21 December 2019
During last month’s visit to Bratislava, two of us waited for over half an hour for a booked guide who never showed. Eventually, we made our own impromptu tour of Jewish Bratislava, visiting major sites associated with the stories of the Jewish community in the Slovak capital.
The sites we visited included the area that was once the mediaeval Jewish ghetto, the site of the earliest synagogue at the present Ursuline Church, the Chatam Sofer Memorial commemorating the city’s most famous rabbi, the site of the former Neolog Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial on Rybné Square, the city’s last surviving synagogue on Heydukova Street, and the Museum of Jewish Culture on Židovská Street.
As I pored over my photographs from Bratislava in recent days, I realised I had also come across many other stories of Bratislava’s Jewish communities, including a world chess grandmaster and author, a resistance hero who saved lives during the Holocaust, the lost portal of a mediaeval synagogue, an international wrestler, a visiting Russian pianist and composer, an antiquarian bookshop, and a man who stood up bravely to anti-Semitic gangs.
Rather than tell these hidden stories in detail in one or two blog postings, I decided – as with my recent tales of Viennese Jews – to post occasional blog postings over the next few weeks that re-tell some of these stories, celebrating a culture and a community whose stories should never be forgotten.
I was staying at the Astoria Hotel, close to the Franciscan Church and the former Ursuline convent in the heart of the Old City, which stands on the site of the old, mediaeval synagogue in Bratislava.
The synagogue was mentioned in 1335, when Pope Benedict XII reported to the Archbishop of Esztergom that the neighbouring Cistercian monks had complained they were being disturbed at prayer in their chapel by the sounds coming from this synagogue.
The Cistercian cloister stood near today’s church on Uršulínska Street with the synagogue beside it. The Pope had the Archbishop investigate the situation and the synagogue was demolished soon afterwards. The Arcadia Hotel where I was staying is immediately west of this street corner.
The synagogue was rebuilt in 1339, and in the mid-14th century several hundred Jews were living in Bratislava and the city. They had a synagogue, a Jewish cemetery, a mikveh bath and other public Jewish institutions.
The Jews were expelled from Bratislava for the first time in 1360, and the synagogue was destroyed. Several Jewish families had returned to the city by 1368, and they were given permission in 1399 to build a synagogue, probably on the site of the earlier one. By the end of the 14th century, about 800 Jews were living in the city, which had a total population of 5,000 by 1435.
All that remains of this mediaeval synagogue in Bratislava is the Gothic entrance portal, which was discovered during the restoration of a house in the heart of the Old Town in the 1990s.
It is located at the back of the courtyard of the Corpus Christi Chapel compound or Kaplnka Kristovho tela, on Panská street. Although I did not get to see the courtyard and the portal last month, I passed this house a number of times during my visit to Bratislava.
It is interesting that Corpus Christi as a name or dedication was a typical invocation throughout mediaeval Europe used for synagogues that had been confiscated from Jewish communities and turned into Christian churches or monastic houses, for the Judenhof, a special house inhabited by Jewish residents, stood nearby in the Middle Ages.
The name of Corpus Christi is associated with alleged desecrations of the Eucharistic Host, which were common libels against Jews in the Europe during the Middle Ages.
These libellous charges resurfaced in Pressburg, as Bratisalava was known, in 1591, when a broadsheet circulated in Europe reporting miraculous events in the city centuries after accusations that Jews there had a host. Corpus Christ Chapel was then built on the site where this event was said to have taken place.
The street façade looks like a terraced, Baroque-Classicist house and does not look like a church. So, looking at the building from Penska street, I never ventured inside in my search for the portal of the mediaeval synagogue.
The site belonged to the Brotherhood of Corpus Christi, who were established in 1349 and who founded their first house here in 1396.
The carved relief above the entrance is dated 1627, just a few decades after the libel of desecrating the host spread throughout Pressburg. This carving shows the crucified Body of Christ rising above an altar, with adoring angels on each side, a reference to the dedication to Corpus Christi.
The relief also has a lengthy inscription and the coat of arms of János Telegdy or Ján Telegdy (1575–1647), then Archbishop of Kalocsa (1623-1647) in Hungary. He was born in Nové Zámky, now in south-west Slovakia, about 100 km from Bratislava.
The house was radically rebuilt by the master builder Matej Walch in 1772, and the main wing was moved to the street frontage. Inside, baroque decoration with allegorical paintings date from the second half of the 18th century.
The house and the chapel passed to the Jesuits in 1850, and their insignia can be seen at the entrance.
I do not know how the portal from the synagogue came to be moved to the courtyard of this building, but it was discovered during renovations in the 1990s. It is no coincidence that a portal from a synagogue should be found in a building whose name is associated with these anti-Semitic libels, and I regret that I was not pushy enough to make my way into the courtyard last month.
During the Season of Advent this year, I am joining many people in reading a chapter from Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning. In all, there are 24 chapters in Saint Luke’s Gospel, so this means being able to read through the full Gospel, reaching the last chapter on Christmas Eve [24 December 2019].
Why not join me as I read through Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning this Advent?
Luke 21 (NRSVA):
1 He looked up and saw rich people putting their gifts into the treasury; 2 he also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 He said, ‘Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; 4 for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.’
5 When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, 6 ‘As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down.’
7 They asked him, ‘Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?’ 8 And he said, ‘Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, “I am he!” and, “The time is near!” Do not go after them.
9 ‘When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.’ 10 Then he said to them, ‘Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; 11 there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
12 ‘But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. 13 This will give you an opportunity to testify. 14 So make up your minds not to prepare your defence in advance; 15 for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. 17 You will be hated by all because of my name. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your souls.
20 ‘When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it, and those out in the country must not enter it; 22 for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfilment of all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath against this people; 24 they will fall by the edge of the sword and be taken away as captives among all nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
25 ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
29 Then he told them a parable: ‘Look at the fig tree and all the trees; 30 as soon as they sprout leaves you can see for yourselves and know that summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all things have taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
34 ‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day does not catch you unexpectedly, 35 like a trap. For it will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth. 36 Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
37 Every day he was teaching in the temple, and at night he would go out and spend the night on the Mount of Olives, as it was called. 38 And all the people would get up early in the morning to listen to him in the temple.
A prayer for today:
A prayer today from the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel:
Let us pray that divisions among the races that can led to violence and other criminal behaviour may be overcome and that Guyana may remain in peace.
Tomorrow: Luke 22.
Yesterday: Luke 20.
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org