- Mapping Jewish Loyalties in Interwar Slovakia by Rebekah Klein-Pejšová
“The Slovak Jews” or “the Jews in Slovakia”? A seemingly minor difference in wording divides scholarship on interwar and wartime Slovakia. Virtually every Slovak-language book on the Holocaust in Slovakia or on the Jewish community living within the borders of Slovakia—or even on the general history of the country—includes a section in which the authors explain why they chose one term over the other. The subject is all the more complicated as Slovak, like many other Slavic languages, grammatically distinguishes Jews as an ethnic group (Židia, written with the capital letter “Ž”) from Jews as a religious community (židia, written with lower-case “ž”). For example, in his authoritative 1991 work Po stopách tragédie (On the Trail of Tragedy)—based on a 1971 dissertation but appearing in press only after the 1989 Velvet Revolution—Ivan Kamenec comes down on the side of “Jews in Slovakia.” He argues that the First Czechoslovak Republic (1918–1938) was too short-lived to “influence the overall national profile of Jews in Slovakia, and hence also public opinion.”1 Eduard Nižňanský supports this argument, noting that most Jews living in the Czechoslovak Republic or the Slovak State that came into being in March 1939 did not proclaim Slovak nationality, “but claimed to be of Jewish, German, Hungarian or other” ethnicity.2 Conversely, in his monograph on antisemitism in the Slovak national movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Miloslav Szabó opts for the lower-cased version, “taking into account [the Jews’] status as a religious, not an ethnic minority” in the Kingdom of Hungary, of which Slovakia had been a part until the former’s dissolution in 1918.3 In other words, [End Page 543] before addressing the subjects of their study, scholars must clarify their understanding of who these Jews were. This necessity points to an even bigger question: How Slovak were the Jews of Slovakia anyway?
Rebekah Klein-Pejšová’s newly released book puts this question finally to rest. Her well-researched volume focuses on Slovakia between the two world wars, critically examining the position of Jews between the demise of Austria-Hungary and the proclamation of formally independent—but in reality, collaborationist—Slovakia. As the author shows, within this “movement from empire to nation-state,” and in the context of changing borders complicating the map of East-Central Europe, the new authorities questioned Jewish loyalty to the new political reality (pp. 1–2). The focus of this book is on how Jews sought what a Slovak minister in 1920 called the “right path”; that is, how they reoriented themselves vis-à-vis the expectations of the new state. As the author argues (perhaps too often, leaving little space for readers to draw their own conclusions), although Jews could not become Slovaks, they could—and eventually would—“become ‘Slovak Jews,’ defined geographically rather than nationally as belonging to the territory of Slovakia within the liberal Czechoslovak state” (p. 143). The intertwining of the Slovak national movement with Catholicism, and the strength of antisemitism within the movement itself, prevented Jews from identifying as Slovak per se; however, the liberal regime of the First Republic enabled them to become Slovak Jews.
The author provides numerous arguments to support her claim. Paradoxical as it may seem, the most convincing concerns the loyalty of dead Jewish soldiers. The Heroes’ Temple memorial in Budapest, a Neolog prayer hall and a site of mourning for Jewish soldiers who died while fighting for the monarchy during the First World War, aroused suspicion among Czechoslovak officials well before its completion in 1931. As a result of the changed borders, almost half of the 10,000 Jewish soldiers from the Kingdom of Hungary who had died for the monarchy originated from places now in one of the successor states. Czechoslovak authorities viewed requests from the Jewish community in Budapest to their counterparts in Slovakia asking for the personal data of fallen soldiers as a sign...