Drafted to the Army, Paul is captured, and is now a POW
Soon after arriving back in Soljani, Paul and Mary opened up a new bakery, just as they had in Akron Ohio. Mary had her hands full, with preschooler Ludwig and baby Pauline, and I am sure she was happy to be back home amongst relatives, and speaking her native tongue. (Come to think of it, I don’t recall Mary ever speaking or even understanding English later in life, when I knew her as “Great Grandma.” You would never know that she had once lived in the US for several years.)
Paul was busy starting the new bakery business. He was an incredibly hard worker, and had always worked for himself, as many Slovaks do. He was also somewhat strong willed, and some say a bit pigheaded. This single mindedness would serve him well in many ways, especially in business and in war, but it also made it difficult for him to get along with others at times. Paul’s secret to financial success was simple: work for yourself, work hard, save every penny, and never give up. He was so miserly, that it has been said that he could have survived on nothing but dirt. This trait would help him survive the brutality of the upcoming years.
Paul was passionate about Slovak nationalist ideals. Several of his Slovak friends had attended university in Bratislava, where a Czech professor, Tomas Masaryk, had put forth the idea that the only way for Slovaks and Czechs to achieve independence from the Austro-Hungarian Empire was to unite as one country. Masaryk had done a good job infusing this idea into the minds of thousands of Slovaks and Czechs in the early part of the century.
One of Masaryk’s students was the brilliant Milan Stefanik, a Slovak who would later become, amongst many things, an accomplished astronomer, diplomat, adventurer, pilot in the French Army, and eventually a General. Stefanik traveled the world spreading the idea of an independent nation for Czechs and Slovaks, and came to Cleveland, Ohio at one point early in WWI to encourage Slovaks there to return to Europe to help fight for this cause. Stefanik was close in age to Paul, and family stories, and pictures I have found in our collection, indicate that the two may have known one another. I wonder now if Paul might have been encouraged by Milan Stefanik to return to Europe.
As World War I broke out, though, Paul was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army, to fight for an empire and a cause he did not believe in, leading his own unit of men. His feelings were shared by many Slovaks who surrendered to the Russians soon after joining the army. Soon after entering the Army, Paul and his unit were captured by the Russians; I suspect they too surrendered, preferring that to fighting. Paul and his men were sent to a POW camp in Siberia, where they encamped with several other Slovaks and Czechs.
Sifting through old family photographs, I found one picture of Paul Milec in uniform, sitting between two other men, also in uniform. I had always thought that this was a picture of Paul serving in the Austro-Hungarian Army. But something was not quite right. The uniform did not look like others I had seen in pictures of that Army – Paul’s uniform was missing the braids and medals, and the hat looked Russian, and the others were not dressed exactly alike. What kind of ragtag army was this?