Around the Jewish World Disputes over Slovak Memorial Would Make Rabbi Turn in His Grave

Disputes over money and planning have delayed construction of a memorial to one of the great rabbis of 19th-century Europe.

In the first half of the 19th century, few could rival Chatam Sofer as a Torah scholar and sage. As the chief rabbi of Pressburg — known today as Bratislava — Chatam Sofer was also a man of action, guiding his community through the turbulent days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Even after death, Sofer, whose given name was Moshe Schreiber, was imposing. The Nazis attempted to destroy his tomb when they leveled much of the Jewish cemetery to build a road, but they relented after vigorous protests from local Jews.

Likewise, years of neglect by Czechoslovakia’s Communist regime also failed to vanquish his earthly remains.

But Chatam Sofer’s patience surely would have been tried by the in-fighting that has delayed attempts to create a lasting memorial at his mausoleum in the state capital of Slovakia.

Conceived as a fitting tribute to the rabbi who died in 1839 at age 76, the memorial was supposed to have opened to the public at the beginning of December. However, construction ground to a halt at the end of November after a key supporter of the $1.5 million project failed to keep up with debt payments.

As a result, it will be spring at the earliest before Sofer can finally be said to be resting in peace.

Construction on the memorial for Sofer and 23 other important rabbis buried in the mausoleum began last May under an agreement signed two and a half years ago between Bratislava City Hall, the city’s Jewish community and a U.S.-based international committee consisting of descendants and admirers of the late rabbi.

Under the agreement, city officials committed nearly $750,000 to move trolley car tracks away from their route directly above the mausoleum, to save the tombs from constant pounding.

In return, the international committee, which is dedicated to preserving the gravesites, agreed to spend a similar amount on the memorial and associated facilities.

For a while, all went well. With an eye on the tourist potential, the city completed its work on the tracks late last year.

Work on the memorial began in May under the supervision of an overseer brought from Israel by the Bratislava Jewish community to ensure that all construction complied with Jewish laws about treatment of the dead.

The international committee handed over $290,000 at the end of August, but money stopped flowing when the committee found itself mired in disagreement over the project.

The chairman of the committee, New York businessman Romi Cohn, told JTA last week that he had resigned in September over disagreements with some committee members.

Three days later, however, Cohn phoned back to say that the “misunderstandings” had been resolved and he had returned to his chairmanship. He added that the construction company would receive money owed to it in the coming week.

“Everything is now back to normal, and we are looking forward to the completion of the memorial as soon as possible,” he said.

Work on the memorial’s roof and infrastructure now is expected to start Jan. 7 and be completed within two months, at a cost of about $80,000.

The chairman of Bratislava’s Jewish community, Peter Salner, said he hoped construction work would get under way as soon as possible.

“It’s a question of when, not if, the money will come,” he said.

The international committee has agreed to spend a further $200,000 to build a new center close to the memorial that will provide exhibition facilities, accommodation and washing facilities for pilgrims.

Completion of the memorial will not necessarily spell an end to the controversy surrounding the project, however.

A London-based Orthodox group, the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe, staged a demonstration outside the burial site shortly after construction began, complaining that the project could desecrate Sofer’s final resting place.

The group also criticizes the memorial’s design, which includes a series of tall glass prisms running from ground level into the tomb area as a means of allowing light into the mausoleum.

“We are very concerned about the whole construction, that it should be done in a way that Chatam Sofer would have liked,” said a preservation committee member who did not want to be named. “The lighting of the building is more like a ‘sound and light’ production than a place for meditation, prayer and pilgrimage.”

The committee also has expressed reservations that several dozen tombstones rescued when the Nazis destroyed the cemetery have been left standing awkwardly in the mausoleum.

“We want to see all the tombstones returned to their rightful place over the graves where they belong,” the committee member said.

Most people involved, however, seem happy with the choice of memorial and the balance struck between the dignity of the site and public access.

Salner pointed out that tourists will be able to look down on the tombs from an upper level gallery, while pilgrims and others visiting for religious reasons will be allowed closer access underground.

“The way this entire project has been designed, the emphasis is that the memorial should serve more for religious purposes than for tourists,” he said.

The chief rabbi of Slovakia, Baruch Myers, agreed, saying that the Jewish community had “achieved the ideal solution.”

On a special “open day” held in September 2000, an estimated 3,000 people — including curious, non-Jewish Slovaks — flocked to the site to pay their respects.

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