Czechoslovak WWII veteran of Tobruk, Dunkirk battles dies at age 101

Bernard Papánek, photo: archive of Memory of Nations

A Czechoslovak veteran of World War II who fought in the battles of Tobruk and Dunkirk has died at the age of 101, Czech Television reported. Bernard Papánek, who immigrated to Israel in the 1960s lived out his final days in Slovakia, where he died of Covid-19 shortly after his birthday.

Bernard Papánek was born on 17 January 1920 in Vienna, but lived with his mother’s parents in Moravia until he was six. He re-joined them in Austria until it was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1938, then left for Brno to take up an apprenticeship.

Due to his father’s Jewish origin and Slovak nationality, the work offer was rescinded, and Papánek, then in his late teens, was to be deported or worse, and went into hiding with other relatives in the Moravian capital.

Bernard Papánek in 1939,  photo: archive of Bernard Papánek

In 1939, Papánek managed to immigrate to Palestine, where he joined Czechoslovak armed forces serving under British command, as he recalled for the Memory of Nations oral history project, of which Czech Radio is a partner.

“For a short period, we were in this training camp near Haifa. And then they drove us to Tobruk, to Libya. We served in an anti-aircraft battery, where there were those Bofors guns, Swedish ones. We had been there for about half a year.”

In 1943, Papánek was transferred to the United Kingdom along with other Czechoslovak troops. In Liverpool, he met president-in-exile Edvard Beneš, a few months before being shipped out to Dunkirk, where in December 1944, he was gravely wounded and treated at a Canadian field hospital.

“We didn’t have the manpower or equipment to do serious harm to the Germans. We saw after the war, just how well fortified they were, how massive their underground concrete fort was. The Allied assault had been an utterly futile endeavour….

Bernard Papánek in 1942,  photo: archive of Bernard Papánek

“For me, the war ended on 19 December 1944. There was a heavy fog, and suddenly I heard gunshots and I was hit. And there was a flash, maybe ten metres from where our mortars were positioned.”

After the war, in which much of Papánek’s family perished, he returned to Palestine with a friend, where, on June 29, 1946 he witnessed British troops raid on the kibbutz Yagur, an act later known as the “Black Sabbath”.

Papánek was arrested but released after the authorities learned he was a Czechoslovak soldier. For that, Jewish resistance fighters considered him a traitor – and kidnapped him.

“The worst part was how the press, the newspapers, started reporting on it. Such nonsense! One wrote that they found a suitcase with an Australian passport and 20,000 pounds sterling under my bed. Only the British press covered it without bias, stating two Czechoslovak soldiers were suspected of working with the British.”

Papánek managed to escape with the help of British officials and returned to Brno, where he began to teach English and German. In the mid-1960s, he got permission to visit an uncle in Vienna, and from there immigrated to Israel, where he took the name Benjamin Palgi. He moved to Slovakia in 2014, to live with his step-daughter.