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Mapping Jewish Loyalties in Interwar Slovakia

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In the aftermath of World War I, the largely Hungarian-speaking Jews in Slovakia faced the challenge of reorienting their political loyalties from defeated Hungary to newly established Czechoslovakia. Rebekah Klein-Pejšová examines the challenges Slovak Jews faced as government officials, demographers, and police investigators continuously tested their loyalty. Focusing on "Jewish nationality" as a category of national identity, Klein-Pejšová shows how Jews recast themselves as loyal citizens of Czechoslovakia. Mapping Jewish Loyalties in Interwar Slovakia traces how the interwar state saw and understood minority loyalty and underscores how loyalty preceded identity in the redrawn map of east central Europe.

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1. From Hungary to Czechoslovakia: Jewish Transition to the Consolidating Czechoslovak State

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Local residents in the northwestern town of Považská Bystrica, a short distance from Slovakia’s provisional capital in Žilina, forced their way into David Büchler’s general store.1 By the time they dispersed, every item in the store was destroyed. All the furniture, the cash register, and display cases lay ruined. The building itself sustained heavy damage. They also broke into his home and made off with bedding, linens, rugs, furnishings, and other belongings. Büchler’s store and residence were attacked on November 5, 1918, during the “November Pillages” that accompanied Slovakia’s chaotic integration into the newly established Czechoslovak state after the First World War. Hardly a Jewish community in Slovakia was spared.2

Eighty years later the youngest member of the Turzikov family, then nine-year-old Pal’ko, still remembered the crash of shattering glass outside as two neighborhood men appeared in their kitchen looking for the innkeeper Arnold Eisler’s wife, hidden in the adjoining room. “Nobody’s here! Go away!” shouted his grandmother. “Why did you come? We are poor, we don’t have men [chlapov].” She shamed them into leaving.3 Emboldened young men roamed from town to town looking for Jewish shops and inns to “visit.”4 Soldiers celebrated their joy at returning alive from the front by looting Jewish stores—there were no others around, a local history reminds us—and hunting for alcohol. They accused the Jews of bribing their way out of military service in order to remain working as “clever shopkeepers,” getting rich on the war economy while Slovaks bled on the battlefield and starved at home.5

 

2. Nationality Is an Internal Conviction: Jewish Nationality and Czechoslovak State Building

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Josef Mráz of the Czechoslovak State Statistical Office set off from Prague for Žilina,1 the provisional capital of Slovakia, in mid-January 1919 to propose his ideas for the upcoming Slovak census to Vavro Šrobár, the minister plenipotentiary of Slovakia. His talks with Šrobár lasted an exhausting four days, during which time they debated how the structure, method, and concept of the census could best meet its chief goal: to find out how many Slovaks were living in Slovakia. Upon his arrival in Prague, he wrote up a report of the Žilina proceedings and the census instructions upon which they had agreed. He sent the instructions off to be translated into Slovak, Hungarian, and German.2 Mráz included in his report a new, subjective definition of “nationality” that would challenge prewar methods of counting and classifying the population based on language. This definition would be the point of departure for fresh debates and reevaluations of nationhood in the evolving circumstances of the interwar Czechoslovak state. He argued that “in contrast to [mother tongue], the concept ‘nationality’ means confession to a certain internal conviction, which cannot be explained in an ambiguous way, similar to religious conviction,” and that it follows from this conclusion that Jews should have the option of declaring either their own Jewish nationality or the nationality of others, without regard for religious affiliation.3

 

3. Contested Loyalty: Proving Slovak Jewish Loyalty to Czechoslovakia

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The Czechoslovak administration warned local police authorities across Slovakia in early 1925 of the “Magyar-nation orientation” of Neolog Jewish communities, which were allegedly administered by “Magyar rabbis who spread propaganda for Hungary.” These communities were seats of Hungarian revisionist activity, cautioned the influential Prague daily Lidové listy, the mouthpiece of the Christian Czechoslovak People’s Party (Československá strána lidová). Most Jews in Slovakia, however, were “completely loyal” to Czechoslovakia, the paper allowed. As proof it cited the fact that the majority Orthodox Jewish community had separated from the Central Office in Budapest shortly after the founding of Czechoslovakia and established a new headquarters in Bratislava.1 The administration copied Lidové listy’s article into its Slovakia-wide memo.

Of the three branches of Jewish religious affiliation in Slovakia—Orthodox, Neolog, and Status Quo Ante—the regime was most suspicious of the Neolog. All three branches carried over to the successor states in regions that had been part of the pre–World War I Kingdom of Hungary, not only in Slovakia but also in Transylvania (Romania), and Vojvodina (Yugoslavia). Czechoslovakia found Neolog Judaism’s distinctive connection to the process of Jewish emancipation in Hungary, and more so its particular alliance with the Dualist-era Hungarian regime, a cause for vigilance. Neolog Jews tended to have “Magyarized” more deeply before the First World War, even undergoing a process of social assimilation and collective identification with the Magyars rather than the linguistic acculturation and political allegiance to the Hungarian government that was more common among the Orthodox and Status Quo.2

 

4. Between the Nationalities: Statist Slovak Jews, Separatist Slovaks, and the Revisionist Threat

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Less than two weeks before the 1930 Czechoslovak census, the Hungarian minister of defense, Gyula Gömbös, took the floor in the Hungarian parliament to declare the Jews in the “occupied territories” to be “good Hungarian patriots.” He noted his willingness to accept them into Hungary’s elite Order of Heroes (Vitézi Rend), established in 1920 by the Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy and then prime minister Count Pál Teleki to honor soldiers who had served with distinction during the war.1 Yet Gömbös argued that their coreligionists and former compatriots across the border in Hungary itself were not good Hungarians, and he would not accept them into the order. His statements in parliament came just days after more explicit remarks at the tenth-anniversary celebration of the Order of Heroes’ establishment, held in the central Hungarian plains town of Kecskemét, where he defended and championed the order in the following way: “In recent days the ‘Vitézi Rend’ has been attacked in the Pester Lloyd because we exclude soldiers of Jewish confession from our ranks. I can only say, and at last permit me [to do so], that we Hungarians do remain Hungarian in at least one of our institutions.”2

 

5. Conclusion: Mapping Jewish Loyalties

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The interwar Czechoslovak administration was preoccupied with the question of how to distinguish between members of minority groups who had truly become Czechoslovaks and those who had not. However, the state’s concern lay less with culture or identity than with political loyalty. It was not so much that it was obligatory to give up all attachment to Hungarian or German culture—in the eyes of the state, if not the surrounding society—but to convincingly demonstrate that a transfer of political loyalties had effectively taken place in the movement from empire to nation-state.

President Masaryk himself, whose “glorious name is recorded for all eternity in the golden letters of Jewish history,”1 played a leading role in enabling the large-scale reorientation of the Jewish population to Czechoslovakia. He is credited as the great bridge builder in the transfer of loyalties of the Jews from the old Austro-Hungarian Monarchy to the new state.2 “Many Jews who had proudly worn the Austro-Hungarian uniform in World War I became, or saw their children become, passionate Czechoslovaks and devotees of tatíček Masaryk, Papa Masaryk,” writes a Canadian anthropologist of Czechoslovak Jewish émigré background. “But,” he adds, “typical as the switch was for many Czechoslovak Jews, it was not nearly universal. Others were too deeply [acculturated] to give up their German or Hungarian Jewish culture.”3

 

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