The capital of Slovakia may best be described as tired. Whereas Prague in the Czech Republic – stitched together with Slovakia for 74 years, save for the Nazi period – is Bohemian hip, Bratislava looks Soviet-era grim, with blocky grey buildings and no shortage of graffiti.
Bratislava was included on our recent “Romantic Danube Jewish Heritage Tour” boat cruise, and some passengers were told by the cruise director that the city could be skipped. Apparently, there’s not much Jewish to see here, so the on-board gossip went.
Those who took the excursion anyway were not disappointed.
There are two major sites to see, and one is memorable.
The first is the Slovak Holocaust Memorial, located in the centre of Bratislava’s Old Town, on the site of the former Rybné Square synagogue, demolished in 1967.
“It survived World War II but not communism,” says our plainly anti-communist guide.
Erected in 1996 by the federal government to commemorate the country’s roughly 75,000 Holocaust victims, it consists of two facing black walls with the silhouette of the destroyed synagogue, and is topped by a Star of David serving as a kind of shield. The word “remember” is etched into the granite base in Slovak and Hebrew.
I waited for our guide to remember Slovakia’s role in the Holocaust. She didn’t.
Slovakia seceded from what was then called Czechoslovakia in March 1939 and became a Nazi puppet under the leadership of the arch-fascist and anti-Semitic Josef Tiso, a Catholic priest. The country was the first Axis partner to consent to the deportation of its 90,000 Jews.
Between March and October 1942, Slovak gendarmes, military personnel and members of the feared Hlinka Guard rounded up some 58,000 Jews, put them in labour and concentration camps, and then turned them over to German authorities, who transported them to Auschwitz and other death mills.
That’s important because it puts Slovakia in the odious company of those countries in which Jews were handed over to the Nazis from areas without any German occupation.
That was the situation until 1944, when the Nazis marched in to quell an uprising against Tiso. A further 13,000 Jews were then deported. But the majority of Slovak Jews were hunted down by fellow Slovaks.
It’s nothing to be proud of, but on our tour, it’s not mentioned.
Now home to about 800 Jews, Bratislava was once a great Jewish centre. The tour’s highlight confirms that.
The sign outside the Chatam Sofer Memorial reminds the visitor that it is a sacred space. The entrance, a door inside a grey box at the end of a long ramp, is innocuous enough. But down a flight of stairs, in a well-lit mausoleum, one finds 23 graves, including that of Bratislava’s most famous rabbi, Moses Schreiber, who died in 1839. A towering figure in his day, he was known as the Chatam Sofer, the Seal of the Scribe.
This not a museum, we are told, but a hallowed graveyard – the sole remaining part of a centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943 when a raised roadway and tunnel were constructed. Fearing a curse if the rabbis’ graves were demolished, pro-Nazi authorities (perhaps bribed) permitted only the most important section, the resting places of the prominent rabbis and scholars, to be preserved as an entombed shrine. Today, it attracts many Jewish pilgrims.
You may feel some spooky rumbling. There’s a tram stop just above.