I was born in Hostasovice on 1st December 1912. At the age of fourteen, I joined the Bata Shoe Company in Zlin as an apprentice, where my first job was to paint the edges of the leather soles on shoes. I was short by stature, so I had to stand on an upturned crate in order to reach the conveyor belt. At the age of nineteen I commenced the mandatory eighteen months of military service. I returned to Bata afterwards and attended the boarding school. As a young man, I was part of Thomas Bata junior’s circle of friends, going on holiday with him to Rab Island in the Adriatic Sea, and being his co-driver in a car rally. In February 1936 I was transferred to India and started as the Supply/Warehouse manager in Konnagar near Calcutta. In 1932, Bata bought a former mineral oil refinery and adapted it for the production of rubber footwear.
In October 1934, construction of a large new factory began just a few dozens of miles south. The place was named Batanagar, also called Bata´s gateway to India. I moved there bit later. Next to the factory, the entire town was built on 324 acres of swamp and jungle – residential areas for managers and workers, cinema, school, sports fields, hospitals, Czech club, Sokol, St. Wencaslas chapel etc. A unique newspaper Batanagar News was published by a friend of mine Jan Baros. In 1937, more than 3000 employees worked in Batanagar, including some 70 Czechoslovaks.
The place was named Batanagar, also called Bata´s gateway to India
My wife, Marie Kanova, was born in Kostice on 1st December, 1914. At the age of seventeen, she joined Bata in Zlin and trained as a sewing machine operator. She was selected to transfer to East Tilbury, England, as a supervisor, but she was offered the posting to India when the designated lady fell ill. So in October 1937, she arrived in Batanagar. We married in July 1939 and had two children – Vera (1940) and Oldrich – Olek (1943).
In 1945, I was promoted to the position of General Sales Manager for Bata India, a position I held until retirement in 1973. We moved to Calcutta in 1950 after the Head Office operations were transferred there. Under my stewardship, a vast network of over one thousand retail and warehouse outlets was established to cater to the annual sales of some 50 million pairs of shoes. This was the legacy I left behind. With 37 years in service, I was arguably the longest serving Bata Czechoslovak in India. We achieved extraordinary things in extraordinary times and I was very proud of it. We endured World War Two, when Czechoslovakia was occupied, the Great Bengal Famine of 1943; we experienced also the horrors of Partition in 1947.
We emigrated to Australia in 1973 and settled in Sydney where my children had already established their own families. It provided a wonderful opportunity to socialise again with many old friends and colleagues who had left Batanagar in the 1950s.
I was really moved when I was graciously welcomed by old Indian colleagues and greeted warmly at every one of the many outlets I visited.
I had a genuine fondness for India and actually considered moving to Kashmir for retirement. In the end, however, I realised that this was an option that was not quite practical for family and friend considerations. I did return in the 1980s though, for one last visit. I was really moved when I was graciously welcomed by old Indian colleagues and greeted warmly at every one of the many outlets I visited.
Oldrich Plesek died on 24th August, 2004 in Sydney. Being a true Bata man to the end, this date was the 110th anniversary of the foundation of Bata in 1894. His wife Marie passed away on 11th July, 2007.