A Town Apologizes to Jews for post-Holocaust Attack

Unhappy that local Jews had come home after the war, hundreds of Topolcany residents took to the streets and brutally beat local Jews, including children, seriously injuring 48.

Set against the monumental backdrop of the Holocaust, the account of an autumn 1945 attack on Jews in this quiet Slovak town could easily have been forgotten as a minor footnote.

But this week an unusual apology to Slovakia's Jews from Topolcany leaders enriched the 60-year-old saga and ensured its survival as a special chapter of Holocaust history.

Topolcany Mayor Pavol Seges led a delegation that, at a town hall ceremony, read a formal letter of apology for an organized pogram against local Jews who had just returned from concentration camps after the end of World War II.

"We the elected representatives of the citizens of Topolcany express our deepest sorrow for an act that, in our modern history, is unprecedented for its inhumanity and wickedness," the apology letter said in part.

It was the first apology of its kind in Slovakia, where a German puppet government helped the Nazis kill about 65,000 of the country's 90,000 Jews during World War II.

Today only about 3,000 Jews live in Slovakia, according to the Bratislava-based Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities (UZZNO).

Attending the ceremony were community leaders and several elderly Jews - including a woman in her 90's and a man in his 70's - who survived the street beatings of September 24, 1945, that left dozens of people injured and convinced local Holocaust survivors to abandon Topolcany.

"We are aware that all in Topolcany are guilty," Seges said at the ceremony, addressing survivors as well as children and grandchildren of former Jewish residents.

"Please, the representatives of the town and citizens of the town beg your forgiveness."

The victims were among the 10 per cent of the town's pre-war Jewish population that had returned from liberated concentration camps just a few months or even weeks earlier.

Provoked by a rumour that a Jewish doctor was poisoning schoolchildren and unhappy that local Jews had come home after the war, hundreds of Topolcany residents took to the streets and brutally beat local Jews, including children, seriously injuring 48.

No one died in the attack, but the anti-Semitic sentiment was strong enough to drive out the Holocaust survivors and their families forever. Today the farming town of 30,000 has no Jews.

Before town officials decided to write the apology, the pogram was an unmentionable stain on local consciences rarely cited in local history.

But those consciences were apparently pricked by a documentary film about the beatings aired last year on Slovakia's public television station STV, said Robert Haas, editor of the Jewish newsletter Delet.

The apology "was a surprise" and the first in the country, Haas said. "Usually people don't like to say 'we are sorry' because it's like saying 'we did it'. But maybe the film helped."

And the country's small Jewish community appreciated the gesture. Among those praising town officials for the ceremony and apology was UZZNO Director Frantisek Alexander.

"It was a great event done from a full heart of all those concerned," Alexander said. "They couldn't do any more."

Since Topolcany was not the only Slovak town to turn against its Jewish neighbours, Alexander said efforts toward reconciling communities with their wartime past are continuing.

Yet he admits, "They're not all interested. I'm not naive. It is a slow process."