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Revealing the ‘Vanished History’ of the Holocaust

Although in Slovakia, Bohemia and Moravia (parts of Czechoslovakia), more than a quarter million lives were claimed during the Holocaust, these deaths have been mostly concealed in post-World War II Czech and Slovak history. A Czech native himself, author Tomas Sniegon shines a light on this cover up in Vanished History: The Holocaust in Czech and Slovak Historical Culture, to be published this month. Following, Sniegon uses the example of Oskar Schindler — famous as the protagonist of the 1993 film Schindler’s List — to explain just how much was hidden from citizens of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

 

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Film hero Oskar Schindler, played by Liam Neeson, entered the 1990s in the Steven Spielberg’s film Schindler’s List as a new symbol of a so-called “Good citizen of the Third Reich,” which provoked both positive and negative reactions worldwide. However, very few at the same time knew that the real Oskar Schindler — far more complicated than the film character — had never lived in Germany until the World War II and thus actually had never been a “genuine-German German.”

 

He was a so-called Sudeten or Czechoslovak German who in the early 1930s even wore a uniform of the Czechoslovak army. Because of this, an analysis of the Czech reactions to Schindler’s List is, according to my opinion, not less relevant (and interesting) than analyses of German, American and/or Jewish historical cultures.

 

Schindler’s List got no less than seven Academy Awards or Oscars in the U.S. but was not the very first film about the Holocaust awarded by this prestigious price. That very first film, too, had to do with Czechoslovakia and with Czech and Slovak historical cultures. Its name was Obchod na korze/The Shop on Main Street and when it got its Oscar in 1966, it confronted especially that time’s Slovak society with its wartime past and life in the very first Slovak nation state that was a close ally of Hitler’s Germany and that was ruled by a totalitarian dictatorship headed by a Catholic priest Jozef Tiso.

 

The grave of Jozef Tiso in Bratislava. Despite the fact that Tiso was the Führer/dictator of Slovakia during the WWII, the grave stone still speaks about a man who sacrificed his life to Catholic faith and Slovak nation.

The grave of Jozef Tiso in Bratislava. Despite the fact that Tiso was the Führer/dictator of Slovakia during the WWII, the grave stone still speaks about a man who sacrificed his life to Catholic faith and Slovak nation.

My book is naturally not only about Oskar Schindler or about the reactions of Czech and Slovak society to the films mentioned above. It deals with the relationship of these two societies to the Holocaust, this first of all during the time after the end of this genocide, i.e. after World War II, and especially after the fall of communism in 1989. None the less, Schindler’s List indeed became its very important foreplay.

 

Thanks to Steven Spielberg, the whole world including a number of influential politicians, activists and scholars learned the name of Oskar Schindler for the first time. So did I – despite the fact that I was born in a small Czechoslovak town very close to Schindler’s hometown. However, as a rather typical product of the Czechoslovak communist educational system of the 1970s and 1980s, I do not recall even a single mention of Schindler nor a single mention of the Holocaust and mass murder of Czechoslovak Jews during my studies from basic school to university in Prague.

 

I bought a tape with the film on a very specific day and place: May 9, 1995 at a parliamentary shop in the building of the Russian parliament in Moscow where I appeared while working on a project of mine about the communism and the Cold War. I became attracted by a cover with the Russian title Spisok Shindlera and thought that only a few things could be more symbolic right then than buying a film made by American director with British actors about a Czechoslovak German, all this in Russian language, at the Russian parliament and right on the date of celebration of the 50th anniversary since the end of the WWII.

 

Nevertheless, it took several years until I wrote the chapter Schindler’s List arrives in Schindler’s homeland and some more years until I completed this study that is now being published for the first time in English under the title Vanished History. During this process I learned a great deal not only about the subject but also about myself. Since I am a Czech-born historian based in Sweden since 1991, I was an observer both from the outside and from within.

Svitavy-Schindler's house

The house where Oskar Schindler was born and a monument commemorating the place. The owner forbade a memorial plaque on the house in the early 1990s because of Schindler’s Nazi past.

 

I would be very happy if this book would become a certain inspiration for discussions in Slovakia and in Czech Republic where this subject still remains rather marginalized – and, of course, even for those non-Slovaks and non-Czechs who are interested in the subjects of the Holocaust, its place in various historical cultures and generally in functions and needs of history in modern societies.

 

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Tomas Sniegon is a Lecturer in European Studies at the University of Lund, Sweden. His research focuses on Holocaust memory in various historical cultures and on the development of the Soviet forms of Communism in Europe during the Cold War.

 

Series: Volume 18, Making Sense of History