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[S-R] Dukla pass veteran to be honored in slovakia (John Kulhan)

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  • Milan Huba
    Hi Bill: I will be going to Liptovska Luzna again next summer, and if that old neighbor is still alive, I will ask him if he would be willing to tell his
    Message 1 of 12 , Oct 8, 2005
      Hi Bill:

      I will be going to Liptovska Luzna again next summer, and if that old
      neighbor is still alive, I will ask him if he would be willing to tell his
      story. He has a lot of first hand knowledge, but he gets ambiguous when you
      ask him about his particular role in the conflict. I never pressed him on
      this matter and just listened when he volunteered information.

      I also have two older cousins in Luzna who participated in the fighting in
      the “uprising” immediately around Luzna. My oldest cousin, who is now in
      his 80’s, told me that he fought with the partisans in the moutains around
      Luzna…but he never mentioned being at Dukla.

      My understanding was that the Soviet war dead, the ordinary guys, were still
      buried in the pits where they were dumped in the Dukla area. From a
      practical standpoint, it would have been very difficult to move thousands of
      bodies especially when they were just haphazardly dumped into the pits. The
      Russians had a habit of stripping the bodies of anything useful, such as
      boots, or a shirt, before dumping them into their makeshift graves. It would
      be almost impossible to identify most of the bodies.

      It is good that the post Communist Czechoslovak government allowed the
      Germans to maintain the graves of their war dead. It should be noted that
      throughout Germany there are hundreds of similar small well-maintained
      cemeteries (maintained by the Germans) containing the graves of thousands of
      allied fliers and soldiers…. including thousands of Russian war dead. The
      war is long over and we should honor all of those brave soldiers who died
      fighting for their country.

      In one of the previous emails, someone wrote that “the Czechoslovak army was
      forced to fight with the Germans and then later switched sides”. Actually,
      the Czechoslovak army never fought with the Germans. The Slovak army
      (initially) fought with the Germans and it would probably be more honest to
      say that the Slovaks were “encouraged” rather than “forced” to fight with
      them. To go one step further, it didn’t even take that much encouragement
      to get the Slovaks to fight with the Germans; the Slovaks tended to be very
      religious and conservative and they didn’t have much love for the Soviet
      regime that was viewed as Godless. Finally, many Slovaks were grateful to
      the Germans for supporting them in their bid for independence from the

      At the beginning of the war, it looked like the German army was invincible.
      When the German army marched through Slovakia (Ruzomberok) on their way to
      the Russian front, many Slovaks, including some of my relatives, stood along
      side the road and cheered them on. The long columns of German soldier
      marched smartly and looked sharp in their crisp new uniforms. After the
      columns of soldiers came a seemingly endless line of trucks towing big guns,
      followed by tanks and then even more trucks and all kinds of other war
      machinery. This army looked invincible. And, there is nothing better than
      fighting alongside an invincible army that is sure to win.

      Later, as the tide of the war changed and Slovaks began seeing thousands of
      wounded German soldiers coming back from the Russian front, some Slovaks
      began to reassess their position and concluded that they were on the wrong
      side of the war. These Slovaks started to identify themselves as
      Czechoslovak patriots and to demonstrate their newly discovered loyalty to
      the Czechoslovak state, they became anti-German. Other Slovaks,
      particularly the Hlinka Guards, continued to support and fight with the
      Germans. Thus the Slovakia became divided nation.

      It all came to a head on August 29, 1944, a day that we now celebrate as the
      Slovak National Uprising Day. On that date, a part of the Slovak army
      attempted to switched sides and join the Soviets who were advancing into
      Slovakia After some bitter fighting, the “uprising” was at least
      temporarily squashed by the Germans, but as a result of the uprising a
      virtual civil war broke out between pro-Soviet Slovak partisans (guerillas),
      many of them remnants of the Slovak army, and the pro-German Hlinka guards.
      The partisans claimed that they were fighting against Fascism and for a
      united and free Czechoslovakia. The Hlinka guards claimed that they were
      fighting against Communism and to preserve a free and independent Slovakia.
      Both sides were passionate and considered themselves to be the true

      As we know, the winners of a war get to write the history and decide who was
      right and who was wrong. A lot of bad things happened during the war, but
      only those who were on the loosing side were singled out for punishment.
      The winners wanted to settle old scores and they had the power to do so.
      So, if you fought on the side that lost, you would try to make your way back
      home to your family and quietly blend back into the population. If you were
      smart, you would reinvent your role in the war or at least remain ambiguous
      about it. After the Communist took over, you just kept your mouth shut.

      The Vlasov guards, like the Hlinka guards, ended up on the loosing side of
      the war. Many of them joined the guard as idealists and were fighting for a
      free and independent Russia. Their ending was more tragic.

      Very early in WWII, many Russians, including some very dedicated
      true-believing Communists became disillusioned with Stalin’s very brutal
      dictatorship. These Russians viewed the German invasion as an opportunity
      to rid themselves of Stalin who they considered to be a monster and the real
      enemy of the Russian people. General Vlasov, the hero of the Battle of
      Moscow, and one of Soviet’s top generals was one of these people.

      General Vlasov was captured by the Germans early in the war while he was
      defending Moscow during the Battle of Moscow. He and hundreds of thousands
      of other Russian prisoners of war volunteered or were persuaded to fight
      with the Germans. These Russians did not especially like the Germans; they
      just hated Stalin so much that they were willing, and in some cases even
      eager, to fight with the Germans to rid themselves of Stalin. The Germans in
      turn promised them that once Stalin was overthrown, they would be allowed to
      establish an independent Russian Government free of Stalin.

      These soldiers became unofficially known as the Vlasov guards. They
      considered themselves to be Russian patriots who were fighting with the
      Germans to rid themselves of a monster and a traitor (Stalin). Stalin, of
      course, considered them to be traitors.

      The Vlasov guards got into the war late in the game. I read somewhere that
      Hitler initially refused to accept any Russian help even after the Russians
      guards were trained and equipped and ready to fight. He later relented
      after the Germans suffered some of their bigger defeats and it was
      determined that the Wehrmacht desperately needed more manpower on the
      Eastern front. Some military historians speculate that had the Vlasov
      guards been deployed earlier, the war on the Eastern front would have had a
      different ending.

      My family (grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins) became exposed to the
      Vlasov guards when they and elements of the German army built their
      defensive fortifications on the Prasiva mountain ridge that surrounded
      Liptovska Luzna. Some of the most vicious fighting took place on Prasiva
      with elements of the Germans army, the Hlinka Guards and the Vlasov Guards
      fighting on one side and elements of the Red Army and the Slovak partisans
      fighting on the other side.

      The fighting between the Vlasov guards and the partisans (guerillas) was
      particularly vicious. Some of the partisans did not wear military uniforms
      so it was often difficult to tell an innocent civilian farmer wandering
      through the mountains looking for his lost cow, from an enemy partisan.
      The Vlasov guards were trigger-happy, they would shoot first, at almost
      anything that moved, and then ask questions later. Many innocent civilians
      were killed. My family told me that the “Vlasovsy” or the Vlasov guards
      were the most dangerous of all the combatants that fought in and around

      After some heavy fighting, the Red Army and their partisan allies finally
      broke through the Prasiva defenses. They came down from the mountains into
      the valley and entered Luzna. They weren’t any better than the Vlasov
      guards. They indiscriminately plundered and destroyed property and some of
      them raped woman. In comparison, the German Wehrmacht (army) soldiers
      seemed to be well-mannered and civilized. Elsewhere it may have been a
      different story.

      After all of the soldiers pulled out of Luzna, the Luznan collected and
      buried the abandoned bodies of dead soldiers. Within six months or so after
      the war ended, parents of dead German soldiers started to show up in Luzna
      with horse drawn wagons and picked-up the bodies of their sons. The bodies
      were, carefully wrapped in blankets, placed in the wagons and taken home for
      reburial. The Luznans assisted them in locating the bodies of their sons.

      When Germany finally surrendered in May of 1945, the Vlasov Guards were
      somewhere southwest of Prague facing General Patton’s troops. Although the
      German armies were surrendering in droves, the Vlasov guards refused to
      surrender because they knew that they would face a horrible retribution from
      Stalin. They were still heavily armed and a force to be reckoned with and
      they vowed to fight to the death. Finally, General Patton persuaded them to
      surrender promising them that they would not be turned over to Stalin. But
      within 2 weeks after they surrendered to Patton and after they were
      disarmed, they were loaded into freight cars and sent to Stalin. I read
      that many of the distraught prisoners committed suicide while in the freight
      cars rather than to face the punishment that awaited them. I also read that
      General Patton didn’t want to repatriate the guards to Russia but was
      ordered to do this by Eisenhower.

      As late as 1949, there were still small-armed remnants of Vlasov army hiding
      in the mountains surrounding Luzna. As this point, they were considered
      bandits, they became a nuisance because they would come down from the
      mountains into the village and take food etc… An older cousin of mine, Jan
      Valusiak, was in the zandars (a para-military unit) that combed the
      mountains looking for them. Eventually, they were forced northward out of
      Slovakia into southern Poland and disappeared.

      Finally, about twenty years ago, I met this 60-year-old guy at the health
      club. I first noticed him when I heard him talk; he had a heavy Slavic
      accent. I thought that he might be a Slovak, but he turned out to be
      Russian. During our many conversations we eventually talked about our
      military experiences. It was then that I learned that he fought with the
      Vlasov guards. I now regret that I never asked him how he managed to escape
      captivity and manage to make it to America. I bet that would have been an
      interesting story.

      Here is a website that you can check out. http://www.feldgrau.com/rvol.html

      You might also want to Google on “General Vlasov” if you want more


      -----Original Message-----
      From: SLOVAK-ROOTS@yahoogroups.com
      [mailto:SLOVAK-ROOTS@yahoogroups.com]On Behalf Of Bill Tarkulich
      Sent: Thursday, October 06, 2005 7:48 AM
      To: SLOVAK-ROOTS@yahoogroups.com
      Subject: Re: [S-R] Dukla pass veteran to be honored in slovakia (John

      Hello Milan,

      Before all these people are gone, you should really make it a point to
      ensure this man's story is at least captured and placed with the SNP
      Museum in Banska Bystrica. All first-person vantage points count in
      understanding what happened. Additionally, from a more selfish point of
      view, so too should your English rendering of these stories.

      By the way, there was considerable animosity between the German War Graves
      commission and the Czechoslovakia government. It is my understanding that
      the Germans were never permitted to maintain German graves during the
      Czecholslovak regime. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the Germans
      were allowed to enter, rehabilitate and maintain these graves. I
      photographed one just South of the Pass (
      sorry it was raining heavily.)

      I was also told that the Russians (and other Soviet block) returned later
      and repatriated their soldiers bodies. I have not been able to
      corroborate that. I am well aware of the Dukla memorial with graves of
      the "big cheese". I'm a bit uncertain what happened to the "ordinary
      guy." Do you know where any of the Soviet burials are in either Poland or
      Slovakia? I've not seen them documented anywhere.

      I never heard of the "Vlasov Guard". How in the world did they get behind
      enemy lines to begin with. Did they come to the party late in the War?

      Thanks for the information.

      Bill Tarkulich

      > I have relatives in Liptovska Luzna (Central Slovakia) that I visit just
      > about every summer. One of their neighbors is an old-timer (a former WWII
      > Slovakian soldier) who likes to talk about his WWII experiences. Most of
      > his stories were about the vicious fighting that took place in the
      > mountains
      > that immediately surround Luzna. One side of the battle were the Soviets
      > with their Slovak allies (the partisans). On the other side were the
      > Germans and their Slovak and Russian allies. The Russian soldiers that
      > fought with the Germans were the Vlasov Guards and the Slovaks that fought
      > with the Germans were the Hlinka Guards. Some of the very fiercest
      > no-hold
      > barred fighting was done by the Vlasov and the Hlinka guards. These two
      > groups considered themselves to be more anti-Communists, rather than
      > pro-German, and were fighting to save Slovakia and Europe from the Red
      > Army
      > onslaught. You can still find the remains of the destroyed military
      > equipment lying about in the mountains.
      > In Luzna there is a monument listing the names of all the soldiers from
      > Luzna that were killed in the war. The monument was set up by the
      > Communist
      > government and as such it lists only the Luzna soldiers who died fighting
      > on
      > the side of Soviets. The soldiers who died fighting for their country
      > with
      > the Germans are not acknowledged and are only remembered in the hearts of
      > their families.
      > The point of this dialog is that many brave young Slovak soldiers fought
      > on
      > both sides of the war until the very end. The soldiers on both sides
      > believed that they were fighting for a noble cause. However, only the
      > soldiers that fought and died with the victors are acknowledged. The
      > victors
      > get to write the histories and built the monuments.
      > This neighbor also told many stories about the Battle of Dukla pass.
      > Finally, out of curiosity, last year I made the long trip from Luzna to
      > the
      > Eastern Slovakia and visited the battlefield area. The battlefield is very
      > interesting, covering many, many square miles. It is littered with many
      > almost intact German and Russian WWII tanks and field guns that remain
      > along
      > the roads and in the fields where they were abandoned. The area has been
      > declared an outdoor museum.
      > According to this neighbor, the Soviet soldiers at Dukla pass were all
      > plied
      > with vodka and then ordered to charge the German defenses. As they
      > charged
      > forward, they were being slaughtered by the Germans who were in strong
      > defensive positions. During this charge, the Soviet soldiers were
      > stumbling
      > and crawling over piles of bodies of their dead comrades. The Germans
      > finally pulled out of their defensive positions and retreated when they
      > ran
      > out on ammunition.
      > After the Germans pulled out, the Soviets collected their bodies and
      > dumped
      > them like so much garbage into huge pits. Each of these pits (mass
      > graves)
      > contained the bodies of approximately 10,000 unidentified Soviet soldiers.
      > In contrast, most of the German dead were buried in individual graves,
      > each
      > grave marked with the name, rank date of birth and date of death of the
      > soldier. These German soldiers graves are still being maintained by the
      > Germans.
      > Milan Huba
      > -----Original Message-----
      > From: SLOVAK-ROOTS@yahoogroups.com
      > [mailto:SLOVAK-ROOTS@yahoogroups.com]On Behalf Of Bill Tarkulich
      > Sent: Wednesday, October 05, 2005 7:27 AM
      > To: SLOVAK-ROOTS@yahoogroups.com
      > Subject: Re: [S-R] dukla pass veteran to be honored in slovakia (John
      > Kulhan)
      > Hi Noreen,
      > This is very interesting and suprising, and quite a coincidence to see
      > this article. I have been corresponding with John Kenny for the past
      > month. In fact, given my interest, they were wondering if I could come to
      > the ceremony, but alas, life gets in the way. They even sent me a scan of
      > John Kulhan's "Order of the White Eagle", presented to him by president
      > Soboda in 1947. I plan to post it when time allows.
      > I plan to call John on his return from Dukla, thanks to his son-in-law.
      > Dukla is a very interesting and tragic battle, which Westerners know very
      > little about. Over 100,000 casulties (dead and wounded), yet the west
      > never heard of the battle. I visited there during 2001, as it was so
      > close to my ancestral homeland. What is written of the battle is
      > primarily in Russian and Slovak, which makes it even less accessible to
      > most westerners. So I began some web
      > page(s)http://www.iabsi.com/gen/public/Military_dukla_pass.htm and
      > http://www.iabsi.com/gen/public/military_history.htm to describe the
      > battle in English. Mistakes are intrinsic in this work, since history is
      > written by the victors and each side has an axe to grind. I prefer to
      > listen to all sides and draw my own conclusions.
      > I plan to interview John and perhaps write a more detailed accounting of
      > the battle. Of course his son-in-law has written an account of John's
      > life which should make for interesting reading.
      > While this is not directly genealogy, I find that history and genealogy
      > are commingled and should be examined mutually. Otherwise, people tell us
      > facts and we have them out of context. I found that the vacuum of WWII
      > knowledge about events in Slovakia to be too much for me to bear. I need
      > to get to the people who lived them and lift that information for all to
      > hear for future generations. Sounds noble, huh? Well, if we don't do it,
      > it ain't gonna get done. These good folks do not have many years left.
      > Thanks again,
      > Bill
      >> hello everyone,
      >> A co worker showed me this article yesterday in the New York Journal
      >> News.
      >> wanted to share it with the list. it was on the front page.
      >> Noreen
      >> -------------------------------------------------------------------------
      > ----
      >> -----------------------------------------------------
      >> This is a printer friendly version of an article from the The Journal
      >> News.
      >> To print this article open the file menu and choose Print.
      >> Veteran honored for Eastern Front battle
      >> (Original Publication: October 3, 2005)
      >> Battle of Dukla Pass took heavy casualties
      >> When: Sept. 8 until the end of October 1944, with further Soviet
      >> advances
      >> continuing through November
      >> Where: Southern Poland, Slovakia, eastern Ukraine
      >> Casualties: 84,000 Soviets, 54,000 Germans and 6,000 in the Czechoslovak
      >> Army
      >> Corps
      >> Result: Nazi troops forced out of Slovakia; Red Army poised to take
      >> Prague
      >> in
      >> May 1945.
      >> Thursday is "Liberation Day" in the eastern European nation of Slovakia.
      >> There will be speeches, toasts, proclamations and, for an 84-year-old
      >> veteran
      >> from Eastchester, a particularly sweet moment.
      >> John (Jan) Kulhan was one of those liberators who helped turn the tide a
      >> gainst the Third Reich and one of the handful of survivors of a
      >> ferocious
      >> battle in
      >> the fall of 1944 that drove the Nazis from his homeland. The Battle of
      >> Dukla
      >> Pass raged for a month between the Nazis and the Soviet Army and their
      >> allies
      >> in the region bordered by Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine known as the
      >> Dukla
      >> Pass, a section of the northern Carpathian mountains.
      >> Kulhan, 83, a former Bronxville resident and retired engineer, will be
      >> honored in a semi-official ceremony at the Military Museum in Suidnik,
      >> Slovakia, his
      >> native land. He was a young artillery and transport officer in the old
      >> Czechoslovak army allied with the Soviets, and he is the last known
      >> Slovakian to
      >> have taken part in a battle that has a complex and enduring legacy in
      >> eastern
      >> Europe.
      >> "We wanted to create our own country. I was fighting for my own freedom.
      >> It
      >> didn't happen then; communism dominated everything," Kulhan recalled.
      >> But the fight gave Slovakia a sense of its destiny as an autonomous
      >> nation,
      >> which it finally became in 1993 after separating peacefully from the
      >> Czech
      >> Republic. "When I was fighting, I was fighting for the idea that
      >> everybody
      >> should
      >> be free, not a slave," he said.
      >> His Czechoslovak army unit was pressed into service by the Germans
      >> against
      >> the Soviets after the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, but the unit later
      >> switched sides and joined the fight against the German military machine.
      >> Kulhan can recall the 1944 battle with sharp details as his clear, gray
      >> eyes
      >> narrow with concentration — how German prisoners looked when they
      >> finally
      >> surrendered after a murderous artillery barrage, the sound of a mortar
      >> shell on
      >> its downward arc.
      >> He tells many stories of his past — how he saved the future president
      >> of
      >> Czechoslovakia, Gen. Ludvik Svoboda, by pushing him out of a bunker that
      >> was
      >> targeted by Nazi artillery moments before it was destroyed, working with
      >> American
      >> intelligence agents after the war, sneaking out of Slovakia with his
      >> wife
      >> and
      >> children in a daring border-crossing to Austria.
      >> "He never got the recognition he deserved," said Kulhan's son-in-law,
      >> Joseph
      >> Kenney, a New Jersey immigration officer and an Army Reserve lieutenant
      >> colonel. "When he turned against the Communists, they turned against
      >> him."
      >> At the ceremony on Thursday, Kulhan will be honored for the first time
      >> by
      >> his
      >> native Slovakia since it became an autonomous country.
      >> Kulhan came to this country in 1950 and became a proud American, an
      >> admirer
      >> of Ronald Reagan who can quote lines from his speeches. As for his
      >> native
      >> land,
      >> he said he hoped his part in the campaign of 1944 will bring greater
      >> attention to the cause for which he fought.
      >> "I got enough medals. But I'd like recognition for the people who fought
      >> and
      >> died for Slovakian independence," he said.
      >> A father of five, he will be joined in his journey by his wife, Marta,
      >> to
      >> whom he has been married for 59 years.
      >> There are still animosities and political fissures in Slovakia, much of
      >> it
      >> stemming from the World War II era and its aftermath under Soviet
      >> domination.
      >> "People were caught up in the maelstrom, and they had to make hard
      >> choices,"
      >> said Vladimir Baumgarten, a Florida scholar who has researched the
      >> battle
      >> of
      >> Dukla Pass and runs a cultural organization promoting Slovak-American
      >> ties.
      >> Speaking of the commemoration of the battle this week in which Kulhan
      >> will
      >> be
      >> honored, Baumgarten said, "Hopefully, it will be a healing catharsis. It
      >> brings
      >> together both sides of the Cold War."
      >> It will also be a moment of family pride. The old soldier's daughter,
      >> Darline
      >> Kulhan, was already bursting with pride before the trip started. "I got
      >> a
      >> new
      >> digital camera, and I'm going to take so many pictures," she said in her
      >> Eastchester home. "He put it on the line for freedom, and to get this
      >> recognition,
      >> it will be a moment of joy."
      >> [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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