Thrown Into Exile: Nationalism and Antisemitism in Czechoslovakia During WWII

Stateless refugees in a no -man’s-land between Czechoslovakia and Hungary. October 1938. Source: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research

First sent away at two, then again at six, in disguise and tearful, Eva Marx survived the Holocaust in exile when so many others perished. Her memoir One of the Lucky Ones— published in the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs—retells her unique story. Below is an excerpt from Mia Spiro’s introduction to Eva’s memoir explaining how the unique story of her family illuminates the broader historical context of this tumultuous period.

Eva at about five years old in Vráble, 1942.

The only child of Eugene (Jenö) Felsenburg and Helen (Ilonka) Weisz, Eva Felsenburg Marx was born on October 21, 1937, in Brno, Czechoslovakia, a bustling industrial city in the region of Moravia, now part of the Czech Republic. Her parents, like many Jewish families at the time, had migrated from small villages in the region of Slovakia to take advantage of the economic and educational opportunities in bigger, more modernized urban centres like Brno. When Eva was born, Brno (Brünn in German) had a thriving Jewish population of about 12,000 and was home to numerous Jewish professionals and business owners like Eva’s father, who was the proprietor of two fur stores.

When the German army occupied Czechoslovakia on March 16, 1939, Eva’s family began their lives as fugitives.

The invasion no doubt took them by surprise. Families like Eva’s had enjoyed relative security since the First Czechoslovak Republic was formed out of the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the aftermath of World War I and were staunch supporters of the new democratic government headed by President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Jews had played a key role in industry and trade in the regions of Bohemia and Moravia long before the new republic was formed in 1918. The 1849 law of free movement had allowed Jews to move out of Jewish-designated areas into cities previously forbidden to them and simultaneously opened up new ways of thinking. Jews became part of Czech-Jewish urban movements that embraced modernization and assimilated to fit in with the cultural norms of the larger Christian populace. Even Jews who continued to maintain strong ties to their Jewish roots wrote and spoke German and Czech, rather than Yiddish, and were loyal subjects of the Hapsburg Empire. Jewish soldiers like Eva’s grandfather proudly fought for their country and many died in World War I.

The First Czechoslovak Republic incorporated the provinces of Bohemia and Moravia, as well as part of Silesia, Slovakia and Subcarpathian Ruthenia that had formerly been provinces of Hungary. Czechoslovakia now included numerous ethnic groups, including Czechs, Sudeten Germans, Slovaks, Magyar (Hungarians), Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish and Roma. The new democracy under President Masaryk guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion, assured all minorities equal rights, and affirmed a separation of church and state. In 1921, there were 354,000 Jews out of a population of more than 13.5 million living in Czechoslovakia, a significant number of them in public services or professions; they also made up 30 to 40 per cent of capital investment in industry. By 1936, approximately 18 per cent of all university students in the country were Jewish. These opportunities did not necessarily extend to Jewish women, who, like Eva’s mother, often had to rely on arranged marriages to advance in Czechoslovak society. Still, the republic was quick to extend the vote to women soon after its establishment in 1918, even before Great Britain and the United States.

A Jewish boy wearing the compulsory Star of David. Prague, Czechoslovakia, between September 1941 and December 1944. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Czechoslovak News Agency.

Adolf Hitler’s rise to power and plans — in direct contravention of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles — to expand Germany’s borders to create a “Greater Germany” in Europe had far-reaching effects for the young Czechoslovak republic. Hitler’s first move in that direction had been the annexation of Austria, known as the Anschluss, on March 12, 1938. His next step was to exploit the grievances of the three million Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans) living in the Sudetenland, the territories along Czechoslovakia’s borders with Germany and Austria, and demand that these regions be transferred to the Third Reich. Hoping to avert another major war, Britain and France decided unilaterally to cede the Sudetenland to Germany at the September 1938 Munich conference. But it did not take long for Hitler to push beyond the terms of that agreement: on March 15, 1939, the German army marched into Czechoslovakia. The western part of the country, where Brno was situated, came under direct German control. The Slovakian region of the former republic became a puppet-state governed by the pro-Nazi Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party (HSSP), headed by its president, Father Jozef Tiso. In the far southeast of the republic, Hungary annexed the region of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, where Eva’s maternal grandparents lived.

In an instant, life for the Jews of Bohemia and Moravia rapidly deteriorated.
Czech Jews are deported from Bauschovitz to Terezín ghetto. Czechoslovakia, between 1941 and 1943. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Jewish Museum of Prague.

In Brno and the capital city of Prague synagogues were destroyed, businesses and properties were confiscated, and Jews were isolated as pariahs. On November 16, 1941, one thousand Jews from Brno were interned in the military barracks of Spielberg Castle before being transported to a ghetto in Minsk, Belarus. They were then taken to a nearby forest and massacred. Just over a week later, on November 24, 1941, the Nazis established a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp in the old fortress town of Terezín (Theresienstadt in German), forty-eight kilometres away from Prague, and the mass deportation of Czechoslovak Jews began soon after. In total, between November 1941 and May 1945, about 140,000 Jews from Prague, Brno and other towns were sent first to Terezín and from there almost 90,000 were transported to death camps in occupied Poland. Close to 30,000 more died in Terezín itself. Some 15,000 of the Jews who were sent to Terezín were children.

Eva (centre) with her friends in Vráble, circa 1942.

Following the Nazi invasion, Eva’s parents moved quickly to protect their young child and sent her to her maternal grandparents’ home in Vráble, a small town in the region of Slovakia that had been annexed by Hungary in the 1939 partition. To avoid being caught for deportation, Eva’s parents kept on the move. Over the next five years, young Eva was for the most part unaware of the danger that surrounded her as she participated in village life at her grandparents’ home, cared for by her extended family and her beloved maid, Marka. There were only 250 Jews living in Vráble, but they enjoyed a vibrant, traditional Jewish life. Eva fondly remembers her grandmother’s home cooking, the Sabbath meals and playing with the village children. She also occasionally saw her mother or went to visit extended family in Budapest. At the same time, conditions in the rest of Slovakia were not much better than they were in the German Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Slovakia had instituted racial laws known as the Jewish Code in 1941 that stripped anyone of Jewish descent of their rights and excluded them from public life.

From March to October 1942, while Eva was being sheltered in her grandparents’ home, close to 70,000 Slovakian Jews were transported to death camps in Poland such as Sobibor, Majdanek and Auschwitz.

In the spring of 1944, as Slovak resistance to the Nazis and Tiso’s pro-fascist government began to gain momentum, Eva’s father arranged a hiding place for the family in Nitra, one of Slovakia’s oldest cities, and arranged for Eva to be smuggled the short distance from Vráble to Nitra. People in Slovakia knew that the Soviet Red Army was pushing the war front westward and he no doubt felt that it would be safe for the family to wait for what they hoped was an imminent German surrender. Whatever his reasoning, that spring of 1944, Eva was re-united with her parents and the move saved her life. Not long after, in May 1944, Hungary began deporting Jews in the Hungarian countryside to Auschwitz.

Eva and her parents, along with two other families, waited out the war for another seven months hidden in an apartment. When Soviet troops liberated the area in April 1945 there were close to 1,400 Jews living under false documents or protected in Nitra’s famous yeshiva (a Jewish Orthodox institution for the study of traditional texts): but not all were as lucky as Eva and her family. In September 1944, while they were in hiding, Hlinka Guards continued to diligently hunt for hidden Jews.

Three hundred Jews in Nitra who were hiding in apartments like Eva’s were found and sent to Auschwitz.
Property confiscated from deported Jews is stacked in a synagogue. Prague, Czechoslovakia, 1941–1945. Source: US Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Czechoslovak News Agency.

When the war finally ended in May 1945, Eva’s mother returned to Vráble to find that all of her immediate family had been killed. Some of Eva’s paternal relatives managed to survive the war by hiding in Budapest. In 1945, exiled president Edvard Beneš returned to Czechoslovakia from London, where he had been supporting the Allies, and became the head of the Second Republic of Czechoslovakia, restoring democracy once again. Eva and her family moved back to Brno where her father re-established his business and Eva returned to school to be with other children her age. Yet life did not return to normal for most European Jews in this post-war period. The pain of returning to homes and towns where so many family members and loved ones had been killed was devastating. This trauma and upheaval was exacerbated for Jews living in areas controlled by the Soviets; in February 1948, the Czechoslovak Communist Party staged a coup d’état that ended democracy in that country for decades. Privately owned businesses were nationalized almost immediately and Eva’s father once again lost everything he had built up.

Along with many other Holocaust survivors, Eva’s family made plans to immigrate to Israel to start life anew. At the last moment, however, feeling that his skills as a furrier would be more valuable in a cold climate, her father changed his mind and decided to move the family to Canada. Sponsored by Eva’s aunt Hedwig, her father’s older sister, they arrived in Canada in 1949.

Eva turned twelve years old on the boat to Canada and settled with her parents in Montreal, where many Jewish immigrants were establishing themselves in the garment industry.
Eva at nineteen years old with her mother at Eva’s graduation from MacDonald College. Ste. Anne de Bellevue, 1956.

The importance of family plays a key role in Eva’s memoir. Her devotion to her parents as they struggle to establish a fur business in Montreal is remarkable when considering she herself had so many adjustments to contend with. While her exhausted parents worked long hours making and mending fur coats, Eva also worked hard, excelling in school and building close, long-lasting friendships. In 1956, after graduating from high school, Eva completed an accelerated teacher’s program at MacDonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue in Quebec. During this time, she also met her future husband, Herbert Marx, who went on to have an exciting career as a lawyer, becoming minister of justice and attorney general of Quebec from 1985 to 1988, and a justice of the Quebec Superior Court from 1989 to 2007. Eva and Herb married in 1959. While she was teaching at Elmgrove Elementary School in Montreal, Eva also went to night school at Sir George Williams (now Concordia University) and completed her BA in 1962. She continued her studies and received her master’s degree in sociology from the Université de Montréal in 1987. She gave birth to her two children, Robert, who was born in 1965, and Sarah, who was born in 1970, and is now the proud grandmother of four grandchildren: Ella, Hannah, Harry and David. Eva’s dedication to her own mother in her last years of life remains an example of the generous spirit that emerges throughout her memoir.

Eva’s family at her daughter Sarah’s wedding. Left to right: (back row) Eva’s husband, Herbert Marx, and son-in-law, Andrew Shalit; (middle row) Sarah Marx; Eva’s son, Robert; Robert’s wife, Rena, and Eva; (seated in front) Eva’s mother, Helen Felsenburg. 1995.
Eva Felsenburg Marx’s short film.
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