Sarah Ansbacher
Author of historical and contemporary novels
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Secrets of an old warehouse in Bratislava

A bullet factory in Slovakia once housed Jews in appalling conditions. And then it was used for an even more nefarious purpose
Interior of warehouse, Patronka. Photo: Sarah Ansbacher
Interior of warehouse, Patronka. Photo: Sarah Ansbacher

Chances are, that you have never heard of the Patronka. That’s not at all surprising. Even the residents and workers in its vicinity claim not to have heard of this former WW1 bullet factory in Bratislava, Slovakia, that had a more sinister history during WW2. Or perhaps people only feign not to know anything. After all, even the name of the local bus terminal is Patronka, after the historical factory.

I discovered this strange reaction to my question while on a research trip to Vienna and Bratislava two years ago, trying to locate the Patronka, when I was in the early stages of writing my latest novel, Wave After Wave. Based on true events, my book tells the story of a group of Jewish refugees from Vienna, Prague and Danzig who attempt to flee Nazi-occupied Europe at the beginning of WW2. Except some only made it as far as Bratislava before they got trapped and detained by the Slovak, Nazi-aligned Hlinka Guard. One of the two sites where they interned the Jewish refugees was the Patronka.

Diary entries from Jewish refugees held at the Patronka during the harsh winter of 1939-40 describe the horrific conditions. A factory compound with a foul-smelling stream running through its center. Their sleeping quarters were draughty dilapidated warehouses with missing roof slats and broken windowpanes, each housing approximately one hundred Jewish refugees on crude wooden bunks with thin straw mattresses. There was straw on the floor to soak up the damp from the rain that leaked through the roof, and the only source of heating was a tiny wood-burning stove which did little to warm the cavernous factory halls. The refugees describe how even their eyelashes would freeze at night. There were no bathroom facilities, just an outdoor latrine and a single tap.

And they were the lucky ones. In August 1940, after nine months of detainment, they finally left Bratislava on paddle steamers. The largest convoy of Jewish refugees to escape during wartime via the River Danube.

While doing research, I discovered that two years later Hlinka Guard used the Patronka for an even more nefarious purpose. And, moreover, that I had a personal family connection to this event.

In 1942, the roundup of the Jews in Slovakia began. The first group were 999 young women aged 18 – 25. Among them, my grandfather’s first cousin Lotte, together with her sisters Lilly and Erika. The Hlinka Guard held them in the abandoned warehouses of the Patronka for five days before handing them over to the Nazis. They were the first young women to be sent to Auschwitz concentration camp.

Lotte survived the Shoah. But her sisters, Lilly and Erika, together with the rest of her immediate family, and most of my grandfather’s family, including his father, step-mother, and many of his siblings all perished. As a way to honor and remember, I chose to name various characters in my novel after family members who perished in the Holocaust, including Lilly and Erika.

The discovery of this family connection made me more determined to find and visit the site of the Patronka. Before my trip, I wrote to the municipality of Bratislava, and to a Slovak architectural magazine who had written a piece about the Patronka. In that article I learned that on the site today is a centre for children with disabilities, so I emailed them too. Not one response. My husband and I decided we would just go in person. We thought, how hard would it be to find?

We took a bus from the train station to the Patronka bus terminal. Once there, we wandered in circles for over an hour through a new housing development and an industrial area of new buildings interspersed with older warehouses. We stopped person after person after person and asked directions. When they didn’t speak English, I communicated with the help of Google Translate. But no one seemed to know what I was talking about. I went into a local police station, but they too could give me no information. It was almost as if the Patronka had been erased from history.

Just as we were about to give up, a man noticed us wandering around the older warehouses and asked us in perfect English what we were looking for. When I explained, he nodded in understanding. He told me he worked in the area and had an interest in local history. ‘No one here really knows about it anymore.’ But this man did. He pointed us in the right direction on the other side of the highway.

At last, we had found the entrance to the former Patronka. But the woman in charge at the entrance to the new center refused to let us in. She didn’t speak English, so it was a complicated conversation with the aid of Google Translate. She said we needed to write in advance. I explained I had, but no one replied. After much pleading, she called the director’s assistant (who spoke English) and who eventually agreed to show it to us.

Just one building remains of the old factory complex, locked, abandoned, and almost forgotten, at the far end of the new centre. The assistant asked the caretaker to get the key to the padlock and let us in.

The last warehouse building of the Patronka. Photo: Sarah Ansbacher

As we entered the eerie warehouse, the caretaker said something to the assistant. I didn’t understand what he said in Slovak, but caught one word: Zidovska. Jewish. I asked the assistant what the caretaker had said. She looked uncomfortable. ‘He is saying that it was once a bullet factory,’ she replied. I just gave a tight smile, agreed, and said nothing more. There was no time for emotions. I wanted to document the place and took pictures from every angle. The assistant told me that the last warehouse was slated for demolition later that year. The final evidence of the Patronka would then be gone, though I have since heard that there are plans to erect a memorial in its place in the next few years.

My grandfather’s cousin, Lotte Weiss, wrote a memoir, My Two Lives, which I reread back in Israel after my research trip. To my surprise, and without having planned it, I realized that she and her sisters had got their orders for the roundup to the Patronka on 22 March 1942. The day we visited the Patronka was exactly 80 years later to the day, on 22 March 2022.

Patronka. Photo: Sarah Ansbacher

In her book, Lotte describes what happened after the roundup, ‘We arrived at Patronka at 7am … We were ordered to leave our belongings in the yard, and in a group of 60 were taken to a room which was totally bare, apart from a bucket to be used as our toilet… the degradation and humiliation was unbearable. We cried bitterly… we were given small quantities of food twice a day and allowed to use washing facilities once a day, under the supervision of Hlinka guards. We were so terribly cold at night that we did not undress. We remained there for five days, not having changed our underwear or clothing – everything, including our toiletries, had been taken from us on arrival at the factory… on 27 March 1942 … we were told to march towards the main railway station. What a sad procession we were! What terrible feelings of shock and shame … punished solely for the “crime” of being Jewish.’

After her liberation from Auschwitz, Lotte worked for a while at the Documentation Office in Bratislava where she made a shocking discovery: ‘I came across letters between the Slovak and the German authorities, in which I learnt that the Slovak Government offered and paid five hundred Deutsch marks to the Germans for the deportation of each Jewish man, woman and child on condition that there would be no returns.’

‘Statistics indicate that some 80,000 Jews from Slovakia were deported to various concentration and extermination camps… and only a pitiful 236 of us returned.’

In memory of the many members of my family who perished in the Holocaust, among the six million.

May all their memories be for a blessing.

Never Forget.

About the Author
Sarah Ansbacher is the author of Wave After Wave, a historical novel based on the true story of a group of Jewish refugees who attempt to flee wartime Nazi-occupied Europe setting out on a dangerous sea journey to Eretz Israel. Her other books include the novel Ayuni and the short story collection, Passage From Aden: Stories from a Little Museum in Tel Aviv, based on her experiences working at the Aden Jewish Heritage Museum.
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