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Slovakia’s unspoken history – Kathleen Boal – Learning manager – Cullodean Battlefield and Visitors Centre

“Slovakia is an amazing place with a powerful story; a place and a people worth getting to know better.” Kathleen Boal


Svidnik war memorial

In May of 2014 I had the opportunity to participate in an Arch Trip to Slovakia. Arch is a Non-Government Organisation promoting learning and development in natural and cultural heritage between Scotland and other European countries. We spent seven days in and around the town of Svidník in the Prešov region of eastern Slovakia. What initially attracted me to this site was the opportunity to see the Dukla Pass, the location of a significant battle during the Second World War between the Soviets and the German forces. This was particularly relevant to me as I run the education department at a battlefield in the north of Scotland. I wanted to understand how the Slovaks dealt with a recent and difficult history, how historic sites such as the Dukla Pass fit within the national education system, and how 100 years of nearly constant conflict interspersed with totalitarian government influences attitudes today. I discovered a country grappling with its difficult histories and people excited to share their culture and traditions but reticent to speak about conflict. Upon reflection, some of the questions I was asking were the wrong ones. I did not have a strong understanding of the development of Slovakia as a nation – it was only when I returned to Britain and had the opportunity to reflect on my trip that I was able to make sense of my experience.

In 1993 Slovakia became an independent nation state. This was not its first experience of independence as it had been nominally independent between 1939 and 1945 but closely tied politically to Germany. The region has been ruled by a series of empires and in reality the history of Slovakia is that of borders, ethnicity, conflict and a movement towards self-determination.

The group flew into Poland on Sunday, and were met by Miro our guide, who is heavily involved in the promotion of Slovakian culture in Eastern Slovakia. Our drive from Krakow to Svidník took over 3 hours as there were floods and we had to be detoured. As we drove through Poland and into Slovakia I was struck by how many newly constructed housed there were – some homes were clearly built on plots that already contained a family home and so the new and historic nestled together. Our van climbed up into the Tatras and we crossed into Slovakia at the Dukla Pass – a place that, previous to the trip, I knew nothing about, but one that played a pivotal role on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. As we passed over the border, Miro pulled into a layby and took us up a forest track to a set of fox holes used by the Soviet forces and Slovak partisans during a massive battle in 1944. There was one piece of interpretation at the site and the shelters were reconstructed – you were able to crawl into them and get an impression of what it would have been like for the men involved. That said, the interpretation itself was factual and did not engage with the personal stories of the people associated with the battle. It left me unclear how the Soviets had become involved, what the impact of the battle was and how it was relevant to Slovakia today. This was my first encounter with Slovakia’s recent past but it seemed to me that the battle, the resistance that prompted it, and its repercussions were unspoken companions on our journey.

In the late 1930s Slovakia, as part of its bid to become independent from the Czechoslovak nation, had allied herself with Germany. I later read that, according to Slovak historian Valerian Bystricky, ‘This new state could not have originated or survived in the existing power -political situation in central Europe without the direct support and approval of the Third Reich. The Slovak state and its leading representatives had to collaborate with Nazi Germany, to accept its demands and support its policies’ (Bystricky). This new political situation left Slovaks as part of a satellite state – this is perhaps most apparent in the approach toward Aryanisation that began after the formation of the independent state. As part of this process anti-Semitic policy was put into place and Jewish people became more and more ‘excluded from economic and public life. In the end they also lost their human and civil rights’. This policy resulted in over 58,000 people being deported to extermination camps. According to Ivan Kamenc, this experience ‘traumatised Slovak society’. While some Slovaks believed that an alliance with Germany gave them the power to become an independent nation, ‘others perceived it as a temporary necessity (as the lesser evil) at a time when Hitler’s Germany dominated central Europe… A large part of Slovak society identified with the concept of an independent state but this did not mean that they accepted its humiliating subordination of Germany or supported its anti-democratic totalitarian regime’ (Kamenec).


Figure 1 Foxhole in the Dukla Pass

In 1941/2 there was little active resistance to the Government and, by extension, the alliance with Germany; however that changed once war was declared on the Soviet Union. Many Slovakians felt a kinship with Russia, and Ukrainians and Slovakians who were fighting on the eastern front began to desert en masse to join the Red Army. In the spring and summer of 1944, partisans became active in Eastern Slovakia – many of whom were organised by the Soviets. The Partisans primarily consisted of deserters from the Slovak army, Jewish people who had escaped transportation, people hiding from the police and escaped prisoners (Rychlick). The culmination of the resistance movement came on the 29th of August 1944 when as many as ‘60,000 soldiers and 12,000 partisans conducted a ‘small scale war’ in the midst of the wider war’ (Precan 206). In September the Soviets launched the Dukla Operation, an attempt to assist the uprising. In some ways this was successful, as it tied up the German Army Group North and it became ‘impossible for the Germans to spare a single soldier to fight against the uprising itself’ (Precan 217). The battle was long and drawn out – the entire offence was supposed to take 5 days. Instead it took almost 2 months for the Soviets, Czech and Slovak forces to secure the Pass and left close to 137,000 dead or wounded (Stojaspal). Towards the end of our week, we had the opportunity to spend some time in the Pass and it was very close to the town where we were staying. Miro told the story of someone who lived in the area during the war who said that the streams ran red with blood. In the meantime ‘under the pressure of the enemy military superiority and after the exhaustion of its own reserves … the resistance… collapsed’ (Precan) on October 27th 1944. The consequences of the uprising were severe. Germany occupied Slovakia and almost 13,000 people were arrested, of whom almost 10,000 were Jews, most of whom were transferred to German concentration camps; 2,237 people were given ‘special treatment’… that is they were murdered or put to death without trial’ (Precan 227-229). It took 6 months for the Soviets to move across Slovakia, and the German retreat was not gentle, leaving ‘deep wounds on Slovakia’ by April 30th 1945 the Soviets controlled all of the significant towns in the country.

After visiting the Pass we continued on to Svidník where we were to be based for the week. The town itself looked to be newly rebuilt. There were large apartment blocks painted in shades of pink and blue. I would later see similar colours on traditional buildings (the blue apparently kept the flies away). But for the moment, in the early evening, they looked like pieces of rock candy set in the hills. Just behind our hotel was what appeared to be a large abandoned apartment block. The bottom stories were filled with restaurants and shops but the top 10 floors had no glass and were open to the elements. During the Communist period the building was used as a hotel to house the participants and dignitaries who took part in an annual commemoration service for the lives lost at the Dukla Pass.

The next morning we set out on a long drive to see Spiš Castle and Levoča. It took about an hour and a half in the van and the landscape was lovely; rolling green hills and limestone outcroppings. As we drove through the countryside it became apparent that many people worked the land, there were small plots everywhere – the front gardens of homes seemed to be completely turned over to agriculture – Potatoes, strawberries, cabbage – an abundance of green. Later that week we would be introduced to Marita. Who would invite us into her home; show off her immense garden and feed us Pierogies and borsht until we could eat no more.

Levoča is a medieval walled city; within the central square the buildings had amazing frescos. These were in varying states of repair, dependent on the owners of the buildings. There seemed to be an attitude towards conservation that values historic buildings looking as if they were new. Spiš Castle itself was a fantastic fairy-tale place: a massive fortification that had seen a succession of owners, made a national monument in 1960 and a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1993 after Slovakian independence. We received a tour of the grounds from a young woman who had never given a tour in English before. The story we heard was that of conflict and control of a strategically significant area – what I did find interesting was that the stories that we were being told were very ‘big picture’ we did not learn about the personal lives of the people who lived in the building or the impact that the constant conflict had on the local people living in the area at the time. Within the castle was a museum with spaces set up for hands-on activities as well as dressed rooms. It was nice to see that both our group and the other Slovakian groups that were in the castle used the spaces.


Figure 2 Spiš Castle

After our visit to the castle we walked to a local limestone quarry where the stone for the castle walls had been quarried. The walk was lovely and it gave me some time to think about whom we were speaking to and what we were being told. We were not meeting the people that were managing the historic sites – it was rather the front line staff that we were engaging with. In addition there seemed to be a reticence to speak about the recent past – certainly the interpretation we were encountering was about the large events and did not stray into personal experiences. I was unsure if this was the Slovak way of producing interpretation or if this was a result of decades of totalitarian government; it must have been very difficult to study history during the Soviet period. Certainly you wouldn’t be able to criticize or the regime or produce work that was not aligned with the political will at the time. Communist Czechoslovakia was typified by mass persecution, specifically against ‘those who opposed totalitarian power and … those suspected of opposition by … the regime.’ This system ‘enabled the regime to apply total political and administrative domination of the whole of social, economic and cultural life’ (Pesek 285) for Slovakians. Purges became common and it is estimated 35,000 to 40,000 people were affected directly after the communists seized power. (Pesek 288) People lost their jobs, were interned in forced labour camps and imprisoned as part of the process.

My musings were reinforced the next day when we visited the Andy Warhol Museum: there wasn’t the spirit of openness about the workings of the museum. This might have just been about personalities or cultural differences; however it was not an attitude that we encountered when talking about cultural activities such as cooking, dancing, craft and song. When we discussed these activities with providers (most of who were from Non-Government Organisations) there seemed to be a real enthusiasm for sharing the culture. One visit that was markedly different was our visit to the Doll Museum in Stropkov. There we met Andrej Nabozny, who led us around his museum, of dolls in folk costume. He was so enthusiastic about the dolls, and the stories that you could learn from them, that it was a joy to listen to him. The museum itself was located in a renovated palace, the bottom floor was a restaurant and the top housed the museum as well as offices. While we were visiting the museum Andrej told us a remarkable story about a young woman who was married to the man who built the palace. Apparently he went away to war for several years and upon his return discovered that she was pregnant. He was incredibly angry and so decided to brick his pregnant wife into a wall – her ghost now haunts the building. Andrej also showed us photographs of Archduke Franz Ferdinand as the palace was briefly a residence for him. These stories were poignant yet without speaking to Andrej we would not have known them.

Later I had the opportunity to discuss some of this with Miro. He told me that for many young people, while culture and folk traditions are relevant and interesting (perhaps a way of celebrating their identity), the past 100 years are not really of interest. This period is perceived as a troubled time, one that people don’t want to investigate. Miro specifically referred to this 20th century as ‘sad’. He also told me that there isn’t a Primary School History curriculum for Slovakia. Secondary school is vocationally focused and so even then there is not a concentration on the history of the country. And while in Svidník there is a museum of the Second World War, it is not a place that locals go to. We went on to discuss how the French seem to be able to have a relationship with their history, as an occupied state during the Second World War, but Slovakia still struggles with it. Perhaps this is because of its history after the war, or because the State itself cooperated with the Nazi regime in Germany.


Figure 3 Bardejov from above

The morning of our fifth day in Slovakia took us to Bardejov, a gothic town with a beautiful church and town square. There we visited the Museum of the Icons – Miro guided us through the imagery and explained the iconography. What I found particularly significant was the large proportion of Icons that were painted by local crafts people in the 18th century. Again war seems to play a large part in people’s lives. Churches were regularly being burned during the Napoleonic Wars and local people needed to be able to create and recreate their icons, hence the proliferation of locally crafted pieces. Later that afternoon, we went to Bardejov spa and there saw folk costume influenced by the uniforms worn by Napoleonic soldiers. The spa itself was a strange mixture; brutalist architecture sits cheek by jowl with Victorian and Baroque style buildings. The spa houses a small Skansen (outdoor museum) with some lovely traditional wooden buildings, one of which was an orthodox wooden church that was originally erected in the 1800s. It was moved to the Skansen in 1923 but was renovated recently and moved again. Miro was part of the team that worked on the project which was funded by the European Government. The Skansen was, like many small museums, suffering from a lack of funds – many of the museums in Slovakia are nationalised or are run regionally. The collections are, as far as I can tell, owned by the government as well. Work within museums is much sought after and posts are difficult to get. My feeling is that it is a much politicised environment.

On the way back to Svidník we passed graveyards from the Second World War. These sites were quite austere compared to others we had seen. Miro let me know that they were specifically for German soldiers who died during the war. Slovakian graveyards are very different; they are a riot of colour and are very well maintained. In Slovakia graves are leased on a yearly basis, if the rent is not paid or the graves are not looked after (kept clean or have flowers on the regularly) the remains are removed and disposed of. Therefore there are not many graveyards from beyond the late 1800s as the people who would have been buried there are outside of living memory. The German graves however are paid for by a commission in Germany – each town or region has an agreement with the commission and for a fee they are looked after.

Our last day in Slovakia took us back to the Dukla Pass to see the tanks held within the landscape. All of the tanks were Soviet and the memorial for the battlefield is a Soviet tank crushing a German one. The tanks themselves were in the middle of farmer’s field. I imagine the farmers would not be happy with their placement and it makes me wonder what the plough would turn up in planting season.


Figure 4 Memorial at the Dukla Pass

That evening we walked through Svidník – past a massive memorial to the Soviets and the national uprising that lost their lives in the battle for the Dukla Pass. The monument consisted of awe inspiring statues presiding over four mass graves, holding over 7,000 people. Once the site was used for annual ceremonies; dignitaries would be brought in, stay at the special hotels in town and the spectacle would have been incredible. Now the site is overgrown and has a faint air or neglect although we did see local people were using it for an outdoor gym. We were off to see a folk dancing festival, as was everyone else we came across leaving the monument forgotten.

Over the past 100 years Slovakia has been pushed and pulled by world events. The history and the telling of the story of the Slovaks is important, not only to the country itself, but also to the rest of Europe. It is incredible how much of Slovakia’s story is yet to be told. In 1918 there were ‘fewer than 300 elementary schools and no gymnasia (secondary schools preparing pupils for university) offering instruction in Slovak’ (Kovac 10). Historiography in the country has been at the mercy of whatever political power had been in charge. However, since 1989 historians have been working incredibly hard to remove the political distortions that have created a one-sided view of Slovak history. The task is far from complete but it is such an important one. This visit has reinforced for me the danger of political bias, the importance of talking about our past, even when it is difficult, and the value in sharing our culture with others. I had an incredible time in Slovakia – it opened my eyes and invigorated my senses. Slovakia is an amazing place with a powerful story; a place and a people worth getting to know better.


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Photographs: Sally Hutchinson, Penelope Thomas, Maya Hoole, Ruth Morris

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