6 Unexpected Things I Learned Resisting the Nazis in WWII
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 ...
Slovakia Had Its Own Version of the Underground Railroad
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hiding Jews Required Some MacGyvering
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.
Nobody Is Who You Expect
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.
The Hlinka Guard was a pro-Nazi Slovak militia that operated during the war.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our family's Skoda car, before it was sweetened.
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.
Tiso was tried and executed after the war.
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.
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.
Slovakia would re-join Czechoslovakia, and remain under Communist rule until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.
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.
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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