January 9, 2003
Jewish History Draws in Bratislava
Once we declared here that we would visit Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, we expected people to say, "How quaint! How interesting! What an unusual place to visit." Instead, we invariably heard, "Why Bratislava?" And in Prague, when we announced our next stop, the reaction was, "Why do you want to go there?" Amazingly, even in beautiful Bratislava itself, residents asked in wonder and bemusement, with no hint of being impolite: "Why would you want to come here?"
Folks in Bratislava are not used to tourists. It is not, as they say in the travel trade, a "destination." No tourist buses crowd the streets like in Prague. No Israelis swarm here. And even if tourists come, we were told, they are ultra-Orthodox Jewish tourists visiting Budapest who take a taxi to Bratislava for a quick visit to the tomb of the revered early 19th century sage Rabbi Moshe Sofer (the Chatam Sofer), and then scoot back to Budapest without so much as a backward glance.
Which is too bad, for Bratislava is a lovely place to behold -- despite a long-time resident's semi-jocular remark: "It's a pleasant town to live in, but not to visit."
Known also as Pressburg, Bratislava has a special place in Jewish history. Jews have been connected to this city for more than 800 years, and may even have been here (like in Budapest) with the Roman legions. Since the 1700s it has been an important center for organized Jewish life. Hebrew and Yiddish book printing thrived -- always a mark of a community's importance. In the 100 years between 1830 and 1930, about 340 Jewish books appeared, as well as Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers and magazines.
In 1940, nearly 15,000 Jews lived in Bratislava, about 12 percent of the general population. Services were held in three shuls and in 14 Chasidic shtibls (prayer rooms). During World War II, few of the Bratislava Jews survived the combination of German racial laws and Slovak state anti-Semitism, sponsored by the fascist leader/priest, Father Tiso, and other church leaders who cooperated with the Germans. Of the 90,000 Jews in pre-War Slovakia, only 15,000 survived.
In 1947, the Jewish population in Bratislava was 7,000, bolstered by survivors who made their way to the capital from outlying towns and villages where Jewish life was not reconstituted after the war. During the following years, several thousand Jews went to Israel, so by 1969, the population had declined to 1,500. Today, 720 Jews are registered in the Jewish community.
An active synagogue functions under the leadership of a bright, energetic, 38-year-old American Chabad rabbi, Baruch Myers, who is secularly educated (a rarity among Chabadniks, for Lubavitch discourages non-Jewish higher education). The synagogue is part of the modern communal offices complex, and consists of a large, well-lit room, divided partly by a partition to create a woman's gallery. The kehilla's kosher kitchen serves meals to the elderly for less than $1. The community also runs a small kindergarten, but admits only children who are halachically Jewish (born of a Jewish mother).
Bratislava's grand synagogue, built in 1926 in the elaborate 19th century style, with six great white columns, is the only pre-World War II shul still standing in the city. But this imposing edifice, with a beautiful interior, is rarely used nowadays.
At Sabbath services we noticed a mixture of older men, all Holocaust survivors, middle-aged men, and a couple of young adults, about 15-20 in all. All the pain of the Jewish past is borne by these old men. You look around the shul and see, even more than a half-century later, the suffering etched into their faces. At one table, a man in his late 70s looks sadly out the window. Who is he remembering? Another snoozes during the davening, a third man is missing an arm. Some of the middle-aged men sit, but do not participate. Two or three younger men with obviously Slavic faces are either converts or on their way to conversion. No teenagers were present; nor did we see any father-son duos, which is always the hallmark of Jewish continuity.
The only youngster in shul, of any age, was the rabbi's 6-year-old son, who sat in the hollow of the prayer stand behind which his father was giving the sermon in Slovak. (Yes, Myers took the trouble to learn and master the local language.) No old women were seen in shul, but there were two of college age, one a Jewish teacher from South Africa, the other a gentile from Bratislava who, after working for a Jewish camp, decided to convert.
Like in America, the intermarriage rate is 50 percent. A curious fact: the assimilated Jews in prewar Bratislava married Jews -- but the postwar Jewish children intermarry. Still, Myers has performed several marriages during the past few years.
We stayed at the simply appointed, comfortable, community-owned hotel, the Chez David. As spare as its rooms are, so impressive is its kosher restaurant, which is patronized mostly by local Slovaks. The talented and imaginative chef serves meals that are not only delicious, but artistically presented; they could be photographed for Gourmet magazine. The Chez David is ideally located, a few minutes away from the historic Old Town and a short walk from the synagogue.
In the Old Town, accompanied by the president of the Jewish community, Peter Salner, we noticed a Cafe Mikva. But he told us that neither the owners nor the patrons know what a mikvah is. It is so named because an old mikvah used to be located on that street. The Old Town, with narrow cobblestone streets and a large, imposing square, is an esthetic entity, with fine old buildings, a market on one side, and upscale shops and an elegant cafe on the other. Posters are seen everywhere advertising the many concerts, plays and folklore evenings available almost nightly in Bratislava. A short walk from the Old Town stands a rather large memorial to the Jews killed during the Holocaust.
The dollar in Slovakia makes everything rather inexpensive. The rabbi and members of the community are warm and welcoming. When we arrived at Chez David, Salner was waiting for us to show us around; he returned later that evening to escort us to the shul. And once we met the rabbi, he immediately invited us to his house for the Sabbath meals.
To get to Bratislava we flew with the reliable and efficient British Airways to Vienna. Once there, we used our Eurail Flexipass obtained in the United States. Not only do the passes save you money -- more important, they save you the hassle and waste of time in long lines at ticket counters.
So the next time anyone asks you, "Why Bratislava?" tell them it's a beautiful town in the heart of Europe, with a rich Jewish past.
Curt Leviant's most recent book is the two-novella collection "Ladies and Gentleman, the Original Music of the Hebrew Alphabet and Weekend in Mustara" (University of Wisconsin Press, 2002). Erika Pfeifer Leviant has contributed travel articles and essays on Jewish art to various publications.