Ethnic Homogenization and Its Impact on Jews in the Bohemian Lands After 1945

Magdalena Sedlická, Masaryk Institute and Archives of the Czech Academy of Sciences

Ethnic Homogenization and Its Impact on Jews in the Bohemian Lands After 1945

Czechoslovak Jews held high hopes for a better life after the end of the Second World War. Memoirs from the period express the deep sadness from losing so many of their loved ones and of their disappointment in the majority population’s attitude towards them. What was the new Czechoslovakia to which the Jewish survivors returned really like? What did they have to do to fully integrate into society, and was this really possible? The period after the end of the Second World War was full of uncertainty and change for Czechoslovak Jews returning home mostly from concentration camps, tours of duty in foreign armies, or countries to which they had emigrated. The main Czechoslovak politicians, led by Edvard Beneš, became strong advocates of the new republic’s national homogenization. Any efforts by Jews to have their minority rights acknowledged were seen as a potentially dangerous precedent.1 Philipp Ther, writing about the immediate postwar years, characterizes this time as a utopia of national homogeneity.2 According to Matěj Spurný, the unreliability of minorities became the dominant topic of the social discourse, leading to political decisions and grave consequences.3

Survivors didn’t return to the ethnically tolerant republic that they remembered. While the main political leaders worked on ensuring moral and legal continuity with the First Republic, they also distanced themselves from some of its principles, which ended up being of vital importance to Jewish citizens. The Second World War left deep wounds in the society, and the postwar atmosphere was marked by fervent nationalism, a growing thirst for revenge, and the desire to punish the guilty. Following article will focus mainly on two groups of Jews in Czechoslovakia, which were affected the most by the changes of the state minority policy: Jews from the territories that had been ceded to the Soviet Union (Subcarpathian Ruthenia) in June 1945 and “German Jews”.4

Equal Citizens? “German Jews” and the Efforts to Integrate Into the Majority Society

In the Bohemian Lands, roughly twenty thousand Jews survived the Second World War and about two thousand could be categorized as “German Jews.”5 During this tense time, when Germans were being collectively associated with Nazism, their full integration into society primarily depended on whether they retained or regained Czechoslovak citizenship.6 This was an key instrument of the state, which in the postwar years was the deciding factor for who was integrated into the national community and who was protected by basic civil rights.7 Initially, Jews who declared German nationality in the census of 1930 weren’t the only ones in a difficult situation, but also German-speaking Jews with Jewish nationality faced many problems. Especially at the local government level, there was considerable chaos and uncertainty about how to approach the question of citizenship. Jews were frequently seen as Germans and faced social rejection and discrimination.8

The Constitutional Decree of the President of the Republic No. 33/1945 Coll. of August 2nd, 1945, stated that Czechoslovak citizens of German or Hungarian nationality who hadn’t committed any crimes against the Czech and Slovak nation, remained loyal to the Czechoslovak republic, fought for liberation, or were the victims of Nazi terror could retain their Czechoslovak citizenship.9 If one of these categories applied, the person had six months to submit an application to the district national committee. The final decision on the granting of an exception fell to the Ministry of the Interior,10 but the burden of proof was borne by the applicants. If their request was granted, they received a certificate of citizenship. However, it’s important to note that while laws and regulations did indeed matter, all the difference could make how they were interpreted by the ministries and local authorities. 

The topic of citizenship in postwar Czechoslovakia was closely linked to the issue of language. The new republic was to be a state of Czechs and Slovaks; anyone else was supposed to adapt or leave. German speakers were automatically suspect and had to prove why they should be considered “Czech” when they didn’t speak the state language. “German Jews” often didn’t conform to this new concept of Czechoslovak citizenship, and, instead of granting them a certificate of state and national reliability, officials accused them of so-called Germanization. This made them part of the category “Germans”, often with existential consequences since, if a “German Jew” didn’t obtain an exception, they were no longer considered Czechoslovak citizens, couldn’t receive state support, and, as Germans, could even be forcibly deported. Kateřina Čapková, who drew on UNRRA sources for her article, believes that, in reality, a number of “German Jews” were indeed expelled by the authorities, however, it’s impossible to determine the exact number of such deportees.11

Jewish survivors reflect on this difficult situation in their memoirs. Mrs. M. Z., who survived the war with her mother, was constantly discriminated against upon their return. In her testimony, she mentions: “The worst part was that I was once again labeled as something other. This is a very sad chapter because the war was over  […].”12 After a bad experience, when officials advised her to voluntarily emigrate to Germany and thereby save herself the trouble that lay ahead for her if she stayed, she asked the legal department of the Jewish Religious Community in Prague for advice. She tried to get help obtaining food ration stamps for Czechs, at first unsuccessfully. “[…] I always thought that the legal department could get this authorization for two women, over thirty of whose family members had perished in concentration camps and who received German food rations and so wherever they go for milk all they hear is Deutsche, Deutsche.13 The Germans have fled, there are no Germans here, as Jewish women we are the only Germans in Prague […].”14 In October 1947, Mrs. M. Z. moved to the United States. Traveling through Germany, the most frequent final destination of the “German Jews” was either America or Palestine.15

Unwanted Neighbors? Jewish Optants from Subcarpathian Ruthenia

Another group of Jews who faced difficulties integrating into society were Jews from Subcarpathian Ruthenia, who had decided to remain in Czechoslovakia after the Second World War. In the treaty concluded between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union in June 1945, people with Czech and Slovak nationality from the ceded area were given the opportunity to select Czechoslovak citizenship.16 Former members of the Czechoslovak army in exile of Russian and Ukrainian nationality and their families also had to apply. Applications were submitted to the Ministry of the Interior, an office authorized by the ministry, or to the Czechoslovak embassy. Each applicant was given a temporary certificate and until his or her case was resolved the person was considered a Czechoslovak citizen.17 Applicants of Jewish nationality weren’t explicitly mentioned in the text of the treaty and their position was initially unclear. Jewish optants were in real danger of being returned to their original homes, which were now in the area annexed by the Soviets. In December 1945, the Prime Minister’s office adopted a resolution that gave Czechoslovaks of Jewish nationality citizenship rights if they hadn’t committed the crime of Germanization or Hungarianization. Applicants were subsequently evaluated using a checklist of so-called objective characteristics, for instance the information they had put down in the pre-war census, their membership in associations, and knowledge of Czech or Slovak language. In the event that Jewish optants from Subcarpathian Ruthenia didn’t meet these conditions, their rejection notification was sent to the district national committee, which arranged for the applicants to be transported to the USSR repatriation center in Letná in Prague.18

In addition to their legal uncertainty, optants often faced the distrust of their new neighbors. Society frequently viewed them collectively as a foreign element and feared their alleged difference. Local media also reported about the rejection of these newcomers. Members of the border association National Unity of North Bohemia published the Náš Hraničář19 journal, in which they openly printed who was welcome in the region and who they considered a foreign element. As Christianne Brenner has pointed out, Náš Hraničář differentiated between Jews who had come to the borderlands from the interior and Jewish optants. Although Jews from the interior were blamed for their closeness to Germans, it was theoretically possible for them to become part of the new state of Czechs and Slovaks; Jews from Subcarpathian Ruthenia were denied this option. The reason for their arrival was said to be purely economic, selfish, or even criminal, and so it was assumed that they wouldn’t be loyal citizens of the republic, but unproductive people who wanted to live at the expense of the Czech nation.20 In its reports, the Council of the Jewish Religious Communities in the Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia (hereafter the Council)21 strongly urged Jews originally from Subcarpathian Ruthenia to behave in a manner beyond reproach to prove to the population that they were adaptable, which would facilitate their integration and the official process for remaining in Czechoslovakia.22

Looking back on their experience, many applicants for permission to remain in Czechoslovakia emphasize that they had always felt themselves to be Czechoslovak citizens and, after the loss of Subcarpathian Ruthenia, it was only natural for them to remain as such.23 Most of the interviews show that one of the key factors in their decision to apply was fear of the Soviets—how they would treat Jews and what would happen under their rule.24 Czechoslovakia was still perceived as a country that guaranteed democratic freedoms, including the right to practice the religion of one’s choice. Survivor J. W. explains: “I wanted to go to Mukachevo to see if any of my family members were still alive, but when I got as far as Brno I saw Soviet soldiers everywhere. I met Jews who had left Subcarpathian Ruthenia and were from Mukachevo, and they told me what was happening there.”25 For those and similar reasons, the obvious choice for many of them was to stay in Czechoslovakia. 

The role of Carpathian Jews in reviving and maintaining religious practices in many Jewish communities, especially those in the borderlands, is often seen in a positive light in the scholarly literature and memoirs of witnesses.26 For them, membership in a Jewish community wasn’t just a formality as was frequently the case with Czech Jews. After the Second World War, these optants helped re-establish Jewish communities in Děčín, Teplice, Karlovy Vary, Cheb, Liberec, Ústí nad Labem, and many other towns. It’s estimated that they constituted approximately 40%27 of the postwar Jewish population in the Bohemian Lands, and so their remaining in the country was a priority for the representatives of the Council.28 


The postwar era was extremely nationalistic, the mood in the Czechoslovak society strongly anti-German and anti-Hungarian as in many other European countries. The change in the state’s policy towards minorities had an enormous impact on the Jewish community. Leading political representatives believed in the dysfunctionality of the First Republic’s system of minority protection—Czechoslovakia was to become a homogeneous ethnic state, a territory for Czechs and Slovaks only.

In the postwar period, the Jewish inhabitants of Czechoslovakia and its neighboring countries faced similar problems, one of which was the distrust of the majority population. Jews were once again confronted with beliefs that they represented a foreign element, that they behaved in a suspicious manner, and were disloyal. Adapting to the postwar reality was difficult for survivors and filled them with feelings of uprootedness, loneliness, and disillusionment, but there were also important differences between the European countries. The situation of Jews in the Bohemian Lands was in no way ideal or simple, yet the main obstacles they faced were bureaucratic in nature. Being denied a certificate of state and national reliability or not receiving Czech citizenship had serious existential consequences, i.e. being downgraded to a second-class citizen. The “German Jews” were in danger of being deported and Jewish optants of being returned to territories now under Soviet control. Fortunately, however, Jews in the Bohemian Lands weren’t victims of physical attacks, and most of the abuse they suffered was in the form of verbal assaults, insults, and vulgar epithets. No openly anti-Semitic violence occurred in the Bohemian Lands as it did in neighboring Poland29, Hungary30 or in the Slovak part of the republic.31 The rescinding of civil rights for minorities affected all ethnic groups, not only Jews.


1 ‒ Jan Láníček, Československý exil a holocaust: Arnošt Frischer, člen československé Státní rady v Londýně a jeho činnost na pomoc Židům v okupované Evropě (Praha: FF UK, 2008), 27.

2 ‒ Philipp Ther, Temná strana národních států. Etnické čistky v moderní Evropě (Praha: Argo, 2017), 158; 198.

3 ‒ Matěj Spurný, Nejsou jako my. Česká společnost a menšiny v pohraničí (1945–1960) (Praha: Antikomplex, 2011), 130.

4 ‒ I believe that it’s impossible to clearly determine who were “Czechs” and who were “German Jews.” For the sake of clarification, I use the term “Czech Jews” to refer to everyone who claimed Czech nationality or whose preferred language was Czech, although I realize that this isn’t a precise definition. Those who claimed German nationality or spoke German I denote as “German Jews.” In other cases, where for whatever reasons these definitions can’t be used, I treat on a case-by-case basis.

5 ‒ Archives of the Jewish Museum in Prague (AJMP), fond of the The Jewish Religious Community in Prague (JRCP), box 15, Inv. No. 147. Speech by Dr. Kurt Wehle, secretary of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in the Czech and Moravian-Silesian Lands at the Assembly of Delegates in October 1947; Estimates of the number of who put down German nationality on the census in 1930 vary. Jan Láníček states that there were between 2,000 to 3,000 of them, cf. J. Láníček, ‘What Did It Mean to Be Loyal? Jewish Survivors in Post-War Czechoslovakia in a Comparative Perspective‘, Australian Journal of Politics and History, no. 3 (2014): 393; Chad Bryant estimates that they numbered between 1,500 and 2,000; Chad Bryant, Praha v černém. Nacistická vláda a český nacionalismus (Praha: Argo, 2012), 232.

6For more on expulsion of Germans from Czechoslovakia, see Adrian von Arburg, Tomáš Dvořák, David Kovařík (ed.), Německy mluvící obyvatelstvo v Československu po roce 1945 (Brno: Matice moravská, 2010); Adrian von Arburg, Tomáš Staněk (ed.), Vysídlení Němců a proměny českého pohraničí 1945–1951. Dokumenty z českých archivů, duben – srpen/září 1945: „Divoký odsun“ a proměny a počátky osídlování, vol. II/1 (Středokluky: SUSA, 2011).

7 ‒ M. Spurný, Nejsou jako my, 192.

8 ‒ For more, see Magdalena Sedlická, „Není přítel jako přítel.“ Židé v národním státě Čechů a Slováků 1945–1948 (Praha: Academia, 2021), 69–104.

9 ‒ Kateřina Čapková, ‘Národně nespolehliví?! Německy hovořící Židé v Polsku a v Československu bezprostředně po druhé světové válce‘, Soudobé dějiny 22, no. 1–2 (2015): 81.

10 ‒ Ibid.

11 ‒ The article mentions dozens, perhaps even hundreds of people. Cf.  Kateřina Čapková, ‘Between Expulsion and Rescue: The Transports for German-Speaking Jews of Czechoslovakia in 1946‘, Holocaust and Genocide Studies 32, no. 1 (2018): 83; For more on the same topic, see K. Čapková, ‘Národně nespolehliví?!‘: 97.

12 ‒ AJMP, Oral History Collection, Interview no. 435 (M. Z., woman).

13 ‒ Germans, Germans.

14 ‒ Ibid.

15 ‒ K. Čapková, ‘Národně nespolehliví?!‘: 98.

16 ‒ Karel Kaplan, Alexandra Špiritová (eds.), ČSR a SSSR 1945–1948. Dokumenty mezivládních jednání (Brno: Doplněk, 1997), 75–78.

17 ‒ Jaroslav Vaculík, Poválečná reemigrace a usídlování zahraničních krajanů (Brno: Masarykova Univerzita. Pedagogická fakulta, 2002), 162.

18 ‒ Jaroslav Vaculík, ‘Židé z Podkarpatské Rusi jako optanti pro československé státní občanství v letech 1945–1947‘, Ludmila Nesládková (ed.), Akce Nisko v historii „konečného řešení židovské otázky“ (Ostrava: Rondo, 1995), 293.

19 ‒ Border Guardian.

20 ‒ Christiane Brenner, Mezi Východem a Západem. České politické diskurzy 1945–1948 (Praha: Argo, 2015), 213–215.

21 ‒ Rada židovských náboženských obcí v zemích České a Moravskoslezské.

22 ‒ Security Services Archive, fond Jewish Organizations – 425, Call No. 425-234-2. Zápis ze schůze výboru Rady ŽNO konané dne 24. 3. 1946.

23 ‒ AJMP, Oral History Collection, Interview no. 25 (H. M., woman).

24 ‒ AJMP, Oral History Collection, Interview no. 1130 (M. Ch., woman).

25 ‒ AJMP, Oral History Collection, Interview no. 211 (J. W., man).

26 ‒ Blanka Soukupová, Židé v českých zemích po šoa. Identita poraněné paměti (Bratislava: Marenčin PT, 2016), 103.

27Kateřina Čapková, ‘Dilemmas on Minority Politics: Jewish Migrants in Postwar Czechoslovakia and Poland‘, F. S. Ouzan, M. Gerstenfeld (ed.), Postwar Jewish Displacement and Rebirth 1945–1967 (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2014), 66.

28 ‒ Data on the number of Carpathian Jews in Czechoslovakia vary. The most frequent approximate estimate is six to eight thousand in Bohemia and Moravia, cf. Petr Sedlák, ‘Židé v českých zemích 1945–1949‘, Terezínské studie a dokumenty, 2008: 26; Jan Láníček estimates it at 8,500, cf. Jan Láníček, Czechs, Slovaks and the Jews, 1938–1948. Beyond Idealisation and Condemnation (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 147; the 1946 report of the World Jewish Congress cites between eight and nine thousand, cf. American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati, fond World Jewish Congress Records, 1918–1982, Czechoslovakia, box H 99, Inv. No. 17, Jewish Representative Committee; Sarah A. Cramsey cites eight thousand, cf. Sarah A. Cramsey, Uncertain Citizenship: Jewish Belonging and the Ethnic Revolution in Poland and Czechoslovakia, 1938–1948 (Berkeley: University of California, 2014), 116; the Slovak number is estimated at two thousand individuals, see Yeshayahu A. Jelinek, The Carpathian Diaspora. The Jews of Subcarpathian Rus´ and Mukachevo (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 328.

29See, for example, Anna Cichopek-Gajraj, Beyond Violence. Jewish Survivors in Poland and Slovakia, 1944–1948 (Cambridge: Cambridge university Press, 2014).

30 ‒ Péter Apor, ‘The Lost Deportations and the Lost People of Kunmadaras: A Pogrom in Hungary, 1946‘, Hungarian Historical Review 2, no. 3 (2013): 566–604; Petr Balla, ‘Maďarsko‘, Kateřina Králová, Hana Kubátová (ed.), Návraty. Poválečná rekonstrukce židovských komunit v zemích středovýchodní, jihovýchodní a východní Evropy (Praha: Karolinum, 2016), 115–128; Miroslav Kmeť, Bernadeta Ottmárová, ‘K histórii prejavov antisemitizmu v Maďarsku v povojnovom období (1945–1948)‘, Acta Historica Neosoliensia 13 (2010): 111–129.

31 ‒ See Hana Kubátová, ‘On the Image of the Jews in Postwar Slovakia‘, The Annual of Language & Politics and Politics of Identity 9 (2015): 71–85; Monika Vrzgulová, Hana Kubátová a kol., Podoby antisemitismu v Čechách a na Slovensku ve 20. a 21. století (Praha: Karolinum, 2017); Yehoshua R. Büchler, ‘Reconstruction Efforts in Hostile Surroundings – Slovaks and Jews after World War II‘, David Bankier (ed.), The Jews Are Coming Back. The Return of the Jews to their Countries of Origin after WWII (New York-Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005), 257–276; Ivica Bumová, ‘Židia na Slovensku po druhej svetovej vojne‘, Monika Vrzgulová (ed.), Vybrané aspekty a metódy vzdelávania o holokauste na Slovensku (Bratislava: Metodicko-pedagogické centrum, 2013), 40–50.