Monday, July 8, 2013

Jewish History in Slovakia

Nadene Goldfoot
Jews in Slovakia?  Who has ever heard of Slovakia?  It's not a part of the Pale of Russia where Jews were allowed to live by Catherine II's decree, because she did not allow Jews to live in Russia.  Evidently Slovakia was not a part of the Russian empire though Poland Ukraine were in the Pale.

Romans crossed the Danube River in the 2nd century CE and occupied a strip of southern Slovakia, and indications are that Jews followed the Roman legions there first as slaves, then soldiers and later as merchants.  When the Romans left, so did the Jews.  Jews didn't return until the 9th century and are mentioned among the people of the Great Moravian Empire (833-907) which covered most of Slovakia.  It is said that Jews ran a slave trade and others imported goods from the Mediterranean lands.

In the 11th century the Magyars conquered Slovakia and it became a part of the Hungarian kingdom.  Jews lived in small groups mainly in rural villages and worked in agriculture. At the same time, there were the Crusades and harsh persecution of Jews by the Bohemian king Vratislav II which led to the migration of Jews from Bohemia, Germany and Austria to Hungary where they found refuge.  Some settled in Slovakia.

The Hungarian king Kalman enacted a "Jewish law" where Jews were permitted to live only in cathedral towns and on bishops estates.

In 1241 the Mongols (Tartars) invaded Hungary bringing on havoc and destruction.  Jewish merchants made a major contribution to rebuilding the economy.  Jews were in the cities of Pressburg (Bratislava), Senica, Trnavaa, Pezinok, Nitra, and Trencin.  By 1251 King Bela IV granted Jews a "privilege" document promising them protection against attacks by Christians which was a permanent legal status and had other benefits.  At this time most Jews made their living in finance.  A minority worked in commerce and the importing of goods.  Others held positions in public administration or were involved in minting coins to the displeasure of the Pope and church leaders.

Starting in the 13th century, Jews became wards of the king and paid taxes to the royal treasury.  They lived in cities on separate Jewish streets allotted to them by the authorities.  This was done to segregate them from the Christians.  Some towns had an organized community life and Jewish public institutions.  Nitra had a Jewish community considered one of the oldest in Slovakia.  We know from a document from 1113 that there was a Jewish cemetery there.  Jews also lived in a suburb of Parovee, known as Castrum Judaeorum or a fortified Jewish settlement.  Jewish refugees from Bohemia and Germany founded a community in Pressburg.

In the 14th Century the Pressburg community numbered about 800 people and was the largest in the kingdom.  At the end of the century was noted a Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau (German name of Trnava) who was the leading Torah sage in Hungary and author of Sefer Ha-Minhagim which described the religious practices of Jews in Hungary and neighboring countries.

By the 15th century, which is the time of the Spanish Inquisition of 1492, the Christians turned to religious extremism and Jews were in danger with anti-Jewish riots breaking out in several places.  In 1491 the authorities in Trnava spread a blood libel against the Jews and 12 men and 4 women were burned at the stake on August 22 of that year which was 7 Elul, 5251.

Along came the 16th century when the Turks defeated the Hungarians in 1526 bringing on expelling the Jews from Pezinok. In 1529,  30 Jews were burned at the stake in Pezinok and the rest fled the city.  Other communities were mistreating Jews, too.  In 1526 after the Battle of Mohacs, Jews were expelled from all major towns.  By the end of this century, the old communities of Slovakia had disintegrated and people were scattered all over.  This severe persecution caused community life in Slovakia to be severely broken up.

The 17th century saw Jews finally immigrate and continue to do so through the 18th century.  Jews were barred from many trading industries and often came into conflict with non-Jews.  Jewish communities of Slovakia existed until the Holocaust. In 1683, hundreds of Jews from Moravia fled to Slovakia seeking refuge from riots in Kuruc.  There had been living reestrictions imposed on them in Moravia.   Some people of the Hungarian aristocracy realized the talents of the Jews and that they encouraged economic activity so they encouraged them to settle on their estates.   These Jews were mainly from Moravia, Poland and Austria.  These refugees settled in Nitra county in 1649 and later in Pressburg and Trencin.  Because of new edicts in Moravia and the hardships in Poland, many migrated to Slovakia and Jews went northward and eastward as well.  Most people living in these regions were Slovakian subsistence farmers, serfs of Hungarian feudal lords.  By 1700, a leading yeshiva was established in Bratislava.  Under Joseph II, Jews received many additional civil liberties.  A census from 1746 show almost half of the Jewish heads of the households in Slovakia to be natives of Moravia and Bohemia, 10% from Poland and 5% from Austria and 35% from various locations in Slovakia or elsewhere in Hungary.

The 18th century showed there were several large Jewish communities in Slovakia with populations in the 100's.  The Jews in the west were mainly Ashkenazis who were more educated and open to influences of the neighborhood's culture and society.  The Jews in eastern Slovakia, also Ashkenazis  followed Hasidic customs, spoke Yiddish and were more like the Jews of Poland and Galicia in their lifestyle and dress.  These two groups didn't mix until about the middle of the 19th century.

In 1867, Slovakia became part of Austria-Hungary and was classified as "Northern Hungary."  The Hungarian parliament passed legislation promoting assimilation among the minorities including Jews.  The government supported Jewish cooperation in industry and finance so the Jewish population grew in small secluded towns in the east.  But anti-Semitism developed which prevented Jews from assimilating.  In 1882 and 1883, antisemitic riots occurred in several  towns.  In 1896 the Reception Law was introduced where Judaism and Christianity were on an equal level.  After that decree the Slovak Clerical People's Party was born and its main interests were in anti-liberalism and limiting Jewish influence.

By this time in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Zionism reached Slovakia and 8 local Zionist groups were created.  In 1903 Bratislava hosted the First Hungarian Zionist Convention.  The next year the First World Mizrahi Congress was held there.

World War I ended in 1917 and Czechoslovakia was created in 1918.  Jews earned the right to declare themselves a separate nationality and prospered in industry and cultural life.  They held more than 1/3 of all industrial investments.  In 1919, the National Federation of Slovak Jews and the Jewish Party were created.In 1921, there were 135,918 Jews in Slovakia.    In 1929 elections, the Jewish Party earned 2 seats in parliament.  They also  had a Jewish newspaper, "The Jewish People's Paper, first published in Bratislava on August 2, 1919.  In the 1st census in Czechoslovakia on February 15, 1921, there were 135,918 registered practicing Jews and 70,522 of them declared themselves of Jewish nationality.  There were also 165 Orthodox and 52 Reform Jews in the country.

Like in other surrounding countries, the 1930's brought on anti-Semitic rioting and demonstrations.  Many Slovaks had been incited by the Slovak People's Party.  During riots, professional Jewish boxers and wrestlers defended their neighborhoods in the streets form gangs and one, Imi Lichtenfeld, would later use his experience to develop Krav Maga.

Before WWII broke out in 1941, some 5,000 Jews emigrated, but most were killed in the Holocaust.  The Slovak Republic had proclaimed its independence in March 1939 under the protection of Nazi Germany, and Slovakia began a series of measures against the Jews in the country.  First, they excluded them from the military and government positions.  The Hlinka's Guard began to attack Jews and they passed the Jewish Code in September 1941 which was like the Nuremberg Laws.  It required that Jews wear a yellow armband and were banned from intermarriage and many jobs.  By 1940, more than 6,000 Jews had emigrated out.  President Jozef Tiso was not only a Catholic priest but pro-Nazi, and he agreed to deport the Jews as part of the Nazi final solution.

By October 1941, 15,000 Jews were expelled from Bratislava.  Many were sent to labor camps.  Germany let them know that Jews were never return to the republic.  Terms for 20,000 young, strong Jews were made but the Slovak government agreed to a German proposal to deport the entire population for evacuation to territories in the east.  This started on March 25, 1942 but stopped on October 20, 1942 after Jews were able to stop the process.  By this time, 58,000 Jews had already been deported, mostly to Auschwitz as forced laborers for German Armament factories which was what Tiso and the government thought.  Then they found out that many of the deported Jews had been shot in mass executions and they filed complaints against Germany.

Jewish deportations started again on September 30, 1944 when the Soviet army reached the Slovak border and the uprising took place.  Germany decided to occupy all of Slovakia and the country lost its independence.  The Germans occupied it and 13,500 Jews were deported and 5,000 were imprisoned.  Deportations continued until march 31, 1945.  German and Slovak authorities deported about 70,000 Jews .  About 65,000 of them were murdered or died in concentration camps.  It is estimated that about 105,000 Slovak Jews, or 77% of their prewar population, died during the war.

At the war's end, there were still about 25,000 Jews living in Slovakia and they decided to emigrate.  In 1948 Communist rule was established that lasted until 1989.  There was little to no Jewish life.  Many Jews had emigrated to Israel or the USA to have freedom of religion.  Any Jews remaining had assimilated through intermarriage.


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