In an emotional meeting with Jewish community leaders here, the president of the Slovak Republic broke down in tears when recalling the fate of Jews in his village during the Nazi Holocaust, and pledged to ensure that young Slovaks learn about the tragic events of the World War II era.
The Slovak president, Michal Kovac, was in town last week along with other world leaders for the dedication of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He met Friday with officials from the American Jewish Committee and B’nai B’rith International at the AJCommittee office here.
In response to a question from Hyman Bookbinder, AJCommittee’s former longtime Washington representative, about whether the Slovak people have an adequate understanding of the Holocaust, Kovac began to describe, through an interpreter, what he said his generation had experienced.
Kovac said that when he was 11 or 12 years old, Jewish families were “taken away” from his village. “I know about our attitude,” he said. “We were crying.”
He then covered his face and wept.
“We were powerless,” he said.
He added that the Slovak minister of culture, in cooperation with the Jewish community, should educate Slovak youth about the Holocaust.
“Unfortunately,” he said, “during the years of communism, nobody discussed this.”
Kovac’s remarks came as a welcome surprise to the Jewish leaders at the meeting, who were visibly moved by his recollections.
Pavel Traubner, head of the Jewish community in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, who was present at the meeting, told the group he was pleased by Kovac’s remarks.
“What the president said is very important for the Slovak Jewish community,” Traubner said through an interpreter.
“It may be the first time” that such sentiments were expressed by a public official “so openly, frankly and sincerely.”
‘AN HONOR AND A DUTY TO BE HERE’
Traubner said that he wanted to “thank Mr. President for his reaction right now to his memories.” He also pointed out that new textbooks in the Slovak Republic include information on the Holocaust.
During the World War II era, Slovakia was a Nazi protectorate and most of its Jewish community was deported to concentration camps.
The estimated number of Jews now living in the Slovak Republic is only 3,000 to 4,000, Jewish leaders said.
At the meeting Friday, Kovac said he considered it “an honor and a duty to be here at the opening of the museum,” and he apologized for the “transgressions” of his “ancestors” against Jews in World War II.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, AJCommittee’s director of European affairs, said after the meeting that he was “very taken” by the president’s “genuineness and sincerity.”
“There was no way it was contrived,” he said.
Warren Eisenberg, director of B’nai B’rith’s International Council, said after the meeting that the week of Holocaust-related events probably “triggered horrible” memories for Kovac.
Each person experiences the museum in his or her own way, Eisenberg said, and Kovac had “had the experience of seeing Jews taken away.”
Kovac also said he was interested in visiting Israel in the near future.
Although the Slovak prime minister is the actual head of government, Kovac, as president, could have “a role to play” in such issues as encouraging the Ministry of Culture to become active in promoting education about the Holocaust, Jewish leaders said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.