Author: Josef Čermák
Towards the end of last October, I attended in the North York Centre for the Arts – at the invitation of my friend, Ladislav P. Kozak, the pastor of the Slovak Lutheran Evangelical Church in Toronto, who seems to have friends everywhere – a festive occasion: the inauguration of this year’s “Holocaust Education Week”. There must have been at least one thousand of us, the majority, of course, Jewish. We listened to an outstanding musical program and good speeches, but the evening belonged to seven remarkable people, who witnessed the horrors of the Nazi regime and bore witness of it. The evening was organized by the Azrieli Foundation established in 2005 to collect, preserve and share the memoirs and diaries written by those who survived Nazism and found a new home in Canada, and share their testimony with the largest possible number of people (the books written by the survivors are distributed free of charge to libraries, educational institutions and Holocaust-education programs across Canada and given to everyone who participates in the Foundation’s activities. In the first two series of Memoirs, one of the books (written by John Freund} appeared in two languages: in the First Series under the title Spring’s end, and in the Second Series, under the title La fin du printemps. In this year’s (the Third Series), four more volumes of Memoirs have been published: The Shadows Behind Me (Willie Sterner), Knocking on Every Door (Anka Voticky), Fleeing from the Hunter (Marian Domanski) and From Generation to Generation (Agnes Tomasov).
We are not the most noble of the animals residing on our planet. If we should judge by the last century, we are quite possibly the very worst that ever happened to our earth. Hardly anything (with the possible exception of the Armageddon, the final battle between the good and evil at the end of the world) can – in the frenzied hatred of man to man- compare with the nazi or communist experimentation with the human destiny. And among all the stories of brutality, hardly anything can even touch the murder of six million of European Jews. And still they survived – as a nation and as a faith. Mainly because they give birth to people such as Agnes Tomasov, Anka Voticky (who, unfortunately, was unable to attend, but we saw (and heard) her read a fragment from her memoirs on a screen from Montreal), William Sterner, Marion Domanski (and four whose memoir are getting ready for publication: William Tannenzopf, Renate Krokauer, Alex Lavin a and Ann Szedlexki). And also because they give birth to people such as Daniel J. Azrieli, the founder of the Foundation bearing his name, who refuse to have the sacrifices of their race to be forgotten and who are able to persuade even the non-Jewish world to pay tribute (the Canadian daily The National Post reprinted a chapter from Mrs. Tomasov’s memoirs and the Canadian television screened a lengthy inerview with her).
Agnes Tomasov was born Agnes Grossmann on June 16. 1930 in Bardejov. Her mother died when Agnes was not yet two years old. A year later her father remarried. He married a woman who over time displayed towards Agnes the worst step-motherly qualities. In 1934 Agnes half brother, Ivan, was born. They had a good relationship, but Agnes liked best her maternal grandparents, Zelma and Armin Kohn, and her uncles Jozko and Bandi, with whom she spent happy childhood summers in Levice, close to the Hungarian border. The summer of 1938 was the last one. Next year, the Hungarians seized Levice and Czechoslovakia disappeared from the map for the first time.
In 1941 the Tiso government enacted anti-Jewish laws inspired by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, passed in 1935, and soon thereafter became Hitler’s partner in the “solution” of the Jewish question once and for all (as they thought), in the “Final Solution”, the deportation of all Jews to concentration camps and – the gas chambers. The only chance to escape deportation was in being useful to the state economy or to the community. Agnes’ father was a dentist and his family was-for the time being-exempt from deportation. In 1942, the Bardejov officials persuaded a group of exempted Jews to join the Protestant Church. As the front approached (the battle at Stalingrad in 1943 signaled the end of Hitler’s ‘a thousand year empire’), the Slovak partisans attempted to remove the Tiso regime, lost, and Germany assumed direct control over the Slovak territory. Agnes and her family escaped into the rugged and forested Low Tatra Mountains, where – with other Jewish families under the protection of the local anti-Nazi partisans – they survived in very primitive conditions until the Soviet army pushed into Czechoslovakia.
Then her family accompanied a group of partisans in the middle of winter on a breakneck trek over a slippery mountain path, hoping to reach the Soviet lines. They met the Soviet soldiers in a village called Hel’pa. So grateful were they, that the adult Jews kissed the Soviet soldiers’ hands. With the end of war, came time for decision: to stay or to leave. They stayed. Even though they were grateful to the Sovier arms for their liberation, they, like most Jews, rejected the February coup d’état, and between the years 1948 and 1950 some 25 000 Jews left Czechoslovakia. Most for Israel. Agnes married Jozef Tomasov. They had two children, Tomas and Katka. They remained in Czechoslovakia but with growing doubts, anti-semitismus nested down not only in the Communist Party (even though a number of Jews, including Rudolf Slansky, occupied in the Party important positions) but outside the Party as well. In the monster process in 1952 with thirteen leading members of the Party, eleven of the accused were Jews. Eleven of the accused, including Slansky, were executed. Arrests of Jews continued. Among the arrested was also Agnes’ husband, who wasn’t released until 1958. With the Prague Spring and Dubček came a new hope, which was, unfortunately, definitely buried in August, 1968 by the Bratislava Declaration of loyalty to the Soviet Union, followed by the brotherly occupation of Czechoslovakia. 70 000 people, including 3 400 Jews (among them Agnes and her family) left the country. From October 1968 and the end of 1969, Canada received around 12 000 Czechoslovak refugees, among them Agnes and her family. The Tomasovs settled in Toronto, where they built for themselves, their children and now also grandchildren, a very successful life.
But these are data, which with a few changes, could be applied to a great number of people. And not only Jews. The last century was a century od refugees – we massacred each other and chased each other from our homes all over the world. Only those among us who have no humility can flatter themselves, that they never felt tempted (fortunately such temptations were in almost every case instantly vetoed) to prove to someone, that we are better than he, that our father is stronger than his father, that our God is nobler than his God, that our truth is the only true truth. And if he doesn’t get it, wring his neck. One needs a good dose of humility to own up to one’s own life. And humility was the first feature, which struck me, when I began to read From Generation to Generation. Not false humility, not sniveling humility on one’s knees, but almost proud humility, which offers one’s life without embellishment – and what is most humble about this account is that there is no trace of hatred in it. It is humility of truthfulness about oneself and towards oneself.
It is a record of love, which survives death. Such was Agnes’ love for her mother, who died when Agnes was not quite two years old and whose death she refused to accept until five years later. And even now, in her memoirs, she writes: “My mother left me on March 17, 1932. In spirit, however, I believe that she never abandoned me. In this memoir, I never write the words “late mother” because, at the advanced age of seventy-three, I feel that my mother is always with me.”
This is a record of a woman with a sensitive soul. When her brother Ivan was born, she was visiting with her beloved grandmother and grandfather in Levice. Her uncle Jozko, who was a big man in the railway service, was taking her to Bardejov to greet her new brother. She writes:” Uncle Jozko and I travelled in the first-class compartment. The windows wee open and Jozko pointed to flying storks in the sky, telling me that they had brought me my brother. All the way to Bardejov I stood at the window and thanked all the storks for the gift of my baby brother… I loved him from that first moment and was so protective of him that whenever he cried, I demanded that he be fed immediately.”
Agnes had reason to grow bitter. At the school, the non-Jewish children treated her (and all other Jewish children) with a brutality one wouldn’t expect from the little creatures with angelic faces: “In 1939, Jews and gentiles were still in public schools together and most of the non-Jewish children treated us horribly. We couldn’t play in the park in the middle of the town: a sign at the entrance read, ‘JEWS AND DOGS ARE NOT ALLOWED HERE.” I would look enviously at the gentile children who were playing there and think, ‘Why can’t I be like them?”
The process of degradation continued: In the fall of 1941, forced labor camps were established in the villages of Sered, Novaky and Vyhne. On April 18. 1942, hundreds of horse-drawn carriages arrived from neighboring villages bringing Jews to Bardejov and a month later, on May 15. all Jews in Bardejov (with the exception of those like Agnes’ father), were herded into the main synagogue and smaller houses o worship. “The deportation of the Jews who were being detained in the synagogues began on May 15. 1942; we found out much later that they had been deported to the Lublin district in Poland. They were crushed into cattle wagons, eighty people in each, without any food or water. The deportations continued in Bardejov until October 1942. By then, in total, over 58,000 Jews had been deported from Slovakia to Poland, over 2,000 of them from my hometown of Bardejov. (Most of them were murdered in the Sobibor and Auschwitz death camps). Agnes also had a reason to be embittered by the way her step-mother treated her, particularly at the time when the whole family (with the exception of Agnes’ father] had been hiding in the forests of the Lower Tatra Mountains and Agnes, at that time fourteen years old (her step-mother was then thirty-eight) had to carry the heavy load of food and wood for the whole family on her back. Agnes didn’t grow bitter. Even when her mother forced her to promise that she would never tell her father, how her step-mother treated her. She kept her promise. Her memoir is a testimony of a woman, who lived in truth and truthfully bore witness of it.
As I was writing this review, a name of another woman, Eduska Ottova, came to my mind. Eduska was also born in Czechoslovakia and around the same time as Agnes. But while Eduska, even after coming to Canada, was repeatedly tested beyond endurance of most people and accepted it with the dignity of a heroine of a Greek tragedy, Agnes with her husband found in Canada a peaceful and sunny nook for themselves, their children and grandchildren and It is ironic, that two people whose life the world tried to extinguish (and succeeded with millions of others) gave the world children and grandchildren, all of whom (or almost all of whom) serve as protectors of life: they are physicians…
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