Klara Sever was born into a Jewish family in 1935 in Trebišov, Slovakia. With the outbreak of WWII and the founding of the First Slovak Republic, Klara and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Žilina. While in the camp, Klara’s father was able to get a note to his brother living in Banská Bystrica, who, in turn, persuaded a local official to vouch for the family and get them released from the camp under his supervision. The family lived in several locations until they were forced to go into hiding in 1942. Klara remembers being discovered by a troop of Hungarian soldiers who wanted to capture the men and shoot the women and children. At the last minute, however, the commander stepped in and saved their lives. Although the men were forced to march with the soldiers, they all returned in a few days. After the War, Klara and her family traveled to Lučenec to look for the rest of her family. They were only reunited with two of her uncles.
In 1951, Klara attended the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. Upon graduation, Klara wanted to pursue her studies further, but says she was blacklisted due to her marriage to her husband, whom she refers to as “an enemy of the state.” She recalls having difficulty finding a job as an artist, but eventually found employment restoring castles throughout Czechoslovakia. Working in restoration for five years classified her as a laborer, and she finally received her degree in art history from Comenius University. Klara then began working as a radio reporter and editor of art programming. She supplied material and reports for underground radio broadcasts during the Warsaw Pact invasion in August 1968.
It was at this time that Klara and her husband decided to leave Czechoslovakia and, about two weeks after the invasion, they crossed the border into Austria. Klara says the border was patrolled by both Soviet and Slovak soldiers, and the Slovak soldier who inspected their car told them to leave ‘quickly.’ Her husband had connections with Western journalists he had met in Prague not long before, and he met one of these at the French embassy in Vienna. The French ambassador personally handed them visas, and they traveled to Paris. In 1969, they arrived in New York City. Although she did not know yet any English, Klara worked a series of jobs reproducing sculptures. In the Washington, D.C. area, Klara has worked as a sculptor, preparing commissions and heading her own company. She speaks Slovak with her family, and has maintained Slovak traditions at Christmas and Easter.
Jewish in WWII
“Of course, ’39 was the time when Nazis took over completely, but we did not feel it until ’40, ’41. We only felt it by the everyday happenings in our school where the children would chase us around because we were Jewish and they were not. And we first didn’t understand what happened, we had no idea that we were any different. So my father had another task to explain – how you are different. And he had a great theory; that’s the first time he mentioned that ‘It is not our fault that we are Jewish. Actually, it is not a fault. It’s just something that one is and one isn’t, and these children are to be pitied because they’re just uninformed, obviously their parents are uninformed , and, you know, we just have to try to ignore the best we can.’”
“We were washing dishes and the soldiers showed up and told my mother and my father that we need to pack up something that we can carry on our backs and we are going to leave. So we were taken to the camp in – the concentration camp – in Žilina. You know the difference, there is a concentration camp and there is an extermination camp, so we were just taken to the first place. So we left our house. That was the last time I saw my house. I don’t really want to go into the whole thing because you probably heard many stories like that, you saw many movies like that, every story is a little bit different. To us, as children, it was a completely unexpected experience. We were city girls and we had no idea that things like that, like you sleep on straw, existed. And that you eat when you are supposed to line up to eat and you eat what you get and not what your mother has for you. Special things, everything disappears, in one moment.”
“My father, with all the other men, he went out from the camp every morning. They marched out to work on the roads – break up the stones for the road making. And he was always obviously thinking about how to get us out of there. But he couldn’t come up with anything, because once you’re there you hardly ever…But then he had still a brother in Banská Bystrica, which is one of the bigger towns in Slovakia, who was still out. I don’t know how come they didn’t pick them up yet, but he was still out there. So he chanced it and he wrote a little note and packed it up and wrote on the note that whoever finds it, please send it to such-and-such address, please. That was all. And he wrote to his brother where we are, and do something. Because my father immediately knew what it meant. He was more informed than other people because he was very observant, and he also, with his friends, listened to the radio – that we are not supposed to have anymore. No radios, no jewelry, no purse, no nothing. And he knew that from London that things are really heading to the Final Solution.”
“And his brother got it. So somebody picked it up. I think it was the first miracle that I ever saw. And my uncle went, and I don’t know to this day how he got a small village past Banská Bystrica, persuaded – they needed a dentist of course – that they should vouch for us, and if they do that, if the commander of the local – it was called Hlinkova garda [Hlinka Guard]. That was a fascist Slovak organization – if he will say that he will watch out for us, and if they need us, we are there and will be handed over. So, they did it. They took our family, and we moved there.”
“The Slovak state had a president who was a Catholic bishop. And he of course was under the command of Hitler, and at the time they were negotiating how many Jews he was going to send him and how much money they’re going to get for it. And the Slovak priest in that village decided that he absolutely doesn’t listen to that kind of…that’s not his boss, his boss is a little bit higher up and that’s the only boss that he listens to. So he told his flock that the pope thinks this way but God doesn’t think that way. God thinks that we don’t hand over innocent people to be slaughtered. Why? And so that’s how we basically got saved.”
“We had sentries, when someone in the village down there saw somebody coming, they would send a kid up to tell us, and then I was sent up there to tell those, but once it didn’t work out, and when I was going up to the last house, there was not a German troop, but the Hungarian troop; which was Hungarian Fascist, which were really, really, hateful. And they had a German commander with them, but the German already knew that they were losing, so he was thinking about the future and how’s he going to get out of this. But it was too late for us…we knew that if they catch so many people in one house they know they are hiding, these people are hiding. And they see the families, the children, and old people and middle-aged people. So they came up there and there we were. It was very unpleasant. And the German commander talked to my aunt who spoke German and he said ‘I know. It’s over, it’s over.’ But the Hungarians said ‘We need to take the guys with us,’ because they had to go through a partisan… the guerilla fighters’ territory. ‘We are going to take the men with us so they lead us through the territory and then we get over where we can join our forces. And the women and the children we need to shoot because, you know, what are we going to do with them?’”
“So they stood us up against the wall, and my little cousin, who was about six, she saw her father. She was an only child and her father’s little girl. Oh, she didn’t want her father to go anywhere, of course. She jumped off and went to him, and this guy said ‘We are ready to shoot, what is this, the kid?’ So the German commander said ‘Oh for heavens’ sakes guys, they’re just children and women, so why are we going to shoot them? What’s the sense of it? Let’s go.’ So they started leaving, and after they left and led my father and uncle and all the other guys down. And then we got very lucky, because in two days they were back. So they led them through the territory and decided to let them go. So they all came back. Including my father. So there was no better end to the story than this.”
“I worked for the radio – I’ll just tell you a short story – in the section for young people and small children, so at night [we broadcast] fairy tales. So there is a French fairy tale called ‘The Red Balloon,’ everybody knows. So we had nothing to play so I said to my boss ‘Why don’t you reprise ‘The Red Balloon,’ we haven’t seen it in a long time, new children didn’t hear it.’ But you always have to, even if it’s old, you have to send it up to the advisor. That was not a Russian yet, that was our own NKVD [secret police] advisor. And he reads everything and then when he signs under it and you can put the tape on. I get a call: ‘Comrade Sever.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you know what you are doing?’ I said ‘Yeah, I thought so.’ ‘What is this Red Balloon?’ I said ‘It’s a fairy tale.’ ‘I know that. But did you read to the end?’ ‘Yeah, I read to the end. The red balloon flies too high and it pops.’ ‘What’s the red balloon and it pops?’ I said ‘Well comrade,’ I don’t know what we called him. Tlačový dozor are press overseers. ‘I’m so sorry that you have such terrible thoughts. I didn’t think of it, but you did. I don’t know about you.’ He said ‘Stop being silly and change it to another color.’ I said ‘Ok, like what?’ ‘Like yellow.’ I said ok. Ok, no tragedy, but imagine that you are a writer and every word that you have in your book you have to cross out.”