My Paternal Family and Russia

My Paternal Family and Russia: First published in 28 April 2014

The family of my father Zoltán came from Levoča in present-day East-Central Slovakia. At the time, of course, Czechoslovakia was one country but before that it was part of the Hungarian Crown Lands (of St. Stephen) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (Dual Monarchy), as a result of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867. So my father spoke Hungarian. This was common among those of Jewish ancestry, for whom the Hungarian language was made legally official alongside German as a result of the formation of the Dual Monarchy.

It is an interesting fact that he met my mother, Maria, a Catholic Hungarian from the village of Rakamaz (near Tokaj in present-day Hungary. The vineyards of the wine are named after the town), a mere 100 miles from Levoča). They met in North Devon where he heard Maria speaking Hungarian with her lifelong best friend, also from Rakamaz as they were out cycling together in 1939. This was in the era of poor East European young women seeking employment in the UK, and both Maria and Anna had done so. So Maria and her husband-to-be both came to England as an indirect result of the 1930s recession, though for quite different reasons: my father as a political refugee and my mother as a poor girl seeking work.

Levoča is in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in the Low Tatra. The Tatra Mountains are on the border of Poland and Hungary. The High Tatra are even more remote and mountainous. The only reason I go into this detail is the strength of the Slovak partizans, which had the benefit of a large area of forested low mountains to base their resistance to the Nazis on, not far from Levoča.

I have visited Levoča as the last place in Slovakia my aunt took me to. It is a beautiful ancient walled town with gates set in a valley in the hills (at the time I was there in 1956, no cars were allowed inside the walls). The Wikipedia item on Levoča is worth looking at more closely, especially the Gallery of pictures.

Four of my relatives remaining in Levoča  survived the war, the rest died in Auschwitz, including my father’s parents and brothers. On that last trip to Slovakia we met the four survivors. Two of them – Lajos and Jolán – hid in  the forests where they were hidden during winter in barns, paid for by picking forest berries and mushrooms in the autumn. Slovakia was ruled by a quisling Priest called Jozef Tiso. You can read here about the History of the Jews in Slovakia. The other two, a married couple (Zoli and Cita), joined the Partizans. It is likely that they joined a Jewish Brigade, but I did not even know these existed until recently and so I didn’t ask. All I remember is that Zoli (I don’t even remember his surname, but probably Lajos and Jolán’s son) was in danger of being shot by a mistrusting partizan when he tried to join the partizans.

As can be seen my knowledge of this part of the history is sparse in the extreme. I was just in my teens, still only 13 in the summer of 1956, preceding the Hungarian Revolution and what I learned that summer was already vastly more than I had learned from putting together what little I could glean from my taciturn father.

But Levoča was becoming an increasingly dangerous place for Jews to live in during – and especially toward the end of – the war during the rule of  Tiso. One thing Lajos told me always stuck in my mind. There were in Levoča a few senior members of the community who used to shoot known local Jews from a window. It made me wonder if this was part of an increasingly desperate Tiso to please Hitler as the Third Reich approached collapse. All this must have played a part in making all four of my relatives who lived there and had not already fled Slovakia for the West to hide in the forests.

In History of the Jews in Slovakia the following can be read:

“Some 5,000 Jews emigrated before the outbreak of World War II, but most were killed in the Holocaust. After the Slovak Republic proclaimed its independence in March 1939 under the protection of Nazi Germany, Slovakia began a series of measures aimed against the Jews in the country, first excluding them from the military and government positions. The Hlinka‘s Guard began to attack Jews, and the “Jewish Code” was passed in September 1941. Resembling the Nuremberg Laws, the Code required that Jews wear a yellow armband, and were banned from intermarriage and from many jobs. By 1940, more than 6,000 Jews had emigrated.

The pro-Nazi regime of President Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest, agreed to deport its Jews as part of the Nazi Final Solution.[4][5] ”

The invasion of Slovakia by the Red Army in 1944 was something else I had puzzled over. The Tatra Mountains must have had a pass over them to allow the Red Army to move into Slovakia. Thanks to the internet I have worked out where this was. A very useful website is this detailed website on Slovakia Genealogy Research Strategies. If you have Slovak origins you must read this website as it contains much information about Slovakia, and I have found it invaluable. From this website I learned of the existence of the Dukla Pass. I have been able to deduce that the Red Army invaded Slovakia from Ukraine via Poland. See Battle for Dukla Pass. On Wikipedia see: and

Forcing the Dukla Pass which the Germans had strongly defended cost both the Nazi forces and the Red Army some 70,000 lives each, and took several months of vicious and bitter fighting, and to which must be added an unknown number of Partizan deaths.

So how was it that my father escaped? He was among the 5,000 – a fraction of the total – who emigrated before the outbreak of World War II. To understand this part of the events we have to leave Levoča and move west to the Slovak town of Púchov. The expansion of railways in late Habsburg Slovakia meant that my paternal grandfather had moved from Levoča and lived and worked here. He ran a Signal Box, and although no doubt Joci tried to find it she was unable to do so, as much was destroyed and lost during the war. This image gives a sense of what it must have looked like inside: The Schlieffen Plan was based on the railway mania of the era, though the plan failed due to constant revisions. Branch lines were built all over the place, as they were in the UK and Sweden.

My paternal grandfather was, like most Jews, extremely nationalistic, naming his sons after senior Hun leaders – Attila, Árpád, Zoltán (the latter of Ottoman origin –  the Ottoman Empire included Hungary and Slovakia for several centuries). I suspect there were more than 3 sons, but never felt able to ask as the whole business of the death camps was too angst-filled, while Joci, the aunt who took me everywhere in the lands of our origin had married into the family as Anci Weisz’ sister.

I know Attila did genealogical research of his family in Levoča and found that after 1867 when Hungarian became a permitted language as a result of the Dual Monarchy the surname was changed from Hartmann to its Hungarian equivalent of Kemény or Hard. This is a surname most Brits and Swedes still get wrong, pronouncing it Kemeeni or since the Iranian revolution Khomeini. Some Swedes even think it is a Finnish name.

The Russians lost over 20 million people in the war, and ended up detesting war in all it forms. I have heard many Russians saying this down the years and most recently in the Crimea. I understand this and Churchill once wrote this about the Russians, a quote I learned from my father:

Winston Churchill wrote in his inimitable style that “It was the Russian army who tore the guts out of the German war machine.”

If you want to understand this better, please  read the whole of the page on this internet site: Our Common Victory and its Lessons. It is so true. And it is a lesson I will never forget.

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