Slovakia is beginning to discover its Jewish heritage

Slovakia is beginning to discover its Jewish heritage

Slovakia is beginning to discover its Jewish heritage

Bratislava County Municipality bought it for one euro, spent more than two million on the synagogue of the small town Senec, which was refurbished just in recent days. A joyful trend in Slovakia: Jewish heritage is taking care of in more and more places.

A few days ago, the news appeared on a Hungarian-language Slovak news portal: „The Synagogue of Senec has regained its old face”.

My great-grandfather was buried in Senec. Obviously, that’s why I resonated more on the report, which firstly contains nothing extraordinary.

My great-grandfather could have been considered one of the “lucky ones” with his whole family, because — after „side trips” to Strasshof, Bergen-Belsen and Terezin — they were released from an Austrian labour camp together. However, on the way home typhus ended his life, so his body had to be taken off the train. That is how his final destination became the town of Senec, just barely 15 miles from Bratislava.

I know from family stories that years later my grandparents boarded a train in Budapest with a peculiar piece of tombstone. This is how they wanted to pay the last respect to him in the Czechoslovak spa town. I heard about Senec last time in about five years ago. My dad drove there. Unused and retired tourguides are just like that: they would go whenever they could.

A certain Gábor Agárdy joined my father in Senec. This kind man, whom the mentioned article referes as a local patriot, took him to an untidy stone jungle, the local Jewish cemetery. There, however, nothing was found, though the man was able to show a photo of the tomb.

We also had this photo at home. One of the most vivid memories of my childhood is this photograph. It was at my great-grandmother’s room in our apartment. A place I only liked to visit as a child because of two things: expecting the last drops of her delicious egg liqueur, and blowing the candle on Friday night out of some kind of mischief. In the picture there was the same name as my father’s name, and it always caused me a special shiver.

What has the name engraved on the grave got to do with the man who lives with us and my father…?

In the article already quoted, a local government representative revealed that she had long argued that it would be appropriate to restore one of the stigmas of downtown, the battered-worn synagogue. Out of curiosity, I called Gabriella Németh, a politician of the Party of the Hungarian Community, who had worked as the Vice-President of the Bratislava County Municipality for many years. The lady was willing to tell me about her connections to the story. My basic question could not have been other:

who and why did they do anything with this synagogue, which lost its function almost 80 years ago?

She said back in 2009 the political climate “not had been willing to participate” in this project. The county government left the crumbling building orphan. In the last decade, however, they have managed to generate significant change through local collaboration, recognizing the simple fact that perhaps building something in the middle of the city could be beneficial for all.

Regarding Gabriella Németh’s personal commitment, she recalled two memories of her childhood:

On my way home from school we went past the synagogue every day, first I was captured by the ruined building and its mystery. Later learned from my mother that her best girlfriend had been deported and never came back to town.

The synagogue in Senec, decorated with Art Nouveau and Oriental elements, was built in 1825. At that time, there was still a thriving Jewish life there. More than 10 percent of the settlement was Jewish, in the 19th century. In the middle of the 19th century, 430 people of Jewish origin lived in the town of three thousand. Between 1939 and 1944, life for local Jews were made impossible and gradually they had been effectively liquidated. In 1945 the Jewish community in the city had ceased to exist.

We don’t really know about Jews nowadays either, but there was an agreement with the national Jewish community in Bratislava that the county government would buy the building for one euro and renovate it from its own resources. Together with the further development plan, this now exceeds two million euros. This is an important station.

In addition to tidying up the exterior structure, it is planned to open the building to visitors later this year. For now, it will be called the Synagogue of Senec, but instead of a religious space, they would like to run a multifunctional cultural center.

A permanent local Jewish history exhibition will be set up under the auspices of the Jewish Museum in Bratislava. The exhibition will be open to the public free of charge, and guests of the synagogue will also be able to take possession of the downtown building as a new community event center.

Regarding the city’s Jewish cemetery, Gabriella Németh said that the municipality cannot invest public money in private ownership, but keeps the public space around it in order. They wish there were more dignified conditions in the graveyard as well. Recently, the Slovak Jewish Community rebuilt the brick wall fence around it.

Speaking of the development of Senec-synagogue, I wondered what they thought of all this in Komárom, where the largest number of Hungarian Jewish community live in Slovakia. One of the enthusiastic followers of the The Origin Living in Me, Tamás Novák, the vice-president of the Komárom Jewish Community, explained:

In Slovakia, the restoration of 10 “ruined” synagogues is underway or has begun in the last few years. The same number of cemeteries are being rehabilitated.

In the last six years, the synagogues of Trnava, Malacky, Breznóbánya, Žilina, Liptovský Mikuláš, Bardejov and Losonc have been renovated, but major renovations are also underway in Šurany and Bytča. The renovated buildings are primarily for cultural purposes, although there are some that have been converted into cafes.

Tamás Novák also provided a heartwarming curiosity:

in several cities, the preservation of Jewish heritage could take place as a result of civic cooperation and civic donations.

This was also the case in the small town of Vrbové near Piestany and in Bytča. In both places, local people donated generously to prayer houses. In addition, our Slovak neighbors have made a commitment from an EU financial fund to rehabilitate more places from a list of 33 abandoned or destroyed synagogues in the coming years.

I can only hope that the pandemic will not stand in the way of our team recording these noble efforts on the ground. And then it would be so very appropriate to find my great-grandfather’s grave one day.

Robert Wallenstein

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