Ghosts of Communism


Two weeks ago, my wife, Ann, and I completed our first trip to the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Everywhere we went, our local guides proudly pointed out the progress that has been made since the fall of communism, and we could readily see for ourselves the affluence, elegance and style that are on display in the places that the tourists like to visit.

But we also saw the bullet holes and shell damage that have been left unrepaired to memorialize the ravages of World War II, and we were reminded of the price that the Czechs, Slovaks and Hungarians paid when they defied the will of their Soviet masters in the 1950s and ’60s. In Bratislava, for example, we saw one heroic monument that honored the Red Army as the liberator of Czechoslovakia in 1945, and another monument that honored three Slovak victims of Soviet gunfire during the uprising known as the Prague Spring in 1968. Indeed, we always detected a certain kind of emotional scar tissue in the guides themselves, many of whom are survivors of one or both of these world-historical eras.

It is this same layered complexity that Yale historian Marci Shore has succeeded in bringing to life in the pages of “The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” (Crown, $27), a courageous and imaginative effort to measure how the Nazi and Soviet regimes impacted the private lives of real men and women.

“All historical drama is acted through the lives of individuals,” she announces. “The eclipsing of private space was among totalitarianism’s deepest violations. In this way the totalitarian state was unlikely its merely authoritarian or monarchical predecessors: it distinguished itself — it made itself — by caring what lovers said in bed.”

Here is a surprising and even revolutionary way to write history. To be sure, historians have debated in what ways Nazi and Soviet atrocities were qualitatively different from both earlier and later outrages, but the conversation has usually focused upon the origins, mechanics and goals of mass deportation, mass imprisonment and mass murder. Shore, by contrast, focuses on the intimate emotions and inner emotions of the human beings who are the raw material of history.

Consider, for example, the fate of a young Czech woman named Jarmila. She was the youngest person to sign Charter 77, the manifesto of the liberation movement in Czechoslovakia, but she did so against the will of her parents, who were fearful that it would attract the ungentle attention of the secret police to the rest of the family. “Eventually they denounced her to the secret police,” Shore reports, “and so began a long series of arrests, detentions, interrogations, beatings.” She was forced to go into hiding at her grandmother’s home: “I love her,” the grandmother later told Shore, “she’s my sunshine.” But the whole family understood and accepted that denunciation of a child was a survival strategy under the communist regime.

When Shore sees anti-Semitic graffiti and evidence of criminal violence in Warsaw, she is offered an explanation by a Polish graduate student called Mikolaj: “Envy, insanity, racism and hooliganism,” he muses, “the pillars of Polish reality.” Yet she also allows us to understand the contemporary Poles are put off by Jewish tourists who come only to see the death camps: “They didn’t know about the heroic Polish underground,” Shore explains. “They didn’t know that Poles had also died in Auschwitz. They didn’t want to know.”

Not many Jews remain in Poland, of course, but the precious remnant is marked in strange ways. A woman named Tamara weeps over the fact that she was condemned to grow up under communism because her grandfather refused to make aliyah after the war ended. “She could not escape from this moment of her grandfather’s refusal to cross the border, this moment of decision, the moment when her life might have been a different one,” Shore writes. “She could not forgive her grandfather for having misunderstood History, for having made the wrong choice — and so, having thrown Tamar from the current of History.” 

“A Taste of Ashes” is rich with incident, recollection and conversation, a memoir of the author’s long endeavor to understand in human terms the ideas and events that are the raw material of intellectual history. Every page is alive with face-to-face encounters between Shore and her friends and colleagues. Ultimately, however, a dark fatalism suffuses the whole effort, and the hard truth is captured in a conundrum that she hears from a man who once edited a prominent Yiddish newspaper in Warsaw: “You already know too much,” Chaim Finkelstein told her, “too much and not enough, and nothing.”

I carried a copy of “The Double Eagle” by Stephen Brooks on my recent travels in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, a travel memoir that was written shortly before the fall of communism and has something in common with “The Taste of Ashes.” Next time, however, it will be Shore’s book in my carry-on, a masterpiece that will enrich the experience of being there precisely because the author looks both forward and backward in time, and because she offers a glimpse of history as seen through the eyes of the people who lived it.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His latest book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris” (W.W. Norton/Liveright), published in 2013 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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.

For information on the Eurail Flexipass, call (888)
342-7245; for information on Bratislava, visit “>www.chaverim.sk or