#3. Day-to-Day Life Continues, Even in the Midst of a Resistance
Since Slovakia took the protectorate route, the German military was not nearly as active there as it was in other countries. But the Nazis weren't exactly known for their impeccable respect of personal boundaries. They were probably up in everyone's grill regardless, right? Sometimes, sure, but it wasn't like in the movies, where Nazis were an omnipresent threat -- lurking in the markets, hiding behind park benches, popping up out of the sewers like fascist spring-snakes. There were dramatic, tragic moments here and there, but it's remarkable what you can adapt to in your day-to-day life.
To survive, we had to keep a low profile. You are not alone with the Underground, but you have to keep your cover. It was very hard. I had one cousin who was in real, deep Underground work. I don't know what they were doing, but one time they were trapped with important papers that were not to fall into German hands. So he took a grenade, pulled the pin and blew himself and the papers up.
To get to Trencin and the University, I would have to take the train. One guy about a year older than me who lived a couple houses down from my house would say (as we had to walk to the train), "Don't get up this morning," as that meant he or someone he knew had set explosives and the tracks would be blown up that morning. We avoided them, and they were, to his word, blown up.
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Most resisted in some way. Some just tripped soldiers while they were walking around. Others were childish, such as my grandfather's method. He owned a pipe shop in town, and German officers would buy pipes there. So, before selling a pipe, he would stick the pipes tip up a dog's backside out of view of the German officers, then sell it to them.
We also had secret codes, such as saying to a merchant you wanted to buy a certain spool of thread and having a certain response back, like, "I cannot sell you two. Check back next week," set up just in case. You just didn't know who was who in many situations.
You just didn't think about it. You lived it through. It was like bad weather. Like with the blown-up bridge in Trencin. Once the bridge was out for the train, the train would come near the blown-out area and we would walk through river and rubble and just take the train from the other side.
via Katarina Urbanek
Trencin, before the bridge was bombed by the Underground.
In occupied countries like Czech, they fought occupation all the time and would end up with no money, so they would sell the Nazis a working car. In Slovakia, we would sell them cars, but then we would put our sugar rations inside the gas tank so they would not work. Many countries just said no, and they were punished and they still had things taken away. Germans simply paid for it in Slovakia, and would then lose it.
via Katarina Urbanek
Our family's Skoda car, before it was sweetened.
#2. Giving in May Have Actually Saved Some Lives
According to the movies, the only countries involved in WWII were America, England, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Russia. That's pretty accurate -- it's only omitting all of the rest of Europe and also everywhere else in the world. The Nazis rolled over basically everyone in Europe but the Swiss (do not mess with the Swiss) and a bit of Russia before Hitler's cunning plan to wage a winter war without coats somehow backfired. Some governments resisted the Nazis openly, while others waited to see how this whole fascism thing played out. But most behaved like Slovakia, which complied openly, then bombed the hell out of everything as soon as the Nazis turned their backs. There's nobility in standing up to a stronger opponent, but you may be able to save some lives by pretending to be his friend, too ...
As a protectorate, Slovakia ended up having way less people die than almost all occupied countries. Out of a population of over 10 million, civilian losses were shockingly low in Czechoslovakia, with a huge majority of those deaths being in occupied Czech Republic. Slovakia ended up helping more of the persecuted populations. Out of 80,000 Roma people in Slovakia, as few as 400 died during our watch. And while Tiso did initially allow the deportation of Jews, he later had a huge change of heart and ordered the exportation of Jews to stop. While feelings about Tiso are still conflicted in Slovakia, he did at the end put a stop to deportations in Slovakia.
Being a protectorate had its advantages. As long as the Jews did not show temperament in our village, they were left alone. One man I knew had an openly Jewish wife, and nothing ever happened to them. If you didn't raise feathers or protest, you got by. Slovakia saved more lives and went farther in the Underground than many other countries got. We did the best we could and saved as many as we could. In a way, Tiso was smart. He knew if more Germans came, under an occupation, there would be even more deaths and forced labor.
#1. It Didn't End at Liberation
In 1945, the war ended for most of Europe. One day the Nazis realized (thanks to a very sound logistical argument consisting of millions of bombs and bullets to the face) that listening to the loudest jerk in the room wasn't a sound political strategy, so they fled. The next day, Communist soldiers rolled up to Slovakia -- mostly Romanians sent to "liberate" the country. You know those joyful liberation celebrations you see in the old news reels? Those were for the countries liberated by the Allies. For those liberated by the Soviets, there was significantly less revelry. No noisemakers. No hats. Hardly any confetti at all ...
Communists were bad and even worse than the Germans. Communists just came and took everything away. One person had a farm for 100 years, and the communists took it overnight. They simply said, "It's not yours, it's not mine -- it's ours." They started pushing slowly and crept in, taking town by town under their system and killing anyone who got in their way.
The worst thing I saw was what happened to the Communist female soldiers. Female soldiers inevitably got pregnant, and when they had the baby, they would kill it by smothering it with cloth, because duty came first to them. This may have been an isolated incident, but I remember thinking that any government that was fine with Nazi-level violence was no good. There were also more killings and more forced labor. There were some Germans that were killed, and we had buried them. The Communists suspected that Germans had sewn papers in the linings of coats, so they ordered citizens to dig up graves and to look for them.
By then I was married to a famous artist, and we managed to get an artistry visa out to the United States to showcase Slovak art in a cultural exchange. Once in New York, we were not sure if we could move here. Luckily, my brother, a naturalized American citizen, was visiting family in Slovakia when he found out Czechoslovak authorities were looking for us. This convinced the American authorities for us to stay, and we got to immigrate.
via Katarina Urbanek
I never went back.
Sorry about the nebulous sense of sorrow in your heart that you'll carry with you for the rest of the day, and the inevitable crying fit you won't be able to explain to the rest of the office. But hey, learning isn't always fun. To help get your life back on track, here are some penguins utterly failing to jump onto an iceberg. Goodbye, and may god have mercy on your souls.
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