Anti-Semitic remarks cast shadow over Holocaust Memorial Day

IN 1941, a set of anti-Jewish laws went into effect in the Nazi wartime satellite Slovak Republic on September 9. Every year on this day, Slovakia commemorates its Holocaust victims. While last year the Catholic Church made its first-ever appearance at the memorial events, in a gesture welcomed by the Jewish community, this year day’s events were somewhat overshadowed by anti-Semitic statements made recently by a higher-ranking Catholic priest.

A Holocaust memorial event in Zvolen.A Holocaust memorial event in Zvolen. (Source: TASR)

IN 1941, a set of anti-Jewish laws went into effect in the Nazi wartime satellite Slovak Republic on September 9. Every year on this day, Slovakia commemorates its Holocaust victims. While last year the Catholic Church made its first-ever appearance at the memorial events, in a gesture welcomed by the Jewish community, this year day’s events were somewhat overshadowed by anti-Semitic statements made recently by a higher-ranking Catholic priest.

In October 2001, the Slovak parliament voted to make September 9 the Memorial Day for Victims of the Holocaust and Racial Violence, to not only commemorate Holocaust victims, but also to call on citizens to become actively engaged in fighting racism, xenophobia, intolerance and discrimination.

The day was selected as the anniversary of the date when the so-called Jewish Code was enacted in 1941, which consisted of 270 laws that stripped citizens of Jewish ethnicity of their civil rights and property. Since then, some historians have pointed out that the Jewish Code was in some ways stricter than anti-Semitic laws under Nazi Germany at that time. The code and the measures that followed paved the way for mass deportations of Jews. About 71,000 Jews were deported from Slovakia during the war.

The events

A number of memorial events took place in Slovakia on or around September 9, including in Nitra, Zvolen and Topoľčany.

The main ceremony took place, in keeping with tradition, in Bratislava’s Rybné Square, where the city’s Neolog Synagogue once stood. Beside representatives of the Jewish community and the Catholic and Protestant churches, Slovakia’s highest state officials and government representatives attended the event as well, to lay wreaths at the Holocaust Memorial on the square.

“I regard the commemoration of the victims to be my task, as well as the task of all the members of my cabinet,” Prime Minister Robert Fico said in his speech, as quoted by the SITA newswire, and apologised “for all those who failed back then”.

President Andrej Kiska recalled his visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp site in his speech and added that, unfortunately, these things happened in Slovakia and it is the duty of all [socially] conscious people to remember what really went on, “particularly nowadays, when expressions of neo-Nazism and racial hatred are on the rise”, SITA reported.

While local Rabbi Baruch Myers led a prayer for the victims at the ceremony, the Jewish community representative, Pavol Traubner, himself a Holocaust survivor, addressed the crowd in a speech, noting that people today need to remember the Holocaust, because similar threats continue to exist not only for the Jews, but for all the people in the world.

The Foreign Ministry, which oversees the human rights and minorities agenda, also said in its official statement that day that in many parts of the world, human rights continue to be violated and discrimination based on race, religion or ethnicity still exists.

An accompanying event took place on September 9 in Bratislava’s City Theatre, where several VIPs from Slovak political and cultural life participated in a ceremony of reading the names of the Holocaust victims, a traditional way of remembering those who perished in the Holocaust during World War II. In Slovakia, the tradition was established in 2009. This year, former prime minister Iveta Radičová, writer Daniel Hevier, TV presenter Štefan Bučko, writer Michal Hvorecký and filmmaker Dušan Hanák were among those who read the victims’ names.

Lucia Kollárová, spokesperson for the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Slovakia, said that the tragic events of the Holocaust left society with many social and ethical problems. On one hand, there are forces that seek to analyse what happened, find the reasons for the genocide, describe the past and keep the memory of the millions of victims alive.

“On the other hand, there are appreciable forces that try to relativise, doubt or even deny certain events,” Kollárová said, as quoted by SITA.

She stressed that quite often people who are responsible for the tragedy and whose activities have been described as a crime by the courts are praised. Members of the Jewish community consider such celebrations an offence to the Holocaust victims.

Priest’s anti-Semitic remarks

In 2013, Archbishop Stanislav Zvolenský’s decision to participate in the commemoration events for the first time since the memorial day was established, was welcomed by the Jewish community. Igor Rintel, chair of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Slovakia, said in his speech that year that he hoped Zvolenský’s presence would be a step towards strengthening the dialogue between Christians and Jews.

Zvolenský, who heads the Conference of Bishops of Slovakia (KBS), made an appearance this year again, but it was somewhat overshadowed by a recent incident from Čadca, northern Slovakia, where a high-ranking Catholic priest, Emil Floriš, spoke in an anti-Semitic tone to a crowd of hundreds.

In Slovakia, as well as all across Europe, Jews were deported to concentration camps because they were generally hated, “but oftentimes they created that hatred alone”, Floriš said, addressing a crowd that gathered for the mass in the local square to mark the 70th anniversary of the Slovak National Uprising (SNP). He claimed that the Jews who owned hotels, shops and restaurants in Čadca before the war, were “very very hard and greedy” towards “our people”, and “not social at all”.

“And now the threat is that it is the Roma’s turn,” the priest continued, “because they abuse the system and the good will of people.”

Floriš spoke apologetically about the wartime, Nazi-allied Slovak state, saying that the Hlinka Guard (a paramilitary organisation that operated in the state) was “very mild” towards the Jews during the deportations, and that they were only following “orders from above”.

“Also, President [Jozef] Tiso was helpless in this,” Floriš said.

Outrage over Floriš

Media reports about the priest’s statements provoked outrage among the Jewish community and champions of human rights in general.

Floriš’s speech offends and defames the memory of the Holocaust victims, Kollárová said in her reaction for SITA, adding that some of his statements contain untruths and anti-Semitic clichés, and diminish the suffering of the Jewish citizens under the wartime Slovak state.

Representatives of the Jewish community, however, stressed that their condemnation of the statements of an individual priest should not be seen as condemning the Catholic Church as such. Kollárová noted that Floriš’s statements are in direct conflict with the official stance of the Church, including that of Pope Francis, who is known for his positive relationship with the Jewish community.

“Also, due to the current wave of anti-Semitism in Europe, we regard the content of [the priest’s] words as dangerous and disturbing,” Kollárová told SITA. “We, however, perceive it as a moral and human failure of an individual.”

Archbishop Zvolenský, when asked by journalists to respond to Floriš’s statements after the September 9 memorial ceremony, said that “this is not a correct way of expressing things”, and admitted that if something similar happened in his archdiocese, he would not rule out some sort of sanctions against the priest. He, however, stressed that this particular case falls under the authority of the Žilina diocese.

The Žilina diocese in its immediate reaction stated that it has distanced itself from all forms of xenophobia. Regarding Floriš’s comments, diocese spokesman Zdeno Pupík only noted that the priest was addressing the history of the Čadca parish, focusing on the era of WWII. Pupík said that Floriš was drawing attention to the poor relations between Slovaks and Jews that resulted in the cruel and nonsensical Holocaust, SITA reported.

Reason for prosecution?

Meanwhile, Dušan Sloboda, an analyst with the non-governmental M. R. Štefánik Conservative Institute stated in a post on the institute’s blog, called on the respective bodies to launch a criminal prosecution against the priest, alleging that he committed the crime of denying or supporting the Holocaust.

“Since the information has [received] sufficient publicity, the respective bodies should launch a criminal prosecution, even without a criminal complaint being submitted,” Sloboda wrote, adding that if they fail to do so, he is ready to file a criminal complaint himself.

The police have responded to the call and are now determining whether Floriš committed an extremism-related crime, the spokesperson of the Žilina police Jana Balogová confirmed for SITA on September 10.

Sloboda also called on representatives of the Church to take action against Floriš.
“I do not want my taxes to finance a man who shamelessly defames the fate and the memory of people whom this country sent to their deaths,” he wrote.

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