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John Kulhan

by Joe Kenny

Introduction by Bill Tarkulich

 

John (Jan) Kulhan is the consummate Slovakia Patriot, fighting for his country in one form or another since 1939.  Born in then-Czechoslovakia, he was conscripted into the Axis Army, ultimately joining up with the Free Czechoslovakia Army Corps in Russia and participating the the liberation of Slovakia, including the bloody Dukla Pass battle.  He also saved the life of his commander, former Czechoslovakia President Ludvik Svoboda during the fighting and remained friends thereafter.  After the war, at great peril to himself, he fled to America to escape the communist regime.  His fighting for Slovakia gave no rest however, as he continued to fight for Slovakia independence.  His tales also tell of daring entry and exit from Slovakia right under the Communist noses.  John is likely the only remaining survivor of the Dukla battle living in America today.

 

In 2005 John traveled to Svidnik, Slovakia to receive military recognition for his contributions during the war.  A newspaper article published in The Journal News recounts the ceremony.

 

John joined me at a Carpatho-Rusyn Society (CRS) presentation I made in New Jersey on the Battle of Dukla Pass.  We are planning another Dukla presentation for the CRS, Bridgeport, Connecticut in late fall 2006 or early Spring 2007.  Check back here for details.

 

The following story was written by John's son-in-law, Joe Kenney.

 

When I took the Messenger of the Sacred Heart into my hand and read the account of the canonization of Saint Andrew Bobola, my soul was instantly filled with a great longing that our Congregation too might have a saint, and I wept like a child that there was no saint in our Midst.  And I said to the Lord: “I know your generosity, and yet it seems to me that You are less generous toward us.”  And I began again to weep like a little child.  And the Lord Jesus said to me, Don’t cry. You are that saint.  Then the light of God inundated my soul, and I was given to know how much I was to suffer, and I said to the Lord, “How will that come about?”  And the Lord answered, It is not for you to know how this will come about.    (From the Diary of Saint Sister M. Faustina Kowalska, paragraph 1650).

Almost all Catholics know about Saint Faustina and the devotion of Divine Mercy which she promulgated.  However, very few know about the extraordinary story of the Kulhan family and their role in the fulfillment of this prophecy.  It is the story of the American Dream in its grandest sense.  It is the story of faith and inspiration for all who struggle to follow God’s laws and to do His will.  Most importantly, it is the story of a family’s love of God and for each other.       

When I was on active duty as a Lieutenant Colonel in the army Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps I was asked during a leadership seminar who was the person that I most admired.  My response was a swift and certain, John Kulhan, my father-in-law.  Although my friends and relatives are impressed with what they consider is my distinguished military career, to include combat in Iraq, when compared to John Kulhan I am not fit to carry his sandals. 

John Kulhan was born on October 1, 1922 to John and Stephanie Kulhan in Dolnysiles, Slovakia, the second oldest son in a family of 11 children.  At an early
age he learned the challenge and sacrifice involved in being a political activist from his father, who had served as an officer in the Slovak war of independence against the Austrian-Hungarian Empire.  His father had been wounded during a battle in present day Bosnia but was able to return to his business of running his hotel and restaurant.  He continued to be a voice for a greater independent Slovakia.  The area he lived in had become a part of Hungary but the majority of the population was Slovak.  The Hungarian government therefore viewed his activism as a threat and forced him to flee, leaving behind all of the possessions that he had worked so hard to earn.  His older brother Joe tried to stop the police force from taking down the Slovak flag in the town’s center and was shot in the arm for doing so.  John, like his older brother, would be the next in the family to sacrifice for the freedom of his country.     

John’s father settled with his family in the small town of Bochney, Slovakia.  After high school John enrolled in college only to be drafted into the Czechoslovakian army in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II.  He soon found himself fighting a much larger Russian army on the eastern front.  When trying to retreat, the German army engaged his unit.  Poorly equipped, out-gunned, and out-manned, he was captured by the Russians and became a Prisoner of War.  Times were very bleak then but he clung to his faith and hoped for a better day.  This came with a political alliance that re-formed his unit into the Czechoslovakian army in exile, a force now tasked to fight with the Russians against the Nazis.  As a newly appointed officer he was assigned the task of traveling to Vladavosdock to retrieve equipment from the United States for his unit.  This was the first time he would come into contact with Americans and their weaponry.  He remembered being very impressed with the quality and durability of the American trucks and jeeps, which he procured, and he was very grateful for the generosity of the American people.  This time, when he went into battle, things would be different.   

The survival skills John had learned on the Russian front would now serve him well in this new campaign to purge the Nazis from Southern Poland in the battle for the Krasna oil fields.  His first task was to gain intelligence on the enemy locations and movements.  As such, John sneaked into Southern Poland alone to capture German officers for interrogation.  He would play the role of a partisan Polish farmer, knowing
full well that being discovered would mean certain execution as a spy.  Six times he came back with a German officer.  With the advantage of freshly acquired intelligence and American equipment, he led his soldiers through the Krasna oil fields and then on to Dukla Pass, the bloody engagement that would be the turning point in the liberation of Slovakia. 

Casualties were high on both sides in the resulting artillery dual between these two forces but, in the end, the Germans were routed from the area.  The Russians would take credit for liberating Slovakia but it was the Slovak army in exile that bore the brunt of the offensive and its casualties.  For gallantry in action, John Kulhan was awarded the Order of the White Eagle.  A museum exits today at Dukla Pass to commemorate the soldiers who sacrificed so much to liberate their country while in exile.  When John Kulhan contacted the caretaker of this facility recently he earned that he now has the distinction of being the last known survivor of this campaign.  John would continue to launch raids against the Germans from his base in the Tatra Mountains throughout the remainder of the war.  After 5 years of fighting throughout a series of battles, John was wounded in his legs just two weeks before the end of World War II.  Such would be the pattern of fortune and misfortune of his life, but throughout it all, he would always bounce back, stronger and more determined than ever before. 

While recovering in a military hospital, John Kulhan started to think about the nice girl he had seen waiving to him as he left for war with so much uncertainty as to its outcome.  She was a good friend of his sister and both had worked in the local hospital for several years caring for wounded soldiers near her home in Bochney.  She eased his pain and it was there, amongst his dying and wounded brothers in arms that he resolved to find this young lady and marry her.  Her name was Marta Baluch.  Two years later she would say yes to him as Marta Kulhan. Their marriage would be a blessing to each other, one that would grow even stronger with the extreme sacrifices that would lie ahead.  But on that day, September 29, 1946, John Kulhan would not feel nor even think about his wounds because, up until then, this was the happiest day of his life. 

Things were really looking up for John Kulhan, in the worldly sense.  He had founded and built a thriving import-export business and had land and livestock to further augment his wealth.  Because of his distinguished military service, he was offered a
chance to attend the most renowned military academy in Russia, guaranteeing him an eventual promotion to General.  He turned down this opportunity but was still appointed to a position in his nation’s provisional parliament.  As a leader in his country’s democratic movement, he found himself in direct conflict with the occupying powers that controlled his county, the Communists.  He could have kept his wealth and position of influence if only he would switch from attacking these atheistic forces and support them instead.  He refused for the same reasons that he had for turning down a promising military career.  Simply put, Communism was directly contrary to his religion and a free society.  On this he would not compromise.
On this he would directly challenge the newly appointed Communist Prime Minister and all of his cronies.  The consequences would be swift and severe.

While away on a business trip, one of John’s friends contacted him and warned him not to return to his hometown.  The communists had seized his business and had frozen all of his assets.  They had also decided to arrest him and execute him as a spy.  John was shocked.  The country which he had spent five years fighting for during World War II had not only just abandoned him but had turned on him.  His wounds and decorations were of no value now to this puppet government.  He would return home though, to say good-bye to his lovely wife and daughter Ann Marie.   He only had $ 20.00 on him.  He gave $ 10.00 to Marta, kept $ 10.00 for himself and left his country.  During this good-bye he would also learn that Marta was pregnant again, making his departure even more difficult and emotional.  He did promise Marta one thing though, that he would return to live as a family once again.  Marta never doubted him, although everybody else in her family and town did.  This would
become another one of John’s low points but it he knew that their faith in God would get them through it, and it would, in ways that many would consider miraculous.

John had little difficulty escaping from his native country.  He knew the land and he his survival skills were unmatched after struggling through five years of relentless combat.  While traveling out of the country on a train, his keen intuition told him to strike up a conversation with two young men that, in his words, “didn’t seem to quite fit in.”  He would later learn, not to his surprise, that they were American intelligence agents.  One of these agents would become a good friend of his, even to this day only known as “John.”  John would share his extensive knowledge of the military and political environment of his native land with the American intelligence service to vindicate what the Communists had done to him and his family, but more importantly to stop what he considered was an atheistic threat to a way of life personified in what could best be described as “The American Dream.”  Freedom was being attacked by this satanic philosophy, as was his faith and John Kulhan would give it all to challenge this force.  He was not content just to provide information about what he knew.  No, he would do much more, to the surprise and gratitude of his friend “John” and his colleges in the newly formed CIA.

John had attributed his survival in a POW Camp, on the battlefield, and during his escape not so much to his physical strength but to the intuition that had led him to the American intelligence agents in the first place.  He often felt that he could literally “smell a Communist.”  Whatever talent he had it was not questioned within the intelligence community.  On several occasions he identified Communist agents and then assisted with their apprehension and interrogation.  On one particularly critical mission he followed two of them on a cloak and dagger mission through several countries, without blowing his cover, until their eventual capture just minutes from the safety of their embassy.  During this year and a half of separation from his family he refined his surveillance and evasion skills to perfection.  They would soon prove their worth once again. 

John may have escaped the wrath of the Communists but his family had not.  Marta would bear the brunt of their attacks.  The police would show up unannounced and storm into her house at all hours of the evening looking for her husband John.  She would plead with them to leave her and her two young daughters in peace, insisting that he was not in Slovakia.  Often times they would threaten her and smash her furniture.  The Communist government even took away her ration card, leaving her totally dependent upon her family to share their limited allocation of food.  Many of her friends told her to forget about her husband ever returning and encouraged her to re-marry.  This was something she would never consider let alone do and she made it quite clear to those would even suggest it (they would only do so once).  The Communists were not done with their efforts in trying to destroy the Kulhan family though. 

John’s departure right under their nose had become a source of embarrassment and it had encouraged others to escape and then speak out on the failures and oppression of their Communist regime.  They told Marta that she had to go on the radio and denounce her husband and all that he stood for, to include stating that he had abandoned his family.  Marta refused to do this so the Communists decided to attack her through her children, with this ultimatum:  Either you do what we say or we will take your two children away from you and send them to a Communist re-education camp in Poland.  This was the low point of her life.  What was she to do?  All she could do was “Trust in God” to get her out of what appeared to be, from a worldly sense, an impossible situation.  John’s sister, knowing the strain that Marta was under, invited her over to visit.  She had remained a good friend of hers ever since she had introduced her to John.  Besides, knew Marta needed to get away from the harassment of the Communists, if only for a few days.  When she arrived and opened the door, there stood her husband, John Kulhan. 

She couldn’t believe it!!!  He had escaped back into Slovakia to rescue his family.  He had made good on his promise to return one day.  His friend John, from the intelligence service had told him “do not do this, it is suicide.”  His priest friend and confessor had told him the same thing.  He would hear none of it.   He knew he had the skills to succeed but that he would need more.  Thus he did a novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Help and, trusting in God’s protection, left on what would become a most incredible journey.  First he took a job as a farm laborer on the Austrian border, working for free to study the terrain and the movements of the border guards.  He crossed through the fence without being detected then hid for three days before crossing the bridge into the city, which had an unexpected checkpoint.  He had eventually managed to cross by grabbing the arm of a lady who passed by the checkpoint every day.  She was scared, believing him to be a Communist agent.  The guards, believing he was a friend of hers, let him walk right past them without checking his identification.  They had no idea that this gentleman passing by was one of the most wanted political dissidents in the country.  Had he been discovered, he would have certainly been executed. 

John told Marta that they would leave the next day to Austria and then on to the United States, as he had just secured political refugee status.  Marta never questioned his decision nor did she worry about what would lie ahead.  Her trust in God was her source of hope and consolation.  She also believed wholeheartedly in her husband and his ability to lead them to safety.  They left in a taxi the next day and took it as far as they could.  Then by cover of night they crossed the border through the wire on their hands and knees, Marta carrying Ann Marie and John carrying their newly born daughter Jean.  John had timed the guard’s patrols and had detected the most vulnerable point in their fence.  While going through Jean got caught in the wire and started crying.  They could hear the voice of the guards, as they remained motionless.  One of them commented that a child from the nearby town must be crying up a storm and walked away.  Nobody could expect a child to be crying in the fence at the border, right?  Eventually they made it through and over the ridge into Austria.  Only when they reached the crest of the ridge did the guards realize they had let them escape and started shooting.  Running as fast as they could, they jumped over the ridge with the bullets falling just short of their mark.  The worse was over but they were not yet safe.

At the time, Austria was still an occupied country.  John had managed to get his family to Vienna without being detected and left Marta at a park while he went to the American embassy to get visas for his family.  What he had not realized was that he had left her and the children in the Russian zone.  One of the Russian soldiers didn’t recognize Marta as a regular who visited the park so he walked up to her and asked her for identification.  What was she to do now?  How would God help her?  Miraculously, a stranger sitting next to her told her that she was a friend who was visiting and the guard, believing her, left her alone.  John realized his mistake after he left the embassy and rushed back to get his family.  Seeing them there
in the park where he had left them, he breathed the sign of relief.  Their escape was made complete when he finally arrived back in Salzburg and settled in their refugee camp.  As they left the Russian zone, the Communist guard did not notice the false passport Marta had on her but yelled at her to keep moving.  As they arrived into the American zone, the U.S. soldier looked at Marta’s passport several times, then laughed and waived her on through.  Their daughter Ann Marie then asked, “why was this soldier so nice and the other one so mean?”

The journey to America was not without its own obstacles.  Getting the visas was relatively easy compared to what lie ahead.  John and Marta boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic Ocean with their two children, Anna Marie and Jean.  Soon after leaving port their ship, the General Greeley, crashed into another vessel while trying to navigate through intense fog.  They sat nervously for a while as the crew decided if they should abandon ship.  This was especially scary for Marta who by now as pregnant with their third child, Darline.  After some structural repairs, the Captain decided to continue on the voyage, but at half speed.  Such was the continual story of the family, for them nothing came easy.  But eventually the ship did arrive in New York harbor.  The Kulhans, like so many other immigrants before them, passed by the Statute of Liberty and on to Ellis Island to begin their new life.  They came without knowing the language, without any money, and without any family or friends to support them.  What they did have was faith.  It had got them through the most difficult times thus far and it would continue to do so.  John’s family back in Slovakia would not be so fortunate.

Although John’s wife and children were now safe, his family in Slovakia would continue to suffer.  His oldest brother Joe was arrested by the Communists and forced to work in the state’s coal mines under the most inhumane conditions.  This would destroy his health and lead to an early death for him in the early 40’s.  John’s father died the year he left in his early 60’s.  When I spoke to his brother in law in Slovakia recently he said the family always thought that he had been poisoned.  This was not uncommon for those who sought total control in Eastern Europe.   Such was the fate of Mother Theresa’s father, an advocate for a greater Albania who was allegedly poisoned by those who saw him as a threat.  Such barbarism has only now come to light with the scandal of the recent elections in Ukraine where, once again, a political opponent of the Communist system is targeted for removal.  Seeing such cruelty inflicted upon his family upon his account, John would assist his two younger brothers to leave Communist Slovakia.  One would settle with him in New York City, the other would immigrate to Australia.

John did manage to find a sponsor in Saginaw Bay, MI and that was where he would establish his first home in the United States.  Darline was born there and a year later his son Johnny would arrive.  John’s job, by worldly accounts, was quite demeaning.  Where he once had hundreds of soldiers under his command he now found himself supervising dozens of cows, working as a farmhand with a wife and four children to support.  Financially it was difficult but they got by.  Often times John and Marta would fast so their children could have enough to eat.  Never once did he even consider applying for public assistance.  No, the United States had been good to him and was not about to take advantage of its generosity.  As time went one John’s English got better and he eventually would get up the courage to move on to bigger and better things, the big apple of New York.

It was in New York where John Kulhan the soldier would become John Kulhan the political activist.  The Communists had done everything they could to destroy him and his family.  Now he would fight back, this time from a free country where he wouldn’t be arrested and executed for his political views.  He would become the secretary for the Slovak National Congress and a founding member of the Captive Nation Society.  He would organize protests against Nikita Kruchev when he visited the United Nations in New York, the day he would give his infamous “we will bury you” speech.  He took the initiative in these roles to lobby congress and the Presidency on the dangers of Communism.  Through his contacts he had learned of the true intentions of Fidel Castro to turn Cuba into a Communist dictatorship.  He sent several letters of warning to members of Congress and the President in the late 1950’s detailing what he knew.  Years later the White House would respond with words of thanks and confirmation of what he had said, but it would be too late as everything that John Kulhan had predicted had come true.

However, the most challenging and dangerous confrontation with the evil forces of this atheistic political philosophy would come in 1968 when the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia.  John just so happened to be in country, visiting with the country’s President, Ludvik Svoboda.  He had served with this former general during World War II and the two of them had a solid bond between them that only fellow soldiers could understand.  Ludvik Svoboda had personally awarded John the Order of the White Eagle for heroism.  They had both saved each other’s lives on several occasions during World War II.  John was with Ludvik when the news arrived of the Russian invasion.  Ludvik told John: “we are no longer free” then departed, the last time the two would see each other again.   

John managed to escape from Prague during the height of the invasion on the back of his friend’s motorcycle.  He then took a train to rescue his wife and daughter Sonia in Bochny.  On the way, two gentlemen approached him and asked him to help condemn the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.  Of course he would, he had always fought the Communists.  However, he would once again risk his life doing so.  This time he was tasked with bringing several hundred thousand signatures of the nation’s citizens to the United Nations protesting the Russian invasion of his country.  Who these two men were, and how they knew to contact John Kulhan at that particular place and time, remains a mystery to this day.  But that didn’t matter to John Kulhan.  He was a man on a mission.  Upon his arrival in Bouchny, Marta rushed to greet him and shouted: “The Communists were already here looking for you!”  So the three of them packed and left within one minute.  John would leave separately in his rental car for the safety of his family, along with the hundreds of thousands of signatures, hidden in the spare tire.  His vehicle would be searched several times before he crossed the Austrian boarder but providence would have it that none of the guards would search the spare tire.  If they had, John Kulhan would have once again faced almost certain execution.  Upon his return home to New York City, John Kulhan personally took these petitions to the United Nations and several countries, relying in part on these petitions, did in fact condemn the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.  The Communists were baffled as to how these documents could have arrived so quickly to this international forum. Only now they have their answer.

John would eventually be vindicated in 2004 when Slovakia joined NATO.  I went with him to Washington, D.C. that day and arrived early at the White House lawn for the ceremony, which commended four hours later.  It was physically draining for me to stand there for this long but John Kulhan stood there with me the whole time, at the age of 80, never wavering, despite his war wounds.  He witnessed firsthand his country entering into an alliance with the United States, one that he had fought so hard for down through the years.  He had finally won his personal battle with the former Communists of his native country.   

 Upon his return to New York in 1968, his family would continue in their struggle.  Marta would climb five flights of stairs several times a day with her four children to their two bedroom apartment in Manhattan while John worked two, sometimes three, jobs to support them.  Eventually he would get a break and get a fairly well paying job in the printing industry, rising up through the ranks to operations manager for the printing presses of the New York Times.   His next joy would be the birth of his last daughter, Sonia, who came 10 years after Johnny.  He would put all of his children through college.  Two would earn Masters’ degrees from Fordham University, one would graduate from Medical School and another would attend the Vienna Austria Conservatory for music.  Never once did he ever accept any form of public assistance, to include student loans.  His newly adopted country had given him freedom, and that enough for him.

John’s daughter Jean an accomplished ballerina, would enter a beauty pageant for Ms Rockland County and win.  She would then enter the state beauty pageant for Ms. New York, and win!!!  As John Kulhan sat in that crowd of hundreds of on-lookers that evening he knew he was the proudest father in the whole world and he was eternally grateful on that day to be an American.  Where else could an immigrant like him come to a new country with nothing and accomplish so much for him and his family.  Unfortunately, the time for rejoicing would be short.  In fact, it ended that night.  Jean scored the highest but did not get the crown, it went to the runner-up and Jean would then receive that distinction.  Why this occurred remains a mystery to this day but it was the beginning of the end of peace and happiness for the Kulhan family.  From that day forward, John and Marta would watch their children and grandchildren suffer tremendously through years of abuse by getting involved with the wrong people, those of secular world.  But it is in the darkest of times that God’s light shines the brightest.  The bible is full of such inspirational stories: Job, Joseph of Canaan, and Moses are but a few.  And so too would the Kulhan family rise, as they had before, out of the ashes to an even greater glory, one that would have a worldwide impact.

There is a saying that behind every great man is an even greater woman.  Such is the case with the Kulhan family.  John Kulhan would readily admit that had it not been for the love and support he had received from his lovely wife Marta, he never would have had the courage to sneak back into Slovakia and rescue his family and he never would have been able to endure the hardships that resulted, especially the suffering of his children.  She was always there for him, and still is, 60 years after he returned from the war and decided to marry her.  John Kulhan would meet many other political dissidents in New York City throughout his life but there was one key difference between him and the others: He was the only one he knew who had remained true to his marriage vows, who had not re-married despite having a wife and even children back home in their native country. 

It was on Marta’s 70th birthday, July 17, 1994, while on a religious retreat at the Saint Brigita Shrine in Darien, CT, where the matriarch of the family would become inspired to make a religious pilgrimage to The Divine Mercy Shrine in Stockbridge, MA.  It would prove to be the start of a most incredible journey, for the Kulhan family and all of those whom would they would touch along the way.  It would end six years later, on April 30, 2000, with the canonization of Sister Maria Faustina, the humble nun who promulgated the grace of Divine Mercy, of which the shrine in Stockbridge, MA promotes throughout the world to this day. 

That day, April 30, 2000, would be the happiest day in the life of the John and Marta Kulhan.  On this day, they would see the fruit of their years of sacrifice and struggle.  In retrospect one can realize why the family had suffered so much from the attacks of the evil forces that exist in today’s world, those adamantly opposed to spreading the grace of Divine Mercy.  The family would eventually receive an apostolic blessing from Pope John Paul II for their work on the canonization of Saint Faustina.  John Kulhan, his wife Marta, and their five children remain humble to this day, never having sought nor expecting any recognition for their extraordinary role in this most significant event in the Catholic Church.  However, they have allowed me to publish their story to inspire others during difficult times and to spread the devotion of Divine Mercy.  It is a story that I have been most blessed and honored to share. 

It is not for the success of a work, but for the suffering that I give reward.”

(From the Diary of Saint Sister M. Faustina Kowalska, paragraph 89).

Triumph Through Trial: The Untold Story Behind the Cannonization of Sister Maria Faustina Kowalska (Paperback) by Joe Kenney (Author), 2008, Booksurge Publishing ISBN 1419699059  - Available for sale through Amazon.com

Joseph P. Kenney, 24 Rodeo Drive, Mayetta, NJ 08095, (609) 597-3926

        

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Last Update: 27 April 2013                                                    Copyright © 2003-2013, Bill Tarkulich