14 December 2019

Hidden stories of Jewish
Bratislava: 1, Aron Grünhut,
a hero in the Holocaust

A plaque on Heydukova Street in Bratislava marks the former home of Aron Grünhut (1895-1974), involved in heroic rescues during the Holocaust (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, the lost portal of a mediaeval synagogue, an antiquarian bookshop, an international wrestler, a visiting Russian pianist and composer, 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.

Across the street from the synagogue on Heydukova Street, a discreet plaque in Slovak, with two letters in Hebrew, commemorates Aron Grünhut (1895-1974), a businessman and Orthodox community activist who should be celebrated for his many heroic and humanitarian acts during the Holocaust.

Aron Grünhut was born in Bratislava, then known as Pressburg, on 31 March 1895, one of eight children in pious Orthodox Jewish family. His father, Viliam Grünhut, was an innkeeper whose family originally came from Velky Meder, now in south-west Slovakia; his mother, Fani (Weisz), came from a landowning family in neighbouring Dunajska Streda.

Viliam Grünhut died when Aron was only 11, and the children were brought up by their mother Fani, who opened a restaurant on Zámocká Street in Bratislava.

During World War I, Aron Grünhut served as a hospital orderly in the Austro-Hungarian army. After the war, he married Etel Wosner from a wealthy Jewish family from Dunajská Streda in 1919. They were the parents of five sons: Otto, Leo, Joseph (Akiva), Benjamin and William. The family lived on Ventúrska Street in Bratislava and later moved to Heydukova Street, across the street from the synagogue.

In the inter-war years, Grünhut ran a food business, exporting foie gras to Strasbourg , selling French pastries, and running a Jewish canteen. He was a member of the city’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry and was active in Orthodox Jewish community life. He chaired the Chevra Kadish burial society and was on the board of the newly-built Jewish Hospital on Šulekova Street and several charities.

Grünhut’s business interests involved travelling throughout Europe, and he witnessed the change in the political landscape in Europe with the rise of Hitler, realising the horror the rise of the Nazis posed for Jewish communities.

Following the Anschluss of Austria, Grünhut rescued a 28-member group of Jewish refugees from Frauenkirchen in Burgenland in eastern Austria. They were caught as they fled through Hungary. Grünhut prevented their forced return to Austria, and arranged for their transport across the Danube and their settlement in Slovakia.

Grünhut was also involved in rescuing a group of Jewish refugees from Kittsee in east Austria, on the border with Slovakia. As they fled across the Danube, they became isolated on the island of Sihoť. Grünhut was a key figure in a rescue operation that lasted several months when hundreds of refugees were forced to live on a tugboat on the Danube. He arranged travel documents that allowed all of them to travel on legally travel.

At the same time, Grünhut built a tent camp for several hundred homeless Jews gathered near Dunajská Streda and arranged for them to travel to Palestine.

At great personal risk, Grünhut travelled to Vienna in October 1938 to rescue Juda Goldberger, a clothing merchant who was abducted from Bratislava at the command of the Gestapo and was held prisoner in Austria. Grünhut then helped Goldberger and his family to escape to the US.

When Grünhut learned about Kindertransports to England, organised by Sir Nicholas Winton in Prague, he arranged for a group of Jewish children to travel from Bratislava. The 10 boys, including his son Benny, were given travel documents, and they all reached London in June 1939.

Years later, it was discovered that the boys rescued by Grünhut included Yitzchok Tuvia Weiss, a future Chief Rabbi of the ultra-Orthodox Edah HaChareidis community in Jerusalem, Rabbi Kurt Stern MBE of Stamford Hill, London, and the journalist Paul Kohn.

Grünhut’s most daring rescue operation was in July 1939, when he tried to get as many Jews as possible to safety in Palestine. He chartered two luxury Danube steamboats, Queen Elizabeth and Tsar Dusan, that sailed from Bratislava with 1,365 refugees from Slovakia, Austria, Bohemia and Moravia.

The voyage was originally expected to take six days, but was delayed by Bulgarian and British authorities, and the refugees spent more than four weeks in international waters on the Danube. Through Grünhut’s negotiations, they were allowed to enter the Romanian port of Sulina transfer to the cargo ship Noemi Julia, and after another 83 days on board they reached the port of Haifa in British-mandated Palestine.

At first, Grünhut refused to leave Bratislava at the outbreak of World War II. He worked at the Jewish Centre and was active in the Jewish resistance until he was arrested at the end of 1942. The authorities failed to prove any crime, and he was held as a political prisoner in Ilava for several months until friends and family secured his release in May 1943.

Meanwhile, Etel Grünhut and their youngest son had escaped to Hungary. Following his release, he followed them there and they lived in Budapest with false identities and hiding in the former Czechoslovak embassy.

As World War II drew to a close, Grünhut returned to Bratislava on 10 May 1945. There, in his own words, he was shocked to find ‘streets without Jews, looted flats.’ He set about helping Jews who returned from the concentration camps, finding housing and medical care for survivors of the Holocaust. At the same time, he worked at restoring the life of the Jewish Orthodox community.

When the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, Grünhut and his family decided to emigrate to Israel. There he was active in re-establishing the Pressburg Yeshiva and synagogue, which had been founded by Chatam Sofer and had relocated from Bratislava after World War II. He was also active in preserving the memory of Bratislava’s Orthodox life. Grünhut campaigned to save the Orthodox Jewish Cemetery in Bratislava and was involved in the restoration of the Chatam Sofer memorial.

Grünhut’s memoirs, Katastrophenzeit des slowakischen Judentums, were published by the Pressburg Jewish community in Tel Aviv in 1972. He died in Tel Aviv on 6 May 1974.

After his death, Grünhut’s role in Slovakia was almost forgotten and his name passed into oblivion under the communist regimes. In recent years, the journalist Martin Mózer rediscovered his story, including his part in the resistance and his roles in rescuing persecuted Jews and Sir Nicholas Winton’s Kindertransport.

Mózer’s search for Grünhut’s story resulted in the exhibition, ‘Aron Grünhut, Saviour of the Jews, Human Rights Fighter,’ first held in the Slovak Ministry of Culture in Bratislava in September 2014. The memorial plaque on his former house on Heydukova Street was unveiled on 7 October 2015.

The exhibition was also hosted at the Slovak Embassy in Dublin earlier this year, and was opened on 5 June 2019 by Tomi Reichental, one of three living Holocaust survivors in Ireland, Joe Veselský, whose family died in concentration camps and who was actively involved in the Slovak anti-fascist resistance, and Martin Mózer. The exhibition marked the 80th anniversary of Grünhut’s organisation of the shipping rescues.

Due to his heroic acts, Grünhut undoubtedly can be compared to key figures such as Oskar Schindler and Sir Nicholas Winton.

The two Hebrew letters on his memorial, ז״ל‎ (ZL), are an abbreviation of the saying זיכרונו לברכה, ‘May his memory be blessing.’

‘Aron Grünhut, Saviour of the Jews, Human Rights Fighter’

Reading Saint Luke’s Gospel
in Advent 2019: Luke 14

‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many’ … (Luke 14: 16) … waiting for dinner in Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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 on Christmas Eve [24 December 2019].

Why not join me as I read through Saint Luke’s Gospel each morning this Advent?

Luke 14 (NRSVA):

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. 2 Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. 3 And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ 4 But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. 5 Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ 6 And they could not reply to this.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8 ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

12 He said also to the one who had invited him, ‘When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. 14 And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.’

15 One of the dinner guests, on hearing this, said to him, ‘Blessed is anyone who will eat bread in the kingdom of God!’ 16 Then Jesus said to him, ‘Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. 17 At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” 18 But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” 19 Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” 20 Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” 21 So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” 22 And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” 23 Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled. 24 For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner”.’

25 Now large crowds were travelling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 ‘Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, 30 saying, “This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.” 31 Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

34 ‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? 35 It is fit neither for the soil nor for the manure heap; they throw it away. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

A prayer for today:

A prayer today (Saint John of the Cross) from the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel:

Let us give thanks for the spiritual insights of mystic and poets such as Saint John of the Cross.

Tomorrow: Luke 15.

Yesterday: Luke 13.

‘Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?’ … (Luke 14: 34) … bags of salt tablets outside the Ice House Hotel in Ballina, Co Mayo (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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