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Bratislava Castle All photos by Rhonda Spivak


synagogue


synagogue


Street the synagogue is on


Former KGB building in Bratislava


Restaurant in Old Town


Sign saying Jewish street or Jewish ghetto , where the historic ghetto was that was torn down


Jewish ghetto was torn down to make room for this highway


Holocaust memorial


Image of Great synagogue that was torn down under Soviet rule

 
Editor's Report from Bratislava Slovakia: The Day Lucas Met His First Jew

by Rhonda Spivak, May 10, 2015

 

 

I had never ever considered going to Bratislava,  the capital of Slovakia  (it used to be part of Czechoslovakia) until I was in Vienna this past August and noticed that there was an hour's excursion by boat along the Danube River  to Bratislava. The dock for the trip to Bratislava was only about a block away from the Stefanie Hotel in Vienna where I was staying. On the spur of the moment, I decided to buy a ticket and check out Bratislava. I would walk around the old town for a few hours before I'd catch the boat back to Vienna.

 

After buying the ticket, I darted back to my hotel to pack up a couple of items and went to the hotel lobby to quickly check on the internet to see if Bratislava had any Jewish related sites. I managed to learn that the only synagogue in existence was on Heydukova Street, not far from the historic city center. I didn't have a map with me or an iphone or ipad, and figured I would just ask the locals to point me in the direction of Heydukova street. I jotted down the name of the street quickly on a piece of paper and hoped for the best. In the couple of minutes that I had to research on the net, I also learned that most of Bratislava's Jews were killed during the Holocaust and there was only a very small Jewish community that still existed there.

 

As the boat pulled up to Bratislava, I could see an array of unattractive communist style buildings and then a beautiful castle on hill above the old town which dominates the city (Photo # 1).  As I got off, I meandered around Hviezdoslav Square with its upscale cobblestone streets, and the elegantly restored Radisson Blue Carlton Hotel, opposite the prestigious Opera House in the historic centre of town.  From there l began asking locals if they knew where Heydukova street was. It reminded me of being in Israel where people will point you in a direction and tell you to ask someone else once you are further in.  After trying to follow the series of directions I was receiving, I realized I had veered off from the historic nicer looking part of town, to what was far less upscale. After a while I could tell I essentially was lost and had gotten to an area that felt like it belonged more to the Soviet Union than the West. 

 

There I came upon a young man and asked him if he could find Heydukova street. He asked me what I was looking for on the street. I told him I was looking for the synagogue, but it wasn't something he knew about. He began searching on a map on his iphone trying to figure out where the street was. He was 25, his name was Lucas, and after a few minutes of searching for the street, I said, "Lucas, if you can find this synagogue for me, I will buy you lunch in the historic part of town, because I can see I'll never find it, by myself. And before you know it I'll have to get back on the boat to Vienna". Lucas laughed and said it was a deal. He liked the idea of being able to practice his English and of showing around, a tourist who knew virtually nothing about his city and its history. I was amazed that he had never once in his life been to Vienna, a city far grander than Bratislava, even though it was only one hour away by boat. He said that though he had never been to Vienna, he was sure that people from Bratislava were the ones who had been the workers who built Vienna, when they were both part of the Habsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire

 

I followed Lucas until he found Heydukova street, and I remember that the street had a sewer smell to it. Sure enough we came upon the Orthodox synagogue there with its seven pillared colonnade facing the street, but it was closed. (See photo of the outside of the synagogue.) It was constructed by a Jewish architect in 1923-1926 with contemporary Cubist details, decades after restrictions requiring to Jews to live in a ghetto were lifted enabling them to settle throughout the city. When the synagogue was built there were no apartments on the street, which there are now.  The synagogue, an active Jewish house of worship, and a new Bratislava Jewish Community Museum opened there in 2012, but the Museum was also closed.

 

I figured that given I had asked to see the synagogue Lucas would have likely realized I was Jewish, but that wasn't the case. Lucas now took me around the old city of Bratislava, with its cobbled streets, fountains, historic monuments, statues, hidden alleyways, cozy squares, colourfully painted buildings, shops, outdoor cafes, and churches. He pointed out the Communist-era edifice that blocks the view of the National Gallery’s elegant arches, saying he didn't like it at all. He spoke of the fact that Slovakia had only received its independence "just over 20 years ago" in 1993 after the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia, and it was only then that Bratislava emerged out of the Communist era. He pointed out a drab Soviet style building, "That used to be the KGB headquarters", a place to stay away from. His commentary was captivating.  

 

Somewhere along the way, when Lucas learned that my last name was Spivak, he said "That's a Slovakian name. Your family could be from here." I replied that I thought the name was from Russia.  (In my head I began imagining the title I would give to this article: Is Spivak a Slovak?  or "Is there a Slovak in Spivak? or "Spivak in Capital of Slovak", or Spivakia in Slovakia!) 

 

In the old town, we came upon a restaurant that had a large sculpture of a pig outside of it, and there was a man playing a violin. I immediately recognized the tune he was playing as being the same tune we sing in Hebrew for "Heyveinu Shalom Alechem" which I diligently sang for years at Camp Massad. I stopped and blurted out rather spontaneously that I recognized the tune. Lucas asked how I knew it and I explained that I knew words to it in Hebrew. It was then that I told him I was Jewish. He didn't say anything until we sat down at an outdoor cafe to order some "Kufola", which is a Slovakian pop drink that tasted to me like a sweeter version of Coca Cola.

 

"I have never met a Jew before," Lucas said. 

 

"Well then it's meant to be that you meet me," I replied.  I added that it wasn't surprising to me that he had never met a Jew since most Jews from Bratislava had been murdered in the Holocaust. (Prior to the Holocaust in 1930, Jews constituted some 12% of the population of Bratislava, with over 15,000 Jews living in the city. Bratislava then was a Jewish religious and political center, with the renowned Pressburg Yeshiva as well as the Zionist Organization of Slovakia.) 

 

Now that Lucas knew that I was a Jew, he asked me if I wanted to see the old the Jewish ghetto area, where historically Jews were required to live in Bratislava. Of course, I wanted to.

 

The Jewish ghetto had been formed in 1599 when Jews were required to settle in a narrow zone between the Bratislava castle hill and the old city fortifications, and not in the town proper. This area was called Jew Street, which was part of the area controlled by the Castle, and until 1840 it was the only place Jews were allowed to live. It was here that Lucas would take me. (In about 1291, Jews had been permitted to live within the walls of Bratislava's old city, and pay taxes directly to Bratislava's King, but later Jews were expelled from the city on several occasions, the last time in 1526. In 1599 when they were allowed to return, they were required to live in the ghetto.)

 

As we climbed uphill, Lucas pointed to a street sign that said "Zidovska" which means Jew Street in Slovak, ("Judengasse" in German) outside the old City walls, across from what appeared to be a church. From there it was only a short ways away from a gate to the Castle. Unfortunately, now only one building from Bratislava's former Jewish ghetto remains and it houses the Museum of Jewish culture, which I didn't see. 

 

The rest of the former Jewish ghetto on the Castle hill, as well as, the former Great Synagogue were torn down and no longer exist. Incredibly, the ghetto and synagogue weren't torn down by the Nazis or their Slovak allies, but rather were torn down under Communist rule in 1966 to make room for a highway and bridge. (This highway resulted in 226 historical buildings being torn down, but clearly the Jewish district suffered the most.)

 

Lucas showed me the location where the twin towered Moorish style Great Synagogue had been. (There is a shiny black wall with an engraving of a silhouette of the destroyed synagogue that was put up in 1996- see photo). I kept thinking that given that most of the synagogues in Germany, and Austria had been destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht, it was terribly unfortunate that Bratislava's gorgeous Great Synagogue had been torn down in the Communist era. Jews didn't seem to stand a chance in this part of the world. I couldn't help but think that a little Soviet anti-Semitism may have played a part in all of this. (I also read that some Slovaks think that the Communists were envious of Slovak's cultural past, and as a result they decided to tear down much of the Bratislava's Old Town near the Castle in favour of reconstruction.)

 

Lucas pointed to an ugly area under the bridge where buses now were. "That was also part of the old Jewish area," he said.  

 

In a square near the wall with the silhouette of the Great Synagogue there was a Holocaust memorial constructed in 1996 which includes a metal piece and an engraving of the word "Remember" in Hebrew and in Slovak. Unfortunately, there is nothing to say what should be remembered! A sign or plaque with some explanation is needed.  The site is confusing since on seeing the square and the memorial, you would think that the Great Synagogue was destroyed during the Nazi period, when in fact it was torn down much later under the Communist era. (Apparently, the plot of the former synagogue is owned by the Bratislava Municipality, which leases the site for an annual symbolic fee to the Museum of Jewish Culture which maintains the memorial.) No one had put stones on the memorial when I saw it. 

 

From there Lucas and I went back to the historic town centre, the area that had received a face lift, across from the Radisson Blue Carlton Hotel. There, I treated him for dinner, thanking him for everything he had shown me. 

 

I got back to the dock where the boats were and Lucas said that given my description of Vienna he now would make a point of going to see it, probably by train. 

 

I waved goodbye to him and as I left Bratislava, I wondered if Lucas would ever meet another Jew.

 

(This video from 1966  shows footage of the synagogue before its destruction.)

 

 
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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.


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