19 December 2019

Hidden stories of Jewish
Bratislava: 4, the Steiner
antiquarian bookshop

The Steiner Antiquarian bookshop is a literary landmark in the old town in Bratislava (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, a resistance hero who saved lives during the Holocaust, the lost portal of a mediaeval synagogue, an international wrestler, a visiting Russian pianist and composer, an antiquarian bookshop, 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.

Antikvariát Steiner or the Steiner Antiquarian bookshop at Ventúrska 22, in the heart of the old city, has shelves stacked with antiquarian books, old prints, graphics and postcards. It dates from 1847, and was restored in 1991.

Sigmund Steiner (1821-1908), who is seen as the founder of this shop, was born in the Moravian town of Kojetín, now in the eastern Czech Republic. After the death of his father, Herman Steiner (1788-1832), he grew up in the home of his older brother, ‘a religious workman,’ and became a librarian. Sigmund had dreams of becoming a rabbi, and arrived in the 1830s with nothing in Bratislava, then known as Pressburg and an important city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Giving up his dreams of becoming a rabbi, Sigmund combined his Jewish Orthodox traditions with a secular education. He married the widowed Josephine König (née Bendiner), the widow of a watchmaker.

When her first husband died, Josephine’s brother in Vienna tried to help her to set up a second-hand bookshop and lending library by sending a box of books by classic German writers. Josephine set up a bookshop on Židovská Street or Jewish Street, in the so-called Jewish quarter, in 1847. A year later, Josephine married Sigmund Steiner, and from then on the shop was run under his name.

Josephine and Sigmund Steiner were the parents of three children. They lived a religious life and closed the bookshop on Shabbat, but raised their three children according to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s maxim, Torah im derech eretz (having a secular and Jewish education), an attitude reflected in the stock of the bookshop: it had both religious Jewish items and classics of world literature.

The Steiner Antiquarian bookshop moved to Ventúrska in 1880 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Their eldest son, Hermann, who inherited the bookshop, married Selma Goldberger in 1877 and they were the parents of ten children. After the Jewish ghetto was abolished in Bratislava, Herman and Selma Steiner bought the three-storey building at Venturgasse (Ventúrska) in 1880 and moved their family and the bookshop there. They also bought a summerhouse, which they called the ‘Garden’ and where they grew 1,000 fruit trees.

The family belonged to an Orthodox-Zionist stream of Judaism. Herman and Selma-Sara Steiner were the parents of nine children, and during World War I four of their sons served in the Austro-Hungarian army – Siegfried, Max, Gustav and Józsi – and all four returned from the war uninjured.

Herman and Sara Steiner died in Bratislava before World War II. When Hermann died, the city’s German-language newspaper, the Pressburger Zeitung, called him a ‘true Pressburg citizen.’

His sons Max and Józsi inherited the bookshop on Ventúrska. But their eldest son William was the only one of their nine children who would survive the Holocaust; five of their 16 grandchildren were murdered during the Holocaust.

Under the Nazis, the Steiner antiquarian bookshop was ‘Aryanised’ by a Slovak writer, Ľudo Ondrejov. Four members of the Steiner family worked for the new Aryan ‘owner’ – no money changed hands to denote the change in ownership. Soon, the new owner formally declared the Steiners ‘surplus’ or unneeded workers.

Dr Gustav-Mordechai Steiner (1893-1944), the seventh of nine children born to Herman and Selma-Sara Steiner, was decorated as a medical officer in the Austrian army during World War I. He married Gita Kürcz, the daughter of a metal trader, in 1930, and they were the parents of two children: Karl-Nathan and Alice-Sara.

Gustav ran a medical practice from their home in Bratislava and Gita ran the clinic, while Gustav also worked several hours a week at the Jewish hospital in Bratislava.

Dr Gustav Steiner’s license to practice medicine was revoked in June 1940, but he continued treating patients, including Jewish refugees. Later he was allowed to practice again, but he was forced to relocate with his family to the village of Stupava.

Gustav, Gita and their two children were imprisoned in October 1944. Gustav and Alice were sent on the last transport from Bratislava to Auschwitz on 17 October 1944. Alice was murdered in the gas chambers in Birkenau on 19 October 1944, a day before her tenth birthday. Gustav was sent from Auschwitz to Kaufring, a satellite camp of Dachau, on 27 October 1944 and was murdered there in December 1944. Gita and her son Nathan were deported to Bergen-Belsen and survived. Nathan died in Bratislava in 1948.

By 1949, all surviving members of the family had moved to Israel, apart from Selma, who was Siegfried’s daughter, and Lydia, who was Józsi’s daughter. In Israel, Herman and Sara Steiner’s grandson, Nathan Steiner, now heads the Union of Czechoslovak Immigrants and is active in commemorating the Jews of Czechoslovakia.

Selma Steinerová (1925-2010) was the only person in Siegfried Steiner’s five-member immediate family to survive the Holocaust. She was deported to the Czech concentration camp in Terezín or Theresienstadt, 70 km north of Prague. After World War II, she returned to Bratislava, and was the fourth generation of the Steiner family in the city. Selma was almost 20 and an orphan when she returned to Bratislava from Theresienstadt, and at first she lived with Alexander Albrecht and his family.

The post-war government agreed to return all confiscated property to the Steiners in 1948. However, almost immediately, the state confiscated all small businesses, and the Steiner family once again was living on the wrong side of history. The summerhouse, with the ‘garden’ where 1,000 fruit trees once grew, became the site of Slavín, the monument to the Soviet troops who liberated Bratislava in 1945.

Until 1989, the state-owned bookshop, ‘Books,’ was the only major bookseller allowed to operate in Slovakia. Selma Steinerová worked for a wholesale company supplying the government bookshop. After the fall of communism, at the age of 66, she reopened her family bookshop Bratislava in 1991 at its original location on Ventúrska in the heart of old town.

With its small, simple oval sign, ‘Steiner,’ the shop soon became one of the city’s cultural symbols. She initiated and supported a special imprint, Pressburg, dedicated to the history of Bratislava, at the Marenčín publishing house.

Martin Trančík, a Swiss economic history and civil rights student in Basel and a son of Slovak emigrants, wrote a thesis piecing together the mosaic of the Steiner family, focussing on their Jewish Orthodox traditions and how they were affected by the Holocaust and by modern times. His thesis was published in German as Zwischen Alt-und Neuland (‘Between Old and New’) in Bratislava in 1996, and was translated into Slovak a year later.

Selma Steinerová died in 2010. Since then, the shop has been owned by former employees who continue running it under the Steiner family name. The oval sign with the Steiner still hangs outside.

‘May their memory be a blessing’ … זיכרונה לברכה

‘May their souls be bound up in the bond of everlasting life’ … a memorial to the Steiner family at the antiquarian shop on Ventúrska recalls their sufferings in the Holocaust (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Reading Saint Luke’s Gospel
in Advent 2019: Luke 19

James Tissot, ‘Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Awaiting the Passage of Jesus’ (Brooklyn Museum) … see Luke 19: 1-10

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 19 (NRSVA):

1 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ 9 Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’

11 As they were listening to this, he went on to tell a parable, because he was near Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. 12 So he said, ‘A nobleman went to a distant country to get royal power for himself and then return. 13 He summoned ten of his slaves, and gave them ten pounds, and said to them, “Do business with these until I come back.” 14 But the citizens of his country hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, “We do not want this man to rule over us.” 15 When he returned, having received royal power, he ordered these slaves, to whom he had given the money, to be summoned so that he might find out what they had gained by trading. 16 The first came forward and said, “Lord, your pound has made ten more pounds.” 17 He said to him, “Well done, good slave! Because you have been trustworthy in a very small thing, take charge of ten cities.” 18 Then the second came, saying, “Lord, your pound has made five pounds.” 19 He said to him, “And you, rule over five cities.” 20 Then the other came, saying, “Lord, here is your pound. I wrapped it up in a piece of cloth, 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a harsh man; you take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.” 22 He said to him, “I will judge you by your own words, you wicked slave! You knew, did you, that I was a harsh man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? 23 Why then did you not put my money into the bank? Then when I returned, I could have collected it with interest.” 24 He said to the bystanders, “Take the pound from him and give it to the one who has ten pounds.” 25 (And they said to him, “Lord, he has ten pounds!”) 26 “I tell you, to all those who have, more will be given; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. 27 But as for these enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them – bring them here and slaughter them in my presence”.’

28 After he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

29 When he had come near Bethphage and Bethany, at the place called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of the disciples, 30 saying, ‘Go into the village ahead of you, and as you enter it you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden. Untie it and bring it here. 31 If anyone asks you, “Why are you untying it?” just say this: “The Lord needs it.”’ 32 So those who were sent departed and found it as he had told them. 33 As they were untying the colt, its owners asked them, ‘Why are you untying the colt?’ 34 They said, ‘The Lord needs it.’ 35 Then they brought it to Jesus; and after throwing their cloaks on the colt, they set Jesus on it. 36 As he rode along, people kept spreading their cloaks on the road. 37 As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives, the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen, 38 saying,

‘Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!’

39 Some of the Pharisees in the crowd said to him, ‘Teacher, order your disciples to stop.’ 40 He answered, ‘I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out.’

41 As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, 42 saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. 43 Indeed, the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up ramparts around you and surround you, and hem you in on every side. 44 They will crush you to the ground, you and your children within you, and they will not leave within you one stone upon another; because you did not recognize the time of your visitation from God.’

45 Then he entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling things there; 46 and he said, ‘It is written,

“My house shall be a house of prayer”;
but you have made it a den of robbers.’

47 Every day he was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; 48 but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.

A prayer for today:

A prayer today from the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG, United Society Partners in the Gospel:

Lord, help us to do our little part, to lean on you, to create an enabling environment, in our part of the world; an environment that reflects care and love for your creation.

Tomorrow: Luke 20.

Yesterday: Luke 18.

The Parable of the Talents (Luke 19: 11-27) … a stained-glass window in Saint Michael’s Church, Limerick (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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