Ján Zeman

* 1923  

  • “The warden was supposed to take me to hand over my stuff at the workplace and in the dormitory. And to take me to the storehouse so I could get dressed. We walked from the committee and walked over the courtyard because Valdice was a really big prison. And he asked me how many years I had served because he didn’t know me. I was not as well-known there as I had been in Mírov, where I had spent 4 years, or in Opava. So I said: ‘Fourteen and a half.’ He turned to me and said: ‘Fourteen and a half months, that’s not that bad.’ And I said: ‘Not months, fourteen and a half years.’ He stopped and said: ‘No way. A con who has served fourteen and a half years doesn’t look like you do.’ But that was not the end of it. We came to the storehouse and the inmate there pulled out a bag pack, a beautiful new coat, shoes, underwear and the warden said: ‘You’re telling me you spent fourteen and a half years in prison? But this is all new stuff!’ And I said: ‘Yes, but my wife sent all of it to me.’ And he replied: ‘Get out. Don’t tell me you still have a wife!’ So he was pretty surprised by that.”

  • “A husband of my wife's relative worked at the embassy in Bulgaria and was removed from his office after 1948. We met here in the family circle together with my wife's relatives. He and I both shared a negative view of the Communist Party's program. Some time after our meeting he emigrated to the West.” – “May I ask what his name was?” – “Nikolaj Pátek. And you know, when a refugee arrived, the intelligence services contacted them and screened them. Or they asked them to recommend people here who could provide some information. And he stated me. So one day Gavenda came to me with a letter from Bogataj, asking me to collaborate.”

  • “They had an enquiry regarding the production, how many pieces of what had been made, what was being made that could be arms production. There were also questions about the number of employees, militia men and the plant’s plan. I was in such a position that I could get all this information from workers who had no clue what I needed it for. The details were then encrypted, put into a dead drop and then the strider agents carried it to the West.”

  • “I spent my first Christmas in prison in solitary confinement in Leopoldov after I had been sentenced to death. On Christmas Eve when it was all quiet, I heard some noise down the hall. And soon after I heard singing: Silent Night, Holy Night. It was probably the wardens’ wives who had insisted on visiting us convicts in the solitary confinement to sing us this Christmas carol. You know, it was very moving and very nice of them to remind us of Christmas with their signing. It was the most beautiful and the most sorrowful Christmas I’ve ever had.”

  • “They executed someone who’s trial had been prior to yours, then they executed someone who’s trial was later than yours. You never knew when they were going to take you. In Leopoldov they always took the prisoners before lunch. So when they didn’t take you before lunch, you had some hope that you would survive the next 24 hours.”

  • Full recordings
  • 1

    Myjava, 26.02.2020

    duration: 02:38:42
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
  • 2

    Myjava, 05.03.2020

    duration: 01:23:15
    media recorded in project Stories of 20th Century
Full recordings are available only for logged users.

I never stopped hoping that they wouldn’t execute me

Ján in the times of his employment in the Povážské Engineering Works, circa 1947
Ján in the times of his employment in the Povážské Engineering Works, circa 1947
photo: archiv pamětníka

Ján Zeman was born December 20, 1923 in Myjava in West Slovakia. His childhood was affected early on by the loss of his mother and his father’s emigration to the USA. He grew up with his grandparents in Myjava. Following his father’s footsteps, who had inherited smithery from his ancestors, Ján decided to be apprenticed after completing primary school. After one year in the armory in Považská Bystrica he switched to a technical high school of machinery in Bratislava, which he successfully graduated from. However, instead of further studying he had to start working since his father, who had been living overseas with a new family, couldn’t support him during the World War II times and Ján’s grandparents needed financial support. He soon rose to the position of the head of construction in the Tauš factory in Myjava where fittings were made. In 1947 Ján, then just 24-years-old, even received a state award for his work immersion. He was also successful in his private life during the first postwar years. He married Olga Sandanusová who he had known since childhood, in 1947. In March 1949 he was contacted by Štěpán Gavenda, an agent-strider, who arranged messages from Czechoslovak informants to Western intelligence services under the leadership of František Bogataj. Based on Bogataj’s letter that Gavenda handed him, Ján decided to heed the call and join the anti-communist resistance. Using dead drops, he then transmitted information on the type and volumes of arms production or the numbers of employees and militia men of the factory. After transmitting five encrypted messages, he and his wife, who had worked with him, were arrested in August 1949. A trial took place early that fall after cruel interrogations. Ján was identified as the head of an anti-state group and was sentenced to death together with Viliam Šimek. His wife Olga was sentenced to fourteen years in prison. Ján spent nine months on death row in solitary confinement in Leopoldov. In 1951 his death sentence was changed to a life sentence thanks to Klement Gottwald’s presidential pardon and, above all, thanks to his father’s tireless efforts and the intervention of the U.S. embassy. He went through the Jáchymov and Příbram camps, returned to Leopoldov in the times of its tightened regime, spent many years in the Opava and Mírov prisons and then his last three months in Valdice. Olga spent eight years of imprisonment at various locations – Ilava, Pardubice, Želiezovce. She suffered infective hepatitis while in prison and developed severe diabetes shortly before Ján’s release. In February 1964, after fourteen and a half years, Ján and Olga finally met in freedom. They again settled in their home Myjava where Ján found a job in the newly established District Industrial Plant. In 1970 they even travelled to USA to see Ján’s father but came back even though they could have stayed there with such a good support environment. During the Velvet Revolution Ján became a founding member of the Myjava cell of the Public Against Violence and was elected to the city council after the first free election in 1990. In 2010 he was awarded the Václav Benda Award granted by the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes. In 2014 he received a state award from president Andrej Kiska and one year later an award from the National Memory Institute. He still lives in Myjava (as of 2020).