The dark cloud hanging over the rise of Jorg Haider’s right-wing Freedom Party in Austria may end up having a silver lining for the Jews of neighboring Slovakia.
It may also boost the self-confidence of a community struggling to re-emerge and consolidate in the wake of the Holocaust and five decades of Communist rule.
“Of course the Jewish community can’t be happy with the entry of a party like Haider’s into the government in Austria,” said Peter Salner, the president of the Bratislava Jewish community, which numbers about 500 adult members. Fewer than 4,000 Jews live in Slovakia.
“But in an ironic way, the developments are positive for us,” he said. “Jewish activities are being shifted here.”
Bratislava lies on the Danube River only 40 miles from Vienna, making it the closest capital — and the closest Jewish community — to Austria, where a controversial new government including Haider’s xenophobic Freedom Party, known as the FPO, took office Feb. 4.
Entry of the FPO into government triggered demonstrations and international political sanctions. Israel withdrew its ambassador from Vienna even before the government was sworn in.
Last week, Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, making the first-ever visit by a Slovak president to Israel, said he supported the Israeli decision and urged Israel to relocate its regional embassy to the Slovak capital. The Israeli ambassador to Austria also serves as ambassador to Slovakia and Slovenia.
The Freedom Party’s inclusion in Austria’s new government also prompted the Conference of European Rabbis to announce that it would move a major general meeting — a session slated for March that will include the chief rabbis of several European nations — from Vienna to Bratislava.
“The fact that we decided for a move from Vienna is an ethical issue,” Aba Dunner, secretary-general of the conference, was quoted as saying in the Slovak press.
“An ordinary rabbi does not interfere in politics but this is not a political problem, but a moral and ethical one.”
These developments reflect dramatic recent political changes in Slovakia as much as they do condemnation of the situation in Austria. They are changes that have polished Slovakia’s international image and created a more positive atmosphere regarding Jews and Jewish issues.
“Austria was always our `gateway to the West,'” said one Bratislava Jewish man in his 50s. “It makes an impression to see how attitudes have changed toward them and toward Slovakia.”
After Czechoslovakia split into two independent states on Jan. 1, 1993, independent Slovakia was ruled by nationalist-populist Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, whose pro-Russia, authoritarian policies isolated Slovakia and delayed its integration into Europe.
Meciar’s ruling coalition included the far-right Slovak National Party, which advocated, among other things, the rehabilitation of the pro-Nazi wartime puppet regime in Slovakia and regarded the wartime leader, Catholic priest Josef Tiso, as a national hero.
Nostalgia for the wartime Independent Slovak State — the only time Slovakia had been independent — was a lodestone for many Slovaks during the communist era. For many, it represented the pinnacle of Slovak national identity, despite its fascist links and anti-Semitism, and despite the fact that Slovaks themselves rose up against Tiso in 1944.
Tiso’s regime paid the Nazis to “resettle” Slovak Jews; some 70,000 were deported to their deaths. Tiso himself was executed in 1947 as a Nazi collaborator, traitor and war criminal.
In a report published last year, Salner and his wife, Eva Salnerova, described the Tiso regime as a “flash point of conflict” in Slovakia.
“Some embrace it as the first expression of Slovak statehood, while others reject it as anti-democratic and as bearing responsibility for the deportation and murder of tens of thousands of Slovak Jews,” they wrote.
Although Meciar distanced himself from the rehabilitation of Tiso and pledged to combat anti-Semitism, nationalist sentiments and the inclusion of the Slovak National Party in the government led to relations between Jews and the Meciar government that Slovak Chief Rabbi Baruch Myers described as a “cold peace.”
When Meciar was voted out of office in September 1998, Mikulas Dzurinda became prime minister. Racing to make up for lost time, he implemented a program of political and economic reform aimed at forging closer ties to the West.
Last May, the pro-Western Schuster soundly defeated Meciar in the country’s first direct presidential election. In December, the European Union invited Slovakia to begin talks that will lead to E.U. membership.
“The current government of Slovakia is considered kosher by the Jewish community,” said Myers, an American-born Chabad rabbi who was hired by the local Jewish community in 1993. “Prime Minister Dzurinda is becoming more positive toward Jews.
“The new government has won international approval from NATO, the E.U., the United Nations,” he said. “Having the rabbis conference here will further that.”
Like Dzurinda, President Schuster, too, has demonstrated a new attitude.
During his four-day visit to Israel, Schuster apologized for Slovakia’s role in the extermination of Jews during the Holocaust and said Slovaks “must learn” about this dark chapter in their history.
“Watching movies about it is not enough,” he said after visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. “We must educate children in schools.”
He also said he wanted Slovakia to mark a Holocaust Day on Sept. 10, the day on which the Tiso regime introduced its anti-Jewish legislation.
Myers, who said he had asked Schuster to serve as patron of the rabbinical conference, stressed that these developments will benefit the Jewish community as well as the government’s image.
“Any heightening of the Jewish profile has had a positive effect in the Jewish community,” he said. “The perception that the atmosphere is positive toward Jews is just as important for Jews and for others.
“If the rabbis come and are received by the government, that will make a good impression,” he said. “It will also raise the consciousness of the Jewish community.”
As in other post-Communist states, there has been a flowering of Jewish life in Slovakia since the fall of communism 10 years ago.
There are regular Jewish classes, clubs, seminars, cultural events and other activities, including an annual two-week summer camp and a kindergarten in Bratislava co-sponsored by the New York-based Ronald S. Lauder Foundation.
Holidays are celebrated with communal events that can draw well over 100 people.
There are new Jewish museums in Bratislava and Presov and an Institute of Jewish Studies in Bratislava. Last month saw the inaugural ceremony for a spacious new Jewish education center in Bratislava that will be run under Chabad auspices. There is even a local klezmer group, the Pressburger Klezmer Band.
But communal development has largely taken place out of the international spotlight.
Moreover, said Myers, who has been a catalyst in the revival, though numbers are steadily growing, “Everything is a struggle.”
In part, this is because Slovak Jews and their concerns were overshadowed by the very visible Jewish revival in Prague, a mecca to millions of tourists and home to a world-famous Jewish museum and medieval ghetto.
But the local political situation, with its lingering undertones of nationalism and nostalgia, was also an important part of the equation.
“Fear takes the longest to leave,” said Myers’ wife, Chanie, who runs the Jewish kindergarten, which this year has seven pupils. “With parents and grandparents, who remember communism and the Holocaust, that fear is understandable. What we say is, don’t let the children inherit it.
“The more open and outward programs in Judaism are,” she said, “the more that fear slowly dissipates.”
For more information on the Slovak Jewish community, visit www.uzzno.sk. The Web site of the Slovak Union of Jewish Youth is www.suzm.sk.
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.