Treatment of Jewish Themes in Slovak Schools

Treatment of Jewish Themes in Slovak Schools

As noted above, it is more difficult to analyze instruction in secondary schools than in elementary schools. There are new textbooks in some subject areas—for example, social science and literature—but hardly any in others, most especially history. Teachers, therefore, are forced to rely on older books or other materials. To get a better sense of what actually takes place in secondary school classrooms, the authors of this report conducted interviews with teachers in Bratislava and other Slovak cities.


The geography textbook for the first year of gymnasium refers to Israel in a number of chapters, mostly in a positive manner. The references, however, are not sufficient to allow any clear sense of the country to emerge.

Additional information is offered in Geography for the Second Year of Gymnasium, Part One (Bratislava, 1991). Here Israel serves as a model of religious conflict: "The Jewish element in the Muslim world is the cause of unrest between Israel and its Arab neighbors. A conflict between Hindus and Muslims resulted in the secession of Pakistan and Bangladesh from India." Further on, Israel is ranked with Japan and Turkey among developed countries. There is a positive characterization of the Jewish state: "Small Israel originated in 1948 following a 2000-year-old claim of Jews for their own territory. The Jews built an economically prosperous state, the GDP of which per capita is four times higher than those of its Arab neighbors." The authors stress that "Israel is the most effective utilizer of water worldwide," and is characterized by high levels of education: "Israel is the only Asian state in which the number of educated people is higher than needed by science and the economy, so that many of them are unable to find jobs." Both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are listed as capitals of the country.

Geography for the Second Year of Gymnasium, Part Two (Bratislava, 1991) includes a chapter on the religious structure of the world population. Judaism is classified as an ethnic type of religion and it is characterized as "a complex of religion and social ethics." The authors claim 18 million followers of Judaism worldwide. Scattered comments provide students with at least a basic sense of the nature of Judaic faith. Particular stress is placed on the concept of monotheism: "God is almighty, invisible, and inconceivable, who created the world out of nothing and who directs it himself. Judaism is based on the Bible and Talmud: faith in free human thinking, belief in good and evil, resurrection of the dead, eternal life, and the wrath of God." Regrettably, Judaism is not listed in the denominational classification of the Slovak population according to the 1991 census.


Literature 3 for the Third Year of Gymnasium and High Schools (Bratislava, 1995) and Literature 4 for the Fourth Year of Gymnasium and High Schools (Bratislava, 1997) cover twentieth-century world literature. Both mention Jewish authors and issues, though not in a systematic fashion.

A Jewish element is first encountered in Literature 3 in connection with the writings of Thomas Mann. The author, students are informed, "emigrated to Switzerland in order to escape from Nazism. Later Mann left for the USA, where he wrote a historical-philosophical tetralogy, Joseph and His Brothers, in which he connected a biblical story with contemporary times. Through the biblical Jew Joseph, the author protested against anti-Semitism and racism." The Jewish origin of Franz Kafka is not mentioned in a relatively extensive presentation of his works. However, when introducing the Russian writer Issac Babel, the authors make the following comment: "Lyricism but also irony were used by Babel in his book Odessa Stories (1931), in which he described his childhood and the Jewish environment of Odessa." Czech author Ivan Olbracht's writings on Jewish topics are cited, but no details are given. Gejza Vámoš, one of the few Slovak Jewish writers of the period, is touched upon, with students being told: "His novel Broken Branch is characterized by autobiographic features. . . . It focuses on the problem of a 'broken branch'—Jews and their coexistence with the majority population."

In their fourth year, gymnasium students learn about the contemporary world and Slovak literature. Saul Bellow's novel Herzog, which receives significant attention, is characterized in the following manner: "Like the author, Moses Herzog spent his childhood in Chicago, to which his ancestors went from Russia." When listing Joseph Heller's books, Good as Gold is mentioned. In regard to Arthur Miller's plays, Broken Glass is characterized as depicting American Jewish society at the time of Kristallnacht.

Books by Czech Jewish authors are associated mainly with the Holocaust. Thus Jan O¹enáš's novel Romeo, Julia and Darkness is described as "a love story between student Paul and a Jewish girl Ester which has a tragic end. Ester is shot by Germans and Paul's soul is full of despair." Also mentioned are Ludvik Aškenázy and Ivan Klima; about the latter students are told: "When still a child, he survived three years in Terezin concentration camp and his work reflects these experiences."

While Jewish themes find expression in post-1945 Slovak literature, they are not discussed in Literature 4. Leopold Lahola's Jewish origin is not directly mentioned, but students are told that "he could not finish his studies due to racial reasons. He was detained in the labor camp Novaky. He managed to escape from there and join the partisans."

Social Education

Social education seeks to acquaint students with the basic elements of select fields—philosophy, law, economics, political science, psychology, and religion. Judaism figures only in religious ethics, a second-year course whose goal is to promote religious tolerance—"accepting people with different worldviews." With respect to Judaism, its monotheistic character is stressed. According to the curriculum outline, "every teacher can adjust the extent of the teaching material." Thus if a teacher wishes to focus exclusively on Christianity, he or she may do so. Still, students claim that they get at least some exposure to Judaism.


There are hardly any new history textbooks for secondary schools, while those issued under Communist auspices are completely inadequate.

1997 saw the publication of a new history textbook for technical and vocational high schools written by a team of authors: History Textbook for Technical and Vocational High Schools, vol. 1, From Primeval Times to the Modern Era (Bratislava, 1997) and vol. 2, History of the Modern Era to the Revolutionary Years 1848-1849 (Bratislava, 1997). These volumes, however, contain little information about Jewish history. The first reference to Jews is in the chapter dealing with ancient civilizations, where it is stated: "Its most prominent ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, conquered Jerusalem, the capital of Hebrew-Jews, and in 587 B.C. he took the Jews as his captives." In a chapter entitled "The Culture of River Civilizations," students are informed: "On the territory of Palestine there appeared a faith in a single God, Yahweh, which laid the grounds of the Jewish and later of the Christian religions. Their holy book, the Old Testament (part of the Bible) is more than 3000 years old and consists of 40 volumes. It belongs to the cultural heritage of mankind."

When dealing with the rise of Fascism and Nazism, teachers can make use of two books by Josh Brooman, Italy and Mussolini: Italy 1900-1945 (1985) and Hitler's Germany: Germany 1933-1945 (1985), both translated into Slovak by the Slovak Teachers' Association.

Fortunately, in dealing with the period of the Holocaust, an important resource is available, namely D. Ková¹'s and L. Lipták's History Chapters for High Schools (Bratislava, 1990; 2d ed. 1992), which has the same temporary character as the textbook for elementary schools that the authors published (see above).

The authors describe Nazi policy toward the Jews as follows:

In this "great German living space" there was supposed to rule a "higher" German race. The "inferior nations"—Slavs and Jews—had to be decimated or entirely annihilated, others had to be turned into a crowd with no rights designed to do the dirty and unqualified labor for the "lordly nation." These mad plans did not remain on paper only, but began to be implemented systematically with the help of the great organizational and economic potential of Hitler's empire. The murder of 6 million Jews and 3 million Poles, as well as of other nationalities in the concentration camps, ghettos, or occupied regions, testifies to the above statement. Europe's prospects in case of a Nazi victory is the criterion that should be applied when considering the history of Slovakia during the World War II.

Ková¹ and Lipták devote considerable space to Slovak state ideology, making clear the role of the Slovak Republic in implementing Nazi policy toward the Jews:

The pro-Nazi government had already adopted anti-Jewish measures during its autonomy (on March 14, 1939, the Slovak Republic was established), but after March 14 one new measure was followed by another. First, the Jews started to be systematically deprived of their property and jobs. Jewish industrial companies, businesses, craft shops, and houses were transferred to "Christian" companies or to former competitors at minimal cost, or they were seized by members of politically prominent families. A great number of Jewish artists, lawyers, and physicians were liquidated. Jews were banned from certain jobs—e.g., as editors, teachers, officers. They were fired from all public offices and institutions. Legislation prevented Jews from acquiring higher education. They could not attend any schools but elementary ones, and these had to be special Jewish schools. There was a limit on hiring Jewish youths as apprentices and for vocational training. Thus the pro-Hitler government in Slovakia implemented the same barbaric measures against Jews as those applied by the Nazis—e.g., in Poland, where they had to ensure German dominance over the "lower Slavic race."

History Chapters for High Schools includes yet another paragraph describing anti-Jewish measures:

The law prohibited and punished any intimate relation between "Aryans" and Jews, including visiting each other. To facilitate monitoring them, Jews had to wear a distinctive sign in public—the yellow star. They were not allowed to live on main streets, to go to movies, theaters, or coffeehouses, to attend exhibitions, to walk in parks, to go to swimming pools, or to own cameras, binoculars, bicycles, or telephones or to use them. Their letters and applications had to be labeled with a star, they could travel only in marked cars and with official permission. They could stay out and go shopping only at predetermined times. In the summer of 1941, the government started to assemble more than 100,000 impoverished and dislodged Jews in ghettos.

The authors mince no words in describing the end of Slovak Jewry:

From March 25, 1942, when the first transport left from Poprad, until October 1942, 58,000 Jews were expelled by force from Slovakia. Almost all of them died. Only a small number of "economically important" Jews survived, others escaped abroad, and some were granted a "presidential exception."

When the transports were organized, the selected victims were rounded up at night. The Hlinka Guards and the police committed burglaries; all those scenes, full of violence and brutality, are difficult to describe. The racist legislation and later the deportation of the Jews were met with protests that the Vatican made to Tiso.

The authors conclude with a powerful indictment of the Slovak Republic: "The active participation of the Bratislava government in the annihilation of Jewish citizens made it a prisoner of its German protector, to whom they clung until the last days of the war. Persecution of the Jews was connected with so much violence and brutality that it ultimately cut off the road of the Hlinka Party to Europe."

To supplement scarce reading material on the Holocaust, schools in several cities of central and eastern Slovakia (Martin, Prešov, Banská Bystrica) make annual visits to Auschwitz. This however, is not the rule in Bratislava. Trips to concentration camps usually come about as a result of initiatives among students and teachers and are, as a rule, voluntary. Various organizations provide significant support in this respect—e.g., the Milan Sime¹ka Foundation. In 1995 this foundation organized a trip to Auschwitz for former prisoners together with high school students.

Other Sources for Jewish History

We have stressed that contemporary Slovak society is divided on the issue of the former Slovak state and its functioning, and this shows itself in the publication of textbooks and the recommendation of other materials for classroom use. So far the most serious conflict in this regard has centered on The History of Slovakia and the Slovaks by Milan S. Durica.

Durica, who emigrated from Slovakia shortly after the Communists took over in 1948, is a professor of Central and East European history at Padua University in Italy, and also professor of ecclesiastic history at the Theological Faculty of Comenius University in Bratislava. The first edition of his book, issued by Slovak Pedagogical Publishers in 1995, did not arouse any public response. This changed, however, when the second edition was published in 1996 with the help of the Ministry of Education, using a grant provided by the European Union. This edition of 90,000 copies was distributed to all Slovak elementary and secondary schools as a recommended book that was seen as providing the "official" view on Slovak history. Slovak students were expected to form their opinions about the Holocaust with the help of The History of Slovakia and the Slovaks.

While The History of Slovakia and the Slovaks covers Slovak history from the first centuries of the common era to the present, more than a quarter of the book is taken up with the period from the declaration of Slovak autonomy in October 1938 until the liberation of Czechoslovakia in May 1945. Durica uses every means available to minimize the participation of the wartime Slovak state in the liquidation of Slovak Jewry and to excuse President Tiso's behavior in this regard. A key element of his strategy is to blame Prime Minister Tuka and Interior Minister Mach for what happened to the Jews. Thus, Durica writes of events on May 25, 1940: "The German ambassador to Bratislava, Hans Bernard, reported to Berlin that Alexander Mach visited President Tiso and urged him to adopt the radical solution of the Jewish issue, which Tiso rejected. Therefore, Tuka asked Berlin for instructions and moral support."

Anti-Jewish measures, which began to be implemented at the end of 1938, are mentioned for the first time by Durica in connection with constitutional law No. 210 of September 3, 1940, "which for a one-year term authorized the Slovak government to resolve the issues related to the Aryanization of Jewish property and businesses. By adopting such legislation, the parliament limited its own powers, and also the power of the president, while strengthening the position of the government."

Durica notes the adoption of the Jewish Codex on September 9, 1941 in this way: "The Slovak government issued edict No. 198/1941 on the legal status of Jews ('Jewish Codex'). It represented almost a faithful copy of the German anti-Jewish laws. However, article 255 endowed the president with the right to make exemptions from this governmental decree which had the same force as a law. President Tiso never signed the legislation."

Durica indicates that at the beginning of 1942 there were 64 Jewish schools in Slovakia—previously there had been 24—attended by about 8,000 students. Unmentioned, however, is the fact that the boom in Jewish schools was due to the expulsion of Jewish children from the public schools.

Durica stresses German pressure to deport Slovak Jews and the alleged resistance of the Slovak parliament and President Tiso:

The leadership of the Hlinka Party headed by Dr. Jozef Tiso decided to resolve the Jewish question in accordance with Christian moral principles. They proposed to build labor camps for Jews in Slovakia and to tax Jewish property. Following this decision, labor camps for Jews were set up in Novaky, Sered, Vyhne; later, labor centers were established in Zilina, Ilava, Deges, and Nitra. These were more or less facilities of an economic character run on the basis of state orders. The cabinet-making shops in Sered were the most modern and efficient facilities of their kind in Slovakia. Every camp had its own agricultural section with cattle-breeding for the camp's own supply. There were schools established for children, vocational training for apprentices. During vacations children could spend some time outside the camps in those Jewish families that were free. Jewish physicians cared for the health conditions of camp inhabitants. Dentists were provided with gold for dentures, which at that time most Slovaks could not afford at all. Chiefs of economic sections were often permitted to travel across Slovakia, a privilege they often misused to organize illegal actions.

As to the actual deportation process, it is described as follows:

March 25, 1942: The first transport of Slovak Jews left from Poprad through Zilina to the former Poland. It consisted of approximately 1000 young girls capable of work. In the following transports approximately 8000 Jewish youths, both girls and boys, were deported. The displacement of Jews and especially their harsh treatment by some Slovak Hlinka Guards raised sharp criticism and resistance of many Slovak citizens, church officials, and the state council. The main objection was that family ties were broken among deported individuals. Therefore, Tuka and Mach requested the German officials to take the older family members as well. The chief of the fourth department B4 of the Chief Reich Security Office (RSHA) in Berlin, Adolf Eichmann, first refused to comply with their wish, but later he changed his view. Thus, beginning April 11, there started the deportation of entire families. The president's office intervened in these governmental actions by granting presidential exceptions according to article 255 of the government Act 198/1941. Similarly, ministries provided special passes to many Jews, claiming that they were economically irreplaceable, which exempted them from deportation. Such passes protected approximately 35,000 Jews.

Given its attempt to explain away the complicity of the Slovak state in the destruction of Slovak Jewry, it is not surprising that Durica's book was attacked in many quarters. Among those protesting the effort to make it an official textbook were the Federation of the Jewish Communities in Slovakia, B'nai B'rith, Protestant church officials, various political parties, and the Helsinki Committee and other human rights organizations.

Another volume that was meant to make up for the shortage of new history textbooks is the Lexicon of Slovak History (1997), compiled by a team of authors. It is divided into two parts: "The Calendar," which lists historical events chronologically, and "The Vocabulary," which is encyclopedic in character.

Unfortunately, the sections of the volume dealing with the Holocaust lean heavily on Durica's book. The deportation of Slovak Jews is described as follows:

On March 25, 1942 the deportations of Jews to the German concentrations camps began. The deportations were ordered by the prime minister V. Tuka after an agreement with Germany without parliament's and president's knowledge as well as of other members of the government. Slovakia was the first independent state that displaced most of its Jews in this way. It was also the first state that stopped the deportations in October 1942 after it learned about the annihilation of Jews (until the end of 1942, 58,000 Jews were deported). The deportations were renewed only in October 1944 when the German army invaded Slovakia. Approximately 70,000 Jewish citizens were deported, of whom 67,000 died in the German concentration camps.

Under the heading "Labor Camps" the following information is provided:

Centers for Jews and persons avoiding work. In Slovakia they began to be built in 1941. They were designed for that part of the Jewish population that lost its civil rights after the adoption of the Jewish Codex. The deportations of Jews from Slovakia to German concentration camps in Poland beginning March 25, 1942, speeded up the construction of labor camps to save Jews from deportations. Persons selected for deportation were held in gathering camps temporarily. The labor camps for Jews were established by the Interior Ministry's act of April 4, 1942, which required a general labor duty. In Slovakia there were established three labor camps, which acquired the character of state enterprises. The camp in Sered (1700 persons) specialized in joinery work and it ranked among the most modern and efficient companies in Slovakia. The camp in Novaky (1300 persons) specialized in clothing production and the camp in Vyhne (400 people) on construction works. All of them were guarded by the Hlinka Guards. Apart from a strict camp regime, they had their own self-administration, social and cultural facilities (hospital, nurseries, schools, libraries, theaters). Besides the labor camps for Jews, there were also Jewish working centers which were smaller working groups dispersed all across Slovakia (approx. 700 people). The labor camps for Jews ceased to exist when the uprising burst out in 1944.

The entry under "Jewish Codex" is worth quoting in full:

The Jewish Codex is a governmental decree on the status of Jews. After the first Slovak Republic came into being on March 14, 1939, the authorities began to seek a solution to the so-called Jewish question that would resolve the economic, political, and cultural situation of the Jewish population. In Slovakia, where assimilation among Jews was less than in Hungary or the Czech Republic, the Jews were viewed as a foreign element. This was due to previous historical experience and prejudices, contemporary ideas, and the lack of mutual tolerance and knowledge. Tiso's government attempted to proceed according to the so-called 4-percent method (proportion of the Jewish population to the majority population). In 1940, 88,951 Jews lived in Slovakia. The first governmental act that restricted Jewish rights was issued on April 18, 1939. It defined the term "Jew" on religious rather than racial grounds and limited their participation in certain free professions. Until September 1940, 47 governmental rulings restricting the rights of Jews were issued; however, most of them allowed for exceptions. Gradually, their properties began to be confiscated (e.g., land reform of February 29, 1940, the first Aryanization legislation of April 15, 1940). These laws very flagrantly affected the economic prosperity of Jews; however, they were not entirely excluded from the economic life of the country. From March 1939 until the end of 1941, 6194 Slovak Jews left Slovakia. The Salzburg negotiations of July 28, 1940, brought a turning point on the Jewish issue. Upon A. Eichmann's proposal, D. Wisliczeny came to Bratislava as an adviser on the Jewish issue to the Slovak government with the aim of depriving the Jews of their property and displacing them. The new prime minister V. Tuka and interior minister A. Mach requested a fast solution of the so-called Jewish question. On September 3, 1940, the parliament authorized the government to take all measures necessary for the Aryanization of Jewish property—i.e., its complete transfer into non-Jewish hands. Jewish property was registered and counted. According to that registration, 54,667 individuals owned property amounting to Sk 4 billion 322 239,000 and their debts accounted for Sk 1 billion 134 582,000. The Jewish Codex was issued as the governmental ruling on September 9, 1941, following the model of the so-called Nuremberg racial laws. The Codex, which consisted of 270 articles, was monitored by H. Globke, the author of extensive commentaries to the Nuremberg Laws. The term "Jew" was defined by racial criteria: it was a person who had at least three Jewish grandparents. Half-Jewish persons were considered non-Jews. Intermarriages between Jews and gentiles were forbidden. Jews had to be labeled. Their personal freedom was radically restricted. President Tiso enforced article 255 in the Jewish Codex according to which he could grant an exception or partially exempt a person from this ruling. There began the construction of labor camps for Jews. The confidential conference of German politicians at Wannsee on January 20, 1942 determined the "final solution of the Jewish question" by annihilation of the Jews. When Germany requested an increase in the number of Slovak workers designated for labor in Germany, the Slovak Interior Ministry offered 20,000 Jews from Slovakia as a substitute for the requested labor force. Germany systematically enforced the solution of the so-called Jewish question by displacement of Jews. Without informing the government and President Tiso about his plans, V. Tuka made an agreement with Germans to dislodge the Jews from Slovakia. The deportations started on March 25, 1942. The government paid DM 500 for each deported Jew.

Another supplement to textbooks was published in 1997 under the title The History Book. It is intended to help gymnasium students pass their graduation examinations. The chapter "The Slovak Republic (1939-1945)" includes a sixteen-line section entitled "Persecution of Jewish Citizens" which provides accurate information about the Holocaust. A listing of restrictions imposed on Jews—e.g., they could not practice certain professions, they had to wear the yellow star, communication between "Aryans" and Jews was prohibited—paves the way for the following statement: "On the pretext that the Jews were to be conscripted for labor in the territory of former Poland, Tuka and Mach elicited from the government the deportation of the Jews from Slovakia. From March 25 when the first transport left Poprad until October 1942, 58,000 Jews were forced out of Slovakia. Some Jews escaped abroad, others obtained the so-called presidential exception. The racist legislation and displacement of Jews met with a strong protest from the Vatican addressed to Tiso. The deportations were stopped only in the fall of 1942."

We talked to several secondary-school teachers about how they coped with the shortage of quality history textbooks and the use they made of the recommended supplemental books. A history teacher at a Catholic high school in Bratislava showed us a number of books that she used for reference. Among them were two of Durica's books. When asked if she actually used them in class, she replied that students should know both sides of a controversial issue before making a final judgment. She used Durica's books for reference on the early history of Slovakia, but used other sources in dealing with the Slovak Republic. At the time of our interview, she was teaching World War II and the Holocaust to third-year students. She indicated that she had invited several historians to talk to her students and on a number of occasions went with them to the Jewish Museum in Bratislava, although she complained that she had very little time for such extra activities.

A history teacher at another Bratislava gymnasium made it clear that she focuses on anti-Semitism, indicating that it is neither a new nor a peculiarly German phenomenon. She considered Durica's book to be tendentious and, when using it, added appropriate commentary. She made it clear, however, that some of her colleagues viewed things quite differently. The wartime Slovak Republic is often a source of sharp dispute in the classroom, she reported. In the fourth year of history instruction at her school, there is an optional seminar on the Holocaust. In 1997-98, approximately 50 students—out of a total of 130 fourth-year students—enrolled in it. Students seem to show increasing interest in this issue, she stated. Even if they do not participate in the seminar, they ask her to tell them the truth about the wartime Slovak Republic and President Tiso.

Another history teacher told us that her family had suffered as a result of xenophobia, and that she therefore wanted her students to understand the atrocities of the Holocaust. After a great deal of effort, she was able to organize a trip to Auschwitz for her students, stressing the point that nothing equals direct contact with the reality of the concentration camps. She planned to continue such trips if funding is available.

Many teachers use the Lexicon of World History, written by a team of authors, as a teaching aid, and it provides some coverage of Israel, both ancient and modern. The book is divided into two parts, one containing dates and the other entries. The first part refers to ancient Israel as follows:

1250 B.C.: Palestine—the first nomadic Hebrew tribes come here, and around 1025 B.C. establish the first Jewish state (King David).

1010-970 B.C.: Palestine—was ruled by King David, who strengthened the Jewish state and expanded its territory. Jerusalem became the capital.

972-930 B.C.: Palestine—the rule of King Solomon, the son of king David. He reinforced his empire both politically and economically. He maintained friendly and peaceful relations with his neighbors. In Jerusalem he built a large temple of Yahweh. After his death, the Jewish state split into southern and northern kingdoms.

166-137 B.C.: Palestine—uprising broke out that was headed by members of Hasmonean family—Mathias and Judah Maccabee (thus it gets to be known as the Maccabee uprising) against the Syrian Seleucids. After victorious fights the cult of Yahweh, worshiped in the main Jerusalem temple, was renewed. In 142 B.C. an independent state, ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty, was established.

The modern State of Israel has several entries in the Lexicon of World History, along the lines of the following: "Israel, Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948—declaration of the state of Israel. The next day the first Arab-Israeli war broke out due to disapproval of the Arabic population with the division of Palestine into two independent states." The 1956 war is presented along with the Six-Day War and Yom Kippur War. The language of all these entries is neutral. However, a separate entry, entitled "Israeli-Arab Wars" has a slightly negative tone. Thus, the 1948 victory is evaluated in the following words: "It helped Israel to ensure its existence and expand its military bases. No Palestinian state was established, and there occurred a new exodus of refugees." As a result of the Six-Day War, according to the Lexicon, "Israel got under its control all occupied territories inhabited by Arabs. However, it lost a great deal of its reputation."

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC