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Military History - Northeast Slovakia

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Veteran honored for Eastern Front battle


Battle of Dukla Pass took heavy casualties

When: Sept. 8 until the end of October 1944, with further Soviet advances continuing through November

Where: Southern Poland, Slovakia, eastern Ukraine

Casualties: 84,000 Soviets, 54,000 Germans and 6,000 in the Czechoslovak Army Corps

Result: Nazi troops forced out of Slovakia; Red Army poised to take Prague in May 1945.

(Original publication: October 3, 2005)

Thursday is "Liberation Day" in the eastern European nation of Slovakia.

There will be speeches, toasts, proclamations and, for an 84-year-old veteran from Eastchester, a particularly sweet moment.

John (Jan) Kulhan was one of those liberators who helped turn the tide against the Third Reich and one of the handful of survivors of a ferocious battle in the fall of 1944 that drove the Nazis from his homeland. The Battle of Dukla Pass raged for a month between the Nazis and the Soviet Army and their allies in the region bordered by Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine known as the Dukla Pass, a section of the northern Carpathian mountains.

Kulhan, 83, a former Bronxville resident and retired engineer, will be honored in a semi-official ceremony at the Military Museum in Suidnik, Slovakia, his native land. He was a young artillery and transport officer in the old Czechoslovak army allied with the Soviets, and he is the last known Slovakian to have taken part in a battle that has a complex and enduring legacy in eastern Europe.

"We wanted to create our own country. I was fighting for my own freedom. It didn't happen then; communism dominated everything," Kulhan recalled.

But the fight gave Slovakia a sense of its destiny as an autonomous nation, which it finally became in 1993 after separating peacefully from the Czech Republic. "When I was fighting, I was fighting for the idea that everybody should be free, not a slave," he said.

His Czechoslovak army unit was pressed into service by the Germans against the Soviets after the Nazis took over Czechoslovakia, but the unit later switched sides and joined the fight against the German military machine.

Kulhan can recall the 1944 battle with sharp details as his clear, gray eyes narrow with concentration how German prisoners looked when they finally surrendered after a murderous artillery barrage, the sound of a mortar shell on its downward arc.

He tells many stories of his past how he saved the future president of Czechoslovakia, Gen. Ludvik Svoboda, by pushing him out of a bunker that was targeted by Nazi artillery moments before it was destroyed, working with American intelligence agents after the war, sneaking out of Slovakia with his wife and children in a daring border-crossing to Austria.

"He never got the recognition he deserved," said Kulhan's son-in-law, Joseph Kenney, a New Jersey immigration officer and an Army Reserve lieutenant colonel. "When he turned against the Communists, they turned against him."

At the ceremony on Thursday, Kulhan will be honored for the first time by his native Slovakia since it became an autonomous country.

Kulhan came to this country in 1950 and became a proud American, an admirer of Ronald Reagan who can quote lines from his speeches. As for his native land, he said he hoped his part in the campaign of 1944 will bring greater attention to the cause for which he fought.

"I got enough medals. But I'd like recognition for the people who fought and died for Slovakian independence," he said.

A father of five, he will be joined in his journey by his wife, Marta, to whom he has been married for 59 years.

There are still animosities and political fissures in Slovakia, much of it stemming from the World War II era and its aftermath under Soviet domination.

"People were caught up in the maelstrom, and they had to make hard choices," said Vladimir Baumgarten, a Florida scholar who has researched the battle of Dukla Pass and runs a cultural organization promoting Slovak-American ties. Speaking of the commemoration of the battle this week in which Kulhan will be honored, Baumgarten said, "Hopefully, it will be a healing catharsis. It brings together both sides of the Cold War."

It will also be a moment of family pride. The old soldier's daughter, Darline Kulhan, was already bursting with pride before the trip started. "I got a new digital camera, and I'm going to take so many pictures," she said in her Eastchester home. "He put it on the line for freedom, and to get this recognition, it will be a moment of joy."

Copyright 2005 The Journal News, a Gannett Co. Inc. newspaper serving Westchester, Rockland and Putnam Counties in New York.

Reprinted by Permission

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