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The Czechoslovak Talks is a project that embraces the life stories of Czechoslovaks around the world – the stories of the personal ups and downs, the opportunities and obstacles, and especially the life experiences that we would like to preserve for future generations.

 

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Oldrich Plesek

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
novomanželé Pleškovi v Batanagaru

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.

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Batanagar News
rodina Pleškových
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Comments

  • Roman Mukerj4ee
    REPLY

    A very comprehensive and moving summary of Mr Oldrich Plesek and the contributions he made in Bata, India.He was the father of my Bata friend and a classmate in our joint schooling in St Joseph’s Darjeeling, Olek Plesek. Whilst Mr Plesek came to work for Bata India, my father left India in the early 1930s to gain training in headquarters of Bata in Zlin, the, Czechoslovakia, He there met my mother who was working in Bata, to lead to an historic marriage (1941) between an Indian (Hindu) and an ethnic Slovak (Christian), right during the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia. I was there born in 1943, with a racist birth certificate which indicated that we were all Hindus. This India identity kept us from Nazi harassment, as India and Nazi Germany had the same enemy, Great Britain.Interestingly, my father5 took time off from Bata to voluntarily join the Indian National Army movement for India independence, with the external office in Berlin. This aggressive movement was lead by the heroic Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose whose strategy was the opposite to that of Mahatma Gandhi. When the allied forces liberate Czechoslovakia and father had returned from Berlin, we were delayed to go back to India because of father’s tires in Berlin and Germany support. He was arrested for jus nine months when it was felt he was just engaged in a political movement. A year later, one year before India independence, we returned to India in Batanagar where, I crossed my early paths with Olek, whilst his father worked for Bata, India. My well trained father who spoke fluent Czech, besides Hindi and Bengali and he entered in the sale of impeccable Bata shoes, with Mr Oldrich Plesek as the Sales Manager. Olek and I were close together with the Bata and school links till we high school graduated. Olek left for Australia whilst I came to Canada, the new headquarters of Bata, with Mr and Mrs Bata in Toronto, at the time. With completion of studies, I was to join the India Foreign Service but, with marriage here, I decided to immigrate and indirectly serve India with the Government of Canada in Multiculturalism and Race Relations,retired. My mother, as a reverent Catholic who died in India, my Hindu father arranged for a marble memory plaque to e placed in front of the church, with Mr Bata approval from Toronto.. I am now most impressed that all names of Czech Bata contributors have now been placed in front front of the church, to fully express the honourable Czechs who made Bata India their interim stay and wide contributions. Then, Mrs Bata was most impressed by my parent’s wedding photo she saw at my home which she felt should be displayed where they married, during racist Nazi rule, Hodonin, She personally arranged to send the photo to Hodonin, where I was invited to officially open the photo display. I was interviewed in Czech, which I fluently speak, to be on national television (internet), The Slovak embassy here in Ottawa has mounted a painting in honour of my parents for thei historic marriage at the Nazi protectorate time.This was done also as respect for the Jews where my wife is Reform Jewish.. I am most grateful to my Bata-India history and especially to my dedicated parents who lived in free and independent India.When fa6ther joined us,the India Canada Association, Ottawa granted my father a special honour for his life risk independence service in Berlin. This award plaque will now go to the Netaji Museum in New Delhi. All of this would not have happened were it not for my Bata ties from Zlin to Batanagar and my true homelasmnd India. I pay full respect to overseas Czechs who contributed to the India Bata establishment and its successful growth that is most historic. Yes, Olek and I are the beneficiaries from our parents for our underlying Bata identity that was variously expressed. As a fellow class mate and Bata buddy, I have not heard from him in Australia; With the present corona virus, we need to be more together and continue to share our Bat and school bonds.

    December 17, 2020
  • Sameek
    REPLY

    Wowwww !! Roman, I just came across this and it bought back so many memories of our lives together in that Great school in Darjeeling where we lived together as brothers. As you may know Ollie is my Godfather and I have been trying to get hold of him. We must get together again and celebrate our reunion!!

    July 29, 2021

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