17 June 2022

Bratislava exhibition marks
20 years of building of
Chatam Sofer Memorial

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

Patrick Comerford

A special exhibition opened in Bratislava last Friday (10 June 2022) marking the 20th anniversary of the construction of the Chatam Sofer Memorial, a unique Jewish heritage site, and the recovery of 23 graves that were destroyed during World War II and the Holocaust.

The underground complex includes the remains of Bratislava’s Old Jewish Cemetery, and was designed by the architect Martin Kvasnica. The special exhibition in Bratislava opened on Friday and commemorates the 20th anniversary of the inauguration of this major Jewish site.

The compound was built in 2000-2002 and includes a remnant of the Old Jewish Cemetery dating from the 17th century and destroyed in 1943/1944. The Chatam Sofer Memorial is the sole remaining part of the centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed when a nearby tunnel was built.

Only a small group of the graves of prominent rabbis survived, including that of the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839), a major rabbinic authority in the first part of the 19th century. His grave and the underground complex are now an important site for Orthodox pilgrims from around the world, and it is one of the most important Jewish sites in Europe.

The exhibition at the Jewish Community Museum of Bratislava presents the history and cultural context of the site over time, including unique historical photographs and exclusive documentation from the site’s construction.

The exhibition includes a photographic project by the leading Slovak reporter and photographer Andrej Bán, who has documented human stories and places in Slovakia and abroad.

The exhibition at the Jewish Community Museum continues until 9 October.

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

Recently, the exciting rediscovery was reported of hundreds of centuries-old matzevot or gravestones from the Old Jewish Cemetery that had long been presumed lost or destroyed.

In a remarkable find, hundreds of gravestones from the old cemetery came 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. They seems to have 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 a two-month period.

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.

The Jewish community in Bratislava is carrying out the project in co-operation with outside experts. Daniel Polakovic from the Jewish Museum in Prague is overseeing the translation of epitaphs, and Martin Kvasnica, the architect of the Chatam Sofer memorial, is advising on the placement of matzevot at the site.

The graves of rabbis buried beside the Chatam Sofer in Bratislava (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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