Essay by Barbora Slabakova

Family History
Barbora Slabakova
94 301 Sturovo
Slovak Republic
Barbora is a student at the Gymnazium in Sturovo Class 6B
FROM MY FAMILY TREE
Introduction on my surname:
In my family tree on my father’s side, reaching to the time of Jan Komensky – 12 generations before me – my first known ancestor was Martin Szlabaczek of the scenic little Moravian-Slovak town of Osvitiman, situated at the foot of the Choibske hills.

In the unhappy times of the Thirty Years War it was a tiny settlement, numbering only 6 dwellings. In one of these was born its native son Jirzi Slabaczek, who possibly found his name, meaning in Czech one who is both weak and small, unbecoming. Therefore on the occasion of his wedding on 7 November 1686, he wed Marina Klymekova with the improved surname of Slabak, which was then respected by all subsequent generations until today.

Despite the very interesting history of the Slabak line, I got interested in a nearer ancestor, from five generations before me, through my father’s mother, because of the uncommon fate connected with the First World War. This part of his life is captured in a quantity of preserved written material – and discovered less than a year ago – which faithfully captures how they lived, when the war raged, in which was forced to participate among others:

Jozsef Godo, 14 March 1876 – 12 June 1953 (appendix 2)
He was a citizen of the modern-day Sturovo, in his time called Parkany, the seat of the Esztergom district, right on the bank of the Danube. He was born to poor parents, as the last of four children. His father supported the family working in the nearby coal mines and Gerecsen quarry, best known as the source of monumental marble of the Ostrihom basilica.

Only thanks to exceptionally hard work and a lucky marriage, while still young he became a respected citizen, opening a pleasant restaurant on the main street, becoming a wine wholesaler and at the same time a farmer. This relatively successful, even enviable life was interrupted by the First World War, which he could not avoid, despite his age of almost 40 years. He set out for war, not even able to enjoy the celebration arranged for the 10th wedding anniversary with his admirable wife Juliska.

Seven days after war was declared, on Tuesday 4 August 1914, he enlisted as militia in the 14th infantry division of the imperial royal army at Nitra, where there began four years of forced misery, instead of the promised 3 or 4 weeks of heavy training which were supposed to be enough to defeat the unruly Serbs.

Before he got to the combat lines, he sent several brief post cards from Nitra, from where he departed as soon as he was classified as “capable to fulfill duty at line of combat”.
On 27 August he sent word from Tarnow in Galicia, in close proximity to the front line. Then follows a long silence, for a reason he was to describe months or perhaps years after the fact in these words: (excerpt from authentic preserved memoirs “Az utolso ejszaka a harcterol 1914.september 8”)

Fateful night of 8 September 1914

“It was close to the Galician town of Khove, where we were relieving withdrawing units, exhausted by the unexpectedly tough attacks of the Russians. In an unusual calm we took positions in the reserve trench line, when around ten o’clock under the veil of nightfall, the call rang out: ‘Charge!’
“Along the broad plane came the cry ‘Huraaaaaa’. I ran forward about 100 meters, where I pressed myself into the shallow hole under a bushy tree. I waited there through the night.

“With the coming day the gunfire renewed. The thicker the bullets from the opposing side, the heavier we tried to respond. After a while I noticed that our response was weakening, that we were growing fewer, some of our ‘nests’ had gone quite still. We couldn’t manage, vainly came the officers’ commands to ‘Fire, fire!’ Our rifles against the machine guns had no chance. It was necessary to fall back to a more secure position. As soon as we moved, the enemy’s deadly bullets found their mark. I, thank God, stayed in place, and fortunately I recognized my countrymen, Sandor Toth from Parkany, Laszlo Szabados, Karoly Paszto and Mihaly Szabo, and Sergeant Titusz Mautner from the next village, who were hidden behind a very deep and spacious trench. I didn’t hesitate, crawling toward them.

“As soon as I got to them, at the edge of the trench two crouching lieutenants never stopped screeching for us to return fire. Sergeant Mautner exclaimed that there was no help for us, and the only thing to do when so overmatched was to give ourselves up to fate. The gentlemen lieutenants protested, calling on our pledges, military honor, the interests of the imperial royal monarchy, but we all listened to the sounder Sergeant Mautner, because from over the trench next to us were visible caps, coats and rags hung on bayonets. We crawled out from around the trench, hands above our heads, as the Cossacks calmly neared us.

“Sidis, sidis,” came the newcomers’ call, as we looked at each other un-comprehending, shaking our heads, until they demonstrated what that meant. In a moment another order: ‘Pasol, pasol’ with which we, after another demonstration, complied. We went under escort, there were at least two hundred of us, but on the way our numbers grew out of control. By the time we trudged to the streets of Khove’, there were two or three times as many of us, maybe even over half a thousand. There we savored a short rest. They brought us water, but not enough bread. The Cossacks and the community were none too friendly to us, nor we to them.

“Then again came the ’Pasol, pasol’, and we slowly got up and continued on. We saw that these regions had been run over by the war. Only a few days before there had been fierce battle with luck on our side. Today it was reversed, with the Cossacks taking back what belonged to them, or to Russia. Burnt-out villages, impoverished people, remains of weapons, of animals, but also of people. This attended us the whole way to the city of Lublin, which we reached the evening of the next day. In that place there were thousands of us.

“In the morning they wrote us up, and in the early evening loaded us into wagons. The immensely long train of prisoners headed for endless Russia. It was Friday, 11 September 1914.”

A prisoner’s driftings through Russia:

Novi Nikolsk 26 September 1914 – 23 October 1914
He journeyed by train 16 days. During the transport they received 25 kopeks daily, so they could obtain food at stops. He got to the east of St. Petersburg, where there are short nights but also longer, colder, real winters.

Here he worked on construction of prison camps diligently, so as not to freeze in the coming winter. After three weeks of the digging necessary to put the forth-coming barracks deep into the ground, he moved to a further but more lasting abode.

Nikolsk-Ussurijsk 20 November 1914 – 4 April 1916
Unfortunately there is no trace of the 8,000 km trip through infinite Siberia, on which he spent over three weeks. Probably there were no ways to write anyone, and if there were, it was lost. He worked on the completion of the Trans-Siberian railway, running along the left, or northerly, bank of the Amur through Chabarovsk to Vladivostok and Port Arthur.

In the vastness, near to the Sea of Japan, he must have been very sad. He wrote 1-2 letters weekly. The very first preserved account is from 5 January 1915. This letter, like most, was written in German, because only in German, French and Russian was it allowed. But conditions in camp were not so strict as to prevent him in time, as a toughened prisoner of war, from writing also in his native Hungarian.

In content, the letters are identical at the introduction and very end. He recounts that thanks to God he is healthy and wishes the same to all at home, to wife, daughter, relations and acquaintances. The subject of all letters is concern over whether and how his wife is managing the inn, devoting some time to his daughter, giving reminders on how to handle vineyard and fields they had been tending since they married. He gives advice, always declaring his hope that the war will soon end. In some he testifies to heartache at not being home, but also adds a view on the post-war future.
In letters from home, written by his wife, daughter, relatives and acquain-tances, he learns with satisfaction that all is in order. They write on principle only in German, according to valid regulations, with some exceptions that escaped the attention of government bureaus when letters came through in Hungarian.

Only from his next place of confinement does he announce that he left Nikolsk-Ussurijsk after 16 months, again finding himself in Europe.

Sarapul’-Vjatsk 28 May 1916 – 25 November 1916
From the very end of Siberia after 4 weeks’ journey on the Trans-Siberian, he returned to the region he left a year and a half before, only 600 km more easterly, closer to Ural.
Here, too, he participated in building rail facilities. He boasts of earning well, 35 kopeks a day, which he said was plenty. To please all those at home, he had photographs made: one in the well-kept garb of the Austro-Hungarian soldier, which he looked after carefully, and another in a white prisoner’s outfit. When he sent them home he noted that this was his greatest luxury yet, why it cost 7 and a half rubles.

In the last of the 30 letters he wrote from here, dated 25 November 1916, he wishes those at home a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, adding that they shouldn’t send money, not only indicating he didn’t need it, but also wanting not to repeat the case when he got from home 100 kopeks in the Siberian bank in Tiensin, China, but only by a stroke of luck received it, as he had already moved on to another place thousands of kilometers away.

Tuapse 13 December 1916 – 22 April 1917
He traveled for more than two weeks to this Black Sea port 2,000 km away. As everywhere else, here he also worked on the railroad. As the war was continuing, and he had heard that the monarchy had lost over a million soldiers, he more often asks in letters about relatives and acquaintances who also had to go to war. Unfortunately he didn’t receive good news, which grieved him, and he realized that he could see his own imprisonment as a kind of ransom from the suffering of war.
Here he stayed for a short time, only to move again. Fortunately he went further south, as if the stars wanted to compensate for what he had lost in the bitter 30 to 40 degrees frosts of Siberia and the northern Ural region.

Gudauty-Suchumi 11 May 1917 – 26 November 1917
The trip to his new place of confinement ran along the Black Sea coast, from the north to the south Caucasus through the famous spa towns of Gagra and Soci. He very much appreciated this southern place, though sometimes indicating that there was more than enough sun and heat. From here he sent one of his photographs, writing among other things to his wife: (translation from Hungarian)

“…Show the messenger the greatest hospitality, he’s the one with whom for 29 months I’ve eaten Russian bread, sometimes good, sometimes bad, but already too sour for us not to wish for our own bread, if only that could happen soon…” Because the photograph was delivered, it proves that his co-prisoner under especially lucky circumstances and probably exploiting the general chaos created by the October revolution, got home several months earlier. Who it was and how he managed it, regrettably, remains a mystery.

End of imprisonment

In April to June 1918 come a number of post cards, by now from Galician towns: Jozefka, Tarnopol’ and Stryjno, which are close to Kovel’, where he was captured 3 and a half years earlier. On 20 June 1918 he made contact from a quarantine camp near Budapest, only 50 km from the goal, Parkany, from home and from his own!

Thus concluded the prison odyssey of my great great grandfather Jozsef Godo, who in his prisoner’s baggage carried 94 letters received from home. After three years of being stowed and reread, they were dog-eared, revealing that they were his only comfort in the vastness of Russia.
But still more precious for us was the handmade relic, carved for months from a single piece of wood by a common knife, which he made during his stay at the very end of Siberia. It depicts the Mount of Olives with Christ on the cross, and below Him the kneeling Mary, hands clasped in prayer to the heavens. The deeply-carved words on the back – IN MEMORY OF SIBERIA 1914 – THANK YOU, O MY GOD, THAT YOU HAVE SAVED ME – are for us not just a memento of him, but also a reminder that we, today, also have someone to thank.
In Sturovo, 20 February 2005

Appendix

Sources:
1. Registers of Roman Catholic parish offices, archived in:

  • Archive of Moravian Lands, Brno, for the years 1652 -1876
  • State Regional Archive, Ivanka pri Nitre, for the years 1750 -1895
  • Esztergom Parish Offices, for the years 1760 -1895
  • Sturovo Parish Offices, for the years 1895 -1930

2. City Birth Registry, archived in Sturovo Municipal Office, for the years 1895 –1930
3. Land register of Nove Zamky district
4. Preserved portion of authentic memoirs of Jozsef Godo in Hungarian, under the title “Az utolso ejszaka a harcterol 1914.september 8”
5. Preserved post cards from prison camp home, totaling 171, and from home to prison, totaling 94
6. Photographs sent home from prison
7. Memories of nearest relatives: of his now deceased daughter Helena Dlouha, maiden name Godo, and of his living granddaughters