With evident pride and perhaps even a bit of awe, Slovak Ivan Trusík, 47, gestured last Tuesday towards a man with whom his aunt had shared one of the deepest possible human bonds: she had saved his life.
When the Nazis and Slovak sympathizers rounded up 70,000 Jews in 1942 to prepare to send them to death camps, Slovak Irma Marafková was one of the few in Slovakia who risked her life for years to save a Jew. For many months, she hid Leo Beck, then 16 years old, and his family in a special room in her Bratislava home that was only accessible through a cupboard.
Of the five people saved by Marafková, only one, Beck, is still alive. Marafková is herself now dead. But at a special ceremony held Monday to honour Marafková and 25 other so- called "Righteous Among Nations" Slovaks, her nephew and sister had a chance to greet Beck as they accepted an award for Marafková from the Israeli government.
"This is the last man who is alive of the five who were saved on Trnavská St.," Trusík said in a reception following the ceremony. "They were hidden there for three years. No one knew about them, they couldn't go out on the street."
"I don't understand it," he said. "I hate the people which helped these people to the camps. Something similar are today's nationalists...its something I cannot hear. I hate it," he said.
Flanked by the Jews they had helped and their descendants, the Slovaks and their relatives accepted small awards at the afternoon ceremony given by the Israeli Government and the Israeli Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad V'Shem.
Israel has been awarding the honorary "Righteous Among Nations" title since 1960. So far, 15,670 people, of whom 345 are Slovaks, have received the honour for saving Jews in WWII.
The event attracted a wide range of politicians, from KDH chairman and Justice Minister Ján Čarnogurský and Speaker of the Parliment and SDL chairman Jozef Migaš to leading presidential candidate and mayor of Košice, Rudolf Schuster, who sat quietly in a second-row seat during the ceremony.
Asked afterwards why he had chosen to attend, Schuster said, "I got an invitation." When asked if his appearance showed his support for Israel and Jewish issues, he said, "I have no problems in this way. If they are Jewish, or non-Jewish, it makes no difference."
The Israeli Ambassador to Austria, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Croatia Nathan Meron, also thanked the honourees. "These people provided a ray of light in the darkness that was Europe...the passage of time cannot diminish what you did."
The most emotional part of the ceremony came as Joseph Garay, born in Slovakia in 1921, stood and showed the group a family photo taken before the war, in which he sits with his parents, three brothers, and three sisters. He was the only one who survived: the rest of his family was shipped out of the country in the mass transports of March and April 1942 and never returned.
Garay, who is now a successful buisnessman in New York, has brought his grandchildren back to Slovakia to Pieš'tány to visit Joseph Pasrin, the man who, along with his wife Anna, had saved his life by hiding him. Garay, who, posing as a non-Jew, ultimately left Pieštany for Banská Bystrica and the Slovak Resistance movement, comes back to Slovakia often although he blames Slovaks in part for his family's deaths.
"I am angry too but I got over the anger. And I have been coming back here every two years, even during communism, to see my friend," he said.
24. May 1999 at 0:00 | Sharon Otterman