SLOVAKIA is gradually losing the generation that lived through the Holocaust, according to Martin Bútora, one member of the research team that interviewed Slovak Jews who survived the deportations to the concentration camps during the Second World War.
In order to save the memories of survivors, the Milan Šimečka Foundation (NMŠ) in cooperation with the Holocaust Documentation Centre, prepared a documentary called We Saw It – The Voices of Those Who Survived, which is based on the narratives of Jewish people who experienced the Holocaust in ways often seen only in films.
Bútora added that they wanted to record these testimonies to “enable future generations in Slovakia to create their own picture of what really happened, since there will come a time when no living witnesses to the Holocaust remain”.
The documentary premiered on September 10, 2012, one day after Slovakia celebrated Holocaust Remembrance Day. At the beginning of the event the organisers prepared the images of the Jewish Code adopted by the government of the Slovak Republic on September 9, 1941.
Based on this code, the representatives of the Slovak Republic, established as a satellite of Nazi Germany in March 1939, gradually stripped Jews of their property, as well as their social and civil rights. The law even allowed the Republic to initiate deportations, which took place in two waves:
from March to October 1942, and from September 1944 to March 1945. During these two waves the country deported about 70,000 Jews.
The screening was accompanied by several members of the research team, including Bútora, Monika Vrzgulová, current head of the Holocaust Documentation Centre, as well as historian Eva Riečanská, ethnologist Peter Salner and his wife, political scientist Eva Salnerová.
They all spoke about why they contributed to the project, as well as the impact the work had had on them.
“[During the interviews] I realised the horrors those people had to go through and the trauma it left in them,” said Riečanská, adding that she also learned about the “boundless evil [that] racial hatred can cause”.
Peter Salner said that the interviews made him reassess many details of his life.
“I also learned one thing: terror and suffering really have various forms,” he said, adding that not only the people transported to labour and concentration camps, but also those who remained in hiding had to withstand enormous psychological pressure.
Compared to these experiences, our everyday problems seem insignificant, he said.
The interviewers said that sometimes it was difficult to conduct the interviews since the survivors were not used to recounting their own experiences.
They all agreed that it was emotionally exhausting to listen to all the stories that people told them.
A unique project
NMŠ and the Holocaust Documentation Centre started preparing the documentary in the 1990s. It became part of the international project Oral History – The Destiny of Those Who Survived, financed by Yale University, Vrzgulová told an audience during the premiere.
The method used in this project is a special approach that obtains information from “live sources”, i.e. people who experienced “big history” through their own personal “small history”, according to the NMŠ webpage.
This means that the researchers do not only try to provide the official version of the events that occurred, but they also try to make it more personal and show it through the stories of people who actually lived through the events.
The documentary was digitalised last year, said Peter Leponi, a project manager at the Milan Šimečka Foundation, during the premiere.
Thanks to this improvement it can now serve as additional education material for schools.
The documentary is divided into six sections, starting with the pre-war years, after the establishment of the Slovak Republic through the declaration of war, followed by the Jewish Code, the deportations and life in the concentration camps, and concluding with the liberation and the survivors’ return home.
British Ambassador to Slovakia Susannah Montgomery, who also attended the premiere, praised the work the researchers had done. During the Second World War many people did not even know what was happening to the Jews until the Allied armies liberated the concentration camps.
During her speech she stressed that people should never forget this chapter of history in order that it is not repeated.
“It is important that the voices [of the Holocaust victims who survived] should be heard,” Montgomery said.