Michal Skiba

* 1919  

  • “Well, we were allowed to go outside, so we went and collected some firewood. We then made a fire but as there was nowhere for the smoke to escape it stayed and accumulated in the shack and soon it was stifling us. My eyes hurt badly. I was afraid that the smoke would blind me. So I got up and realized I could barely stand on my feet yet. I made it outside but couldn’t look at the snow – my eyes burst into tears. I thought that it’s really bad, that I’d go blind. Well, gradually it got better and better. Now I saw a couple of Soviet soldiers so I approached them and talked to them in Russian. There was an officer among them, I don’t know which rank he was exactly, but he asked me who I was and where I came from. I told him that I was a Czechoslovak from this and that place. I told him about the Hungarian occupation, that I had been drafted to the Hungarian army, that I had changed sides and had then been sent to the Gulag. He asked me which languages I spoke and I said that I speak Russian and Hungarian pretty well. He told me: ´Then you will be our interpreter.´”

  • “So the food… the food, well, as I’ve said, on the day we had arrived, we were given a piece of salted fish, nothing else. Then they set up a kitchen. The kitchen looked like this: there was a huge pit where they put a few cauldrons and then covered the whole thing with a kind of a roof on stakes. Then they brought in potatoes. These potatoes were tiny, about the size of walnuts. They were also very dirty and frozen. They stuffed the potatoes in the cauldrons, added snow which thawed, and boiled it. It smelled terribly. In the end, they added some bran and served it to the camp inmates – this was actually all that people were fed there. Each time new prisoners were brought into the camp, they were searched for any personal belongings they may have carried on them. Everything that was found was taken away from them – razor blades, knives, rings, simply everything. I had to be present at these searches. My duty was to hold a huge sack – everything that was found like gold and whatever else was thrown into this sack. It also happened that a ring wouldn’t go off the finger. Then they simply cut the finger with the ring. Nobody gave a damn. Well, I used to give some of the contents of the sack to the girls that did searches and I got a bit of sugar, tea and bread in return. That’s how I survived there. We lived in these shacks. There were about fifty people in each shack. Each shack had its own chief who was in charge of reporting the number of dead each morning. Well, on some mornings we counted as many as 200 dead in the camp. They were carrying them away, but I didn’t know where exactly they were disposing of them. So I walked there slowly and there were huge ditches filled with dead bodies. They were piling them high in the pits, not even burying the bodies. It was wintertime so they didn’t bother to even cover these mass graves. They simply threw the corpses into the pits and left them there – just like you handle firewood. Once they received the order to dispatch a labor brigade of prisoners to the Ural Mountains. So the Soviet soldiers ordered me to pass by the shacks and call the other inmates up to get outside of the shacks. So I went and got infected with Typhoid, because there was a Typhoid epidemic raging in the camp. The whole camp died out. So I had Typhoid. I had never had Typhoid before and didn’t have any idea what it was like. I only suffered from Typhoid fever, however.”

  • “Of course I wanted to stay in the army – I was an officer. But you know, in 1945 the general mood was rather pacifistic, there was the United Nations Organization and everybody thought that armies are no longer needed. There was even talk of disbanding the army. Of course I wanted to have some job, so I joined the National Defense Corps (SNB). I didn’t want to stay in Slovakia. I’ll be frank with you – I didn’t trust a large part of the Slovaks. I mean those who fought with us were courageous and good but there were many who fought against us and who denounced us as Soviet bandits etc. well that was the reason why I didn’t want to stay in Slovakia. So I moved to Bohemia, finished my education and did my school-leaving exam here.”

  • “They didn´t know about us – they didn´t know that we were there. Their dogs smelled us and started to squeal and bark in our direction. There were a lot of Slovaks among the Germans so they shouted in Slovak: ´Come on boys, come out, don’t be afraid, nothing’s gonna happen to you.´ They repeated it several times but nothing happened because we stayed in our positions. When they received no reaction from our side, they formed a skirmish line and wanted to enter the forest. When they approached the forest we opened fire at them, killing and wounding several of them. I don’t know how many we killed and wounded because we did not dare to get out and see for ourselves. We had to remain hidden in our positions because there were tanks just outside the forest. After the shooting we knew it would get really bad there and that we’d have to withdraw from there. Our captain had a woman with him – I don’t know whether she was a soldier as well. Her name was Nina and she somehow got lost there. He was calling her by her name, ´Nina, Nina.´ Well, the Germans heard that and fired their mortars in the direction of his voice. That’s when we knew that we had to be out of there before dawn. We knew that they’d surround the forest and cleanse it of our troops.”

  • “A large part of the young people left Carpathian Ruthenia and went to the Soviet Union, when the soviets occupied Galicia. They fled because Carpathian Ruthenia and the USSR had a common frontier. When the Czechoslovak army was being formed in the USSR, our liaison officers were trying to find out in which Gulags our people were being held. But that was extremely hard to do since the Soviets were keeping it secret and were uneasy about releasing our people from the Gulag. I can tell you that only a fifth of us got out of the camp – just one fifth! I’d also like to add that I’m not content with the current politics in the Czech Republic, especially in the Senate. Look, there’s should have been a law appreciating Beneš as a worthy member of the resistance. I say that if it wasn’t for Beneš, we’d never have gotten out of there. Never. I don’t know what politicians are sitting in the Senate, but they’ve rejected that law! The Parliament has accepted it and the Senate has rejected it. Beneš has always been the dearest for us!”

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    Lovosice, 17.06.2004

    (audio)
    duration: 01:55:30
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
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“We hid in the forest. Sometimes, we were even afraid of talking to the Slovak civilians because we didn’t know what they were like. We didn’t have anything to eat at all. That’s when we boiled and ate the bark of birch trees just to survive.”

Michal Skiba in 1944
Michal Skiba in 1944
photo: archiv pamětníka

Michal Skiba was born in 1919 in Carpathian Ruthenia. On August 1, 1941, he was drafted to the Hungarian army and assigned to the sappers’ company. Since November 1941, he was in the Soviet Union in the Voronezh Oblast (Buddonyj territory), where he cut trees used for the construction of trenches. In the beginning of January 1942, he crossed the frozen river Don to the Soviet side. The Soviet authorities, however, sent him to the Gulag. Later he was able to join the Czechoslovak army corps. He fought at Dukla and in the Slovak national uprising. After the war Mr. Skiba did his school-leaving exam and joined the “Sbor národní obrany”, the SNB (the National Defense Corps - the de facto police in Communist Czechoslovakia. He was engaged in the activities of the Union of Freedom Fighters  and is the chair of the organization in Ústí nad Labem. He lives in Lovosice.