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Denying the Holocaust vs. freedom of speech

CONSERVATIVE Slovak politician Daniel Lipšic has suggested that the law that criminalises denying the Holocaust should be repealed in Slovakia. It is an opinion he first expressed three years ago, and his most recent comment reignited the debate on this very emotional issue.

CONSERVATIVE Slovak politician Daniel Lipšic has suggested that the law that criminalises denying the Holocaust should be repealed in Slovakia. It is an opinion he first expressed three years ago, and his most recent comment reignited the debate on this very emotional issue.

"No such thing as official truth dictated by law can exist," the MP and deputy chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH) told the TA3 news channel on February 17, 2008.

Lipšic asserted that laws cannot ban people from expressing their views, no matter how repugnant those views are.

"Even controversial ideas, rude or nasty ones, or extreme ones should still be protected by freedom of speech," Lipšic said.

Of course I agree that freedom of speech is essential and nothing should ban people from expressing their opinions. But there are some crucial facts that Lipšic should keep in mind.

At the end of 2006, Archbishop Ján Sokol spoke in rather positive terms about President Jozef Tiso, the Catholic priest and president of the wartime Slovak State, who was directly responsible for deporting Slovak Jews to concentration camps.

"I respect President Tiso, I deeply respect him, as I remember that when I was young, we were very poor, and during his term, we had class," Sokol told TA3. "And I even have evidence that ... there was prosperity here."

This was a senior representative of the religious community telling a news station that he lived in prosperity during a time of brutal oppression and violence against his fellow countrymen.

What have the Christian Democrats done to distance themselves from Jozef Tiso and such statements? What have they done to shed light on the numerous black stains on the history of Slovaks and Slovakia concerning the violent, mass deportation of its Jews?

About 70,000 Slovak Jews were deported during the war. Only a few of them ever returned. We know very little about their fates, or even their names. How were they deported, who killed them and what happened to their remains? We also know little about the humiliation they faced under the Slovak State.

How many know that, upon the founding of the Slovak State, Jewish children were expelled from schools? And that Jews were not allowed to own homes, fields, a section of forest, or shops, let alone a factory? And that anything they had owned was confiscated? Or that, starting in the spring of 1942, deportations began, and it was against the law for Slovak Jews to live in their own country.

It was at that time, on April 3, 1942, that my aunt, Isabella Sonnenfeld, was deported to Auschwitz. Her prisoner number was 21651. She died there on August 15, 1942, at the age of 24. My grandfather, Emil Sonnenfeld, was also sent to a concentration camp, on June 1, 1942. So far, I have not managed to learn how or when he died. In fact, up to 20 of my close relatives died in concentration camps.

Their fates show that they did not enjoy the prosperity of Tiso's time.

Returning to Lipšic's comments, he told the Sme daily: "I do not approve of prosecuting an opinion, including denying the Holocaust. If someone is an impostor or a liar, it is up to the social elite to push these opinions to where they belong - the fringes of society."

But the question is whether a society that has not yet fully faced certain chapters of its history is mature enough for such a change. Slovak society is still too uninformed to combat denials of the Holocaust.

Almost no one from the KDH ever spoke out against Ján Sokol's comment, including Daniel Lipšic.

So who was there to push Sokol's sentiment to the fringes of society?

Is this seeming indifference caused by the fact that to this day Slovak society, including its so-called social elite, knows too little about the fate of Slovak Jews during the Second World War?

As a journalist, I honour freedom of speech. But as a journalist, I am also convinced that the fate of the vast majority of these human beings, whose existence was reduced sixty years ago to mere prison numbers and victims, is still unknown to us. And without learning their fates, we cannot restore dignity to the victims.

Maybe Lipšic is right. Maybe it should be left to lawyers to decide whether denying the Holocaust is a crime.

But we have to ask whether the denial of such brutal mass slaughter, which resembled exterminating pests more than the murder of human beings, does not take away from the magnitude of the event and thereby make similar crimes against humanity somehow more probable.

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