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.”
* * * * *
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.
* * * * *
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.
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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