On his recent visit to Kochi, Dr Martin Korcok, Head of the Sered Holocaust Museum in Slovakia, talks about what the Jews went through in his country during the Second World War
Photos: Dr Martin Korcok, by Melton Antony; the inside of the museum; a train transport
By Shevlin Sebastian
“Every night, [in 1939], the BBC, before the news broadcast, would play the national anthem of its allies,” says Gertrude Silman. “This included the national anthem of Czechoslovakia. I would listen to it because it enabled me to be close to my parents.”
When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1938, the parents of Gertrude decided to send her to their relatives in Liverpool. So, on April 1, 1939, she embarked for England. But it was a place that Gertrude found difficult to adjust. “I was very homesick,” she says.
Her younger sister Charlotte Bushell also followed her. “When I said goodbye to my parents, I was told that it was for a year,” she says. “But it turned out to be much longer.”
In the meantime, their father was sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp [in occupied Poland] in March 1942. Later, he perished there. Soon, Gertrude's mother went missing. “She was one of two million people who has not been accounted for,” says Gertrude. In the end, both the sisters, who live in England now, never saw their parents alive. As Gertrude says, “I have nice memories of home, but it is tinged with sadness because our family was destroyed.”
Adds Charlotte: “Whatever happened to us is not in the past but lives within us.”
Both Gertrude and Charlotte were speaking for the documentary, 'The Feldman Sisters', which was shown at the Uru Art Gallery in Mattancherry recently by Dr Martin Korcok, the director of Sered Holocaust Museum in Slovakia. He had come to give a talk titled, ‘Museums as keepers of memory’.
One of the aims of Martin is to educate the younger generation about what happened so that history is not repeated again.
With that end in mind, Martin has made several short films with survivors. “From my experience, I realised that young people will have a better understanding if they meet a survivor,” says Martin. “But there are very few survivors these days. Many have passed away. And for those who are alive, it is not easy for them to come to the museum and speak about their experiences. So we decided to make these short films. Thus far, we have been able to show how the Jews lived before the war. At that time, Czechoslovakia (the country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993) was one of the most liberal countries. Then the Holocaust happened.”
In terms of statistics, in a small place like Slovakia, during the Second World War, more than 70,000 Jews were killed. In fact, Slovak girls, who went on the first transports on March 25, 1942, were the first Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz. “The aim of the Nazis [from Germany] was to make Slovakia ‘Juden Free’ – without Jews,” says Martin.
Nearly all the Jews were initially held at the concentration camp at Sered. In 2009, Prime Minister Robert Fico announced that the camp would be converted into a museum, in honour of the victims. “The funds have come from the government as well as the European Union,” says Martin.
Meanwhile, the situation has not changed much for Jews in Europe today. “Because the people have been supporting right-wing parties, Anti-Semitism is rising in Europe,” says Martin. “However, compared to countries like Germany, Britain and France, where you have soldiers and police in front of synagogues and Jewish schools, the situation is much better in Slovakia.”
Nevertheless, Martin detects Anti-Semitism on the Internet among his countrymen. “If there is an article about the Jews when you read the comments, you can detect a lot of antipathy for the Jews, but the only difference is that there are no personal attacks,” he says. Incidentally, from a high of 1.39 lakh Jews before the war, today there are only 2700 Jews in Slovakia.
Back in Kochi, Martin was very happy with his experience at the Uru Gallery. “The members of the audience were active participants,” says Martin. “They asked whether the perpetrators were prosecuted after the war, or whether they succeeded in re-integrating themselves into society along with the victims.”
Martin paused, smiled and says, “The Indian people do care about subjects like the Holocaust, racism, xenophobia, and genocide. It was nice to see that India is a country that allows such subjects to be discussed openly. It is a sign of a great civilisation.”
(The New Indian Express, Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram)