A WHISTLE blows as the train leaves the Poprad station heading towards Auschwitz, Poland and the Nazi concentration camp which is the infamous symbol of the Holocaust and the final station for hundreds of thousands of Jews who were executed there. But the train that left Poprad station on March 23 this year was not carrying fearful young women but rather invited guests who were attending an event to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the first transport of Slovak Jews to the death camp.
Slovakia has been commemorating the departure of the first death train for several years but this was the first year that the commemoration included a special train that followed the exact same route to Auschwitz that the trains of the early 1940s followed.
“In the West, especially in America, we are very detached from the events of World War II – we teach it, we learn about it, but it is not in our bones and our blood,” US writer Heather Dune Macadam told The Slovak Spectator. “We do not see the scars on the land as the people of eastern Europe do.”
Dune Macadam, as well as many others from Slovakia and elsewhere, came to Poprad to light candles and bring rocks, a Jewish tradition, to the memorial plaque erected near the railway station. She said that the two rocks she brought were given to her by daughters of two sisters who managed to leave the concentration camp alive.
The first train carrying Jewish women was dispatched from Bratislava on March 25, 1942, at 20:20. It transported about 1,000 young girls and women to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp and was soon followed by many others carrying men and women whom the Nazi regime considered enemies of Hitler and his Third Reich to a nearly-certain death.
Dispatching trains carrying Jews to the concentration camps was the final outcome of a process of discrimination against Jewish citizens in Slovakia that stripped them of their status in society. After Nazi Germany assisted Slovak politicians in separating from Czechoslovakia to establish an
independent state, albeit a German satellite, government officials began passing laws and regulations that gradually deprived Jews of their political, economic, civil and human rights. The Slovak parliament then passed a Constitutional Law on Deportations of Jews in May 1942 which officially ‘legalised’ their transport to concentration camps.
Historians note that there were two phases of the transport of Slovak Jews from the country. The first phase lasted from March to November 1942 when more than 58,000 Jews were forced from their homes and deported – the Slovak state paid Germany the equivalent of 500 Reichsmark for each deported Jew. The second phase was initiated and administered by the Nazis beginning in October 1944 after German troops had occupied Slovakia to suppress the burgeoning Slovak National Uprising (SNP). The last transport of Slovak Jews was on March 31, 1945, and altogether about 13,000 Jews were deported during this second phase.
Only 348 deported Slovak Jews had survived the death camps when the war came to an end.
Even though the war-time Slovak state actively cooperated with the Nazi regime in Germany to deport Jews from Slovak territory, it is also true that many Slovaks took heroic actions to save Jewish friends, neighbours, and even strangers.
The title Righteous Among the Nations has been awarded to 540 Slovaks by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem, for their efforts to save Jews during the war.
Commemorating the victims
People attending the commemoration service in Poprad were invited to travel on the train directly to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp where they could see the conditions under which Jews and others were imprisoned and the way in which most of them were murdered.
The train trip to Auschwitz was organised by the Museum of Jewish Culture and Ľuba Lesná from the Slovak Government Office. Representatives of the Slovak government, journalists, and church leaders as well as relatives of those who had died in war-time concentration camps took part.
Viera Kamenická from the Museum of Jewish Culture said the event was mainly focused on raising the awareness of young people, especially secondary school students, about the Holocaust.
The students and other passengers onboard the train had an opportunity to view documentary photographs of the first transports in 1942 as well as photographs taken by Slovak-born photographer Yuri Dojc, who currently lives in Canada. Kamenická publicly recognised the attendance of Edita Grosmanová, one of only five women from the first transport who survived the concentration camp, who spent time with passengers discussing her time in the camp and her subsequent life.
Several additional programmes were offered, including the openings of two exhibitions in Tatranská Galéria of photographs taken by Kamenická and a collection of clay shoes made by British artist Jenny Stolzberg to symbolise the misery of the victims of the Holocaust.
Kamenická told The Slovak Spectator that events like this 70th anniversary commemoration can help young people to better understand the horrendous extent of the Holocaust.
“I think it is essential that people know that the horrors [brought by the Holocaust] were because of human mistakes,” she told The Slovak Spectator. She added that even though she knows people who do not understand why it is necessary to talk about the Holocaust she believes it is important to stress that it was initiated by “a nation that was enormously and intellectually developed”.
Ivan Kamenec, a historian at the Historical Department of the Slovak Academy of Sciences (SAV) said there are also other ways to broaden knowledge about the Holocaust, specifying that the most effective is when it is done through any form of art, such as prose, plays, film, or television, which “can mediate live discussion and attractive documents”.
“It is more effective than the best literature that is read only by small group of interested people,” he told The Slovak Spectator.
The story of two sisters
Dune Macadam, the US-based writer, told The Slovak Spectator that she attended the 70th anniversary commemoration because of the book she wrote titled Rena’s Promise, a biography of Rena Kornreich who, together with her sister Danka, survived a three-and-half-year imprisonment in Auschwitz.
The sisters were born in the Polish town of Tylicz but their parents sent them to Slovakia, hoping they would be safer there. Danka travelled to Bratislava and Rena settled in Humenné and both worked as nannies. Both were then sent back to the death camp in their native country.
“When I met Rena I felt as if I was being directed by a force larger than myself,” Dune Macadam told The Slovak Spectator. She added that Kornreich wanted the book to be a tribute to all people who had helped her and her sister to survive in the concentration camp even if only by “giving them a peel of potato”.
“Once I was asked ‘what’s it to you; you’re not Jewish’,” Dune Macadam told The Slovak Spectator when asked about her personal relationship to the Holocaust. “I was shocked by the question. My answer remains the same to this day: I am a woman. I am a human being.”
The writer admits that it has sometimes been a struggle to get recognition for the story of the two sisters, adding that men often seem to speak the loudest about their lives in the concentration camps and only rarely give voice to women. She hopes that men will also recognise the role of the young women since they “show us who the true victims of the genocide were”.
“But I hold firm in my belief that the women on the first transport were not only victims – if we remember them and use their stories to enrich our own, if we can stop the cycle of prejudice and racism that perpetuates genocides of any people, then they are victors,” Dune Macadam said in conclusion.
Zuzana Vilikovská contributed to this story