Interview by Michal Hvorecký
Slovakia, October 2019
Hvorecký: How was your childhood?
Mosnáková: My father was from Nitra. He was an orphan, a Jewish boy. He studied veterinary medicine in Brno. He imbibed modern thinking in the Moravian metropolis. He gave up Jewish traditions and faith.
Hvorecký: How did his political thinking develop in Brno?
Mosnáková: He became a staunch leftist. He had a strong social awareness. He was probably influenced by the communist thinking which was spreading from the Soviet Union. He became a member of the communist student faction. There, students were more interested in culture than in politics, they recited Jiří Wolker’s poems etc. However, they also denounced Russian emigrants who were supported by the state which some of them took advantage of. First, he admired the USSR. Well, but later, when Russians came, he changed his opinions.
Hvorecký: Where is your mother from?
Mosnáková: From Moravia, and with humble background. Her father was a military tailor, but probably an invalid, I don’t remember him as a working man. My grandmother was from Moravian Slovakia. She went to live in Brno because of inheritance disputes. She ran a trade on Zelný trh (English: Cabbage market. A traditional street – open air market in Brno) which still exists, she was selling medicinal herbs. Thus, she influenced all her female progeny – I stick to it too. Mother courageously stood by my father even in the worst times. She knew that if fascists arrested her, my father would give himself up. She saved him. She finished two years of trading academy; usually, women were not students at that time. She worked at the municipal office. She used to go to concerts or to the theatre with her two sisters and she was a member of Sokol (physical education movement first founded in Prague).
Hvorecký: How come you ended up in the mining town of Handlová?
Mosnáková: My father graduated and got assigned a job there. My parents got married. The local hospital specialized in mining injuries. That’s why my mother decided to deliver me in Brno. That caused me much trouble when Czechoslovakia was divided in March 1939 – I suddenly became a foreigner. It was a long struggle with the authorities to gain the Slovak citizenship.
Hvorecký: What was the inter-war atmosphere in Handlová like?
Mosnáková: There were many Carpathian Germans (Germans of Slovakia) downtown. Above, there was a Slovak mining colony. I experienced the worst economic crisis during my childhood. Miners worked only for a few hours a day; the mine was only being kept running. They suffered a great deal financially. Germans were much better off, they owned fields and livestock, they were farming, and men used to go to mines. At school, almost all my friends were miners’ girls.
Hvorecký: How did you get on with them?
Mosnáková: Well. We made friends and I loved them. I used to lie and go to see them to the mining colony. Mother feared for me – I was the only child. Father was disturbed by the rise of fascism. He prophesized that there will be a war. He didn’t want to have more children under such circumstances; his estimate proved right. If there had been more of us, we probably wouldn’t have survived.
Hvorecký: What language did you speak at home?
Mosnáková: My father studied at the Hungarian Piarist Grammar School in Nitra. He spoke Hungarian very well and his family too. His mother died of cancer aged only 32. His father died during the First World War of tuberculosis. My pa was scared he would fall ill too but he lived to the age of seventy. My mother spoke Czechoslovak, she mixed the two languages. I used to read a lot and my language was Slovak. My father knew German quite well, too, especially from books. It was a secret language among Jews spoken so that children didn’t understand everything said between their parents. When he was celebrating his seventieth birthday, he recited Goethe’s Faust by heart. I learned German only from books, but I can communicate in it.
Hvorecký: What values you parents instilled into you?
Mosnáková: They were very conscientious to make sure that I had a peaceful and safe childhood. My father had sensed the threat of upcoming war since 1932. He saw young Germans from Handlová going to Germany and learning the violent methods of fascism even though they claimed they’re devoting themselves to Physical Education.
Hvorecký: How did the development manifest in Handlová?
Mosnáková: Fascists used to assemble on the square. Right beneath our windows. I thought it was a theatre performance when I was little. They were giving speeches, playing brass music. Germans were marching and saluting more and more often. One day I noticed my favourite teacher was among them. I felt deeply disappointed. In Handlová the development escalated faster than elsewhere in the republic.
Hvorecký: When did it get out of hand?
Mosnáková: Germans assaulted an orthodox rabbi. They were humiliating him in front of his own children. Jews realized that they were not safe Handlová anymore. My mother took me to Brno to her sisters’.
Hvorecký: How did life change in Brno after the Munich Agreement (of 1938, which permitted German annexation of the Sudetenland, in western Czechoslovakia)?
Mosnáková: March 15th was a sad, bleak day of the occupation of Czechia. My aunt cried all day long. German soldiers were coming in big numbers. I didn’t go to school. From the first day Nazis were incarcerating antifascists, but not only them – it was enough to be a member of Sokol to get arrested. Universities were closed and boarding schools were turned into prisons. Mothers and wives who believed they would at least get to see their relatives behind barred windows were walking along prisons. They didn’t know their relatives were forbidden from approaching the windows, or the guard would shoot them immediately. Even our neighbour, a grammar-school teacher, was arrested and sent to Dachau.
Hvorecký: How did you feel in the new school in Brno?
Mosnáková: A good teacher, who was also a good psychologist, helped me. He knew how cruel child collectives can be in relation to newcomers. I knew Czech well. I read a lot, children’s books first, books for teenage girls later. The teacher commended me for my excellent grammar. So, my classmates started to see me in a good light. At the end of the year, he asked me to carry the flowers he got from classmates to his flat. Despite all threats and swoops, there was a portrait of the former president Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850 – 1937, chief founder and first president of Czechoslovakia) on the wall! And then there was one classmate, son of the postman, who used to shout at Jews. Antisemitism was becoming a commonplace.
Hvorecký: When did you decide to leave Brno?
Mosnáková: At the beginning, Brno under (the German) Protectorate seemed safer than Slovakia. My identity was not known. They didn’t know about my mixed origin, that I was a cross-breed, that my father was Jewish. I didn’t realise that I was in danger. And my mother as a wife of a Jew, too.
Hvorecký: How was the life of your parents without you?
Mosnáková: My father lost his job. My parents left Handlová and my father’s cousin hosted them in Nitra. In the end, mother begged at the ministry in Bratislava and he got a new job as a vet in Močenok. Vets were an exception of the Jewish codex, they called it “an economically important Jew”.
Hvorecký: How did you manage to meet again?
Mosnáková: Mother was trying hard to have me back again. But I had problems obtaining my passport. In the end, my aunt Anička smuggled me to Slovakia in 1940. She brought me to the border near Moravský Lískovec. On the other side of the border, there was my mum! There were older Austrians from the occupation army at the border crossing. They admired my beautiful aunt and let us go. My mum was allowed to take me with her; we went to Nové Mesto and Váhom and hence to Močenok.
Hvorecký: How did it feel to be there?
Mosnáková: It was quite different from before. The Catholic church had a big influence in Močenok. There was a summer residence, a deanery. The dean, a Hungarian from the time of Austro-Hungarian Empire, directed the parishes around. Many educated people lived there; my father grew intellectually close to some of them. With pastor Gál from Ireg, today Jark, too. This pastor was hiding a Jewish boy during the war and he was awarded (the honorific) “Righteous among the Nations” (used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis).
Hvorecký: What did faith mean for you?
Mosnáková: My parents decided to christen me already in Handlová. Mum and her family belonged to Czech Brethren. Father had a respect for baptism, even though he was an atheist. I went through a mass baptism. Then, I accepted the faith in both ways, I mean the transfigured host and wine. The bible was my favourite book! I read it quite thoroughly, so I knew the Old and the New Testaments better than my Catholic classmates! Now I am focusing my interest on Judaism, but I am liberal. I still revere the book of books very much.
Hvorecký: You probably couldn’t become Brethren in Močenok?
Mosnáková: Exactly, that wasn’t possible. Even the president Jozef Tiso was a Catholic priest. So, they re-baptised me! I went to school where nuns of St Vincent were teaching. They liked me, except for two of them who succumbed to fascism. The PE teacher was a fanatic, she even led the Hlinka Guard youth (Militia in Slovakia established by the pro-Nazi Slovak People’s Party after the Munich Conference). She made children march around the town and sing horrible fascist songs. Me, as a Jew, and two invalid girls, were excluded from these activities.
Hvorecký: How did your father settle in the town?
Mosnáková: My father loved people. He did not accept social differences. People perceived us as a vet’s family. That meant something in those days. Social classes were more clearly defined than today. But my father had very good relations with farmers, he treated their animals. When a circus came, my father healed their horse for free. I inherited his love for people. My father helped me understand that mutual help is very important. If it had not been for help from good people, I would have been dead for 75 already. And fifteen of my closest family relatives would be dead too.
Hvorecký: Could you describe the social situation in the town at the time?
Mosnáková: There was poverty. Only two of my classmates had winter coats, the rest wore only woollen shawls. Girl students wore the same dress all year long. A bread with lard and sugar was considered a dainty.
Hvorecký: What was the level of education like?
Mosnáková: Low. Legends, especially superstitions were abundant among people in Močenok. People believed there are some witches around. My classmates told me about them at school. Even I was scared. Even though the church had forbidden such superstitions, they were quite widespread in the town. People also believed that the noonday witch can come to homes, mess up the clothes in chests; that she could potentially cause harm to kids even.
Hvorecký: Were you taught only by nuns?
Mosnáková: Some civilian teachers arrived when I was in the second year. One of them behaved as a fascist and a racist. She even changed her name to Tatranská to sound more Slovak. She fled to Austria at the end of the war. Racism manifested more and more prominently. But there was a young teacher who showed me precious solidarity.
Hvorecký: Mass transports to concentration camps began in 1942…
Mosnáková: There were around thirty Jewish families in Močenok. The majority of them was deported in the first wave. First, it was necessary to make lists of all Jews living in Nitra. My father had to get registered too. We lived on the border – Šaľa belonged to Hungary. Many of those who were in danger fled abroad because the situation there was better then. But whoever got caught by the guard was badly beaten and, still covered in blood, dragged to get registered. When others saw that, they abandoned their intentions.
Hvorecký: How was the situation for your mother?
Mosnáková: It was probably caused by the dramatic time but all barriers between her and Jewish ladies vanished, and they became close. We used to go to say goodbye to friends and acquaintances. These were heart-breaking scenes. A teacher hugged me one day and I will never forget her that.
Hvorecký: How did politics reach the town?
Mosnáková: Only few inhabitants of Močenok owned a radio. Neighbours and relatives used to meet and listen to the news and speeches in their homes. When I recollect that time, a lifelong topic emerges – informing. A group of informers (i.e. to denounce perceived enemies of the regime) used to meet regularly in the town. One of them was the pastor who baptised me! The local notary and gendarme belonged to the group. They had their career dreams and desires, so they informed (to get ahead). Everybody knew. They denounced my husband in times of fascism and of communism, he was a victim of both totalitarian regimes! I deem informing one of the most disgusting human behaviours.
Hvorecký: How did the situation of your family change after the breakthrough of the Slovak National Uprising (the armed insurrection organized by the Slovak resistance movement launched in August 1944)?
Mosnáková: Dramatically. All exceptions ceased to be valid. My father became a mere Jew, mom was his wife and I was a crossbred. Fortunately, my father made friends with a neighbouring German who was called Henrich Konrád. He was from Moravian Uničov. He and his cousins owned arable machinery, a threshing machine and a tractor. They came to the region to work on the field. They rented the Laciház farm near Močenok. There Henrich Konrád met Terézia Mosnáková, they fell in love and got married. They rented a part of the farmyard. My father treated their animals and they became friends. Konrád learned Slovak. Already in 1942, my father asked him to hide us if the situation worsened. And Konrád agreed!
Hvorecký: How do you understand the situation?
Mosnáková: It was an extremely risky decision. He took on the risk of a death sentence. I think he was strongly moved by the sight of children being taken to transports (to concentration camps). He knew many of them. He couldn’t come to terms with it. It was an act of extraordinary courage.
Hvorecký: How did the hiding take place in practical terms?
Mosnáková: The remaining Jews in Močenok conferred and debated their possibilities and plans. Many people were planning to go into hiding. However, my father refused to reveal our future hiding place. Others reproached him for that. He answered: I won’t tell you because it wouldn’t be a secret anymore. And that saved our lives. We secretly went to Laciház. The Konráds gave us their bedroom. The four of them slept on an extensible sofa.
Hvorecký: Was it possible to keep your stay secret for a long time?
Mosnáková: Neighbours started to be suspicious because of the amounts of bread they were baking at the farmyard. Another problem was the little, nice and wise daughter of the Konráds, her name was Anička. A five-year-old child didn’t understand why it wasn’t possible to go to the bedroom, where she used to play, anymore. All of us were worried that someone will let it slip. Neighbours were peeping, gazing, asking…
Hvorecký: How did you feel about that?
Mosnáková: All day long we were sitting together in a single locked room, silently if possible. My joy caused by the fact that I didn’t have to go to school abandoned me quickly. Winter was coming. We needed winter clothes. We were more and more worried about swoops. We dug a pit beneath the bed, and we carried out the soil secretly in buckets. At that time, a brother of Mrs Konrád, Vlado Mosnák, arrived to Laciház. I was fifteen, he was twenty-four. He became my husband after the war. We lived together for 50 years, until he died. Terka was worried about her two little children. She taught her son to report every suspicious movement of German patrols. The battlefront was approaching, the number of soldiers was increasing. They even built a machine-gun nest nearby.
Hvorecký: When did the situation get worse and you had to run away again?
Mosnáková: In November 1944 an SS member Karol Zimmerman, a Jew hunter, arrived in Močenok. Originally, he was a Slovak soldier, but he joined the SS. He was active in the concentration camp of Sereď. Fortunately, I only saw his face recently in a historical book about camps. If I had seen him in person, I would have been dead. He came to the town to hunt for hidden Jews. He lived in the house of the organist whose daughter was my best friend. It shocked me that they accepted and hosted him. Zimmermann spread his nets immediately, he got in touch with local informers. He quickly found a Jew who was hiding alone. He tortured him cruelly until he coaxed what he needed out of him. I don’t judge him, but I admire my husband the more as he wasn’t broken even by torture. Soon, Zimmermann got everyone except for us, which he didn’t mean to accept.
Hvorecký: What followed?
Mosnáková: He made an announcement that there was a reward for us. He offered five thousand crowns for information leading to our capture. When nobody reported, he rose the prize to ten thousand. Nothing. So, he arrested my father’s old friend and threatened to shoot his father if he doesn’t inform where we were. Fortunately, he had the presence of mind to tell him that he brought us to the border with Hungary. We had to leave Laciház, it was too dangerous a place. The Konráds entrusted Vlado Mosnák with searching for our new shelter. A task almost impossible to fulfil! Everybody was scared. There were swoops, house searches… After a week on a field he hid us in his father’s vineyard house. The three of us used to sleep on a single iron bed. Before, the hut was sometimes used by people from the resistance movement who needed an accommodation.
Hvorecký: How did you feel about being an outlaw?
Mosnáková: I had terrible nightmares, scary dreams. In the end, a shoemaker let us stay in his new house which he has just built. He had no spare money for flooring. So, we made a trade agreement. He hid us and we paid for it. We stayed in his place from 16th November till 16th December 1944. I am grateful to the family. If they reported us, their profit would be much bigger. But they didn’t do it. We returned to Laciház for Christmas because Zimmermann stopped searching for us. However, in January 1945 Vlado and his father were arrested by the Gestapo.
Hvorecký: What happened?
Mosnáková: It was the secret police. They spoke Czech fluently, claimed they were illegal. The Mosnák family were used to such guests. Sometimes liaisons from the rebel area slept in their vineyard house on their way to Bratislava. These, however, took out their revolvers at midnight and arrested both men. They deported them to Mauthausen. These were horrible times. Me and Vlado grew close at Laciház. I knew that Mauthausen was a camp where people were being murdered. Vlado was freed only after the end of the war. He survived horrible things. He was tortured. He came back emaciated, like a bag of bones.
Hvorecký: How did you survive the rest of the war?
Mosnáková: The situation was chaotic. It was after the Dukla Offensive (battle for control over the Dukla Pass on the border between Poland and Slovakia on the Eastern Front of World War II between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in September–October 1944). Russians were almost in Levice. We didn’t have money. Despite that, Konrád still protected us. Germans in the neighbourhood were planning to evacuate themselves. They repeatedly stopped at Konrád’s wondering why he was not leaving with them. He kept explaining that he decided to stay. The last months of the war were exceptionally dramatic. Population transfers, transfers of battlefronts, bombing… We withdrew to the mow, then to the brewery… Thus, we lived to see the liberation.
Hvorecký: What was Konrád’s fate after the war?
Mosnáková: Not before long, he was arrested as a German. He was incarcerated in Nitra. New dignitaries were soon in power. Power is ours now! We will take possessions and we will rule! The moment we got rid of one totality, another started to form… We were deeply indebted and grateful to Konrád. My father was appealing to authorities and explaining that Konrád was our saviour. But it took long before he succeeded. They even started to arrest Jews to take hold of their possessions! The same scenario was being repeated. Konrád and his family moved to Levice and then to Bratislava. He was apt, he worked mainly in construction. We stayed in touch.
Hvorecký: Now you are an active member of the Slovak Jewish community.
Mosnáková: At first, I got in touch with the Jewish community because I wanted our saviours to be awarded as Righteous among the Nations. Indeed, I succeeded, I got a permission from Yad Vashem, from the memorial of the Holocaust victims and heroes of the Holocaust in Israel. In 1998 three people were awarded, Terézia, my husband and Konrád. He lived but the two of them were awarded in memoriam. I met a lot of extraordinary people who survived the Holocaust in the senior club. Their fates are so dramatic that they confirm the importance of preventing hatred among us, acquisitive desires for power or dividing people according to various mysterious criteria. They confirm the necessity of striving for friendship, help, solidarity among people regardless of nationality, race or religion. History of humanity from the beginning until today only confirms the harmfulness of fanatism. Because of the fact that I live by virtue of help (by others), the meaning of my life is to help others.
Hvorecký: Thank you for the interview!