Walking through the streets of Zilina last week I tried to imagine myself back in time, to the years between the wars when it was still home to my family, when my father was a schoolboy, later a young doctor. I wanted to look beyond the graffitied concrete and the two modern shopping centres and concentrate on the narrow streets and once imposing buildings. The arcaded town square wasn’t so different, could I picture him in his wide trousered suit, greeting friends, patients, relatives, as he went through from his own house on Masaryk Street to his father’s tailor shop on Horny Val? Could I imagine Alice, hurrying across from one political meeting to another, calling in the shops, meeting friends, working as the first female lawyer in Zilina?
I was there, for the first time, in order to attend the memorial to the Jews from Zilina who were killed in the Holocaust. The invitation had come and I had to accept. I wasn’t sure what to expect. The first event on the Saturday afternoon was a book signing in the Rosenfeld Palace just opposite the newly restored synagogue. As I sat in the elegance of the mirrored room, I heard nothing but Slovak and a small anxiety that the whole week-end would be in a language I could barely understand, began to grow. I had expected people to have come from all over the world. As I sat and listened to the discussion in Slovak, I found I could follow vaguely the topic of the conversation, but not the detail. At least I knew who the main organisers of the reunion were – Peter and Pavel Frankl.
The evening session was in the synagogue, which has been restored and is now a community space for Zilina; for the Friday and Saturday after our arrival, it had been the centre of a Red Cross event for young people. Now, it was laid with trestle tables and food, a bar was open, a pianist played Jewish songs and music. I introduced myself to Peter Frankl and he immediately recognised me as the person who had been emailing him. From that moment, we were talking about my father and what we both knew about him. As we were speaking, his nephew David came to act as translator. David worked in England and I turned to speak to him, but before I could say a word, I was given a microphone so I could introduce myself to the whole group and David translated my words. I explained who my father and grand-parents were and about Alice. Within moments, people came up to me to say we were cousins. We pored over family trees together and talked about where they lived.
The people in the room had indeed come from all over the world, and they all spoke Slovak. Most had been born in Zilina shortly after the war, in 1946-7 and had known each other since childhood, were old school friends, and had then been separated. They were the children of the survivors, those who had either hidden in the mountains or been deported so late that they had survived the camps. Most had later left, as adults, some happened to be abroad in 1968 and never returned and only in recent years have they been able to meet annually in what had been their home town. In the early years of the reunion, their parents had still been alive, the generation who might have remembered my father. Now the second generation was ageing and they know it is only a matter of time before no-one will remember the life of the Jewish community in Zilina. How had it been for those returning to settle after the war, finding their houses occupied by others and most of their friends and family no longer there at all? It was not something my father felt he could do, but then he had a life elsewhere, those who returned, had only ever known Zilina.
There was a strange dislocation between the life I was touching in the newly restored synagogue, beneath the dome decorated with an overarching star of David, listening to the only rabbi in Slovakia singing a Hebrew blessing and the history as presented outside the warm circle of memories in the room. When we had arrived in Zilina the previous day we went straight out to explore and in the huge new main square was a statue of Andrej Hlinka, Catholic priest, Slovak nationalist and founder of the Slovak People’s Party. His successor, the notorious fascist Josef Tiso, collaborated with the Germans and was responsible for the deportation of the Jews. His military force had been the Hlinka Guard, named in honour of his predecessor. In fact, I first heard of Hlinka when reading the memoir about Alice. Hlinka came from Ruzomberok and Alice’s first political act was to defy a strike organised in support of Hlinka. Now, here he was, in pride of place in one of the main squares of the town. Slovaks revere him for his nationalism, but nationalism and Catholicism were hand in hand with anti-semitism.
From the square we had walked into the main shopping centre where we found a display celebrating 700 years of Ruzomberok. I scanned through, making vague sense of the key events and found a strange gap between 1938 when Slovakia became a client state of Nazi Germany and 1944 when there was a Slovak uprising. The introduction of anti-semitic laws and mass deportation of Jews in 1942 were not mentioned at all. I found myself looking at everyone I passed in the street and wondering how their parents and grand-parents had behaved in those years. And they themselves, how had they voted in recent elections? The current government of Slovakia is mired in allegations of corruption and the right wing People’s Party – Our Slovakia – is gaining ground. Thinking back to the thriving town, populated by Jewish lawyers, doctors and entrepreneurs and seeing the rather sleepy empty streets of present day Zilina, I felt I was only seeing a shadow of the town it had once been.
On Sunday we attended the memorial service in the meeting room of the Jewish cemetery. The iron gates to the cemetery had been locked on Saturday when we went to visit, on Sunday they stood open and we walked up the peaceful tree lined path into the memorial space. Inside, all four walls are completely covered by names. I searched for the ones I wanted to see, there they were – Leopold Kohn and Ernestina Kohnova, in the middle of the main wall, just behind the lectern.
I have known since I was 18 that my grandparents died in the Holocaust, but somehow, seeing their names there amongst their relatives and friends, in the midst of their community, brought home to me more than a personal loss. Not just grand-parents I never knew, but a lost world. These names are almost all that is left of Jewish Zilina, and Zilina was only one of thousands of communities that no longer exist. There are descendants, spread throughout the world, there are the words and memories preserved in the books written by them and there is a restored synagogue, no longer a place of worship. Are the current citizens of Zilina reminded of the community they have lost, that their parents and grand-parents may have helped to destroy, when they meet beneath that star of David?
My father moved from New York to Zilina when he was nine. His parents had met and married in America, but both came from Slovakia and although they had relatives in America, their roots were in Zilina. Their families could trace their ancestry back for generations and when they returned, it was to a far reaching network of cousins: the Kohn, Langfelder and Popper families intertwined back through the centuries, as can be seen in the many graves of the Jewish cemetery. Leopold and Ernestine were returning home, but for Erwin, it was a different world. Having been educated in English in an American school, he soon found himself in the Zilina Statna Realna Skola, being taught in Hungarian. I know his parents had spoken to him in German when they lived in America, presumably they also spoke some Hungarian and Slovak to him. German was an essential part of the curriculum and Slovak was the language of the streets around him, but the schools taught in Hungarian. By the age of 13, he was fluent in English, German, Slovak and Hungarian, and by the age of 15 was scoring the highest grade (1) in his school report in German and Hungarian, as well as in French, chemistry and several other subjects. His score for Latin was a 2. His teacher’s comment on his 1913 school report was, “You may go in the top class.” which presumably is where he was the following year. Amazingly, the school records for most of his school years still exist in the Zilina archive and I was able to read the very words of his teacher in the huge end of year ledgers.
The school building also still exists, now part of Zilina university. Then, it was a new building, built in the Secessionist style, ornate and imposing. Now, it is rather dusty, some of its stonework is chipped, but the heavy oak doors through which my father walked, still welcome students in to study. It stood just across the street from what was then the new synagogue and many of its pupils were Jewish. In 1918, at the end of the war, Erwin went to Charles University in Prague to study Medicine, in German. He was away for ten years, studying first in Prague and then in Vienna. When he returned to Zilina to take up his medical practice, he worked in Kukucinova Street, just behind the main town centre, at an address I found in the 1930 telephone directory for Zilina. It is still a doctor’s surgery today, close to the hospital and two pharmacies. Later, he and Alice moved to a house in the main street leading down from the station to what is now Hlinka Square. Now it is a shop piled high with everything from household equipment to clothes. Then, their street was Masaryk Street, now it is Narodna Street. Running alongside the house is a passageway, which enabled two entrances to the building, one for Erwin’s patients at the front, and one for Alice’s clients at the side. The passage also offers an alternative exit route to the street at the rear of the house, which is presumably “the back door” to which Tauchmanova refers when describing their hurried departure in 1938. It was a very short walk from their house to the station.
What would he have thought, my father, if he could have known I would be able to stand outside his school, his house, look at his school records, find his name in the telephone book? After the war he no longer wanted to live in Zilina, but after 1948 it was impossible even to visit. He could go to Vienna, but Czechoslovakia, the world of his adolescence and youth, was forbidden. And what of his parents? They were killed in the most degrading of circumstances, treated as if sub-human and incinerated. Yet their names remain, engraved in marble on a wall in the cemetery where their ancestors are buried, their lives celebrated every year in a memorial service. And now, visited by a grand-daughter they never knew, but who is beginning to know them.