The twists and turns of fate: Retracing Tomáš’s war steps

It has always been my desire to discover the territorial footprint of my grandfather Tomáš (1898-1971).  He died in Bratislava, where he lived with his youngest daughter (my mother) for more than 10 years. Before then, the paths he took can be traced between Kysucký Lieskovec and Žilina, Bratislava and Devínska Nová Ves, all spanning about 50 years. But the most interesting journeys had to be those he undertook when he was barely 18 and was sent from Kysucký Lieskovec to the Italian front in WWI, to fight for  the Austro-Hungarian side. I was pretty small when he talked about his war experiences, but I especially remember the following four of them. Maybe my memory is helped because these circumstances all have to do with death being so close you can feel, smell, and see it. My aversion to violence of any kind surely had its beginnings right then,  during the narration of these experiences.


As probably the youngest in his troupe, Tomáš  was sent on many reconnaissance missions. On one occasion, near Gorizia, he was dispatched in  advance of the marching troops to make sure no Italian enemies were nearby. As he made his way through the thicket, scared, with his awareness heightened, and with his bayonet pointed forward, he heard rustling right in front of him. Suddenly, his eyes met a young Italian soldier’s eyes. The soldier’s bayonet was also pointed at Tomáš. During what my grandfather called the longest seconds of his life,  the two young men looked at each other without moving or making a sound. Then, as if obeying an agreed-upon decision, they both lowered their weapons to the ground, turned their backs on each other, and slowly crept back to their respective companies.

I often must break the intense feeling which grips me when I imagine this story unfolding by remembering that my husband, a Sicilian, also had a grandfather (Orazio) at the front. What if this story is about my grandfather and my husband’s grandfather? What if they had shot each other? Why didn’t they shoot? What did they say to the respective commanding officers?


Above: Tomáš is in the front row, the third from the left.



Above: My husband’s grandfather, Orazio, is the first one on the left, standing.


A boat explodes

Close to  Palmanova, the troops were embarking on a makeshift boat, when the commanding officer, standing on a little hill away from the river (probably the river Torre) called my grandfather away from the boat. As soon as Tomáš turned his back, he heard the bomb flying and hitting the boat. Everyone died in that explosion, except for my grandfather and the commanding officer.

The question is, What was so important that my grandfather was called back?

Eating bark

Needless to say, at a certain point, Tomáš was made prisoner by the Italian army and shipped to Sicily. Although there were numerous war camps all through Italy during the First World War, few people are acquainted with the camps set up in Sicily, especially those near Vittoria and Palermo. I have attempted to discover where Tomáš served, but to no avail. There is a Museo degli Ungheresi (Museum of Hungarians) in Vittoria, which apparently has some information about the “Hungarian” war prisoners. Unfortunately, it is not open. My grandfather’s recollections of his prison time pointed to hard labor and hunger; especially for a young man, the second must have been atrocious, when he says the prisoners were forced to eat bark as they were not fed properly. But who in those days had an interest in  enforcing the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions that were drawn up to protect war prisoners? This sentence sums up the situation: “…of the 477,024 Austro-Hungarian combatant prisoners held by Italy, 18,049 died, suggesting they were generally relatively well-treated” (from My efforts to trace his steps in Sicily have come to naught. To add insult to injury  (ah, fate!), the files for soldiers born between 1887-1900 housed in the Vojensky ústřední archiv in Prague were all shredded by mistake! Queries to the offices of Vojenský historický ústav,  Vojensky ústřední archiv, Vojenský historický archiv bore no results at all. The works by the journalist Vince Grienti and prof. Giancarlo Poidomani were of some help to contextualize the camp experiences, and I am thankful for their help, but my quest for my grandfather’s time as war prisoner in Sicily still awaits answers.

Sicilian oranges and red wine

On a more positive note, Tomáš often repeated that were it not for the kindness of Sicilian women who brought the prisoners oranges and red wine, he would have surely died.

That the war experiences made a profound impression on my grandfather needs not be underlined. He got a hold of the series published by the periodical Epoca (1965?) on the First World War (I don’t know how, in socialist Czechoslovakia!) and he annotated almost every page, even without knowing Italian. This continuous perspective reversal (Italian publication and nationalism as opposed to a Slovak man’s concrete experiences) makes for a much richer impact on the reader of  his annotations and it makes one’s blood boil on account of the injustices and uselessness of all wars.


Above: One of my grandfather’s annotations on the pages of Epoca: “The Italian soldier who is on leave must  abandon his family immediately and so he kisses his little son, mother, and wife for the last time to return to the front in Trieste where I was likely waiting for him in 1918 to measure our powers. July 1918.

So far, I did not learn any concrete facts about my grandfather’s Sicilian territorial movements, but my search has underlined two facts for me:  1) it is impossible not only to know the full history of a person, but also to answer a focused and simple question about a person’s concrete earthly movements. The twists and turns of fate intervene at every step (both his and mine), making the vicissitudes stand out, and the cracks in the flux of history open up more; 2) despite all odd hurdles thrown in my way, my desire to find the answers in order to retrace his steps is still undiminished.


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