Menu JTA Search

Havel Resigns As President, Leaving Czechoslovak Jews Unsure of Future

A golden era for Jews in Czechoslovakia may have ended this week as President Vaclav Havel stepped down from office after a tenure that lasted only 935 days.

Havel resigned Monday, signaling the imminent dissolution of a 74-year-old union between Czechs and Slovaks and the collapse of the federal government that ruled over the federation.

A majority of Slovak members of the new federal parliament refused earlier this month to re-elect Havel, and the Slovak National Council declared the republic’s independence.

The playwright-president led his country’s “Velvet Revolution” against Communist rule in 1989 and left the presidential palace with promises not to be gone from public life for too long.

Havel did not rule out the possibility of returning as president of the Czech republic, but indicated it will depend on the power granted to the position in a new Czech constitution.

He leaves behind him a legacy of friendship with the Jewish community and a history of repudiating all forms and expressions of anti-Semitism.

One of his first acts as president was to renew diplomatic relations with Israel, which had been broken off in 1967.

And among his first state visits, in April 1990, was a trip to Jerusalem. In October 1991, Havel hosted Israel’s President Chaim Herzog in Prague.

Havel’s resignation is being mourned by Jews all over the country, but in Slovakia the regret is particularly acute.

It is Slovakia that has a strong legacy of anti-Semitism. Its one experience with independence was during World War II, when it became a puppet state of Nazi Germany.

Today, the new roster of political leaders in Slovakia includes Dusan Slobodnik as culture minister. In 1944, when he was 18, Slobodnik participated in a course organized and led by Nazi SS officers.

After Hitler’s defeat, Slobodnik was arrested by the Soviet army and spent eight years in Soviet captivity before being allowed to return to Slovakia. Before he was appointed to the Slovak government, Slobodnik was a journalist with a nationalist orientation.

Havel, on the eve of the political elections which ultimately unseated him, warned voters against “cheap appeals to national sentiments” by leaders with “dictatorial tendencies.”

His warnings were understood to refer to Vladimir Meciar, a former Communist who leads the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia and is now prime minister of the Slovak republic. Meciar appointed Slobodnik as culture minister.

NEXT STORY