The Czechoslovak Gulag survivor and WWII vet (98) implicated in the murder of Jews

Michal Krecul

Michal Krecul, today aged 98, was a Gulag survivor, decorated Czechoslovak WWII soldier and later political prisoner who left for the West in 1968. A new study by a Czech historian finds that he also went unpunished for his part in the killing of 10 Jewish civilians in hiding from the Nazis.

Michal Krecul | Photo: DAZO/cechoslovacivgulagu.cz

Michal Krecul was born in 1923 in the easternmost part of the then Czechoslovakia, Carpathian Ruthenia.

In 1940, aged 17, he was ordered to join the Hungarian Army, which had occupied the region, but he instead fled across the border into the USSR.

Like several thousand other Czechoslovaks who took that path, he was arrested once on Soviet territory and eventually sent to the notorious Gulag labour camps.

An amnesty for Czechoslovak prisoners did not extend to Krecul. However, on his release he followed many of his compatriots into a Czechoslovak military unit that was to fight with the Red Army against the Nazis.

Photo: VHA

Krecul was eventually deployed in the Slovak National Uprising and when that failed became part of a partisan group in the Tatra Mountains.

It was there, in November 1944, that his partisan group robbed and then killed 10 unarmed Jews, a crime for which they were never punished.

Krecul later spent almost a decade in Czechoslovakia’s equivalent of the Gulag, the uranium mines, after being found guilty of taking payments to help people cross the Iron Curtain.

He himself left Communist Czechoslovakia after the 1968 Soviet invasion and today – aged 98 – lives in Canada.

Adam Hradilek | Photo: ÚSTR

Krecul’s remarkable story has been recreated in a recently published article by historian Adam Hradilek from Prague’s Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes.

Hradilek first came across the name when Krecul’s daughter got in contact, looking for some background about her father’s experiences in the Gulag.

The historian takes up the story

“I warned his daughter that there could be some not very pleasant findings.”

“When she first told me that he had been in prison for a long time after the war in Czechoslovakia, and the fact that he is one of the last remaining Gulag survivors that we know of – who we never heard of – I warned her that there could be some not very pleasant findings.

“Because it’s kind of unusual that such a hero, who as a 17-year-old escaped to the Gulag, went through the war, because when he was released he joined the Czechoslovak Army, he fought the harshest battles, and then spent eight years in the Czechoslovak Gulag… it was kind of unusual that such a person would not show up before.

Photo: Archiv ÚPN

“I immediately got interested in it, because we know of approximately three other Gulag survivors from Czechoslovakia that are still alive, and started to investigate the case.

“I went through the Czech archives, Ukrainian archives and also Slovak archives, because he took part in the Slovak National Uprising during the war.

“And then I found out that he got involved in the murder of 10 Jews hiding out in a forest in the Lower Tatra Mountains in Slovakia.”

That’s why we’re having this conversation, because of this terrible crime that this man committed. But before we get on to that, could you tell us more about what he was doing during the war. Obviously he was in the Gulag, and then he joined the Czechoslovak army unit in Buzuluk, is that right?

Photo: DAZO/cechoslovacivgulagu.cz

“Right. During the war approximately 8,000 Czechoslovak citizens and Czechs were imprisoned in the Gulag camps.

“On January 3, 1942, they were granted an amnesty by the Soviets in order to join the Czechoslovak army unit forming in Buzuluk, simply to help the Soviet Union to fight the Germans, who had attacked the USSR half a year before that.

“Unfortunately most of the young boys who came from this easternmost part of Czechoslovakia were not released under the amnesty.

“Michal Krecul wasn’t released under the amnesty. He had to serve his whole sentence.

“So he was released after three years in the Gulag.

“He joined the army and fought one of the harshest battles, in the Dukla region.

“Then he was sent with other Czechoslovak paratroopers to help in the Slovak National Uprising, which started in late August [1944].

Photo: DAZO/cechoslovacivgulagu.cz

“It took the Germans and Slovak fascist regime only two months to put down the uprising.

“So after just a few weeks’ fighting within the uprising, like other partisans, he simply had to go into hiding.

“He ended up in a small group led by a Soviet officer in a small village, Nižná Boca, in the Low Tatra Mountains.

“They were hiding in a barn. They received food from the locals.

“And at first they were not aware of the fact that very close to this village, on the other side of the mountain, were also 10 Jews hiding from deportation and repression.

“Because they also took part in the uprising.

“And of course the consequences for Jews were much harsher than for anyone else in Slovakia in those days.”

Tell us then about the terrible crime that Michal Krecul was involved with, against this group of Jewish people, including four women.

“The partisans learned from a local that the Jews were hiding and had a lot of money and gold, simply to survive, to bribe people, to pay for food.”

“The partisans learned from a local in the village who was providing food to those Jews hiding in the forest, in a hideout.

“They learned about the fact that they were hiding and that they had a lot of money and gold, simply to survive, to bribe people, to pay for food, etcetera.

“We don’t know who really initiated it. But the Soviet officer decided that they should check what’s happening there.

“This village man showed them the hiding place.

“They found only three ladies and one man in the hideout. They interrogated them, robbed them of all their possessions: gold, money, food, etcetera.

Photo: Archiv ÚPN

“They also learned about the fact that there were other people working – this hideout was very small so they were trying to build a second one several hundred metres away, in really deep forest.

“When they returned to the village the Soviet officer decided that they should go back and get rid of the witnesses of their crime, and simply kill the hiding civilians.”

This case was investigated twice, if I understand it right. What was the strongest evidence against Michal Krecul?

“Yes, the first investigation started already a few months after the war, in 1945.

Photo: Archiv ÚPN

“But within a few months it was pretty much stopped.

“And only in 1966 did the investigation start again.

“After the secret service started to interrogate locals and local partisans they figured out that Michal Krecul, who was living at the time in Prague, was involved in the crime.

“The interrogation was really broad. The police investigated approximately 45 witnesses and talked to dozens of other people in the region.

“His excuse was that he was doing it based on the orders of his Soviet officer.”

“From their testimonies the investigators concluded that Michal Krecul was involved in the crime.

“He himself, after his arrest in Prague, during the first interrogation in the prison in Ruzyně, admitted that he took part in the killing.

“His excuse was that he was doing it based on the orders of his Soviet officer Ivan Titovsky.

“He also excused his involvement by the fact that he thought that the people hiding in the forest were not Jews but Germans.”

It seems like the evidence was quite strong against him. Why was he not found guilty, especially during the 1960s investigation?

Photo: Archiv ÚPN

“Michal Krecul was not the only one investigated and charged with war crimes.

“There were three other surviving members of the group.

“And all the collected evidence… the police also found gold jewelry among the villagers, they collected all the evidence.

“Also all the people involved admitted the fact that they took part in the killings.

“But in the end the investigators decided not to charge them with a war crime, but they concluded that it was just a robbery.”

And you write in the article that robbery was covered by the statute of limitations – that’s why they weren’t found guilty. After you discovered this incredible story, you spoke to Michal Krecul. How was that interaction?

“I had a chance to talk to him for approximately an hour via a video call.

Photo: Archiv ÚPN

“It was a really interesting experience.

“He was happy to speak Czech with someone, so he slowly started to speak about his escape.

“I tried to ask him questions concerning his imprisonment in the Gulag.

“Then of course I moved to his war experience, and also what happened after the war.

“But you have to understand that Mr. Krecul is already 98 years old. He doesn’t know me.

“So it was really a difficult conversation. I had to repeat questions very often.

“But he remembered the fact that he was not released like others under the amnesty – he had to spend the whole three years [of his sentence] in the camp.

“When I directly asked him about the partisan group he was involved with he didn’t remember.”

“He remembered the fact that he took part in the Slovak Uprising, but he didn’t really go into the details.

“He remembered the fact that he helped pro-Western Czechoslovak agents crossing the border into Czechoslovakia, etcetera.

“But when I directly asked him about the partisan group he was involved with – the names, what were there tasks – he didn’t remember.

“When I asked him about the action when they killed the civilians hiding in the forest, he didn’t remember that.”

What was your aim in publishing this story? It happened so many decades ago and the man involved is, as you say, in his late 90s.

“First of all I wanted to commemorate and bring to the light all the victims of this unknown massacre in the Tatra Mountains.

“Also by studying the path that led Mr. Krecul… which started by his brave escape to the Soviet Union, his imprisonment in the Gulag, the war… just to somehow explain how a young boy could take part in such a crime.”

For more information on the Czechoslovak citizens who ended up in Soviet Gulag camps, visit https://cechoslovacivgulagu.cz/en/index.html.