23 December 2019

Hidden stories of Jewish
Bratislava: 6, a wrestler
and a martial arts expert

The memorial to David Unreich and his family on the bridge at Kapucínska Street in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

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.

An exhibition at the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava in 2017 in honour of the champion wrestler David Unreich (1907-1957), was hosted this year at the Archives of Yugoslavia in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, and at the Slovak mission to the UN in Geneva at the Palais des Nations.

This exhibition presents the story of David Unreich from Bratislava, Jewish wrestler and heavyweight champion of the world. Between the two World Wars, he played an important role in resisting Fascism and its impact on Bratislava’s Jewish community, and after he escaped to the US he continued to take a stand against the Nazis.

David Unreich was born on 15 July 1907 into an Orthodox Jewish family in Bratislava, then known as Pressburg. His father Jonas Unreich was a merchant; his mother Regina or Rachel (née Grünhut), who ran a dining room, was from the same family as Aron Grünhut, the Jewish resistance leader in Bratislava who saved the lives of hundreds of Jews in Bratislava during the Holocaust.

There was a Jewish prayer hall at Kapucínska Street 7, close to Saint Martin’s Gate, until the late 1950s. The prayer hall was located in the basement and people called it ‘Number Seven.’ David Unreich (1907-1957) grew up in the house.

Like his six brothers, David was a member of the ŠK Makkabea Bratislava sports club. When his brothers emigrated to Palestine at an early age, David stayed in Bratislava with his parents.

Standing at 188 cm (6’1” or 6’2”) and weighing 120 kg, he fought in the heavyweight division. He won the district championship in Graeco-Roman style in Bratislava in 1929, and he went on to become a seven-time amateur champion of Czechoslovakia.

He won the title of Jewish world champion at the Maccabee Games in Palestine in 1935. Two years later, he became a professional under the name of Ben Shalom in 1937 and won the European Championship in Riga. He was undefeated over 100 fights in the US from 1938 to 1940.

In 1938, with Imrich Lichtenfeld, the founder of martial arts Krav Maga, he organised a militia in the Jewish quarter of Bratislava to defend Jewish people against anti-Semitic attacks. 1939, after When the establishment of the Slovak Republic was set up as a Nazi puppet state in 1939, Unreich returned to the US, never to come back to Bratislava.

His parents Rachel and Jonas Unreich, his sister Terézia Weissfischová and her children Judita and Miriam were deported in one of the last transports in the Holocaust and were murdered to Auschwitz in 1944. His parents are commemorated by two stolpersteins or stumbling blocks, placed in 2016 on the bridge near the family home on Kapucínská street.

David Unreich died in the US 1957.

His colleague in the Jewish resistance in Bratislava, Emrich ‘Imi’ Lichtenfeld (1910-1998) was born in Budapest on 26 May 1910, to a Hungarian Jewish family. His parents Janka and Sanuel Lichtenfeld moved to Pressburg, where Samuel was a chief inspector in the police.

Lichtenfeld grew up in the city known today as Bratislava, trained at the Hercules Gymnasium, which was owned by his father who taught self-defence, and from his youth he was a successful boxer, wrestler and gymnast.

He competed at national and international levels and was a champion and member of the Slovak National Wrestling Team. He won the Slovak Youth Wrestling Championship in 1928, and the adult championship in the light and middleweight divisions in 1929, when he also won the national boxing championship and an international gymnastics championship.

Like David Unreich, Lichtenfeld visited British-ruled Palestine in 1935 to take part in the Maccabee Games. He was with a team of Jewish wrestlers, but a broken rib caused during his training on the journey stopped him from competing in the games. The experience led to the his Krav Maga precept, ‘do not get hurt’ while training.

Lichtenfeld returned to Czechoslovakia when increasing anti-Semitic riots threatened the Jewish population of Bratislava. With David Unreich and other Jewish boxers and wrestlers, Lichtenfeld helped to defend their Jewish neighbourhood against racist gangs in 1938. He quickly decided that sport has little in common with real combat and began developing a system of techniques for practical self-defence in life-threatening situations.

On the streets, he acquired hard-won experience and the crucial understanding of the differences between sport fighting and street fighting. He developed his fundamental self-defence principle: ‘use natural movements and reactions’ for defence, combined with an immediate and decisive counterpattack. From this evolved the theory of ‘simultaneous defence and attack’ while ‘never occupying two hands in the same defensive movement.’

Lichtenfeld fled the rise of Nazism in Slovakia for Palestine in 1940. He was among 514 passengers on an old Italian paddle steamer, the Pentcho, when it sailed from Bratislava on 18 May 1940.

The Pentcho sailed down the Danube to the Black Sea and into the Aegean Sea. The engines failed on 9 October and the Pentcho was wrecked off Mytilene in the Italian-ruled Dodecanese Islands. The Italians rescued the passengers and took them to Rhodes, where the local Jewish population looked after them.

Some of the survivors were moved in an internment camp at Ferramonti di Tarsia in southern Italy, but 350 of the original group survived to sail for Palestine. The story of the Pentcho is told by John Bierman in his book Odyssey (1985).

Lichtenfeld reached British-ruled Palestine in 1942, and fought with distinction in the British-supervised Free Czechoslovak Legion in North Africa. The Haganah’s leaders recognised his fighting prowess and ingenuity. In 1944, he began training fighters in physical fitness, swimming, wrestling, use of the knife, and defences against knife attacks.

Lichtenfeld trained several units of the Haganah and Palmach, including the Pal-yam, as well as groups of police officers. In 1948, when the State of Israel was founded in 1948 and the Israeli army was formed, Lichtenfeld became Chief Instructor in Physical Fitness and Krav Maga.

During his 20 years in the Israeli forces, he developed and refined his unique method for self-defence and hand-to-hand combat. Later, he began adapting and modifying Krav Maga to civilian needs, established training centres in Tel Aviv and Netanya.

Lichtenfeld died on 9 January 1998 in Netanya at the age of 87. A plaque to his memory, beneath the slopes of Bratislava Castle and close to the Museum of Jewish Culture on Židovská Street, was unveiled last year [2018].

The memorial to Imi Lichtenfeld, close to the Museum of Jewish Culture on Židovská Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Reading Saint Luke’s Gospel
in Advent 2019: Luke 23

The rood beam above the chancel steps in Saint Agnes Church in the village of Saint Agnes, Cornwall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

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 tomorrow, Christmas Eve [24 December 2019].

I have been inviting you to join me as I read through Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning this Advent.

Luke 23 (NRSVA):

1 Then the assembly rose as a body and brought Jesus before Pilate. 2 They began to accuse him, saying, ‘We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor, and saying that he himself is the Messiah, a king.’ 3 Then Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the king of the Jews?’ He answered, ‘You say so.’ 4 Then Pilate said to the chief priests and the crowds, ‘I find no basis for an accusation against this man.’ 5 But they were insistent and said, ‘He stirs up the people by teaching throughout all Judea, from Galilee where he began even to this place.’

6 When Pilate heard this, he asked whether the man was a Galilean. 7 And when he learned that he was under Herod’s jurisdiction, he sent him off to Herod, who was himself in Jerusalem at that time. 8 When Herod saw Jesus, he was very glad, for he had been wanting to see him for a long time, because he had heard about him and was hoping to see him perform some sign. 9 He questioned him at some length, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the scribes stood by, vehemently accusing him. 11 Even Herod with his soldiers treated him with contempt and mocked him; then he put an elegant robe on him, and sent him back to Pilate. 12 That same day Herod and Pilate became friends with each other; before this they had been enemies.

13 Pilate then called together the chief priests, the leaders, and the people, 14 and said to them, ‘You brought me this man as one who was perverting the people; and here I have examined him in your presence and have not found this man guilty of any of your charges against him. 15 Neither has Herod, for he sent him back to us. Indeed, he has done nothing to deserve death. 16 I will therefore have him flogged and release him.’

18 Then they all shouted out together, ‘Away with this fellow! Release Barabbas for us!’ 19 (This was a man who had been put in prison for an insurrection that had taken place in the city, and for murder.) 20 Pilate, wanting to release Jesus, addressed them again; 21 but they kept shouting, ‘Crucify, crucify him!’ 22 A third time he said to them, ‘Why, what evil has he done? I have found in him no ground for the sentence of death; I will therefore have him flogged and then release him.’ 23 But they kept urgently demanding with loud shouts that he should be crucified; and their voices prevailed. 24 So Pilate gave his verdict that their demand should be granted. 25 He released the man they asked for, the one who had been put in prison for insurrection and murder, and he handed Jesus over as they wished.

26 As they led him away, they seized a man, Simon of Cyrene, who was coming from the country, and they laid the cross on him, and made him carry it behind Jesus. 27 A great number of the people followed him, and among them were women who were beating their breasts and wailing for him. 28 But Jesus turned to them and said, ‘Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. 29 For the days are surely coming when they will say, “Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.” 30 Then they will begin to say to the mountains, “Fall on us”; and to the hills, “Cover us.” 31 For if they do this when the wood is green, what will happen when it is dry?’

32 Two others also, who were criminals, were led away to be put to death with him. 33 When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. 34 Then Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.’ And they cast lots to divide his clothing. 35 And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, ‘He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!’ 36 The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, 37 and saying, ‘If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!’ 38 There was also an inscription over him, ‘This is the King of the Jews.’

39 One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, ‘Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!’ 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 Then he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 He replied, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’

44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last. 47 When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, ‘Certainly this man was innocent.’ 48 And when all the crowds who had gathered there for this spectacle saw what had taken place, they returned home, beating their breasts. 49 But all his acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

50 Now there was a good and righteous man named Joseph, who, though a member of the council, 51 had not agreed to their plan and action. He came from the Jewish town of Arimathea, and he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down, wrapped it in a linen cloth, and laid it in a rock-hewn tomb where no one had ever been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed, and they saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned, and prepared spices and ointments.

On the sabbath they rested according to the commandment.

‘Nailed’ … Station 11 in the Chapel at Saint John’s Hospital, Lichfield, Jesus is nailed to the cross (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 give thanks for all that we receive, mindful of the true love that lies behind the giving and receiving of gifts.

Tomorrow: Luke 24.

Yesterday: Luke 22.

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

The rood beam in Saint Chad’s Church, Stafford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)