Both the Crusades in the late eleventh century and the harsh persecution of Jews by the Bohemian king Vratislav II led to the migration of Jews from Bohemia, Germany and Austria to Hungary, where they found refuge; some of them settled in Slovakia. Under a "Jewish law" enacted by the Hungarian king Kalman, Jews were permitted to live only in cathedral towns and on bishops estates. In 1241 the Mongols (also known as Tartars) invaded Hungary, wreaking havoc and destruction. Jewish merchants made a major contribution to rebuilding the economy. A letter from King Bela IV refers to Jews in the cities of Pressburg (Bratislava), Senica, Trnava, Pezinok, Nitra, and Trencin. In 1251 the King granted the Jews a "privilege", a document promising them protection against attacks by Christians, a permanent legal status and other benefits. At the time, most Jews made their living in finance, a minority worked in commerce and the importing of goods, and others held positions in public administration or were involved in the minting of coins, to the displeasure of the Pope and Church leaders.
From the thirteenth century on the Jews were wards of the king and paid taxes to the royal treasury. They lived primarily in the cities, on separate Jewish streets allotted to them by the authorities in order to segregate them from the Christians. In some towns there was an organized community life and Jewish public institutions. Nitra, a major administrative and economic center in the Middle Ages, had a longstanding Jewish community that is considered one of the oldest in Slovakia. A document from the year 1113 mentions Mons Judaeorum in Nitra, where there was a Jewish cemetery. In the thirteenth century Jews also lived in the nearby suburb of Parovce, which was known as Castrum Judaeorum, i.e., "fortified Jewish settlement". Jewish sources also mention the Jewish community in Nitra; for example, in his book Or Zarua, written in the late thirteenth century, a leading halakhic authority, Rabbi Isaac ben Moses of Vienna, refers to a question asked by the community regarding marriage laws. At about the same time, Jewish refugees from Bohemia and Germany founded a community in Pressburg. In the fourteenth century the Pressburg community numbered close to 800 people and seems to have been the largest in the kingdom. In the late fourteenth century the spiritual leader of Trnava was Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau (the German name of Trnava), known as the leading Torah sage in Hungary and the author of Sefer Ha-minhagim, which describes the religious practices of the Jews of Hungary and the neighboring countries.
As the Christian population turned increasingly to religious extremism and social ferment in the fifteenth century, the Jews' situation grew worse. Anti-Jewish riots broke out in several places. In 1491 the authorities in Trnava spread a blood libel against the Jews, and twelve men and four women were burned at the stake on August 22 of that year. After the Turks defeated the Hungarians in 1526, the Jews were expelled from Pressburg, Trnava, and several other localities. In 1529 a blood libel was lodged against the Jews of Pezinok. Thirty members of the community were burned at the stake and the rest of the Jews fled the city. Mistreatment of Jews occurred in other communities as well. By the end of the sixteenth century the old communities of Slovakia had disintegrated, their members scattering in all directions. As a result of the severe persecution, the continuity of the community life in Slovakia was severely disturbed.
The immigration of Jews, beginning in the mid-seventeenth century and intensifying during the eighteenth century, gave rise to the Jewish communities of Slovakia that existed until the Holocaust. Some members of the Hungarian aristocracy realized the advantages that might be gained from the Jews economic activity and, unlike the townspeople, made efforts to encourage Jews to settle on their estates. The Jewish immigrants came mainly from the neighboring countries of Moravia, Poland and Austria. Jewish refugees settled in Nitra County in 1649 and later in the counties of Pressburg and Trencin. New edicts in Moravia and hardships in Poland spurred migration to Slovakia, and the area of Jewish settlement expanded northward and eastward. Most inhabitants of the regions in which new communities were established were Slovakian subsistence farmers, serfs of Hungarian feudal lords. The socioeconomic conditions created an interdependency between the two sectors of the population, especially in economic affairs. A census from 1746 shows that almost half the Jewish heads of household in Slovakia were natives of Moravia and Bohemia, 10 percent of Poland, 5 percent of Austria, and 35 percent of various locations in Slovakia or elsewhere in Hungary. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were several fairly large Jewish communities in Slovakia, some with populations in the hundreds. As Jews resettled Slovakia, an interesting encounter occurred between Jewish ethnicities and cultures. The Jews in the west were chiefly of the Ashkenazi type, who tended to be more educated and more open to influences of the surrounding culture and society. The Jews in eastern Slovakia, in contrast, followed Hasidic customs, spoke Yiddish, and resembled the Jews of Poland and Galicia in their way of life and dress. The two cultures were slow to blend, completing the process only in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The Jews' living conditions deteriorated drastically during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa (1740-l780). The regime promulgated various edicts and even threatened to expel the Jews from the empire. In 1749 the Jews were subjected to a special "tolerance tax" (taxa tolerantialis), a heavy burden for the immigrant families. However, their situation improved when Emperor Joseph II (l780-l790) instituted changes and innovations in the governance of the empire. In 1783 he issued an Edict of Tolerance (Sistematica Gentis Iudaicae Regulatio) for the Jews of Hungary, which referred mainly to place of residence, occupation, and educational matters. The Jews were granted permission to work in almost any occupation and to live in most parts of the empire, except in and around mining towns. Following the Edict of Tolerance, the areas of Jewish settlement expanded and new communities were founded. Jews became financially well off and in some places flourished spiritually and culturally. The Jewish community of Hungary also grew rapidly during this time, attaining a population of 83,000, about a half of them in Slovakia and the nearby Burgenland (Austria). Throughout most of the eighteenth century Jews lived in a relatively small area covering a few counties in the west and east. Large portions of central and northern Slovakia, defined as mining areas, were still off limits to Jewish settlement.
In the early nineteenth century the Jewish population of Slovakia grew quite vigorously. In the 1820s the region contained about one hundred organized communities, mostly in small towns and rural villages. The increase in the Jewish population and the gradual improvement in their economic condition were accompanied by a thriving religious life and the emergence of the first Torah centers. At that time there were seven relatively large yeshivas in Slovakia, headed by well-known rabbis and scholars. The most important of them was the Pressburg yeshiva, headed by Rabbi Moses Sofer (Schreiber), known as the Hatam Sofer, who was considered the leading halakhic authority of his day. In the midst of a liberalization wave in 1840, the Hungarian parliament passed several important legislative amendments pertaining to the Jews, mainly concerning places of residence and economic matters. Many Slovakian Jews moved to other parts of the empire around that time, and the old, traditional Jewish communities began to decline in number. New communities were founded in central and northern Slovakia, and the map of Jewish settlement in Slovakia attained geographic contiguity.
The "Spring of Nations" and the Hungarian uprising against Austrian rule (1848-1849) were not beneficial to the Jews. In March 1848 riots broke out in Pressburg (Bratislava) and nearby localities and spread to other regions. In many Jewish communities, especially in western Slovakia, houses were plundered and community institutions were destroyed; in some places there were casualties. Several localities were abandoned for some time.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, after the situation had stabilized, there were about 115 major Jewish communities in Slovakia with recognized rabbinical offices and 200 smaller communities with their own public institutions, chiefly in villages. Several dozen yeshivas, with thousands of students, became important Torah centers. Slovakian Jews played a significant economic role as mediators between the agricultural sector and the growing cities and were involved in trade in agricultural produce. They included merchants, tenant farmers and estate managers, but many worked in petty commerce as artisans or peddlers occupations that Jews in the Oberland had practiced for generations.
Whereas manifestations of socioeconomically motivated anti-Semitism that had erupted in the early nineteenth century declined when the revolution of 1848-1849 was suppressed, nationally based anti-Semitism increased over time. The Slovakian intelligentsia, which advocated a Slovakian national revival, regarded the Jews as tools of the hated Hungarian regime and, therefore, one of the causes of the plight of the Slovakian people. After Hungarian Jewry attained equal rights in 1867, anti-Semitic activity increased in Slovakia. Church representatives were actively involved in stirring up hatred of the Jews. In July 1882 some two hundred priests gathered in Topolcany to discuss the "Jewish question". The upshot of their deliberations was to urge the Hungarian parliament to revoke or limit the equal rights that it had granted to Jews in 1867.
From the beginning of the eighteenth century the empire had been undergoing a modernization process that was paralleled by similar changes in Hungarian Jewry. The ideas of the Enlightenment that seeped into Hungary during those years influenced many Hungarian Jews to cast aside their traditions and seek their future in European culture. Hungarian liberals encouraged Jews to abandon their traditional lifestyle and adopt the customs of enlightened Hungarian society. Attempts to amend or reform religious rules were met with vigorous opposition from both the religious leadership in Slovakia and a large portion of the Jewish population, which was characterized by a conservative way of life and a strong affinity for religion and tradition. The opposition to the reform trends was led, from the very beginning, by Rabbi Moshe Sofer of Pressburg. As a result of his vehement stance Pressburg became the center of the struggle against the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment) movement and religious reforms. In the mid-nineteenth century the Kulturkampf within Hungarian Jewry intensified; and in 1865 dozens of Orthodox rabbis gathered in Michalovce, Slovakia. They adopted stringent resolutions including a boycott of synagogues that had instituted changes, and a strict injunction against sermons in German and Hungarian, secular education, and the study of foreign languages. The resolutions were given the force of a halakhic ruling, thereby further deepening the fissure among Hungarian Jewry and precluding all attempts to heal the rift. At the initiative of the authorities, representatives of Hungarian Jewry were invited to Budapest in December 1868 to promote the emancipation and to establish a countrywide umbrella organization for all Jewish communities in the country. The Liberal Jews welcomed the initiative, but the Orthodox regarded it with great suspicion. They feared that such an organization, supported by the authorities and the Liberal Jews, would diminish the communities' independence and undermine the status of the rabbi as supreme religious authority and sole arbiter. After all attempts at compromise failed, the Orthodox delegates walked out of the congress. The conflict between the camps reached its peak, causing a rupture between the communities and a deep polarization of Hungarian Jewry. As a result, two separate organizations of communities were established one for the Orthodox and one for the Liberals (Neologs). Some communities did not join either organization and retained their previous status; these communities were known as status quo ante. The Jews of Slovakia were more united in their affinity for religion than those in the rest of Hungary. Two-thirds of the communities, especially the old, traditional ones in the small towns and villages, joined the Orthodox organization. In parallel, most new communities, primarily in central Slovakia, joined the Neologs. In several locations two communities formed, one Orthodox and one Neolog, and they vied for control of community institutions and assets that had previously belonged to the joint administration.
On the eve of World War I the Jewish population of Slovakia numbered 140,000. Collectively they were quite diverse, comprising several religious factions whose members differed in their way of life, affinity for religion, origins, and cultural backgrounds. They spoke four different languages among themselves and with the Christians, belonged to various socioeconomic classes, and were divided among national groups. Most Slovakian Jews originated in villages and small towns and had traits characteristic of post-rural society.
After World War I social agitation grew in Slovakia. Economic hardship
increased following the return and demobilization of soldiers, and the
frustration was soon vented in several weeks of violent acts against Jews. The
burglary and looting of homes and businesses affected Jews of all classes, poor
and rich alike.
The new government adopted the Habsburg monarchies legislation regarding the Jews: namely, in the Czech province the Austrian laws remained in effect, whereas in Slovakia the Hungarian laws remained but with slight modifications. Attempts to establish a countrywide organization of communities representing all Jews in Czechoslovakia were foiled by the Orthodox leadership in Slovakia, which feared that this would undermine its hegemony among the religious Jews. Meanwhile, a new source of friction further exacerbated the tense relations between the factions. Under the Czechoslovakian constitution members of the Jewish religion could declare that they belonged to the Jewish nation. The Orthodox were vehemently opposed to defining Judaism as a national entity. To them Jewry was solely a religious community and would remain so until the Jews were redeemed from exile. Nevertheless, Jewish nationalism, represented by the Zionist movement, managed to establish itself and make inroads even among traditional Jews. Many Zionists, especially the young, came from Orthodox families; they joined Jewish national and Zionist organizations despite the opposition of the Orthodox religious leadership.
After Czechoslovakia was established the organizations of Jewish communities formed their institutions. The Organization of Autonomous Orthodox Congregations in Slovakia (OAOCS) included 170 of 228 congregations and about 75 percent of Slovakian Jews. Over time it became one of the most authoritative, powerful and influential Jewish organizations in Czechoslovakia. Meanwhile, Agudath Israel, which had close ties to the OAOCS, complemented it by carrying out a wide range of activities in dozens of branches. Agudath Israel focused primarily on individual life and on education consistent with Orthodoxy. The ties between the two organizations, strong to begin with, became even stronger when Rabbi Samuel David Ungar, one of the leaders of the OAOCS, was named president of Agudath Israel in Czechoslovakia. Agudath Israel and its youth movements engaged in ramified social and welfare activities and educational initiatives, including preschools, a Beth Yaakov school system for girls, and camps for children and teenagers. At the end of World War I there were twenty-nine Neolog communities in Slovakia. Cut off from their center in Hungary, they encountered complex organizational problems that threatened their survival. In 1925 the Neologs decided to form a joint organization with the fifty-five Status Quo Ante communities, which since 1928 had been known as Jeshurun.
In 1920 there were seventy-seven Jewish primary schools in Slovakia and two high schools. Forty-six of the schools were Orthodox; the rest were liberal. Noteworthy, only 45 percent of Jewish children attended Jewish schools; the majority attended public schools. Due to the growing percentage of students in schools that taught in Slovakian, the language spoken by the young Jews changed. Instead of German and Hungarian, the main languages used by Slovakian Jews in the past, the young people adopted Slovakian as their vernacular. Alongside the formal educational system, an extensive system of Torah education institutions functioned in Slovakia, including boys' schools (cheder and Talmud Torah), Beth Yaacov seminaries for religious girls, and more than thirty yeshivas that were accredited as religious educational institutions. In 1930 the Pressburg (Bratislava) yeshiva and three other yeshivas were accredited by the Czechoslovakian Ministry of Education as institutions of higher education.
Vibrant Zionist activity was enjoyed in inter-war Slovakia and new branches of the movement were established in dozens of cities and towns. In addition to the Zionist Organization, there was a Jewish National Party (Zidovska Strana) that focused on domestic Jewish policy and representation of the Jews national, religious, economic, and social interests vis-a-vis the authorities. The party did well in elections for town councils and county and regional assemblies. Although the Orthodox establishment doggedly fought Zionism and the Jewish National Party, the Zionists penetrated even the Orthodox communities. In the mid-1930s about 20 percent of Slovakian Jews purchased the Zionist "Shekel", thereby becoming formal members of the Zionist Movement.
Zionist youth movements predated World War I. In 1919-1920, after the wartime turmoil in Slovakia had waned, Zionist youth groups reorganized and opened clubs in all the major cities and some small towns. In 1924, representatives of Zionist youth groups met in Nitra and together founded He-haluts. Religious teenagers established Mizrachi Youth. Organizational and social activity in the Zionist youth movements reached its peak in the 1930s, with tens of thousands of young members from all strata of Jewish society. Hundreds of them emigrated to Palestine after undergoing training for this purpose in Slovakia. The Maccabi sports association launched social and cultural activity with Zionist national leanings. Thousands of youngsters and adults, Orthodox and Liberal alike, were active in clubs throughout Slovakia.
During the period of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, Slovakian Jewry did not undergo any major demographic changes. In the 1930s about 140,000 Jews lived in 2,337 localities. Some 55 percent of them lived in villages and small towns with populations of less than 5,000; 18 percent lived in the two largest cities (Bratislava and Kosice), and only 25 percent lived in cities of l0,000-25,000 residents. The socioeconomic status of Slovakian Jews also remained constant during this period: 72 percent of Jewish breadwinners were self-employed, 15 percent were wage earners, and 13 percent were practitioners of liberal professions, white-collar workers, and brokers.
In the second half of the 1930s, as political tensions mounted in
Czechoslovakia, anti-Semitic sentiments increased among large segments of the
Slovakian people. The nationalist parties that agitated for Slovakian national
autonomy, especially the Slovak Peoples Party, held strong anti-Semitic
positions and incited against the Jews. On October 6, 1938, after the Munich
agreement in late September had forced Czechoslovakia to cede territory to the
Third Reich, the Slovak Peoples Party declared extensive autonomy in Slovakia
and instituted a one-party totalitarian regime. On November 2 large portions of
southern Slovakia home to more than 45,000 Jews were annexed to
Hungary. The Slovakian government blamed the Jews regarding their supposed
support of the annexation and started removing thousands of Jewish families who
held foreign citizenship to the Hungarian and Polish borders. Few of the
deportees were permitted to return to their homes.
While the deportations were in progress, an underground cell known as the Working Group, headed by Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandel and Gisi Fleischmann, formed within the Center of Jews in an attempt to stanch the deportations and aid the deportees. The Working Groups success in halting the deportations from Slovakia encouraged its members to intensify their efforts to save all of European Jewry by negotiating with the Nazis. The resulting initiative, devised by Rabbi Weissmandel, was known as the Europa Plan. In April 1944 two Slovakian Jews, Alfred Wetzler and Walter Rosenberg (Rudolf Vrba), escaped from Auschwitz. The Working Group took detailed testimony from them about the nature of the Auschwitz camp and the extermination methods used there. A sketch of the extermination facilities, based on the description given by the two men, was attached to their testimony. The Auschwitz Protocols, as the document was known, were sent from Slovakia to the free world, where they reached Jewish organizations. The Working Groups purpose in releasing the Protocols was to sound an alarm and marshal worldwide public opinion in favor of extensive rescue activities and bombing of the railroads leading to Auschwitz and the extermination facilities themselves.
Jews joined the first resistance groups that organized in Slovakia in 1942. Most of them were active in the Communist and Czechoslovakian underground movements. A Jewish underground group was also formed in the Novaky labor camp in 1942. These groups tried to prevent a resumption of the deportations and started preparing for active resistance. On August 29, 1944, an armed uprising broke out in Slovakia in an attempt to overthrow the pro-Nazi regime and reestablish the Republic of Czechoslovakia. As the partisan attacks intensified, the German army invaded Slovakia. The Jewish group from the Novaky camp was assigned to halt the advance of the SS troops along one of their main attack routes. The German invasion of Slovakia augured ill for the last remaining Jews. Many tried to reach the rebel-controlled area in the hope of surviving, and thousands of destitute Jewish refugees gathered in the rebels main stronghold, Banska Bystrica. Parachutists sent by the Yishuv (the pre-Israel Jewish community in Palestine), headed by Haviva Reik, mobilized to help them. Although the uprising was quelled two months after it began, rebel units, including Jews, fled to the mountains, where they continued to engage the enemy until the liberation. About 1,600 Jews fought in various partisan units; approximately 170 of them were killed.
After the uprising was suppressed, the Germans took over the authority for Jewish affairs. SS officer Alois Brunner, one of Eichmanns assistants, went to Slovakia to deport all Jews irrespective of their status or their "certificates of exemption". Those Jews who were captured by the Nazis and their Slovakian accomplices were taken to the Sered camp. The deportation of the remaining Jews in Slovakia resumed on September 30, 1944. From then until March 31, 1945, some 12,000 Jews were deported from Slovakia; only half survived. Another 2,500 Jews were murdered on Slovakian soil during this period. Additional victims among Slovakian Jews were those who had fled to Hungary and were deported from there to the extermination camps.
The Jews in the territories annexed to Hungary in 1938-1939 met the same fate
as those in the rest of Hungary. After the annexation of these territories,
Hungarians began to persecute the Jews and accused them of supporting
Czechoslovakia. Of the 10,600 business owners only 4,500 were permitted to keep
their establishments going. Beginning in 1940, close to 7,500 men from southern
Slovakia were taken to work in labor battalions; few survived. Several thousand
Jews lacking Hungarian citizenship were deported in 1941 to the occupied part
of Ukraine, where most of them were murdered. After the Germans occupied
Hungary (March 19, 1944), new anti-Jewish edicts were promulgated.
Ghettoization of the Jews began in the second half of April 1944. The first
transports from the territories annexed to Hungary left for Auschwitz in the
second half of May 1944; the rest of the deportations occurred in June of that
year. Of some 45,000 Jews who lived in those territories, 10,000 survived.
About 100,000 Slovakian Jews 73 percent of their number in 1938
perished during World War II.
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