It was 1939, and Slovakia did not want to be taken over by Germany. Germany ... had other ideas. Slovakia was eventually forced into a corner, and had a tough decision to make: Do they fully embrace their situation and give themselves over to Germany, or do they submit to the least degree required and maintain some of their independence? Ultimately, after weighing the pros and cons (on the one hand: that German efficiency! On the other hand: terrible genocide), they decided they'd rather not be a full member of Club Human Misery in exchange for more punctual trains, and signed an agreement letting them retain some integrity. Not enough to save tens of thousands of Jewish lives, or avoid being a part of the Nazi war machine -- but some. They became a protectorate of Germany under a Roman Catholic priest named Jozef Tiso. To get a personal perspective on these events, Cracked sat down with Katarina Urbanek, who spent her teenage years studying in Slovakia, where she also enlisted as a member of the Slovak Underground. She told us ...
Since Slovakia was right next to Austria and the Reich (give that a thought next time you complain about your neighbor's cinder-block El Camino), Allied planes would frequently buzz over the Slovak countryside on their way back to safe territory. And since the German pilots were skilled fliers as well as huge jerkwads, many Allied planes ended up being shot down on the Czech-Slovak border. It was literally raining men. Luckily for any airman who wasn't immediately caught, the local Underground had a series of safehouses set up to get them out from behind enemy lines.
The first stop for many of these airmen was a small Slovak town on the Vah River near the present-day Czech Republic in the Carpathian Mountains, which are significantly less full of vampires and Vigos than the movies would have you believe. And during the first half of the 1940s, the leader of that town's Underground was Stefan Urbanek, who worked with his teenage daughter Katarina. Here it is in her words ...
Several people lived in the mountains outside the town. Mountain people, like what you would find in West Virginia, who would bring in berries and mushrooms to trade. Every so often they would come to us, saying, "Over there somebody is hiding." So my dad went out there at night. He spoke several languages, including perfect English and the gypsy language [Roma]. The people hiding there turned out to be American airmen shot down.
via Katarina Urbanek
My town in 1935. My house is behind the second field from the right of the road.
So my dad went out there at night. He would call out in English: "Come out. We can't guarantee your safety, but if the Germans find you, you are going to prison." Sometimes we would have to call out to them three or four times before they got out. When they did, we promised to protect them and hide them the best we could.
When the people in the mountains got down to go to church in town, they would go down with them in disguise, after getting rid of their uniform and I.D. Once in town we took them straight to the police station (one time having six at the same time). That was so if a German soldier suddenly came in, we could explain it by saying, "Oh, that's our new prisoner. We got him today." From there we had to get him to the next station. We had several stations, each one marked with a symbol.
Larin Max/Hemera/Getty Images, NatalyaAksenova/iStock/Getty Images
Usually two pitchforks sticking out of a bale of hay.
One time, this airman who was shot down and went over from Czech to Slovakia only spoke English, but mumbled so it was hard to tell. From the safehouse in the mountain, the Underground member who had him told him when we met him, "Go with them. They'll get you out." So while walking down with him we saw Germans coming up with a dog. There was a big ditch behind a thicket, so my dad pushed him over into the ditch, pulled his pants down and made it look like he was going. The Germans passed by, and instead of questioning them, called him a smelly pig and went on their way. It was either that or get caught.
So one by one (two at the most), they would send them out with a wood deliveryman to the next station. And they would have to pretend to be dumb and deaf. When Germans questioned the new guy, they would ask him why he wasn't in the service. We would say, "He can't speak. He is deaf and dumb." We would take them from safehouse to safehouse.
via Katarina Urbanek
Our town's Underground group. Me in the black, third from the left.
We saved about 20 airmen this way. All we did was get them from safe place to safe place like the Underground Railroad.
Being well within the influence of the Reich, Slovakia had a hand in rounding up Jews within its borders. Many who managed to resist capture hid in the Carpathian Mountains. Luckily, most of the villagers in the area enjoyed the Nazis about as much as a good bout of plague, and were more than willing to harbor some fugitives at the risk of their own lives. Sometimes that required some ingenuity:
The Nazis came in, rounded people up, and we couldn't stop them. If you tried to stop them you got yourself, your family, and your entire village in trouble. But how much we could, we saved. Mostly every town was like that. One village who held Jews and were caught doing so had gotten some of their buildings burnt down, so Jews hiding out in the mountains and the people in the mountains looking after them were growing nervous, as the Germans were suspicious that more were out there.
Needing to get out, we took five Jews (two adult women and three girls) and brought them down one by one. When the Germans came to our town, they had taken a large, five-bedroom house nearby, and at this time was occupied by five German soldiers and their dog. No place in town was safe, so we put them in the garden shed next to the German soldiers' house.
We snuck food to them and took their bucket away (which they went in). But sometimes we couldn't get there because the Germans were out there. Sometimes all they did was sit in the back and play with the dog. With them there, they would notice us and find the Jews living there. They would ask, "Why would you bring the food there?"
To get around this, we took urine from a female dog in heat. We would then sprinkle the urine on the other side of the house, and [their dog] would go after it. This cleared the way for us. Eventually, we got them out on the line we used on the downed airmen, but we never knew if they made it or not.
Being in the Underground was stressful (surprisingly few water slides and ping pong tables in "the Underground"), and betrayal was always a worry. While small towns like Katarina's were relatively safe since everyone knew everyone else, in the bigger cities paranoia was rampant. Katarina went to college at the University in the city of Trencin, less than half an hour away. That meant she got to know some people well outside of her comfort zone. Rich, powerful folks -- who weren't always the '80s-style movie villains you might expect.
Going to school, this girl, Tanya, was there. Her dad was a mayor of a big town, so she was wealthy. We always wondered, though: Why would she come from 100 miles away just for school? She was even friends with this girl who was the girlfriend to a member of the Hlinka Guard. She, despite being rich, would go to the poor areas at night. We always wondered why she went there. It wasn't until after the war we found out why.
It turns out that after dark she would hide in an out building. She knew some nights the Germans would shoot dissenters in the isolated area (as there were trenches already dug there), then bulldoze them over. After they left, Tanya would try and find if anyone was alive. When she found someone, she would take them to a monastery with monks who had a signal to get her in. On her knees and elbows, she would drag them to the monastery. I don't know how many she would save, as sometimes she would go back three, four times a night. We did not expect a friend of a Nazi supporter or rich girl like her to do that.
Another time, while in class, the Germans came through for an inspection. It turns out Tanya had a gun. So she said, "I've started throwing up, please help me to the bathroom." She started to pretend to throw up, so the German officer opened the door for her to go into the bathroom. As soon as the door was closed, she opened up the bathroom window and hid the gun underneath the window between bricks. We just didn't know why she had a gun, if she needed to hide it, or if she wanted to appear to hide it.
via Katarina Urbanek
Katarina, top left in white dress. Tanya, bottom right in white shirt. Her Nazi supporter friend who later had her hair cut off, top row, third from left in black hair. Dean, center, bottom row, trying to kill the photographer with her mind.