(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.
The following month, President Tiso and his prime minister, Voytech Tuka, visited Hitler at his headquarters. They learned that the Fuehrer had decided an area in occupied Poland was to serve as the location for the gradual concentration of European Jewry. Tuka prevailed on the German leaders, who intended to make Western Europe Judenrein first, to give Slovakian Jews priority for immediate deportation.
In February 1942, Tuka made it officially known that a Jewish workforce would replace Slovak workers utilized by Germany, since the Slovaks were needed on the Eastern front. The Jewish Central Office of Slovakian Jewry pleaded with Tiso that the Jewish workforce be utilized within the borders of Slovakia.
Objections were also raised by the Vatican, which took exception to the fact that baptized Jews were being treated just as badly as non-baptized Jews. On March 14, 1942, in a note handed to the Slovak ambassador, the Vatican condemned “the expulsion of all Jewish members from the territory of the Slovak Republic.”
Although by this point the mass murder of Jews had became known from Slovak soldiers on leave from the Eastern front, the Slovak leadership ignored all protests. The deportations were discussed on various levels. In their parley on March 17, leaders of the Slovak Peoples’ Party decided “to solve the Jewish issue in accordance with Christian morality.”
One of the members of the State Council pointed out that deportations were in direct contradiction of the economic interests of the state and defy “both natural law and the law of God.” To which Interior Minister Sano Mach retorted, “we shall not stop this action under any circumstance. ”
On April 1, Mach clarified on the radio that “there is no foreign intervention which would stop us on the road to the liberation of Slovakia from Jewry.”
Tiso considered the deportation of Jews an action of national importance. Most revealing was his public appearance in Holic on August 16, 1942, at a Mass where he said: “It is asked whether it is Christian what [is happening] to the Jews. Is it human? Is it not robbery?”
He answered his own questions: “Is it Christian if a nation wants to get rid of its internal enemy? It is not necessary to argue with anybody that the Slovak’s life was threatened by the Jewish element. It would have been much worse if we did not clear ourselves of them in time. And we did it according to God’s command: Slovak, throw away, get rid of your pest!”
On the same occasion Tiso also cited Hlinka, saying: “A Jew remains a Jew even if he is baptized by a hundred bishops.”
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The first deportation transport left Poprad on March 26, 1942. Some 999 single young women, ages 16 to 35, from the Saris-Zemplen region were loaded on cattle cars and shipped to Auschwitz. Slovakia had the dubious distinction of providing the first transport to the newly constructed special women’s section in Auschwitz 1A.
From the moment the young women disembarked from the train they came into contact with the stark reality of the camp. They were yelled at and cursed by SS men, shoved and beaten with riffle butts, threatened by vicious dogs.
The terrified women were herded into the wooden bathhouse between blocks 1 and 2, where they were made to wait for hours for the camp admission procedure to begin. First step was turning over their clothing and all personal property. They were carefully and in some cases intimately searched. Then came the bath, which consisted of immersion in small tubs of water that was not changed until the whole transport “washed.” Next they received striped camp uniforms, often infested with lice and stained with blood and excrement. Next came the haircuts that left them bald and virtually unrecognizable. Then came the tattoo on the arm, numbers 1000 to 1999. They were thus initiated into the sisterhood of Auschwitz.
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Let us return from Planet Auschwitz to Slovakia. Under the pretext that separating individuals from their families is cruel, the Slovak government appealed to German authorities in charge of deportations to allow, “in the spirit of Christianity,” the families of deportees to accompany them.
To avoid any possible misunderstanding, it had become widely known in Slovakia, from the highest echelons of government to the lowest farm worker, that deportation was equivalent to execution. Therefore, the Slovak government’s request was equivalent to an appeal for the destruction of its Jewish community.
If not a tragic matter of precious human lives, including thousands of infants, it might have seemed ludicrous to an objective onlooker: The Slovaks pleading with the Germans, in true Christian spirit, to utterly destroy the Jews while avoiding disruption of Jewish families. On behalf of the Germans, Adolph Eichmann plays the unwilling executioner. He complains that taking whole families, with people of all ages, entails more trains, more personnel, more facilities for accommodation. All in all, a costly procedure.
The haggling over Jewish souls ends with a compromise: Slovakia will pay Germany 500 Deutsche Marks for every Jew removed from its borders, provided Germany guarantees that the deported will never return and no claim will ever be put on their property.
In its noble generosity, Germany agrees. In its chivalrous humanity, Slovakia is willing to pay. Both sides play the game with matchless cruelty. The Slovak government’s lust for Jewish property drove it to buy the death of Slovak Jews from Eichmann. The first family transport left Trnava on April 11, 1942.
The issue of Jewish deportation was discussed and voted on in the Slovak Parliament on May 16, 1942. The opening words of the resolution passed read: “The Jews can be deported from the territory of Slovakia.” By that date, some 40,000 Jews had already been deported from Slovakia. After the passage of the law another 20,000 were deported. Between March 26 and October 20, 1942, 57,628 Jews – including more than 7,000 children below the age of 10 – were forcibly deported in 57 transports.
The Slovak government’s initiative resulted in close to 58,000 victims deported to death camps prior to the end of 1942, when the Nazis first began significant activity aimed at liquidating the Jews of Western Europe. The Jewish tragedy in Slovakia might have been substantially smaller if not for the murderous zeal of Slovakia’s leaders.
SS officer Dieter Wisliceny, sent by Berlin to Slovakia in August 1940 as “advisor on Jewish affairs,” reported home that “[Prime Minister] Tuka’s zeal [to eliminate Jews] exceeds by far the pressure exercised by Hitler [upon the Slovak state].” Tuka in fact sent heartfelt pleas to German government authorities to exercise pressure on his own government to stop procrastinating and act more speedily in the dispatch of Jewish deportation transports.
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From October 1942 to September 1944 not a single transport left Slovakia, probably owing to a member of the Jewish Council, Gisi Fleischman, who managed to buy off Wisliceny. In late August 1944 an anti-Nazi uprising broke out in Central Slovakia which led to swift German occupation of the country and the resumption of deportations.
Himmler blamed the Jews for the revolt and personally insisted on their total deportation for “military reasons.” Thus, 13,500 Jews were deported between October 1944 and March 1945. In fact, about 2,000 Jews had joined Slovak army defectors in the revolt. With the advance of the Red Army, they saw the looming defeat of the Third Reich and chose to join the winner’s side, alas somewhat prematurely.
By March 1945, no more than about 5,000 Jews remained in Slovakia, using forged “Aryan” documents or hiding in bunkers. There had been 88,951 Jews who lived there on the eve of World War II.
A few Church leaders did speak up against the anti-Jewish government measures. The vicar of Bratislava, Rev. Pozdich, expressed his personal distress in an appeal to the Vatican that human beings, just because they are born Jews, should be treated as slaves. “It is impossible that the world should passively watch small infants, mortally sick old people…deported like animals, transported in cattle wagons towards an unknown destination.”
In a note to President Tiso, Cardinal Maglione, the state secretary of the Vatican, expressed the pope’s objection that a Catholic state would permit the Nazi doctrine of race to triumph over the Church’s doctrine of purification through baptism.
A Catholic historian, the Reverend John Morley, noted: “Tiso was reprimanded on several occasions by the Vatican, but not excommunicated; the Holy See lost the opportunity for a great humanitarian and moral gesture.”
Nora Levin, scholar of the Holocaust, writes about Slovakia: “This chapter of the Holocaust constitutes one of the most shattering destructions of any Jewish community in Europe.”
With the liberation of Slovakia in April 1945 by the Red Army, Tiso was arrested, tried in Bratislava, and executed on April 18, 1947. Tuka was sentenced to death and executed on August 20, 1946. Wisliceny was tried in Bratislava and hanged in 1948.
Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel; 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 founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker.
Dr. Birnbaum expresses his gratitude to Franziska Reiniger of the Yad Vashem Archives for her help in the collection of research material for this article.
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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