Slovakia came close to a green rating. Its government seems committed to Holocaust remembrance, including the responsibility of its puppet wartime government. But resistance from the Church and the emergence of a far-right fascistic party explains the caution yellow rating.
Slovakia infamously paid Germany for the service of taking away its Jews - 500 German
marks per person. Whereas its neighbors to the north and west, Poland and the Czech
Republic, can claim that they were occupied and without autonomy, the Slovaks had their
own country and elected to join Hitler’s war effort.
Holocaust revisionism in Slovakia revolves around how to consider the wartime republic. The far-right claims that the wartime state, essentially a Nazi puppet regime, was the first
independent Slovak state and should be celebrated. The main proponent of this narrative is the far-right party Kotleba. It is anti-Islam, anti-immigrant, and its members have been known to embrace dress, speech, and symbols linked with Nazism. In the last parliamentary elections, Kotleba won 8 percent of the vote.
Question marks remain over the Church. So far, it has far refused to censure the wartime state’s leader, Jozef Tiso, who was an ordained priest.
At the same time, the institutions of government and civilian life seem to be intent on
improvement. The government supports education programs and teaching training seminars, participates in international remembrance occasions, and has taken significant steps toward financial restitution.
The Holocaust in Slovakia
The Nazis invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938. Hitler established the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from what remained of the Czech lands and invited Slovak leader Jozef Tiso to Berlin to talk about the future of Slovak independence. After consulting with the Slovak parliament, Tiso agreed to align with the Reich. Slovakia joined the Axis powers in 1940.
At the beginning of the war, Slovakia was home to nearly 89,000 Jews, a large portion of whom lived in Bratislava. From the beginning of the Nazi-backed Slovak State, official measures were taken to discriminate against them. In March of 1942, Slovakia began deporting its Jewish population. The Hlinka Guard militia along with Slovak police and the Slovak branch of the Volunteer SS carried out the deportations to work camps in Slovakia and then to the border where German officials took over. It was the first Axis country to agree to deport its Jews, and one of only two in the war that paid Germany a ‘relocation’ fee for each Jew deported. Allegedly the money was to ensure deportees’ living conditions in their new homes.
When the Catholic Church’s Bratislava representative informed Tiso that the Nazis were
murdering the deported Slovak Jews, the deportations were halted. Slovakia became a
relatively safe place for Jews to reside for a time. In August 1944, democrats and Communists undertook an unsuccessful armed insurrection aimed at overthrowing the Nazi puppet state. In retaliation, the Nazis began a full military occupation of the country and resumed deportations of the Jews. More than half of the country’s remaining Jews were deported by the SS and thousands other were killed by the Slovak Hlinka Guard or the SS.
The Red Army occupied Slovakia in April 1945, driving out the Nazis shortly before the end of the war in Europe. In total, more than 70,000 of Slovakia’s 89,000 Jews were killed. The vast majority of survivors emigrated after the war. Today, about 3,000 Jews live in Slovakia, with the largest communities in Bratislava and Košice.
- June 1945: Czechoslovakia reestablished.
- 1946-47: Trials held for war criminals. Tiso executed.
- 1948: Czechoslovakia incorporated as a Soviet Socialist Republic.
- 1952: Communists hold Slánský trials against ‘bourgeois nationalists.’ 11 Jews (out of
14 total defendants) convicted of conspiracy and are mostly executed.
- 1968: Following the Prague Spring, the country is under military occupation until 1989.
- 1989: Czechoslovakia secedes from Soviet Union.
- 1990: Slovak government passes “Declaration on the deportation of Jews from Slovakia
to concentration camps in 1942 and 1944” apologizing for the crimes committed against
- 1993: Czechoslovakia dissolves in the “Velvet Divorce” and the first independent Slovak
state is formed.
- 1993: First President of the Slovak Republic weeps apologetically at opening of USHMM
in Washington DC.
- 2000: Slovakia begins commemorating victims of the Holocaust and racial persecution
on September 9 th , the anniversary of the passing of the Jewish Codex, the 1941 law that
consolidated and expanded anti-Semitic policies.
- 2001: Holocaust denial made illegal.
- 2003: Ministry of Education begins commemorating September 9 th in schools throughout
the country with field trips to museums and memorials, meetings with survivors, and
facilitated discussions about anti-Semitism.
- 2004: Slovakia joins European Union.
- 2005: Town of Topolcany officially apologizes for a pogrom which occurred there shortly
after the war.
- 2013: Catholic church begins participating in September 9 th events commemorating the
passing of the Jewish Codex.
- 2013: Marian Kotleba, leader of far-right party “Our Slovakia” becomes governor of
Banska Bystrica province.
- 2016: Sereď Holocaust Museum opened at the site of former concentration camp (the
only preserved camp in Slovakia).
- 2016: Our Slovakia party wins 14 seats in national parliament with 8% of the vote.
The current government, led by the Slovak National Party, has demonstrated a willingness to confront the facts of history and to make amends with the remaining Jewish population. Andrej Danko is the chair of the party and the Speaker of the National Slovak Council, has led the charge against Kotleba, the far-right politician whose party (“Kotleba - The People’s Party Our Slovakia”) harbors fascist tendencies.
Danko wants to create a commission of intellectuals, judges, and politicians to draw up laws that will abolish Kotleba’s party and make the formation of such groups illegal. He is pushing for the Council to adopt a motion with a clear definition of anti-Semitism. All of the other parties in parliament support him in rejecting the Kotleba party.
The Slovak government has apologized multiple times for Slovakia’s role in the Holocaust. In 2004, then Prime Minister Robert Fico said, saying “I am not able to tell you anything stronger or more personal, but that I express a sincere apology for all those that were such a failure. Only the descendants of those who suffered and died may forgive them.”
This represents a giant change. Under the Communists, no acknowledgement was offered to Jews. They had no interest in highlighting the particular experience of the Jews; it was
counterproductive to their vision of a world without religion. Under the Communists narrative, the Nazis served as the villain against all of Slovak society and highlighting the persecution of the Jews would have distracted from this point.
During the 1950s, the Communists held the Slánský trials against ‘bourgeois nationalists,’ 11 out of 14 of whom were Jews. Most of those convicted were executed. Jews had long been victim of anti-Semitic myths alleging international Jewish conspiracies, and so they were a perfect target for the Communists’ campaign against “cosmopolitanism.”
During the brief period of 1964-1968 during which Czechoslovakia began to open up a little there was a short break in the silence about the war’s Jewish victims. After the Soviet invasion, Jews stopped existing again. Only in the 1990s, following the Velvet Divorce and the formation of a truly independent Slovak state, was the country’s wartime history pried open and examined.
At first, the dominant narrative propagated by historians and laypersons alike was that Tiso had had no choice but to bow to Hitler’s pressure. The newly reemerged Catholic church made it clear that it felt Tiso should never have been executed. This led to a rehabilitation of sorts, in which even liberal politicians were sympathetic to Tiso.
This narrative has fallen out of the mainstream, driven in no small part by the pressures of the European Union’s membership requirements. While the Church has continued to stay quiet about Tiso with the exception of a few priests, the mainstream political establishment has acknowledged the country’s culpability and been supportive of efforts to improve understanding of the Holocaust in Slovakia.
Education efforts have benefited in recent years from concerted efforts by both government and NGOs. The country has a nationalized curriculum, so schools must include the history of the Shoah in their curricula, though there is a fair amount of leeway for teachers. While many teachers are eager to tackle this difficult topic, the Shoah is often taught as something that happened elsewhere, not to or in Slovakia, but rather abroad in Poland. Slovakia, the narrative goes, was merely another victim of a brutal war and subsequent Communist occupation.
Another obstacle is the country’s religious history. Because Jozef Tiso was a priest and still has standing in the Catholic community, teaching the Holocaust feels to some like an attack on a figure who remains a religious and political hero.
To its credit, the government is taking concrete steps to improve Holocaust education. It pays for seminars for teachers to learn about how to teach the Holocaust and funds free education programs for students at Sered’ Memorial and Museum located at the former labor camp.
Slovakia still lacks university level studies about Judaism. While an institute of Jewish studies existed at Comenius University in Bratislava, there was not enough interest to sustain the program.
The Sereď Holocaust Museum opened in 2016. Located at the site of a former concentration camp, the museum represents a significant achievement.
The Ministry of Culture also operates the National Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava.
Open in 1994. It documents and teaches about Jewish history in Slovakia as well as the
Holocaust In addition to hosting educational programs, performances, lectures, and seminars for teachers, the museum attracts many tourists and is visited by thousands of school children each year. The museum assists with the creation of Holocaust memorials around the country and abroad, including a permanent exhibition on Slovakia’s Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Holocaust denial has been illegal since 2001. The law states that:
who(ever) publicly denies, denies, approves or tries to justify the Holocaust, crimes of
regimes based on fascist ideology, crimes of regimes based on communist ideology or
crimes of other similar movements that use violence, the threat of violence or the threat
of other serious harm with the aim of suppressing the fundamental rights and freedoms
of persons shall be punished by imprisonment of six months to three years.
The same statute functions as both the ban on Holocaust denial and the law against siding with or denying the crimes committed by the Communists. Nazi atrocities are framed not as a unique effort to exterminate a people based on their ethnicity, but another one in a series of efforts to make life more difficult for the people living in Slovakia.
As far as public state-run archives are concerned, all materials on the Shoah are available and can be accessed by the same protocols as all other documents. This is true of archives all over the country including publicly run or funded institutions and museums. Documents are freely accessible to Slovaks and foreigners alike, and through a partnership with the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum, documents are being digitized for posterity.
Church archives are a different situation. There is no federally guaranteed access to archival
materials. Rather, the terms of access are determined on a case-by-case basis. Researchers
need to get permission from the founders of each individual site whose resources they wish to consult.
The government adopted measures to provide compensation to victims in 2002. The Jewish community was to receive 8.5 million Slovak koruna, divided into three parts: one for those living outside Slovakia in Israel, the US, and elsewhere; one to compensate for property; and one for the Slovak Jews who remained after the war. Some communal properties had been restored in 1989 but there had been a deadline to apply by and many never reclaimed their rightful property and only 10% of Jewish property was returned.
The most prominent platform for Holocaust revisionism in Slovak politics comes from Kotleba - The People’s Party Our Slovakia, which is named for its leader, Marian Kotleba. The right-wing conservative Christian party, considered by many to be bona fide neo-Nazis, wants Slovakia to leave the EU and NATO, which it has repeatedly called a terrorist organization. The party platform includes preserving “traditional Christian values instead of western liberalism which encourages atheism, materialism, consumerism, dangerous sects and sexual deviations.” It also mentions taking measures to make sure that citizens are not “terrorized by gypsy or other extremists.”
While Kotleba’s embrace of Tiso and his regime are ample evidence of the party’s problematic stance on the Holocaust, the affinities toward Nazism go even further. Only recently did Kotleba stop dressing in a uniform styled after the Hlinka Guard, the Nazi-sponsored militia of the wartime Slovak State. In addition to using the symbols of the wartime state, Kotleba and his followers have additionally been known to use greetings and sayings associated with the Nazis. For instance, he has promised to solve the problems created by “Gypsy parasites.”
Kotleba’s MP Stanislav Mizik was recently tried in court for hate speech after a Facebook post appeared on his account criticized the President’s decision to bestow honors on Jewish Slovaks. The post claimed that such an act “turns logic on its head (because the nation’s founders) had a negative relationship to the Jews due to their selling out of the Slovak nation, usury and also because of religious issues.” Mizik was ultimately found not guilty after the judge ruled it could not be definitely established whether Mizik was the one who has posted the text in question to his account.
The Church has a troubled relationship to the Holocaust in Slovakia, as Jozef Tiso, the leader of the Nazi-aligned state, was a priest in addition to a politician. As a result, there has been a struggle since the war ended over how to properly remember Tiso. Because of the Church’s historic protection of Tiso as one of their own, interfaith reconciliation has perhaps been slower to get off the ground in Slovakia than in other countries such as, say, Poland, where there is a long if not popular tradition of Christians embracing their own moral responsibility to the Jews and the crimes committed against them. See Czeslaw Milosz’ 1943 poem “A Poor Christian Looks at the Ghetto” or John Paul II’s 1979 speech at Auschwitz.
After 1989, the Church voiced strong criticism of Tiso’s 1947 execution, saying that it had been wrong to kill a priest, regardless of his role in the wartime state. In 1990, Bishop Ján Korec (who has since been made a Cardinal) inaugurated an elementary school named for Tiso in his hometown. The Church, in a response that would be repeated time and again in such situations, stated that it was Korec’s individual initiative, declining either to support or excoriate Tiso.
This pro-Tiso sentiment clearly has not disappeared. In 2007, Korec said of Tiso, “I would say he foiled, and wanted to foil, many bad things,” and in 2008, Ján Sokol, Archbishop of Trnava celebrated a mass on the anniversary of Tiso’s execution. Again, Church officials declined to cast judgement, merely referencing the Church’s regular practice of honoring priests and referring and further questions or criticism to Sokol.
While Catholic officials began attending the September 9 commemoration Holocaust
remembrance exercises in 2013, the Church continues to avoid commenting on Tiso’s legacy. In 2014, Catholic priest Emil Floris said during a ceremony to commemorate the National Slovak Uprising: “they took the Jews to concentration camps. And do you know why? Because there was hatred toward them, but those who are hated often do it to themselves.” In a country as deeply religious as Slovakia, the Church exercises an outsized influence. It’s reticence to officially address the terror inflicted by Tiso not only reveals its attitude towards its own role in the war, but additionally suggests a larger resistance by Slovaks generally to come to terms with their history.
A slew of organizations research, commemorate, and teach about the Holocaust in Slovakia. In Bratislava, the Jewish Community Museum, located in an old synagogue and run by the community offers seminars and workshops to students about the Shoah. The Holocaust Documentation Center civic association, affiliated with the Federated Jewish Communities of Slovakia, conducts research and prepares educational materials not only on the Holocaust but also on topics such as xenophobia and racism.
EDAH is an NGO that creates educational films about Jewish history in addition to completing research and maintaining memorials (and identifying prospective ones). The Milan Šimečka Foundation holds educational programs and has even created an online training course for teachers called “Holocaust as a Tool in Attitude Education.”
There are also stolpersteine (stumbling stones) commemorating the homes where Jews lived before being deported, sponsored by various organizations and individuals.
Since 1989, there have always been a few anti-Semitic publications. Today, one called Zem & Vek (Earth and Age), a typically anti-Western, pro-Russian publication fond of castigating all-powerful Jews and the LGBT community, such as in one issue titled “Israel, Holocaust, and anti-Semitism: On the Altar of Zionism.” The main personality behind the publication, Tibor Eliot Rostás, is an admirer of Vladimir Putin and Zem & Vek has received Russian funds.
Such publications represent the fringe of the media landscape, though, and should not be taken as indicative of the overall climate. According to Professor Pavol Mešťan, Director of the Museum of Jewish Culture, “Journalists in the majority of newspapers and magazines, and in electronic media as well, have accomplished a great deal of work in commemorating and remembering the history of the Jews in the period of the Holocaust with profiles and memories of the people who personally went through the ordeal.”
The two rabbis working in Bratislava are transplants from abroad. They have come to Slovakia to help lead a revival. According to the website maintained by the community, “Bratislava does not have any special kosher stores or restaurants. To purchase kosher food, we either follow kosher lists compiled by the rabbinate or travel to kosher shops in Vienna.”
The community is quite small – about 3,000 in Slovakia and just 500-800 in Bratislava – and
according to those interviewed for this report, today Jews live in peace for the most part. The main targets of the alt-right’s bigotry are clearly the Roma and the (almost nonexistent) refugee population of Slovakia.
-Author: Jeremy Epstein