About 300 Jewish tombstones dating from the Baroque era have been recently discovered in the urban jungle below Bratislava Castle. Near one of the cemeteries of the Slovak capital, the stones were unexpectedly found more than 80 years after its supposed disappearance.
It’s like we found treasures. Invaluable historical values that we believed were long gone or stolen.
— Tomas Stern, President of the Jewish Community of Bratislava, told us on the phone.
It was posted on the Facebook page of a historic-research society that in February this year a group of experts began weeding, cutting down trees and removing bushes in a deserted area not far from Bratislava’s Danube shore with the hope that maybe a few dozen old tombstones will b found.
It was an unexpected miracle that ten times more tombstones — about 300 — than expected were found.
As the president recalled, he first heard about 30 years ago that there may still be hundreds of years old tombstones hidden by nature in one of the city’s central locations, on a rocky hillside below the castle, exactly where it was recently found.
This may be due to the confiscation of the centrally located Jewish cemetery by the pro-Nazi Slovak state during World War II, and in 1942-43 a road construction – a tram tunnel under the castle hill – was planned. The graveyard at the time was almost completely destroyed. Most of those buried were exhumed and transported to another Jewish cemetery.
Stern heard 30 years ago from a community member at the time that there might still be tombstones buried somewhere in the area, but then he found no companions to embark on the research. Now, as president of the local Jewish community since 2016, and co-owner of a successful private medical institute, it seemed a more successful attempt.
We started in mid-February, with serious, professional plant cutting equipment. We work with a team of barely 10 people on site, several times a week, and after the initial shocking surprise, we already have digitalized almost 200 tombstones.
— he tells the details.
Among the tombstones, which can be traced back to the very end of the 1600s, — much of the Baroque era — several individuals could already be identified who were dominant figures in the social, economic, and cultural life of the age. The tombstones of dozens of bankers, scholars, merchants, and teachers began to be taken care of — rabbi Pollack and one of the Oppenheimer descendants were pointed out by the president.
According to Stern, the 300 tombstones they found may also be a special reminder of the Jewish history of Vienna and Budapest, as the three cities were prominent sites of the Habsburg ruling family.
It logically follows that these are also extremely important memories for Hungarian Jewish history research. This is also the view of President Stern, who is now trying to fix the tombstones with his international team, including Daniel Polakovic, an expert at the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Like a puzzle, we try to assemble the broken stones
— says Stern, who, together with his community and other foreign supporters, has started advertising on various digital channels that
they need about 20-30 thousand euros for a complete restoration. This would cover being able to put the tombstones together from the many thousands of tiny pieces and also systematizing the foundings with a complete digitization.
After rescuing the stones, which have often rotted and completely eroded, the president would certainly like two things: to create a digital, accessible research system, and a lapidarium that would make them accessible over time, thus developing further the city’s rich Jewish heritage tourist offer.
As is well known, Rabbi Chatam Sofer, one of the greatest spiritual leaders of the 19th century, who had a lasting impact on Hungarian Jewish life, was buried in the city. The Frankfurt-born teacher became chief rabbi of Bratislava in 1806 and led the congregation in Bratislava until his death in 1839. The rabbinical trainer he founded had thousands of Hungarian and foreign students during its entire operation.
Chatam Sofer also buried in the same cemetery from which the tombstones now found come. However, recognizing his authority in 1942-43, the rabbi’s tomb and the part in its immediate vicinity were left untouched during the road construction work. The surviving tombs were covered with concrete slabs after the war: with 23 tombs and 41 separate tombstones, it now serves as a mausoleum-like memorial site and also a place of pilgrimage for international Jewry.
Regarding the find, we contacted Orthodox Rabbi of Bratislava, Baruch Myers, who told us: he had heard about the tombstones found shortly before the Passover holidays, and he himself considers it a wonderful and special development.
He is confident that those concerned will find the resources for full archiving as soon as possible and the best way to preserve the sacred memories of the city in a worthy way.
If you would like to help the caregivers of the unique Bratislava find, the NGO belonging to the city community will accept your donations at the following location:
Občianske združenie (NGO) Kehila Bratislava, Kozia 18, 814 47 Bratislava, Slovakia. Bank account: SK94 1100 0000 0029 4804 8905, SWIFT: TATRSKBX , Bank address: Tatra Banka, a.s. , Hodzovo namestie 3, 811 06 Bratislava, [email protected]