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.