August 29 is celebrated by Slovaks as the anniversary of the 1944 Slovak National Uprising against Nazi domination. But for a group of former American soldiers who gathered this year in the tiny central Slovak village of Polomka, the day marked an emotional return to ground they had fought over and been captured on 54 years ago.
The visit of the 16 American soldiers and family members coincided with uprising day ceremonies that were held across Slovakia on August 28. Both foreign and native participants in the anti-fascist revolt were honoured for their roles in an event that most Slovaks regard as one of the nation's defining and proudest moments.
Most of the former American pilots and their relatives were visiting Slovakia for the first time since World War II. František Horvath had left Polomka at the age of two with his parents. The homecoming was all the more emotional for him because his brother and several other American soldiers had taken refuge in a hut in the woods above Polomka, and been captured by the Nazis on December 26, 1944. The 13 men found at the hut were taken to a concentration camp, where only two survived.
"I never went to the hut, although I live right here," said Horvath's cousin, who refused to give her name. "John Horvath was my cousin, and I did not want to see the place where he was caught."
The American group, now mostly in their 80's, had participated in the uprising and had helped the Slovaks obtain supplies. Five members of the group were American airmen who had been shot down on Slovak territory. John Schianca, a gunner on a US B-24, remembered how he was travelling with a broken leg when the plane was hit by flak on July 7, 1944. His friends had simply bundled him out of the stricken aircraft. "We had to jump, but I hadn't done it before. They showed me how, and pushed me out of the plane," said Schianca.
From the place where he landed he was taken to hospital in the western Slovak town of Trenčín, where nuns took care of him. "They protected us like hens protect their chicks. I am very happy that we will get to see sister Sofia," said Schianca. Sister Sofia, he explained, had been like a mother to him, and had even taught him a bit of Slovak.
After recovering from his injury, he was taken to a prison camp in Hriňová. But when the fighting came closer, the guards themselves told their prisoners to run away. "One advised us to go to the Modra hills. We didn't know where it was, and we didn't know where we were going,'' said Schianca.
While on the run in late August, Schianca and his four friends met a young man who saved their lives in the woods of Modra. František Sekereš, a 17 year old native of Žiar nad Hronom, led the group to Banská Bystrica where the uprising started.
František himself wanted to join the "battle for freedom," as he called it. With little food and water, but with the help of Slovak civilians, the group spent nine nights in the woods. "The Slovak people were so nice and helped us very much," said Schianca. From Banská Bystrica he caught the American plane that brought supplies to the country and took the soldiers back home. "Since then, our lives have been pretty routine," said Neil Cobb, Schianca's partner.
Schianca and Sekereš exchanged only one letter over the long years. Schianca sent a second letter several months before he was supposed to come with the group to Slovakia. "František sent me his picture so I would recognize him," he said.
The meeting of the young forest guide and the American soldier took place at the Banská Bystrica mayor's office on August 28, where town mayor Igor Presperín awarded the soldiers medals for their contributions to the uprising. Captain James Holt Green, Chief of the US Military Mission during the uprising, was posthumously named an honorary citizen of the town. Joseph Morton, a military correspondent for the Associated Press news agency, was posthumously decorated for extraordinary bravery during the uprising. Both men died in the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.
For the living, the ceremony had more than just medals to offer. "I saw František sitting at the table and writing. I recognized him thanks to the picture," said Schianca. "You can't even imagine how many times I've been through that trail in the woods in my mind," he told Sekereš through an interpreter as they embraced each other.
7. Sep 1998 at 0:00 | Andrea Lörinczová