The Disappearing Places of Our Jewish Past in the Old Country

Traces of Jewish Life Vanishing in Slovakia

A synagogue in the city of Trencin, located near the western Czech border.
wikicommons
A synagogue in the city of Trencin, located near the western Czech border.

By Emil Fish

Published February 24, 2014, issue of February 28, 2014.
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I was born in a city in eastern Slovakia, called Bardejov.

When I was growing up, we Jews made up nearly a third of the city. We had synagogues, schools, a number of communal organizations, even a couple of Hebrew publishing houses. Then came the Holocaust. Only several hundred of us survived. Some of us came back, but in 1948 the Communists took over, and by 1950 only a handful of families remained. I left Bardejov in 1949, after my bar mitzvah, and did not return again until 2005.

I came back just after Meyer Spira died. For a long time, he and his brother-in-law were the last two Jews left in Bardejov. All those years, long after it was clear that there would never again be a minyan, Spira had watched over the Bikur Cholim synagogue, where I had had my bar mitzvah just three years after being liberated from Bergen-Belsen.

Still, despite everything that Spira did, Bikur Cholim was dilapidated. And the other centers of Jewish life in Bardejov — places that date back 200 years — were either in worse condition or had become regular places of business, as if those who hadn’t made it back had never lived there.

The Old Synagogue was being used as a warehouse for a hardware supply company called Unikov. To this day, the company still runs its business out of the mikveh and beit midrash, which, together with the Old Synagogue, form Bardejov’s Jewish Suburbia, as the compound is called in Slovak.

The Jewish Suburbia is not just a holy place, it is also a historic place. The compound was one of the reasons UNESCO picked Bardejov as a World Heritage Site in 2000, turning the city into a tourist destination. It is also one of the few things left in Bardejov that shows that not so long ago — when I was a boy — there used to be hustling, bustling Jewish life there.

Being in Bardejov and seeing that the Jewish Suburbia was being used to sell and store hardware supplies was just too much. I simply could not stand by and let our history disappear. And so I acted.

That, really, is what this story is about. I acted because I felt that a part of Jewish history — my Jewish history — was being destroyed. I acted because I knew that if I did not do something about it, two generations from now there would be nothing Jewish left in Bardejov except the gravestones in the cemeteries, and maybe not even those.


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