antisemitism,  Europe,  History

The tragedy of the Jews of Slovakia: Part 2

Karl Pfeifer recently interviewed the Slovak historian Prof. Dr. Pavol Mest’an, director of the Jewish Museum in Bratislava.

K.P.: The Hlinka party became in 1936 a clerical-fascist party. Was its leader the Catholic priest Hlinka, who died in 1938, also an anti-Semite?

P.M.: Andrej Hlinka came from the small place Ruzemberok and was a good friend of the local rabbi. At the time his party directed its animosity against Hungarians and Czechs and not so much against Jews. This changed when Monsignor Jozef Tiso, who wrote his name during the Hungarian rule [until 1918] Tiszo and started his political career as editor of the Hungarian Nyitrai Szemle, became leader of the Hlinka Party.

Another leader of this party, Vojtech (Béla) Tuka was also Hungarian.

He did not even speak good Slovak, was counselor of the German minority in Slovakia during the first Czechoslovak Republic [CSR], and was the ideologue of Slovak National Socialism with excellent connections to the rulers of the Third Reich.

Is there a glorification of the Slovak state of 1935-1945 and of its anti-Semitic policy as in Hungary, where pro-government historians try to rehabilitate Horthy? They do this by camouflaging the active role of Horthy and his system in the Holocaust of Hungarian Jews and by way of searching for justifications for the anti-Jewish policy of the Horthy regime.

There is a similarity. I have published two books on anti-Semitism in Slovak politics [1989-1999 and 2000-2009] and analyzed two decades of political developments in Slovakia, and controversial publications. I hoped that the number of anti-Semitic and xenophobic books and articles of this kind would decline over time. This did not happen. If we take into account that the Slovak book and print market is not a large and influential one in the European context, these number over the course of twenty years are almost unbelievable, and precisely for this reason, alarming.

Unfortunately it is not only the most radical ultra-nationalists who are openly propogating the antidemocratic direction of the satellite pro-Nazi state, its extreme ethnic nationalism and virulent anti-Semitism in an effort to glorify this state. In addition, some representatives of the Catholic Church, some historians close to Matica Slovenská (Slovak Heritage Trust) do too.

Could you give an example of a Catholic author who is doing this?

One example, Milan Stanislav Ďurica, SDB, belonging to the Salesian order, is a Slovak historian and theologian, professor of ecclesiastical history at the Cyril and Methodius Faculty of Divinity of Comenius University, Bratislava.

In my book Antisemitism in Slovak Politics (1989–1999) I reported that 1995 saw the publication by the Slovak Pedagogical Publishing House (SPN) of Milan Ďurica´s A History of Slovakia and the Slovaks, immediately followed, in 1996, by a second edition. The selection of so-called facts is made in such a way as to imply an exaggerated importance of the Catholic Church hierarchy´s role in the creation and progress of the Slovak nation and of the contribution of Hlinka, Tiso, the Slovak state and so on. The anti-Semitic mien is particularly blatant in some of the “facts” for 1942. The data from March 25 of the same year states that the first two transports left for Poland and were “of young girls of working age. In the following transports, Jewish young men and girls were taken alternately, about 8000 in all.” Then Ďurica writes, “So as not to sever family ties, from April 11th they also began to deport entire families.” A History of Slovakia and the Slovaks – this historical travesty – was commissioned in a print run of 90 000 copies by the ministry of education and distributed free to the country´s schools. Ďurica writes as if he was still living in the Slovak state.

In a laudatory contribution entitled The Creation and Duration of the First Slovak State, Ďurica denies that Hitler was a Nazi dictator and contends, rather, that along with Stalin he was one of “two socialist dictators.” Ďurica does mention the “morally inexcusable removal of Jews to Germany” but claims that only Tuka and the Germans were to blame for that. Ďurica also wrote an article about Jozef Tiso, who according to him was a good priest who supposedly did not inject politics into his sermons. When Tiso visited Berlin, the leader of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, always saw to it that “the priest Tiso could celebrate Holy Mass.”

Ďurica endeavors to prove that:

— Tiso, the Catholic Church in Slovakia, and the state had nothing to do with fascism and Holocaust;

— Church leders did not partake in the exercise of power;

— Tiso and the church were merely some sort of appendage and victim of the Prime Minister, Dr. Tuka;

— Tiso and the church saved the majority of Jews.

In his book The History of Slovaks and Slovakia, Ďurica quotes from a reply of Tiso [10 January 1945] to a letter from the International Red Cross asking to halt deportation. Tiso argued that Slovakia stopped deportation of Jews in autumn 1942. However, when the Slovak National Uprising broke out (he refers it as the “partisan uprising”) most of the Jews – including those who had lived and worked in freedom – joined the partisans. The Jews had thus openly rebelled against the Slovak state. The Germans dealt with detained Jews as with an enemy.

This reveals the despicable character of Jozef Tiso and Slovak National Socialism. The Jews brought the Jewish Code and the confiscation of their property upon themselves. They were responsible for the fact that, for nearly four years, Slovak fascists headed by Tiso, the Populists and the Catholic Church hierarchy, with the help of the Nazis, eliminated and murdered the Jewish minority. Tiso a “leader,” a priest and a quisling, who actually admired Nazism, accuses what was left of the Jews of being responsible for their fate.

Ďurica excuses by a selective manipulation of facts the Holocaust of Slovak Jews and clerical fascism, and veils its essence. It is a shame that the Catholic Church gives prominence to the views of historians such as Milan S. Ďurica, a “distinguished academic and expert from abroad.”

What happened to Tiso, after the liberation of Slovakia?

Tiso fled to Austria and was hiding in Kremsmünster monastery; Cardinal Faulhaber protected him several weeks in Münich. He was arrested by the Americans and extradited to Czechoslovakia. In a Bratislava tribunal, he showed no remorse. When shown films about of Nazi concentration camps he did not look at the screen and said he had nothing to do with it. He was condemned to death and executed in 1947. This took place before the communists ruled the country. He was charged mainly because of his act of treason against the CSR and his collaboration with the Nazis.

Does the Catholic Church try to rehabilitate other clerical-fascist priests?

Yes, mainly Bishop Jan Vojtaššák, who advocated in the state council the deportation of Jews and took part in the “aryanization” of Jewish property [a process of transferring Jewish assets to hand of non-Jews in accordance with the specially approved law] in favor of his own diocese.

Pope John Paul II proposed during his visit of Slovakia in 1995 the beatification of Vojtaššák, because of his being a victim of communism. He died in 1965 two years after his release from prison. However they do not mention why he was in prison. Vojtaššák was deputy chairperson of the Slovak state council where he advocated the deportation of Jews. In one case as documented in the book The Tragedy of Slovak Jews, which was published in 1946, two years before the communists came to power, his speech on 3 February 1943 is quoted:

“In Spišské Podhradie there is a Jew. No economic considerations are needed there. He’s the biggest Hungarian Bolshevik, a communist from way back. People are indignant, all the Jews are supposed to have been taken away, but that cancer is still here, they say. He used to be a taxi driver. It was exactly during the revolutionary times that he became the owner of a soda water factory. He (Lörincz) is still there.”

The Director of the XIV Department of the Interior Ministry responsible for Jewish affairs and for deportation, Dr. [Anton] Vašek, replied: “So that you know, illustrious State Council, how responsively we deal with things. I will immediately take this complaint to the office and deal with it.”

Vojtaššák and his bishopric aryanised the Baldovce spa. This act is recorded in the land register and is a fact. The bishop’s office called for the “exclusion of Jews from economic and social life.” Nor did Vojtaššák ever oppose any other decision by Tiso and the Council of State.

The beatification of Vojtaššák would inevitably blemish the name of the Church in Slovakia and would amount to the acclamation of anti-Semitism.

Are there Catholics who are critical of this attitude?

The theologian Miroslav Kocúr regards it as inappropriate to rationalize the wrongs committed on any emotional grounds whatsoever, and sees the repetition of powerful waves of resentment as regrettable. “The fact that the Slovak state first stripped sixty thousand people of their citizenship and then sent them to certain death can simply not be relativized, regardless of the criteria we apply. The only thing to be done is to state once and for all that was a moral, political and legal evil.” As a “theologian raised in the Catholic tradition” he said, “We must own up to all failings. The Church would lose nothing by this. To the contrary, this cleansing process could enable it to look strengthened to the future.”

Can one today – when only about 2,000- 4,000 Jews live here – win votes in an election with anti-Semitism?

Open anti-Semitism is a domain for extremist groups that are marginal elements. No party can gain voters today with anti-Semitic agitation. Extremists use explicit anti-Semitic language mainly on their websites. There is also anti-Zionism present in leftist circles and slogans against Israel come from them, denying the right of the Jewish state to self-defense. Their approach is sometimes quite sophisticated.

Anti-Semitism is not only a problem of the small Jewish community but of one of the Slovak society. Does the Slovak government confront honestly the evil past?

An official statement 70 years after the Slovak uprising started on 29 August 1944 says, “The Slovak armed struggle against Nazism was also a fight for the Slovaks’ own national existence.” The Slovaks demonstrated their national growth and inner self-consciousness through the Uprising, which was triggered by the decision to end their vassal dependency on Nazi Germany. Indeed this day is national holiday in Slovakia and there is no way back to clerical fascism. The government is subsidizing our museum, which is visited by many school classes, and Slovak teachers learn at Yad Vashem how to teach about the Holocaust. Next January the Museum of Holocaust will be opened at the location of former concentration camp in Sered, a project with the help of the Jewish Museum of Bratislava.