(In memory of my grandparents Eliezer Dovid ben Efraim Fishl and Itl bat Moshe Yisroel on the 70th anniversary of their deportation from Slovakia.)
What made the deportation of more than 80,000 Jews from Slovakia during World War II unique? It was this striking fact: In contrast with other countries, the Slovak government actually appealed to the Germans to enact deportation.
Until the end of World War I Slovakia belonged to Hungary. In 1919, under the auspices of the League of Nations, Slovakia and Czechia, which had heretofore belonged to the Austrian Empire, joined to form a united Czechoslovakia. It turned out to be an uneasy union. Though both countries were Slavic and language differences were small, Czechia was highly industrialized compared to the poorer, agrarian Slovakia. Resentful of Czech superiority, a Slovak Peoples’ Party militated for more autonomy. The Jewish minority was treated fairly and had representation in Parliament.
The Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938, began the rapid dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Yielding to German irredentist demands, a significant section of Czechia, the so-called Sudeten, was ceded to Germany. A week later the Slovaks attained their autonomy. The country assumed the hyphenated name of Czecho-Slovakia.
Three weeks later, under the Vienna Award, a substantial Southern belt of Slovakia was ceded to Hungary by German largesse. On March 14, 1939, Slovakia declared its full independence. The next day, units of the German Wehrmacht marched into Prague. Czechoslovakia ceased to exist. World War II was but a heartbeat away.
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The Slovak Peoples’ Party was founded by a Catholic Priest, Andrej Hlinka. From the outset its orientation was blatantly anti-Semitic. Many of its leaders, like its founder, were Catholic priests, which gave the party an unusually strong standing and authority in the eyes of the devout peasantry. The simple folk unquestionably accepted the preaching of its clerics regarding Jewish guilt in the crucifixion of Jesus. Once freed from Czech restraint, Slovakian Jewry found itself sitting on barrels of dynamite. At an early stage the party modeled itself after the German Nazi Party.
This writer remembers distinctly a visit by Hlinka in the town of Lipiany. Peasants of the town and its vicinity assembled en-masse in the main square with baskets and sacks on their arms ready to pillage Jewish property. Hlinka’s incendiary words were, however, accompanied by a plea to delay any damage to Jewish possessions since it was only a matter of time before all would fall into their laps.
Hlinka’s death at the time of the Munich Agreement brought no perceptible change. His successor was Dr. Joseph Tiso, also a Catholic priest. With the declaration of Slovakia’s independence, Jews were speedily deprived of their rights. Exploiting his priestly garb, and to the embarrassment of the Vatican, Tiso continually invoked Christian principles to gain the backing and solidarity of the largely Catholic nation.
As early as February 26, 1939, the newspaper Narodne Noviny warned: “The Jews cannot count on being left in peace in Slovakia. They cannot count on any future for their children.”
On September 23, 1939, as the German onslaught on Poland was reaching its speedy and victorious conclusion, the official paper of the Slovak Peoples’ Party, The Slovak, declared: “Warfare against the Jews and the radical solution of the Jewish question must be looked upon as an inevitability, even a necessity, if we want to preserve our nation. We have to put aside false and unjustified sentimentality.… We can rightly blame [the Jews] for failures and disasters brought on our nation.”
In October 1939 the minister of the interior of the Slovak Republic instructed the district authorities that in public life “it is necessary to consider the Jews as not only an alien element but also a permanent enemy of the Slovak state.”
The ferocity and viciousness of these and similar statements not only equaled but in many respects superseded the pronouncements of German Nazi officialdom. It is noteworthy that their origin was not linked to German Nazi pressures but had domestic roots.
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The various anti-Jewish measures enacted since the creation of the independent Slovak state were incorporated in the Jewish Codex, promulgated by the Slovak government on September 9, 1941.
The Codex contained 270 anti-Jewish paragraphs that stripped more than 80,000 Slovakian Jews of their civil rights and all means of economic survival, and in effect placed them beyond the bounds of law and society. Although drafted on the German model, in some instances it was more devastating. For example, it provided not only for marking a person with a yellow star, but every letter sent by a Jew had to have a star affixed. The police were authorized to open these letters and destroy them at their discretion.
The Slovak government press boasted that the Codex was more severe than the Nazi’s infamous Nuremberg Laws.
About the Author: Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University, and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker. Dr. Birnbaum’s memoir, “Turning Obstacles Into Stepping-Stones,” is now in its second printing and can be acquired by contacting firstname.lastname@example.org
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