Methodological Nationalism in History Writing. Missing Locals of Slovakia

A blank page–restricted access

“The testimony you requested from the Fortunoff Video Archive cannot be viewed in Slovakia until 2026,” was the response we received when attempting to access a taped interview with a Jewish Holocaust witness from Sečovce (in Hungarian: Gálszécs), a small town in eastern Slovakia. A social historian of the Holocaust and an ethnographer who has collected and explored oral history testimonies, we were working then on our joint article on belonging in multiethnic Slovak peripheries during World War II.1 While we had interviewed witnesses in the past who were cautious about their testimony, we were eager to learn more: what propelled the interviewee to forbid access to his testimony strictly in Slovakia, the country in which he was born? What does locally controlled access tell us about the experience but also the environment of a Holocaust witness? How do scholars integrate a story that is missing, and even more so, one that is restricted?

The video in question was produced by the Milan Šimečka Foundation in collaboration with Yale University in 1996 and is now part of the Fortunoff’s collection of roughly 200 interviews with Slovak Holocaust survivors. Late witness testimonies available through the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies, part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Oral History Documentation Project Crimes Against Civilian Populations during WW2: Victims, Witnesses, Collaborators and Perpetrators, or through a handful of local initiatives, including that of the Nation’s Memory Institute or, what might be less known, the Greek Catholic Church, for instance, form an important source on the destruction of historically multiethnic communities in the country.2 Late witness oral testimonies are often also the only autobiographical source available to scholars of Slovakia. Indeed, there are not many early witness testimonies with Holocaust survivors in the country. Those taken by the Documentation Center for the Central Union of Jewish Communities in Bratislava (in Slovak: Dokumentačná akcia pri Ústrednom zväze židovských náboženských obcí) in the spring of 1945 are a notable yet limited exception. High illiteracy rates in the region have also contributed to an absence of a diary tradition in Slovakia, and this is particularly true when it comes to the townships and villages in the eastern part of the country that were at the center of our investigation.

When we started the project, our conversations revolved around how to understand the decision of a witness not to have his (or her) testimony available in her (or his) country of origin. Being eventually able to listen to the interview––the Fortunoff Video Archive allowed us to access the video through one of their access points in Prague, Czechia––our initial curiosity may have been appeased for a while, but we soon found ourselves with more questions. Is a restriction on access a purely legal matter, or does the cap speak also to the identity of a witness? Whose story is a restricted story? Where do we place biographies that bridge space? And is there even room for biographies that challenge the predominant ethnic writing––but also reading––of history?

One Story, Whose Story

The interviewee, who we will refer to here by the pseudonym Michal Poriez, was born in Sečovce in 1937.3 Not long after his birth, Slovakia and later Subcarpathian Rus received autonomy from Czechoslovakia (October–November 1938). Sečovce remained part of autonomous and then “independent” Slovak state (1939–45). As a result of the First Vienna Award (November 2, 1938) and the subsequent Hungarian occupation of southern Slovakia and southern parts of Subcarpathian Rus, the border with Hungary in the south and south-east shifted. Provisionally, so did also the Slovak border with Poland in the north. On December 1, 1938, Poland annexed minor territories in the Orava and Spiš region. These were, however, returned to Slovakia in October 1939, a token of gratitude from Berlin for the new Bratislava government supporting the Nazi Germany attack on Poland that led to the outbreak of World War II. And so while Sečovce as a town did not move, as part of the broader geopolitical changes in the region, eastern Slovakia became more of a borderland now.4

See fullscreen visualisation of “Map of the 1938–39 territorial changes:”

Mapping territorial changes of the Slovak borders was made possible by Neatline (an Omeka plugin).

In the interview, Poriez is vague about the geopolitical changes that transformed his life, as any child would probably be. Describing getting to (Veľký) Sevluš (in Ukrainian: Виноградів, in Hungarian: Nagyszőlős) to visit his grandparents “without any problem,” Poriez, his mother and father experienced “some difficulties” in returning back to Slovakia.5 As a result, the three remained behind the new border. And since Sevluš came under Hungarian occupation, Michal Poriez changed his name to Miklos Voloshtyuk.6 With the help of “our good friends, neighbors, such as Mr Glodán from a neighboring house, we obtained somebody else’s documents,” Poriez recalled in the interview. Memorizing data about his made-up family members, crossing himself every time the church bells rang, Poriez survived the war first in (Veľký) Sevluš, later in Budapest, and eventually by hiding in the Hungarian countryside, probably in the village Ócsa.

See fullscreen visualisation of the trajectory of Michal Poriez’ life story:”

Mapping the trajectory of Michal Poriez’ life story was made possible by Neatline (an Omeka plugin).

What seemed natural to Poriez – addressing his family story while being mindful of the shattering space – is still largely absent from historiography of the Holocaust in Slovakia. Most books on the Holocaust in Slovakia, written in Slovak, include a set of linguistic disclosures. Authors typically start by explaining whether they understand Jews of Slovakia as a religious group (they will spell “jew” using lowercase; in Slovak: židia) or as an ethnic group (they will capitalize the first letter; Židia). Doing so, scholars often specify whether they use the expression “Jews of Slovakia” (which underlines the diverse ethnic affiliation of Jews in the country) or “Slovak Jews” (emphasizing civic principles) in their writing.7 Despite what could be read as a culturally sensitive approach, methodological nationalism prevails in history-writing.8 Scholars often inadvertently replicate ethnic categorizations of the period, strictly distinguishing between “Slovaks,” “Hungarians” or “Ruthenians,” for instance, and do so without explaining the various nationalizing projects on either side of the border. Most works on the Holocaust also confine what occurred inside the 1938/1939 Slovak-Hungarian border to the “Slovak” story of the Holocaust and relegate what took place beyond it to “Hungarian” accounts of events. What is more, until recently, the “Subcarpathian” story has been almost completely overlooked in literature.9 Voices of Slovak Roma, spatially separated from the village as part of the various civilization projects of the 1940s but “linked by numerous forms of daily interaction, whether labor, charity or entertainment,” remain marginalized.10 In many ways, Slovak wartime history continues to be narrated strictly from within political borders and ethnonational groups.

There is a striking paradox to this. While Michal Poriez explicitly forbade his testimony to be viewed in Slovakia for two decades, the reality is that his life story would very likely be omitted from scholarly works on the Holocaust in Slovakia by researchers themselves. The life trajectory of Poriez does not match the country’s contours, then or today, surviving much of World War II in what is now Ukraine and Hungary. Yet, when listening closely to his testimony, the biography of Poriez has many of the elements of life in eastern Slovakia during World War II. For Poriez, just like many other Jews, belonging to a community, at times acknowledged but every so often rejected by the majority society, was locally conditioned. The physical place of their little towns and villages, be these streets, parks, schools, or markets, for instance, was a social space in which ties were fostered but also broken. Paradoxically perhaps, the local groundedness of how the Holocaust played itself out manifested itself most visibly in what is so often avoided in scholarship: when crossing borders, when fleeing from the familiar environment of small towns and villages to the largely anonymous big cities, in the transformation of a local space into a foreign land.

The context of Poriez’s interview is important here and deserves a short pause: Poriez signed the release form for his testimony in 1996, at the height of nationalist populism in the country. The autocratic Vladimír Mečiar won the country’s first independent elections in early 1994 with his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (in Slovak: Hnutie za demokratické Slovensko), after the demise of Czechoslovakia a year prior that is. In the next four years, Slovakia became “the black sheep of Central Europe,” excluded also from the first eastern enlargement of both the European Union and NATO.11 Putting aside many of the democratic deficits the country faced, which exceed the scope of our post, the 1990s brought a resurgence of ethnic nationalism in Slovakia, one that again questioned the belonging of Czechs, Roma, Hungarians, Jews––or Slovaks of Jewish descent, as Poriez would probably define himself then.

In what follows, we make three brief inquiries into how “thinking spatially” about the Holocaust and placing individual trajectories at the center of the investigation may allow for a more integrated account of the past.12 It may also help us unfold the destruction of once cosmopolitical communities, in eastern Slovakia as elsewhere. We explore these communal bonds on three levels of abstraction: that of the “world” of eastern Slovakia (as also a place for itself), the border (and more precisely, the border crossings of Hungary and Slovakia), and that of the street (understood here as a social space of interaction). We expand on some of these arguments in our joint work but also in our individual undertakings–including Hana Kubátová’s ongoing book project on village fascism and the Holocaust in eastern Slovakia.

The World of Eastern Slovakia

Eastern Slovakia was historically a melting pot of people, languages, affiliations, and traditions. Counting approximately 440,000 people in 1940, the region was home to Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles, Czechs, and Ruthenians, and the largest Jewish and Roma population in the country.13 The coming, going, but ultimately also staying of different groups manifested itself multiple ways in the region, be it in the dialects people spoke, as they would also easily switch from one language to another, in the proximity of places of worship, with a Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Protestant church and a synagogue often on one street, in the various customs and calendars, but also in a general understanding, voiced in a number of testimonies, that there were indeed different groups forming “the locals.”

This said, it was not only that eastern Slovakia was a multicultural space but there was also a whole world of eastern Slovakia beyond its borders. The region in general was in many ways a social and economic periphery, exacerbated by chronic poverty, overpopulation, and unemployment, almost zero industry, but also unstable weather conditions, for instance.14 Many considered emigration to North America as a literal way out of despair. According to estimates, between 1880 and 1919 almost 600,000 people left Slovak territories for the United States, and while a portion of them returned, the movement continued to be strong well into the interwar years.15 Sečovce, where Poriez was born, belonged to the towns with one of the highest portions of emigrees among its population. Sečovce was also known for yet another trend, the abandonment of whole towns, when large groups left for North America over a very short period of time. If Sečovce had a little over 3,100 inhabitants in 1900, about 650 of them––over 20% of its people––moved to America between 1882 and 1905.16 Poriez’s only surviving aunt from his father’s side left for the United States shortly after World War II, with the remaining, although given the circumstances much lower emigration wave of Jews to America from the region.

Communal Border Crossings

It was not only North America as a distant land that was looked upon as a place of refuge during the war. The Slovak-Hungarian border became similarly a source of both anxiety and hope for many of the Jews during World War II. While institutional written materials portray the border as static, in the testimonies, the border is often depicted as a space of rather lively, though of course covert, movement. Attempting to make rational decisions in an irrational situation, Jews often crossed the border to Hungary (or Slovakia) to enhance their chance of survival. This was the case for Michal Poriez’s family. When Poriez’s aunt and uncle crossed the border illegally to join him, his parents and grandparents in Sevluš, it was not only to be close to family but also because they perceived the conditions in 1942 Slovakia to be more life-threatening compared to Hungary at the time.17 To cross the border, Jews often had to rely on family networks, friends, but also the help of local officials, turning the border crossing into a communal affair. This was also the story of Valér Fábry, a pseudonym of a Jewish man from eastern Slovakia, who relied on local custom officials to cross the border from what was now Hungary:

And in the evening, we were loaded [by the Hungarian gendarmes] on a truck […] And we came to the fields behind Uzhorod at night and there they took us out of those trucks, fired a few times in the air and [told us to go] in that direction. And that is how the first anabasis ended. We crossed the border illegally, of course, and not only us, there were a lot of people crossing, it was difficult, at night, in the winter, in the cold. And we arrived in the village of Vyšné Nemecké. Coincidentally, there were members of the border financial guard who served in the village where my mother worked. So, they allowed us to sleep there and advised us, they gave us some Czechoslovak money, we had something of our own, and so we got to Michalovce. We had relatives there.18

Marsha Brash, the youngest of eight children, had her oldest sister in Galanta, southern Slovakia, a region later ceded to Hungary, while a second sister, in Brno, in the Czech lands, escaped to the illusory safety of Slovakia following the German occupation and establishment of the Protectorate Bohemia and Moravia.19 Gentile witnesses on the Slovak side often recalled their Jewish neighbors making the difficult decision of whether to send their children to stay with relatives in Hungary.20 What is important here that was now a foreign land, with all the dangers that came along with it, often belonged to the same state only a couple short years prior. In many ways, it was an intimate space turned foreign almost in an instant.

Escaping the little towns and villages examined here, where residents knew one another, to the anonymity of larger cities on the Hungarian side, most often Budapest, Jews feared the unfamiliar. This was particularly true if they did not speak Hungarian were not fluent enough in the language, and Poriez attributes his ability to pass as a local boy in Budapest to him polishing his Hungarian while in Sevluš. Since survival increasingly depended on assistance from the majority society, Jewish witnesses often asked a similar question as Brasch did in her interview: “‘God, how I will make it here?’ I know no one.”21 Jews relied on connections made in their hometowns, and in Brasch’s case, this meant even trusting those she was warned about by friends and relatives: “I was lucky that I met a boy in Budapest who was my neighbor in Trebišov. And everybody said, ‘Don’t talk to him. He’s an informer.’ But to me, he gave me a place where I could stay and paid for the room. Gave me a little money, and that was it.”22 Also Poriez’s family found refuge in Budapest while relying on connections her mother had in the city.

The Street

Considering topologies and topographies of the Holocaust, we need to also think of the geographical layout of towns and villages in eastern Slovakia. Take again Sečovce as the town Poriez was born. Here, as elsewhere in the region, houses were typically built along one major road, with a square in the middle containing shops and churches. References to neighbors interacting “on the street” in descriptions of looting and deportations underline the emplaced nature of excluding the Jews.23 This also applies to accounts of publicly awaited auctions of Jewish possessions.

Historical photograph of Sečovce, 1938

Whereas Gentile witnesses understood that it was “our people” who took part in the robbery, only reluctantly did they vocalize personal involvement.24 When an interviewer asked Juraj Bukovský about his family’s personal involvement in robbing the Jews: “Did you see anyone take things out of these Jewish homes?” He replied, “We did as well,” implying his family’s complicity.25 Actual fighting for Jewish belongings took place on the main street and square. Ján Kíriš, a Gentile witness from Sečovce, summarized how this typically played out: “And then the auctions started, they opened the [Jewish] houses, they sold everything that was there … auction …”26 Non-Jewish witnesses observed it standing at the public space very close to them or they watched such situations secretly from their homes or yards. Bukovský discussed the layout of his hometown Sečovce, locating himself in the scene when recalling the deportations: “Down there, as I told you, we went out of … out of … out of, from where we worked, we went down the main street, the main street going to Michalovce, well, and there you could see it. It … the wagons.”27 Still, some Gentile witnesses seemed conflicted about the highly public nature of the physical removal of Jews. Kíriš, for instance, responded affirmatively when asked whether he saw the deportations first-hand: “Yes, we saw it, we saw. Of course. Because there were rumors that … that something is going to happen.” As part of the same interview, only a few minutes later, Kíriš removed himself from the scene: “No, no, no, no. No, I don’t know if someone went [to watch the Jews being deported], or at least I am not aware of it because no one felt responsibility, you know? That you need … or what can be done. It is not that it is born in the head, what begins […] I say, we went away, no one wanted to watch it.”28 While the communal character of the Holocaust, the interconnectedness of robbery and murder, may be avoided by many Slovak witnesses, it is visible in Romani testimonies.29 Martin Gec, again a pseudonym for a Romani witness from the village Soľ, for instance, recalled being summoned “to take out furniture from abandoned Jewish homes, which they then sold to the Gadjo [non-Romani],” while forced to sing anti-Jewish songs.30

Michal Poriez, whose testimony opened this blog post and whose life trajectory has stirred many of our conversations and research endeavors, forbid his testimony to be viewed in Slovakia for twenty years. Michal Poriez found himself outside of the shifting Slovak border by accident during World War II, and was made into a foreigner and national enemy by the choice of the authorities. When giving his testimony in 1996, Poriez’s belonging to Slovakia was challenged once again. It might be time to write Poriez’s life story back into the story of Sečovce and Gálszécs.

  1. See Hana Kubátová and Monika Vrzgulová, “Being ‘Local’ in Eastern Slovakia: Belonging in a Multiethnic Periphery,” East European Politics and Societies, forthcoming. It should be noted that our blog post is inspired by our work on this manuscript and hence also extends on some of its arguments. We would like to thank Michal Frankl and the rest of the EHRI team, as well as Leslie Waters for their comments on an earlier version of this blog post.
  2. Between 2011 and 2016, Monika Vrzgulová was the Slovak research team leader in the USHMM Oral History Documentation Project: “Crimes against Civilian Populations during WW2: Victims, Witnesses, Collaborators and Perpetrators.”
  3. Given his young age, we may assume that many of Michal Poriez’s recollections were those of his his mother and grandparents.
  4. For an account of Hungarian ethnic engineering of the borderlands–with its suprising paralels to the Slovak case–see Leslie Waters, Borders on the Move: Territorial Change and Forced Migration in the Hungarian-Slovak Borderlands, 1938-1948 (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020), 65–144.
  5. The seizure of southern Slovakia and southern parts of Subcarpathian Rus by Hungarians translated in Czechoslovakia, losing 29% of its territory and 34% of its population. Slovakia had 3,329,793 inhabitants according to the 1930 census, and this number dropped to 2,655,953 in 1940. This drop also reflected further territorial losses resulting from the Hungarian-Slovak “Little War” in March 1939.
  6. Poriez, his mother and father obtained false Ukrainian papers from their Christian neighbors.
  7. For an illustrative case, see e.g., Peter Salner, Prežili holokaust (Bratislava: Veda, Ústav etnológie Slovenskej akadémie vied, 1997), 7.
  8. For more on the different modes of methodological nationalism, see Andreas Wimmer and Nina Glick Schiller, “Methodological Nationalism and beyond: Nation–State Building, Migration and the Social Sciences,” Global Networks: A Journal of Transnational Affairs 2, no. 4 (2002): 301–34.
  9. For an important contribution on the Carpathians, see Raz Segal, Genocide in the Carpathians: War, Social Breakdown, and Mass Violence, 1914-1945 (Stanford University Press, 2017).
  10. Celia Donert, The Rights of the Roma: The Struggle for Citizenship in Postwar Czechoslovakia, Human Rights in History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 93. On the civilization of the Slovak village and its spatial aspects, see also Hana Kubátová, “Topológie holokaustu na východoslovenskom vidieku,” Historický časopis 69, no. 4 (2021): 601–25.
  11. Tim Haughton, “HZDS: The Ideology, Organisation and Support Base of Slovakia’s Most Successful Party,” Europe-Asia Studies 53, no. 5 (2001): 745.
  12. Tim Cole and Anne Kelly Knowles, “Thinking Spatially about the Holocaust,” in Places, Spaces and Voids in the Holocaust, ed. Natalia Aleksiun and Hana Kubátová, vol. 3 (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2021), 291–96.
  13. See “Náboženstvo prítomného obyvateľstva v roku 1940,” Zprávy štátneho plánovacieho a štatistického úradu 1, no. 1 (1946): 19; Ján Dzugas, “Postavenie židovského obyvateľstva v normotvorbe Slovenského štátu v rokoch 1939–1945,” Právnické štúdie 15, no. 2 (1967): 349–91; Martin Pekár, “Výber dokumentov k rómskej otázke na východnom Slovensku v rokoch 1942 – 1945,” Annales historici Presovienses 6 (2006): 314; Branislav Šprocha and Pavol Tišliar, Demografický obraz Slovenska v rokoch 1938-1945 (Bratislava: Muzeológia a kultúrne dedičstvo, o.z. v spolupráci s Centrom pre historickú demografiu a populačný vývoj Slovenska, Filozofickej fakulty Univerzity Komenského v Bratislave, 2016).
  14. See also Michal Urban, “Stav priemyslu v hospodárstve východného Slovenska,” Nové Obzory 28 (1986): 53–78.
  15. Anton Štefánek, Slovenská vlastiveda III. Spoločnosť (Bratislava: Slovenská akadémia vied a umení, 1944), 249–50.
  16. See e.g.,Zlatica Sáposová, “Migračné procesy Stredného Zemplína v období dualizmu (1867-1918) II.,” Človek a spoločnosť 7, no. 1 (2004),
  17. M. P., HVT 4112, Orbis 4838786, Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.
  18. V. F., 106, Video Archive of the Milan Šimečka Foundation.
  19. M. B., RG-50.163.0011, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  20. See e.g., J. K., RG-50.688.0045.01.01, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  21. M. B., RG-50.163.0011, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  22. M. B., RG-50.163.0011, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  23. See e.g., A. A. G., RG-50.688.01.0058, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum; J. B., RG-50.688.0042.01.01, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  24. M. Š., RG-50.688.0007, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  25. J. B., RG-50.688.0042.01.01, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  26. J. K., RG-50.688.0045.01.01, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  27. J. B., RG-50.688.0042.01.01, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  28. J. K., RG-50.688.0045.01.01, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
  29. On the communal or intimate character of the Holocaust especially in eastern Europe, see esp. Omer Bartov, “Communal Genocide: Personal Accounts of the Destruction of Buczacz, Eastern Galicia, 1941-44,” in Shatterzone of Empires: Coexistence and Violence in the German, Habsburg, Russian, and Ottoman Borderlands, ed. Omer Bartov and Eric D. Weitz (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 399–420; Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018); Natalia Aleksiun, “Intimate Violence: Jewish Testimonies on Victims and Perpetrators in Eastern Galicia,” Holocaust Studies: A Journal of Culture and History 23, no. 1–2 (2017): 17–33.
  30. Milan Šimečka Oral History Archive; 1995–1997, testimony no. 36.

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