Salner Peter


In his memoirs, Günter Grass used the analogy of “peeling the onion” and
he gradually peeled off layers of his memories. This procedure did not work
in researching the Bratislava (not only the Jewish) society of the 20th century.
Due to historic events, several significant city-forming elements of the
inhabitants disappeared from the Bratislava demographic map (but also
from the memory of most contemporaries). Prior to the Holocaust, Orthodox
Jews predominated in the city. Today, they make up a negligible, even forgotten
minority. A similar fate affected the Zionists, too. According to available
data, 10,000 Jewish people left Slovakia between 1945 and 1949; of them,
90% chose Palestine/Israel as their target country. Migrants from the countryside
replaced them. However, they were not able to make up for past losses,
either in terms of quantity or quality. There was enough evidence that “peeling
of onion” is not suitable if the studied sample does not represent a whole
spectrum of a given environment. If this method were mechanically applied,
it would result in a simplified picture of both the Jewish community and the
city in which it lived. It is also important to consider the fact that the Holocaust
influenced not only the demographic community structure, but also the
value system of its members. Thus, there is the seemingly paradoxical procedure
of “wrapping the onion up.”


Bratislava, Jews, collective memory, 20 th century

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Among the dominant sites of Rybné námestie (Fish Square) in the center of
Bratislava was not only Saint Martin’s Dome but also a beautiful Neologue synagogue.
In the mid-1960s it gave way to more pragmatic needs of the developing
city. It was replaced by the New Bridge and only the Holocaust Victims’
Memorial symbolically indicates the former Jewish presence in this space.
The inscription on the pedestal of the monument contains the Hebrew word
“Zakhor!” and its Slovak translation “Remember!” The memorial is supposed
to be a memento of the tragedy of the Jewish community, but at the same time
it is also a silent memento for ethnologists. It warns us to approach human
(individual as well as collective) cautiously and critically… On the
basis of testimonies of two generations I try to illustrate how and why the picture
of the Jewish community (but also the German, Hungarian and, in fact,
the whole community of Bratislava) was (de)formed in the interwar period.
In his memoirs, German writer Günter Grass used the analogy of peeling
the onion and gradually peeled one layer of memories after another. A similar
technique is also routinely applied in ethnology. However, in the case of the
Bratislava (and not only Jewish) society of the 20th century, this procedure has
not proven useful. It turned out that the peeled onion is not complete and the
resulting picture corresponded with this fact. Historical events of the recent
past brought about partial or even total elimination (from the Bratislava demographic
map and from people’s memory) of important groups of city residents
who had previously created the spirit of the city.
For my analysis I use findings of the projects “They Survived the Holocaust”
between 1994 and 1997 carried out by the Milan Šimečka Foundation
in cooperation with Yale University (see Vrzgulová 2002). Most of the 149 witnesses
were born and/or lived in Bratislava. I map the generation of “children
of the Holocaust” (born between 1940 and 1952) through more than 14,000
e‑mails from the website established by Jewish emigrants from Bratislava. Its
main goal was to organize a reunion that took place in May 2005, but the site
also contains discussions and personal memories of the city. Almost all of the
202 participants have some personal ties to Bratislava (for more details, see
Salner 2007).
According to the census of 1930, 14,880 residents of Bratislava (11.7 % of
the population) declared their religion to be Jewish; in 2001, it was just a few
per mille (278 individuals). The present-day Jewish community is a small heterogeneous,
secular group of people linked together by ties of a common origin
rather than by traditional values of Judaism.
Before the Holocaust, the Orthodox denomination prevailed in the city. In
Bratislava, this denomination was personified by Khatam Sofer (Moshe Schreiber).
Especially thanks to him, Bratislava (in Hebrew or Yiddish still called
Pressburg) earned the name of “the second” or “Hungarian” Jerusalem. His
authority illustrates the fact that, from the year of his arrival in 1806 until the
forced expatriation of his great grandson in 1942, the position of the main city
rabbi was exclusively taken by his descendants. Until now, Orthodox Jews still
commemorate his personality and respect his decisions related to halakha.
At present, Orthodox Jews in Bratislava are only a negligible, even a forgotten
minority. Most of them perished in death camps and those who had survived
the Holocaust left Slovakia (for more details, see Salner 2000). Authentic
memories of contemporaries are only partly substituted by older memoir literature
published abroad (Gold 1932, Cohn 1999, Grünhut 1972, Kohút 1991
etc.). In his memoirs, Bratislava native Cohn (1929) illustrates that the affinity
to one’s own city and the personality of Khatam Sofer still influence (not
only) his thinking and acting. After all, he gave proof of this by his active participation
in the renovation of Khatam Sofer’s tomb (for more details, see Salner-
Kvasnica 2002). In the above-mentioned memoirs, he writes: “Pressburg
was a great center of Judaism in which the study of the Talmud and Torah provided
life energy, the substance of our daily life. Synagogues and study rooms
were on every corner and Jews studied the Scripture there with great intensity
and tender devotion. In Pressburg, Jewish family life flourished and the city
became a home for many students and scholars. As a matter of fact, the Pressburg
“Great Yeshiva” was one of the topnotch institutions not only in Central
Europe but in Europe as a whole.” (Cohn 1999:21-22)
The extinction of the once numerous Orthodox community meant that the
fame of the renowned rabbi is still present in the city, but not his influence. The
fostering of traditional values that he summed up in the legendary sentence
“khadash asur min ha-Torah,” which means “all that’s new the Torah prohibits”
(Myers 1997:36), has not become part of the normative system of the community.
Although Sofer’s name is known to and proudly remembered by all Bratislava
Jews, most of them reject Orthodox Judaism. Especially on his “yarzeit” (the
memorial day of his death), his grave resembles old Orthodox Pressburg rather
than the present secular Bratislava. But for the people of today Khatam Sofer is
not a role model; he is more a formal symbol of the long-gone past.
This fact is related to the forcible transformation of the community and
ensuing changes in its structure. In the interwar period, about 80 % of the
Bratislava Jews were Orthodox. The dominant position of traditional Judaism
is also illustrated by large-scale activities of various associations. The most
frequent were religious associations with Orthodox orientation. Also important
were charity and educational (mostly religious) activities. In Bratislava,
there were also a number of athletic and scout clubs. The Zionist movement
was especially active in this respect, as it deliberately prepared its members
for harsh conditions in the new homeland. Professional associations were also
common (for more details, see Grünsfeld 1932: 179-185, Grünhut 1972: 169-
170; Salner 1997: 67-68).
Even a cursory analysis shows that values of different branches of Judaism
were often incompatible. These differences persisted even during the Holocaust.
Although the regime planned the “final solution” for all Jews, the Orthodox
were more jeopardized than the rest of the community due to their visibility and
their refusal to make compromises on religious matters. Besides “official violence,”
“spontaneous” attacks by some Bratislava residents were also directed
against them. This situation is described by Cohn (1999:33): “Without a word
– no questions, no warnings, no explanations – one after another the three men
started to beat my father. First they beat him with their fists; they kicked him
while laughing devilishly. I cried out for help, but nobody came to rescue us.
I begged them to stop. I shouted as much as I could while they were beating him.
The local police did not help although they had never before been anti-Semitic.
They only looked on. The Hlinka Guards left my father on the street, bleeding,
motionless and almost unconscious. Proud of what they had just done, they
marched away. Only thanks to God’s grace did we escape death.
My father moaned slightly. My first thought was that he was dying, that they
had killed him. But he slowly got up and we silently walked back home. We
never spoke about this attack. Attacks like this became commonplace, so there
was nothing to speak about. We only thanked God that we were still alive.”
Avri F. (1953) and other witnesses confirm that the experience just mentioned
was by no means exceptional, and that attacks were mostly aimed at
Orthodox Jews: I think that the worst thing I’ve ever learned, and which is related
to Slovak, not German, anti-Semitism, happened during the days of the outbreak
of the war, on September 1, 1939. My uncle, my father’s brother, was an attorney,
Dr Gustáv Fischer. He lived on Palisády and was waiting for a bus when
two young bullies approached him and asked him if he was a Jew. He didn’t even
have to answer because he looked like a Jew and maybe they actually knew him.
They dragged him into a nearby house and beat him and left him there. Later my
mother told me that my uncle had been beaten up and that it wasn’t sure if he was
going to survive. I wanted to go see him in the hospital, and I went, and I saw him
in bed there; I don’t know if he saw us and if he was conscious, but I do know he
died the next day. He had internal bleeding and so on. A few days later, his wife –
they didn’t have children – could not cope with it and she committed suicide. She
jumped out of the window and died, too. So, this was something that had already
happened in our family before the death camps and all those things.
Religious people, if they survived, usually fled Slovakia right after the war.
The primary destination was Palestine/Israel, although for many reasons many
Orthodox Jews preferred overseas democratic countries. Traditional Judaism
left Bratislava not only physically. Customs, values and beliefs also disappeared
from people’s memory and from the memory map of the Jewish community. It
was the same with Zionists. The key thesis of their ideology was relocation to
the new homeland with the view of establishing a modern Jewish state. After
the Holocaust, it was Zionism that offered, especially to young people, a positive
outlook, including the possibility of returning to the lost faith. This situation
and the role of the Zionist movement (in her case of Hashomer Hacair) were
best described by Chava Š. (1935) as follows: In September I started attending
high school and my brother had already been long active in the Zionist movement
Hashomer Hacair, and I also joined in. That need to be part of something was
very strong. We loved Hashomer Hacair, which was on Zochova 3. There were two
buildings there – one for the Jewish Community, and we had religious school there
and next to it was a building for Jewish youth organizations. Down in the gymnasium
was Hashomer Hacair, in the middle there was Makabi Hacair and on
the upper story were Bnei Akiba and those more religious groups. We had a great
time there. Nobody ever mentioned the Holocaust. We buried it somewhere and
didn’t want to talk about it. We wanted to be young, healthy, bring new ideas…
and I think that those who were our leaders saved us, psychologically saved us. We
had had a bad childhood, but we had a nice adolescence. As a matter of fact, we
had nothing; it was the post-wartime times, but we didn’t care; we had our parties
and first loves and friendships and winter and summer camps; we were happy we
were about to live something important.
She was not the only one. According to available data, between 1945
and 1949 about 10,000 people left Slovakia, 90% of them for Palestine/Israel
(Jablonková 1998, see also Büchler 1998: 80; Bumová 2006: 122). The success
of Zionist efforts paradoxically meant the victory of ideas and simultaneous
destruction of the movement in Slovakia. Only fragments of the initial membership stayed. Campaigns of Communist power against Zionism and cosmopolitism
caused erstwhile activists to be unwilling to speak either about the
movement’s goals or their own activities. Zionism also fell out of the spectrum
of memories of the Bratislava Jews.
As is apparent, most of the community left Bratislava – either forcibly or
voluntarily. In their place, newcomers from various parts of the Slovak countryside
came. However, these could not measure up to the old community
either in terms of numbers or content. They did not know the history of the
city. Their perception of its history and affinity to Jewish traditions were different.
The decision to stay in Slovakia was linked in the minds of many Jews
with deliberate
assimilation. This strategy followed from a loss of faith after the
Holocaust, but also from the conviction that the Communist orientation of the
country guaranteed that the past would not be repeated. This went hand in hand
with the Slovakization of their original, mostly German surnames. The Fund of
the Plenipotentiary for Home Affairs in the Slovak National Archives contains
many applications for surname changes in 1945 and 1946. Their explanations
are very interesting and they help us understand both people’s motivations and
the climate of the period:
I have a German-sounding last name that I wish to change to the Slovaksounding
one since I belong to this nationality and I always have; I am applying
for a surname change from German to Slovak because I deem it undignified to
have a German name; As a Slovak I do not want to use a German-sounding name;
I am taking the liberty to humbly ask you to process my application swiftly as I am
in the process of applying for a small business license and, since I am baptized, as
is my wife, I would like to cut myself off from the past and start a new life in accordance
with my change of religion; I don’t want my old surname to remind me of the
old regime; I wish to start my new job with a Slovak last name; I have a non-Slovak
sounding name and my brother submitted a similar application so I would like
to ask you to handle my request also. I was persecuted because of my race, imprisoned
by the Gestapo in Auschwitz (I have a tattoo on my forearm). I have always
considered myself to be Slovak although my religion is Jewish, so I am asking you
to change my surname; I am applying for a surname change because my surname
is at odds with my thinking and feelings; I do not wish to have a surname of German
origin, particularly because my husband was shot by the Gestapo; I humbly
ask for expeditious processing of my application as my wife is a state-employed
teacher; I do not want to have any trouble that might follow if I kept my original
surname Kohn (for more details, see Salner 1998).
Many reinforced these attitudes of the period by joining the Communist
Party. Membership offered (at least seemingly) safety and better career outlooks.
At play were also other factors: gratefulness for the liberation of the
country by the Red Army, the conviction that the Communist Party would
create a just social system. Motives of revenge, opportunism, and fear cannot
be ruled out either. And many of those who acknowledged their background
rejected religious elements. Only a small part of those who stayed in Slovakia
admitted to being Jewish (see Salner 2000).
Their decisions (whether motivated by conviction or pragmatic reasons)
were also reflected in their personal lives. They often concealed their Jewish
origin even from their own children. These “children of the Holocaust,” i.e.,
people who were born between 1940 and 1955, were reaching adolescence at
the end of the 1950s and mostly in the 1960s. People came to their Jewish identity
in various ways; some through their homes and others (often against the
will of their families) from outside impulses. After August 1968, most members
of both the young and middle generations chose emigration. In comparison to
the period after the Holocaust, it is interesting to analyze the choice of destinations.
While in 1945 and 1946 Palestine/Israel prevailed, after the Soviet occupation
the situation was more complicated.
First of all, it must be said that most members of the community in the productive
age chose to leave the country. In the young and middle generations the
number of those who left relative to those who stayed in the country is much
larger than in the rest of the population. Heitlingerová (2007: 139), on the basis
of her own experiences, tried to explain this situation. As she writes: “Because
of their more cosmopolitan education, better command of languages and better
knowledge of the West, they didn’t fear emigration as much as many other
Czechs and Slovaks. In contrast to their non-Jewish counterparts, they could
rely on various forms of help from relatives, Western Jewish organizations and/
or Jewish host families.” This view was also confirmed by a sample of people
at the reunion. Of the 202 individuals born between 1940 and 1952 only 28
(13.8%) stayed in Slovakia. 86.2% of the people from this sample chose emigration.
Changes in value orientations, compared to the period after the Holocaust,
illustrate destination preferences: 30 people (14.8%) chose Israel (additional
data showed that Israel was the country of first choice for more than these 30
people, but some, for various reasons, moved to the USA, Australia, Germany,
etc.; nevertheless, even taking these facts into account, Israel was a much less
frequent destination than in the 1940s). Most people (34, or 16.8%) chose the
P. S a l n e r : P e e l i n g t h e B r a ti s l a v a O n i o n
USA; another 13.3% live in Canada. From the regional perspective, the majority
of the people chose countries in Central and Western Europe (see Salner 2006).
These data illustrate the direction and the mass scope of emigration (as
well as its impact on the life of the Bratislava community). The data should
not be taken too generally, but they do indicate prevailing trends. At least 174
individuals born between 1940 and 1952 left Slovakia. Among current members
of the Bratislava Jewish Religious Community there are only 136 people
in this age group. It is apparent that most of the members of this generation
emigrated and only a minority stayed in Slovakia. Impacts of this fact on the
community and individuals can be illustrated by an e‑mail by Tamara K. (at
present living in Montreal): Sunday evening when I looked around and saw all
those people engaged in conversation standing around me in groups I realized
what a big loss this has been for our home country when all of us able and precious
people left it. And even though we have found happiness in our new homes
and we would not trade them for anything, still we were robbed of the chance to
spend our lives together with our childhood friends. And I was sad when I realized
how we attacked like a swarm of locusts those who did stay in Bratislava and we
stirred up all those emotions and then we packed up and left. (A complex analysis
of the impact of emigration of the Jewish community would also need to take
into account the emigration of the generation of parents (who at that time were
middle aged) and the absence of the generation of children born abroad).
The last straw to show the dark side of the regime was the trial of Rudolf
Slánský. At that time, many members of my sample were already old enough
to be able to perceive what was happening around them. This is confirmed
by reactions to the e‑mail in which one contributor characterized Communism
as a criminal regime, but not as primarily anti-Semitic: “Communism is
an ideology
and it doesn’t fight against nations but against other ideologies.
I argue
its intention wasn’t to want to wipe out Jewry.” This opinion resulted in
a broad and often emotional polemic. Besides arguments, it brought many personal
experiences of the sample members. They show how they remembered
those times as well as Bratislava. People spoke about their parents’ or other
relatives’ incarceration; they recollected forcible relocations, expulsions from
work, troubles in school or workplace. Perhaps the strongest impression was
left by their emotional personal reflections on childhood experiences: “I can’t
take this any longer; I’m so shocked I can’t even argue. But I don’t know how
it was possible to conceal all that from the children – I would go to see my
father in the prison, to Příbram, Leopoldov etc., but that was after some time.
At first we didn’t even know if he was alive. When my father touched my pinkie
through bars, they punished him with solitary confinement and he was forbidden
to keep in touch with his family. That’s just a small detail, by the way.
Anybody can read my mom’s memoirs. I recommend them, although this may
sound strange from her own daughter” (Táňa L., Sweden). The above-mentioned
memoirs (Langerová 2007) published in Swedish and English portray
a very impressive picture of how “high politics” of the 1950s was mirrored in
the life of a concrete Jewish family.
This example is extreme in a way, but the topic also evoked negative feelings
in other people. As one of the directly afflicted stated: “This topic is VERY
painful, although you wrote exactly what I didn’t feel like writing. There are
many among us whose parents were in jail and we did not grow up in the most
healthy of climates” (Magda B., Israel).
In another case, childhood memories are related to forcible vacation of
the apartment and later also relocation from Bratislava, when her father was
placed in “production.” Consequences of dramatic events still remain in people’s
minds: “I’m also haunted by bad childhood memories when my dad was
kicked out of work (in one hour). Then they kicked us out of our apartment and
we lived in Lafranconi (outskirts of the then-Bratislava) where you also lived
in Auntie Hajlig’s basement, and we lived one story above you, at my mother’s
aunt’s place in one room. And in Pukanec (with my mom’s relatives), where
my sister was born, they sent us to the movies on Sunday so that we wouldn’t
cry when dad was leaving for Bratislava where he worked in ‘production.’ All
this remains burnt into one’s mind, one’s soul.” (Minka N., Germany). This
e‑mail had an unplanned continuation. In the book Censored Life, Ladislav Porjez
described the circumstances under which he met Minka’s father during
his visit to Bratislava: “I was struck when in one of the ditches I was passing
by I saw my former classmate from the Michalovce high school digging with
a pick. It was engineer Bernard Schönbrun, who after the liberation kept his
second, more Slovak-sounding name Knežo, under which his Aryan papers
had saved him from transports. ‘Hi Berco,’ I bellowed, ‘are you volunteering for
public works?’ My friend Berco leaned on his pick for a moment and then he
angrily shouted at me. ‘What volunteer work, you ass? They kicked me out of
the office and this is what I have already had to do for two months.’ I was taken
aback so I asked tactlessly: ‘And what did you do?’ Berco was mad: ‘Do you live
on Mars, moron? Or don’t they give Jews the sack in Mother Prague?’”
Life could be made unpleasant not only by forced relocations, but also by
the allocation of one or more rooms in one’s apartment to complete strangers.
This was often not the only repression: “They did not kick my mom and her
two daughters (my sister and me) out of the apartment, but they placed a family
in our place. We lived under constant supervision, if that could be called a life.
I still vividly remember how my mom would stroll by the police office each day
while my dad was kept in Bratislava. I don’t like to go back to this topic; it’s still
too painful, even today” (Magda B., Israel).
Amir S. (Israel) illustrates the harassment experienced by small business
owners. In addition to direct repressions, he points out the phenomenon of fear
present in the whole of Slovak society (for more details, see Kamenec 1992).
But fear had a special place in the Jewish milieu, where memories of the Holocaust
were still alive: “I would add that I well remember how my father feared
they would kick him out of the Party. He was an entrepreneur and, in addition
to huge taxes, he also paid in another way – with his membership in the
Party. He knew very well that the moment he lost his Party membership card
he would lose his business. The father of our neighbor was in jail because they
“proved” that he had been hiding a transmitter in a Jewish cemetery and was
sending messages to Israel.”
An attempt at some generalization of memories and experiences also
points to the ubiquitous fear that influenced everyday life of (Jewish) people:
“Unfortunately, this was not just some Jewish paranoia and, as somebody
said, ‘The fact that you are paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being followed by
the secret police.’ I do not claim that at the time it was only Jews who were persecuted.
There were many groups of freethinkers that the Communist regime
did not like, but they were persecuted because of their views and not because
they were ‘Jews.’ Many Jews changed their names in order not to be harassed.
Some committed suicide to avoid being arrested. Many were fired from their
jobs, but many were unlucky enough to have been arrested and spent time in
prison on not very clear charges. Anyhow, Jews lived in constant fear of when
and from where it was going to strike them again. Of course, they tried to protect
their children and, as much as possible, held information back from them”
(Dada K., Israel).
The voluminous e‑mail correspondence also mirrors the fact that the
majority of this sample group are the first generation born in Bratislava. They
lack the historical background; their relationship with the city and community
is limited to what they could learn through their own experience. Similarly,
their religious feelings are lukewarm. They confirm the thesis of Heitlinger
(2007:114) according to whom “…in most Czech and Slovak Jews of the postwar
generation, Judaism did not inspire as strong emotions as mentions about
the Holocaust, Israel, communism or anti-Semitism.” Still, especially during
the holidays, childhood memories or religious thoughts also come to the forefront:
“I was most moved by the picture of the Heydukova synagogue. I also
remember how, on many holidays, we ran around the backyard or told jokes
and looked at boys. I could kick myself for not even going to look there when
I was in Bratislava” (Tamara K., Montreal). “I, too, was moved by that picture
of the synagogue on Heydukova. I was recollecting how we played chase in the
yards and how Ďula-bácsi came to scold us because we were too noisy – and we
gathered nuts in the garden there…” (Katka K., London). Rather telling is also
the remark of Viktor R. who regards as one of the highlights of his stay in Bratislava
the moments when he and his childhood friend could stand in the synagogue
on those places where their fathers once used to gather and pray.
also interesting are e‑mails about religious education. Although several
people from the sample group write about this topic, they do not disconfirm
Heitlinger’s thesis, as they still constitute a minority. The main character
of many stories was Mr. E., who used to prepare boys for their bar mitzvah.
What stayed in the memories of his pupils were not only Orthodox religious
facts he taught them, but also memories of his unorthodox teaching methods.
But it seems that in spite of their unconventional nature they bore fruits: “In
all Bratislava, there wasn’t a single child who would not go to Mr. E’s classes.”
(Peter D., Israel). “I will never forget the words he told me when he was teaching
me for my bar mitzvah, ‘Where are you now, dear son? while he was pulling
my peyes.” (Tomy K., Israel); “I wished it had stopped with pulling my peyes.
What about those slaps and banging on the table? That’s nothing? And I’m not
mentioning that his pupils had to use umbrellas to stay dry from his saliva.” And
next day the same contributor (Michal D. from Israel) added: “I didn’t go to Mr.
E. only to get bar mitzvah classes. He taught me for a good deal of years. That
was some ‘folklore’! (I remember some of my classmates who, because of his
special methods, burst into tears and Mr. E. then wiped their eyes with his used
handkerchief…That was fun.)”; “Just now Ivan is telling me how he used to lecture
him while, of course, pulling his ear, ‘Read, son, read.’ As a matter of fact,
this method must have worked because, when we came to Israel in 1968, Ivan
could read Ivrit (modern Hebrew) almost perfectly and he found ulpan (Hebrew
study center for new emigrants to Israel) even easier (Soňa V., Toronto);
These activities were also seen from another angle: “At any rate, it was
no small thing that during that regime we could gin at least some knowledge
of our faith. In that way continuity was ensured. We should thank Mr. E. for
undertaking that task. And he wasn’t a teacher? How many so-called teachers
are there in the world that shouldn’t even be let near children?” (Róbert Sch.,
Only a small group declared that they practice religion and that they more
or less keep kashrut (kosher), Shabbat (the Sabbath), holidays or other mitzvot
It is important to mention that education (not religious, but secular)
played an important role in the value system of the postwar generation of the
Slovak Jewish youth (and of their parents). Practically everyone graduated
from some sort of high school, mainly vocational. After high school graduation
many went on to university, but again emphasis was on a pragmatic choice of
study. Motivation (and influence of the older generation) to get an education
is illustrated by an excerpt from a long narrative by Tomi N. from Germany:
“After grade school, I went to a chemistry high school and, as I found out at
the reunion, so did many other friends. Having some ‘bread in our hands’ was
in line with the ideas of our parents’ generation. After this first step, I went
to Comenius University in 1965 to study chemistry, which, at that time, was
taught in a compulsory combination with physics. (…) Because according to
the ‘doctrine’ of those times, and experiences of maybe all our parents, only
a higher level of education and hence also better chances to succeed in life and
career provided ‘protection’ from the surrounding society. Besides that, what
you have in your head nobody can take away from you. That was based on
their experiences.”
It is interesting to note how Bratislava appeared in reminiscences of those
people who left the city almost forty years ago. What prevailed was nostalgia,
childhood memories, but also the human factor in the form of a desire to renew
personal contacts with friends. One e‑mail written by one of those few who had
stayed in the city warned against possible disappointment due to heightened
expectations: “Please, do be aware that ‘a reunion is a reunion is a reunion.’
There will be a lot of schmoozing and recollecting. Do not expect anything
more or less. If your excitement grows 45 days before the reunion, you’re going
to be disappointed. But if you expect us to look awful, to have big bellies and
bald heads, then it’s possible this reunion will leave you psychologically empowered.”
(Fero A., Bratislava).
Among the e‑mails, there were some practical advice and experiences
gained during recent visits of the town, but also criticism of things that did not
work. These were also confrontations with what the city used to look like in
their youth:
“Youth has rosy spectacles, and I still think about what they used to say
about Bratislava (during the figure-skating championship when they planted
thousands of flowers), that she’s a beauty on the Danube. I don’t know if she’s
really a beauty; they tore down half of the Old Town – below the Castle, but
the rest is in rather good shape (and expensive). The city is starting to have
a pleasant atmosphere again; one can sit in a café on the promenade; the girls
are pretty. (…) You’ll surely confirm that sledding was the best on Kuzmanka,
and romantic strolls at Slavín, the fish salad was the best in that store across
the street from Manderlák, the cream-filled pastries in the ‘Children’s Confectionery,’
the string cheese at St. Michael’s Gate and the beer in the ‘Privy Bar’
at the Danube.” (Soňa V., Toronto).
Those who live in Bratislava tried to correct (sometimes quite tactlessly)
these idealized expectations: “The house across the street from Manderlák is not
there anymore, the ‘Children’s Confectionery’ was turned into a beer bar – they
are remodeling right now, but the bar will stay there because better business than
a beer bar could only be a ‘marihuana bar.’ Nowadays, you can get string cheese
and steamed cheese everywhere and Slovakia has problems with the EU because
the best bryndza cheese is made only when EU food safety norms are violated;
besides, Romanians insisted (although they are not in the EU) that the original
bryndza was theirs, so I don’t know. The ‘Privy Bar’ is no longer there and
youngsters go boozing all over the place. Nobody can even keep track of them.”
The outside perspectives were useful not only to those who were coming
from abroad, but also for the locals. It is not surprising that a long e‑mail sent
by Eva L. from Toronto called “Going shopping” was unofficially considered
the best e‑mail ever sent to the website: “This e‑mail is intended for those who
use shopping as successful short-term therapy, fun and entertainment. Those
who have everything better skip this e‑mail and go to more important topics.
Since some of you will have only a little time, we can exchange advice/experiences
about where to go shopping. Before you start:
1. Put on your thick skin. The remarks of a shop assistant shouldn’t discourage
you from reaching your goals. The conversations I experienced were
as follows: ‘Can you please show me that yellow sweater?’ ‘We don’t have your
size.’ (How did she know what my size was and for whom I was buying it?)
‘Can you please show me that first bag?’ ‘You can’t afford that one.’ (Has
the word already spread?)
‘Can you please show me that ashtray?’ ‘I can’t, it’s only for foreign guests.’
(Which passport should I quickly pull out?)
‘Excuse me. That ice cream is leaking. The container is cracked. Could
I have a napkin?’ (A burst of laughter in the background). ‘That woman wants
a napkin! Look at the sign, madam, this place is in the B price category,
At the cashier’s in a grocery store I was stopped by a security guard who
told me ‘Open and show me your bag!’ ‘My bag? Why? I’m a foreigner; I’m not
used to this kind of treatment.’ ‘You can even be from Hungary, for all I care.
I’m still gonna search you.’
‘Please, do you have size 4 slippers? I’ll show size 11, that’s all we have.’
2. Be careful with handbags, passports, necklaces and credit cards. Leave
them in the hotel safe. You should be especially careful when using your credit
card in the Duty Free shop at the airport. If they know you’re traveling home
you might later receive bills for jewels from all over the world that would be
hard to explain. Changing money is easy, but look at the exchange rates as they
are different at each counter.
3. Ask for a tax-free stamp when making larger payments. Count on the
fact that at the airport you won’t be able to find a customs officer to stamp it,
and throw it in the box at the airport. Then wait…keep waiting…
4. You can purchase duty-free items on the plane. I believe that in Prague,
when changing planes, according to new EU laws, we are not allowed to buy
duty free.
5. (You can buy) beautiful and affordable Carlsbad porcelain (yes, I do
need one more set, as in those dishwashers everything gets chipped) and good
presents like a cake tray or a tea set on Štúrova street and on Korzo.
6. Leather goods, sheep skin jackets, cardigans in the summer for half
price in Mikuláš or in the Dunaj department store.
7. Garnet cuff links, earrings – Leningradská.
8. Sentimental foods (custard, chocolate-covered cherries) – in Dom
potravín, Teta or Prior.
Well, I’m already tired. It’s time to have coffee and a chestnut tart (made
with beans) in the Slovan gallery (the movie theater has disappeared).
I welcome your advice and connections. Many things have changed, names
of streets, prices, but some things – the more they change the more they stay
the same. Please, take it with humor; I don’t want to offend anyone; I’m just
sharing my experiences. Happy shopping. I wish you successful shopping, good
sales, safe transport of purchased goods back home. And do buy luggage insurance,
but that’s a different story.”
Soňa V. from Toronto said in surprise: “…so nothing has changed?
I thought you were describing the times when we were still home (of course,
the difference was that often many goods were not available).”
People sent several amused comments, factual remarks (especially touching
upon the issue of money exchange) and warnings against pickpockets
(especially “wherever there are too many people in one place like in public
transportation” and in taxi cabs).
My analysis has confirmed that a critical approach to the seemingly
unquestionable slogan “Zakhor! Remember!” is needed. It indicated that “peeling
of the onion” is not appropriate in situations when the sample studied does
not encompass the full spectrum of a given setting but only a bigger or smaller
part of it. Mechanical application of the method results in an incomplete and
hence simplified picture of the past of the Jewish community and city in which
it lived. Therefore, another approach suggests itself – that of “rolling the onion
up.” In further considerations of this topic, one should take into account the
fact that the Holocaust changed the map of Slovak Jewry (including that of
Bratislava). It mostly impacted on its geographic structure. Many perished,
others emigrated. They were replaced by Jewish newcomers from the countryside.
The recent tragedy was reflected in their rejection of Judaism; they lacked
an affinity to the city and its history. Consequences of the Holocaust also reprogrammed
the memory of the community, its institutions and its members.
Once-leading currents ceased to exist or lost their influence and once-marginal
segments moved into the center of memory. It can be said that in Bratislava
after 1945 secular Jews with leftist orientation, whose ideas corresponded with
the general climate of the period, prevailed. The public, but also some experts
have accepted as a fact that currently important parts of the community also
played an equally important role in the interwar period. Their interpretations
have become the leading and even the only perspective not only on the present,
but also on the Jewish community of the interwar period.

Peter Salner (1951) is employed as a researcher at the Institute of Ethnology of
the Slovak Academy of Sciences, where he specializes in urban ethnology and the
social culture of the Jewish community in the 20th century. He teaches at the Department
of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of Comenius University in Bratislava
and at the Faculty of Humanities of Charles University in Prague. He has published
more than 100 studies and several scientific monographs: Prežili holokaust. Bratislava
1997; (They Survived the Holocaust [1997]); Premeny Bratislavy 1939–1993.
Bratislava 1998; (Transformations of Bratislava [1939–1993]); Židia na Slovensku
medzi tradíciou a asimiláciou. Bratislava 2000; (The Slovak Jews between Tradition
and Assimilation); (Môj) židovský humor (Židovský vtip a identita). Bratislava 2002;
(My) Jewish Humor (Jewish Joke and Identity); Cesty k identite. Bratislava 2005;
(Ways to Identity); Bratislavské kaviarne a viechy. Bratislava 2006; (The Bratislava
Cafés and Pubs); Budúci rok v B ratislave alebo Stretnutie. Bratislava 2007; (Next
Year in Bratislava or a R eunion); Mozaika židovskej Bratislavy. Bratislava 2007;
(Mosaic of Jewish Bratislava); Salner & Kvasnica M.: Chatam Sofer Memoriál. Bratislava
2002; (Chatam Sofer Memorial).
Büchler, J. R (1999). Znovuoživenie židovskej komunity na Slovensku. Acta Judaica
Slovaca, 4, pp. 65-78. (Revival of the Jewish Community in Slovakia)
Bumová, I.(1945). ŠtB a židovská mládež. Židovská komunita po roku 1945 (zost.
P. Salner), Bratislava: Ústav etnológie SAV, pp. 67-100. (The State Police and
Jewish Youth. In: The Jewish Community after 1945)
Cohn, R.A. (1999). The youngest Partisan. The True-Life Adventure Story of How
a Young Boy Fought the Nazis, and Won! New York : vlastnou tlačou.
Gold, H. (Hgs) (1932). Die Juden und Judengemeinde Bratislava in Vergangenheit und
Gegenwart (Ed., H. Gold). Brno : Jüdischer Buchverlag Brünn.
Grünhut, A. (1972). Katastrophenzeit des slowakischen Judentums. Aufstieg und
Niedergang der Juden von Pressburg. Tel Aviv : Selbstverlag.
Grünsfeld, J. (1932). Vereine, Organisationen und Verbände. Die Juden und Judengemeinde
Bratislava in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (Ed., H. Gold). Brno:
Jüdischer Buchverlag Brünn, pp. 179–185.
Heitlingerová, A (2007). Ve stínu holocaustu a komunismu. Čeští a slovenští Židé po roce
1945. Praha : G+G. (In the Shadow of the Holocaust and Communism. Czech and
Slovak Jews after 1945)
Jablonková, Ch.(1999). Israel a slovenskí Židia – prisťahovalectvo a emigrácia. Acta
Judaica Slovaca, 4, pp. 163-186. (Israel and Slovak Jews – Immigration and
Kamenec, I. (1992). Fenomémn strachu (len v našich?) moderných dejinách. Slovenské
pohľady, 108, pp. 37-43. (The Phenomenon of Fear in (Only Our?) Modern
Kohút, L.(1995). Tu bola kedysi ulica. Bratislava : Vydavateľstvo Q 111, (Once A Street
Used to be Here)
Langerová, Ž. (2007). Vtedy v Bratislave (Môj život s Oskarom L.) Bratislava : Albert
Marenčin PT. (Once upon a Time in Bratislava. My Life with Oskar L.)
Myers, B. (1997). Khatam Sofer (1762-1839). Židia v Bratislave (zost. P. Salner, Bratislava
: Zing Print, pp. 21-41. (Khatam Sofer. Jews in Bratislava)
Porjes, L. (2006). Cenzurovaný život. Praha : Fischmann. (A Censored Life)
Salner, P. (1998). Premeny Bratislavy 1939-1993 (Etnologické aspekty sociálnych
procesov v mestskom prostredí. Bratislava : Veda. (Metamorphoses of Bratislava
1939-1993. Ethnological Aspects of Social Processes in the City)
Salner, P. (1997). Premeny židovskej komunity v Bratislave (1919-1969). Židia
v Bratislave (zost. P. Salner, Bratislava : Zing Print 1997, pp. 53-70. (Metamorphoses
of the Jewish Community in Bratislava 1919-1969. Jews in Bratislava)
Salner, P. (2000). Židia na Slovensku medzi tradíciou a asimiláciou. Bratislava : Zing
Print. (Jews in Slovakia between Tradition and Assimilation)
Salner, P. & Kvasnica, M. (2000). Chatam Sofer Memoriál. Bratislava : Zing Print 2002.
(The Khatam Sofer Memorial)
Salner, P. (2007). Budúci rok v Bratislave. Bratislava : Vydavateľstvo Albert Marenčin
PT. (See You Next Year in Bratislava)
Vrzgulová, M.(2002). Videli sme holokaust. Bratislava : Nadácia Milana Šimečku. (We
Saw the Holocaust)

Vydání: 10, 2008, 2