May 31, 2012
A buried cemetery . Old Jewish Cemetery of Pressburg
We are waiting outside. The wind is whipping our faces and nothing can stop it from penetrating closely tight coats. The sky is dark and does not promise any sun that day. We are trying to reach the Jewish Cemetery in Bratislava.
‘Please come inside, there will be less noise. We are under the Old Jewish Cemetery of Pressburg. The Jews in Bratislava have spoken mostly German, that is why we use the German name for the city’ says Juraj Kohlmann, who guides us through a pathway leading towards a large concrete structure. Kohlmann is here on behalf on the Bratislava Jewish Religious Community. The place we see is a certain kind of monument and a part of the entrance at the same time. Finally, the wind stops blowing. It becomes absurdly silent and one can smell how different the air is. From now on, we will be going only downstairs.
The space that is used for the current graveyard is not large. It can be compared with the space of a large living room. The floor is not flat, the walls have been carved perfunctorily. Lack of time invested? Lack of care? Both? ‘The cemetery has been used for two hundred years and more than 6000 people have been buried there between 1640 and 1840. There have been more than 6000 graves’. Looking at the microscopic space of the current burial site it sounds astounding. The graves have been stacked in layers. ‘The earth on the grave cannot be touched, then how can we bury two persons in one grave?’ asks Kohlmann. The solution that has been found was to remove the gravestones and cover the existing cemetery with a 1,5 meter thick layer of soil. In this way the space already doubled. ‘At that time Jews could not buy any land, they must have been using what they had’.
Years have passed and the cemetery became full again, nobody could use it. This could be the end of the story and we would visit just another forgotten necropolis that is barely recognisable as Jewish. The fate of the Bratislava’s cemetery has been different. In 1942 it had been covered with soil again, as this area was thought to be the flooded area of Danube. One more time, the burial site disappeared. In the same period, the most horrible period for the Slovak Jews, more than 67,000 people had been transported to the Nazi camps in Poland. In 1943 a large part of the cemetery had been demolished due to Jozef Tiso’s (a Catholic priest and anti-Semitic politician all at once) plan to rebuild that part of the city by constructing a tram line in the middle of the burial site. The Jewish community managed to accomplish an incredible task: they have moved the graves and only 23 of them remained in the original place on the left bank of Danube. Those were the graves of the big rabbis. ‘Around the tombs we have built a concrete bunker to preserve them’. Further works have been carried out in the 1990’ so the cemetery has its current shape.
The light is dimmed. Wrinkles on Kohlmann’s face are illuminated when he stands on the stairs talking about the people who are buried at the site. The most important is Chatam Sofer (also known as Hatam Sofer or Moses Schreiber). His story is worth a book that still has not been written. For now, just the cemetery is known as Chatam Sofer Memorial. The rabbi’s grave is majestically located, in an obvious way the most important. Kohlmann seems to know all the peculiarities of the people who are buried here. They do not seem to be dead, in his talk they are alive once again, walking around the yeshiva established by Sofer and enjoying the slow pace of the city. This is a reality that does not exist any more, but is preserved in the oral history.
Currently in Slovakia there are over 600 Jewish cemeteries. Unfortunately many of them have been vandalized or just forgotten. They are disappearing almost every day.