Three Synagogues in Slovakia
Slovakia has become a major draw for Israeli families. I don’t think I have ever heard so much Hebrew spoken outside Israel. Probably so many Jews haven’t been present in Slovakia since before 1944. Hmmm?
For a holiday with my notoriously schedule-clashing family we chose Slovakia’s lower Tatras region as an ideal child-friendly, relatively cheap, right time of year to visit, relatively close option. We were not to be disappointed on that score.
Strolling through the nearby local centre of Ružomberok we passed a large, handsome, 19th century style building and came closer to see what it was.
The sign in Slovak and English proclaimed it as Synagogue ~ National Cultural Monument. Jews prayed there – built in such a year, architect, etc. – renovated by the city – This architectural monument acquired a new multifunctional social role being used as an exhibition space and concert hall of the city.
Where the Jews simply generous cultural benefactors of the city of Ruzomberok?
Did they just disappear like dinosaurs?
Apparently there were no concerts nor exhibitions scheduled that day. The door was locked.
A little reading showed we had stumbled onto the epicentre of the destruction of Slovakian Jewry. The Hlinka Guards and the Slovak Peoples Party originated here.
Some say that Father Andrej Hlinka, from the district, was not responsible for the atrocities against the Jews because he died some months before the Hlinka Guards named in his honour were formed. Perhaps the real question was whether he was morally responsible?
Perhaps he made different statements at different times?
“Hlinka founded a society for the cooperation of enterprises. He advised the people, how they could get free from the material shortages that were appearing because of their own carelessness and because of Jewish usury. The Jews were at the vanguard of Hungarianisation and economic oppression, by their own manners. In the elections they were always standing at the Hungarian side. That was understandable. The awakening of social and moral Slovak politics was a great danger for their usurious business. The corporations in the domains of food and money were becoming a very important political instrument in the hands of the Slovaks. They were crushing Jewish power in the villages. In the Ruzomberok area there were Jewish men of business like Vilhelm Kuffler, Jakob Fuchs, Moritz Fisch, Jozef Kohn, Ignatz Kohn, Samuel Eichel, Albert Hexner, Sali Immerblum, Max Singer, They were all merchants. They were not directly admitted to political life, but I remember their names because they heavily influenced politics by their own pursuit of gain.”
According to Jozef Tiso, Andrej Hlinka’s doctrine was that “a Jew remains a Jew even if he is baptised by a hundred bishops”.
Tiso, a member of the Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party; his successor as party leader and also a Catholic priest became President of an autonomous Slovakia, operating as a pro Nazi puppet state. At first he bargained sending able-bodied Jewish men rather than Slovaks to Germany as labourers. Later it seems he reconsidered, thinking that the remaining Jewish women, children and old men would be burden on the state.
His solution. Slovakia would pay the Nazis to take away whole Jewish families on the condition they would never be allowed back!
Liptovský Mikuláš was different. We made a point of visiting the spectacular synagogue, which is featured as one of the things to visit in the town.
The young lady selling tickets to enter the synagogue building was wearing a large cross.
Because of the high standards of its many secular and cultural institutions, the Mikulas community earned the title ‘the Jewish Athens.’ Seldom have I been in such a large, elaborate synagogue outside a capital city. Unfortunately the inside has eroded over time and it is hard to see the town spending an enormous sum for accurate renovation.
A plaque on the facade reminds us of 885 people that were taken away from Liptovský Mikuláš to the camps. That figure may well be fifty per cent underestimated.
We love free walking tours. They are not free, of course. Rather one is expected to pay at the end what you think the tour was worth. It keeps the guides on their toes.
It was on one of those tours we ‘discovered’ our third synagogue. Once there was a synagogue.
This time we can blame the communists rather than the fascists. There were no Jews left, at least in any numbers or with any influence to protest the demolition to make a bridge.
Now all that remains is a mural and a memorial with the floor plan recorded in reddish stone on the pavement.
After the tour we returned to the monument to lay a stone. Two others, from the tour, did the same.
They also spoke Hebrew.
The final question ~ why?
Some of the literature gives several reasons. The first is that the Jews were considered Hungarian and were caught up in a movement not just to rid Slovakia of Austro‑Hungarian control but even the language. The empire didn’t help matters as apparently they considered the Jews as Hungarians, even the Slovak speakers.
The second was jealousy for the Jewish financial success. Not uniquely in history, the Jews were also considered to be in league with the godless Bolsheviks. Consistency is not a Jew Haters’ virtue.
The refusal to return confiscated property to the few Jews who returned to claim it was explained to as robbers, unwilling to return their loot rather than antisemitism. Hmmm.
The Jews were even blamed for Slovak alcoholism because they were accused of being tavern keepers.
Perhaps an historian will give a better analysis of the role of Catholicism in the destruction of Slovak Jewry. Will Catholic dominated Slovakia ever ask themselves that question?Both Hlinka and Tiso were priests and Karol Sidor, the Hlinka Guard’s first commander, became Slovakia’s Minister to the Holy See.
- An Interview with Slovak historian Dr. Pavol Mestan, Karl Pfeifer, Tablet, 27 August 2015
- Hlinka, Andrej, Shoah Research Center, Yad Vashem, accessed
- Hating Thy Imaginary Neighbor: An Analysis of Antisemitism in Slovakia, Lenka Bustikova and Petra Guasti, Journal for the Study of Antisemitism VOL. 4:469
- LIPTOVSKY MIKULAS, International Jewish Cemetery Project, Last Updated 16 February 2009
† Camera buffs. The photograph was created as a panorama made from nine separate photographs. I would have employed a fish-eye lens had I had one with me. Certainly there would have been less work.