09 April 2021

Hundreds of lost Jewish
gravestones, missing since 1940s,
found again in Bratislava

The graves of rabbis buried beside the Chatam Sofer in Bratislava (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, at the end of 2019, I visited the Chatam Sofer Memorial, a unique Jewish heritage site. This is revered by many Orthodox Jews as the most sacred burial ground and place of pilgrimage in Europe.

The Chatam Sofer Memorial is the sole remaining part of the centuries-old Jewish cemetery that was destroyed in 1943 when a nearby tunnel was constructed. Only the most important section of the cemetery, with 23 graves surrounding the Chatam Sofer’s tomb, was preserved as an underground compound.

Now, the exciting discovery has been reported this week of hundreds of centuries-old matzevot or gravestones from the Old Jewish Cemetery in Bratislava, demolished nearly 80 years ago.

These gravestones had long been presumed lost or destroyed. But in a remarkable discovery, reported this week by Jewish Heritage Europe, hundreds of gravestones from the destroyed old cemetery have come 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. It seems they had 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 the last two months.

‘This is probably one of the most important projects for the preservation of the cultural heritage of our community in recent years, which certainly goes beyond regional significance,’ he said on the Bratislava Jewish community web site.

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.

Mr Stern told JHE that fragments will be used to create a commemorative lapidarium at the Orthodox cemetery, while the best-preserved intact stones will be transferred back to the site of the old cemetery and re-erected as a complement to the underground memorial of the great sage Rabbi Moses or Moshe Schreiber (1762-1839), known as Chatam Sofer.

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

This memorial also preserves the only 23 tombs from the Old Cemetery that were not removed from the site or destroyed. They are encased in a concrete shell and covered over, and even in communist times were a site of pilgrimage. They are now conserved in a memorial compound designed by the architect Martin Kvasnica in 2000-2002.

The Old Jewish Cemetery was established near the banks of the Danube in the 1690s, and was Bratislava’s main Jewish cemetery until 1847. It was demolished during World War II in 1942-1943, when a tunnel was built near the site. The matzevot were removed, and most of the graves were exhumed and reburied in a mass grave in the Orthodox cemetery.

Apart from the 23 gravestones conserved in the Chatam Sofer complex, the matzevot from the Old Cemetery were presumed to have been lost or destroyed. Their discovery is a remarkable story.

Mr Stern told JHE this week that in the 1990s he learned that at least some of these gravestones had survived. ‘One of the last members of the [Jewish community], who participated on the matzevot removal […] was still alive, and told me that in the bushes there are the stones from the old cemetery,’ he said.

People checked the area, but only saw around 20 or 30 stones, he said.

But earlier this year, as president of the community, he raised funds to clear the area and look further. The project involved cutting trees, removing heavy brush and clearing accumulated soil. As the work progressed, hundreds of heaped-up intact stones and fragments were revealed.

The Jewish community in Bratislava is carrying out the project, in co-operation with outside experts, and is trying to raise €20,000 to complete the excavation. Daniel Polakovic, from the Jewish Museum in Prague, will oversee the translation of epitaphs, and Martin Kvasnica, the architect of the Chatam Sofer memorial, will advise on the placement of matzevot at the site.

The Chatam Sofer Memorial in Bratislava was designed by the architect Martin Kvasnica (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)

Praying in Lent and Easter 2021:
52, Resurrection panel, Ennis Friary

The panel depicting the Resurrection of Christ on the Royal or MacMahon tomb in the Franciscan Friary, Ennis, Co Clare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During the Season of Easter this year, I am continuing my theme from Lent, taking some time each morning to reflect in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship that has been significant in my spiritual life;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society, Partners in the Gospel).

Easter began on Sunday with Easter Day. This week, I am offering photographs of images of the Resurrection from seven churches, some of which I have already visited during the season of Lent.

My photographs this morning (9 April 2021) are from the ruins of the Franciscan Friary in Ennis, Co Clare. The Royal or MacMahon tomb is said to have been commissioned around 1470 by Máire O’Brien MacMahon, the wife of Terence MacMahon of Corcovaskin.

The sequence of images on the tomb suggests that this was an Easter sepulchre, a representation of Christ’s tomb that would have been placed to the left of the main altar and would have been a focus of the Easter ceremonies, when the general laity were given the rare opportunity to pass through the rood screen from the nave to the chancel. The panels on the tomb narrate the scenes of the Passion: the Arrest of Christ, his Flagellation, his Crucifixion, his Entombment and the Resurrection. All are modelled on English alabaster tables.

The panel depicting Christ and the Twelve Apostles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 21: 1-14 (NRSVA):

1 After these things Jesus showed himself again to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way. 2 Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas called the Twin, Nathanael of Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two others of his disciples. 3 Simon Peter said to them, ‘I am going fishing.’ They said to him, ‘We will go with you.’ They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

4 Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. 5 Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ 6 He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. 7 That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake. 8 But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

9 When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. 10 Jesus said to them, ‘Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.’ 11 So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, a hundred and fifty-three of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. 12 Jesus said to them, ‘Come and have breakfast.’ Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, ‘Who are you?’ because they knew it was the Lord. 13 Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. 14 This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary:

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (9 April 2021) invites us to pray:

Let us pray for migrant women who travel across continents seeking a better life; a life based on hope.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

The Royal or MacMahon tomb once stood against the north wall of the chancel in the Franciscan Friary in Ennis (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