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The Long Walk Home, Part II

April 14, 2010

Legionnaires walking across Siberia

To catch up with this post, read here first.

Walking Home

Prior to departure, Paul and the men from his unit were each given a formal document signed by the Russian government that declared they were free to leave the country.  It was still bitterly cold in the vast frozen tundra when they first set out in late winter; home was thousands of kilometers away, through the inhospitable forest, across mountain ranges and through dangerous territory with ongoing skirmishes between the Bolsheviks and White Russians.  At night they would camp out in tents in the woods and huddle around a quickly built fire taking turns sitting close, and they would periodically stand up and stomp their feet and flail their arms up and down to keep the circulation going to prevent frostbite.

Paul Milec in the middle. His uniform looks like that of a Captain in the Storm Battalion of the Legion

Paul wore a Russian military style winter coat called fufaika, with a high collar and a hemline down to his knees.  His pants were lined with wool, but they still did not manage to keep out the chill.  He wrapped his feet in pieces of linen sheets, but not too tightly or they would stop circulation, and tucked them into tall boots that reached to the knees; on his hands he wore the mittens provided by the Red Cross, and on his head, the Russian style fleece hat, the papakha.    Years later in Canada, my dad would still see some older Slovak men using the linen wrap-style socks with their boots during the winter months.

Legion and sledge with the carcass of pigs

They packed as much food for the trip as they could manage, including slaughtered pigs which they strapped onto a sledge to pull behind them, and several loaves of dark Russian bread.  Occasionally they would stop at village homes and farms where they would be given a warm place to sleep (usually on a bed of hay in the barn, but still better than hard ground in a cold tent), and a hot meal to eat, in exchange for helping out with a few chores around the farm.  Paul knew which houses to stop at because they would hang some ham by their door to signal their willingness to feed the soldiers.

Siberian landscape on postcard, with Legion walking

Some days the wind would drive the snow so hard into them that they hardly made any headway, but they had to keep moving or they would suffer frostbite on their hands and feet.  When Paul breathed in, the sharpness of the cold air would catch his breath, and he would feel the cold go right through his body as the wind howled around him.

Walking home across Siberia, 1919

When Easter arrived, they sang Czech and Slovak hymns to each other as they marched along, travelling a bit faster now with the days of spring growing longer and the warmth from the sun encouraging them along.  All were walking home to new countries; most of the Czechs and Slovaks would return to the newly formed country of Czechoslovakia, the nation that had risen out of their incredible united voluntary efforts; and Paul was walking home to his village of Soljani in the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later to be named Yugoslavia).  Both countries were created as a result of the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in WWI, and for the first time in many generations, the men were free to talk, sing, write and teach in their own language.

Legionnaires sleeping in the Siberian forest

What kept Paul moving forward, one step at a time, day after day, while others gave up and became casualties of the war?   He was a stubborn man in his later years, set in his ways and difficult to get along with.  Did this stubborn streak help him to survive, or was it caused by his experiences in the war?  I suspect it was a combination of both.  The dream of reuniting with his family to live the life they had planned urged him on.  He was a rich man by most Slovak standards; he and Maria had moved to the US in 1907/8 and started and sold a successful bakery, and had run a boarding house in Akron, Ohio.  They had taken their savings and moved back to Soljani with their children to be reunited with their extended families and to live the good life with their American cash savings.  There had been a tragedy at sea on the way home which most likely adversely effected him, and within a year of arriving back in Europe, war broke out and the anticipated lifestyle had to be put on hold indefinitely.  What drove him and gave him the will to survive was the belief that when the war was over and he returned home, his well earned pot of gold at the end of the rainbow would be waiting for him.  That had been the plan all along:  the gold was  he and his family’s just reward for years of personal sacrifice, backbreaking work, careful planning and saving.  In his mind, the promise of what awaited him at the end of the difficult journey both justified the sacrifices he had endured and compelled him to take each next step.

Home at Last

Maria Milec on the far right, with baby Pauline. To her left is her mother Mary Mihalic, her sister Julka, her father Chondor, her aunt, and her sister Suska. In the front row second from left is Ludwig, and I believe the other kids are Milecs as well. 1913

Maria and the kids were waiting for Paul back in Soljani, along with Maria’s parents, Chondor and Mary Mihalic, and Maria’s sisters, Julka and Suska (Julia and Susan).  Maria attended church every Sunday, praying for the safe return of her husband, not knowing for months if he was dead or alive.  Their children, including Ludwig and Pauline, had no recollection of their father and were no longer toddlers; it had been six years since their father had left to join the army and Ludwig was now 10 and Pauline 7.

Hungarian landscape

Soon after reaching the Hungarian border, Paul and his group stood looking at the valley down below, embraced one another and said their final farewells.  They had been together nearly six years, through thick and thin, and now they would go their separate ways.

Paul lived the furthest, and walked the last few days alone.  Upon arrival in Soljani, he walked down the street where all Slovaks in the village lived clustered together, and then up the walk way to the front door of his house; he was barely recognizable.  Gaunt and suffering from malnutrition, Paul appeared to have aged several years.

Old Croatian House

He flung open the door and threw his arms around Maria, too tired and overwhelmed to say anything.  Maria screamed in joy, waving her hands in the air excitedly, startling the kids who stood shyly nearby.  The long ordeal was over. He was home and they were finally able to start living the life they had dreamed of. Or so he thought.

Video of the beauty of old Slovakia

Ceska Pisnicka

Karl Hasler was a famous Czech composer popular during WWI. This is his most famous song,  I imagine Paul and Maria listening to this music back in 1920.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Commodore permalink
    April 17, 2010 12:45 am

    What an incredible story. I feel so cold, exhausted, very hungry and mentally drained reading it.
    Paul must have been an amazing man. It is so hard for me to imagine that distance and the hardships but you have done a fantastic job in pulling the research together to make it an inspiring read. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Mary Milec permalink
    April 21, 2010 10:01 am

    Milan says he doesn’t remember his grandfather being difficult to get along with. He remembers him as a very nice person. They lived next door to them for many years.

    • April 21, 2010 10:33 am

      It must have been just a prickly relationship then between Paul and my grandfather, Jerry Sr. When they first came to Canada, they all lived together for the first year. There was some kind of falling out, and within the year Paul, Mary and their 2 kids moved out and into their own farm. Pauline and Jerry rarely saw them, and their kids barely knew them. A couple of old Slovak friends and neighbors have also mentioned the animosity between them.

      I used to visit Paul and Mary with my dad, but they never came over to Pauline’s. My dad used to say that Paul was very strong willed. There is a family story about Paul calling my grandfather one day to get a ride into town – have you heard that one? I am saving it for a later post!

      I’m glad to hear he was very nice, and I am sure Milan knows this better than me or my dad who saw him far less.

  3. December 22, 2011 4:45 pm

    What a story! I found your blog searching Google images fro Hungarian landscapes. May I ask if you are the author of the beautiful color picture of the Balaton region? I used it as a reference for a portrait to a friend and I would like to give credit to the photographer…can you help me, please?

    • December 22, 2011 7:25 pm

      Hi Astera, thank you for the kind words! I am not the author of that picture, and I frankly don’t know where I found it. I should have properly given credit to the photographer too. Most of the pictures are from my family collection of photos, or my own, or from over 100 years ago and the pictures are thus in the public domain.

      • December 28, 2011 10:48 am

        Thank you very much…I should have also said that not only your story is very compelling but also beautifully documented! Happy Holidays!

  4. December 29, 2011 9:07 pm

    Thank you so much, Astera, and Happy New Year to you! Tonya

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