher Hnízdo, who talks about everywhere that he's been, and it appears as if he visited all of the battlegrounds where the Czechoslovak units ever fought abroad and it all seems absurd - but it's necessary to say that such people actually did exist, and their paths through the war were sometimes so complicated, and so demanding, that they seem all but unbelievable today. Some soldiers began their service somewhere and fought with their same unit until the end of the war, and while their military service was not easy at all, as far as their movements were concerned, they were very straightforward, but many other soldiers traveled during the war, and not just through all of Europe, but sometimes even all over the world. Mr Horváth also has a record here - and that previous interview described his recollections of his postwar fate - about the UNRRA organization, and this record corresponds to that story, because many members of that division were incorporated into the services escorting the UNRRA transports.

Q: What happened after the war, after 1945?

A: The records say he was in the Czechoslovak Army, that he re-enlisted as a liberated prisoner. The Army registered him again as having survived the war, and he was once more assigned to service until 8 September 1946, when he was assigned to the Czechoslovak units as part of UNRRA. That was an organization of the United Nations established to distribute primarily material aid to the countries that had suffered during the war and been occupied by the Axis powers. The aid that Czechoslovakia received through UNRRA was very significant, despite the fact that even before 1948, and especially after [the putsch], the Communists did their best to strongly marginalize its significance. However, the inventories of all the goods delivered, from food to locomotives, are actually impressive. For the distribution of the aid, each country had its own structures, and Imre Horváth was assigned to them here. That means - and again, I'm just assuming - that it is entirely possible that what was said in the previous interview about his traveling to America as an escort of a transport might actually have happened. Many members of those units were sent somewhere to get the supplies and deliver them back to Czechoslovakia. That means the story is possible.

Q: What else can you tell from his personal record?

A: For example, we have the date he was released from the UNRRA guard battalion:  27 March 1947. At that time he took off his uniform, became a civilian, and we can say he had spent many years in uniform. After that he is registered in the town of Plzeň, Dvorská Street, no. 7. The local military administrations kept their own records of former members of the resistance abroad and at home, and Mr Horváth also has a card from that local administration. In addition to this basic data about his service during the war, we can also tell how much money he made in 1969 and what his postwar fate was. From 1948-1950 he is listed as working as a laborer in a boiler room and as a repairman in Nejdek, and from 1950-1969 he is listed as an electric welder at the Škoda plant in Plzeň, in the locomotive factory. His personal characteristics are listed there also:  His work habits are recorded as good, he has a mild character and behaves calmly. There is a photograph from 1969 there also. It also mentions that he is a member of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and the Union of Anti-Fascist Fighters, but he is not listed as holding any offices, and the last three months describes him as ill, so in 1969 he was probably seriously ill. What I do not see listed, however, is that he was later imprisoned. The records also say he suffered a gunshot wound to his left thigh in Slovakia, he was injured in Detva and captured in September 1944 near Kriváň Mountain. From his induction certificate it should be possible to ascertain which part of the parabrigade he fought in, which battalion or platoon, and when he was actually captured. It seems he was not injured until he was in Slovakia, and not when he was in the Carpathians, but during the Slovak National Uprising. He could have fallen captive after being injured, because the Germans occupied several hospitals where injured soldiers of the parabrigades were together with other injured Slovak soldiers. If he had not yet recovered from his injury, he could have been captured as wounded. After he recovered, he may have received an offer not to sit around in the prison camp with the other captives but to enjoy somewhat better conditions in the German war industry.

There were quite a few Romani people in the Czechoslovak resistance units abroad. It is, naturally, a problem to ascertain that because it is only if they themselves declared it that their Gypsy nationality was recorded, if they themselves said "Yes, I'm a Gypsy".

Q: You read that in his personal file?

A: That kind of information can be found in the protocols, yes, but naturally many Romani people saw no reason to emphasize their ethnicity because the military authorities just asked what their mother tongue and religion were, and they only recorded nationality if somebody said "Yes, I'm a Gypsy" - then they would register the nationality "Gypsy". Mr Imrich Horváth might not have any record of having been Romani, and we must assume that there were many such soldiers, we can only find those soldiers who actually have such a record of their nationality in the personnel databases for the soldiers abroad.

Q: Why do we have to look at the databases abroad?

A: We look at the databases of all the members of the Czechoslovak Army abroad, which means the Czechoslovak military units between 1939-1945 organized abroad, i.e., in France, in Great Britain, in the Middle East, in the Soviet Union - or rather, on the eastern front.

Q: Here I see "nationality - Slovak, Gypsy..."

A: That's determined by what people have recorded in the protocols, i.e., what the inductee told the recruiter, or maybe what the officer decided to write down in that column. They asked about mother tongue, and if the inductee said "I speak Gypsy", then they recorded his nationality as either Gypsy, or as Slovak with Gypsy in parentheses. If somebody said "I speak Slovak, but I'm Gypsy", then they wrote down that his mother tongue was Slovak, but his nationality is Gypsy. Despite the fact that it was an exception for such data to be captured somehow, there are 50 soldiers in the recruitment protocols that have exactly that by their names, but there are many others who do not have any such record, and Mr Imrich Horváth is one of them.

Q: They simply signed up like that...

A: Yes, that's just how they signed up. Of those 50 people recorded as "Gypsy", the vast majority were from units serving on the eastern front and there's just one such person who came from the west, and it's a record that after the end of the war, not until August 1945, somebody applied from a prisoner of war camp run by the English Army, where he had ended up as a former member of the Hungarian Army (from the anti-aircraft units) where he had been serving and then, when the Hungarian units were dispersed and incorporated into the German Wehrmacht, he made it to the western front and then was captured by the Allies, and after the war he applied for repatriation to Czechoslovakia.

Q: Dr Maršálek, is there a book where readers could learn this information about Romani people fighting and participating in the liberation?

A: Basically, no. In some memoirs soldiers recall Romani troops, but it's absolutely exceptional. We, as a society, have a bit of a distorted impression about the Army serving abroad that is determined precisely by the recollections of those who were there, or by the works that have been written which partially have a propaganda purpose or significance. We do not have absolutely accurate information about what the personnel of the units abroad actually looked like, or our notions may greatly differ from reality, because in our imagination the people who fought in those units were ones who decided, after the occupation, to cross the border with weapons in hand to fight to restore the republic. Such highly-motivated patriots actually did create the bases for the future units in all of the places I mentioned (Britain, France, Poland, the Soviet Union, the Middle East), and they were in charge of their military leadership, because many of them were officers as well as ideological leaders. There were just a few thousand such people, while the Czechoslovak military units by the end of the war numbered more than 70 000, and that means that most of them had to be augmented from other recruitment sources, to speak in military jargon, than from among the original patriots, the founders of the units. For propaganda reasons, during the war those patriots were discussed as the model of the resistance to the occupiers and their contribution to those units was aggrandized precisely for such propaganda reasons - or rather, the numbers and contributions of the other groups of soldiers, who were not always seen as appropriate for the image of a nation fighting with such a high motivation, were marginalized...

Q: Did that affect Romani people too?

A: Yes, that affected Romani people too, it had to do with all minorities, because in the units fighting abroad there were also Czechoslovak Germans, an extremely high number of Jews, members of practically all of the nationalities of the former Czechoslovakia. Today we are amazed that, instead of the propaganda exploiting precisely the moment when not just Czechs and Slovaks joined the Army of the occupied state, but also the members of national minorities wanted to fight for the state, and died for it, including Germans - that moment was not taken advantage of in a propaganda sense, rather, it was emphasized that this was a national struggle.

Q: Isn't that a debt owed to the national minorities?

A: Certainly, naturally! It primarily has to precisely with the relationship of Czech and Slovak society toward minorities, or toward the members of other nationalities, or other groups on the territory of a state that most of Czech and Slovak society considered theirs, in the national sense - the Czechoslovak Republic was declared as a nation state, it was conceived of after 1918 as a nation state.

Q: That's why it may be difficult for those who have heard the memories of their family members who participated in those struggles and who then, justifiably, may feel ostracized from historical memory - that we have been forgotten about.

A: Yes. The story of Romani people in the resistance is absolutely characteristic of all those groups, because you'll find mentions of them everywhere. Yes, they were there. However, the impression that is given is that just a few individuals were there. Two or three... a couple of Romani people were there, yes, there were some Jews, rather a lot, there were even some Germans. Nothing has been kept quiet that was actually said at the time. It's not as if the historical record tries to insist that "No, no such people were there!" That's not it - but the degree of their participation, I would say, has been intentionally marginalized for propaganda reasons.

Q: What is the evidence of that?

A: To this day there has still not been an elaboration of the personnel structure of the military units of the resistance abroad exactly with respect to the aspect of nationality. I believe the reason consists precisely in the concern that the propaganda image not be disrupted that has somehow been built up and was supposed to have given the occupied nations a new identity, a meaningful identity to the battles and the resistance. That image was created during the war and it's interesting that in various forms it has remained practically the same for decades, to this day. This is not specific to Czechoslovakia, exactly the same problems are now being grappled with by many other countries in Europe. This is very significant in France, where such an image of the fighting nation was also created during the war, and today it is really quite difficult to deconstruct it. The efforts to map the very significant - in some areas even absolutely crucial - contribution of foreign nationals to the French domestic resistance, as well as the contribution of foreign nationals in the military units of De Gaulle's movement in Britain, those efforts are not accepted with any sympathy by a large part of French society. The image of a fighting movement involving the entire nation is somehow disrupted by these facts. I believe the situation is the same in our country.

Part of this interview was broadcast on 4 March 2017 on the Czech Radio program "O Roma Vakeren".

Iveta Demeterová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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