Central European Jewish women gather to fight racism

KOSICE, Slovakia — Jewish women from post-Communist Central Europe met in Slovakia this month to engage in what one of them called the "holy duty" of fighting racism and intolerance.

The three-day meeting — which also sought to bolster international Jewish sisterhood and promote knowledge of Jewish tradition — was organized here by the Ester Association, a recently established affiliate of the International Council of Jewish Women.

"Ester's aim is both to help Jews keep their traditions and also to introduce Jewish culture to mainstream society as a means of fighting xenophobia and anti-Semitism," said Marta Gyoriova, Ester president. "We feel that when people know more about Jews, Judaism and Jewish culture, they will not be so anti-Semitic."

Issues of tolerance are taking on particular urgency in Slovakia. The country has recently been the scene of brutal persecution of Gypsies, including the murder of a Gypsy woman by skinheads last month.

The women's weekend centered around a Sept. 3 Holocaust commemorative event at Kosice's state theater, held under the auspices of Slovak President Rudolf Schuster, a former mayor of Kosice.

Kosice's Jewish community, numbering several hundred, is the second largest in Slovakia after the capital, Bratislava.

The event, preceded by a memorial ceremony at the Holocaust monument in Kosice's Jewish cemetery, included a concert as well as personal testimony by Jews from several countries.

"Terrible things happened in the Holocaust, and people didn't learn anything," Mira Poljakovic, from Subotica, Yugoslavia, told the audience.

"Terrible things are happening in our country now, and people still don't learn. Our holy duty is to fight hatred and discrimination so these things don't happen in the future."

The timing of the event reflected Schuster's proposal to declare Sept. 9 an annual Holocaust memorial day in Slovakia. It was on Sept. 9, 1941 that Slovakia's fascist regime imposed Nazi-style anti-Semitic laws.

The event coincided with the Sept. 3 European Day of Jewish Culture, in which hundreds of Jewish heritage sites in 16 countries across the continent were opened to the public to promote knowledge of Jewish culture and tradition.

"The weekend was important on several levels," said June Jacobs, International Council of Jewish Women president.

"For one thing, it was remarkable to have so many of our representatives from the region here together. And it is very important that Schuster has proposed Sept. 9 as a day of remembrance."

The International Council has affiliates in more than 40 countries. Its membership includes women of all Jewish religious streams, and its interests include promotion of social service and volunteer activities.

"In Central Europe in particular," said Jacobs, "our chapters do volunteer social work helping older women and others cope in a situation of great economic difficulty."

Delegates to the Kosice meeting included women from Israel, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Yugoslavia, as well as from Slovakia.

Public commemoration was only part of the agenda, however.

For the delegates, the weekend represented an opportunity to network and exchange experiences on common issues facing Jewish women in former Communist states, many of whom only recently acknowledged or learned about their Jewish identity.

A number of participants were hidden children during the Holocaust who seized on the event as an opportunity to strengthen their own often conflicted feelings as Jews and Jewish women.

"When I organized the first meeting of Slovak Jewish women a couple of years ago," said Gyoriova, "it was very emotional. Many people were crying. It was the first time they had come together like that."