80 years since Czechoslovak gulag prisoners granted amnesty in order to fight in WWII

František Kurach

This week marks exactly 80 years since the Soviet Union officially granted amnesty to Czechoslovak prisoners who were being held in Gulag labour camps. Thousands of young men escaped from occupied Czechoslovakia into the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II, only to be accused of false charges and sent to work in the notorious Soviet forced labour system. Those who survived went on to fight alongside the Red Army on the Eastern Front.

The first years of the Second World War saw many Czechoslovak citizens attempt to get out of Axis controlled territory with the aim of fleeing either west or east. Of the 10,000 men who ended up crossing the border into the Soviet Union, less a half would end up returning home.

One of those who managed to come back was Fedor (František) Kurach. He crossed the border from Carpathian Ruthenia into the USSR on August 23, 1940, because he did not want to serve in the Hungarian Army, which had occupied the territory a year earlier. Two days after he crossed the border he was arrested by the NKVD. Kurach, who was just 17 at the time, would spend the next two years in forced labour camps, his son Erik told Czech Radio.

Erich Kurach with the photo of his father František Kurach | Photo: Ľubomír Smatana,  Czech Radio

“They were very sad memories. My father didn’t like talking about it. They often worked in temperatures lower than -40 degrees Celsius. The camp administrators would provide rations in frozen milk that they chopped with an axe. They were poorly clothed and had to work seven days a week.”

Fedor Kurach was working in the infamous arctic labour camp of Vorkuta when he was informed that he had been granted amnesty. He was told that he would be transferred south to the town of Buzuluk, where a Czechoslovak army unit was being formed.

The amnesty, granted in January 1942, was the result of negotiations between representatives of the Czechoslovak exile government and the Soviet Union, says historian Jan Dvořák from the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

“A Czechoslovak Military Mission had been set up in Czechoslovakia under the leadership of Colonel Heliodor Píka. He asked the Soviets if they could release their Czechoslovak prisoners. At first, the Soviets were not willing to do this, unlike with Poles, a nationality that made a much larger proportion of prisoners in the Soviet Union.”

Investigation file on František Kurach | Photo: Ľubomír Smatana,  Czech Radio

Kurach was only released from the camp in December 1942, after which he travelled for two months to get to Buzuluk. He was one of the lucky ones. A quarter of the men did not survive their imprisonment, according to historian Adam Hradílek who has been researching the stories of Czechoslovak gulag prisoners.

“In most cases they were sentenced for illegally crossing the border, which meant three to five years of imprisonment, usually three years. However, the sentences also included espionage and various anti-Soviet activities, charges that were usually made up by the investigators.”

Those who did make it out faced two further years of fighting in the ranks of the 1st Czechoslovak Army Corps, the Czechoslovak Exile Army’s formation on the Eastern Front.

With Russian archives still closed, much of the information that has been gathered on the fates of Czechoslovak gulag prisoners comes from Ukraine, which has been digitising its archives for the past six years.