The Working Group (Slovak: Pracovná Skupina)[a] was an underground Jewish organization in the Axispuppet state of Slovakia during World War II which attempted to rescue Slovak and other Jews from the Holocaust. It gathered and disseminated information on the fate of deported Jews, bribed and negotiated with German and Slovak officials, and smuggled valuables to deported Jews.
In 1940, SS official Dieter Wisliceny forced the Slovak Jewish community to set up a Jewish Council (ÚŽ) in Bratislava, the capital of the Slovak State, to implement anti-Jewish decrees. Members of the ÚŽ unhappy with collaborationist colleagues began to meet in the summer of 1941. In 1942, the group worked to prevent the deportation of Slovak Jews by bribing Wisliceny and Slovak officials, lobbying the Catholic Church to intervene, and encouraging Jews to flee to Hungary. Its efforts were mostly unsuccessful, and two-thirds of Slovakia's Jews were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp and camps and ghettos in the Lublin Reservation. Initially unaware of the Nazi plan to murder all Jews, the Working Group sent relief to Slovak Jews imprisoned in Lublin ghettos and helped more than two thousand Polish Jews flee to relative safety in Hungary during Operation Reinhard. The group transmitted reports of systematic murder received from the couriers and Jewish escapees to Jewish organizations in Switzerland and the Aid and Rescue Committee in Budapest.
After transports from Slovakia were halted in October 1942, the Working Group sponsored a proposal to bribe Heinrich Himmler into halting the deportation of European Jews to extermination camps in Poland. The Nazis did not negotiate in good faith and the Europa Plan, as it was known, fell through in the fall of 1943. In April and May 1944, the Working Group collected and disseminated the Auschwitz Protocols documenting the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews; the Western Allies considered it the first reliable report on the camp. Diplomatic pressure and the interception of a telegram about the Working Group's suggestion to bomb Auschwitz caused Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy to halt the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in July. After the Slovak National Uprising in fall 1944, the Germans invaded Slovakia and the Working Group attempted to bribe the Germans into sparing the Slovak Jews. Its failure to clearly warn Jews to go into hiding is considered its greatest mistake.
Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer considers the Working Group's members flawed heroes who deserve public recognition for their efforts to save Jews. Mainstream historiography on the group has been attacked from both sides. Its leaders, Gisi Fleischmann and Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl, believed that the failure of the Europa Plan was due to the indifference of mainstream Jewish organizations. Although this argument has influenced public opinion and historiography, mainstream historians maintain that the Nazis would not have allowed the rescue of a significant number of Jews. On the other hand, John S. Conway has claimed that the Working Group's negotiations were collaborationist and it failed to warn Jews about the threat awaiting them; Conway's arguments have been dismissed as not based in fact. The potential of Nazi–Jewish negotiations and to what extent their bribery was successful are subjects of ongoing historical debate.
On 14 March 1939, the Slovak State proclaimed its independence under German protection; Jozef Tiso (a Catholic priest) was appointed president. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the persecution of Jews was "central to the domestic policy of the Slovak state". Slovak Jews were blamed for the 1938 First Vienna Award—Hungary's annexation of 40 percent of Slovakia's arable land and 270,000 people who had declared Czechoslovak ethnicity. In the state-sponsored media, propagandists claimed that Jews were disloyal and a "radical solution of the Jewish issue" was necessary for the progress of the Slovak nation. In a process overseen by the Central Economic Office (led by Slovak official
Augustín Morávek [cs; de; sk]), 12,300 Jewish-owned businesses were confiscated or liquidated; this deprived most Slovak Jews of their livelihood. Although Jews were initially defined based on religion, the September 1941 "Jewish Code" (based on the Nuremburg Laws) defined them by ancestry. Among its 270 anti-Jewish regulations were the requirement to wear yellow armbands, a ban on intermarriage, and the conscription of able-bodied Jews for forced labor. According to the 1940 census, about 89,000 Jews (slightly more than three percent of the population) lived in the Slovak State.