The Long Walk Home, Part I
Last year I suffered a devastating personal loss that set me reeling back on my heels. No, to be honest, it set me further than that; it set me flat on to my back. For months I found it incredibly difficult to find the will to simply get out of bed. Food tasted bland (the most worrisome, for those who know me), I could go for days without showering or changing clothes and nothing captured my interest. I worried that I might never find joy in my life again and if it weren’t for my family, life would have been dull grey and lifeless. I read and read, and lost myself in the worlds of others, hoping the storm clouds blanketing my life would somehow fade away.
I thought back to when I had run my own business, and how hard I worked and how no problem had been insurmountable. I had simply persevered, putting one foot in front of the other, every single day, for 11 years. I had now lost that stoic determination that had propelled me forward and had sustained me when things got really tough and I needed to figure out how to get it back.
I began to wonder where that fierce sense of determination had come from; for years others had commented that I had more guts and stamina than anyone they had ever met and I wanted to find out how I came to possess it. I began to explore the past so that I could understand “my people” and see what my ancestors had endured before me, and to understand what compelled them to not simply exist but to thrive, especially in difficult times. What I found awed me, and made me realize that I came from stuff a lot tougher than anything I could have imagined.
When I was young, my father would tell me stories of his grandfather in WWI, and how he had been a POW and had walked home at the end of the war. While I heard the story as a kid over and over, I did not appreciate the true feat that Great Grandpa Paul Milec had accomplished. It was only in the past year as I studied WWI and placed Paul in the historical events that I truly learned to grasp the magnitude of what he had done, and began to understand how his experiences shaped his personality.
Shortly after WWI started, Paul was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Army to fight for a side he did not believe in. A staunch nationalist who felt strongly for the rights of his fellow Slovaks and Czechs, Paul could not stomach the idea of fighting for the Austro-Hungarians who had ruled the Empire for hundreds of years, who had suppressed his language and who had attempted to extinguish his culture.
In October, 1914 Professor Masaryk from Charles University in Prague had convinced the Russian Army to not fire on the Czech and Slovak men from the Austro-Hungarian Army who waved white flags and sang the old Slovak hymn Hej Slovane, a song that stirred strong nationalist feelings in the Czechs and Slovaks. Usually, only a few men at a time surrendered, as they were under heavy surveillance by the Austrian and Magyar officers, and by paid informants in their ranks. By spring of 1915, the Austro-Hungarians had received orders to shoot any man who deserted them. Paul and a few other men in his unit were some of the brave men who stood up on the battlefield, waved the white flag, and poured out their hearts singing Hej Slovane (Hey Slovak).
Paul was sent to a POW camp in Siberia, along with the thousands other Czechs and Slovaks who surrendered as well, and he remained imprisoned for over a year. Compared to the Poles and other POWs, the Czechs and Slovaks were fairly well treated. Their camps were not as remote and were less primitive than the ones in the far eastern part of Siberia, they had some shelter from the cold weather, and they had relatively more food than the daily ration of a piece of bread and cup of tea that was given to the other POWs. However, it was a labor camp, they slept on beds that were nothing more than wooden platforms, food was rationed and life wasn’t exactly pleasant.
In February, 1916, they were miraculously freed after successful negotiations between General Stefanik (a Slovak now in the French Army) and the Russians, and allowed to band together to form a volunteer army to help Russia fight the Germans and Austro-Hungarians. Of course they also had their own agenda, which was for freedom from Magyar oppression and for their own nation with which they could achieve self actualization. Over time this volunteer army swelled to nearly 70,000 men and was considered to be the most organized and effective army in WWI; not bad for a group of former POWs, Czechs and Slovaks who came from nations around the world to risk their lives for an idealist’s dream, for no pay. Sometimes ideals are worth fighting for regardless of the cost. The stories of the Czechoslovak Legion and their heroic battles and wins over the next few years are told in my previous posts listed below:
When WWI ended, the Czechoslovak Legion remained in Russia for another year and a half, continuing to fight in the Russian Civil War against the Bolsheviks. But they grew weary with fighting in a war for which they had nothing to gain, and after nearly six years away from home, they decided it was time to call it quits. In the end, in order to secure safe passage out of the country, they finally negotiated with the Bolsheviks (Communists) and gave up the boxcars of gold bullion they had been protecting along with Admiral Kolchak, the leader of the White Russian Army, in a rather shocking switch of sides.
While most of the men departed via Vladivostok and sailed back home around the world (which took another 1-2 years!), Paul thought he could get home faster, and so he did what few others have ever chosen to do: for six months, he walked home across Siberia, through the ongoing battles of the Russian Civil War and through the freezing Siberian winter. Except for a brief two day power outage during this past winter snowstorm, I cannot say that my suffering included undue weather conditions, although I did do battle of sorts.
Siberia is how cold, and how big?
The word “Siberia” is derived from the Mongolian word Sibir, meaning “sleeping land.” The entire country of Canada could fit inside Siberia, or the equivalent of nearly 2 USA’s. To take the train across Siberia today from Moscow to Vladivostok takes over 2 weeks, crosses 9 time zones and over 5700 miles; the entire width of the country is over 9,000 miles. While there are long winters lasting 8 months or more and cold snaps of -40F are common, temperatures in spring and summer can soar to 110F. Most of the middle of Siberia is forest of fir, spruce, pine and larch trees – the darker turquoise area called “taiga” above, and you can travel hundreds of miles before you hit another town. Just below this forested area in yellow is what is thought of as the typical Siberian landscape – vast, treeless grassy plains with occasional mountain ranges.
I estimate that Paul walked over half way across Siberia, starting in February, 1920, through forest and then down into the plains area to cross into Hungary, and then made his way across Hungary and over to Soljani, represented by the blue dot on the map above, arriving by the end of August, 1920. Once he reached Hungary, it took just weeks to walk the rest of the way.
Next: Part II – The End – making the trip home.