Negotiating Jewish Belonging in Postwar Slovakia (1945-48)

Article excerpt

After the Second World War, the Czechoslovak state redrew the boundaries around its national/ethnic community, defining anew who belonged and who did not. This process primarily involved the redefinition of the criteria for citizenship. Jewish survivors were among those who negotiated for the recognition of their citizenship. Since the Czechoslovak government did not grant Jews legal status as a national minority, Jewish survivors could be freely classified as Slovaks, Czechs, Germans, or Magyars. The latter two translated into refusal of citizenship and expulsion. This article discusses how Magyar-speaking Jews in Slovakia struggled to secure Czechoslovak citizenship through dialogue and conflict between their representatives, local administrations, and the central government.

Introduction

After the Second World War, the Czechoslovak state redefined its national/ ethnic community, determining anew who belonged and who did not. The process primarily involved the redefinition of the criteria for citizenship. I argue that this redefinition was not a mere one-sided bestowal of new rules on society but rather a negotiation between the government, community leaders, and ordinary people. Submitting applications for citizenship, proving one's eligibility, and appealing unfavorable decisions rendered residents active participants in the process of negotiation. Of all the people desiring recognition as citizens, few faced more challenges than Jewish survivors and their leaders. In this article, I will focus on Slovak Jewish survivors and their communal leaders' struggle to secure their status as full-fledged members of the Czechoslovak state. I will show how they achieved (rather than merely received) citizenship through dialogue and conflict between their representatives, the local administration, and the central government.

The idea of the nation-state and national homogeneity was fundamental to postwar Czechoslovak policy-making.1 Since membership in the state was to overlap with membership in the nation, the governments had to make sure that no "ethnocultural non-nationals" remained in the country.2 Symptomatic of this idea of homogeneity (as well as of the general climate of retribution) were anti-German policies which swept Eastern Europe after the war. Expulsions or "transfers" of millions of Germans and others were now legitimized by virtue of "wrong" or "criminal" nationality. From Czechoslovakia alone, between 1945 and 1947, the administration expelled approximately 2.5 million Germans.3 After the mass expulsions, about 200,000 Germans remained in the Czechoslovak Republic, of which 20,000 resided in Slovakia.

However, in the Slovak part of Czechoslovakia, the German question was less pressing than in the Czech lands. In postwar Slovakia, it was Hungarians rather than Germans who were the focus of public resentment and political action.4 Magyars and Slovaks were neighbors with a long and convoluted history. The Vienna Arbitration of 1938 and the following Hungarian takeover of southern Slovakia dramatically exacerbated these already tense relations. Slovaks regarded the Hungarian occupation as a particularly vicious example of Magyar irredentism. Consequently, after the war, Slovak political representatives saw Magyars as the primary enemy of the Slovak nation and considered retribution against them one of the most pressing political issues of the day. The governments in Prague and Bratislava found the Magyars-like the Germans in the Czech lands-collectively guilty of betraying the Czechoslovak Republic. Magyars were held responsible for the pre-Munich crisis, the Munich Agreement, and the Vienna Arbitration, support of fascism, collaboration with Nazi Germans, and violence against Czechs and Slovaks during the war.5

The "Hungarian problem" in postwar Czechoslovakia was necessarily the "Slovak problem," since 600,000 to 650,000 of Czechoslovakia's 700,000 Magyars lived in southeastern Slovakia in 1946. …