The Holocaust in Czechoslovakia

Holocaust in Czechoslovakia
Bar mitzvah party in Czechoslovakia, 1937.

Jews in Czechoslovakia

Czechoslovakia was a newly formed country that came from the union of the historical regions of Bohemia; Moravia; Slovakia; Silesia; and Subcarpathian Ruthenia. The demographic landscape of Jewish persons living in Czechoslovakia was extremely varied.  About 350,000 Jews lived in the entire country: the Jews of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia were more similar to German Jews, whereas the Slovakian Jews were a little bit more pious and less-integrated.  The Jews of western Czechoslovakia lived mostly in large cities – 40% of Bohemian Jews lived in Prague, alone. The Jews of Slovakia, however, were fairly evenly distributed across both rural and urban communities, with only 8% living in Bratislava. However, it is worth noting that Jews in Prague made up only 4% of the population, whereas in Bratislava they were a solid 13%.  The Jews of Subcarpathian-Ruthenia suffered the same fate as Hungarian Jews and were largely found to follow the traditional eastern European Jewish culture: isolated, yiddish-speaking, and Hasidic.

In total there were about 350,000 Jews in all of Czechoslovakia.  This includes around 137,000 Jews in Slovakia; 76,000 Jews in Bohemia; 41,000 Jews in Moravia & Silesia; and 102,000 in Subcarpathian-Ruthenia. The Jews generally followed the pattern of becoming less and less assimilated as you move from west to east across greater Czechoslovakia.

The Sudetenland

Hitler’s unique take on nationalism was one in which he wanted to unite all German-speaking peoples around Europe. This included Austria, of course, but also other areas where there were large populations of German people.  In Czechoslovakia there was a sizable German minority, especially in the northern areas of Bohemia (which bordered Germany.) This land was called the Sudetenland, and some areas’ populations were over 75% German. The Germans living in Czechoslovakia during the interwar period were not willing to integrate into Czech society – they lived completely separately from their Czech neighbors. Germans were bitter because they had lost privileges that were previously afforded to them under the Austro-Hungarian empire’s favoritism.

Czechoslovakia in 1933

Two Slovakian Jewish Families get Married
The Klein and Winczer families celebrate a union between two of their members at a wedding in pre-war Slovakia, 1927.

The Road to Munich

The multinational state of Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, and it was one of the most free and prosperous countries in all of Europe.  The different ethnicities residing within its borders, however, would not be able to quell their nationalist sentiments in order to save their country.  The domestic problem of the minorities (3.5 million Germans; 1 million Hungarians; 500,000 Ruthenians) started to become more palpable after Hitler came to power in 1933. This inspired the Sudeten Germans to become more nationalistic and by the latter years of the decade they had become solidly planted in the Nazi camp.  The Sudeten German Party was formed the year Hitler came to power, and by 1935 it was already receiving payouts from Berlin.  Under the leadership of Konrad Henlein, a Sudeten-German gymnastics teacher, the Sudeten German Party would assist wholly and fully in the dismantling of the Czechoslovak nation.

German Annexation of Sudentenland in 1938.

The Allies Abandon Czechoslovakia

In a desperate attempt to avoid war, the countries of Britain; France; Italy; and Germany all met in Munich in order to discuss the annexation of the Sudetenland on September 29-30, 1938.  After receiving Hitler’s pledge for peace and no more territorial demands, the meeting ended with the Sudetenland being added to Germany.  Immediately afterwards, President Edvard Beneš left the country for France and the Czechoslovak state reorganized itself into Czecho-Slovakia – the name was also a reflection of Slovakian nationalism and desired autonomy.  Czecho-Slovakia was not like its predecessor, the new state was an authoritarian regime.  The dissolution of Czechoslovakia continued in a slow and eroding manner as Germany invited its neighbors to make demands on Czecho-Slovakia: in the autumn of 1938, as a result of the First Vienna Award, Hungary annexed territory in southern Slovakia, and Poland annexed the Tešin District of Czech Silesia.  This was essentially the end of any hope for Czech autonomy, and in March 1939 the state split its remaining land into two separate entities – the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia would be occupied by Germans in the northwestern part of the former Czechoslovakia, and the southeastern part became the Catholic-fascist state of Slovakia.  Hungary annexed Subcarpathian Ruthenia, adding it to its initial claims from 1938. Romania was invited to partake in the land grab, but they declined due to a treaty with Czechoslovakia that had rendered the two nations allies in years prior. 

Final dissolution of Czecho-Slovakia. German annexation of Bohemia and Moravia; Separation of Slovakia; and Hungarian and Polish territory grabs.

Polish Shortsightedness

The region originally demanded from Czechoslovakia by Nazi Germany included the important railway junction of Bohumín. However, the Polish government in Warsaw saw a chance to grab some territory and have a political win.  Germany eagerly allowed Poland to capture this region, and Poland happily swung in and sealed their fate.  This would go down as one of the worst tactical errors of the entire war on the part of Polish diplomacy.  The fact that Poland took part in the dismantling of Czechoslovakia would look badly when Poland was invaded just 11 short months later.  Many say that this was a partial reason why the British and French were so hesitant to allocate troops to the Polish cause in the early days of the Second World War.  

The Jews in Bohemia and Moravia

There were 118,000 Jews in the two westernmost regions of the Czechoslovak nation [Bohemia and Moravia.] These Jews fell under direct control of the Germans and were incorporated into the Reich as The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.  The Germans occupied the territory in March of 1939. A few months later, a man named Adolf Eichmann came to Prague in order to establish the Central Office for Jewish Emigration.  He successfully forced about 26,000 Jews to emigrate before October, 1941, which was the last possible time to leave.

Shortly after the declaration of war in September, 1939, Jews began to suffer exponentially more profoundly than their gentile neighbors.  Violence was common, synagogues were burned, and Jews were entirely ousted from economic life.  It was clear that the only way out for a Jew was to learn a vocational trade and apply for a visa to go abroad – there was no future for them in Czech lands anymore.  There was a deportation of 3,000 Jewish men to Lublin in October of that year [1939] and some were able to escape and tell their fellow Jews about the horrors.

The Jewish Religious Congregation of Prague was a committee established in Prague to help out with the problems now facing the Jewish people. The committee went wayward and ended up becoming a puppet to do German bidding. In late 1941 they were asked to take a census of the Jewish people in Bohemia and Moravia – 88,105 was the number they came back with.

Reinhard Heydrich was assigned to the post of acting governor of the Protectorate, in 1942. He quickly began to increase the hindrances to Jewish livelihoods and then decided to re-locate all the Jews to Theresienstadt. The goal was to have many of the Jews die in that camp and the rest would eventually be shipped to the east. The caveat to this is that the first 6 trains sent out to different locations were not sent to Theresienstadt: 5 arrived in Lodz from Prague, and 1 transport went to Minsk from Brno. Most of these Jews were ultimately murdered and could not withstand the Eastern European ghetto climates.

From November 1941 to March 1945, more than 73,000 Jews from the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, were sent to Theresienstadt. Between 1942 and 1944 approximately 60,000 of them were sent on to Auschwitz and other extermination camps. Only 3,277 survived the war.

The Jews in Slovakia

Slovakian independence was an area of contention in the Czechoslovakian state.  The Slovaks were linguistically very related to the Czechs, but culturally they had developed differently after years under foreign rule. German officials were initially misinformed by the Hungarians that the Slovaks wanted to join Hungary.  This was untrue, and Hitler invited Montsignor Jozef Tiso to Berlin on March 13, 1939.  The proposal laid out in front of Tiso was either to declare independence and join Germany, or face being split up between Hungary and Poland.  The new state went to war immediately with Hungary and was forced to cede a narrow strip of borderland it shared with the country.

Jews living in Slovakia were unfortunate in comparison to their peers in Hungary – Slovakia willingly and gladly took part in the deportation of Jews from their country.  The deportations of Jews from Slovakia started on 25 March 1942, but stopped on 20 October 1942 after a group of prominent Jewish citizens were able to stop the process through a mix of bribery and negotiation.  By then, though, 58,000 Jews had already been deported from Slovakia to Auschwitz. 

Slovakia was actually the only satellite country that paid the Nazis for each Jewish person they relieved the Slovaks from.

At the beginning of 1944 some 5,400 Jews remained in Bratislava and the surrounding region. The Slovak National Uprising, which was a nationalist movement for Slovakian reunification with the Czechs, broke out on the 29th of August 1944.  The Germans swiftly occupied Bratislava and immediately began hunting Jews and opponents of the regime. Only a small number of Jews found safety by hiding in the villages with local residents. About 2,000 more Jews from Bratislava were apprehended by the Germans. On the 29th of September, 1944, they were transferred to Sered, and the next day 1,860 of them were deported to Auschwitz. Additional deportations would follow until eventually another 12,306 Jews were deported to Auschwitz or Theresienstadt.

The Final Toll

Czechoslovakia was liberated on May 5, 1945. At that time, only 2,803 Jews were left in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Of the 88,000 Jews living there before the deportations began, 78,154 died during the Holocaust. In Slovakia, about 137,000 Jews were counted before the war, and only about 24,000 survived.  The Jews of Subcarpathian-Ukraine suffered the same fate as the Hungarian Jews, and most of them died.  Afterwards there existed only a meager remnant of the once thriving Jewish communities of Prague and Bratislava.