‘“Brother, you have another pair of boots,” Jaroslav Hašek said to me, grabbing me by the sleeve. “How do you know?” “Yesterday you were in army boots, and today you’ve got civilian ones on. I’d buy those army boots off you.” And in this way my high-laced boots, which I was given by the Austrian Red Cross way back in Beryozovka-za-Baikalom, came into Hašek’s possession. It was a silly thing to do. Not because I should have known that I wouldn’t get a kopeck out of Hašek in exchange for them — at bottom, I did know that — but as a former soldier, I should have thought about reserves. Life is a war and in this war, sometimes boots become casualties.’ Thus ruefully muses Janko Jesenský, Slovak poet and politician, in the pages of his On the Road to Freedom. This book, newly translated into English by Charles S. Kraszewski, is unique among the memoirs that came out of the First World War, as it chronicles not desperate charges or trench warfare, but the daily life of Austrian prisoners of war taken into Russian captivity at the very outset of the conflict. Of course, the reader will find more than one exciting passage in On the Road to Freedom, from eyewitness accounts of the Soviet Revolution in Kiev and Saint Petersburg to the heroic and bloody route cut by the Czechoslovak Legions through Red Army forces as the former POWs make their way across Siberia to Vladivostok and the long steamboat journey home, where they will aid in establishing the newly independent Republic of Czechoslovakia. But the most engaging aspect of On the Road to Freedom, and the poems that Jesenský composed during his Russian captivity (a generous selection of which are appended to these memoirs), is the palpable experience of the daily life of the POW — far from home, cold, and hungry, one of the ‘ants [who] / Roil the yard with mess-plates in their hands — / Like hungry beasts for fish-soup from the kitchen.’ Besides their value as literary texts, Janko Jesenský’s wartime writings in verse and prose are a welcome addition to the English library of early twentieth century history. They provide a fresh, Slovak perspective on the ‘Great War,’ the Russian Revolution, the establishment of the Czechoslovak state, and the situation of the smaller Central European nations on the chessboard of politics dominated by great powers.
This book was published with a financial support from SLOLIA, Centre for Information on Literature in Bratislava.