Tuesday, September 1, 2009

World War II and the Jews of Slovakia

Today marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of World War II, a fight against Nazism and totalitarianism that cost the lives of more than 50 million and destroyed the lives of many millions more. A ceremony took place earlier in the day in Poland to mark the date and remember. For most people, remembering WWII also means remembering the ethnic Jewish population in Europe that was all but decimated within those five and a half years.

I’m not Jewish. As a matter of fact, before I moved to Europe I had little reason to ever think about Jewish life or the Jewish people. But over the few years I lived in Central Europe I couldn’t help to become interested in the story of the Jews. Why? Because at times it’s possible to actually feel the void of an ethnic group who once inhabited Europe, and who are overwhelmingly gone.

The signs of former Jewish life in Slovakia are there if you look for them. For example, a monument in Bratislava Old Town with a large etching on marble of what used to be the main synagogue in the Jewish Quarter, almost all of which was torn down to make way for the new Nový Most (pictured right); In Zlaté Moravce, a small town I’ve spent a lot of time in, the building of the former town synagogue is now a rock climbing gym; and Jewish cemeteries can be found across the country. But still, almost no one talks about the Jewish people or of what Slovaks saw or heard before and during World War II.

People forget. I believe that honestly happens, especially to the older generations as they age. But also, often people want to forget. I remember one adult student of mine told me that the Second World War ripped a gaping hole in the hearts and minds of people and that some families still have not recovered to this day. He told me that he personally lost uncles and for some it is still too painful to talk about, and he wasn’t even referring to the Jews. Often I’ve had to make myself remember his words because sometimes I’m frustrated about people’s reluctance to talk about what Slovak life was like during World War II and what was happening in their towns and villages. I have to remember that there is still a rawness. Unfortunately it’s difficult to balance sensitivity with the need to record information coming from credible sources before there is no more opportunity to do so.

My grandfather-in-law has an amazing memory. He loves to tell stories about his youth and about his service in the Slovak Army at the close of World War II. My husband and I like to hear his stories, mostly because he so enjoys recounting them. One afternoon he was telling us about being “on the front” and of his military days. Just because I was curious, I wanted to ask him about the Jews in the Zlaté Moravce area and in his village of Žitavany. Of course, because he has an excellent memory, he was able to tell us specifically that there were three Jewish families taken from his village and that after the war only a single man returned. The man didn’t stay but instead immigrated to Israel. He also said many of the shops in Zlaté Moravce were owned and operated by Jewish people. What he didn’t have to say was that everything was confiscated and given over to Slovaks and that the Jews were taken away to concentration camps.

What was interesting to me was that he recounted all of this simply as historical fact, no judgments, no comments. It made me think, why don’t young people ask more questions? My grandfather-in-law didn’t have difficulty in the telling. Maybe it simply was a matter of someone asking a straightforward question to get a straightforward answer. Ask and you shall receive? Possibly.

In The Foreigner’s Guide to Living in Slovakia, I wrote a short section about Germans in Slovakia (called Carpathian Germans), and also about Jews in Slovakia. In that section I included the following powerful statistics:
  • According to the Czechoslovak census of 1930, 136,737 Jews lived in Slovakia and 102,542 in Subcarpathian Rus, which was more than 4% of the population in Slovakia and more than 14% of the population in Subcarpathian Rus.
  • Today there are approximately 2,300 Jews living in Slovakia.
There are many painful stories that have not yet been told, but there are also good stories of non-Jews helping Jews and other targeted groups during World War II that have not yet been told. I think I’m open minded to hear both, not to judge, but simply because we – citizens of the world – need to know more, and move beyond the feeling that people are holding back important information and want to forget about the past.

Note: The photo is taken by Griffindor who added the following description in Wikipedia Commons:
Image of the Holocaust monument in Bratislava. The Reform Synagogue used to stand there and survived the Nazis but not the Communists after World War II. The synagogue was torn to make way for a highway. Only after the fall of Communism was a black granite plaque (visible in the back) and a monument constructed for the murdered Jewish population of Bratislava. However no sign in English explains the meaning of the monument to anyone.