What I learned reading about Slovak Jews

What I learned reading about Slovak Jews - Almost BananasFor the last month I’ve been busy reading 21 books in English about Slovakia – read the reviews and enter the giveaway here – and six of those books were about Jews during WWII.

Of course we learned about the horrors of WWII in school, of racism and concentration camps. Nazi soldiers often come up in ethical discussions as The Ultimate Evil That Has Existed, i.e. “If you were faced with Nazi soldiers, would x action still be unacceptable?”

But growing up in Canada, the idea of war was so far away. We keep every Remembrance Day, maybe heard stories from grandparents or read a historical fiction novel. It seems closer in Slovakia, to some degree, just because fighting was on this soil. People still go metal detecting in the hills behind our home, looking for war artefacts. It seems strange that those quiet hills, perhaps even some of the same trees, saw such violence and action. When in the Low Tatras, a memorial to partisans killed high up in the mountain seemed so startling.

Call me naive, but I had this idea that the Nazis were the bad guys, Jew and other targeted groups were the victims, and everybody else was just kind of didn’t know what was going on. 

What I learned reading about Slovak Jews - Almost Bananas

Racism extends to children

It’s true that to most people didn’t realize to what extent the extermination went to, although there were certainly rumours. But what surprised me, reading five memoirs by Slovak Jews, was the general hostility towards them, even towards children.

Most of the books follow a similar pattern, written by those who were children (one a teen) during the war: as children, they played with other non-Jewish kids without any problems. There was some segregation, but any animosity that existed between adults wasn’t so strong that it trickled down to the children.

Then the trouble started, and the Jewish children were jeered at or beat up by the Christian kids. Now, those children were just carrying out the sentiments they heard from adults, but what really shocked me was how cruel adults could be to the Jewish children.

Eva Slonim, in Gazing at the Stars, recalls passing Prime Minister Tuka on the street as a ten year old; he kicked her in the stomach and threw her on the ground because she was trying to hide her star. Shocked and humiliated, she jumped onto the nearest passing tram, but the adult passengers chased her off because Jews were no longer allowed to use public transport.

Even more horribly, as a 12 year old she and her younger sister had to live alone in a strange city. Their former nanny kept back money and letters she was supposed to deliver from her parents. And then, when the apartment block neighbours realized who they were, they called the Hlinka guards and didn’t let the girls escape. This is, of course, nothing to say about their treatment by the guards, but what I find troubling is the hostility of ordinary people.

There was propaganda, of course, newspapers full of the reasons why Jews were to blame for whatever problem. There was envy, as Jews were seen as more wealthy (there were poor Jews too, but envy isn’t balanced). There was greed, as people wanted to get their hands on Jewish property, businesses, and belongings.

What I learned reading about Slovak Jews - Almost Bananas

The Slovaks who helped

But not all Slovaks bought into that. There were some, precious few, who helped and hid Jews. What was it about them that they were able to not get caught up in the general sentiment? To realize that the propaganda were lies and to help, despite the consequences to themselves?

Hami Kedar-Kehat, in My Nitra, describes a range of Slovaks who helped hide her family. Some did it for money, although one family could be cold and mercenary and another family warm and kind. Never mind the difference between families – one spouse could be kind and the other hostile. In Cry Little Girl, Aliza Barak-Ressler’s family was betrayed by farmer when their money ran out, and yet in a nearby village, almost the whole village helped feed their family while they hid in holes in the ground.

What was it about the people who put themselves in danger to help?

There is a character in My Nitra that is particularly memorable. Kedar-Kehat’s family’s money was running out, so they wrote their Christian sister-in-law (who had been formerly ostracized from the family because the Jewish brother married a non-Jew) asking her to gather money from the father’s former clients. She did so, and sent a very large sum with Pišta.

Pišta was the organizer/focal point for hiding Jews. He found families willing to hide Jews, carried out the exchanges so no family would know who else was involved, arranged transport, delivered letters, etc. Now this Pišta was also a gambler, and when he had five months worth of this family’s hiding money on him, he lost it all gambling. Gone. He was terribly sorry, weeping, but that didn’t change the facts. As her father commented, however, that same love of gambling was tied to his willingness to risk all and help the Jews.

When we think of good people, we think of responsible people. They don’t forget things, they are self-disciplined and consistent, they do their work conscientiously. I’m hardly one to teach my children to gamble or be irresponsible, but I would rather they have the heart of Pišta then be a cold model citizen.

Whenever I imagine myself in wartime countries in those ethical discussions, it’s on the side of the good guy, the people who are hiding Jews. But it is oh-so-easy to say for someone who has only ever experienced security, who has never felt terror for her family because of violence. If it were my babies that would suffer the consequences, would I be as generous? Or would I try to protect my own? It’s not a question that can be answered without experience, but I do not wish to be tested.

What I learned reading about Slovak Jews - Almost Bananas

After the war

For Slovakia, the Russians were the liberators – at first, anyway. On the one hand, some of the Jews had very good experiences with Russian soldiers and were treated with compassion and respect. On the other hand, most girls of any race, however, were hidden away from the Russians. Sonya Jason, in the story of Maria Gulovich, describes the rape and pillage that came in the Russian army’s wake and the malicious actions that occurred between by the Russian soldiers toward a small group of American and British soldiers.

Another fact that surprised me was that there was still hostility after the war. One girl, on going back to school, was told that she wouldn’t be given special treatment because while Slovak children had been studying hard at school, she and other Jewish children had been hanging around the streets, doing nothing. And as Giora Amir in A Simple Life and others remember, there were grumblings that more Jews returned after the war than left – when an estimated 77% of the pre-war Jewish population in Slovakia perished.

In Germany, after the war there was a sense of collective guilt over what had happened. Even directly after the war, as Tomi Reichental recalls in I was a Boy in Belsen, as his family travelled back to Slovakia from Bergen-Belsen, they was welcomed into German homes. In the 1950s, he moved to Germany to study and work, and many people were willing to help him, trying to make up for the past.

In Slovakia, however, that past was buried. As much as the communists hated the fascists, the Holocaust was not taught in schools. As late as 2004, Reichental recalls the mutual shock as he told his story to a Slovak college educated group in Ireland who had never heard of such a thing.

Another example is my husband: although he grew up a mere 8 km from the internment camp in Sereď, he had never heard that such a place existed until recently. (Added: after he read this post, my husband read up a bit about the camp. It turns out that the internment camp had turned into an army base and as kids they used to go on field trips there for Military Day. So he was there, just a a few generations of people didn’t know it’s history.) The former camp is now a museum, opening only last year and the only surviving camp of the three on Slovak ground. 

All this has resulted in a generation that sees itself as victims. Yes, Slovakia was a small country but in a strategic position, caught between Germany and Russia. Yes, there was a desire for a country to call their own. But the little amount of influence that an ordinary person has on the political scale should never be a reason for excusing ourselves from personal responsibility.

A partial reason that reading these books had more of an impact on me was that I was reading them here, in Slovakia, and the people who closed a door to help are the same people who are living here, my friends. Not actual people, those who were children then are reaching a ripe age now, but people as a nation.

When I spoke with a Slovak about the books I was reading, I was surprised by the response. “The Jews had all the money. They took financial advantage of Slovaks. There must have been a reason that Slovaks didn’t like them.” It sounded like a justification, another reason that Slovaks are victims.

What I learned reading about Slovak Jews - Almost Bananas

Everywhere, people are people

And all that thinking brought me back to my own homeland. We consider Canada multicultural and all inclusive, thinking that such a racially based hostility could never happen on a wide scale there today. There is a general collective sense of shame at the colonization of Native Americans. But there is more in our history that we don’t think much about. During WWII, for example, Canada had 40 camps that held between 30,000 to 35,000 internees. About 20,000 of those were Japanese from the Pacific Coast, many of them born in Canada. And who of those Canadians protested families being deprived of their homes, farms, and livelihood? None that I know of. Neighbours were more interested in getting land or homes for dirt cheap.

So what did I learn, reading about Slovak Jews? I guess it can be summed up by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who experienced horror first hand as a member of the Russian army during the war and imprisoned in a gulag afterwards: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”