Anton Srholec (1929)

Photo: Anton Srholec

Biography:

“The one who has experienced the lack of freedom knows what freedom really means.”

Anton Srholec was born on June 12, 1929 in Skalica into the poor family of a small farmer. As the only one of seven children he decided to study at high school. As he desired to become a priest, he chose to study in a nearby Salesian high school in Šaštín. There in April 1950 he was affected by the state-wide action of the communist regime against the religious orders called Action “K” (K - in Slovak stands for – “kláštory”, meaning monasteries). After the violent takeover of the Salesian house in Šaštín, he was transported along with his other classmates and priests to a concentration monastery in Podolínec. Later, he was moved to work at the Priehrada mládeže (Youth Dam), what was supposed to be a re-education means of the ruling regime. Since this effort of the communist re-education of young students failed, finally they were released and Anton was able to graduate. Through the Salesian religious order, which had very close relationships with abroad, he got to a group of twenty-three priests and students, who in April 1951 attempted to escape to the West through Morava river. However, because of swollen watercourse they had to return and on their way back almost the whole group was detained by the expectant border guards. At first, Anton was taken to Bratislava Castle, then to the so-called prison U dvoch levov (At Two Lions) and he ended up in Leopoldov prison, where he spent two months on remand. Secret trial with the whole group took place at the State Court in Bratislava in February 1952. Here the young man desiring only to study heard the verdict – twelve years of imprisonment. Within a short period of time he served in prisons of Ilava, Olomouc and Pankrác, but after all his final destination and “home” for almost a decade became Jáchymov. Anton struggled with unbearable working conditions; his health however, reached the level when he couldn’t move anymore. In spite of this he had to continue in work. In the “last moment” he was saved in 1960 by declaring the amnesty, which referred also to political prisoners. Anton returned to his parents, although he couldn’t find any job for a long time. He managed to work only as a non-qualified worker whilst he was still monitored by the State Security. In years 1965 – 1968 he worked in Ostrava - Vítkovice by blast furnace. He used his language skills that he acquired yet in prison and in a short time he passed his state exams from English and German language. This helped him to achieve a job in a Research Institute of Poultry Industry. In 1969 he applied for permission to three months stay in Italy, where in September 1969 he began his studies at the University in Turin. Anton was supposed to be ordained a priest in 1970 in Turin; however, since he didn’t obtain permission of stay long enough, he had to leave to Rome, where he was ordained on May 17, 1970 by Pope Paul VI. Despite of all, Anton decided to return back home. Even though being a priest, he couldn’t work in the spiritual sphere. He employed himself as a sacristan in Blumentál church in Bratislava and later a dean arranged for him permission from the state administration to help out also in priestly activities. Unfortunately, his spiritual work wasn’t convenient for the communist regime and thus he was moved to Pernek, Veľké Zálužie and to Záhorská Ves. After all, in 1985 he was deprived of the state consent as well and he could again work only as a worker and a warehouser in Doprastav, where he stayed until his retirement in 1989. Fall of the communism in November 1989 and subsequent start of the democratic system Anton perceives very positively and as a person never broken by the communist regime he truly knows what freedom is. Until present he devotes himself to charitable activities and is also active in various communities and social organisations.

Preparations and Course of the Escape across the Border

Preparations and Course of the Escape across the Border (data format Flash Video)

“They came to my house in March and told me about the possibility of flying across the border and they also mentioned that the two groups had already escaped. Later, I came to know that Titus Zeman and probably Janko Brichta or don Pestún took them across. They told me about it and specified the details. They ordered me to come at the beginning of April, on a given date by train to Šaštín, to go to the Hercogs’ house, the father was a road worker, and his son was a Salesian, and there I would be given additional information. I had to take rubber boots, some basic stuff I needed, actually my personal things and nothing more, just a little food for one day. Then, I followed the instructions and went by that train. I noticed some other men there, we got of the train, but we were afraid to acknowledge each other. One remained at the station, the second one went away, you know, I was sure I came with somebody else by the train, even though we separated at the station, and I went to Hercog family. It was early in the evening, in April, actually shortly after the Easter, when the days were still short. There were about ten people, mainly priests; I even didn’t know some of them. We sat there and prayed, wrote something with a typewriter, you know, I was one of those who had finished the lessons of typewriting in Skalica. The ability to use the typewriter was a sort of advantage or asset back then. I wrote various things with the typewriter, certain documents. We also stayed the night in that crowded flat and early in the morning we set out to the wood. We were a big group consisting of about twenty people or even more. On the way the two men joined us, Ferdiš Totka and some other man, who took us across. We walked quite a way, we slept in the wood, because we went through it and decided to stay there, I remember I basked there for all afternoon. It was a nice sunny day of spring, like it was usual on Easter, so we sat and basked, it only blew a bit. We celebrated the mass on our suitcases, don Pavlík was there, if I am not mistaken, as well as Sandtner and Dermek. Then, we waited till the evening, when we were supposed to move on and cross the main road, which was the connecting line between Brno and Bratislava, it was near Moravia, near Závod and Leváre. We set out in the evening, crossed the road at night, and when we saw a car with a searchlight in distance we were commanded, it was about a hundred metres from the road, ‘Get down! Lie down! Create some formations such as a muckheap or the like.’ Therefore we lied down and we really saw the searchlight, it shined on us, but didn’t notice us there. Later, we moved towards the Morava river, we walked through a village, now I cant recall its name, but I know the dogs barked there being wild. It is important that we arrived there. Well, we were supposed to arrive at the bank of Morava river at about midnight, but we came at three or four in the morning and we were absolutely tired, exhausted, there were old men among us. I remember, don Tikl and Timko, either both or just one of them. The two of us had to carry him to Morava river, to support him. He had a huge suitcase as well as the typewriter and these were really heavy things. Moreover, he was ill, so we moved ahead very slowly. When we came there, we were near the dam, so don Zeman and Ferdiš Totka went to explore the area. Then, we dithered whether to go over it or not. Morava river was swollen, I don’t know if they had the incorrect information or just didn’t monitor the situation, or if the snow and ice melted in Moravia mountains, but Morava river was swollen and went over the bank, only the dam held the water. Those were the two obstacles we were aware of and the third one could appear in the back, on the Austrian side.”

In Leopoldov Mill

In Leopoldov Mill (data format Flash Video)

“We were blindfolded anywhere we went, we had a towel tied over the head and only this way we could go out. I got to Leopoldov; it was an old mill, now I know it was a mill. I was asked if I knew where I was. How could I know it? I was blindfolded when I was driven there and I assumed I hadn’t been at that place before, so he introduced himself to me. He took me to the cell where I was alone. It was as wide as my arms, you know, if I stretched out my arms I could touch the walls. It was my physical training; I mean stretching out my arms and touching the walls. Five steps here and five steps to the window, which was in height, and the door. When the door opened, I said, ‘Good morning.’ It was my way of coping with the situation and the officer responded, ‘Gentleman, when the door opens, you will stay in that corner facing the wall. And only when we order you to turn, you will turn and report yourself as a convict or an investigated (I can’t recall the exact terms) Anton Srholec, a prisoner Anton Srholec, room 112 (and other details) reports everything is right in the room, no defects.’ Then, I learned it. At first I approached him and told him I was innocent, I did nothing wrong to anybody, I only wanted to pursue my studies, well, in my naivety I tried to explain my innocence to him, and thus he taught me a lesson of order. I spent hundred days at that empty place; there was absolutely nothing, no piece of paper, I say nothing, but a bench.”

Investigation Methods in Leopoldov

Investigation Methods in Leopoldov (data format Flash Video)

“I have already mentioned Fero Buzek, who stayed next door. When there was an investigation and people screamed as they were beaten cruelly, you know, I wasn’t there even once, I suppose it was like in Ilava, I mean a sort of storeys, and at that time the music was played from LPs really loudly on the corridors. I remember I listened to Janka Guzová all over again. Every time during the investigation, Janka Guzová was singing. When the investigators heard something they had to play music. Later at night I heard them dragging somebody in the blanket, it rumbled a lot. There was a silence and when they dragged him there, it rattled, they opened the door, pulled him inside the cell just like a sack of potatoes, shoved him there and everything was over. Sure, everything was quiet and he lay silently there, only later he described how they dragged him in the blanket, beat him until he fall unconscious and tortured him. And then, it was him, who organised it, who sent the priests, the Salesians, and non-Salesians there, who brought them together. And they found it out later.”

The First Moments in Prison

The First Moments in Prison (data format Flash Video)

“What was going on in a man, when he got into prison? First, I was shocked, that’s obvious; it was a situation, which nobody could be prepared for and I wasn’t prepared at all. Then, I was sent to prison, but in this regard I was still as naive as a little calf and I have been like this for all my life, I want to believe that there exist some truth and nice human relations. I thought I would get away somehow, I believed there would be an explanation for that. Though my entire world collapsed, I still was persuaded that it was just a sort of misunderstanding, you know, I refused the fact that it really happened as I haven’t harmed anybody in my entire life, that’s how I felt. Later, the inanition appeared, and then I didn’t know where I was, I didn’t know about the world, I was in a sort of well, where I was alone, always alone. When somebody knocked on the door thrice, I had to run into the corner and wait till the door opened. I know they knocked on the door with their legs and put a cup and a slice of bread at it. They went from door to door, and then, the warder came again, banged on the door, opened it and kicked everything into the cell. Then, he closed the door. Only then I could turn. There I had enough time to think, because I have never repaid wickedness with wickedness. I say, it was my naivety, probably it had to happen, but I still don’t know where the bounds are. I got used to pray for my enemies, I have never doubted the victory of the good.”

Silence Was Golden

Silence Was Golden (data format Flash Video)

“I learned there and I also taught the others that speech is silver and silence is golden.
It is still hard for me to speak, because I feel there is a possibility of misusing my words. The impossibility to say what people felt was strictly upheld there. When I said something, somebody twisted my words and it suddenly sounded differently. The principle according to which two people can find a solution but three can only come to subversion held true. It meant that we preferred the system of face to face confidential talks. And the decisive criterion for becoming somebody’s friend was to prove the honesty by deeds rather than by words regardless of how nice the words were.”

I Didn’t Believe I Would Serve My Sentence

I Didn’t Believe I Would Serve My Sentence (data format Flash Video)

“I didn’t know how to live that kind of life. When I was given those twelve years of imprisonment, I realized it was one third of my life. At first I didn’t believe I really would serve all; however, when the tenth year was coming near, I also involved the years spent in custody, it was exactly ten years, I lost one third of my life. Well, I accepted it as something given to me, I took it as a consecrated life; however, not all saw it the same way.”

Back at Liberty

Back at Liberty (data format Flash Video)

“In May 1960 an amnesty was proclaimed. Amnesty, it was a vision, a dream, a fairytale for all prisoners, who didn’t talk about anything else. However, every time the amnesty was proclaimed, we weren’t involved, I mean political prisoners, and it didn’t happen until 1960. It was my turn. In May I gladly accepted the amnesty, but I really couldn’t believe I would go home, probably I got accustomed to living in prison and I thought I would spent all twelve years there. So then, I gave away all the best things I had there. We drank coffee, at that time we could buy it in a cafeteria. Then, we didn’t sleep for all night and we dreamt, you know, we were friends there. We promised to keep the fidelity among us. We were like some adolescents. We imagined us as the old men meeting and having some beer in a pub. We went home from the dark mine, we got the tickets, I think the camp commandant’s wife bought them for us. I had several thousand crowns in my account, so she also bought a suit, a shirt, and a tie for me and I went home like a nobleman. We left prison in the morning and I was moved to tears, I think it didn’t happen to anybody else. Well, I spent a significant part of my life in prison and even that hell became my home. As the time passed I learnt how it worked there, I learnt to play their game. I knew who was who, how to talk and answer, how to react. Then, this sick world of mine collapsed. It was the world like from Kafka’s or Orwell’s books. It collapsed and I was sent to liberty. I felt like a fish out of water. Everything seemed strange to me, I couldn’t mingle among ordinary people. I came home by the last train from Bohemia. At the station in Skalica there was a member of the National Security Corps waiting for me. At first he looked at me and said, ‘Mr. Srholec, come here. Well, you came.’ This way he greeted me at the station. I went to my parents’ house. My mother, my poor mother, wanted to make some tea for me, but she left the pot on the table and singed it. Everybody cried for joy, we felt happy that I came home. It was like when a dead person returned to life. Like when a lost person was found.”

Action “K” – Monasteries – and Its Consequences

Audio record Nr.1 (data format mp3)

“When I was at Salesians in April 1950, I experienced notorious Barbarian Night during which the communists liquidated all church institutes, organisations, schools, dormitories, seminaries, as well as monasteries and convents. Militia and army took over our monastery and on April 15, we had to get on busses and they drove us – so to say – to some political training. Then we were interned and we worked at Priehrada mládeže (Youth Dam) for few months. Afterwards me and my friends, young theology candidates, were sent home to our parents, “officially re-educated” in the sense of Marxist-Leninist ideology. I was there for few months; I graduated from high school with the so-called resit students, additionally I passed the school leaving examination as I was in my senior year, and I left to Bratislava. Salesian religious order had very good contacts abroad and there was a strategy that since it was impossible to study theology here, all the young students as well as the persecuted ones would be carried across the Iron Curtain, to be able to finish our studies there.”

A Way of Fulfilling Anton’s Dream

Audio record Nr.2 (data format mp3)

“It happened in April, when one of my classmates came to me and informed me about possibility to flee abroad and finish theology studies there. I accepted this offer with gratitude because it was a way of fulfilling my dream. At night from April 8th to 9th I travelled by train to Šaštín, where lived a family of my older schoolmate. In this family I found about twenty of my classmates, older schoolmates, but also older priests who were persecuted and some of them were hiding from the communist regime. They put this group together so that two guides could lead us through the border. One of the guides was Ferdinand Totka, a professional guide, and the second one was reverend Titus Zeman, a Salesian. They both were really tortured in the prison and the process of beatification has already started in Titus Zeman’s case. They both went through much suffering just because they wanted to illegally lead our group across the border.”

Dangers of Guiding through the Border

Audio record Nr.3 (data format mp3)

“Leading us through borders. There were twenty-three students and older priests along with the guides. We went early in April when the river Morava was swollen and there was a great risk of crossing such a swollen river. We had to go this early because the two guides had already come back from Vienna, from Austria through this border and yet when being on our side of the border, they got detained, tied up and closed to some kind of booth. One of the border guards was watching over them and the other one went to Malé Leváre to call reinforcement. However, Totka and Zeman although being tied up, managed to free themselves, assaulted the soldier and took a gun from him. They were lucky not to take this gun along or to use it. Our guides carried two inflatable dinghies for transporting our group. However, they took just one dinghy along from the border, they left another one there and they left the tied up soldier by a tree as well. They ran to the interior yet with one inflatable dinghy. They never used the gun what was their advantage, because if they stole it of used it, they could be executed.”

Attempt to Flee – Part 1 – a March from Šaštín

Audio record Nr.4 (data format mp3)

“All of us, those 23 people that on April 8th gathered in Hercog’s family house in Šaštín, after we slept a little, early in the morning we began our journey in cold and damp weather. We headed towards river Morava which was app. 40 km distant from Šaštín. This first part of our journey we did on April 8th, as it was Sunday, and we only went through the forest. We went across the forest towards the border approximately to that point, where today is the railroad or high way between Bratislava and Kúty. There wasn’t the high way back then yet. We crossed the railroad, a big group of people, and it was almost a morning. As we went through the forest, we encamped on the other side of the Šaštín’s forest, from the side of village Závod. There we stayed during the day, slumbered a little and prayed for successful crossing. When it got dark, we left this place and went across the fields. It rained again. We walked around the village Závod and headed towards Malé Leváre. Dogs were barking in both villages, as they heard so many people marching, and that’s why we quietened for a moment.”

Attempt to Flee – The Swollen Morava

Audio record Nr.5 (data format mp3)

“The problem of this 23-member group was that there were some older people too. We, the young ones would have got to the river Morava until midnight as originally planned. However, there were older and ill priests; we had to carry them from that forest through the fields. They were unorganized; some of them had big suitcases in which they carried their personal things, there was even a typewriter. It was really heavy and it slowed down the march. We came to the embankment which is by Morava so that it would not burst its banks. This one was app. 5 metres high and we approached it around 3 a.m. There was a question whether to go or not. The problem was that Morava was swollen and the water was also between the bank of Morava and the embankment, so there would have been necessary to use the one dinghy for 23 people. We were deciding, the leaders were deciding, if to go or not. Finally the leadership decided we would postpone our crossing, because there should have been a ferry built on Morava, which was from 40 to 50 metres broad from bank to bank. There were supposed to be set up waxed cords, which we could have held from the dinghy and get to the other side. I am convinced that since we were inexperienced and the water was very swift, the first dinghy would definitely sink along with its passengers. So this was a very wise decision when speaking about our lives and safety.”

At the Bratislava Castle

Audio record Nr.6 (data format mp3)

“After we were detained on that 9th of April, they took us to Bratislava. The castle was back then just a ruin, although in some inhabited premises there was a Western Slovakian Border Guard Headquarters. Under the castle, there were such casemates, stone tunnels. In winter it all was frozen through; it is usually frozen through up to June or July. Then it warms up a little and it works as an accumulator of this summer warmth even until Christmas. Unfortunately, we caught the frozen time and there we had to wait whole week, so that they could detain all other possible runaways without us informing about anything. We were strictly guarded, without sleep, only sitting, eating the same way as soldiers did and there we waited for a week. Afterwards they transported us to the so-called prison U dvoch levov (At Two Lions) on Špitálska Street in Bratislava, where they registered us and thus our whole group was officially detained on April 15.”

Uranium above Gold

Audio record Nr.7 (data format mp3)

“Russians knew the price of uranium ore, which when being pure is more expensive than gold. It’s very shiny. They needed to plunder Jáchymov mines. Czechoslovakia in its dullness and ignorance that is unforgivable granted this greatest treasure to the Soviet Union as for the liberation. Our country had a real monopoly over this ore and it was more expensive than gold. The only deposit, even though later also other ones were discovered, this monopoly over uranium ore was given away. Today we know that it was a gift not for liberation, but for occupation and moreover, since year 1945 many labour camps, or more precisely, concentration camps were being formed in Jáchymov. There were 16 or 17 of them near mine pits where the ore was extracted ever since middle ages. People mined there for gold, silver, uranium, antimony and other metals, and when they hit the black stone heavy like lead, it was their bad luck, because it was just tar, so-called Jáchymov pitchblende.”

The story and videoclips of this witness were put together and published thanks to the financial support of EU within the programme Europe for Citizens – Active European Remembrance.

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