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Czechoslovakia Jews Uneasy About Breakup of Country

Czechoslovak Jews are uneasy about the breakup of the country this week into Czech and Slovak republics. But cooperation between the two communities is expected to continue.

Older members of the community look back with nostalgia at the 1920s and early 1930s, when the Czechoslovakia headed by Tomas Masaryk was the most democratic country in the region and a good place for Jews to live.

After bleak decades of Nazi persecution and Communist rule, a small Jewish community welcomed the accession of Vaclav Havel in the early 1990s as president of a country once again the most democratic and tolerant in the region.

The Jan. 1 split of the 75-year-old federation now has Jews concerned about independent Slovakia, where politics are tinged with nationalist militancy and anti-Semitism is fomented by periodicals like the weekly Zmena.

Nevertheless, most Slovak Jews are determined to stay, convinced that even such unpredictable leaders as Slovak Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar recognize the country needs Western aid and will need the good will of Western leaders to get it.

After 40 years of communism, including more than two decades of Soviet occupation, Jewish membership in each of the two communities does not exceed 3,000. Several thousand more people of Jewish origin are not registered with the communities and take only a minimal or no part at all in Jewish life.

Even before the peaceful division of the country, the two communities existed as separate entities without formal ties. Strong cooperation between them seems likely to continue. Czech Jews have already helped Slovak Jews who wish to relocate find jobs and housing.

Each community is only a tiny minority in the newly independent states. The Czech republic, with its capital in Prague, has over 10 million inhabitants.

Slovakia, whose capital is Bratislava, has half that number.

Unlike other parts of former Communist Europe, the divorce between the two ethnic groups is taking place without bloodshed.

Old-timers in the Jewish community view the breakup of the federation with sadness. They recall that Masaryk was the first-ever head of state to visit Jewish settlements in what was then Palestine.

That period came to a tragic end in 1938, when Czechoslovakia was abandoned to its fate at Munich. Only a few thousand Jews survived the Nazi Holocaust of a prewar population of 255,000 — 118,000 in the Czech lands and 137,000 in Slovakia. In the Nazi-occupied Czech protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Jews were shipped to the death camps by the Germans themselves. Most Jews in Slovakia were deported to Nazi camps by Slovak Nazi collaborators, headed by priest-president Jozef Tiso.

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