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In Slovakia, a Citizen’s Effort To Build a Holocaust Memorial to His City’s Missing Jews

Ladislav Rovinský isn’t Jewish—but that gives him the freedom to insist that Košice confront its wartime history

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Ladislav Rovinsky on the site where he hopes to build a Holocaust memorial in Kosice, Slovakia. (Peter Korchnak)
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Before the Holocaust, one in five residents of Košice, Slovakia’s second-largest city, was Jewish. In May and June 1944, Košice served as a transit hub for Jews being sent to their deaths at Auschwitz; only about 400 Jews returned to Košice after 1945. Today, approximately 250 active Jews now live in Košice—0.1 percent of the city’s population. Nevertheless, as in other Central and Eastern European cities, interest in Jewish culture has increased in recent years; the Zvonárska Street Synagogue, which served for decades as a library warehouse after the war, was recently converted into an exhibition gallery, and in the summer tour guides offer Jewish Košice walks.

A few minutes before a Jewish Košice tour one weekend last July, a man in a white shirt, straw hat, and narrow glasses down his nose gave an impassioned fundraising pitch for a memorial honoring residents who died in the Holocaust. “Košice has no adequate memorial for Holocaust victims,” said the man, Ladislav Rovinský. “We’re asking all residents to honor our perished neighbors.” The audience listened politely as Rovinský distributed flyers advertising the memorial, which is planned for a spot in front of the synagogue on Puškin Street, where two parking spots would be surrendered to create a miniature square. Jutting into the roadway, the memorial would provide a counterpoint to the synagogue, which sits set back from the street.

At 60, Rovinský—who is not Jewish—is too young to remember the war, or what was lost. But he is intent on making sure that his neighbors don’t forget. Since 2009, he has led Citizens to Citizens, a grassroots initiative devoted to building the city’s memorial to the Jews deported from Košice. But it has been an uphill battle: His talk to the tourist group netted no contributions, and despite four years of continuous outreach and fundraising the account balance for the project stands at 3,743 euros—about $5,000—far short of the Rovinsky’s goal of 50,000 euros.

“The Nazis were also interested in Jewish culture,” Rovinský told me when we met on a scorching day last August at the Zvonárska Street Synagogue, which served as a library warehouse for decades after the war. “The Jewish culture these days is a great product. There is no real interest. Just look around.” He waved his arm, pointing out what the recent renovation of the synagogue missed: the devastated interior walls, crumbling wooden gallery, and floor consisting of concrete chunks. The gallery was hosting Yuri Dojc’s exhibition, Last Folio, but in the vestibule Rovinský noted that, despite his request, the large promotional panel propped against the wall behind the ticket desk still concealed a historical washbasin—as good a metaphor for the state of Jewish culture in Slovakia as any.

Inside, I interpreted an impromptu Q&A between Rovinský and six retired dentistry professors visiting from Israel. Rovinský’s mention of the memorial prompted two to pull out business cards and offer to connect Rovinský with funders overseas. Later Rovinský acknowledged he could likely obtain foreign funding far more easily than he can at home, where the struggle to get the memorial off the ground reflects the awkward realities of “the Jewish issue” in today’s Slovakia, where more than a quarter of the population agreed in a January poll that it is time to stop discussing the deportations and mass murder of Jews in the Holocaust.

The revival of Jewish culture doesn’t necessarily translate into concern for the actual Jews who perished in the Holocaust. In July, the second annual Mazal Tov Festival of Jewish Culture packed concert halls around Košice. In August, the city’s Jewish community watched helpless when Ladislav Csatáry, convicted and sentenced to death in 1948 by a Czechoslovak court for torturing Jews in a Košice internment camp, died while awaiting trial in Budapest after the Hungarian government refused to extradite him to Slovakia. “Justice has not been served,” says Pavol Sitár, president of Košice’s Jewish community, who formerly served as Czechoslovakia’s prosecutor-general.

Yet the remnant Jewish community, led by those who remained behind the Iron Curtain after the war, is ambivalent about efforts like Rovinský’s, which some worry will simply attract anti-Semitic attention. The Jewish community has yet to offer its support, though Sitár wrote in a statement: “Jewish Faith Community supports all initiatives leading to a greater understanding between citizens of different backgrounds.” But the initiative, he seemed to say, will have to come from somewhere else. “If society opens a space to present our faith and culture, it is our obligation to accept the offer,” he also wrote. “Both sides must have an honest interest in the matter.”

Meanwhile, while the mayor of Košice, Peter Raši, has personally contributed to the project, the city has cited the hesitation of the Jewish community as a reason for withholding official support. In an email statement, the city of Košice spokesperson Martina Viktorínová wrote, “The Mayor supports the construction of the Holocaust victims memorial and even made a financial contribution. However, the fundraising for the memorial is organized by activists, led by Mr. Rovinský, who have made no concrete steps toward construction. Therefore, we believe that such a memorial should be initiated by Jewish Faith Community, whom the city will support with all available means.”

But that, as far as Rovinský is concerned, misses the point. “This isn’t a Jewish-led initiative to honor Jews,” he told me. “We are citizens commemorating our fellow citizens. Many small gifts are better than a few large ones. We also want our city’s residents to do this, not outsiders. The memorial isn’t as important as the number of residents supporting it.” Indeed, he noted, the Jewish community already posted a small plaque, dating to 1992, commemorating the deportation of Jewish citizens on the wall of the synagogue, where it hangs to the left of the entrance. “Jews have rightly put up many wall plaques on synagogues and other buildings,” Rovinský said. “But the city suffered a tremendous cultural shock, and we never recovered.”

Košice is a medieval trading hub, historically both wealthy and diverse. Its identity as a city derives from centuries of peaceful cohabitation of Slovaks, Hungarians, Rusyns, Czechs, Jews, Germans, Roma, and several other minorities. Košice was occupied by the Germans in March of 1944, and it was Adolf Eichmann who oversaw the deportations of Jews from the region that summer. “Many people are afraid to admit they, or their parents or grandparents, said nothing when the deportations were taking place, and some even benefited from them,” Rovinský reminded me.

Rovinský, like the rest of the Citizens to Citizens team, volunteers his time to the effort; he works full time as a mediator and communication trainer. The more I spoke with him about his project, the more I got the sense that, for him, it’s personal. “In the 1980s, I bought a cheap wardrobe in an auction of property confiscated from an emigré,” he told me. “I still feel guilty for supporting the [communist] system that expropriated people’s belongings. That’s how Aryanization worked. As citizens, we have yet to come to terms with what we did in the war.”

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In Slovakia, a Citizen’s Effort To Build a Holocaust Memorial to His City’s Missing Jews

Ladislav Rovinský isn’t Jewish—but that gives him the freedom to insist that Košice confront its wartime history