Editorial - October 2005
Rosh Hashanah 5766
• Solidarity and Redemption
• Quo Vadis Israel ?
• Sensitivity and Determination
• Antisemitism and Alternative History
• The Return of Antisemitism in Europe
• The Europa Plan
• The Jewish Resistance
• From Auschwitz to Urdorf
Ethic and Judaism
• Who should pray and bless ?
Alexander Bachnar. (Photo: Bethsabée Süssmann)
The history of the Shoah in Slovakia breaks down into three main categories: the deportations, forced labor (both civilian and military), and the role played by Jewish partisans in the Slovak revolt against the Germans and the government of Jozef Tiso. The complexity of this history is rendered even more incomprehensible by the geographic position of this little country.
A quick glance at a map of Slovakia lets one readily imagine what the position of the Jewish community was during the Shoah. The country shares borders with Austria, the Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine and Hungary, all countries where the Germans, aided and abetted by the local populations, exterminated hundreds of thousands of Jews. The leaders of the Bratislava-based puppet state, which was totally controlled by the Germans, came to the conclusion that setting up internment and labor concentration camps was an excellent solution to partly solve the Jewish question in Slovakia. Very quickly the 80,000 Jews living in the country were declared “enemies of the State and of the nation”. The concentration system was adopted almost immediately as the way to eliminate such “enemies”. This was a typical approach of those dictatorships that declared that “work is a modern way to restrict personal freedom”, from which emerged the notorious “Arbeit macht frei” slogan. It in fact represented one of the most treacherous forms of persecution. In this way the Jews of Slovakia were progressively deprived of their political, economic, social and civil rights, and eventually of their most basic human rights. It was the country’s elite that came up with the idea of concentration camps for the Jews. They reckoned that the Jews were their main enemy and wanted to isolate them from the rest of the Slovak population, by locking them up in forced labor camps. This was in line with the anti-Semitic, populist Hlinkas Party (HSSP-Hlinkova slovnska l’udova strans – HSL’S), which long before the creation of the Slovak state had declared in its platform “forced labor punishes the Jews”. The first labor camps for Jews were opened by the army in 1939. In an order dated 21 June 1939, all Jewish soldiers had to quit their army units and join special labor units. In due course, three camps were set up in Slovakia, at Novaky, Sered and Vyhne. These camps operated in parallel with the deportations, and on 1st January 1943 2,574 Jews were interned in them. Contrary to being included within the army’s labor battalions, being a prisoner in these camps afforded no protection against deportation. Further, it is interesting to note that from 1943 production capacity in the various camp workshops grew steadily and made an important contribution to the Slovak state’s economy. The camps became sort of small profit centers, and in July 1943, the Novaky camp brought in 500,000 Slovak crowns, which at that time was a considerable amount of money. The camps were well-organized production units and manufactured everything the various ministries (army, police, customs, transportation etc) required, at a minimal cost. This extraordinary productivity was simply due to the fact that in order not to go crazy from doing nothing, the prisoners needed to keep as busy as possible.
It was within these concentration camps that the Jewish resistance first got organized. In Bratislava we met ALEXANDER BACHNAR, who had originally been sent to a camp to work as a teacher, and who later became one of the commanders of the Jewish resistance. Mr. Bachnar was born 85 years ago in Topolcani, a town of 8,500 inhabitants, of whom 2,900 were Jewish. Today he remains very active and happy to recount how he lived and survived as a Jew through the convulsions of recent Slovak history. Much has happened in his life, but we asked him to summarize for us what he did during WW2 and what his life was like at that time.
Could you describe for us the highlights of the role played by the Jewish resistance in Slovakia during World War Two?
Firstly, you should know that Jews played a key role in the Slovak resistance. In 1939 there was already an anti-Fascist group, most of whose members were Jewish. From 1942 a group of partisans was active in Slovakia, of which most were also Jewish. Many Jews joined these groups for the simple reason that they had been expelled from their homes and had nowhere to go. I would remind you that the Germans did not really set up in Slovakia until 1944. Up till then, German “advisors”, led by one of Eichmann’s assistants, Obersturmbannführer Dieter Wisliceny, operated at every level of the officially independent Slovak government. And it should be emphasized that all the deportations were organized by the Germans, but in practice carried out by the Slovaks themselves.
I was a member of the well-known 6th Battalion, which was a euphemism for a gaggle of slaves rigged out in uniform. I should say that the Labor Corps was set up in 1941. It was made up of two units, one in the east, the other in the west, of six battalions and twenty-four labor detachments. Gypsies and Jews were put into the western group, in a labor troop known as the 6th Battalion, which in turn was divided into three sub-sections: Jews, Gypsies and “anti-social elements”, who were in fact criminals. Jews did not have the same uniforms as the others, but got old, worn-out clothes that had been dyed blue. Slovak officers and soldiers were not allowed to have contacts with us, and everything was done to isolate us. Because of the imposition of anti-Jewish laws, the Jewish part was much the largest, and in May 1942 we numbered 1,062 Jews as compared with 263 Gypsies. At the beginning the camp was near Vranov, but as the front moved it too moved frequently. At one point we were spread out over the entire country to build military camps, canals near the Danube and other works. There were many communists and Zionists in this battalion, in particular members of Hashomer Hatzair and Maccabi Hatzair, who immediately took steps to prepare for resistance. When the deportations began, the young Jews in their twenties who were in the labor battalions decided not to allow themselves to be deported without a fight. The forced labor was divided into two parts, one military with labor battalions like ours, and the other civilian, where Jews were often placed prior to deportation. When the deportations were complete, the day after Yom Kippur 1942, our battalion was dissolved and we were combined with the so-called civilian camps. I was sent to Novaky, where we were given illicit money by the camp management and some Jewish organizations. We used this money to buy weapons from the partisans and even from Slovak soldiers, who had no compunction about selling us theirs. At the same time we carried out real military exercises at night, in order to learn how to handle our weapons. The Slovak national revolt broke out on 29 August 1944. Since we were well prepared, we took over our camp. The guards belonged to the Slovak gendarmerie, most of whom joined the revolt. On that occasion the camp commander made a speech. “Young people (we were no longer slaves), I knew you had weapons… but I didn’t know you had so many!” This was a man who overall had behaved properly towards the Jews, and later on I gave evidence on his behalf. We formed a combat unit and were part of the shock troops of the Slovak army right from the start. We fought the Germans and many of our comrades fell on the field of honor. We were the only group of Jews to have been incorporated into the army as a self-contained unit. At the other camps only individual fighters joined up with the Slovak rebels. I should mention that of the 250 Jews in our group, 38 never came back. Proportionally this was a very high number, and I do not think there was any other group in the Slovak resistance army or among the partisans who paid such a high price in human lives. According to the Jewish Slovak historian, Ladislas Lipcher, who has written a book on the subject, about 1,500 Jews took part on the resistance and the revolt. My description of the period would be incomplete if I did not speak about the extremely important role played by Jewish doctors. There was not a single partisan unit or revolutionary army unit that did not have a Jewish doctor. About 120 of them were thus occupied. As part of Slovak deportation policy, those people deemed “useful” were not deported, and both doctors and vets of course fell into this category. Another profession that played a very important role was Jewish engineers. They took an active part in the design and construction of an armored train and an airfield.
What did your unit do during the war?
I was given the command of a platoon of 30 men. Our unit was later divided in two, the larger part being incorporated into a group of Russians partisans, while my company was sent to another region, some 80 km from Bratislava, in a Soviet company. We took an active part in the last battles against the Germans and happily I lost none of my men.
Can you tell us a bit about what life was like in the camp?
I’ll tell you about Novaky, which at the beginning was not a work camp but a concentration camp, from which five or six transports were sent to the death camps. These totaled 5,900 Jews, some of whom left on the last transport, which took place on Yom Kippur 1942. Even though we lived in over-crowded camps, in dreadful living conditions with very strict discipline, what weighed on us the most was the boredom. The Jews were motivated by just one thing, “to work well to survive and remain in the camp”. As you know, us Jews are never satisfied just doing manual work, even though seventeen different trades were actually practiced in the camp. Our brains had to work too. In order to maintain a semblance of “normal” life, we organized cultural, educational and sporting activities. In the evenings many comrades tried to use the time to further their education, and in this way there were courses in the Slovak language, literature, history and other subjects. I was not deported because I was a schoolteacher, and as such considered “useful”. As a teacher, the Ministry of Education sent me in April 1942 to the school at the Labor Camp, which was excellent and had 120 students! First I was a teacher there before becoming the principal.
At the end of the war you had been in the resistance, you had lived under the anti-Jewish laws and you had witnessed the deportations. What’s more, you were armed. Did you take the opportunity to avenge the deported Jews by killing those responsible for their deaths or those who had put them on the death trains?
We had absolutely no ideas of that kind, nor did we harbor thoughts of vengeance. We did not want to become executioners, which would have served no purpose and would have been counter to all the values for which we had fought.
Do you still continue the struggle today?
Between 1989-1995 I was the Secretary General of the National Anti-Fascist Committee. In this capacity I worked to have the idea of combat against all forms of fascism not just taught in schools, but especially to teachers, for whom I organized many seminars. Today I still speak, provide evidence and teach class about what we lived through. It is above all most important to recall that in Slovakia the Jews were attacked very actively. Before the revolt there was nothing we could do, but as soon as we could use our weapons, we didn’t hesitate for a moment. You should be aware that combatants from 29 nationalities took part in the Slovak insurrection, of which one was Jewish, which proportionally had the largest number of victims. Today I do everything I can so that our struggle at that time will serve as an example and inspire the youth. I have to do this because I am Jewish. I owe it to those who fought at my side and lost their lives. This is a much healthier, more effective and more constructive approach than to simply take revenge. In point of fact, it’s our very best vengeance.
During and following the Slovak revolt, the German Einsatzgruppen murdered thousands of Jews. The insurrection ended on 28 October 1944, and from that date until March 1945, “as a punishment for their part in the revolt”, 13,500 Jewish Slovaks were deported to Auschwitz, Sachsenhausen and Theresienstadt. On the eve of the Liberation, 4,000-5,000 Jews were living in hiding in Slovakia or posing as Aryans with forged papers. The total number of Jews deported from Slovakia was about 100,000. About 25,000 survived, of whom most left the country and many settled in Israel.