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September 14, 1994

Searching For A Hero

Frantisek Josef Geisler was studying agriculture at Brno University in 1939 when Hitler’s troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Determined not to fight in the armies of the Third Reich, he was one of many who fled the country with the intention of joining the Allied forces. By 1941, the former student was a soldier in both the Free Czechoslovak Forces and the British Army. While in Britain, he met Joyce Locke, the pretty British Wren (member of the Women’s Royal Navy) who became his wife. In July 1944, it was decided that the 2nd Czechoslovak Parachute Brigade and other Czechoslovak forces would join with Soviet divisions to attack the Germans from the east and fight to free Czechoslovakia. Lt. Geisler’s other duties did not require him to join this force, but he insisted on doing so. He sailed that summer from England knowing that his child would be born early the next year.

The battle to push the Germans back from the eastern front began in August 1944. The 2nd Czechoslovak Parachute Brigade joined the battle 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of the Polish-Slovak border in early September. The Allied advance focused on the small Polish town of Dukla and the Dukla pass leading into the Carpathian mountains beyond. On Sept. 18, Lt. Frantisek Josef Geisler was killed as he tried to pull some of his wounded men from the battlefield. Four months later in England, I was born. In the final months of the war, my mother not only had to come to terms with the death of her husband, but also with motherhood.

From a very young age, I was aware of growing up without a father, and yet I became familiar with him through the stories I heard about his courageous acts. My knowledge came from his letters and photographs, from my Czech and English families, and from meetings with my father’s friends in England and Czechoslovakia. One particular friend, Dr. Jan Flax, had been present at the battle where my father had died. He had written letters to my mother describing what had happened, including a rough sketch showing the field where my father had been killed, the wooden farmhouse where his body had been taken, and the spot where he had finally been laid to rest. Again and again I read the descriptions of my father’s last day, the heroic battle, the burial. I grew up determined to find the place where he lay.

My mother and I had been spending time both in England and Czechoslovakia, but when the communists took power in 1948, we were forced to leave my father’s country permanently for England. The 1968 Russian invasion made any hope of returning seem even more remote. But the sketch of that field was always in my mind. As an infant I had acquired dual nationality. I was reminded of that fact when the communist regime in Prague called me up to be conscripted for military service. Any visit on my part to Czechoslovakia would have ensured my speedy dispatch to their ranks. I chose instead to remain in the British Army, where I served as an officer in the Royal Tank Regiment.

I relinquished my Czechoslovak nationality and along with it my obligation to do military service. Politics and time had created the irony that I now shunned the army of my father. My mother, traveling on her British passport, visited our Czechoslovak relatives on several occasions, once going east by train and bus to visit the war memorial at Dukla. I listened as she described all that she had seen and heard. I held photographs of the bronze plaque memorial at Dukla pass, on which my father’s name was engraved. But where was my father? None of the official explanations correlated with the eyewitness account of the battle so familiar to me since childhood. In the more open political climate following the 1989 revolution, my mother and I planned a visit to Czechoslovakia and Poland. There we greeted friends and family – some of them for the first time. We then drove to the Dukla memorial near Svidnik, a Slovak town south of the Dukla pass, and from there to the Polish town of Dukla.

We also planned to find the battle area in southern Poland that had been drawn by Jan Flax. Accurate maps of the area were impossible to buy. At a border crossing high in the Dukla Pass, I showed our hand-drawn map to a Polish Army colonel. My hopes of finding my father’s burial place were dashed when he told us that “Pastviska” was not the name of a place, but simply the Polish word for “potato field.” We could only try to visit the other place named on the sketch, Besko, and from there try to follow Jan Flax’s directions to the south. Using a large-scale road map that provided very few details, we eventually managed to find Besko.

Then, with Jan Flax’s sketch as our guide, we drove to a church and nearby house that had been used by my uncle, Dr. Igor Lomsky of the 2nd Parachute Brigade, as a medical station during the battle. From there we drove south and came upon a timber-planked farmhouse like the one where my father’s body had been sheltered after he died. If it was indeed the same one, then the site of his burial must be just meters away … but where? We wandered across the small hillside, desperate for a clue. An old farmer, speaking to us from his dirt-floored home, recalled the battle, but knew of no burial site near the farmstead. We combed the gentle slopes of the hillock, but could find no evidence of a grave. When I looked at Jan Flax’s map, however, I felt that I must be close to the spot where my father lay. After returning home, my sense of contentment gradually diminished as the weeks passed. Comparing my collection of documents to my own experience, there was nothing to suggest that the wooden farmhouse we had seen was not the same one described by Jan Flax. And yet my doubts about it grew. In the summer of 1992, I returned to northern Slovakia with my cousin Raduska, the daughter of my paternal aunt.

She was bubbling with excitement, which was readily communicated to everyone we met. The hotel receptionist in Svidnik heard of the purpose of our visit, and arranged for us to meet Dr. Jozef Rodak, the director of the Army Museum in Svidnik. It turned out that Dr. Rodak knew of my father, and he showed a real interest in my story. We arranged to meet the next day. By that time, I was certain that on my previous visit I had misread the hand-drawn map. I had not yet found my father. The meeting with Dr. Rodak was interesting, intense, and punctuated by copious amounts of Russian vodka. He studied Jan Flax’s map, but still maintained the official version of events – that my father’s body had been taken from the battlefield at Dukla and brought to the mass grave for the 2nd Czechoslovak Parachute Brigade at Novoselec, in Poland. He offered to provide an interpreter and personally accompany me to Dukla when I returned the following year.

The next 12 months sped by. I had now come into possession of a map – one of several that had been found among the personal effects of my paternal grandmother – showing the day-by-day disposition of forces from Besko to Dukla. Clearly marked on this map was a hamlet – not a potato field – called Pastviska, with the notation that there had been a two-day battle around it. Armed with this and every other scrap of evidence I had, including a photocopy of Jan Flax’s hand-drawn map, I set off once more for Svidnik and my meeting with Dr. Rodak. After studying all the documents, including Jan Flax’s letters, he finally retracted the long-held official version of my father’s burial. On Sept. 17, 1993, accompanied by Dr. Rodak and a friend, Jiri Stibingr, I again went to Dukla. Dr. Rodak engineered our prompt crossing of the Slovak-Polish border, and we headed for Besko.

We then turned south toward the Carpathian mountains, passing the wooden farmstead I had seen before. We reached a nameless hamlet and from there were directed to a spot that was even more remote. Driving through an avenue of trees, Jiri spotted a sign – Pastviska. We stopped at a concrete house and spoke to a short, stocky man who listened to our story. He then took us to an orchard to meet another man – one who had actually been present during the battle. This second man was gaunt and elderly. He spoke very slowly and precisely in both Polish and Russian, using deliberate gestures that added weight to his words. He had been a boy in 1944, he told us, and remembered the battle that had taken place there. He then offered to lead us to where he knew there were some soldier’s graves. As I followed him across an open field, tears filled my eyes and an odd trembling came over me.

We then took a narrow path parallel to a stream that flowed through a small wooded gully. Jan Flax’s map showed a stream leading to a river, but here it ran into a large lake. The elderly man recounted how some of the graves had been exhumed, while others were left below the water when the river was dammed 20 years before, creating the reservoir. At this news, my heart sank. Sad and alone, I left the small ravine and walked along the lake shore through a meadow that was knee-high with a mixture of natural grasses and wildflowers. I then turned from the lake to walk back through the field to the old farmhouse. As I crossed this open field again, trembling once more swept over me.

We returned to Svidnik subdued and downhearted. It seemed that I had once more failed to find my father. That night I awoke from a fitful sleep, my head filled with visions of the flower-filled meadow near the lake. I was now sure where my father lay. The next day, Sept. 18, I was back in Pastviska with the others. With my feelings as our guide, I led them along the exact route drawn by Jan Flax, but ignoring what we had all previously assumed was the map’s scale. Because it had been drawn under the extreme stress of battle conditions, it was not surprising that in some places areas had been foreshortened and in others the distance had been exaggerated. Eventually we arrived at yet another timber farmhouse.

A woman appearing to be in her late 50s emerged from the brick house that had been built beside it. Dr. Rodak told her that my father eason for our visit. She invited us into her living room for coffee and home-made cakes, and introduced us to her husband, a short, powerfully built farmer. He had been born and raised on this farm, and had spent his entire life working there. He then told us this story. He had been a youth of 13 when the first Soviet assault was made. He recalled the battle that had taken place, and described for us how he had seen a Czech army lieutenant rescuing his wounded soldiers from the battlefield, and how he had seen this officer killed by German machine-gun fire. The man recalled that the officer’s body had been put in the old farm building next door, where it had lain for some days before the Czech soldiers returned, dug a grave, and buried the officer themselves.

Everything he said was exactly as Jan Flax had described it in the letter written to my mother 49 years before. The man led us to the place where the officer had been killed. It was the same open field where the day before I had inexplicably been shaken with tears and trembling. We then went back to the old farm house, and from there were led to the burial place. For years, the man told us, the local people had remembered and honored the site, but as time passed and the memory of the war faded, so had the remembrance. As I finally stood beside his grave in that meadow of wildflowers, my only thought was that I had found my father at last. On the 50th anniversary of the death of Frantisek Josef Geisler – Sept. 18, 1994 -a memorial will be placed to mark his grave in that Polish field. Present at the memorial will be his widow, Joyce Geisler; his sister, Libuska Lomsky; his friend, Igor Lomsky; and his son, Frantisek R. Geisler. Also remembered will be Dr. Jan Flax, who never knew the importance of the roughly drawn map he sketched on a letter to a friend.

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