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Tiso plaque awakens dark past

A decision by the Žilina city council to officially honour the memory of Jozef Tiso, the leader of Slovakia's World War II nazi-puppet state, has rekindled a passionate debate about the country's murky past. Nationalists applauded the plaque, calling Tiso a 'Slovak hero', but Jewish groups and mainstream Slovak society termed the move as a disgrace.
Fully 40 out of 41 city council members in the northern Slovak town of Žilina (pop. 85,000) voted on February 17 to dedicate a plaque to Tiso, a Catholic priest and president of the 1939-45 fascist Slovak Republic. Tiso, who supervised the deportation of between 60,000 and 70,000 Jews to wartime concentration camps, was after the war discovered hiding in Austria by American intelligence and was executed as a war criminal in 1946.


The Catholic Church, which occupies a prominent spot on Žilina's main square, has been silent on the Tiso plaque.
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A decision by the Žilina city council to officially honour the memory of Jozef Tiso, the leader of Slovakia's World War II nazi-puppet state, has rekindled a passionate debate about the country's murky past. Nationalists applauded the plaque, calling Tiso a 'Slovak hero', but Jewish groups and mainstream Slovak society termed the move as a disgrace.

Fully 40 out of 41 city council members in the northern Slovak town of Žilina (pop. 85,000) voted on February 17 to dedicate a plaque to Tiso, a Catholic priest and president of the 1939-45 fascist Slovak Republic. Tiso, who supervised the deportation of between 60,000 and 70,000 Jews to wartime concentration camps, was after the war discovered hiding in Austria by American intelligence and was executed as a war criminal in 1946.

Senior state officials deplored any attempt to rehabilitate Tiso's memory. President Rudolf Schuster said in an official statement that he was "disappointed and saddened" by the decision. "I don't agree with any glorification of Mr. Tiso, who ruled a country which deportated 72,000 Slovak Jews to concetration camps, from which almost nobody returned," the statement read.

The Jewish community in Slovakia, which numbers about 3,000 people, also found the plaque a disturbing development. "I'm afraid if we tolerate such a step now, next time it will happen again on a much larger scale," said Robert Haas, the chairman of the Slovak Jewish Youth Union, on February 23.

But Žilina Mayor Ján Slota, the controversial former leader of the nationalist Slovak National Party (SNS), called Tiso "one of the greatest sons of the Slovak nation," and said the council would not be deterred from mounting the plaque. He was backed up officials at the Žilina city council office, who refused to tell The Slovak Spectator who had proposed the move. The council is dominated by members of the SNS and Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), who together hold 39 of 45 seats.

The SNS party's regional co-ordinator in Žilina, Viera Králičeková, was also unwilling to give out any information on the city council vote. "I can only tell you that I would definitely vote the same, if I was a councillor," she said. "Tiso was a great man who tried to protect the country during the war and make life good for Slovaks."

Indeed, despite the widespread condemnation, no one seems to know how to stop Žilina city council from carrying out its plans. The plaque, which will measure 40 by 30 centimeters (15 by 12 inches) should be officially mounted on March 14 on the wall of a Catholic convent on Žilina's Hurbanova Street, from where Tiso announced the creation of the wartime Slovak state on March 14, 1939.

The TASR press agency reported that private lawyer Juraj Trokan had filed a motion against the plaque on February 21. The legal challenge cited the council's "controversial decision [which] raised a suspicion of support and promotion for movements oriented towards the oppression of human rights and liberties." Deputy Prime Minister for Minorities Pál Csáky also vowed to file a complaint.

But one member of parliament, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Slovak Spectator that it was unlikely the plaque could be stopped by the courts. "The crucial thing here will be the text written on the plaque," the MP said. "I'm not sure whether we can charge somebody for this, especially when a similar plaque was already unveiled several years ago in [northern Slovakia's] Bytča, Tiso's hometown."

As the commemoration date approaches, the parties to the dispute remain clearly defined between nationalists, for whom Tiso's Slovakia represented self-determination after centuries under foreign rule, and more liberal Slovaks, who feel nothing can erase or justify the horrors committed in their country during World War II. But one group which has not clearly sided with either camp is the Catholic Church, whose robes Tiso wore as priest.

A senior Catholic Church official in the Nitra archdiocese, who asked not to be named, said the Žilina Tiso commemoration was "not a church matter," and refused to help The Slovak Spectator obtain a statement from Cardinal Chryzostom Korec, under whose jurisdiction Žilina lies.

As for the Catholic nunnery ('Sisters of St. Francis') where the plaque is to be mounted, Senior Sister Ludvika told the SITA press agency on February 18 that she had "nothing against" the commemoration.

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