Like father, like daughter
Mimi Gosney never met her father, but she’s keeping his legacy alive in Slovakia
While in Europe, he interviewed Marshall Tito, was the only Allied reporter to reach Bucharest in time to cover the arrival of the Red Army in August, 1944, and held an exclusive interview with King Mihal of Romania. In a New York Times editorial, the interview was described as having “all the elements of glamour, romance, comedy, dramatic suspense and rapid action.”
Yet in gaining acclaim, he lost his life. Joseph Morten was executed January 24, 1945 in the Mauthausen concentration camp after being captured by the Nazis in the mountains of central Slovakia with a group of Slovak partisans. He was the only war correspondent executed by the Germans.
He left behind a wife pregnant with his only child. He never met his daughter, never even learned her name. But 57 years later, Mimi Gosney is making sure that nobody ever forgets the name Joseph Morten.
“I lost my father before I ever met him,” says Gosney. “He died not knowing my name, yet I sense that we share similar interests. He was fascinated with this part of the world and 57 years later I stand where he stood. I can share with my son Joseph this part of his grandfather’s history. I find that quite an honour.”
Mimi Gosney is a volunteer for the US Peace Corps. She works at the Slovak National Uprising (SNP) museum in Banská Bystrica, where her father is featured in an exhibit on US involvement in the SNP.
But one week after he landed, Germans bombers destroyed the airfield. Morten was stuck.
He had accompanied the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the US body that preceded the CIA) into Slovakia on a mission aimed at lifting Allied pilots who had been shot down out of Slovakia. But when the Germans destroyed their exit, the mission fled to Banská Bystrica, Morten in tow. Advancing Nazi troops then closed in on the city, forcing the group to flee again, this time to the mountain area known as Donovaly, some 25 kilometres to the north.
Morten found company in the forests. “There were partisans there, members of the OSS, Jews hiding in the woods from the Nazis,” says Gosney. “It was a classic war retreat, they were being pushed back.”
After weeks of evasion, Morten’s group found shelter in an abandoned mountain hut above the village Polomka. They were starving and ill-prepared for the approaching winter. Fortunately, sympathetic villagers left food on the outskirts of the village. When a blizzard struck, leaving many in the party with frost-bitten and bleeding feet, one local made them new shoes.
On December 26, 1944, after hiding for a month in the freezing hut, the 18 mainly American and British members of the mission were captured by German troops. Charged with espionage, jailed in Brezno, then moved to prisons in Banská Bystrica, Bratislava and Vienna, they were finally interned in the camp at Mauthausen, a small Austrian village on the Danube.
AP learned that Morten had been executed a year and a half later thanks to the testimony of two Austrians. The first was a man named Willy, a local resident who had been in charge of the concentration camp’s crematorium. He remembered the American, who had been unable to blend in among the European Jews, and confirmed that he had been executed.
The second witness was Mueller, an English translator for the Germans. He told investigators that he specifically recalled Joseph Morten, saying that he had seen the American journalist write and had been struck by the unusual way he wrote his M’s.
Convinced that their correspondent had been killed, AP published an article on July 8, 1946 announcing his death.
“Joseph Morten, AP war correspondent who distinguished himself by his coverage of the war in the Mediterranean, was executed by the Germans January 24, 1945, after being captured in Slovakia,” the article read. “He achieved a brilliant and extraordinary record of exclusive and significant reporting under most difficult and hazardous conditions. He was fired with determination to go where no other correspondent had gone, and get the story no-one else could get.”
John Trachta, a reporter for the Národná Obroda (National Revival) Slovak newspaper, told AP that he had seen Morten as he fled Banská Bystrica. “His last statement was that he would try to make it to Zvolen and fly out.”
“I wanted to be here,” she says. “I’d visited before to see where Dad had worked during the war, and I’ve visited the hut above Polomka where he was captured.”
Gosney requested a Slovak posting during her Peace Corps interview, but was originally slated for work in Moldova. Her father’s legacy helped change that.
“In 1999, the International Czechoslovak Association of Arts and Letters asked me to give a speech in Washington DC about American civilian involvement in the Slovak National Uprising,” she said. “Which meant that I was basically going to speak about Dad.”
But she couldn’t confirm her par-ticipation because she did not yet know if she would be shipped to Moldova by the date of the planned speech, in August 2000. She called Peace Corps headquarters and explained her dilemma.
The placement officer she spoke to offered to push back her departure date, at the price of changing her destination. “I told him that there was no need to change what country I was going to,” she said. “The only change I would have wanted was to come to Slovakia, but as I understood it, there were no postings here.”
The officer, however, told her that postings did indeed exist in Slovakia, in the south-western city Galanta. The decision was easy. “I said, let’s do it!”
But even in Galanta, Gosney felt far removed from the hills in which her father had once hid from the Nazis who ultimately captured and killed him. She told her superior that she was being “wasted” teaching English in Galanta. A transfer to Banská Bystrica was arranged, and she has been working with the museum since July 2001.
“I am very happy. This is where I wanted to be and this is where I belong.”
Having finally arrived, Gosney is determined to make her Banská Bystrica stay a success.
“I am here to share cultures, share friendships, and keep history alive,” she says. “Remembering the past is so important for future generations because if we forget our history we can repeat our mistakes. This is even more important than keeping alive the name of one man, even if he is my father.”
But the legacy of Joseph Morten is not likely to die anytime soon. He was crowned a hero by AP, was posthumously awarded several medals of bravery by the US government and military, and was commemorated by the acting president of Slovakia, Joseph Lettric, immediately after the war.
Speaking to a group at the old Savoy restaurant in Bratislava’s Hotel Carlton in 1945, Lettric said: “In the person of Joseph Morten, a representative soldier and newspaperman, we met a daring man, a great democrat, and the son of a great free nation. We saw in him also a hero. His was a brutal assassination.”
If Gosney has her way, it was an assassination that won’t soon be forgotten.
“Dad and I are very much alike,” she says. “He was an adamant believer in freedom of the press and he was passionately against censorship. He was not allowed to attend his junior-high school graduation because he got into a big argument with his principal over censorship.
“And in many ways, I’m the same. I’m known by my friends as ‘the loose cannon’, because when something is wrong, or when something needs to be done, I just put my foot down and say, ‘OK, let’s get this settled now’.
“We never knew each other - but we seem to have shared a strong sense of freedom - neither of us took it for granted. My father died writing stories about it. I lost my father before I ever met him. He died not knowing my name. Yet I sense that we share similar interests. The men of the mission may have died, but the principles they stood for have survived. We are the living proof. I find that quite an honour.”
- Chris Togneri
These articles and related information were published in Spectacular Slovakia 2002.
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