Holocaust Remembrance Day: Letters from Slovakia

American historian finds hundreds of desperate letters written by Slovak Jews during the Nazi era.

Five-year-old Jewish boy writing a letter to Slovakia's president in 1941
A five-year-old Jewish boy writing a letter to Slovakia's president in 1941 [Handout via Al Jazeera]

As the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day, historians continue to discover new and previously unexplored archival documents about the fate of Jews during the Nazi era.

Madeline Vadkerty, an American historian who has been living in Slovakia since 2017, found hundreds of desperate letters written by Slovak Jews between 1939 and 1944 to then-President Jozef Tiso in the Slovak National Archive in 2018.

Her discovery offers a new window for understanding how people tried to cope with their suffering.

The authors were begging the president for exemptions from anti-Jewish persecution. But most of them did not receive the mercy that they sought and perished in concentration camps.

Their correspondence languished, unread, and their stories remained untold for more than 80 years.

‘The most beautiful gift’

“Dear Mr President, I pray for your good health every night. Mommy told me that if I behave, baby Jesus will bring me the most beautiful gift from Mr President,” Martin*, a five-year-old Jewish boy, wrote a postcard to the president in 1941, along with a desperate letter written by his father.

The boy and his parents had converted to Christianity and appealed to Tiso hoping to alleviate their persecution.

“The most beautiful gift from Mr President” that the five-year-old was praying for was an exemption from the Jewish Code. But his entreaty was refused.

Martin and his parents had to go into hiding and were briefly imprisoned before being deported to Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck and Bergen-Belsen.

After the war, Martin’s letter remained in a box in the Slovak National Archive, unread, for almost 80 years. No one researched the fate of his family further.

Thousands of similar exemption requests were written in the early 1940s to the Slovak government.

The Jewish Code

Slovakia, a Nazi client state, subjected its Jewish citizens to harsh anti-Semitic persecution followed by the deportation of nearly 58,000 Jews in 1942.

But Tiso had the power to grant exemptions from the Jewish Code, a harsh anti-Semitic decree which generated a flood of letters.

Historians claim that there were about 1,000 presidential exemptions granted, which benefitted family members, making the total between 4,000 and 5,000. However, more than 95 percent of the entreaties were refused.

Following the discovery she made, Vadkerty decided to research Martin’s and other authors’ stories.

“The letters displayed such fear and suffering that I couldn’t get them out of my mind,” Vadkerty told Al Jazeera.

“Petitions to the government were written by Jews to their governments all over Europe, but only recently have historians started to study them.”

Martin survived

Vadkerty found out that Martin whose postcard she had found survived the Holocaust.

He passed away in 2011, but Vadkerty learned that he had a daughter, Helena, who lives in Prague.

When Vadkerty reached out to her, she was “very surprised but delighted”, Vadkerty told Al Jazeera. “Preferring to keep her family’s painful ordeal private, Helena also asked me that we not publish her family’s name.”

In an interview with Al Jazeera, Helena said she has been trying to find out more about what happened to her father for years.

“I learnt that he was repatriated when I was 10 years old, but I knew nothing more,” she said.

“When [Vadkerty] invited me to the archives, I was unsure because my last name is common in Slovakia – but then I saw this small picture of my five-year-old father typing on a typewriter, and there wasn’t the slightest doubt: it was him, and this was the story of our family,” she said.

Sandra Polovkova, the director of Post Bellum, a Slovak NGO documenting the memories of survivors of World War II, told Al Jazeera that during the communist era, it was not possible to bring similar stories to light.

“Today, it is more important than ever to talk about them,” she said.

Less question marks

Helena told Al Jazeera that she was grateful to Vadkerty for shedding light on her father’s story “even though it is tragic”.

“It is a part of my life. I am the child of someone who survived, and I am now more at peace than ever. Instead of question marks, there are now full stops when it comes to my ancestors’ stories,” she said.

“And because I am a teacher, I can now explain to my students what is behind the word Holocaust, and also that beyond the tragedy, there are people who survived.”

Most of the authors of the letters did not survive the Holocaust and historians still keep discovering new archival documents.

“People who wrote these letters did not know that within a half a year, or even three months in some cases, they would be murdered because of their origins,” Vadkerty adds.

“It’s important to realise that behind the statistics – for example, there are currently 26.4 million refugees in the world – there are real human beings.”

*The name of the five-year-old Jewish boy was changed to protect his family’s privacy.

Source: Al Jazeera