Wednesday, 6 November 2019

A rabbi who links
Bratislava with
Limerick and Rhodes

The grave of Simon Gewurtz (1887-1944) from Bratislava, who was Limerick’s last rabbi (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I spent this morning [6 November 2019] on a guided tour of Jewish Bratislava, visiting the last surviving synagogue in the capital of Slovakia, visiting the sites of synagogues demolished by the Nazis, visiting the graves of rabbis, and visiting the remains of a cemetery that the Communist regime wanted to bury beneath a new road and a new bridge.

As I walked around Jewish Bratislava, I recalled that the graves in Jewish Cemetery in Castletroy include the grave of Limerick’s last rabbi, Simon Gewurtz (1887-1944), and that he came from Bratislava.

I am on my way to Vienna tomorrow morning [7 November 2019], and by a twist of fate one of the last funerals conducted by the last rabbi of Limerick was of a Jewish refugee from Austria.

Margaret Kaitcher fled Austria and the invading Nazis in 1938. Two weeks after she arrived in Limerick, Margaret booked into the Hotel Crescent on O’Connell Street and shot herself. Her funeral was conducted by Rabbi Simon Gewurtz from Bratislava and she is buried in an anonymous grave at the Jewish cemetery in Kilmurry on the outskirts of Limerick.

When I first visited the cemetery and his grave shortly after moving to Limerick in 2017, I wondered how much the last rabbi of Limerick must have grieved during his time in Limerick about the sufferings of the Jews in his native Bratislava during the Holocaust.

I first heard the moving stories of the Jews of Bratisalava in 1999 when I visited Kahal Shalom, the oldest surviving synagogue in Greece, and the last remaining synagogue in ‘La Judeira,’ the old Jewish quarter in Rhodes.

There have been Jews in Rhodes since at least the time of Herod the Great. When the Jewish community in Rhodes was at its height in the 1920s, there were 4,000 or more Jews living on the island. A plaque in the courtyard lists the names of 100 Jewish families from Rhodes who were wiped out in the Holocaust.

By the end of the 1930s, there were still 2,000 or more Jews on Rhodes, struggling to maintain their religious and cultural life. A boatload of 600 Jews from Bratislava and Prague fleeing the Nazis reached Rhodes in 1939.

In Rhodes, they were fed and housed by the local community, and they were provided with fresh water for their onward journey to Palestine. But as the boat sailed out it caught fire, and the refugees were eventually washed up on the island of Samos. They returned to Rhodes, where the local Jews helped them to buy another old boat, and this time they made their way safely to Palestine.

The refugees from Bratislava and Prague survived, but the Jews of Rhodes who helped them escape were to perish a few years later. On 23 July 1944, 1,673 members of the Jewish community were rounded up in Rhodes, shipped to Piraeus and sent on by train to Auschwitz.

The community that had survived the Crusades and the Inquisition and prospered under both Ottomans and Italians was decimated: only 151 survived. The city square where the Nazis rounded up the Jews of Rhodes has been renamed Plateia Martyron Evreon, the Square of the Hebrew Martyrs, and the Sea Horse Fountain was erected in memory of those who died in Auschwitz.

A black wall etched with the silhouette of the razed Neolog Synagogue in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The suffering that the Jewish community continued to endure in Bratislava after World War II is symbolised in the site of the synagogue of the ‘Neolog’ Jewish community that stood in Rybné Square until 1969, when it was demolished to make way for building the SNP Bridge.

The ‘Neolog’ communitywas established in 1871 by a secessionist group unhappy with the strong Orthodox leadership of the main Jewish community.

The two-story Moorish building with two octagonal onion-domed towers was designed by Dezső Milch and built in 1893 on a square beside Saint Martin’s Cathedral, and it became a major landmark, often depicted on postcards.

After World War II, the synagogue was used as a television studio. It was here that Eugen Bárkány oversaw his Judaica collection of the Bratislava Jewish community, which he planned to establish as the ‘Slovak Jewish Anti-Fascist Museum’ in the synagogue. The synagogue was demolished 50 years ago in 1969.

The Holocaust Memorial was erected in 1996 on the site of the former Neolog Synagogue to commemorate the 105,000 Holocaust victims from Slovakia. This Holocaust Memorial consists of a black wall etched with the silhouette of the razed Neolog Synagogue, and an abstract central sculpture topped by a Star of David and placed on a black granite platform inscribed with the words Zachor, ‘Remember’ in Hebrew, and Pamätaj.

The Holocaust Memorial in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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