The race is on to save and restore a cemetery that contains the remains of one of Judaism’s most revered spiritual leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries.
For decades in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, the earthly remains of Rabbi Chatam Sofer and other leading Jewish figures have been shaken by the constant pounding of trolley cars passing directly overhead.
Because of the volume of traffic, local Jewish leaders feared that the cemetery could be damaged beyond repair.
But a $2 million project has now been launched that will not only divert the trolley car tracks away from the site but convert Sofer’s final resting place in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains into a permanent mausoleum and tourist attraction.
Sofer, whose given name was Moshe, enjoyed an unrivaled reputation in Orthodox circles as a spiritual leader until his death at 76 in 1839.
The Torah interpretations and halachic rulings of the former chief rabbi of Pressburg – now Bratislava, at the time the most important Jewish community in Hungary – are still revered and studied around the world.
Albert Einstein and U.S. first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton are those who have visited the tomb over the years to pay their respects.
His remains were buried in a tomb surrounded by the graves of other leading rabbis and Jewish community leaders. But his peace was shattered during World War II, when the Nazi-puppet Slovak state decided to level the entire Jewish cemetery in order to construct a road.
Local Jewish leaders successfully fought to save the rabbi’s grave – but it required a lot of good luck, according to Dr. Tomas Stern, a Slovak who has documented historical Jewish monuments throughout Central Europe.
“The grave of Chatam Sofer and other important rabbis happened to be at the bottom of a valley, so the authorities agreed to build the road over that section of the cemetery,” he said.
Only 23 graves and 31 tombstones were saved from the bulldozers and encased in a concrete bunker beneath the road.
Years of neglect by Czechoslavakia’s Communist regime took its toll on Sofer’s grave, as trams relentlessly shook his resting place.
But help eventually appeared in the form of New York City Council member Noach Dear, who with the support of the White House, formed an international delegation to visit Bratislava and save Sofer’s tomb.
A deal was reached under which the Slovak government agreed to reroute the trolley cars at a total cost of $1.1 million. For its part, the delegation, which included New York businessman George Karfunkel and descendants of Sofer, vowed to restore the cemetery – a move that could cost as much as $1 million.
For Dear, an Orthodox Jew, the money will be well spent, whatever the cost.
“Chatam Sofer is someone everyone reveres,” he said. “Every young child at a Hebrew school gets to know who Sofer was. You must preserve the gravesite of any great leader and rabbi like that.”
But Dear and local Jewish leaders will have to wait longer than anticipated for the site to be preserved.
Bratislava’s City Hall had hoped to complete the new section of trolley track by this summer, but it has put back the completion date to at least October.
“We have come across several problems which have taken some time to get rid of,” said Vladimir Lunacek, director of the city’s Transportation Department. “One significant problem was ensuring the financing of the work.”
Other problems have include red tape. City Hall has had to secure 23 certificates from utility authorities in order to complete the project.
As a result, construction work on the mausoleum itself is now unlikely to start until the spring of next year, pushing back the completion date to next summer.
In the meantime, the trams continue to roll, prompting Bratislava’s Jewish Community leader, Peter Salner, to express concern.
“I hope the first part of the project can be carried out as soon as possible to prevent further damage to the cemetery,” he said.
The Slovak Ministry of Culture and the city’s Jewish community have already paid for the tombstones to be cleaned and preserved to prevent further decay in the humid, underground conditions.
Once the mausoleum is revamped, it is likely to prove a powerful magnet for tourists.
Earlier this month, 3,000 people visited the deteriorating site on Slovakia’s European Day of Jewish Culture, making it the most visited Jewish monument in the country.
The project has been endorsed by Slovakia’s Chief Rabbi Baruch Myers, who expressed his admiration of a man who defeated his opponents even in death.
“Sofer’s grave has not moved for 160 years, standing firm through fascism and socialism,” he said. “He was known as being resolute and immovable in his convictions, and even after his passing he shows that he does not move from his place.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.