Slovakia lies in the heart of Europe and boasts magnificent scenery, gems of architecture, vivid folk traditions and as many as 300 spectacular castles, but it remains little known in the collective consciousness as a tourist destination. Bratislava is located just 40 miles east from Vienna. It is perfect for a day trip but well worth a visit on its own. The beautifully renovated Old Town is home to Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. From the royal castle on a clear day one can see as far as Vienna and Hungary.
The Jewish community of Bratislava, whose origins can be traced back to medieval times, has played a major role throughout history, at times making up one third of the entire city population. Bratislava has an active Jewish community and precious Jewish heritage sites, including a synagogue and two museums. Jews from the world over travel to Bratislava to learn about the great rabbinic scholar Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762-1839).
The political changes after the fall of Communism in 1989 prompted a renaissance of Jewish life in Bratislava. More than 100 synagogues still stand in Slovakia. And though only a handful are still used for religious purposes, a number are listed as historic monuments and some have recently been restored. In addition, there are several Jewish museums, permanent exhibitions and other historic sites, as well as more than 600 Jewish cemeteries scattered around the country. Bratislava even has its own small memorial to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved tens of thousands of Jews, including many from Bratislava.
Slovakia today is home to about 2,600 Jews, the majority of whom live in Bratislava, the capital, which has the largest Jewish active community in the country with approximately 1,100 members, and with smaller Jewish communities in Košice, Presov, Piestany, and Nowy Zamky. The major communal organization that maintains Jewish life is the Federation of Jewish Communities in Slovakia. There are many Jewish organizations and events in Slovakia, such as the Summer and Winter Maccabi Games (a sporting event attended every year by about 200 Jews), Moadon Camps for Children (summer camps attended by dozens of children every year), and the Slovak Union of Jewish Youth (social events for young Jews). The only Jewish kindergarten is currently in Bratislava.
The Heydukova Street Synagogue
The Heydukova Street Synagogue is the only active synagogue servicing the needs of the local Jewish community, as it maintains a full range of religious, cultural, educational and social activities.
An austere but elegant building in an oriental style, this beautiful synagogue was built for the city’s Orthodox Jews from 1923 to 1926 following the plans of architect Arthur Szalatnai-Slatinski, and is listed as a national cultural monument. It is open for Shabbat services as well as on Monday and Thursday mornings. The synagogue exterior has a towerless, seven-pillared colonnade facing the street. The interior includes a spacious sanctuary in which modern steel-and-concrete construction and contemporary Cubist details are combined with historic elements, such as the arcade of the women’s gallery, a metal bimah, and the ark. A community museum is installed upstairs, which is open to the public during the summer season.
Malacky Synagogue, one of the most beautiful in Slovakia and built in the Moorish style, dates from 1900. It belongs today to the municipality and is used as an art school.
Stupava Synagogue is one of the oldest in Slovakia, built in 1803, and represents a unique example of the nine-bay type. After a previous restoration it will be used as a central archive and book deposit for the Slovak Jewish community.
A moving memorial is the site of the former Neolog Synagogue. This discrete steel and stone sculpture commemorates the 105,000 lives of those killed in the Holocaust. The memorial, which stands close to where the Neolog Synagogue once stood, was demolished in 1967 by the Soviets in order to make way for the Novy Most Danube Bridge. The memorial consists of a metal structure that was made by Milan Lukac; behind it is a picture of the old synagogue. The modest structure is topped by a modernistic “Magen David” – Star of David – and is etched sharply against the sun-lit background. The Hebrew characters on the monument (depicted in the accompanying photo) mean “Remember.
Jewish Community Museum
The Jewish Community Museum’s permanent exhibition, “The Jews of Bratislava and Their Heritage,” is located on the upper floor of the synagogue. The museum was established by the Bratislava Jewish community in 2012 to research and preserve its heritage.
The museum unveils the lives of Bratislava’s once-thriving Jewish community through photographs and objects from daily life, with a focus on the impressive Jewish architecture lost both during and after World War II. Most moving are the oil paintings of death marches, created by Jewish survivors of the war, and timelines of the community’s destruction by the Nazis. This museum belongs to the Slovak National Museum and its collections form part of the Slovak Jewish heritage. It documents the life of Jewish community before and after the World War II as well as the Holocaust period. You will find a display of valuable Judaica, and evidence of the vibrant life and traditions of Slovak Jewry. The most famous items in the museum collection are two valuable Chevra Kadisha jugs from the western Slovak town of Senica. A memorial hall with the names of important Jewish personalities of Slovak descent and an installation recreating a small synagogue sanctuary are highlights of the exhibition. Each year, the museum, which is open to the public from May 20 to October 10, organizes a special exhibition with a Bratislava-Jewish theme.
Bratislava has two Jewish burial lots, established in the 19th century by the city’s Orthodox and Neolog (more liberal) communities. Both are located on the southwestern edge of the Old Town district, on the slopes leading to the Danube embankment. The cemeteries are still used for the burial of members of the Jewish community in Bratislava. You will find here thousands of graves belonging to Bratislava’s Jewish residents, including rabbis, scholars, doctors, lawyers and artists who in the past contributed significantly to the city’s prosperity and development.
Perhaps the most moving and symbolic Jewish monument in Bratislava is the renovated underground mausoleum containing the tomb of the Chatam Sofer, one of the most influential Jewish scholars of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The mausoleum, a place of pilgrimage for Orthodox Jews of Central Europe, lies outside the city center, and its entrance is on the main highway along the Danube through a door cut into a black structure. You descend a stairway into a hushed, low-lit, subterranean chamber where 23 graves and 41 gravestones that surrounds the Chatam Sofer’s tomb were preserved. It is encircled by a concrete shell and covered with panels, and the final resting place of other sages as well. Other tombstones are arranged around the walls. This underground site is the only surviving remnant of Bratislava’s old Jewish cemetery, which was destroyed during World War II. In 2000-2002, the whole site was redeveloped and the gravestones restored. The architect Martin Kvasnica designed a striking new complex that adheres to the strict requirements of Halacha (Jewish law) as well as to the highest standards of contemporary architecture. This unique compound is often visited by Jewish pilgrims from around the world. Not far from the mausoleum, some 600 feet up the hill (the entrance is on Zizkova Street), is an Orthodox cemetery established in 1846 and still in use today. Many of the 7,000 tombstones here are from older cemeteries elsewhere.
A memorial plaque was placed inside the Orthodox cemetery, commemorating the 13,000 Jews of Bratislava who were murdered during the Holocaust. Additionally, a monument in memory of the Slovakian–Jewish victims of the Nazi regime was erected on the site of the former Pressburg Yeshiva. In order to preserve and promote this heritage, a local non-profit group, the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center, recently established the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route, which connects the most important Jewish monuments in Slovakia, including the Chatam Sofer Memorial and the Museum of Jewish Culture.
Take a step back into medieval times when you visit Bratislava. It is love at first sight and oozes style, culture and history. Stroll the streets of the city from the historic Old Town, an 18th-century village filled with bars and cafes to the modern UFO Bridge.
Take a stroll around Bratislava Main Square
The heart of Bratislava’s Old Town is the Main Square, a public plaza surrounded by outdoor cafes and local shops selling souvenirs. Some of the main landmarks found on the square are the Old Town Hall; Roland Fountain; embassies of Japan, Greece and France; Apponyi Palace; Palace of the Hungarian exchange bank; and Palugyay Palace. Welcoming ceremonies for foreign dignitaries are held in the Main Square.
Another early structure in the Old Town is the last vestige of Bratislava’s original four medieval gates, protecting the east entrance to the city. Michael’s Gate climbs to 51 meters, over an elegant tangle of streets, and dates to the very start of the 14th century. In the tower there’s another branch of the Bratislava City Museum, with an exhibition about the old fortifications and medieval weaponry. Make your way up to the tower’s sixth floor, as this is a handy vantage point over the Old Town.
This is one of the most beautiful and well-preserved classicist buildings in Bratislava. Visitors can enjoy royal tapestries from 1630, examples of period furniture from the 18th and 19th centuries in every room, and the elegance of the Hall of Mirrors.
The Memorial and military cemetery Slavín is located on the hill above the city and offers spectacular panoramic views of the capital. It is the burial ground of 6,845 Soviet soldiers who died during World War II when liberating Bratislava and Western Slovakia in 1945. The site consists of six mass graves, 278 individual graves and a 39.5-meter-high obelisk with a sculpture of a Soviet soldier.
Bratislava Opera House
Bratislava is an excellent destination to enjoy opera and it may be a surprise to many, but this city has two opera houses. The Old Opera Building in Bratislava is a neo-Renaissance structure with a charming Ganymede Fountain by Viktor Tilgner in the front.
A Rococo summer palace from the 18th century, it used to be known for its rich social life; the composer Joseph Haydn also performed here. Since 1996 it has served as the seat of the President of the Slovak Republic.
Most SNP and UFO
Another iconic symbol of the city, the Most SNP (Bridge of the Slovak National Uprising) opened in 1972, and holds the record as the world’s longest cable bridge to have only one pylon and a single set of cables. At the top of that pylon is a structure known as the “UFO.” At 95 meters above the river with amazing views of the city, this disc-like building houses a restaurant reached via an elevator up the pylon’s east pillar. Book a table for a meal with a memorable view, or just come to the observation deck to see the Danube and old Bratislava in all their glory.
Statues in the Old Town: Bratislava’s got a few funny statues around which provide perfect photo ops.. in unexpected places.
Don’t be surprised if you’re walking around Bratislava’s Old Town and you encounter a quirky man peeping out of a manhole. He is Cumil, also known as The Peeper, one of the statues placed in Bratislava in 1997 in an attempt to make the city a livelier place. He’s a cheeky-looking sewer worker poking out of a manhole with his chin resting on his arms. What he’s doing here isn’t explained; he could either be an unmotivated communist-era worker taking a break, or a rascal trying to look up women’s skirts.
Náci was a man who became an essential fixture of the atmosphere of Bratislava’s streets and cafés for almost 40 years. Inhabitants of Bratislava knew him as a polite, quiet and poor man, always nicely dressed in a tailcoat and hat. He used to walk around the Old Town greeting women with the words “I kiss your hand” in German, Hungarian and Slovak and presenting them with flowers.
One of the most popular places for taking pictures is the bronze statue of Napoleon’s soldier leaning against a bench on the Main Square in the Old Town. The statue commemorates the stay of French soldiers back in 1805 when 300 riders and 9,000 infantrymen marched into the streets of Bratislava. The French victory was confirmed in the agreement known as the Peace of Pressburg.
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide