PRAGUE, Nov. 16 (JTA) – A Jewish teen-ager’s extraordinary tale of survival against all the odds in wartime Slovakia has finally reached the small screen.
As a result, people around the world may soon be able to follow the tragic and moving story of how Alexander Breuer fooled an elite unit of SS-trained Slovak paramilitaries into not only sparing his life but making him their regimental son.
At the age of 17, Breuer fought as a partisan in the Slovak uprising against the Nazis, which began in August 1944. He escaped with his life, but was found in November hiding in a cave near Banska Bystrica by a unit of the feared Hlinka Guard, the Slovak militia that actively collaborated with the Nazis.
While his parents and the handful of other Jews who were found with him were subsequently killed, Breuer used false papers given to him by his father to convince the soldiers that he was a Christian orphan by the name of Janko Kovac.
Breuer was also saved by the fact that he the Hlinka Guards did not see him as Jewish, said television director Dusan Hudec, whose documentary “Witness,” based on Breuer’s wartime experiences, has just been shown on Slovak television.
According to Hudec, Breuer made such an impression on the Hlinka Guard troop that they treated him as one of their own, even calling on the teen-ager regularly to have minor battle wounds treated.
They had no idea he was Jewish, Hudec said.
The teen-ager kept a promise to his parents to keep his identity a secret at all costs. In the documentary, the following comments by Breuer sum up his terrible predicament:
“Every Sunday morning we [the Guard] would go up to church. On our journey we always sang proudly – – me too, of course. I played the role from beginning to end and remember very well singing: We want to live free, we shall struggle for it, to get rid of all the Jews in Slovakia
“I was singing it too, I was one of them. God forbid if anybody found out, even only for a second, who I was.”
Breuer endured several weeks with the Hlinka militia, eventually making his escape just before Christmas in 1945. But not before his unwitting captors had described to him in detail how they had murdered dozens of Jews, Gypsies and partisans in the Kremnicka area of Slovakia.
Breuer had to listen to one of the elite group members telling him how he had shot Breuer s parents. This man even described how he had allowed them a final embrace before killing them, Hudec said. Breuer had to hide his feelings and say nothing because he knew he would be shot himself.
Such was the teen-agers fear of discovery that he dreaded nights in the barracks in case he shouted out his true identity from his sleep.
Now 73, Breuer recalls all too vividly his time with the Hlinka Guard.
“God forgive, but I have a perfect memory. I remember everything. I still scream almost every night in my sleep and I am living through it over and over again,” he told JTA.
Breuer, who was born in the Slovak town of Zlate Moravcie, survived the war and moved to Israel in 1964. He has lived there ever since.
He had to wait a long time to help bring his one-time colleagues to justice. In 1947, a court found his testimony so unbelievable that it was declared invalid. Ten guards were found guilty of a number of serious crimes but received light prison sentences.
However, in a second trial of the guards in 1958, Breuer’s testimony was admitted and helped to convict the men to stiffer sentences. This time, members of the troop received jail terms of between 13 and 22 years, with the deputy troop commander sentenced to death.
Breuer’s appearance as a prosecution witness staggered his one-time colleagues.
“They were shocked to see Breuer in court. They couldn’t believe it was the same person who had been with them while they carried out the killings,” said Hudec.
Hudec found it emotionally draining making the documentary, particularly as he had previously directed a film based on the experiences of Slovak Jews in Auschwitz concentration camp.
“I came away with the deepest sense of human evil. I am still trying to come to terms with it inside me,” he added.
Hudec is completing a version of the documentary, with English subtitles, that he hopes will soon be shown in Israel and perhaps later in the United States and Canada. Breuer is also completing a Slovak version of a book, “Soldier 151,” based on his wartime experiences.