The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 3/Jews in Slovakia

Jews in Slovakia


Among the many reports published by American papers every few days of anti-Jewish outbreaks in various parts of central and eastern Europe there have been one or two stories of Jewish persecution in Slovakia. Compared to detailed reports of cruelties in Poland and the Ukraine the charges against Slovaks have been mild and rather indefinite. But unless such stories are properly explained, they create the impression that the Slovaks are guilty of unreasonable and unworthy prejudice, that they are actuated by a religious and racial hatred toward the Jews living among them. An examination of the political and social conditions in Slovakia before the war will throw light on this question of anti-Jewish outbreaks.

Let it be stated first of all that the Czechoslovak people in general and the Slovaks in particular have never been anti-Semitic. Here and there single incidents of hatred or revenge for social or religious reasons may have occurred, but there has never been an anti-Jewish campaign or political party among the Czechoslovaks, such as the anti-Semites of Vienna who for decades and until a few months ago controlled the city hall of the Austrian capital. If cable reports speak of Jewish shops being plundered in Slovakia, it can only mean that the hungry and half-starved people broke into Jewish and other shops, because they believed that the shops contained great supplies of secretly stored food, held back in the expectation of higher prices. And no doubt public sentiment among the Slovaks after the overthrow of the Magyar rule was anything but favorable to the Jews who during the war and before it sided all along with the Magyar government.

Such a thing as a Jewish pogrom has never been known in Slovakia. The peasants were always friendly to the Jews and gave them preference in trading, often to their own detriment. Even in the United States Slovak Jews followed Slovak immigrants and established flourishing business among them. Jewish dealer settled in a Slovak village was generally looked up to as the wisest man in the village. In Bohemia and Moravia the Jews were treated even better, for there a large percentage of them indentified themselves with the Czechoslovak cause before and during the war.

Among the leading Czech deputies in the Austrian parliament were two Jews, and today they sit in Masaryk’s cabinet. President Masaryk himself is known to the Jews of the whole world as their friend; they do not forget how he once at the risk of his own personal popularity championed a Jew who had been found guilty by Austrian courts of ritual murder.

The Jews belong to a distinct race, but they have no nationality in the modern sense of the word. They are therefore peculiarly susceptible to denationalization and assimilation. A German or Russian Jew will become Americanized quicker than anybody else. He picks up a fluent command of English before the other immigrants even begin to think of learning English. For the Jew there is no sentiment attached to any language, except that of utility. He has no specific national culture to leave behind with regret, no native tongue to abandon. To an independent, strong nation the Jew may become an asset, but to a subjected, backward and weak race he may become a hindrance, an instrument of oppression.

In Hungary, of which Slovakia until her recent union with Bohemia was an unwilling part, there were only three classes: those at the bottom, including the peasantry and rural and industrial laborers; the upper class, consisting of the landlords who owned more than half of the arable land and all the big forests, together with the lesser nobility or gentry who made their living exclusively out of politics; and finally a small middle class of merchants and the so-called bourgeois. Magyar magnates, like Karolyi, Andrassy, Apponyi, were all in politics, both for the glory and for the spoils of it. The gentry was entirely subservient to the big noblemen who distributed political jobs in Budapest and in the counties to deserving and needy squires. In that way it came about that the Jew in Hungary acquired an absolute monopoly of business and industry, banking and journalism; through money-lending to the nobles he was getting into his hand also many of the big estates of improvident magnates. By handling all the commerce of the country he grew to be the most powerful influence in the Magyar state with which he identified himself. In Budapest the Jew and the Magyar aristocrat determined the policy of the government, in the territories inhabited by the subject races the Jew served as the outpost of the policy of Magyarization.

The Magyar government was founded on injustice, oppression and terrorism. Eight million Magyars tried to assimilate or rather swallow up twelve million people of other races. To Magyarize every man and woman in Hungary, to make a Magyar out of every new-born child was the principal aim of all governmental activities. Everything was permissible that tended to further this aim. Upon this preposterous and immoral idea was built the entire political structure of the Magyaroszag (Magyar State). It did not work, and under the stress of the great war the Magyar state tumbled down like a house of cards, crushing under its debris its builders and up holders—the landholding aristocrats and the Jewish bourgeois. But while the system lasted, it caused untold misery, suffering and social and moral degradation. And it left behind it unquenchable racial hatred and animosity which may trouble the inhabitants of the liberated territories for years to come.

The Jew in Slovakia, as in all civilized countries, was engaged almost exclusively in trading. He came from Russia or Poland, driven out by cruel persecution, penniless; he settled in a village on the southern slope of the Carpathians, opened a rum shop, and in a few years became the wealthiest man in the village. He gave credit to the peasant in his store, but he drove a hard bargain; he would lend the men small sums of money at exorbitant interest and get them into his power. But worst of all he introduced into the village "palenka" (whiskey) which brought with it laziness, demoralization and poverty. Thus the immigrant Jew got rich on the weakness of the Slovak peasant. As a rule he had no competition; the Slovaks did not know how to run a store, and the Magyar nobility and gentry would not lower itself to the life of a tradesman. The Jew made the most of his opportunity and one can hardly blame him for that, but the fact remains that he did not make himself popular by such methods.

In more recent years priests and more enlightened Slovaks began to organize temperance societies and co-operative stores with some success. That hurt the business of the Jewish publicans and they appealed to the government for protection. As whiskey was a great source revenue to the state, the Magyar government disbanded temperance societies in Slovakia on the pretext that they were part of the nationalistic movement and therefore directed against the integrity of Hungary.

Jews that became rich in the petty trade in the villages moved into the cities and engaged in grain business and banking. The second generation entered the learned professions; they became lawyers, doctors, professors or built distilleries. And they also got into politics. Now in Hungary before the recent revolution a subject had either to declare himself a good Magyar or else be condemned to persecution and oppression. The Jews in Slovakia almost without exception took the first course. Although they had suffered severe persecution in Poland and Russia, they showed no interest in the poor, oppressed Slovak outside of the sphere of trading with him. Why identify himself with the hopeless cause of the Slovaks, when it was to his advantage to side with the government. I do not wish to condemn the Jews in Slovakia for choosing this course; when the advantages were all on one side, most of us would have probably acted the same. Human nature is the same the world over. But the fact remains that the Jew who made his living out of the Slovak peasants had the chance to be come either Magyar Jew or Slovak Jew, and he chose the former. Naturally this placed him in an awkward position, when contrary to all human expectations the Magyar kingdom broke up in the fall of 1918.

The Jew was easily “denationalized” and willingly embraced the Magyar Kultur. He had nothing to lose. What did it matter to him, whether he was a Polish Jew or German Jew or Hungarian Jew. In any case he retained his racial characteristics and his religion; at home he could speak Yiddish, if he cared to do so. By professing to be a Magyar he had everything to gain, and so he yielded readily to the policy of Magyarization, where all other nationalities of Hungary struggled bitterly against it.

As a race the Jews are extremists. On the one side they are the greatest radicals and the most idealist reformers in politics and religion; on the other side one finds among them the greatest supporters of the existing order, of reaction and oppression. In Hungary the greatest champion of the oppressed nationalities was a Magyar Jew, Oscar Jaszy, who after the disruption of the Austro-Hungarian Empire became the minister of nationalities in Karolyi’s cabinet. No real Magyar dared or cared to say the truth about the futility of the Magyarizing policy as plainly and as forcibly as did Jaszy. But Jaszy is only one among hundred thousands. In every Slovak village there was a Jew, generally the inn-keeper and rumseller, who was the most faithful henchman of the old rotten government. He was instrumental in swinging the votes for the government candidate; he was in collusion with the local officials, the petty tyrants and veritable leeches on the body of the peasants. He was the most chauvinistic Magyar of the entire village, openly flouting his loyalty to the hated government. He never lost an opportunity to spy upon the talk of the people and report their sentiments to the authorities. Many a cruel persecution, many a death resulted out of his spying. And the Slovak peasants knew it.

The fact that most of the commerce of Hungary was in Jewish hands and that naturally among the Jewish merchants were found many unscrupulous profiteers, added greatly to the gravity of the situation after the revolution. There seems to be no doubt that in the first days after the ending of Magyar rule Jewish shops were plundered by the hungry population; not because the owners were Jews, but because they had sided with the hated regime and because it was known that many shopkeepers had stored great quantities of food for speculative purposes. Undoubtedly some innocent men were unjustly maltreated; who can reason with a hungry and excited crowd? What so many individual Jews had done to the detriment of the people among whom they lived was now, in the hour of reckoning, charged against the entire race. The Slovaks do not hate the Jews as such, but only as the willing instruments and agents of that barbarous government which had for years bled the Slovaks white and tried to stab them to death, when the end came. There were a few good men among the Jews in Slovakia, men who sympathized with the Slovak struggle to preserve their national individuality. Such men were respected and called “Our Jews” by the peasantry. Neither would it be fair to create the impression that the Jews alone took part in the Slovak persecution. The greatest culprits of the old regime were the petty Magyar officials, the district prefects and the local notaries, and in many cases Magyarized Slovaks, such as lawyers, priests, teachers and merchants. The renegade is always more cruel than the foreigner.

The real offense of the Slovak Jews was their utter lack of sympathy with the aspirations of the oppressed race and their active support of the immoral regime aiming at the extinction of everything that was not Magyar. While there were noble individuals among the Jews in Slovakia, as an organized body they never raised their voices in protest against the war on nationalities in Hungary. One finds it difficult to understand, why the Jew has so little sympathy with the oppressed of other races and yet is so keenly concerned in the unhappy lot of his own people in any part of the world. When there is an injustice done to the Jews anywhere in the world, the four corners of the earth hear about it on the same day. Yet the Jews in Austria-Hungary had never a word to say about the oppression to which their Slav neighbors were subject under their very eyes.

The disorders in Slovakia lasted only a few days, and no Jew lost his life as a result of them. The Slovak is not revengeful, and the Czechoslovak government had the situation well in hand a few days after the expulsion of the Magyar authorities. Order is fully restored and no one who lives peacefully is molested. The Slovaks are ready to bury the unpleasant memories of the old regime. Let the Jew convince his Slovak neighbor that he is with him sincerely and for good, and he will be treated as fairly as any other citizen. There existss no desire to curb the Jew by special enactments or restrictions. If the Jewish inhabitants of Slovakia will identify themselves with the Czechoslovak cause, if they will deal honestly with their customers, the peasants will live on the best terms with their Jewish fellow citizens.