06 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)

How many people can tell
Slovakia from Slovenia, or
Bratislava from Breslau?

The flags of Slovakia and the European Union flying outside the Opera House in the heart of the old city of Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

This is my first time to visit Bratislava, and my first time to visit Slovakia.

I was in Prague, the capital of the neighbouring Czech Republic, earlier this year [22-25 January 2019], and I have passed through Prague Airport at least four times before (2005-2007) on way to and from Romania. But this is my first visit to the other republic and to the other capital of the former Czechoslovakia.

While I was visiting Venice this time last year [5-9 November 2018], I paid a brief visit to Gorizia or Gorica, a city that straddles the borders of Italy and Slovenia. But it is surprising that many people do not know their Slovakia from their Slovenia.

Although Bratislava – particularly this part of the city – is centuries old, Bratislava has only been known by its present name for the past 100 years. Until 1919, it was mostly known in English by its German name, Pressburg, and sometimes by its Hungarian name, Pozsony.

The new name caused much confusion a century ago, because Wrocław, which is now in western Poland, was known in German as Breslau, in Czech as Vratislav and in Latin as Vratislavia, as its political status shifted between Poland, Bohemia, Hungary, the Austro-Hungarian empire, Prussia, Germany and Poland again.

To make confusing names even more confusing, Bratslav is the name of a mediaeval city in central Ukraine, also known as Braclaw and Bretslov.

Journalists were confused last year when the Prime Ministers of Slovenia and Slovakia resigned in the same week. But the confusion between Slovakia and Slovenia has existed since the 1990s, when they became two of the newest countries in Europe.

Neither country borders the other, yet both have borders with Austria and Hungary. Slovakia separated from the former Czechoslovakia at the ‘Velvet Revolution’ in 1992, formed a new state in 1993, and joined the European Union in 2004. Slovenia gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 and joined the EU in 2004.

Symbols of Slovakia in a souvenir shop in the centre of the old town in Bratisalva (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Slovakia and Slovenia have similar names, similar flags, and a similar history. Slovakia calls itself Slovenská Republika, while Slovenia is Republika Slovenija. One language is known its speakers as Slovenčina, the other as Slovenščina, a letter rather than a word or a world of difference. To their residents, these countries are known as Slovensko and Slovenija; and among those residents, Slovenka in Slovak means a Slovak woman; Slovenka in Slovene means a Slovene woman.

The flags of these two countries are almost identical, with white, blue and red horizontal stripes and a heraldic shield displaying mountain peaks. The wrong flag is often flown, and the wrong anthem is often played at international sporting fixtures.

George W Bush famously once talked about his meeting with the Foreign Minister of Slovakia, when in fact he had met the Foreign Minister of Slovenia, and at a press conference in 2003, Silvio Berlusconi introduced Anton Rop, then the Prime Minister of Slovenia, as the Prime Minister of Slovakia.

I wonder whether Donald Trump is ever confused? Melania Trump was born in Slovenia, while Ivana Trump was born in what was then Czechoslovakia. There is more than awall that separates the two; indeed they are separated by a whole country, Hungary.

There is a popular urban myth in many European capitals that claims diplomats from the Slovak and Slovene embassies meet regularly to exchange mail that has gone to the wrong address.

By the end of this week, I am sure, I am not going to be able to imagine how anyone could be confused.

Flying the Slovak colours … a souvenir shop in the centre of the old town in Bratisalva (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)