On September 9, 1941, the parliament of "independent" Slovakia - a Nazi puppet state - ratified the Jewish Codex, a series of laws and regulations that stripped Slovakia's 80,000 Jews of their civil rights and all means of economic survival and in effect placed them beyond the bounds of law and society. The government press - the only press in Slovakia at the time - boasted that the Codex was even more severe than the Nazis' Nuremberg Laws.
The expulsion of Slovakia's Jews to the death camps that began six months later, in March 1942, was merely the natural and almost necessary outcome of the Codex. After taking their property and leaving them penniless, the fascist Slovak leadership was so impatient to be rid of the Jews that it paid the Nazis DM 500 in exchange for each expelled Jew and a promise that the deportees would never return to Slovakia. The decision by Slovakia to initiate and pay for the expulsion was unprecedented among the satellite states of Nazi Germany.
Exactly 60 years after the beginning of the annihilation of Slovakia's Jews, a moment has come that many Slovak Holocaust survivors have awaited, and which came too late for many. Slovakia is commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, for the first time ever on a state level, with the participation of all heads of government and in the presence of a high-level Israeli delegation.
The events began last Thursday, with Knesset Speaker Avraham Burg as the guest of honor. In the Museum of the National Uprising in the city of Banska Bystrica, which in 1944 was the center of the anti-fascist revolt, a documentary on the Holocaust of the Slovakian Jews was screened, a recently-published book by a Holocaust survivor was presented and an exhibition, "Israel and Us," was opened. On Friday, a symposium, "Racist Hatred in the Past and the Present," was held. A book bearing the same title, published jointly by the Museum of Jewish Culture in Slovakia (part of the Slovak National Museum) and the Slovakian Academy of Sciences, was put on display. The events continued through yesterday, with the screening of additional documentaries.
Today, the anniversary of the ratification of the Jewish Codex, a wreath-laying ceremony will take place at the base of the memorial in Kremnica, the site of the common grave of hundreds of Jews who were executed by the Nazis at the time of the revolt, including the local female volunteer paratrooper Haviva Reik. The wreaths will be placed by Slovakian President Rudolf Schuster and an Israeli delegation led by Deputy Knesset Speaker Shmuel Halpert and MK Yossi Katz (Labor), chairman of the Slovakian Friendship Association at the Knesset.
Tomorrow, the focus of events will shift to the Slovak capital, Bratislava. "The Reconciliation," a memorial sculpture by an Italian artist, will be dedicated, and both Schuster and Burg will lay wreaths at the base of a memorial plaque commemorating the Holocaust at Fishermen's Square, which had been the center of the city's Jewish quarter. Burg will meet separately with Schuster, Parliament Speaker Jozef Migas and Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, and he will chair the award ceremony for people who made a special contribution to the struggle against anti-Semitism.
The Slovak government took pains to give these ceremonies all the trappings of state and to honor the memory of the victims and survivors of the Holocaust, but this was not a one-time event. The activities of the Jewish museum are generously supported, and the government helps the Jewish communities to preserve their properties and to renovate and maintain their cemeteries. Efforts are also made to impart the lessons of the Holocaust to the country's youth. Slovakia was one of the first countries to involve Israeli and Jewish historians in the preparation of textbooks on the subject.
What is the meaning of this sudden awakening? True, Slovakia's foreign policy agenda is guided by a desire to guarantee the country's acceptance into NATO and the European Union; denouncing anti-Semitism and taking steps to commemorate the Holocaust are good moves for any state wishing to be part of the European Community. But it would be unfair to attribute only political and opportunistic motives to the current Slovakian leadership.
Slovakia's situation after World War II was unique. During the war, its collaborationist government served Nazi Germany and was its faithful ally. But in the national revolt of 1944 the Slovaks rallied to the Czechoslovakian Republic, and at the end of the war, the fate of Slovakia was different from that of defeated Nazi puppet states such as Hungary or Romania; as part of Czechoslovakia, it was included among the victors.
The paradoxical result of this development was that the Slovaks took a ride with the Czechs and saved themselves from the need to account before the world for what was done in their country during the war. Slovakia thus avoided questioning the morality of its actions regarding the Holocaust and the fate of the Jews as well.
Later, after the Communist regime came to power in Czechoslovakia, and when relations with Israel were strained, the problem of the Holocaust once more was hushed up - in particular after the Slansky trials [in which 11 Czechs, eight of them Jews, including the head of the Communist party there, were executed for their supposed role in a Zionist-American plot]. The Jewish identity of the Jews involved was played up.
There was another side to this. The more the Communist state demonstrated hostility toward Israel and (under the guise of hostility to Zionism) to the Jews, the more Czech and Slovak intellectuals saw their attitude to anti-Semitism and Israel as a matter of conscience. The support for Israel following the Six-Day War in 1967 was one of the significant factors that pushed Czechoslovakia into the 1968 "Prague Spring"; and demands to restore diplomatic relations with Israel were voiced in the earliest demonstrations in Czechoslovakia during Communist Party First Secretary Alexander Dubcek's "Spring" era.
The issue of the attitude to Israel and the Holocaust remained on the agenda even after the Soviet invasion and suppression of the "Spring." In 1987, before the collapse of the Soviet regime appeared on the horizon, dozens of Slovak intellectuals published a manifesto expressing regret for the Slovaks' role in the Holocaust and called for a moral accounting and reconciliation. The current minister of justice, Jan Carnogursky - until recently the head of the Christian Democratic Party - was among those who signed the appeal, as were other present-day government leaders.
Before reaching the stage of national self-examination over the Holocaust, another obstacle had to be removed. After the collapse of the Communist regime, and in particular, after 1993 when Czechoslovakia was dissolved and the Slovak and Czech republics were established, many exiles who had fled Slovakia at the end of the war returned. Many were "refugees" from the fascist regime who remained faithful to its guiding principles.
A struggle began in Slovakia - which is still continuing - over the question of which heritage the Slovak Republic should adopt: that of the fascist Slovak state from the wartime era, as the returning refugees and their followers want, or the heritage of the anti-fascist national revolt of 1944 that democratic forces seek. The attitude to the Jews, Israel and the Holocaust is part of the political battle over the character of Slovakia. In this context, too, the state memorial ceremonies are worthy of mention.