By Heather Morris
Who gets to call themselves a Slovakian?
Borders exist today. Borders existed fifty years ago. Borders existed before that, and before that. Ever- changing. Each time the border moved, the residents of towns and villages could find themselves needing to learn a different language, acknowledge a different capital city. The history of this small landlocked country that we now know as Slovakia dates back to the fifth century.
In 1939, Slovakia seceded from Czechoslovakia and aligned itself with Germany. A small part of southern Slovakia remained part of Hungary. And so it was that Cilka, Lale and Gita, along with ninety per cent of the Jewish people living in small towns only a few kilometres from the city of Košice, found themselves on transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1942.
Cilka, along with her sisters Olga and Magdalena (Magda) and their father, Miklaus, reported in their home town of Bardejov, for transport to ‘work’ for the Germans in April 1942. Records have been found confirming the three sisters and their father left Bardejov on 23 April bound for Poprad, a larger town 100 km away. The fate of Cilka’s mother remains unknown, but assuming she was still alive at the time, as a Jewish woman she too would have been on that transport. From there they went directly to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Cilka was the only member of her family who would leave Auschwitz alive.
Forty kilometres away the Jewish residents of Košice got to stay – for another two years. It wasn’t until May 1944 that trains passing through Košice from Hungary, already packed with Hungarian Jews, would stop to gather up the remaining Slovakian Jews, who joined over half a million men, women and children who would eventually die in Birkenau in the final seven months of the war.
The ‘soft’ borders of Slovakia, which had kept the Jewish men, women and children living in Košice from the German killing machine for over two years, now disappeared. It was time for the Jews of Hungary to face Hitler’s evil intentions.
The train line from Hungary runs through the town centre of Košice. The non-Jewish citizens could do nothing to prevent the train stopping, collecting their human cargo. Doors opened to push as many local Jews as possible into each wagon revealed the misery and pain reflected on the faces pressed up against the sides of the wagon. Hopelessness would haunt those who witnessed the atrocity being played out daily in this small Slovakian town. On my recent visit to Košice, I met a man in his eighties who told me he was around six years old when the order finally came for the Jews to join the transports to Auschwitz-Birkenau. His mother had fled to the hills, he told me through an interpreter. I assume he meant the Tatra Mountains. He was sent out of Košice to a nearby village, where he was hidden with his grandparents. One day he was playing with a friend when his grandparents were rounded up and sent away, bound for Birkenau and immediate death – older people, who were no use for work went straight to the gas chambers. The villagers decided to keep the boy, passing him from house to house over the following months. He never went outside until the war was over, he said, and was moved only at night. By some miracle his mother also managed to survive those final months, and in the chaos after the Russians arrived, they were reunited. But under Communism they never spoke of what had happened – this shameful chapter of Czechoslovakia’s history was expunged from record. Survivors were few, but they knew and recognised each other, and learned to share stories and convey sympathies in quiet, coded ways. And so it was, this man told me, with Cilka Klein, who was his neighbour for many years. He was old now, and so small that I guessed he’d been malnourished during the war. But his faded blue eyes were bright with life, with memory – and with the powerful knowledge of what can be borne and survived in order to live.
As a young man Cilka’s father travelled from his hometown of Szikszó, in northern Hungary, 100 km to the town of Sabinov, where he met Cilka’s mother. It is not known if his designated status on birth and marriage documents lists him as being ‘homeless’ (i.e. not a citizen of Czechoslovakia) because he was Jewish or because he was Hungarian. Whatever the reason, Miklaus was never granted citizenship, but his being Jewish was enough for him to be deported along with his daughters.
This designation or lack of citizenship for Miklaus forced Cilka to visit her birth town of Sabinov in 1959, after her release from the Gulag, to claim identification and recognition as a Czechoslovakian citizen. This was granted and noted on the entry of her birth in the records. Cilka would have needed official citizenship to be able to work in the Communist state of Czechoslovakia, now a satellite of the USSR and behind the iron curtain, and to marry.
Slovakian Jewish boys and girls, young men and women, were the first European Jews transported to Auschwitz in 1942. They were taken there to build their own death camp – Birkenau, just a mile or two down the train line from Auschwitz. That Cilka, Gita and other young Slovakian Jews, some of whom I have had the privilege of meeting, survived for nearly three years is a testament to their courage and determination to stay alive, to support each other, and yes, to do whatever it took to see the sun come up another day. That these young girls in particular, some as young as fifteen, did what they did to survive, placed them in danger from other women arriving much later.
With hard-earned privileges and possessions, the Slovakian girls were reluctant to share their bunk, their extra blanket. A new threat existed for them as women from other European countries came in large numbers and demanded their place in the camp, in the hierarchy.
The threat ended for all the girls in Birkenau in mid-January 1945 when they were taken on a death march away from this extermination camp. Gita went on the march, Cilka was moved, for reasons unknown, back to Auschwitz. She was there with approximately 7,000 men, women and children, most of them near death from starvation and disease, when the Russian Red Army arrived and liberated the camp on 27 January 1945.