Katarina's story shows us what middle-class life looked like in interwar Czechoslovakia with a fascinating collection of snapshots taken in sports clubs and Jewish day schools, skiing in the Tatra mountains, swimming in Lake Balaton and water skiing on the coast of Dalmatia.
A woman of great energy and a strong, optimistic nature, Katarina only mentions the dark days of the Holocaust briefly, when she was the only one from her family to return alive. Katarina remarried after the war, gave birth to a daughter and granddaughter, and remained ever active in the Bratislava community until her death in 2005 at the age of ninety-five.
Prior to the formation of Czechoslovakia in 1918, Slovakia was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Empire was formed in 1867 under Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph, combining the power of Hapsburg-led Austria with that of Hungary. The Empire also included Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Slovakia, as well as part of what are now Serbia, Romania, Ukraine, Poland, and the Czech Republic. Read more about Franz-Joseph and the formation of the dual monarchy here.
Katarina was born in Slovakia's capital, Bratislava. At the beginning of the twentieth century, Bratislava was home to a flourishing music scene and innovative scientific community.
After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, the nation of Czechoslovakia was formed. The 1918 proclamation of independence combined the historic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia into the first Czechoslovak Republic under president Tomáš Garrirgue Masaryk.
Read about Slovakia's involvement in World War One here.
In 1938, England, France, Italy, and Germany signed the Munich Agreement. This Agreement ceded the Sudetenland to Germany. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a key figure in the negotiations, believed appeasing Adolf Hitler’s territorial ambitions was the most logical way to avoid another large-scale war. Read more about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement here. The agreement was negotiated among Europe’s major powers without any Czechoslovakian representative- today’s Czechs and Slovakians often refer to the agreement as "the Munich dictate" or the "Munich betrayal". Read a transcript of the original text here.
The Sudetenland was of immense strategic importance to Czechoslovakia, as most of its border defenses were situated there. As a result, the Agreement left Czechoslovakia vulnerable to German military power. On the 15th March 1939, Germany violated the Munich Agreement, invading and occupying the remaining provinces of the rump Czechoslovak state. To solidify this, Hitler proclaimed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from Prague Castle on the day of the invasion. Read a translation of the Protectorate here.
For an overview of Slovakia's history, investigate this timeline.
Katarina was born in Bratislava, which has had a Jewish community since Roman times. In 1930, Jewish people comprised 12% of Bratislava's population. Chatam Sofer was one of Slovakia's most famous Rabbis, his mausoleum is now located in Bratislava. Read more about the city's Jewish history here.
Following the 1867 formation of the dual monarchy, life for Jewish communities in Austria-Hungary improved significantly. Jewish people gained full civil rights and began to enter professions that had been previously closed to them. This Centropa video, Jewish Soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army, has more information on the condition of Jewish life under emperor Franz Joseph, as well as facts about the First World War.
In her interview, Katarina says that she had no interest or involvement in Zionism or Zionist organisations. Zionism,the movement to return the Jewish people to their homeland of Israel, was first popularised in Theodor Herzl's nineteenth century text Der Judenstaadt (in English, The Jewish State). Additionally, Katarina mentions how difficult it was for those who wanted to escape the increasing anti-Semitism and anti-Jewish legistlation to emigrate to America. Curtailed by a number of regulations that would restrict immigration to certain percentages from certain countries, as well as the need to prove financial stability, a letter of assurance from a US citizen, and a specifc set of time-sensitive paperwork, American visas were highly sought after and difficult to obtain. Read more about immigration to America in the 1930s here.
For an overview of Jewish life before the Holocaust, explore this page.
After the Second World War, Jewish life in Czechoslovakia faced new complications. Though Czechoslovakia soon placed a ban on Jewish emigration to Palestine, it was one of the first countries to recognize Israel in the United Nations. In the years after 1948, relations between Czechoslovakia and Israel gradually soured, and diplomatic relations were severed completely following the 1967 Six Day War. During this time, the Jewish community of Czechoslovakia was forced to hide their Jewish affiliation- these circumstances were relatively common in Soviet controlled countries. In his interview with Centropa, Jirí Franek, a professor of Slavic studies who lectured at leading German universities and at Charles University Prague discusses this experience.
Read about the Jewish community in contemporary Slovakia here.
After the 1938 Munich Agreement divided Czechoslovakia, Germany occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and Slovakia became independent, though it was heavily reliant on Germany. It joined the Axis Alliance in 1940, alongside Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, and Romania.
Slovakia took part in the invasion of the Soviet Union, also known as Operation Barbarossa. This violated the pact of non-aggression signed by Soviet and German defense ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop. It dictated which areas of Central and Eastern Europe would become German or Soviet territory in the event of war, on the condition that neither power engaged in conflict with the other. When Axis forces began the invasion, this pact was broken- the destructive and deadly campaign waged between 1941 and 1942 saw massive loss of life for both forces, and resulted in the Soviet Union allying themselves with the Western powers. In areas of the Soviet Union captured by Germans, it was most commonly Jewish males and Roma who were faced with mass killings, while many ghettoes were established with the help of local authorties. Read more about the invasion of the Soviet Union and its relationship to the Holocaust here.
In 1944, Katarine and her parents were sent to Auschwitz concentration camp. Under the leadership of Josef Tiso, Slovakian authorities were among the first to permit the Jewish community's deportation. Of the Slovakian Jewish population sent to concentration camps, Auschwitz, Lubin/Majdanek, and Sobibor claimed the most lives. More information on the Holocaust in Slovakia can be found in this essay on Slovakian Jewish history, while this article focuses on deportations from Bohemia and Moravia.
Like Katarina, Polish artist Jan Komski survived Auschwitz. Explore this website to see some of his images of life in the camp.
Slovakia lost its independence at the end of the war. Czechoslovakia was re-formed in the 1947 Paris Treaties that established the terms of peace.
The first elections held after the war in newly-reestablished Czechoslovakia took place in 1946. It was a resounding victory for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, who in 1948 installed themselves as the nation's central governing party. To learn more about the 1948 takeover, commonly described as a coup d'etat, read this article from Radio Praha. Long-time party leader, Klement Gottwald, was the first head of the Czechoslovak communist state until his death in 1953.
From the end of the war, a community of Czechoslovak exile groups formed in West, where (usually extreme-right) refugees who opposed either the Czechoslovakian communist state or communism in general made repeated efforts to bring about the end of the regime. Read more about the Czechoslovak exile movement here.
After twenty years under communism, Czechoslovakia experienced the Prague Spring (5th January-21st August 1968), a period of political liberalisation during the Soviet-style governance. This was an attempt to reform the invasive and oppressive elements of Czechoslovakian communism, but it was not successful: Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslavakia in August 1968 and restored the Soviet regime.
Charter 77 was an informal civic initiative in Czechoslovakia that lasted from 1977 to 1992. It was an attempt to solidify the human rights granted and assured to Soviet citizens during the Helsinki Conference, but were repeatedly violated or ignored. Many of the Charter's fouding members would play important roles in Czech and Slovak politics after the fall of communism, including Václav Havel who would become president in 1989.
With the Soviet system weakening, 1989 saw many countries assert their independence. This was, for the most part, a non-violent process, especially in Czechoslovakia where the break with communism happened so neatly that it has been named the Velvet Revolution. Czechoslovakia dissolved in 1993 and now exists as two states: the Czech Republic, and Slovakia.