Slovakia has not dealt with its past yet, EDAH says

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In Slovakia, there was a lack of educational materials focused on the topic of holocaust from the Slovak perspective. That is why the civic association EDAH decided to create the first complex material on holocaust in Slovakia within a project supported by the Democracy and Human Rights Program.

“Obviously, we know from experience that such materials are not enough. When you publish a book, only a few students decide to read it just like that. But you cannot just give the book to the teacher and say here you go, from now on you will use this as a teaching material. Teachers tend to be lazy as much as their students. They are interested in various topics and some of them have no interests, they just want to go through the lectures,” explains Martin Korčok from EDAH. Therefore, the project of

Seredské svedectvá (Sereď Testimonies) has been complemented by short films with testimonies of survivors and specialized seminars for teachers. Today, EDAH cooperates with approximately 130 teachers, Yad Vashem organization and several countries, e.g. Switzerland, Israel, Canada, the Czech Republic and – thanks to the bilateral cooperation grant – Norway.

Your research has shown that children and young people do not have sufficient information on holocaust in Slovakia. Do teachers see the lack of educational materials as well?

Slovakia is very distinctive in one thing visible to anyone involved in education specializing in the Second World War. My personal view is that Slovakia has not come to terms with its past yet, although some may disagree. A huge issue stems from the fact that the president at that time was a Roman Catholic priest. The position of the Roman Catholic church is still very strong in Slovakia. I do not want to generalize, but there are some representatives of the church attempting to clear the man’s name, although it is a pure fact that he was rightfully convicted as a war criminal. This is just one of many examples. Unless we come to terms with our past, we will never be able to provide adequate education on holocaust and the Second World War. Naturally, teachers are human beings, they come from a certain surrounding, they have their own views and not all of them agree with the activities of EDAH.

In Slovakia, there are institutions celebrating the Slovak state and glorifying war criminals. This is the case even on the top levels of society, some of the people even have significant influence on education and educational materials. I consider it a large step forward that we managed to publish complementary educational texts entitled Solution of the Jewish Question in Slovakia between 1938 and 1945. If you browse through our school books, there is no mention of what exactly happened to Jews on our territory during the holocaust. Their extermination is mentioned only in connection with the territory of the occupied Poland and Nazi Germany. As if the holocaust did not concern Slovakia or as if the physical persecution and extermination did not concern Slovakia. But it did concern us and that needs to be said out loud. Unless we do not come to terms with that part of our history and start telling the truth, we cannot move forward. Our aim is to talk about it. A huge step forward is the publication of this book and its distribution to each and every secondary school teaching history all over Slovakia.

The name of your project is Seredské svedectvá (Sereď Testimonies) because of the camp where most of your stories of survivors and films come from.

Sereď was the last camp on the Slovak territory. It was a concentration camp operating from September 1944 until 31 March 1945 and the majority of transports leaving Slovakia at that time and the last arrested Jews in Slovakia were not executed on the spot, neither they travelled through Bratislava or the eastern part of Slovakia, they were deported directly to Sereď. That means an overwhelming majority of Jews. This piece of information was not known to the public either and we wanted to spread it, so we decided to call the project Sereď Testimonies.

The camp was originally established as a working camp.

The camp originally served as a concentration centre for Jews. In our book, we differentiate between working, concentration and extermination camps, as many people use these terms incorrectly. It is natural, because sometimes you hear about working camps, then about concentration camps or concentration centres. Sereď used to be all of that, we just need to distinguish between the individual periods and specify what each of the period meant.

*Working camp = concentrated people for forced labour

Concentration camp = imprisoned opponents of the Nazi regime and unwanted groups of inhabitants distinguished by colour triangles placed on their uniforms. Prisoners were held in inhuman conditions and abused for slave labour.

Extermination centre = after the adoption of the final solution of the Jewish question in 1941, these camps served for the extermination of Jews in gas chambers. For those transported to such centre, there was no chance for survival. *

I think that especially for the young generation, the story is unimaginable and as contemporary witnesses gradually grow old and pass away, so does the direct testimony of those events. And I was wondering whether it is related to the fact that many young people are currently being manipulated towards extreme attitudes.

I do not think that today’s young people can be manipulated more easily than previous generations, nor that there is a larger proportion of young people among extremists. I really don’t think so. The problem is that young people declare their views in a different way, they simply meet up and declare them openly, whereas the older ones do not.

For instance, for those of us who are involved in the area, older people who do not openly declare their views pose a higher risk. We cannot deal with them soon enough, they are unpredictable and they are not as familiar as the younger ones. Youngsters are influenced by a group, so although it is important to change the young, we need to focus on the group influencing the young generation as well.

It is the same case with teachers, some glorify the Slovak state. It is not our task to deal with students who share the information with others, we need to deal with the teacher. Because this strategy is much better than trying to explain it to students who are being misinformed. The same applies to extremism. We are discussing young extremists because young people shout and gather at public places, they pose a threat. But we must find out where, why and how they receive the information.

Some of the survivors of the Second World War claim that the current atmosphere in the society resembles the situation just before the war. Do you also feel that the tendencies of the current society’s approach to minorities and disadvantaged people are similar?

I will not answer your question directly, as I do not know the answer. However, talking about similarities, there is an important issue that respectable people agree on. During the holocaust and the Second World War – but also during any other war or genocide – the society is divided into three groups. The first group is represented by the executors. The second group are the victims and the third group, which is the largest one, are the people in the background. This applies also for the discussion on immigrants. There is a group supporting immigrants, another group refuses them, but the largest group are the observers. It is important to attract the third group of people, because those are the masses deciding about everything that happens. The only thing that matters is whether the masses are attracted by opponents – of the migration policy, for instance – or whether they are attracted by those who offer a helping hand to immigrants coming to our country.

Those are just my personal thoughts and I would not like to discuss them in too much detail. Nevertheless, I must say that the situation we are witnessing is very alarming. This is precisely why it is beneficial to point at several events from the past and try to find similarities between what happened in the past and what we are heading towards and what we need to do to prevent the things from happening or to minimize their extent.

Author: Michaela Kučová 23.09.2015