Neo-Nazi party wins seats in Slovakia parliament for first time

 A neo-Nazi party in Slovakia won seats in the nation’s parliament for the first time.

In the results of Saturday’s national elections announced Sunday, the People’s Party-Our Slovakia garnered 8 percent of the vote, three times more than expected, which is equal to 14 seats. The country’s parliament, the National Council, has 150 members.

Party chairman Marian Kotleba had led the neo-Nazi Slovak Togetherness-National Party, a banned party that organized anti-Roma rallies and was sympathetic to the Slovak Nazi puppet state during World War II, The Associated Press reported.

“We have elected a fascist to parliament,” Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak said of Kotleba, who has referred to NATO as a “criminal organization” and spoken out against the United States, the European Union and immigrants.

The Smer-Social Democracy Party of Prime Minister Robert Fico, which ran on an anti-migrant platform, took 28.3 percent of the vote, or 49 seats, which will require the party to form a coalition. In the previous election, in 2012, Smer took 44.4 percent of the vote, or 83 seats, and was not required to form a coalition.

In July, Slovakia assumes the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Survivor: Gabriella Karin

Gabriella Karin (then Foldes) tightly clasped her Uncle Sandor’s waist as she traveled on the back of his bicycle along the back roads of Slovakia from Malzenice to Bratislava, a 40-mile journey. It was the summer of 1942, and the 11-year-old had been visiting her grandmother, who was living with a Christian family in Malzenice, when she became ill and needed to return home. Hours later, when the two arrived in Bratislava’s town center, Gabriella was shocked to see swarms of uniformed soldiers and police officers, as well as townspeople, crowding the streets. She and her uncle disembarked and began making their way to her father’s delicatessen, when a German soldier suddenly grabbed her. Gabriella’s uncle immediately took hold of her shoulders, yanking her free from the soldier’s grip. She dropped to the ground and began crawling through people’s legs, disappearing into the crowd and eventually reaching the delicatessen. “That was my most frightening experience,” she recalled. 

Gabriella was born Nov. 17, 1930, in Bratislava, then Czechoslovakia, to Arpad and Sari Foldes. 

Her maternal grandmother, Franciska Kulka, lived with them, caring for Gabriella while her parents worked at the delicatessen. “I really loved her,” Gabriella said. 

In March 1939, when Slovakia declared itself independent, persecutions of Jews increased and specific anti-Jewish measures were enacted.

Then, after World War II broke out Sept. 1, 1939, all Slovakian men were required to report to the army. Arpad promptly enlisted. But two weeks later, he and the other Jews were dismissed. “He was a proud Slovak. He was devastated,” Gabriella said. 

While Arpad was away, Sari felt unsafe and moved the family from their middle-class apartment to a one-room warehouse behind the delicatessen.

In fall 1941, when Gabriella could no longer attend school, her parents obtained false papers for her and sent her to the Ursuline convent school in Bratislava as a boarder. She didn’t see her parents during the school year and constantly worried about them, crying herself to sleep. Still, she was a good student. 

In June 1942, Gabriella’s mother brought her home, arranging for her to continue as a day student. During that summer, Gabriella traveled to Malzenice to visit her grandmother (who died of natural causes the following year).

Mass deportations of Jews began in March 1942. Sari, who worked with the Slovakian underground, received a daily list of families targeted for deportation each night and set off to warn the families. After Gabriella returned from Malzenice, she accompanied her mother. The visits were difficult. “You see them crying. And we knew they would not be there the next day,” Gabriella said. 

One night, five Slovak soldiers unexpectedly knocked on Gabriella’s family’s door,  each peeking in and then leaving. “I thought, ‘This is it,’ ” Gabriella said. A few minutes later, the building’s manager entered and explained that the soldiers had come by inquiring if any Jews lived in the building. He had told them there was one family, but they had been born Christian, which “made no sense,” Gabriella said. The Slovak soldiers had only wanted to see them.

In October 1942, Slovakia’s President Josef Tiso halted the deportations. A period of relative calm followed.

But by August 1944, Gabriella’s family was sleeping in an apartment owned by Karol Blanar, who was a lawyer and her aunt’s boyfriend and whose parents had hidden her grandmother. Gabriella’s aunt, two uncles and a family friend joined them in the one-bedroom apartment in the center of town. During the day, the adults worked.

Then, on Aug. 29, 1944, German soldiers entered Slovakia to quell an uprising by Slovakia’s resistance and instituted a new round of deportations. Gabriella’s parents, who learned the Nazis were looking for them, remained in the apartment. But the Germans never searched Karol’s apartment because, Gabriella later learned, the building’s bylaws specifically banned Jews from living there.

During the nine months of hiding, which Gabriella found oppressive, she spent 14 hours a day reading classic novels and history books. Occasionally she peered out through a tear in the black cardboard that covered the windows, and one day she glimpsed two Jewish girls she had known from the convent running from German soldiers, who chased them and pulled them into Nazi headquarters. 

By late March 1945, the Russians were bombing the city heavily. As the apartment building shook for seven days, Gabriella kept begging her father to go to the basement bomb shelter. Finally, it was time. As Gabriella headed down the staircase, a bomb whistled past their window, falling on the roof of the neighboring building and throwing Gabriella from side to side. The bomb didn’t explode, but a sharp piece of shrapnel flew in the window, landing two feet from Arpad.

The group joined some 100 people in the shelter. Six days later, they ventured upstairs. But the Russians now occupied the city, and two young soldiers came after Gabriella, who had returned to the apartment. Arpad told them to leave her alone, that she was only 10, but they ignored him. Gabriella’s uncle then appeared. He quickly assessed the situation and came back with 30 men from downstairs. The soldiers left. “My mother started to cry and couldn’t stop for days,” Gabriella said.

Six weeks later, the family returned to their apartment, finding all their belongings broken or stolen. The delicatessen was in similar condition, though Arpad retrieved an envelope with 500 korunas that he had hidden on a back shelf. The money bought them two weeks’ worth of groceries. 

Gabriella, who had lost no time academically because of all her reading, enrolled in a professional school for women’s occupations, earning a diploma in fashion design and business in just three years.

On Jan. 7, 1948, Gabriella met Frantisek (Feri) Lederer at a family party, and married him on Oct. 5, 1948. Soon after, the couple immigrated to Israel, arriving on Jan. 2, 1949. Gabriella’s parents followed two months later, and Feri and Arpad opened a machine shop, with Feri creating the first recycling machine in Israel.

Gabriella and Feri changed their surname to Karin, a name they liked, and Feri became Ofer just before their son, Rom, was born in September 1958. Two years later, the entire family moved to Los Angeles, arriving on Nov. 24, 1960.

Ofer worked in construction while Gabriella worked as a fashion designer until she retired, in 1992. Then, after just three weeks, desiring to do something different and three-dimensional, she began studying and making art professionally.

An exhibition of Gabriella’s sculptures is currently on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) through Jan. 23. The show also includes a documentary, “Gabriella,” by David Nonberg and James Geyer. 

In addition, Gabriella illustrated the book “Memories That Won’t Go Away: A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport,” written by Michele Gold and published in October 2014. 

Ofer died in 2013. Gabriella, now 84 and a grandmother of three, has been a speaker at LAMOTH since 2002 and a docent there since 2009. She has actively participated in Righteous Conversations — which connects students with survivors — almost since that organization’s founding in 2011, and this year she will accompany the Los Angeles March of the Living delegation for the fourth time.

Gabriella spent years searching for the family’s savior, Karol Blanar, who escaped from communist Slovakia in 1948. Finally, in 2001, she learned he had immigrated to the United States and died in Ohio in 1980. She nominated him posthumously to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, and he was accepted on Jan. 26, 2006. She also had a headstone carved for his unmarked grave in Columbus, Ohio, and traveled there in 2010 with her grandson to install it.

Whenever Gabriella speaks to school groups, she leaves them with this message: 

“Even if you had a hard time in your life, you can still be happy. It’s up to you, nobody else.”

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

The last generation

All my adult life, I have felt a burden to live more than one life. I am a child of survivors and a mourner of many who did not survive. In 1944, my grandparents and more than 700 others were murdered in a little-known massacre in Kremnicka, Slovakia. This, after Max and Alzbeta escaped the town in which they prospered for many years and hid in caves like animals to avoid capture. They had already lost three of their children in Auschwitz and lost track of the other three, one of whom was my father. They were betrayed, arrested and, on one cold foggy night, they were dragged from jail to a forest, where they were shot in the head by drunken Slovaks from the local town. They fell into their shallow tank-trench graves along with hundreds of other Jews, including 211 women and 58 children.

I am also a child of the ’60s, and in my soul I carry many natural and acquired beliefs from both my own religion and other Western and Eastern thought that enlightened us in those decades of abandon and experimentation. I respect the Christian concept of turning the other cheek, and Buddha’s teachings about surrendering oneself; I believe in karma and trying to live from my higher chakras. I try to be generous in my heart when it comes to forgiveness, and I am no stranger to prayer and other spiritual practice.

And yet, when I think of my grandparents on that cold night facing the last seconds of their shattered lives — all their dreams broken, their children murdered and lost, I am no longer a man who believes in anything, not even God himself. Those who exterminated our grandparents, uncles and siblings have left many of us with a crippling and burning fury in our hearts and minds. I am incapable of finding any religion or spiritual guidance that could budge me away from the pain and anger I feel when I think of the base, inhuman acts that have been perpetrated upon my people, my family. So, I have carried this wild, injured, vengeful animal inside of me for many years. This beast that was born of the terrors of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Dachau and the thousands of other killing fields where my relatives suffered and died, has destroyed many of the more tender sides of me, but it has also kept me steadfast, and it has also given me the will to remember. It awakens inside me and wants me to make others remember that not so long ago there were acts committed that cannot and should not be excused or forgotten, or even forgiven. I am not alone in carrying this beast inside me. But now, in my early 60s, I am reminded that I am part of a dying breed. Many of our parents have died and those who remain are old and the only few eyewitnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust. And we, the children of survivors, are the last generation to have witnessed and heard their stories and felt their pain directly.

Generations ahead face the unique and difficult task of educating their children to remember and to tell this story of millions of unthinkably cruel acts, a story of incomprehensible brutality of man to man. No amount of archived testimony will replace a sense of outrage and indignation in one human heart. The beast may die with my generation, but the rage must be saved and even nurtured in our children’s hearts and minds when they are old enough to know. Because only by remembering, understanding and feeling the magnitude of such terror can we succeed in our efforts to prevent it from happening again.

I have tried to live as much as I could to fulfill not only my dreams but those of my grandparents and my uncles and aunts who could not fulfill theirs. I have preserved my heritage for me and for them. I have taught my children the unbearable truth for me and for them; and I write these words for me and for them. Their lives were very much like ours here, today. They were not any more deserving of hatred, persecution and killing than we are — but they are more deserving of our compassion and our effort to remember them because they were innocent victims whose lives were cut short with such shocking disgrace. Even if they were strangers, my heart would bleed for them. But these were my own flesh and blood and that of my children and their children and all the generations after them. 

George Kalmar, born in Slovakia, is a local sculptor and writer and founder of IES, an organization promoting US colleges worldwide. You can contact him at

Slovak court moves toward imprisoning war criminal in Hungary

A Slovak court has commuted a death sentence against Laszlo Csatary, a war criminal whom Slovakia wants extradited from Hungary for his complicity in murdering thousands of Jews.

A Czechoslovakian court in 1948 sentenced Csatary in absentia to death for torturing Jews and helping to deport them to Auschwitz when he served as police commander in the eastern Slovak city of Kosice. For decades, Csatary, now 98, escaped the sentence until Hungarian authorities detained him and put him under house arrest in Budapest last July. He has denied any guilt.

The sentence was changed this week to be in line with modern Slovak law, Reuters reported on Friday. Czechoslovakia abolished the death penalty in 1990, three years before its division into Slovakia and the Czech Republic, Kosice prosecutor's office spokesman Milan Filicko said.

“Once the decision takes effect, the court will decide whether it will issue an arrest warrant or how it will get him to serve the sentence,” he said.

Filicko said Csatary could appeal the decision, which would send the case to the Slovak High Court. Slovakia's Jewish community has called for Csatary to be extradited.

Survivor: Gloria Ungar

“Sorry, children. I’m not going to jeopardize my life for your father’s money.” The Christian forester smuggling three Jewish children across the border from Poland to Slovakia had stopped abruptly, wished them luck and told them to keep walking. But Gloria Ungar — then Gitta Nagel — gripped his arm, promising that her father would make him very rich if he continued. She, her younger brother Nathan and her cousin were wending their way through a pitch-black forest. “It was terrifying,” Gloria recalled; she knew they wouldn’t make it alone. Her cousin had broken her ankle, and Nathan was crying that he couldn’t walk anymore. Plus the Germans were scanning the forest with floodlights, siccing attack dogs and then shooting whenever they saw a shadow. The children threw themselves against trees whenever the floodlights came near.

Despite his fears, the forester relented and led the children to the Slovakian border where a farmer met them and took them by wagon to the small town of Bardejov. There, Gloria and Nathan reunited with their parents and older brother, Jack (Yankel). “It was unbelievable to meet them again,” Gloria said, “but also sad, because of all the relatives still left behind.” It was spring 1941, and Gloria was 10.

Born Sept. 9, 1930, in Krosno, Poland, to Esther and Abisz Nagel, Gloria had one older brother and two younger ones. Their grandmother lived with them.

Her father was a successful businessman, and her mother managed a small grocery store. The family lived comfortably, and Gloria attended Jewish school and enjoyed celebrating holidays with her large extended family. 

On Sept. 1, 1939, however, the Germans bombed Krosno’s airport and soon occupied the city, immediately curtailing liberties and confiscating possessions. “We couldn’t even own a bicycle,” Gloria said. 

Later, as roundups of Jews intensified, Gloria’s father hired the forester to transport the family, a few at a time, to Slovakia, where relatives lived. Gloria’s father and Jack went first. Her mother was next, and Gloria, Nathan and her cousin followed. 

Gloria’s grandmother and her middle brother, Mordechai, never made it. After the war, Gloria learned that the Germans had raided the house. They shot her grandmother as she pleaded to stay, and took Mordechai away.

Gloria attended school in Bardejov until roundups began there, after which the family spent their days hiding in the forest. “I can’t tell you how bitter, bitter cold it was,” she remembered. At night, they returned to their house. 

It was during this time that Gloria’s mother died of cancer. “She is the only one who has a grave,” Gloria said.

In spring 1944, the Jews were forced out of eastern Slovakia, and Gloria, her father and two brothers traveled by train to Nové Mesto nad Váhom in western Slovakia. At first they lived in an apartment, but later, their lives again in danger, they found a Christian woman who hid them in a cramped and almost airless storage area under her kitchen floor. At night she allowed them out for air and some food and to empty the waste bucket. After a month, the woman released them. 

They returned to their apartment, planning to escape to the countryside the next day. But German trucks pulled up in the early morning and they were apprehended. 

They were driven to the nearby city of Sered and placed in a transit camp. A few days later, in September or October 1944, they were pushed into cattle cars — “worse than the animals,” Gloria said — and traveled two days and two nights without food, water or toilets. 

“I couldn’t believe I was going to my death. I was just 14 years old,” Gloria said. Her father became very emotional on the trip. “I’m not crying for own life. I’m already 40 years old. I’m crying for your young lives, my wonderful children,” he told them. 

They arrived at Auschwitz at night, to pandemonium. Gloria’s father steered her to the men’s side with him. Then an unknown woman suddenly appeared and led Gloria away. “If not for her, I would have gone directly to the crematorium,” Gloria said.

The women lined up for another selection. Gloria stood on her tiptoes and pinched her cheeks, to look older and healthier. Dr. Josef Mengele directed her to the right. 

Gloria and the other women were processed, their heads and private parts shaved and their arms tattooed with a number. They were given a blue-and-gray striped uniform, with no underwear, and a pair of shoes and taken to barracks. 

During the day, after hours of standing for roll call, Gloria was marched in a group through the gates of Auschwitz to a quarry where she chopped rocks all day with a pickaxe. 

In December 1944, as the Russian front was advancing, Gloria and the other prisoners were shipped by cattle car to Bergen-Belsen. “It’s the most terrible place on earth,” Gloria said. They spent their days sitting in the barracks or outside with the “dead ones.” There was no food. 

Again, as the front approached Bergen-Belsen, the prisoners were taken by cattle car to Magdeburg, Germany, to work in a munitions factory. Later they were transported to a town where they worked outdoors clearing rubble.

They were then put on a train that stopped in a German forest so the dead bodies could be shoved off the train. Gloria was also accidentally pushed off but mustered the strength and presence of mind to climb back up. 

She traveled for a few more days, then suddenly the train doors opened, and the prisoners were told they were in Denmark. It was May 4, 1945. 

Gloria was too sick to move. She also felt little joy in being liberated, since she assumed no relatives had survived. She was 14, weighed 57 pounds and had a high fever, tuberculosis and a collapsed lung. “I was very close to death,” she said. 

She was transferred by boat to Sweden, where she spent time in two hospitals, then was enrolled in a school in Lindingö for child survivors. While there, her brother Jack, who was in Prague, saw her name on a list of survivors and came to find her. 

Jack obtained a visa for Gloria to attend Bais Yaakov School for Girls in Brooklyn. She arrived in New York in May 1947, and Jack followed three months later. Gloria graduated high school, attended Hunter College for two years and then worked.
She met Victor Ungar, also a survivor, in spring 1952. “It was love at first sight,” she said. They married on Nov. 2, 1952, and moved to Los Angeles in April 1955. They have three sons: Robert, Jeffrey and Michael. 

At 82 and grateful for her life, Gloria volunteers three days a week at the Museum of Tolerance. She also enjoys spending time with her family and friends.

“People ask me about revenge,” Gloria said. “I have a beautiful family. I have 18 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren. This is my revenge.”

In Slovakia, being strategic about preserving Jewish heritage

In 1989, on the eve of the fall of communism, the American poet Jerome Rothenberg published a powerful series of poems called “Khurbn” that dealt with the impact of the Holocaust on Eastern Europe.

In one section, he recorded conversations he had had in Poland with local people who had little recollection of the flourishing pre-war Jewish presence.

“…were there once Jews here?” the poem goes. “Yes, they told us, yes they were sure there were, though there was no one here who could remember. What was a Jew like? they asked […] no one is certain still if they exist.”

I often think of this poem when I travel to far-flung places in Eastern and Central Europe, and it was certainly on my mind on a trip to Slovakia this August.

That’s because—yes—there are still Jews here, and the post-communist revival has reinvigorated Jewish communities in the region.

But also—despite this—numbers are still so small that even in many places where Jews once made up large parts of the population, Jewish history and heritage have been, or run the risk of being, forgotten.

“Look,” my friend Maros Borsky reminded me in Bratislava. “Kids who were born after 1989 don’t even remember communism.”

Borsky is trying to do something about this—and this, in fact, was why I was in Slovakia.

The vice president of the Bratislava Jewish community, Borsky is also Slovakia’s leading Jewish scholar and expert on Slovak Jewish heritage.

At 37 he is, I would say, the leading Slovak Jewish activist of his generation, engaged in everything from religious, cultural and educational initiatives to his own personal commitment to raising his daughters in a Jewish home.

“I’ll do anything to support his efforts, he has made such a difference to Jewish life here,” said Andrew Goldstein, a British Reform rabbi who has played a hands-on role in nurturing Jewish revival in the Czech Republic and Slovakia for more than two decades.

Now chairman of the European Union for Progressive Judaism, Goldstein comes to Bratislava once a month to hold classes and lead a non-Orthodox Shabbat service as an alternative to that conducted by the city’s only resident rabbi, Baruch Myers, who is affiliated with Chabad.

Goldstein and I met in Bratislava nearly six years ago when he officiated at Borsky’s wedding.

This time, Goldstein and his wife and I, along with half a dozen Israeli journalists, were on a five-day tour that Borsky led to Jewish communities and heritage sites around the country.

The aim was to introduce the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route, an educational and touristic itinerary Borsky devised as a means of integrating Jewish heritage and memory into local tourism, culture and education so that Jews, their history—and their fate—are not forgotten.

I have followed the development of the route ever since Borsky first conceived it five years ago, and I believe it is an important strategic endeavor that could provide a model for other countries.

Only 3,000 Jews live in Slovakia today, but there are synagogue buildings or Jewish cemeteries in literally hundreds of towns and even major cities.

The Slovak Jewish community does not have the resources to save or even to care for all these places.

So Borsky convinced communal leaders to sanction a strategy that concentrates on just a few.

This resulted in his Slovak Jewish Heritage Route. The route includes 24 flagship sites in all eight regions of the country: mainly synagogues, but also Jewish cemeteries, Holocaust memorials and museums. They are marked with plaques bearing a distinctive logo.

Each was chosen for its historic or architectural significance but also for its sustainability. This does not mean, of course, that other sites should be forgotten. But to be included on the route, there must be a partnership in place with a local body to ensure long-term care and maintenance.

Our tour took in more than a dozen of the sites: from the active synagogue in Bratislava to Presov in the far east, where the magnificence of the surviving synagogue utterly dwarfs the potential of a Jewish community that now numbers only a few dozen people.

We saw synagogues used as art galleries, and one now used as an art school. There were little Jewish exhibits, and ruined synagogues still undergoing repair. In one of these, the partially ruined synagogue in Liptovsky Mikulas, Goldstein and his wife stopped to chant prayers so that the sounds of Jewish liturgy could once again be heard.

One of our most meaningful encounters was with a high school teacher in the small town of Spisske Nova Ves who for nearly a decade has made care of the Jewish cemetery and continuing research into the history of the destroyed Jewish community an integral part of her class curriculum.

I had visited most of these places in the past. But going from one to the next in the space of five days hammered home a range of challenges that face both Jewish heritage and Jewish life.

“The saddest thing for me was not to see the empty synagogues,” Goldstein told me after the trip. “But to learn that the Orthodox synagogue in Zilina is still intact but not used for services. On Rosh Hashanah the tiny community just meet in a nearby hall and reminisce—there is seemingly nobody to lead even a short service.”

Rothenberg’s poem was rarely out of my thoughts.

“…were there once Jews here?”

Ruth Ellen Gruber’s books include “National Geographic Jewish Heritage Travel: A Guide to Eastern Europe” and “Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe.” She blogs on Jewish heritage issues at

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 “> or