Major General (ret.) Ján Bačkovský

* 1919  †︎ 2006

  • “If I had known what it would be like in the Soviet Union, I would have never gone there. When I came to the Russian side I got to a small village. I had to swim across the river San and I was wet and I lost my coat somewhere. The villagers took off my clothes, put them on the stove where I also slept. They gave me dark bread that I have never eaten before. They were very kind and hospitable. So I thanked them and went to the Soviets and then I was immediately arrested.”

  • “I inclined towards the Polish because they seemed to be close on terms of nationality. The Polish are people that wouldn’t betray you. The group consisted of an eighty-five years old law professor from the Law Faculty in Warsaw, a journalist, a musician, a pharmacist, one Jewish guy and me. They were all intelligent people and you could learn a lot from them. Then they interrogated us. For them, everybody was a spy. But I was also in the Communist Party so they told me that I should have stayed at home. Then they called for us. There was no court, it was all decided by two officers and the choice was easy. The lowest sentence was three years, the higher was five years, that was what I got, and then eight years, which the professor got. He was eighty-five then. They called me to an office where they red the sentence. I burst to tears, you know, a nineteen year old boy, but the professor put his arm around me and said: ‘Ale Jaszu, why are you crying? For what? You shall see what the time brings.’ He got the eight years. He was fluent in Russian, because he studied in Moscow, so he said: ‘Balšoje vam spasiba, tavaryši, što ja budu jišo vosem lět žiť.‛ - ‘Thank you very much comrades, so I will live for another eight years.’ Then we went back and he was still comforting me. I liked him very much. He wasn’t married, he spent all his life at the university and he had a nice large tomb in Warsaw. He felt sorry that he was not going to by buried there.”

  • “For me, the fights at Sokolovo were the hardest. I t was just after Stalingrad and the Soviets were on retreat. Most of the men were there on their way from Stalingrad. And we were at Sokolovo, which is about 37 kilometers south from Charkov. The company commander was called Jaroš, a very skillful officer. We didn’t have any heavy artillery. The Germans had tanks and we had four cannons. And that meant nothing. The Germans came out on the hill and we fired one of the cannons. It hit the tank, but it was too far away to cause any damage. The Germans had a tactic that they didn’t proceed but rather fired from the distance. The other thing is that we were still exhausted from the journey, because it was about two hundred kilometers from the point where we got out of the train to Charkov and we walked in the melting snow. About eighty people died, which was about ten percent of our men. The first battalion was Jewish, more than the half of the soldiers were Jews. Then we had to retreat and we were exhausted and had no supplies. There was a muddy river that the tanks couldn’t cross and in about four days we got the order to retreat. The whole 24th division was on retreat, the Soviet army left Charkov and stopped at the river Seversky Donets.”

  • “Our battalion joined the fights on 10th of September, a day after the beginning of the offensive. The intelligence had found out that during the night, the German forces had transferred a division from as far as Subcarpathia. We met them right in the first fights. The first day, the casualties were so high that the battalion, which had consisted of three companies could then hardly put together two of them. The next day our position was on the right wing and by chance we managed to advance eight kilometers and win over the hill 534. We saw Dukla and Ivla, two villages. From this point we could control the last road that in the western direction and that was why there were severe fights to conquer it. We fought over that hill for a week. Once it was captured by the Germans and then by us. In the second battalion, that went through the fiercest fights there were two people that proved great courage. One was a Jew and the other a Ukrainian. They practically held the hill. And the assaults came three times a day.”

  • “I was in the first prison for about a month. It was full of lice. Sometimes I say that Russia was full of lice from Vladivostok to San. So we suffered, we slept in turns so that half of us stood and the other half slept sitting on the floor. Then they got up and we went to sleep. Then we were put to Sambor to a normal prison. The conditions the got a little better. There were about seven people in the cell, we slept on hay, beds were taken by the Soviets. The prisoners were Polish, Ukrainian, Bandera fighters and some very interesting people. One of them was sentenced to death, then the pickpocket from Warsaw who operated on the axe Warsaw – Berlin – Paris, but an extremely intelligent man. There was a textile works manager a confidential clerk and the pickpocket. And he spoke about things that I as a nineteen year old boy didn’t even know. Then, in May 1940 we were transported to Voroshilovgrad in Ucraine to another prison. That wasn’t so bad. They mainly interrogated us there. In autumn we were transported to Siberia. I was sentenced to five years. They told me that as a communist I should have fought at home and not in their country.”

  • “Once I was an officer. But only for a short period because it was a good position, so I was soon replaced by a Russian. But the two months I spent there were very beneficial. I got there because I was already in the ’weakpower’ section of people who were too weak and couldn’t work. It wasn’t that bad with me but the doctor managed to smuggle me in. People who didn’t work got the minimum food rations, four hundred grams. Those who worked got nine hundred so these people were really getting insufficient nutrition. So I was lying there and an old man came and asked who could speak and write Russian and it was me and a grammar student from Lvov. He took us and gave us a test. But because the Soviet Union was already at War and they looked for soldiers everywhere and he was a second-lieutenant or something like that, he left to the army and I got to the position. So about I month and a half I was a clerk. And you wouldn’t believe what we used to write on. We cleaned the cement sacks, ironed them with an antique iron, cot them to the right format and wrote everything on that.”

  • “Mautner, the company commander, a good and courageous man, once managed to get some vodka. So he prepared a little party for us. Captain Kohl, the commander of the battalion and a remarkable Czechoslovak hero, also came. So we sat and drunk and there was also another company commander, Větvička, sitting by my side. And suddenly a German plane flew over. It was quite low, so that it almost took the roof. We had the windows darkened so nothing could be seen, but it wasn’t a nice feeling… you never know what can happen. Větvička was already a little drunk and he said: ‘You chickens. That really scared the hell out of you. You know what a ceremony would that be? To bury us all together. Five or six Czechoslovakian officers at once. You see the beautiful church over there? We would all lie there in a line.’ And the commander of the headquarters said: ‘Man, you are such a moron.’”

  • “The tracks went from Kotlas to Vorkuta. They were constructing roads to the north and to the south from the railroad sometimes up to hundred and fifty kilometers. These roads served as communication lines to transport goods and valuables to the railroad. They were hard, we said that each road could have been constructed out of bones of the people that died there.”

  • “On the 7th of January 1942 one of my friends told me: ‘Don’t go to work.’ I asked why and he told me to pack my things because I was free. I wanted some kind of a document and he asked: ‘Why? If somebody escaped, they would have to report. And even though, where would the fugitive go? The nearest village is five hundred kilometers away.’ Then I went to Krutuia, which was about six kilometers away. There I met another friend, a lieutenant from the Red Army. He was in jail because the Polish took his belt and his gun, they cut it loose. He was surprised to see me so I told him that I was released. But I didn’t know where to report at. And I also didn’t know how to get to Chibiju, the nearest railway station was 106 kilometers away. I was lucky that I could take a ride with the car that went for supplies. But the temperature was about forty bellow zero and I was up on the bucket because there was an officer in the cabin. That was horrible. 106 kilometers in such a cold. I was dancing and jumping, and I had quite warm clothes. In the evening we reached Chibiju. I met there some of our soldiers, Czechoslovaks.”

  • “We reached the point 2084 in accordance with the plan. We waited for the cannons. I took off my boots because my feet were frozen. I was drying the rags when a soldier came and shouted: ‘Tanks!’ ‘Ours?’ ‘No, German!’ And the tanks started shooting. There wasn’t anything we could do. We couldn’t use the anti-tank weapons for such a distance, so the two battalions got up and began to retreat. I was barefoot, standing behind a haystack. I had only one boot on, I was warming the other feet over the fire. Then I couldn’t put the boot on over the rags. I had to throw them away and put the boot on a bare foot, but at that time, the tanks were almost passing by.”

  • “In the prison we had our meals twice a day. It was a small pot of soup and four hundred grams of bread, the bread was very heavy and not very good. In the evening we had the soup without the bead. After two years about a half of the people that came with me died of hunger. And in Vorkuta it was the same. There were only two meals in Russia. During Berija, the rations went higher but they were still so low, that a healthy man would stay alive on them for a year maximum. I survived because I was lucky that I got used to the hunger and didn’t drink too much water. A lot of people drank water and their feet swelled and they died.”

  • “I got to Buzuluk on 14th of February 1942. The food was better but they would bully you. The petty officers were made company commanders and liked to get drunk and shout at us. In the morning I was putting the English uniform, I didn’t know how to do it, and there was a commander and he shouted: ‘Soldier! I will make a soldier out of you! MY name is Tachecí.’ And when I was already an officer and he was still a company commander, once he didn’t salute. I didn’t stand on these greetings but I wanted to make fun of him. So I said: ‘Mister commander, you do not salute to your superior officers?’ He knew who I was and he saluted five times and then he asked: ‘Enough?’ Of course it was enough.”

  • “Both our battalions had to retreat, the Germans were right behind us. And I took a narrow path and came to a lonely cottage in the woods. Suddenly, two NKVD officers came out, they followed the soldiers on retreat to stop them. And they said: ‘Soldier, where are you running?’ And I said that there are German tanks ob our left and two battalions have to retreat. They said that retreating was forbidden and I asked: ‘And what else can we do?’ Then the Germans fired a cannon and blasted the roof of the cottage. Russian soldiers ran away and I was free.”

  • Full recordings
  • 14

    Praha, 21.01.2004

    (audio)
    duration: 03:27:48
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

A German plane flew over and somebody was joking about the ceremony it would have been if so many officers died at the same time, and what a fine funeral would they have set up in the nearby church

Ján Bačkovský
Ján Bačkovský

Ján Bačkovský was born 24th October 1919 in Eastern Slovakia. He didn’t finish his studies at the Greek-Catholic pedagogical institute in Prešov and left the country to the Soviet Union after the change of the regime. He was sentenced to five years in a labor camp for illegal crossing of the border and until 1942 he worked in Ukhta. After the release, he left to Buzuluk where he joined the Czechoslovak Army and passed through the fights at Sokolovo, Kiev, Bila Tserkva and Dukla. He served in ranks from private to second lieutenant in the anti-tank unit. He was injured at Dukla, after the recovery, he was transferred to the recruitment unit in Košice and organized the mobilization. After the War he studied at the Military Academy at the Headquarters in Warsaw. His studies were terminated after two years because of political reasons. Later he worked as the head of the department of Military studies at the Faculty of Military Health Sciences in Hradec Králové.