US WW2 veterans with Slovak roots come close to ancestral land

A BATTLEFIELD is not the place for a young man to consider the lives of people he has never met, or a land he has never seen.
More urgent matters obviously take precedence when an individual is facing a life-threatening situation. Concentrating on troop movements, daily battles, life back home, and ultimately survival, takes up most of one's time and energy; the experience of American soldiers during the second world war (WWII) provided no exception.

A BATTLEFIELD is not the place for a young man to consider the lives of people he has never met, or a land he has never seen.

More urgent matters obviously take precedence when an individual is facing a life-threatening situation. Concentrating on troop movements, daily battles, life back home, and ultimately survival, takes up most of one's time and energy; the experience of American soldiers during the second world war (WWII) provided no exception. So it was reasonable that many of these soldiers, including many of Slovak descent, did not often consider the significance of unknown relatives in ancestral homelands when fighting in Europe.

The appreciation of such factors often only developed after peace existed, or much later in life.

Few American servicemen actually even reached their families' homelands, since the country's main involvement took place in only a few nations. However, many American combatants, with roots in countries such as Belgium, Germany, Italy, France, and England helped to liberate the lands of their ancestors from fascist control. Many individuals, such as Slovak American John Karas, a Staff Sergeant with the United States Army's 42nd "Rainbow" Infantry Division, did not give thought to such things at the time.

Like other WWII veterans, the current Pennsylvania resident and retired steel mill worker, whose father, Michael, was born in Slovakia, at the time, viewed his involvement in the war as being propelled by two central motivations during the actual stages of combat. There was the objective, which aimed to preserve life and freedom for people threatened by fascism, and there was instinct - trying to survive.

"What I thought was that I was trying to make sure I got home safe," said Karas. At the time, the family he wanted to see again included his wife, Helen, and infant son, Joe. Following Karas' return from the war, his family expanded to include another son, John, and a daughter, Theresa (Karas) Giles. Karas also noted, "Let me put it this way, I was glad that I had the experience. ... I figured that I did my duty there and I served my country."

Bob Sabol, a 77-year-old friend of Karas who also resides in Pennsylvania, echoed similar sentiments, stating, "I guess my main thing was to get out safely and have the war end." Sabol commented on his motivations at the time: "I wanted to get in because everybody was going in and I thought it was the right thing to do...I never gave [any family in Slovakia during WWII] too much thought because being born over here [in the US]... I never really had an association with them."

Yet, prior to the war, Sabol, who also served in the Rainbow, and Karas both wished to visit Slovakia.

Before meeting, each draftee considered making his own post-war trip to Slovakia. Circumstances would eventually prevent either one of them from making the journey to their ancestral land. Of the two, Sabol made it the closest, reaching Vienna, Austria, but never crossing the border. "Towards the end of the war, that's when I wanted to go," he said.

Sabol's hopes to reach Slovakia were shattered, and he quickly returned home from Vienna, when the Red Cross informed him of his father's death.

Karas' plans to see his family's homeland also ended prematurely. Having reached the European Theatre in February 1945 as a replacement soldier, Karas passed through France and reached the area around Schweinfurt, Germany.

The war then changed for Karas, on April 8, 1945.

On that day, Karas was shot in Arnstein, Germany, with the bullet hitting his left arm. "There was a house across a field and we ran across the field to get them out of the house and [the enemy combatants] had us pinned down," remembered Karas, who received a Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Service Medal, EAME Theater Service Medal with two bronze stars, and the Victory Medal. He also added: "I was in the process of going to visit [Slovakia], but then my numbers came up and I had a chance to go home."

Schweinfurt also played a role in Sabol's war memories. There he learned that United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt had died. "We had to stop fighting and they did a little memorial service in memory of President Roosevelt," said Sabol of an event documented in a 1946 book entitled 42nd 'Rainbow' Infantry Division: A Combat History of WWII.

Like Karas, Sabol also received a significant war injury.

When crossing the Danube River, Sabol came under attack and dove for cover with a pack of shells on his back. The pack shifted and knocked him in the head. "I don't remember anything for a long time after that," he said.

Sabol witnessed firsthand one of the world's most inhumane acts - the Holocaust.

He entered the Dachau concentration camp and witnessed the horrors carried out by the Nazis. "I couldn't believe people would do those things," he said.

However, even as Sabol and others witnessed the atrocities carried out by one political regime, another group, the Soviets, prepared to tighten their grip on Eastern Europe. The dividing line between freedom and tyranny came down to a race between Soviet troops from the east and other Allied forces from the west.

The competition created a stark line that divided Europe and the world for almost five decades.

"The only thought I had was that we shouldn't have stopped and we shouldn't have let them take Berlin," noted Karas. "We should have taken Berlin."

Along with Karas, University of Tennessee professor emeritus and supporter of Slovak culture in America, Igor Nabelek, who left the former Czechoslovakia in 1967, also discussed what happened when the Soviets gained control of half of Europe. "We hoped the Americans would come and that did not happen, obviously," said Nabelek, who told stories of the communists stealing from men and raping women. He also added, "The people felt we were betrayed by the rest of the countries at Teheran and Yalta," when discussing how Allied leaders met in those cities to create plans for the post-war world.

Born in Banská Bystrica, the heart of the anti-Nazi rebellion, Nabelek joined the resistance when he was 20. "My family was quite involved in that," said Nabelek, who had been sentenced to prison by the communists for not returning to Slovakia in the late 1960s. He did not return to his ancestral homeland until the communists had left.

Musicians, hockey players, dignitaries, businessmen, politicians, artists and others gathered in Washington, D.C. the summer of 2001 - so did veterans of the war. They all came together to celebrate the grand opening of the Embassy of the Slovak Republic. The soldiers received their recognition on June 12, during an award dinner to honour U.S. veterans of Slovak heritage. The embassy also honoured Americans who aided in the Slovaks' 1944 uprising against the Nazis during which America sent members of the Office of Strategic Services (the Central Intelligence Agency forerunner) to assist.

Nabelek still plays a role in helping people remember the sacrifices made by Slovaks, Americans with Slovak bloodlines, and other allied troops, when fighting to push the Nazis from Europe. He brought that message to the embassy ceremony when he gave the keynote address. Nabelek focused his speech on American airmen of different origin and the role they played during attacks against the Nazis in his homeland.

"They didn't have any appreciation [from others] for what they had done," he stated.

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