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Music fading for Jewish Slovaks

The Jewish community in Slovakia, which only 50 years ago was over 150,000 strong, has fallen to a mere 3,000 and is in serious danger of extinction. Although groups which promote Jewish religious and cultural life still exist in this country, they are struggling for finances as well as for the hearts and minds of the younger generation, battles whose outcome will determine whether Jewish spirit and tradition survive in Slovakia.
Walking into the headquarters of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities, one is struck at once by an impression both of past strength and present uncertainty. Tucked away under the Bratislava castle near the Slovak capital's historical centre, the very location of the Jewish Union is evidence of the social prestige it used to enjoy, but the cracked walls and modest furniture contained within reflect the decay the community has suffered since then.


Slovakia is covered with neglected Jewish cemeteries, like this one in Jelšava. With the country's Jewish community now only 2% of the size it was before World War II, such sites have become a depressing sign of how far Slovak Jewry has fallen since its illustrious heyday .
photo: TASR

The Jewish community in Slovakia, which only 50 years ago was over 150,000 strong, has fallen to a mere 3,000 and is in serious danger of extinction. Although groups which promote Jewish religious and cultural life still exist in this country, they are struggling for finances as well as for the hearts and minds of the younger generation, battles whose outcome will determine whether Jewish spirit and tradition survive in Slovakia.

Walking into the headquarters of the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities, one is struck at once by an impression both of past strength and present uncertainty. Tucked away under the Bratislava castle near the Slovak capital's historical centre, the very location of the Jewish Union is evidence of the social prestige it used to enjoy, but the cracked walls and modest furniture contained within reflect the decay the community has suffered since then.

"Currently, the Jewish community numbers only 2% of its pre-WW II level," said Pavol Traubner, honourary head of the Jewish Union. "Seventy percent of the living population is old and sick, and this worries us."

According to representatives of the community, the alarming situation faced by Slovak Jews has its roots in the massive deportation of Jews during WW II and the subsequent ideological persecution of religious groups by the communists from 1948 to 1989. "About 70,000 Jews were deported from the Slovak [fascist] state during the Second World War, and animosity towards Jews continued during communism, especially in the 1950s and 1960s," said Fero Alexander, executive head of the Jewish Union.

He explained that communist animosity towards the Jews had peaked in the late 1960's, when the Bratislava Jewish town settlement along with its main synagogue was bulldozed to make way for a new bridge across the Danube River. Many of those Jews who had survived the war decided to leave the country at this point, especially as it coincided with the Soviet Union's invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the 'Prague Spring' reforms.

According to Alexander, Slovakia's two strongest surviving Jewish communities are in Bratislava and Košice. "The Bratislava community numbers about 1,000 Jewish people, mainly Holocaust survivors. Thus, we are focused on securing a reasonable life for our older generation," he said.

The Košice community concentrates on the same group. "The majority of our 500 members are senior citizens." said Ivan Kolín, head of the Košice Jewish community. "Unfortunately, our financial situation doesn't allow us to do more than provide them with basic medical help and a modest place to meet for a game of cards during the day," he said.

"We don't even have a rabbi because the community hasn't been successful in attracting one for almost two years now," Kolín noted, explaining that the prospects of finding a religious leader in the near future were bleak. "Not everyone is willing to come here to Slovakia. It's a shame because there is no one to lead our youth [about 100 members]," Kolín added.

Slovakia's only rabbi, American Baruch Myers, lives in Bratislava, where he has led the community for over seven years. Myers said he had considered working in Slovakia a challenge. "The community is not yet built up, and because there is so much to do I thought it was a great opportunity to come here," the rabbi explained, adding that many members of the community in Slovakia still lived a life where their religion was kept closely under wraps.

"They haven't come out yet. Many of these people are still influenced by the terror of the holocaust, and that memory survives. They fear that if they come out they may be treated differently, negatively. They don't want to suffer just beacuse they are Jewish. There is still antisemitism in central Europe."

The youth

While Myers's words seem to spell a dark future for the community, younger Jews are still active, especially in Bratislava and Košice, often organising trips, seminars or educational camps across the country.

"We started to meet in 1990, right after the Velvet Revolution," said Robo Haas, a 23 year old university student from Galanta, who is also a head of the Slovak Union of Jewish Youth. "In Bratislava, we meet almost every Friday and Sunday to socialise and learn about Jewish history and religion," he said, adding that rather than being a religious organisation, the Jewish Youth Union focused on making themselves more popular and accessible to all who wanted to learn about the Jewsih nation and its culture. "People who feel some kind of affinity towards Jews come to us, as do those who are simply interested in our tradition and history," Haas said.

The religious and cultural traditions of the Jewish community have also received a musical boost in the form of a band named PKB, founded five years ago by seven young Slovak Jews who have gradually won a name for themselves playing traditional Jewish music in Slovakia.

"The Pressburger Klezmer Band (PKB) was inspired by Jewish synagogue music, but we add a little jazz and Slovak folk to it," said Samuel Alexander, a 22 year-old bass player and solo singer with PKB. Fellow band member Andrej Werner said that by playing traditional Jewish music in a modern form, the band was trying to "re-invent a forgotten part of Slovak culture, because Jewish people were a part of this culture."

"People are often very surprised at the tone of the music," said Werner. "For some reason they believe that Jewish music must be sad and full of melancholy. But that is not the case." With catchy melodies and songs that delicately blend sadness and joy typical in Jewish 'klezmer' muusic, PKB has found an audience outside the Jewish community. Samuel Alexander said that Ralph Johnson, former US ambassador to Slovakia, was a big fan of the band.

The Jewish community, too, looks warmly on the young band. "They are a very talented group of young people, and by playing klezmer music they can help recover the culture of this region," said Traubner. "Young people like them are a hope for us that the Jewish tradition will carry on."

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