1945: Holocaust Survivors Attacked in Czech Village

Simmering resentment against survivors who sought restoration of their property exploded in an anti-Semitic rampage.

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Town hall in Topoľčany, SlovakiaCredit: Wikipedia Commons

On September 24, 1945, the tiny Jewish population of Topolcany, Czechoslovakia - those members of the community who had survived the Holocaust and returned to their hometown – found themselves the victims of an anti-Semitic rampage.

No one was killed in the day of violence, but 47 Jews were wounded, a third of whom required hospitalization.

No less disturbing was that the response of the Slovakian authorities, both of security forces during the pogrom itself and in the aftermath, in the response to the incident of the newly reconstituted Czechoslovakian state, demonstrated an antipathy to the Jews. A typical attitude expressed, even in official discussions, was that the Jews had brought the pogrom onto themselves.

Before World War II, Topolcany, situated some 80 kms to the west of Bratislava, was a town of some 12,000, a quarter of whom were Jews, the remainder Catholic Slovaks. The Jews, nearly all of whom were ultra-Orthodox, filled the ranks of the town’s merchants. The Christians were for the most part farmers, and the two groups had little contact beyond their commercial transactions. “Anti-semitism was rife, but largely latent,” the historian Yehoshua R. Buchler observed.

During the war, when Slovakia was governed by a Nazi puppet regime (while Germany either annexed or occupied the Czech part of the country), it willingly assisted the Germans in the deportation of 70,000 of the country’s 90,000 Jews. Sixty-five thousand of them were murdered in the Holocaust.

The Jews come back

After liberation, somewhere between 500 and 700 of Topolcany’s Jews returned to the town. Most had escaped from the Novaky labor camp and survived in the forests. They were not greeted warmly, if only because many of them were requesting the return of property that had been expropriated by others during their absence.

In his essay in the collection “The Jews Are Coming Back: The Return of the Jews to the Countries of Origin after WWII,” historian Buchler describes how a “coalition” of right-wing fascist sympathizer and left-wing partisans combined to scare away the returning Jews from Topolcany by way of “innumerable anti-Jewish provocations, demonstrations, acts of looting, and assaults,” with the climax of these being the pogrom.

Throughout the summer preceding the September riot, anti-Semitic graffiti appeared regularly in the streets of Topolcany, reports historian Anna Cichopek-Gajraj. Shortly before the incident, a rumor circulated that the local Catholic school was about to be nationalized – and that the teachers being sent in to the school were Jews.

On the morning of the 24th, a group of mothers appeared at the Topolcany offices of the national government to protest, before moving on to the school, where, the same day a doctor – Jewish as it turned out, named Karol Berger – was vaccinating children.

Word quickly spread that Dr. Berger was poisoning the children, some of whom were crying – a reaction to the injections, if not to the angry mob outside.The physician was dragged from the school and delivered to the protesters.

A call from the government office to Bratislava, an hour’s drive away, requesting police reinforcements, went out at 9:30 A.M., but no help arrived before 6:15 that evening. By that time the pogrom, which left 47 people injured, had died down.

Sixty years later, in October 2005, the mayor of Topolcany, Pavol Seges led a ceremony at the town hall in which a formal letter of apology was read out for the abuses of 1945.

By then, there were no longer any Jews living in the town, but the audience included some survivors as well as descendants of former Jewish residents. To them, Seges declared:”We are aware that all in Topolcany are guilty. “Please, the representatives of the town and citizens of the town beg your forgiveness.”