“Well – I survived and my closest family survived,” said Naftali Fürst, who spoke at the museum’s January 26 opening. “I came here to honour those who died in camp, but also those who survived war but have died in the meantime.”
He spent some 30 months in the camp – almost the entire span it was in operation.
“But it is a shame that it opens so late when even us who survived the war are gradually dying of age,” said Fürst, who was born with the first name Juraj in the Petržalka borough of Bratislava in 1932.
Fürst’s family traded wood and construction materials through the company Fürst Brothers. They all were imprisoned in the camp in Sereď on May 9, 1942. Three years earlier, they had been forced from their home, and their former house became – under the name “Camp Fürst” – part of the concentration camp in Petržalka (the German name for the district, Engerau, also became the name of the camp), in which about 500 Jewish prisoners from Hungary were killed.
A bit of history
The camp in Sereď was the place where Jews from Slovakia were sent, after their properties and belongings had been confiscated, in the process called Aryanisation and re-distributed among the Slovak population. It was not a death camp, but first a work camp for Jews and later, after the population of the war-time Slovak state organised the Slovak National Uprising and the Nazis suppressed it and occupied the country, a concentration camp.
In the first phase of deportations, 57 transports with more than 57,000 Jews left the Slovak state for Nazi concentration and death camps in Germany, Austria and occupied Poland. In the second phase, from September 1944 to March 1945, nearly 12,000 Jews who still remained in the country were imprisoned in Sereď, according to the museum. The last transport left this camp on March 31, 1945; in the very last phase of the war in this region.
During World War II, the Slovak state established three camps for its Jewish citizens: Nováky, Vyhne and Sereď. Only the last one has been preserved, which later served as army barracks.
The first Holocaust museum in the country ceremonially opened on the eve of the International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust, January 27.
... and the present time
So far, only two of the five barracks are reconstructed and open to the public (No 1 and No 5), while another one is set to open this June. For the remaining three, financing has yet to be arranged, head of the Sereď Museum, Martin Korčok, said. Part of the museum – which was built and operates under the Museum of Jewish Culture of the Slovak National Museum – is also an educational centre for youth, to be housed in barracks No 5. The only preserved railway carriage verifiably used for transports of Jews is also part of the exhibition. After all barracks are reconstructed, furnished and opened, the complex should offer a complex view of how the camp used to operate, including carpentry, textile, hatter, leather, and toy-making workshops. The museum is open for the public from Sunday to Thursday, between 9:00 and 16:00, and after with advanced booking, guided tours in English are also possible; information is available in English.
At the opening another survivor recalled that the camp also included a school with two rooms, one for classes 1 to 5 and another for classes 6 to 8.
Ján Hanák, who spent three months in the camp, spoke about his family’s journey from their home in Žilina to Bratislava, where their mum was taken away and a neighbour sent them to an orphanage in Trnava. There, they were exposed as Jews, “although I was brought up as Roman-Catholic and served as an altar boy in several churches” and sent to Sereď. From there, Hanák (then aged 9) and his brother (10) continued to the Czech concentration camp in Terezín where they witnessed the end of the war and were liberated thanks to a former neighbour who advised them to hide among the adult men to avoid deportation with women and children.
After they made it all the way from Terezín to Žilina, the Hanáks found that their former neighbours were living in their flat, and their parents were nowhere to be found. Ján remembered the church near an orphanage led by nuns where he used to serve as an altar boy, and knocked on the door. Their mother – who returned from camps in Terezín and Ravensbrueck – found them at the orphanage and their father returned from another concentration camp, Mauthausen.
What Hanák remembers most is fear (waiting every day for transport that could take them to another camp), hunger (“we survived thanks to potato peels taken from kitchen waste and baked on a small heater in the middle of the room”), cold and tension.
Survivors say that their Slovak compatriots both harmed them – as Hlinka’s Guards, helpers to German Nazis, or as ordinary citizens who looted their property – but some also helped, even risking their own lives.
Another survivor noted that most Jews, from Sereď were sent to Terezín; “and to that camp, 12,000 children arrived of whom only about 100 survived – and I am one of them”.
Terezín and its similar fate with Sereď connects Slovakia with the Czech Republic, whose Prime Minister, Bohuslav Sobotka, attended the ceremony (alongside Slovak politicians), as did Yitzak Vaknin, vice-chair of Israeli parliament, or Knesset; Israeli Ambassador Zvi Aviner Vapni, Bratislava Rabbi Baruch Myers and other representatives of the Jewish community.
Ironically, the opulent opening ceremony in a posh tent was organised on January 26 at the saddest place in the whole camp, appelplatz. There, prisoners were concentrated, counted and forced to walk or run, sometimes all night long. Those who did not keep up were shot dead.
“The site where we are just now – where you are standing or sitting – used to be the site full of fears, tears, desperation and families separated,” Fürst said. “This place should shake endlessly so that people find out what it had seen and heard, and how many tears and how much blood it has absorbed.”