The Orthodox Synagogue and Holocaust monument in Prešov
Photos by James Thomson
Jews once formed more than 4 percent of Slovakia's population, and a fifth of some Slovak towns. During World War II more than half of them, 70,000 people, were deported from Nazi-allied Slovakia to Nazi concentration camps, where most were killed.
The majority of deportees (about 59,000) were sent by the Slovak authorities in 1942 – indeed it has since emerged that Slovakia paid Nazi Germany 500 Reichsmarks per person to take them. The deportations stopped in the autumn of 1942, but resumed - with enthusiastic assistance from paramilitary political groups such as the Hlinka Guard - after Nazi forces occupied Slovakia following the Slovak National Uprising in the later summer of 1944. Another 10,000-12,000 Jews were deported before the Nazis retreated.
In addition to the 70,000, another 35,000 Jews were deported from parts of Slovakia occupied during the war by Hungary.
Many of those who survived left (often for Israel) after the war and just 3,000 now live here, the only significant communities being in Bratislava and Košice .
Despite the deportations, the wartime government's anti-Semitic policies and the widespread theft of Jewish properties, a remarkable number of synagogues still stand as testament to the cultural and economic strength of the pre-war community.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, many more Slovak synagogues were destroyed after the war rather than during it, by the communist authorities pursuing what Maroš Borský, the author of a book documenting all of Slovakia's extant communal Jewish architecture*, calls "megalomaniac building enterprises".
The Chatam Sofer Memorial in Bratislava.
Courtesy of the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center
Most of the Jewish architecture of Bratislava's Old Town, for instance, was bulldozed in the 1960s to make way for the New Bridge and its approach roads. The lost buildings included an imposing Moorish-style synagogue which once stood on Rybné Námestie, close to St Martin's Cathedral. A Holocaust memorial, including a stone etching of the lost synagogue, now stands in its place.
Also torn down (with the exception of two houses) were the buildings on nearby Židovská (formerly Judengasse, or Jewish Street) which once formed the main thoroughfare of mediaeval Pressburg's Jewish ghetto.
One of the surviving buildings on the street, at number 17, is now occupied by the Museum of Jewish Culture.
The museum includes an impressive range of Judaica, including some very rare and unusual pieces of eighteenth-century Haban pottery (see 'A little bit different', in this section) made for a local Jewish burial brotherhood.
There is also a room documenting the Holocaust in Slovakia, including a copy of a chilling 1943 Transport Ministry memo which matter-of-factly details the costs associated with deporting Jews to Germany the previous year. All of the exhibits are labelled in English.
Malacky’s former synagogue, designed by Wilhelm Stiassny in the Moorish style.
Photos by James Thomson
Bratislava was in fact one of the most important centres of Jewish learning in Europe during the nineteenth century. This was largely down to one man: Rabbi Moshe Schrieber, also known as the Chatam Sofer. Strictly Orthodox, in 1806 he established a yeshiva (an institute for the study of the Talmud and other Jewish texts) which presented a traditionalist response to the modernising trends then emerging among European Jewry.
He is still revered by Orthodox Jews who come to pray at his memorial grave near the western entrance to the tram tunnel under the castle hill. This was once the site of Bratislava's main Jewish cemetery, which was destroyed in 1943 (to build the tunnel). Only Sofer's tomb and 22 other graves surrounding it were preserved, sealed in concrete.
The present unique underground memorial, which was built in 2000-2002, conforms to the demanding requirements of Halakhah (Jewish law) while also being a striking piece of modern architecture. It also means that a common sight in the 1990s - of Orthodox Jews apparently praying at a city tram stop (which was the entrance to the tomb) - has now disappeared.
In order to preserve and promote this heritage, a local non-profit group, the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center, recently established the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route which connects the most important Jewish monuments in Slovakia, including the Chatam Sofer Memorial and the Museum of Jewish Culture (see box).
The former synagogue in Trenčín.
Photos by James Thomson
In addition to those on the route, many Slovak towns have former synagogues, some of which are now being put to alternative uses but whose diverse architectural styles mean that they remain local landmarks. Those in Lučenec, Trenčín, Žilina, Liptovský Mikuláš and in the small town of Vrbové, in Trnava Region, are particularly notable (and each quite different).
* Synagogue Architecture in Slovakia: Memorial Landscape of a Lost Community by Maroš Borský (Bratislava; Menorah Foundation; 2007)