Diary of a Prisoner in World War I/Serbian Captivity—1915
Kraguyevats! It took three 3 days to get there, and they were filled with trouble. The first thing our brothers the Serbs did was take off our coats and put them on themselves. The same with our shoes. All that had any value—underwear, blankets, watches, money—everything comes in handy for them. All we ate in three days was 3 halves of a bread loaf. We slept on the snow the first two nights and saw the first swamps.
We arrived at Skoplye today. We'd been crammed in boxcars for 3 days and 3 nights, not even able to sit down. First they took us there and back, all over the town, and then they gave each of us one loaf and a piece of bacon, and that was it! The journey was terrible. It was there that I caught lice for the first time—that Serb specialty no one can escape. I could not get rid of them all the time I was in Serbia.
We have our lodging now. It is a former stable that's too bad for cattle but good enough for the "Schwabs." There are several thousand of us crammed in here. Food is the same all the time—cabbage soup and mutton. I am writing my first postcard home. No work so far. The weather here is beautiful, like in May back home.
Diseases spread among us—typhus and dysentery. More and more people die every day. Bad food, foul water, and dirt are to blame. They forbid us to drink the water but there is nothing else. The soup is all pepper. The lice proliferate. We cannot wash clothes as there is nowhere to do so, to say nothing about drying. So, instead of picking the lice out, I brush them away. They're everywhere—in shirts, socks, blouses, coats, and hats. You can find them in your hair, your beard—simply everywhere. If you find 150 of them in your shirt, it's not so many! If you pick them all one day, you're full of them the next morning again.
We lie on the ground. There is no straw, and we must not lie on our backs but only on our sides as there is no room. It's worst at night—whoever goes out cannot get through and stomps on feet or heads. Batina rules here. You get hit with a fist or stick for nothing, and if you can get away soon, good for you. The almighty master here is Captain Dogič, a true animal. "I am your God. I can kill you" is his favorite proverb. And our feldwebels, the Croats and the Bosnians, help him bravely, hitting everyone they meet.
Christmas Eve. How many memories run through my head! What a difference between now and a year ago! What are my parents doing at this moment? It is getting dark, and I am lying on my elevated bed (I sleep in a trough). I got in here to avoid the dirt and the lice, which cannot get in here so easily. I am recalling my homeland. My Christmas Eve dinner is a few apples and one dinar's worth of chocolate. And there are many here who don't have even that. All is quiet—perhaps everyone is thinking. If there were more light, I could see a tear in many an eye! We are so sad at heart. I am listening—there, in the corner, the 102nd Regiment starts to sing "Where Is My Home." Everyone is trembling. Other voices join in, and our sty resounds with a sublime song, illustrating our feelings! Deep silence—and then a carol. And then silence again. Everybody is recalling. There is supper, and then everybody gets ready for the midnight mass. Many of those who have not prayed in a long time are now praying to the one who gave the world peace, asking for peace soon and that they may return happily! Will this ever be?
Christmas is over. On Christmas Day I worked all day and fasted. My whole lunch was a bit of cheese and bread. We work every day, doing various things. We go to the station, to building sites, to clean, dig, press hay, or build roads. Our jailkeepers drive us out to the courtyard at half past five in the morning. There we stand in the rain and cold for an hour. Most of us are barefoot. Dogič walks by with his stick. Our feldwebels and gendarmes divide us into teams. At last all are divided. But not much work gets done. Those who work on the roads end up searching for lice; those who pass through the town tend to disappear—some go drinking at a cafe, some go to make money, some go begging. When the guard arrives at the station with 80 people out of 300, he swears: "I fuck their Schwabish mother in the ass." And that's it. They could never count us all, even if we were to be here for the next five years.
 at the Czech House. I am mad!The last day of the year. The devil may take this year—it has dealt us badly. Recalling how nicely we welcomed it, I think it was in Krásné Březno
New year, what news do you bring? The beginning of the year was pretty bad—I carried sacks at the station all day. I could not slip away.
I am sick. I have fever, cannot eat anything. I just want to drink but this water is deadly. I am lying on the ground like a dog. Nobody cares, nobody notices. I am not alone—more than half of the men are lying here too. Epidemic. And the town is not better off! Hospitals are overfilled, there are no doctors, and the prisoners—who have never even treated a sick person—are the nurses. They are masterful in robbing the sick!
I feel better, so I can walk again. I was commanded out to work today. I was to drag flour sacks, but I was barely able to walk. I asked for an examination. They lined us up in the yard. Dogič came around with his stick, and the examination began: "What's the matter with you?" "My head hurts." "Your cunt..." And the stick danced on his back. The rest of us did not wait, and the examination was over.
The first postcard from home. Karel wrote: "Daddy is glad that you are out of danger." If only he knew what dangers are here. Hundreds of prisoners die daily in the worst dirt. There are so many lice I cannot stand it anymore. I haven't washed my shirt for a month. In hospitals, people die helpless; here we have no doctors, no medicine, no beds, no food.
More news about peace. The shortage is getting worse. There is no bread; when there is, sometimes it is purple and sometimes it is yellow. We've had no meals for 6 days now—first there was no wood, then there was no water, and now there is no meat. I am waiting for money from home, but it is in vain—the officers here steal everything.
I work every day. We get damson cheese instead of meals, and there are beatings every day. There is no prison here, and trials are wonderfully easy: "25 blows on the butt, is the usual sentence. Those who are beaten stay marked for several days.
The epidemic is peaking. Our crammed sties got terribly empty—more than half of the men moved beyond that white wall. Men who are full of life in the evening cannot get up in the morning.
A Greek countess visited us and brought us boxes of underwear, sugar, and tea. I got a shirt, 2 handkerchiefs, and some sugar. We press hay, and I drive oxen. Now and then I get a postcard from home, but the deliveries are bad.
I was commanded to work at the hospital as a nurse, but when I saw the mess there I ran away. Here in Skoplye just a handful of us prisoners were left out of 1200. Again several days with no meals, just some spoiled cheese and damson cheese for lunch.
We left Skoplye for Djevdjekia. It is on the very border with Greece, on the track that goes Nish-Skoplye-Salonica. There are 15 of us, and we are assigned to be nurses. The town is nice, and there are Turks, Bulgarians, Greeks, etc. The weather is lovely. There are about 500 Austrians serving within an American medicinal mission. Some of them are enjoying a golden age; the Americans have brought just about everything—underwear, medication, beds, food cans, sugar, tea, kerosene, boots. Everything.
They are putting everything in order, setting up hospitals, and separating the injured from the typhus-infected.
I work as a nurse. The hospital is a former Turkish state store, an enormous building of 5 floors. I was assigned to department Soba VI. There are 5 of us as nurses serving more than 80 people who are sick with typhus. I shudder to look at them. The majority of them are Serbs, thin recruits with frostbitten legs. They lie on mattresses on the ground, in dirt like I have never seen in my life. They cannot walk, and the toilets are too far anyway. The ceiling is made of planks so it's dripping and running upon them from above. It's hell. 6 or 8 of them die every day, and others take their places.
The lice seem to move the entire building. There is no medication. A doctor comes once every in 3 days. We have a lot to do. We carry meals and divide them, clean the rooms, carry water (to the 3rd floor), and apply compresses. I don't know how long I can take it. We must be on duty and apply compresses at night too. And all you get for that toil is swearing. All you hear all day every day is just swearing. "Yebat!" The Croats and Bosnians rob the dead and search them—I would not touch them even if they had thousands on them. They immediately sell the clothes and shoes they take off the dead.
I have a fever—39°C—but I keep on working as I am afraid to lie down. Few of those who lie down can get up again.
Finally I came around again. I don't know what was going on with me for 20 days. They say I could not accept anything for 7 days; later I could only accept tea and milk. My fever reached 4l°C. I got a grip on myself slowly. I did not know where I was or what my name was. I am still too weak to stand up.
I am slowly regaining power and hunger. I could eat five times as much as they give me. In the meantime someone stole my uniform and coat, so I am naked. They also stole my wallet. I had my letters and about 4 crowns in it. I saw the wallet with one of the Serbs, but when I demanded it he hit me. I am so hungry and penniless. I spent my last 2 dinars on bread, roasted meat, and wine.
Today I was dismissed from the hospital and sent to the headquarters. A harsh wind came, and the feet of the sick in the hospital got frostbitten.
I'm a nurse in Hotel Magasin, an old Turkish tobacco store. Here there are just the injured or frostbitten. The order here is much better. The Americans and our fellows manage it. There is a lot to do, but enough food too. I like it here. Figs are blossoming out in our garden.
An incomplete article from Samostatnost ("Independence"), dated February 15, 1918, is inserted here. It is as follows:
There were no weapons, no ammunition, no clothes or sanitary aids. The lack of means of communication caused bad food deliveries. The result was that we ran from the larger centers, where people were really friendly to us, to the newly won countries of Serbia where most people, although they were good in their hearts and hospitable as true Slavs, did not understand our rebellion the way it deserved to be understood due to their ignorance. Only the lucky ones could join the heroic defenders of the still endangered small homeland of Serbia. And then, at our heels, the terrible typhus epidemic crawled to Serbia. So many Czech heads and hands helped in insufficient hospitals in Serbia to beat this vigorous enemy. And the reason, why hundreds and thousands of our boys died along with those who faced the insidious disease with superhuman zeal but insufficient means, was that they fulfilled their helping duty with true understanding, self-sacrifice and love in the harsh Balkan conditions. Small wooden crosses on Serb cemeteries are aching memorials of those terrible times; but this sublime effort and work of ours so endeared us to...
The rest is missing.
The Americans left, and Dr. Borssitch took over the hospital. There was a massive alarm—the Bulgarians assaulted the Serb corps near Strumtets. They killed many. The inhabitants move out for fear of the Bulgarians. We receive a full train of injured soldiers in terrible condition! All covered with blood, unconscious, dying. We have been bandaging and washing all night and all day. Many of them died the very first night, some are in agony, some are wounded horribly. One was stabbed by a bayonet 16 times. The Bulgarians were like animals.
Now we are taking care of the wounded only; those with fever are moved to the other hospital. I am well off now. We have an abundance of everything, including milk, tea, and eggs. I seldom receive anything from home. I am still looking forward to this situation ending soon—and, meanwhile, newspapers say Italy has declared war.
The new Serb sobar started off rough but slackened soon. I discovered his dirty deals, and now he has to be quiet. I met Sergeant Roubík. The first batch of prisoners is leaving to build the railway to Knyezhevats. Then we all will leave.
I am leaving Djevdekiya for Nish to build the railway. We got 2 dinars each for the journey. Before we got from the station to the stables in Nish, we got all wet from rain. This is our lodging with a new surprise—fleas. They are as big as flies, and you get hundreds of them within half an hour. Nobody can even think about sleep.
Each of us got 3 loaves of bread and a piece of smoked meat for the journey. We went through Nish to Knyezhevats. We spent the first night in a forest. I froze to the bone, having no coat and no blanket and sleeping on damp grass. The other night was better—we slept in an abandoned school. The journey is getting harder, going over hills and ravines unlike anything I have ever seen.
We rested for 2 days in Knyezhevats, where we were accommodated in a café and slept under the tables. Everyone got a pair of sandals, and some were hit with a stick.
We arrived in Banitsa in late afternoon. We bathed there in a thermal well while our uniforms were boiled in cauldrons. When they were so-so dry, we went to sleep in Ragost, where I and several boys slept in a chicken shack.
We finally arrived, having marched all day in immense danger. We are to live in a large cave where a kitchen is set up. Rocks are all around us, wild Timok is underneath, a bit of blue sky is above, and eagles are our partners. One can't see grass anywhere—it is all bare rocks. A real wasteland. We have to dig our paths—make a bad move and fall down. There are 35 of us, mostly Czechs with Sergeant Roubík. Our commander is Theodor Tcheikovitch from Monte Negro, a first-class bastard. He looks like a fugitive convict. The boys immediately nicknamed him Babinský. It fits him perfectly. With an oak stick, he is always ready to earn recognition through slaps and blows, and he becomes a real nightmare for everyone.
We are assigned work on a railway construction here. The railway is routed along nothing but bridges, tunnels, and embankments. Dynamite has to be used to dig everything. The work is very hard. We sleep in the rocks like badgers, and I am cold, as I have neither coat nor blanket. Meals are all the same: beans with a bit of goat's meat for lunch and supper, thickened soup in the morning, and one loaf of bread daily.
I do not work the rock but go for bread and kitchen stuff every day. I must get up at 4:00 a.m. to bring the meat before 7. They carry it from the slaughterhouse to Glisura on carts. From there we have to drag it on our backs across the rocks for almost one hour's distance.
When there is no rain it is good. But when the rain starts, it goes on for days and days, and you can't get your feet out of the mud.
120 new men arrived. We work hard. Our wage is from 50 hellers up to 1 dinar but it's worth nothing because we can't buy anything but rakiya. The Section pays when they want (well, when they have).
Two prisoners were wounded during explosions today. You can't hear anything but thundering noise all day long. Instead of soup we get damson cheese in the morning. It is great. We have coffee. We are not hungry. I am glad for one thing—we got rid of the lice. Well, one can be found here or there, but we got cleaned. But fleas still pop up.
Our team increased to 300 men. They came from Skoplye and Brtolye. Everyone has a nice, new pair of boots that arrived from the American Czechs. They say 30 thousand pairs had arrived but the Czechs only got about 3,000 of them. The Serbs "took care" of the rest. With the transport, Salomon Hruska arrived, among others.
I got a card from Karel. He's been drafted. Messages from home arrive seldom. Sometimes I get cards from Ústí from F.T. or A.M., but also one from S.F. We still think the end will be here soon. We don't hear any news of the world; it is like we are on a bare islandA provisionary track has been built so we carry bread on trolleys. People get hurt in explosions every day.
Days pass on by, and we keep working like slaves. God knows, maybe it's our fate not to return. Here one is permanently in danger of being hit with a flying stone.
Babinsky wheedled my watch, which didn't work, from me for 5 dinars, but he raised my wage. Now I get 80 H.
The construction goes on well. The tunnels have been made, and very high bridges cemented. This costly track is made of the calluses and sweat of the zaroblyeniks. People who have never done such work in their lives work with hammers and wedges as if they have done it from their birth. Nobody here asks about your profession—you get a pickaxe or a wheelbarrow and go!
These days I only go for meat and I bargain with plums, pears, nuts, cucumbers, even sausages. The butchers at the slaughterhouse made sausages. I brought 200 of them back for myself and the others, and they were all gone in a moment.
Last night, 7 boys ran to Bulgaria. It is not far—about 6 hours. Men from other units escape every day. We fear the winter; it will be rough here. I bought a blanket and a fur coat. This week I received money from home two times: first 10 dinars and then 12.
News is here that the Germans assaulted Belgrade and the Bulgarians counteracted. Here many men run away, and accidents happen almost every day, mostly in the tunnels. At night we hear guns firing. Babinsky assures us it's the Bulgarians doing maneuvers. But we think it stinks.
Last night there was an alarm. We heard the firing clearly. The Bulgarians clashed with the Serbs on the border. About 800 people left Glysuca to dig trenches near Kralyevo. The Knyezhevats got very upset. The civilians fled. Each of us got 2 blankets, 2 pairs of sandals, and some underwear for the journey.
We ran away from the Bulgarians, who have gained Knyezhevats. At eleven we received a command to run. We threw away our meals, got our sacks on our backs, and off we are going to Nish. We are taking the tools and kazans with us.
It is a huge procession: prisoners, Serbs, civilians, all the Section flee using the tunnels, as the road to Nish has been cut.
In Nish. We spent the first night in a tunnel and, in the morning, we hustled over the hill and over the unfinished bridges toward Gramada. The journey was extremely dangerous, and, on top of it all, we dragged all the tools and heavy kazans. The other night I found a postcard from home from Tonik (my stepbrother) in the mailbag. There are wagons of bread and many barrels with damson cheese. We arrived in Nish at night and went to sleep to an engine room.
The city is in great confusion and panic. Everything is moving. Rumor says the government is now in Prokuplya.
Our fellows have a camp beyond the town. They brought an immense quantity of Austrian shoes; the prisoners fight for them, and I was lucky enough to win a pair—it was worth being hit with a stick. About 8000 prisoners have gathered here. Bread and damson cheese were given away again. It rained all day long. For the night I ran to the engine room again.
Having marched all day, we arrived in Prokuplya at 10. We were crammed into cafés. We slept crowded on the floor. The next day we moved to a meadow. It keeps on raining all day and all night. I am drenched. It keeps on raining. I bought timber for 3 dinars, made a campfire, and tried to dry myself a bit. We moved to another meadow.
We arrived in Korshumliya and slept in a café the first night. Our team was divided there. One half went with Theodor to repair roads somewhere. Our officers were camped there. Misery, hunger, and lice were beginning to appear. We went all day over hills and through, no rests, road or no road. Mud was everywhere, and it kept on raining. We reached a village in early evening, but there was no place for us, so we went to a meadow. Sitting in the water, I was trembling from cold as it was raining hard. When the rain stopped for a while, we made a fire with great effort. But a storm came, and we had to run away from the flood. It rained very hard, and the thunder roared all night. This was one of the worst nights I've experienced.
In the morning we marched on. My wet blankets weigh three times their dry weight; we are fatigued, sleepless, hungry. We have half of a loaf bread per day. Happily, I have saved some money.
Prishtina. We got here after 2 days of an immensely demanding march across forests, over hills, and through rivers without bridges! Misery has arrived. A 2-day ration of bread gets eaten easily in one day, and if you want to buy some more you pay 2 or 3 D. The boys sell underwear, blankets, and boots for a piece of bread. Our guards rob us—a shame to think. They never let us buy anything but bring it themselves and collect 10 times the price.
We walk all day without stopping. Those who stay behind get beaten with a stick or gun butt or stabbed with bayonets. You mustn't stop to have a sip of water as the guards keep on screaming, "Četyry a četyry" The road is flooded. We walk in water that reaches up to our waists for almost 4 hours.
Prishtina is an old Turkish town. It is half empty, and its mosques are a beautiful sight. We sleep in a stinking sty full of dung, but we're glad to be in a shelter. We get 2 loaves of bread for 5 days.
Last night we slept in the rain again. Our guards raged—they hit, kicked, and robbed us. In the evening we reached Orekhovatch and slept crammed shoulder to shoulder. Actually there was no sleep as we could not even sit.
We were able to see the goal of yesterday's journey—Prizren—as early as noon of that day. A beautiful Turkish town with a great Turkish castle and many mosques. Surrounded by high mountains, it was a beautiful sight. This was a border point of three territories—Serbia, Monte Negro, and Albania. We were lodged in large, Turkish barracks. We lay on the ground, but we were happy to be in a shelter and to stretch out as much as we liked. We stayed there for 2 days. I used that time to inspect my shirt and to get rid of at least some of those white parasites.
Our daily dose was the same—l loaf of bread for 2 days. If I had no money, I would have to sell my blankets as others did, or maybe even my shoes and walk barefoot. And I am lucky to have my cash in silver coins. Nobody wants bank notes; one can hardly sell them for 6 dinars. Rumors has spread that we are going to Dratch and then to Italy! I don't care as long as we escape those Serb bastards.
Marching on, we heard Bulgarian guns from Skoplye, and our commander ordered, "Eilmarsch." We slept at Kosovo Pole. Rumor says Kumanovo was won. We pass many hills and ravines. The Albanians are not bad people, but they are also hungry.
We march on and on through barren lands. No sign of a road, only broken shacks here and there. We have to wade through creeks deep up to our knees as there are no bridges. We sleep outside every night in the rain, and we're happy to make a fire in the evening. We look like Gypsies—torn, barefoot, hungry, and full of lice. Last night we walked for ten hours and reached a village called Preshkoplye where there are field bakeries. It takes a whole day before they have bread baked for us. We get bread for 4 days. I bought two more loaves so I have a good supply.
We reached Debro after a day of climbing and descending hills. We stayed in old Turkish barracks, half crumbled. There is one transport of Bulgarians taken prisoner and several Germans. We are hungry, and the Serbs rob us of our last money. It is terrible to be at the mercy of several yokels who can rob you, strip you, and beat you to death whenever they wish. I stick to the fore; those who come late or cannot go are beaten and robbed. I don't know if I'll be strong enough—the sea is still very far, and the misery is growing harder! God help us!
Our platoon was divided yesterday. We were called the Radnitchka platoon and took off to build a road. Our commander is Professor Zhizhkovitch, a man with the eyes of a basilisk.
We marched all day; in the evening we arrived in an Arnaut village as it began to rain hard. The commander wanted us to live in kutchas but the Arnauts were locked inside and didn't want to open. Our guards broke the gates after a long and useless negotiation, and we moved in. But we are now in the rain again because the roof is full of holes.
Steblova is a small village. We buy potatoes as small as cherries. Arnauts sell us baked pumpkins and corn flour, trading for underwear or boots. A kitchen has been established here; thecrew boil water with a few green leaves twice a day. Bread is available only sometimes.
It started to freeze and snow. We looked for timber and dismantled the fences. There was no sign of a fence in 3 days. Arnauts dismantled and hid the rest. I made pasta balls and other specialties from corn flour. It was not greasy, and it was unsalted, but everybody liked it—though not even dogs would eat it back home.
Sad times—no bread or meals for 3 days, and yet we have to work. We are dying for food. It is raining; the creek flooded the road, and the supplies can't reach us. We boil corn and rose hips. I traded a little corn flour for a shirt and underwear. The Arnauts do not want Serb money. The boys trade flour for their last blankets.
Nobody wants to go to work. Today someone shouted at the narednik: "Give us bread or shoot us. We cannot live like this." We're hopeless.
Finally bread arrived today after 6 days. Thank God! We got 3/4 of a kilogram of bread for 5 days! But still there are no meals. Hunger is there still. It's freezing and snowing all night long. We are at a high altitude. There are huge snowdrifts, and many men are barefoot.
Still freezing and snowing. The supplies arrived today again, and everybody got 3/4 kilogram of bread again, but it was completely drenched. Our guards were called to Debro at night. We are alone here, and perhaps we will stay here. We're so hungry that we lose our minds; it's still snowing and freezing. There is news that the Bulgarians won Nish. We are convinced that we cannot get to Italy, but if the Bulgarians do not come, we will perish here.
There was an alarm at midnight. Our commander Zhizhkovitch arrived and commanded us to leave. Instead of bread for the journey, we have to carry all the tools and the entire kitchen. We are going to Elbasan. As we descended to lower ground, it got warmer. At about 9in the morning, the commander noticed that several people had thrown away their tools on the way. He ordered [the guards] to stop, separate those with no tools, and give them 25 blows. A terrible sight. There were more than 80 people, and most of them never had any tools. All of their pleas were in vain, though; a stone would have been more merciful than the commander. I was one of them without tools but managed to get away. Those who were proven to have thrown away their crowbars received 50 blows and never got up again.
We went past a cornfield in the afternoon. Being hungry, some men grabbed a few ears. When we stopped in the evening, the commander summoned all six zugskommandants (including Roubík and Salomon) and ordered them to lie down on the road, and each received ten blows as a punishment. Thereafter he forgave them and said there would be no meal tonight, also as a punishment. We are sleeping in a shed.
Cabbage soup was our breakfast, then we set out at 6. the river Shkomba lay in front of us. We had to wade through. It took us almost fifteen minutes; the water reached up to our waists and even our chests, and the current was very strong. Several men got carried away by it. By the time we reached the other shore we were drenched, and it was freezing!
We descend from the hill to the lowlands, walking a rocky path in a terrible blizzard. We held on to a rock wall so as not to get blown away down into the river below. We got to an old Turkish road—the sights were beautiful. On the south were the great Bitolye glaciers; to the north was the Albanian snow plain; and opposite us was the Elbasan Valley with palms and cypresses. But we could not appreciate this natural beauty. Our minds were occupied with Elbasan and the bread that awaited us there.
At last we arrived in Elbasan at 10:00 p.m. The Turks gave us lodging in the town. I am staying in a mosque. The Turks are very genial and nice to us. The town is a real El Dorado for the smokers, since one kilogram of tobacco costs just 2 dinars and 60 para here.
Inserted: a cut-out article and picture—no source given. Transcription follows.
The clever Albanians knew, as always, how to make the best out of the situation. As they were afraid to kill and rob among the large groups of refugees, they robbed us in another way—selling food. A piece of bread here—actually, a hard and musty corn cake of disgusting taste, a piece of bacon there, a corn ear or a potato elsewhere—everything was worth gold. Other sorts of money became totally useless. Those who had gold could eat some. Those with bank notes from Monte Negro or Serbia were worse off—they were at the mercy of others. But there were also many places where even gold would not buy anything as Albania was eaten almost completely by those who got there before us. In fact, we were the last ones to escape. We were to cross Albania—a country perhaps less explored today than central Africa. There is no such traveler who would dare go among the wild Albanian tribes that only live in never ending disputes and fighting, where human life has no value, where an Albanian who gets a new gun will rather try it out on the first person he meets, feeling more sorry for the bullet than for his victim.
It was much worse with food. Anyone who had any, however few, they hid them jealously. A piece of corn bread weighing about a pound was worth 40 to 50 crowns, only if the seller was greatly kind and merciful.
Pitiful was the look at Austrian prisoners. Among them, a great percentage of Czech was who perhaps chose to become prisoners. Everybody forgot about them in general confusion, nobody cared about them any longer. Worn and gaunt, they wandered the streets and rags that used to be Austrian uniforms failed to cover their miserable bodies. Looking like skeletons rather than human beings, they begged for a bit of bread.
Attachment: a magazine photograph of6 people and 3 horses crossing a mountain comb. The font suggests these cutouts are not from the Samostatnost magazine but more likely from a picture weekly.
Not only tobacco but also bread and meat are cheap here. One kilogram of mutton costs 70 hellers. But alas—Serb bank notes are worth nothing here. You can be glad if you get 2 or 3 dinars (that is, chereks) for one. We get a meal and half a loaf of bread daily. The town is full of mosques, but one can also find shops that are European in style. There are oranges, cypresses, and olives. Unfortunately it started to freeze on the third day after our arrival, and it kept snowing for 3 days. The oranges were gone immediately.
So far more than 2000 prisoners have arrived. They tell us about how many of our fellows froze and died in the Bitolye mountains. They each got a cup of flour after five or six days and, having no timber to make fire, they ate it as it was.
My colleague Vlček arrived. I was happy to have money so I could buy him bread and give him my meals for a couple of days. Reportedly, the Bulgarians won Debro and Bitolye, and we cannot go to Dratch—we will have to go to Valona and then to France! Oh, God, let me withstand it all!
A disease has spread among us. They say it's typhus but I think it's from hunger.
We left Elbasan yesterday. The town is packed with prisoners and civilians. 400 men left with Roubík to repair a road. We had to wade through a river right beyond the town. We met convoys with American flour on their way from Dratch. We stayed in an Arnaut kutcha; my colleagues built deckungs. No meals and no bread for 2 days now. Not knowing what to do out of hunger, Roubík and I caught a little goat, slaughtered it, and boiled it at night. The boys steal calves, turkeys, etc. all about. The Arnauts shoot at them with guns.
About 15 sick Austrian officers arrived in the evening. In total more than 600 officers passed through here today. They were torn, tired, and hungry, and there were even oberleutnants among them. The road is always busy. Thousands and thousands of prisoners pass every day. They are barefoot and look more like Gypsies. They beg and steal, and all of them look ahead—toward the sea and liberation. Unfortunately hundreds and hundreds of them drop down due of hunger, fatigue, and sickness. Once in 3 days, we get soup with zwiebackem. Usually the men storm the kettles, and one needs a stick to maintain some order.
The commander arrived with his brother yesterday, and they spread fear. Four Hungarians sold their shovels in Elbasan and were denounced, and now he was punishing them. He had them tied to a tree for 3 hours till they fainted from pain. Then he sat them at a table and talked to them while having someone play a violin for him. The next day he had them tied again and watched the torture.
Three prisoners ran away from their unit, were led back, and had to dig a grave for themselves. He commanded soldiers to shoot them. He then pardoned them but left them tied up.
Today we witnessed the height of his animality. The cooks, due to a lack of firewood, went to cut down a tree about 600 steps from the mess. Zizkovic saw them and brought a rifle from the tent, saying that he must test the aim. He aimed and shot one cook, Janota, in his belly. When Janota was brought back, the commander said, "My arm fell down—I was aiming at his head." When the medic, Krticka, requested to have the wounded Janota transported to Elbasan, Zizkovic refused, saying, "Let him die. He killed enough Serbs." Poor Janota died the next day in terrible pain. Such a monster has power over us!
Once every 3 days we get a few biscuits or a half of a loaf of bread. The weather is nice and warm. We have gone 4 kilometers farther and built a camp. I went for 2 hours to the Arnauts' houses to get something to eat—in vain. From afar an Arnaut shouted, "Ska ič buka," waved his rifle, and released his dogs. Somehow I am not surprised. The captives pass through the country like robbers, attacking houses at night, stealing cattle, chicken, and corn. They risk their lives. Many are killed by Arnauts; many starve to death in valleys and swamps. These are not people anymore but animals who would murder their own friends for a piece of bread.
I saw the following incident: There was an Austrian lying by the road, and near him two Bosnians stood. A group of Czechs came along and asked, "What are you doing?"
"Our brother cannot go," said one of the Bosnians.
The sick man opened his eyes and whispered, "I am not Bosnian, I am Czech. They want to beat me and strip me."
And the sticks got to work on the Bosnians' backs. Here nobody goes out without a good stick. Law of the fist rules here.
Inserted is a cutout from an unidentified magazine. On one side is a picture with the caption, "Serbian army retreating. Poor Albanian cottage where the Serbian king Peter spent the night with a few of his soldiers."
On the other side is the following text:
On this impromptu road it was possible to advance only slowly one man after another and every step had to be considered. Every once in a while the road was blocked by a fallen horse who either broke his leg or fell deep into the mud. Soon there were dead horses in heaps on both sides of the road, in places one had to walk over piles of carcasses, feet slipping on the soft flesh of freshly fallen horses, then again old carcasses surrounded by swarms of flies stinking intolerably, and hen again a horse who was being walked over still raising his head as if begging for death. In places Albanians were seen cutting off the skin from the carcasses to make their sandals.
Cholera, hunger and suffering were taking more and more victims from among the fugitives who fell down from fatigue and never rose up again. Like rows of madmen, with eyes staring, themselves close to falling down, walked the fugitives among the dying, everyone looking only after himself. The instinct for survival controlled everyone. "Forward" was the motto, "forward until I fall myself." A son forgot his father, brother forgot his brother, a friend forgot his friend. Often mothers threw away their toddlers to be more free to drag themselves forward. The fallen were immediately robbed by the Albanians of the last things they had on them.
Hard to imagine for someone who did see it himself the miserable state of the once victorious army now fleeing. The soldiers were just skeletons covered with yellow skin who were already two months fleeing, clad in muddy rags, mostly barefoot, throwing away their weapons. Not one in a hundred had his rifle, and soundlessly they dragged themselves forward. Legs up to the knees in mud, and it was most difficult to advance step by step. Everyone was throwing away everything unnecessary and soon unnecessary was everything except for remainders of food that were being saved for the worst.
We lie indifferently, expecting death from starvation. For 3 days already I've had nothing to put in my mouth.
The Serbian cavalry was passing nearby, pitiful and exhausted, and that was our salvation. In the most critical moment God sent us help. There were fallen horses lying on the road. We attacked them like a pack of wolves, cut off pieces of meat, made fires, and cooked and smoked the meat. We were saved by fallen horses. The half-raw pieces of meat, dirty from smoke, tasted like the best pork to me. We even fried some meat to store! What a scene. Everybody full of blood, cutting and tearing. One searching for the heart, another one trying to break the skull with a stone to get the horse's brain, which should be even better than a pig's! Joy was shining from everyone's eyes today as we filled up after a long time.
Unfortunately many have paid the price of death for their voracity. Farther along the way, every ten steps lay a corpse of an Austrian or a Serb who will disappear here unrecognized and whose dear ones at home will be waiting in vain.
Yesterday we arrived in Lesino, and in the evening we had to wade over the river Semeni. The river was deep and wild, above my chest. One moment the current started to carry me away. I felt dizzy and thought I was lost. From the other side men started to shout at me, and that brought me to my senses somewhat. Many captives stayed in the river, and many died during the night.
We made a fire and spent the whole night drying ourselves. In the morning the commander allowed us to cook 2 magorce who were almost dying. From the city they brought corn flapjacks; each got one, and we went on to Valona, where supposedly ships were already being boarded by prisoners. Before leaving, the commander beat about 50 people for coming late. He beat them on their faces with a bullwhip!
By nighttime we got to Rezna, where we each got half a flapjack. We carry the kazans with us. Today my platoon had to carry them. The Hungarians got into an argument because no one wanted to carry, and the commander had 12 blows given to every man. It was my first beating in Serbia. It was not so terrible because it was delivered to me by a friendly guard, but if I'd had a gun I would have shot the bastard. He rages like a mad dog—worse every day. Sometimes we think he is out of his mind.
Today we set out early. Our goal we saw before us: dark hills. There we had to be at night. As no road led there we went straight through marshes. Our platoon carried the kazans again as a punishment. At first it went well, but the going was getting worse all the time. Our legs sank into the mud. Often we had to jump over wide trenches. They were underwater rice fields. After noon the water was up to our thighs, then knees, then waists. Our feet sank; we fell, carrying kettles that weighed 80 kilograms. So we went into the evening in resignation. I wonder where we got that strength! We thought about nothing; we were just being pulled forward over the hills, where liberation was. Many poor men were left in the water—they fell from exhaustion and sank into the mud! Oh, Serbia, you have much on your conscience!
In the evening we reached the hills and slowly scrambled up. There are giant cypresses and olive trees here. We camp in the forest, from where we see the wide valley and the rolling river Semeni. Thousands of fires shine along its banks. Those are captives coming from Drac.
In the evening we were soaked. When we made camp and got some firewood, Zizkovic ordered only one fire per platoon, meaning 80 people. When the guys lit more fires, he went in the dark from one fire to another and beat the poor guys with his bullwhip in their faces. It was a scene I will not forget until my death. I wonder why, among the 400 men, not one was found who would do away with him. We were so downhearted that nothing mattered to us, and we were calling for death to set us free! He, being aware of his crimes, was trying to retain his authority through cruelty and lead us all the way to Valona, where he would get money for supporting us on the way.
Today at 11:00 a.m. we reached a wide river. I was afraid we would have to wade again, but there were rafts and Arnauts to do the transporting. At 11 at night we finally were ferried to the other bank, where thousands of captives from Drac camped. They told us how much flour and American bread they got while we were starving to death. Drac is being bombed from both sea and air. Serbian soldiers and civilians are embarking there to sail to Corfu.
Today we passed through the town of Fiera, which is full of Italian soldiers of all kinds. What a difference between them and us. They are well-clad and well-fed, and we look like Gypsies—torn, barefoot, and burnt. Just stinking corpses along the way, both ours and Serbian. We had been walking for 3 hours in ankle-deep water. No road. In some places we had to wade across ditches up to our waists in water.
In the afternoon we reached the river Vojusa. On the other side, Italians welcomed us. From here it is just 2 days to Valona. I am happy our travel will finally end, and so will our suffering. However, on the river bank, several thousand hungry captives are camping because Italians transport no more than 1000 men per day, and there are 8000 of us here. The Section came here with us but must go to Drac along with all the Serbian soldiers. Theodor too must go back. Here is great misery and hunger. There is nothing available, no firewood. We break the brushes. Nobody gives anything for Serbian money, and if they did I would not have any left.
A piece of corn broj costs 8 cereks! Here only cereks and liras pay. Nobody cares about us. Our sole hope is the other bank.
This night I will never forget. I lay down in a thorny ditch. At night a storm came, and I did not wake up until I was lying in water. It kept raining the whole night and then the whole day. Our situation is hopeless. The river is flooding, and ferrying is impossible.
Today 60 died from exhaustion. We are a terrible sight. Rags hanging from everyone, barefoot with frostbitten legs, unshaven, unwashed, all the suffering of the way mirroring in our faces. You have no certitude—at night someone steals your brotsack from under your head, your blanket, your coat—anything you may have. Those who cannot rise up have their coats and boots stolen from them for resale. 400 people from the Radnicka platoon today carried kazans and tools back to Fiera, where Zizkovic sold them.
It rains all the time. No ferrying—the river is flooding. Italians brought rations: One biscuit is food for 3 days. The second day we each got 2 spoons of rice. We boil it—water is unavailable, dirty. No firewood. God free us!
More that 200 dead were collected today. Misery reaches its peak. Albanians came and brought broja. If you have good boots they give you about 1 kilogram, but you have to be careful. Our commander left today. Thank God we got rid of that monster!
The number of people is still rising because the Italians ferry only 600 people daily. Serbian soldiers steal publicly. They beat whoever has good boots in order to steal them; they steal your coat, blanket, and anything of value. They steal the rations sent by the Italians and then sell us a biscuit for 3 cereks. No appeal is possible. What do we live on? We brew a tea from raspberry leaves, look for snails and turtles, and dig up roots. I hear in some places even human meat has been eaten. In resignation we look toward the future. We are destined to die here, looking at the other bank. There is liberation; here is slow dying. Several people have turned mad—others are unable to rise to beg for death. And it is still raining day and night. The river is rising again. The water already took tomorrow's rations.
No ferrying today because the river is flooding again. There was a terrible storm, lightning and rain. We sit in water. In the morning 300 dead lay on the riverbank. And still new thousands of captives are coming. Today we got a cup of flour for the whole day. No drinking water. I took water from a slop where several dead bodies were laying. Still raining! One was lying beside me—I saw him dying!
When will my turn come? Tomorrow? The next day?
There is a ferry today, but only for the sick! Indescribable scenes take place at the raft. People rush like mad, push each other, fight. Serbians beat them with sticks and gun butts. Many people are beaten and kicked to death, then thrown into the river.
Everyone is trying to save himself from death by hunger. Our platoon's turn should be tomorrow. We got 3 spoons of flour each today and set out to look for places to sleep in the thorns. We picked some grass and lay down. Around us bullets from Albanian guns fly.
Not our turn yet. Rafts are still ferrying the sick, who number more than the healthy. The night was freezing; many people got frostbite and had to be supported to warm up. The Arnauts give a piece of broj in exchange for boots. I gave them my blanket for a piece. People walk around like mad. They bite leaves, grass, tree bark. Tomorrow, rumor says, we will go for sure.
Christmas Eve day—how sad and miserable. I fast because the sergeant stole our rations. In the morning I was already by the raft when the order came: there were enough people already, and I had to go back. The Italians will celebrate the holidays and will not ferry.
In the evening I recognize that I have a fever—I am ill. Is this the beginning of the end? God, don't let me give in. We got 2 biscuits but I can't eat! I remember home. Such a sad Christmas Eve. I lay burning in the thorns and praying like never in my life! I wonder what my parents are doing now!
A Christmas feast! Radnicka platoon embark! I stood in queue for departure. Our sergeant was missing; my platoon was not going. All my friends left, and I stayed here. I joined the 10. platoon but when we reached the raft they had stopped ferrying. I am hopeless! I gave my last underwear for a piece of broj and my last 3 dinars. Now I am penniless.
Again no ferrying today! Horror is reaching its peak here. Full of corpses no one collects and no one cares to bury. An ugly stench is in the air. Flocks of ravens circle the sky. They smell a good feast.
No ferrying today. I have lost all hope and given in to destiny. The Serbs steal all that is still left. More than 2000 people left for the woods but keep coming back—there is much snow there, and Albanians who beat them to death and rob them. They say Zizkovic too was robbed and killed there.
At sunrise I was at the raft in vain. The night was very freezing; more than 200died, about half of them frozen. At 3:00 p.m. suddenly the order came: "Embark!" And in less than an hour we crossed the river. Thank God, we are saved! Farewell damned Serbia!
Inserted is a cutout from Samostatnost dated 15.II.1918:
Then came Albania, those terrible alleys of death where the Czech man opted for death in its strictest form—from hunger—rather than be returned to the Austrian army. We went through deserted Albania. Corpses marked our path to the unknown through forbidding mountains. Barefoot, hungry, naked, half alive, we dragged not like humans but like frightening, miserable human resemblances through those valleys and swamps between the rivers Skumpi, Semeni and Vojusa, feeding on grass, tree bark, worms—even (responsibly, without exaggeration) human meat. Bitter remembrances.
- name for Austrians—sounds like insects in Czech
- Later to become the Czech national anthem.
- Town near Ústí nad Labem
- Rebellion of Czechs and other slavic minorities against the Hungaro-Austrian empire
- „Sobar" probably meant „Commander" in that context
- Legendary Czech criminal
- Liquor typical for the region of Balkan
- Unknown identities
- Forced laborers—note the slavic „ROB" root which later became global in the Czech word „ROBOT"
- Glysuca or Glisura—unknown geographic entity
- Literal translation „Four and Four", probably a command to march
- Fast march.
- Petty officers
- Higher lieutenants
- Unknown meaning
- Unidentified food
- Small bag