This short narrative stands on its own. However it chronologically follows my earlier essay,
The Existential Barber
Subsequent to his miraculous, in the nick of time, salvation from an SS firing squad by the Red army, our partisan joined them on their westward push through Slovakia, towards Austria and Germany. A freedom fighter's combat experience did not qualify him as a useful infantryman. However his rescuers were content to have a local bivouacking with them, assisting their course through the region, its customs and language. As Slovak and Russian descend from the same language family, they managed, with some tribulation, to converse. We can imagine there may have been some awkward colloquial moments.
Though I had never previously cut another man's hair, I was appointed the unit barber. Per their request, I merely placed an empty soup bowl on a soldier's head and cut around it. They loved my finesse, praising me as "the best barber they had the whole war". This humoured me as I had not previously witnessed this Russian coiffure.
I remained with these soldiers until they liberated my hometown, Topoľčany, the place of the tall poplars. There I bid farewell to my comrades. As I separated from them I did not know what or whom I would find of Jews in our town, family, friends, neighbours. Given what I learnt from the Russians, combined with earlier information, I was not enthusiastic to be back. But nothing could have prepared me for what I would witness. Prior to Chamberlain's 1938 experimental appeasement of Hitler, breaking Czechoslovakia apart, the population of our town was 15,000 of whom 3,200 were Jews, each publicly shabath observant.
I was the first Jew to return. It was December 1944. I could not find another Jew. I went to my father's house. His neighbours reported that he passed away on 9th October. That was Sh'mini Atsereth, the solemn Eighth Day of Assembly concluding Sukoth, the last day of the period in which the Almighty judges the entire world. The neighbours indicated the spot in the backyard where they had buried him. Later, together with a few of my returning landsman, we reinterred him in our cemetery, beside my mother, who passed away of natural causes four years earlier.
By the time of my father's demise no Jews remained in our town. Incidentally, two days later, the final expulsion of the Jews of the Slovak capital Bratislava, known to the Jews as Pressburg, took place.
Eventually I located two Jews still alive. A 91 year old lady — the same age as my father — and her daughter. That was all! No-one else. I could not understand how they managed to remain in life.
My beautiful wife, my golden daughter ... not a trace. Vanished ... along with the other Jews who were accepted, desirable and model neighbours. All their houses, shops and businesses were now occupied by good neighbours, all moveable property expropriated.
I was apprised that on 10th September, in retribution for the large and initially successful partisan revolt, the Germans rounded up our town's last 66 Jews, none of whom had played any role in the insurgency. The SS were actively assisted by the townspeople, keenly eying Jewish property. The uprising was at its height to the east and initially the Germans were not faring well. But they were keen to kill all the Jewish nation, even at the expense of being weakened by the rebellion.
These remaining Jews were forced to the nearby village of Nemčice. On their arrival, the SS, wasting no time, compelled them to excavate a large ditch. Each person was shot in the back, their bodies plunging into that trench. Six of those murdered that day were children, the youngest just three months old. My friends and I returned each of their bodies home, to Topoľčany, for reinterment in a mass grave, which we dug in the centre of our cemetery. It was no longer possible to identify individuals. We placed a tombstone above the sepulchre narrating the story of those interred therein.
Two more Jews outlived the Nemčice slaughter. My cousins, Ali, who owned and managed the largest horse feed company in Europe and his younger brother, Nazi, who assisted him. Theirs was an indispensable industry— and they needed my cousins to manage it. On the last day, as the Accursed pulled out of our town, they shot Ali and Nazi dead. They were merely collateral.
During the first few months of 1945, 600 Jews trickled home. They too found themselves strangers in the town in which many had lived for generations, most now with no family, sole survivors.
We, who left home to work camps and to the forests, had been certain our women and children would be safe, not be touched by these monsters. We should have known better. We made the fatal mistake of not learning from history. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, well before the rise of Nazism, Germany brutally colonised three large swathes of Africa. In South-West Africa, in April 1893, a heavily reinforced German army unit, in place on orders from the Kaiser, launched a dawn raid on the small Nama clan, located some distance from German settlement, but in an area they wanted. Taken by surprise, the clan chief ordered his men to flee, leaving behind women and children on the assumption they would be unharmed. The Schutztruppe — so called protection force — Germans have a peculiar sense of humour — butchered women, children and the elderly, indiscriminately. Additionally, eighty women were taken back to their fort where they were distributed as house slaves. Germans did not need Mein Kampf to instruct them in Jewish and Black racism, active hatred directly leading to their genocidal enterprises. It has always been there, in their mothers' milk.
Accounts trickled in of Slovak partisans who fought further east. The largest partisan group was that of Viliam Zingor. They were known to be have been fiercely Slovak nationalistic, as were most of these bands, but uncharacteristically, religiously tolerant. Of its 1,300 members, nearly a quarter were Jewish. There were a few all Jewish groups too, notably one comprised of 300 escapees from the Novaky concentration camp. Almost as a rule however, the Slovak partisans, in line with the general populace, were strongly antisemitic. As a result Jews in their ranks hid their Jewishness and this was why I and others Slovakised our surnames.
By now I was no longer particularly interested in what had happened. I was left alive, but all on my own. I only lived from one day to the next. No wife, no daughter, no father, no aunts and uncles, no nieces and nephews ... only, and thank God for this, a handful of cousins. A second cousin, Miki, also a partisan, too survived his ordeals. My sister, Iren, moved to America in 1929 and an aunt and uncle with five of their eight children, including my former flatmate, Ali, were already living in Israel. Their departure was not for overly ideological reasons, but rather as a result of the Anschluss when my Jewish Austrian uncle suddenly became stateless. They were outside Europe and survived.
What inertia forced us, who did not have to leave, to continue here, to remain in situ? After what we were already witnessing, well before the first shot of the war was fired? Some 5,000 Slovak Jews did emigrate before the war, largely to Israel. Others managed to follow in the early years of the war. Why was I, so involved in Zionist youth movements and activities, not one of them? There were always excuses. My parents were old and frail, there was the business ....
Now I am just tired. I do not know how I will continue living in this void. I have been fighting since 1938, beginning late one night with a few friends. We counterattacked a group of hated black shirted Hlinka-Garde activists, who had been stirring up trouble against our Jews. The next morning our community was in wonderment, having no idea who carried out this heroic deed. However as a new Slovak government had just been installed, our leadership, always worried about the reaction of the goyim, was not impressed. But it was not long, as early as November that very year, 1938, that those black shirts were actively assisting in the deportation of our people from Slovakia.
Why did more of us not see the writing on the wall?
Posted 7th October, 2021 -- 1st Marḥeshvan, 5782