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March memories under grey snow

The Slovak president said these words just two days after men in black gathered at Jozef Tiso's graveside to commemorate the anniversary of the rise of the wartime Slovak state.

"I COME from a country that did not avoid the brown plague - as we call fascism - and, unfortunately, it did not avoid deportations of Jews either. Of them, more than 70,000 never returned home. The Holocaust is the darkest stain in human history."
- Slovak President Ivan Gašparovič, speaking at the Yad Vashem Names Memorial on a two-day visit to Israel in mid-March.

The Slovak president said these words just two days after men in black gathered at Jozef Tiso's graveside to commemorate the anniversary of the rise of the wartime Slovak state.

The presence of the young men, who were dressed in uniforms resembling those of Hlinka's guards, ripped open many old wounds, starting with Slovakia's silence about its wartime atrocities and ending with free speech.

For the most part, however, Slovakia bled quietly.

Even those politicians known to regularly indulge in the ecstasy of communication kept silent about the graveside ceremony. After all, the wartime Slovak state remains the most sensitive topic in Slovak history.

The wartime Slovak state was a puppet government of Nazi Germany led by Jozef Tiso, a Roman Catholic priest. The government largely excluded Jews from public life based on the Nuremberg Decrees of 1935.

Slovakia, in fact, was the only Nazi collaboration state that covered the deportation costs of its own Jews.

There are historians who layer on different shades of grey to camouflage the rotten core of this part of Slovakia's history, suggesting that if Tiso had disobeyed Nazi Germany in 1942 by refusing to deport Jews, Hitler would have invaded Slovakia and terrorized the whole country.

Ivan Kamenec rejects revisionist theories that try to justify this historical period and make it look gentler.

In an interview with news television station TA3, Kamenec restated that the Slovak state did not rise as the culmination of national-emancipative or state-founding efforts but as a by-product of Nazi aggression against the former Czechoslovakia.

The sad truth is that a small fraction of those young men marching in black to Tiso's grave know nothing and do not even care about history.

They are mostly skinheads using the anniversary to demonstrate their anti-social attitude. Many of them cannot explain what they stand for. They only know what they are against.

In the Slovak media, a debate opened up on whether these young people could be criminally prosecuted for being dressed in uniforms resembling Hlinka's guards, the anti-Semitic militia that enforced the policies of Tiso's government.

The police said that the uniforms were not exact copies of those used by Hlinka's guards and so no crime had been committed. However, law enforcement officials said they would take immediate action if the group initiates any activities that could be construed dangerous to society, as the Slovak law dictates.

Several Slovak politicians openly said they disagreed with the men in black but that they have the right of free expression.

Dušan Čaplovič from Smer said, "We cannot ban anyone from doing so." He told the daily SME that the citizens' deficient knowledge of history is to blame.

"I do not like it, but I do not know whether we should do anything or, if we did, what it should be," Gyula Bárdoš of the Hungarian Coalition Party told the daily SME.

Perhaps a more open, less ambiguous stance over this dark time in Slovak history would be the best way to respond.

President Gašparovič's condemnation of the first Slovak state in Israel recently was not the first. In June 2004, he did the same during the unveiling of a holocaust memorial in northern Slovakia's Žilina.

According to Gašparovič, Slovakia officially faced up to its fascist past in 1990, when the parliament issued an official apology, victims of the Holocaust were compensated and politicians in charge during that period in history repeatedly condemned.

While politicians do not have to restate their position condemning the Slovak wartime state each time a few skinheads decide to dress up in controversial black uniforms, they could use the March anniversary as an opportunity to say a few words about Slovakia's dark past that would serve as a counter-balance to the marching skinheads.

However, I want to close this piece with the fact that 420 Slovaks have received the Yad Vashem from Israel, which is the Righteous Among the Nations award.

Many Slovaks risked their lives to prevent the deportation of Jewish families. As Gašparovič pointed out, the number of Slovak award recipients is one of the highest of all countries.

By Beata Balogová

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