Joseph Kirschbaum was a top official in the Nazi puppet regime that governed Slovakia during World War II. He conspired to transform the republic into a German protectorate with Nazi-style, anti-Jewish laws. He fled after the war, first to the Vatican, then Canada, and was sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison for high treason.
Kirschbaum recently returned to his homeland republic for the first time in half a century and met with dedicated separatists intent on splitting Czechoslovakia. Although a convicted war criminal, he was not arrested.
Some Czechoslovak officials acknowledge that his presence was ignored because the government did not want to aggravate the powerful, ultra-nationalist pressures dividing the nation--pressures fueled and financed in part by Kirschbaum and fellow emigres in Canada and the United States.
Much as Irish-Americans have secretly helped the Irish Republican Army and other militants in Northern Ireland, Croatian and Slovak immigrants in North America have funneled money and arms into the bloody civil war in Yugoslavia and contributed to ethnic fissures within Czechoslovakia. Although Serbian immigrants have funneled support to their brethren in Yugoslavia, their numbers are far fewer and their involvement more limited.
Most of the money is raised through legitimate means, such as $2 million collected at a single benefit in Chicago, according to the Croatian-American Assn. Similarly, most of the funds are used for legitimate purposes, such as emergency relief and political campaigns. But some emigres also have attempted robbery and extortion to obtain money for Old World freedom fighters, while others have trafficked in illegal weapons and helped disseminate incendiary propaganda.
Last August, for example, a group of Croatian-Americans from Chicago--some linked to a terrorist group that hijacked U.S. airliners and planted bombs in airports a decade ago--tried to smuggle $20 million in arms from Miami and Phoenix to nationalist forces in the republic of Croatia, which seceded from Yugoslavia in June and was fighting the Serbian-led federal army. They were caught in a sting operation organized by the U.S. Customs Service.
Others have demanded money--$3,000 to $5,000 a clip--from fellow Croatian-Americans for the cause, according to customs officials. And three brothers are under investigation in Philadelphia for allegedly stealing more than $5 million in gold and gems for the benefit of their embattled cousins in Croatia.
The efforts of emigre extremists have troubling implications beyond the criminality of some of their actions. While virtually all New World emigres advocate democracy, they sometimes support nationalists of dubious commitment to democratic principles and minority rights, including former Communist overlords and even ex-Nazis. Some seek to justify old causes and conflicts that have little to do with their new lives or those of their children in North America, and they perpetuate ethnic animosities and religious bigotry that echo from an older age.
Indeed, the rhetoric of some emigre extremists resurrects painful memories of World War II, when both Slovakia and Croatia were governed by independent but pro-Nazi regimes that willingly helped Hitler in his crimes.
“These people will never return to their homeland, except maybe to be buried there,” says Jan Beharka, 80, who was a Nazi-fighting guerrilla and a Slovakian political leader before fleeing to New York after the Communist takeover in 1948.
“These separatists want to prove they were right 50 years ago, and they try to pass the mythology on to their kids--like American Jews did about Israel--that things will be perfect when independence comes,” Beharka says. “It’s so sad--they have this great land here, and in Canada, but here they are still fighting old fights.”
To be sure, not all Croatian and Slovak emigres are extremists, and many say they view the independence drives in their homelands just as they would mainstream political movements in the United States or Canada.
“Why shouldn’t I help the independence movement there?” asks Ivan Nogalo, 41, a Croatian-born American who owns a machine shop in Cleveland and serves as the New World spokesman for the Croatian Democratic Union. “I give to the police athletic club here (in Cleveland), same as what I’m doing there.”
Before the outbreak of civil war in Yugoslavia, Croatian and Serbian emigre societies in America lived relatively close to each other in the steel and mining communities to which their grandfathers emigrated almost a century ago. Grouped together as “Yugoslavs” despite their religious differences--most Croats are Roman Catholic while most Serbs are Greek Orthodox--intermarriage was common as they increasingly assimilated into U.S. society.
But now, as first-generation emigrants are stirred by more activist postwar arrivals, Serbian restaurants in Pittsburgh reportedly are being shunned by Croats while Croatian establishments have fewer Serbian patrons.
In Canada, the hatreds run even deeper.
“I don’t think I’d be able to live next door to a Serb,” John Sola, a Croatian-Canadian member of Parliament, recently told a Canadian television interviewer. Canada, along with the European Community and other nations, recognized Croatian independence Jan. 15, but some Croats saw Canada’s endorsement as a reluctant one because, as one Croat pointed out, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s wife is of Serbian descent.
Croats living in North America have funneled at least $10 million to independence movements in their homeland, according to Croatian fund-raisers who spoke on condition of anonymity. And hundreds of Canadians and Americans went to fight in Croatia.
Some extremist Croatian-Canadians profess to see evidence of an anti-Croatian conspiracy that they base on their reading of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an old, discredited anti-Semitic tract. When pressed, they admit that the “protocols” are fraudulent but then claim that world leaders nevertheless act in accordance with its directions.
Kirschbaum and the World Slovak Congress refuse to condemn the Catholic priest, Josef Tiso, who ran Slovakia for the Nazis, as a war criminal. They prefer to focus on Communist crimes instead.
“Nazi atrocities are a children’s story compared to Communist oppression,” says Joseph F. Suchy, a retired lawyer and general secretary of the Toronto-based World Slovak Congress, which represents about 100 Slovak organizations around the world. “Six million is nothing compared to the millions killed by Stalin.”
The deeper antagonism displayed by some immigrants in Canada, as compared to their cousins in the United States, reflects postwar immigration patterns, according to John Hvasta, president of the relatively moderate Slovak-American National Council.
“Most Slovak extremists after the war went to Canada and Argentina because they were turned away here,” says Hvasta, who would prefer that emigres keep their hands out of politics in their homelands.
Among the most prominent examples is Kirschbaum, who founded the World Slovak Congress in Canada with the help of other veterans of Slovakia’s wartime fascist regime and with funds provided by an earlier Slovak emigrant, Stephan Roman, who made a fortune in uranium mining.
Now 78, Kirschbaum was leader of Slovakia’s sole political party in 1939 and, before that, leader of the party’s paramilitary University Guards, who mimicked the Nazi brownshirts.
In 1948, Kirschbaum was found guilty of high treason by a Czechoslovakian court. Carrying Vatican papers, he emigrated to Canada in 1949 after being refused entry to the United States as a war criminal. Several of his comrades-in-arms also were admitted to Canada.
Their ability to take up Canadian residence reflects several factors. Canada had a deliberate policy of encouraging emigrants to settle there after the war, and its immigrant screening bureaucracy was swamped. In addition, the Vatican pressured the Canadian prime minister to admit one of Kirschbaum’s comrades to whom it had given protective sanctuary for several years, according to an investigation by the Whig-Standard newspaper in Kingston, Canada.
On his return to Bratislava, the Slovak capital, in November, Kirschbaum met with members of the Matica Slovenska, a strongly separatist organization. He also consulted with official agencies such as the National Archives, which he persuaded to accept the writings of Slovak emigres like himself, according to news accounts and other sources.
A Prague magazine reported that the official explanation for the Slovak government’s decision to leave Kirschbaum alone was that his supporters there had successfully petitioned a Slovak court for pardon under a 30-year-old amnesty law covering some general criminal offenses. The amnesty policy was proclaimed, ironically, by the same Communist regime that had convicted Kirschbaum of treason and clearly was not designed to apply to war criminals such as him.
The magazine said this “loophole” was simply an excuse to allow Kirschbaum’s visit. It claimed that witnesses familiar with Kirschbaum’s role in Jewish pogroms and the expulsion of Slovakian Jews to German concentration camps have come forward to demand that he be tried again for “crimes against humanity” if he ever returns.
“You have to believe that this (failure to arrest Kirschbaum) was a positive, sympathetic move toward him and the separatists by the Slovak government in Bratislava, rather than just turning a blind eye,” said one senior Prague official. The Bratislava regime, he added, is “seeking the support of men like Kirschbaum.”
One criticism of emigre efforts on behalf of their old countries is that while they generally advocate political democracy, they often support fervent nationalists who seem to quickly stray from democratic ideals when they come to power.
In Yugoslavia, the victorious 1990 presidential election campaign of Franjo Tudjman in the Croatian republic was largely funded by more than $10 million that has flowed to him, his party and his government from overseas sources.
Tudjman was a general in the Yugoslav Communist army before he turned Croatian nationalist, and his writings have been characterized by critics as anti-Semitic. (“Thank God my wife is neither a Serb nor a Jew,” he once said at a public campaign gathering.)
He has revived Serbian memories of wartime genocide by Croatians with inflammatory rhetoric and programs that discriminate against Serbs, actions that helped precipitate the country’s bloody civil war.
Tudjman freely acknowledges his debt to North American emigres. “Croatians in Canada have helped a great deal in the establishment of a democratic Croatia,” he said on the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.'s “Fifth Estate” news program in December.
Tudjman’s principal Canadian fund-raiser, Toronto businessman Dick Bezic, puts it more directly. “Canadians bankrolled his new state and its army,” Bezic says.
Some Croatian emigres, while supporting Croatian independence, admit that they have difficulty defending Tudjman’s regime but urge critics to see the larger picture.
“The public image of Croatia is one of extremists, chauvinists, nationalists, zealots, right-wing anti-Semites,” Yale history professor Ivo Banac recently told a gathering of Croatian supporters in New York.
“We all know individuals there who are anti-Semitic, but the institutions, the constitution, the structure of the (Croatian) state now are democratic,” Banac continued. Moreover, Tudjman was elected in the first democratic voting in Croatia’s history.
In Czechoslovakia, Slovakia now faces elections that are likely to determine whether it remains part of Czechoslovakia or breaks away.
Slovakia’s nationalists have not taken up guns and seem unlikely to do so. But there have been well-organized disruptions of appearances by Czechoslovakian President Vaclav Havel--disciplined heckling and catcalling that smack of Nazi brownshirt tactics.
About $6 million was channeled to Slovakia from abroad in 1990 alone, according to Czechoslovak press reports, most of it apparently for propaganda purposes.
Unlike the Serbs in Yugoslavia, the Czechs of Bohemia and Moravia are unwilling to start a civil war to prevent Slovakia’s secession. But violence cannot be ruled out, as the anti-democratic sentiments of Slovakian nationalists affect not only Czechs but the country’s large minority population of Hungarians.
Slovakians of Hungarian descent, who are viewed unfavorably by most Slovaks, have said they will seek to form an autonomous region along the border with Hungary if Slovakia secedes and might seek protection from Budapest.
Hungary itself has already served notice that the lands it ceded to Czechoslovakia after World War I would not automatically go to a separate Slovak state. This position signals Hungary’s intent to monitor closely the fate of Hungarians living in the former Hungarian “uplands” of Slovakia and could become the basis for reclaiming part of what was once “greater Hungary.”
The tragedy that has been playing out in Yugoslavia, and the potential tragedy within Slovakia, is that real guilt and real grievances exist on each side. The fissures reflect age-old enmities within Slav families that emerged from South-Central Asia at the dawn of Christianity and spread along the narrow band of Eastern Europe during the first millennium.
For the next thousand years, Czechs and Slovaks were split by their rulers, the Germanic tribes and the Hungarians respectively. Croats and Serbs were divided by their religion (Roman Catholicism and Greek Orthodox), their rulers (German and Turkish) and even their alphabet (Latin and Cyrillic).
“We Slovaks want to live under our own name in this world,” says Suchy of the Slovak World Congress. Now 66 years old, he acknowledges that if Slovakia became independent, he probably would go there only to visit, not to settle.
“It is very natural for people who have lived in this part of Europe for more than a millennium,” Suchy adds. “It’s nonsense to say we are fuming neo-fascists and chauvinists and nationalists and fascists. We just want our own country.”