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Where hatred and intolerance can lead: letters from the Holocaust

21 September 2021

Madeline Vadkerty is a Samuel P. Mandell Fellow in the Holocaust and Genocide Studies Program at Gratz College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, where she is pursuing her PhD. She lives and works in Bratislava, Slovakia.

Vadkerty’s research has led her to the Slovak National Archives, where she discovered and studied previously unexplored letters written by Slovak Jews between 1939 and 1944, to then President of the Slovak State, Jozef Tiso. Their authors were pleading with the President for mercy and asking for an exemption from the Jewish Code and other antisemitic regulations.

Her book Slovutný pán prezident: Listy Jozefovi Tisovi (Your Honor Mr. President: Letters to Jozef Tiso) published in Slovak in 2020, focuses on individual stories of thirteen of these people, most of whom did not receive an exemption. Most perished during the Holocaust.

In this piece, Sara Cincurova, a journalist, alumna of MRG’s Media, Minorities and Migration programme and former crew member aboard the Sea-Eye 4 refugee rescue ship, talks to Madeline Vadkerty about her research, what we can learn from it today, how individual testimonies humanize history and what her book can teach us about humanitarian tragedies of our time.

“…From hour to hour, the most threatening news arrives from every corner of Slovakia about the most threatening measures and deportation of the destroyed, impoverished Jewish population to the former Poland and Russia. Please, I beg of you, Celebrated Mr. President, take steps and stop it… Dear Mr. President, they are sending us to a ready-made slaughter… I beg you to please help us. Slovakia itself needs all this Jewish labour and it is not and was not true that we Jews took away all of the earning power from the Slovaks. Please don’t allow it! I beg you on behalf of all of us and we will be forever grateful to you… Please, do whatever you can, Mr. President, we beg of you.”

Jozef M., Bratislava, 30 March 1942

How did your research begin?

I worked for several years at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C. I speak Slovak because I had lived in Slovakia from 1990 to 1996. The Museum needed someone to take a look at the archives to see what kind of documentary evidence existed about the Holocaust in Slovakia. I saw hundreds of thousands of pages of documents about what had happened here during World War II. One day, I was looking at some documents in the Office of the President of the Republic and I was riveted by the heartfelt, dramatic letters that I saw. My boss did not want me to linger over the documents, but I couldn’t resist.

Why did your boss say that?

The Museum was carrying out a project world-wide to gather documents as quickly as possible. My task was to figure out what we should copy so that future researchers could have access to the materials, even a hundred years from now, before they turn into dust. But I just started reading and I found letter after letter about people’s predicaments because of the so-called ‘Jewish question’.  I told myself that one day I would go through these letters and find out what these people were asking for, why they were asking, what happened to their requests, and what happened to them personally. I waited for seventeen years – by that time, my son had grown up and I had retired – and I returned to Slovakia thinking that I would just be satisfying my own personal curiosity about these people. But it turned out that without realizing it, I had started something that was controversial. I didn’t realize that people did not know about the letters and that there was so much controversy surrounding Jozef Tiso [President of the Slovak State during World War II.]

These letters are real time witnesses to what was happening, and people would pour their hearts out in them, speaking about being hungry, being cold, not being able to care for their parents, or not being able to marry the person they loved, because the anti-Jewish measures were very extensive and affected people in all kinds of different ways. I decided I needed to look at the letters and their historical context, but I also wanted to learn what had happened to the people that wrote the letters, so that the loop would be complete.

What happened to these people?

Most of the time, the people who wrote these letters did not survive; in a couple of cases there were survivors and I spoke with their family members. At first I thought I would write an article, but it turned into a book. I am still finding new letters in the archive. And I also received requests from the media asking about my research.

Do you think you were the first researcher who has actually read these letters?

Historians here have done a wonderful job mapping out what happened, and they were aware of the letters. However, I was the first person to systematically research the correspondence as a separate topic in and of themselves.

After the end of the War, the Communist regime here made this topic taboo. It did not want people to study, read, write or teach about this topic. It only became possible after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. It takes a lot of time to create a whole new field; a whole generation of historians needed to be cultivated and start publishing and describing what happened. Another thing is that this country was a Nazi client state. There are people living here whose parents and grandparents perpetrated anti-Jewish acts. For two generations, it was not possible to process what had happened here. So it is not that surprising to me that it has taken some time.

I imagine there are many similar letters that have been written in other countries.

Yes there are, and until about a year ago, there were no scholarly articles to speak of about the petitions and entreaties written to governments by Jews who were seeking help. It has been an overlooked topic, and only now is it starting to become researched. But Jews wrote to their governments about alleviating their problems all over Europe. However, it is only in the early nineties that you start to see people looking at diaries, letters, or other personal documents.

What was the reaction of the Office of the President, of the authorities, and also of the people who knew these persecuted Jews?

It is interesting because I was at first drawn to the research by the letters, but later, I realized that the other parts of the files are as interesting as the letters themselves, if not more so. The documents in the file often included letters from other people, either in favor, trying to help the Jewish person who was writing, or totally against the Jewish person, saying that this person should not receive any mercy. It is fascinating to see these battles play out in the files. I also learned that when a person wrote to Tiso, they may have thought it was a private request, but the moment they started interacting with officialdom, everything became public, and even the fates and personal lives of these people sometimes became public knowledge. In smaller towns, they even became an object of rumours and speculation. Sometimes, other people would write a letter to say that the Jewish person deserves no mercy; and in the same file, you find another letter saying that the same individual is lovely and helps their family. People would also write to the authorities about Jewish property; sometimes, they were angry because they wanted a certain property and didn’t get it.

I don’t know whether these people realized that they were actively engaged in helping the government persecute Slovakia’s Jews; I don’t know what happened when they found out that the people whose businesses they now owned never returned because they had perished, and whether they understood they were part of the machinery.

How were the letters processed?

On September 9, 1941, the Slovak government issued a decree which basically stripped Jews of their civil and human rights. Tiso was given the power to grant exemptions, and this caused an avalanche of correspondence. An administrative system of coping with this correspondence had to be created.

There were three possible outcomes when letters came in: One option was that the request would be refused outright, and the person would get a refusal letter. Sometimes the letter went to another government agency for processing. The third possibility was when the Office of the President decided to investigate the Jewish applicant to determine whether they were ‘worthy’ of getting an exemption.

For those being investigated, the President’s Office created a questionnaire with ten questions including what language the person spoke at home, whether they were being truthful, if they were politically reliable, if they lived moral lives, and the amount of property they owned. This letter would be sent to the District office where the applicant lived who would send a policeman around to gather that information. So, when I see a heart-breaking letter, I also see the bureaucratic fashion in which the letter was handled. The District office would write a report: they would say, for example, that this person is telling the truth, they speak this or that language, here is how much they own in property, and so on.

In these letters, people write that they were hungry and cold. There were about ten people who worked in the President’s Office, and they would read these letters and go home to their families, and live their normal lives while people were writing to them about terrible suffering and fear about the future.

What about the role of propaganda during the Slovak state? Did it play a big role?

At that time, there was no freedom of the press, and anything that was printed was state sponsored, which is another hallmark of totalitarian regimes – they don’t allow for differences of opinion. The propaganda toward Jews was shrill – to the modern eye it looks primitive.

I believe there are two factors that impacted people greatly. One was the rhetoric of officials in their public remarks, including Tiso. The second is that the rhetoric basically indicated that the persecution of Jews was in keeping with Christian teachings. This is something you do not see in any other country where the Holocaust took place. Alexander Mach, a Slovak politician, made a comment on the eve of the deportations saying that they would be handled ‘in a Christian way’. Everyone, including Tiso, said that the antisemitic regulations were in keeping with Christian teaching. Slovakia was a deeply Christian country and Tiso was very charismatic. He and other politicians promised to balance the inequities that have been caused by the Jews in our society. For example, Aryanisation was the process of transferring Jewish property into non-Jewish hands. It was a top priority for the state. In the beginning people favoured this, because they felt it was balancing out the unfairness they perceived. Later on, the deportations became less popular. It became clearer and clearer that Jews were not being sent to work, because they were deporting older people and children, who were too old or too young to work.

It is sad to see that in spite of all we know about history, so many minorities around the world are still being oppressed today.

My work has no meaning if there is no message about the future. When are people going to learn that hate and extreme nationalism are not forces of good? It was two Turkish emigrants who created the Pfizer vaccine for Covid-19. You never know where the next great mind is. I often think about the many people who died in World War II, and who never had the chance to give to the world and to contribute, and this saddens me.

You said that your work would have no meaning if we could not learn from it today. What can we learn from your book today?

People who wrote these letters to Tiso did not know that within a half a year, or even three months in some cases, they would be murdered for their origins. Today, we can look backward, but the idea of gas chambers would have seemed absurd to these people. They might have thought that they would have to cope with severe persecution, but nobody thought they would be going to be shipped out and killed in gas chambers. Now, with hindsight, we can say we know where hatred leads and we have to guard against it because if we don’t stop it and work against it, it can wind up in the government. Once it is government policy, and people do nothing – either because they agree, or they are indifferent, or they are afraid – it is of great concern.

There is a message about totalitarianism, a message about hatred and intolerance – that those are not good roads to go down for humankind. It is very hard not to feel some sympathy for these people. You cannot read these letters and feel nothing. These letters bring the voices of the victims into discourse. The victims died and they could not speak about what they went through.

But this is a way to visit the past: see the real people, the real fates, and humanize history.

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