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Behind the Headlines: in Bratislava, the Shul is No Longer, but Jewish Life Has Taken Root Again

November 6, 1990
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As dusk begins to fall on an autumn Friday, a handful of elderly people make their way, one by one, into the sole synagogue in Bratislava, capital of Czechoslovakia’s Slovak republic.

They take scattered places around the large sanctuary of the building, a striking, somewhat Art Deco design from the 1920s, whose outer facade is covered with scaffolding but whose airy interior, with an eye-catching wrought iron central bimah and distinctive hanging metal chandeliers, is well maintained.

There is no rabbi to lead the service — there is no rabbi in Bratislava — so as soon as there is a minyan, the group, eventually about 25 people, drifts into prayer, led by one member of the congregation.

The beautiful, almost cantorial voice of one of the elderly worshipers from time to time soars up over the murmur of davening — and shmoozing — in the aisles.

This is one face of Judaism in Bratislava, once a major Jewish center and now home to a community estimated at about 1,000.

Two hours later, another face is revealed.

In the shabby but bright kosher restaurant and community hall half a mile away from the shul, a group of vibrant young Slovak students are practicing Israeli dances as a steady stream of people of all ages begin filtering into the hall to take places at seats and tables.

The crush of people eventually forces the students to abandon their rehearsal, and soon a standing-room-only crowd of 200 people or so is crammed into the hall, which is decorated with pictures of Golda Meir and Menachem Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe.


It is the bimonthly meeting of the Jewish Forum, a cultural and educational program aimed at introducing Slovak Jews to their own history as well as to Jewish culture and history in general, including the Holocaust and World War II.

Slovakia, which in 1918 become federated with the Czech Republic as Czechoslovakia, was a fascist, pro-Nazi puppet state during World War II. About 75,000 out of its prewar population of 90,000 Jews perished in the Holocaust.

The Jewish Forum, crowded to capacity at every meeting, was set up this past year in the wake of the “Velvet Revolution” that ousted the Communists from power last November.

Under the Communists, such cultural and religious Jewish education was forbidden, and the practice of all religions, not just Judaism, was strictly controlled by the state.

“The revolution opened the door,” says Ludovit Dojc, a retired school teacher and expert in Slovak Jewish history who gives regular talks to forum members.

Tonight he explains to the crowd how two days later Bratislava will become “a little Jerusalem” when Hasidic pilgrims from Israel and other countries will come to pray at the underground mausoleum of the Chassam Sofer on the great 19th-century sage’s 150th yahrzeit.

The audience listens intently to the elderly Dojc’s quiet voice. His talk is only one of several during the nearly three-hour program.

A Jewish community officer reports on his meeting with local government officials, who assured him they would combat an apparent recent upsurge of anti-Semitic vandalism — anti-Jewish slogans scrawled on walls and the like.

A history professor — “perhaps not Jewish, you know,” someone whispers – gives a lecture on various aspects of Slovak Jewish history.


Two young political activists address the audience on the need to combat militant nationalism and announce plans for a demonstration against nationalism to be staged the next week.

The Jewish Forum moderator, Dr. Pavol Traubner, a jovial bearded physician, presents someone with a bouquet of flowers to mark his 50th birthday.

Everybody gets enthusiastic applause.

Later, Juraj Reich, president of the Union of Slovak Jewish Communities, enthuses about the forum. “It’s good that the young people come,” he says. “Of course it’s more a cultural than a religious thing.”

Two days later, history teacher Dojc is at the Chassam Sofer’s mausoleum by 10 a.m., and the first pilgrims are already wrapped in intense prayers at the sage’s subterranean tomb. Two young women weep openly as they pray.

As the morning draws on, more and more pilgrims arrive. Most are Hasidim, but local Jews, too, come to pray.

The mausoleum is one of the most remarkable Jewish monuments in Czechoslovakia. From the outside, it looks like part of a bus stop on the main traffic artery along the Danube River, a little glass booth with a trap door grill inside.

One descends a narrow flight of stairs into another world: a low-ceiling, buried room containing 60 weathered tombstones. Many of them are arranged around the walls. In the center of the room, a raised platform of earth contains the graves of 23 people, including eight rabbis.

The underground tomb is all that remains of Bratislava’s Old Jewish cemetery, in use from 1670-1847. Once it was at ground level, along the Danube. It was buried in the 19th century, when the Danube was redirected in a major river regulation project.

There are, however, two still-existing Jewish cemeteries located on a hill directly above the mausoleum.


Except for the synagogue and the cemeteries, most other physical traces of Jewish life in Bratislava have been destroyed — either during World War II or by the Communists.

There is still a street called Zidovska, or Jewish Street. It runs alongside the crosstown freeway, which, along with a big bridge across the Danube, was built about 20 years ago by the Communist authorities, in a huge urban renewal project that destroyed large tracts of the historic old town in the process.

One of the victims of the highway was the elaborate, twin-domed main synagogue, once a city landmark. Only since last year’s revolution has the synagogue been allowed to be remembered.

On the site where it once stood, just next to the highway, young people have painted a big picture of it on the pavement.

“Here there used to stand a synagogue!” they have written.

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