Friday, 9 April 2021

Hundreds of lost Jewish
gravestones, missing since 1940s,
found again in Bratislava

The graves of rabbis buried beside the Chatam Sofer in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, at the end of 2019, I visited the Chatam Sofer Memorial, a unique Jewish heritage site. This is revered by many Orthodox Jews as the most sacred burial ground and place of pilgrimage in Europe.

The Chatam Sofer Memorial is the sole remaining part of the centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943 when a nearby tunnel was constructed. Only the most important section of the cemetery, with 23 graves surrounding the Chatam Sofer’s tomb, was preserved as an underground compound.

Now, the exciting discovery has been reported this week of hundreds of centuries-old matzevot or gravestones from the Old Jewish Cemetery in Bratislava, demolished nearly 80 years ago.

These gravestones had long been presumed lost or destroyed. But in a remarkable discovery, reported this week by Jewish Heritage Europe, hundreds of gravestones from the destroyed old cemetery have come to light. They date mainly from the 18th to early 19th century, and were found piled up in a neglected and heavily overgrown area near a far wall of the city’s active Orthodox Jewish cemetery. It seems they had lain there undisturbed for almost 80 years.

Tomáš Stern, president of the Bratislava Jewish community, said 300 or more baroque gravestones have been discovered over the last two months.

‘This is probably one of the most important projects for the preservation of the cultural heritage of our community in recent years, which certainly goes beyond regional significance,’ he said on the Bratislava Jewish community web site.

The matzevot are being numbered, photographed, documented, and digitised, and their epitaphs are being translated. Matzevot and fragments are being matched to archival photos, and project workers are trying to reassemble gravestones from broken pieces.

Mr Stern told JHE that fragments will be used to create a commemorative lapidarium at the Orthodox cemetery, while the best-preserved intact stones will be transferred back to the site of the old cemetery and re-erected as a complement to the underground memorial of the great sage Rabbi Moses or Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), known as Chatam Sofer.

The grave of Chatam Sofer in Bratislava is one of the holiest pilgrim sites in Europe for Orthodox Jews (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This memorial also preserves the only 23 tombs from the Old Cemetery that were not removed from the site or destroyed. They are encased in a concrete shell and covered over, and even in communist times were a site of pilgrimage. They are now conserved in a memorial compound designed by the architect Martin Kvasnica in 2000-2002.

The Old Jewish Cemetery was established near the banks of the Danube in the 1690s, and was Bratislava’s main Jewish cemetery until 1847. It was demolished during World War II in 1942-1943, when a tunnel was built near the site. The matzevot were removed, and most of the graves were exhumed and reburied in a mass grave in the Orthodox cemetery.

Apart from the 23 gravestones conserved in the Chatam Sofer complex, the matzevot from the Old Cemetery were presumed to have been lost or destroyed. Their discovery is a remarkable story.

Mr Stern told JHE this week that in the 1990s he learned that at least some of these gravestones had survived. ‘One of the last members of the [Jewish community], who participated on the matzevot removal […] was still alive, and told me that in the bushes there are the stones from the old cemetery,’ he said.

People checked the area, but only saw around 20 or 30 stones, he said.

But earlier this year, as president of the community, he raised funds to clear the area and look further. The project involved cutting trees, removing heavy brush and clearing accumulated soil. As the work progressed, hundreds of heaped-up intact stones and fragments were revealed.

The Jewish community in Bratislava is carrying out the project, in co-operation with outside experts, and is trying to raise €20,000 to complete the excavation. Daniel Polakovic, from the Jewish Museum in Prague, will oversee the translation of epitaphs, and Martin Kvasnica, the architect of the Chatam Sofer memorial, will advise on the placement of matzevot at the site.

The Chatam Sofer Memorial in Bratislava was designed by the architect Martin Kvasnica (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

For my prayers and reflections this Friday evening I return to the version of the Mourner’s Kaddish by Lord (Jonathan) Sacks:

Mourner: Magnified and sanctified may His great name be, in the world He created by His will. May He establish His kingdom in your lifetime and in your days, and in the lifetime of all the House of Israel, swiftly and soon – and say: Amen.

All: May His great name be blessed for ever and all time.

Mourner: Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted, raised and honoured, uplifted and exalted, raised and honoured, uplifted and lauded be the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, beyond any blessing, song, praise and consolation uttered in the world – and say: Amen.

May there be great peace from heaven, and life for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

Bow, take three steps back, then bow, first left, then right, then centre, while saying:

May He who makes peace in His high places, make peace for us and all Israel – and say: Amen.

The translation of Kaddish in Service of the Heart is:

Extolled and hallowed be God’s great name in the world he has created according to his will. May he establish his kingdom, in our lifetime, and let us say: Amen.

Let his great name be praised to eternity.

Lauded and praised, glorified, exalted and adored, honoured, extolled and acclaimed be the name of the Holy One, though he is above all the praises, hymns and adorations which men can utter, and let us say: Amen.

May God grant abundant peace and life to us and to the whole house of Israel, and let us say: Amen.

May the Most High, source of perfect peace, grant peace to us, to all Israel, and to all mankind, and let us say: Amen.

Shabbat Shalom

Prayer books in the prayer hall emphasise that the Chatam Sofer memorial is a place of prayer and pilgrimage (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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