TRNAVA, SLOVAKIA -- 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.
In the communist era, when Slovakia formed the
eastern half of what was then Czechoslovakia, there
was little tourist development aimed at the west, and
since it gained independence a dozen years ago, the
country has been overshadowed by better known tourist
destinations on its borders, including the Czech
Republic, Austria, Poland and Hungary.
This is changing, however. Particularly since
Slovakia joined the EU last year, there has been a
concerted effort to upgrade infrastructure and woo
visitors to mountain retreats, ski slopes, thermal
baths and historic cities.
There has also been a push to bring Slovakia's
Jewish history and its wealth of Jewish heritage sites
to public attention.
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
Maros Borsky, the curator of the fine little
Museum of Jewish Culture in the Slovak capital,
Bratislava, heads a project to document all Slovak
synagogues and post information about them on an
online data base.
"We launched a Slovak Jewish Heritage Center at
the museum, and we are also attempting to put together
a Slovak Jewish heritage tourist route," says Borsky.
He already authored an extremely useful map of Jewish
sites in Slovakia, which locates and provides
information on dozens of places. It is available at
the Jewish Museum, located at Zidovska 17, on the site
of what was once Bratislava's old Jewish quarter.
This neighborhood was located under the looming
town castle, an ancient fortress that was rebuilt by
the communist regime in the 1960s. Most the city's
Jews were killed in the Holocaust, and the communists
demolished most of the Jewish quarter in the early
1970s when they built the soaring Novy Most (New
Bridge) and cross-town highway that now slices through
Today, the Jewish community is tiny but active,
and an evocative memorial commemorating the Holocaust
occupies the space next to St. Martin's cathedral
where an ornate synagogue once stood. There is an
active synagogue at Heydukova St. 11-13, and other
Jewish communal facilities at Kozia St 21.
The most important Jewish monument in the city is
a recently renovated underground mausoleum containing
the tomb of the Chatam Sofer, one of most influential
Jewish scholars of the late 18th and early 19th
centuries. The mausoleum, a place of pilgrimage for
orthodox Jews, lies outside the city center, and its
entrance is on the main highway along the Danube
through a door cut into a black plinth-like structure.
Here, you descend a stairway into a hushed, low-lit,
subterranean chamber where a dozen or so tombstones
stand in a chained-off plot earth where the Sofer and
other sages are buried. Other tombstones are arranged
around the walls. The underground site is the only
surviving remnant of Bratislava's old Jewish cemetery,
which was destroyed during World War II.
Trnava, one of the most charming of Slovakia's
historic towns, is little more than half an hour's
drive from Bratislava and makes an easy day trip from
the capital. It is worth visiting in its own right,
but it can also form a comfortable base from which to
explore Jewish heritage and other sites in western
Trnava is famous for its numerous church spires
-- they even appear in an old engraving used on the
back of the Slovak 200-crown note. But two former
synagogues also form part of its architectural fabric.
Both are located in the heart of town, in the shadow
of looming St. Nicholas church.
One, a small, rather plain building, remains
abandoned behind a tall wall -- you can just see the
ten commandments on its roof gable peeking through
The other, however, underwent a remarkable
transformation into an art gallery and concert hall in
The first time I saw it, more than a dozen years
ago, the churchlike structure with two domed towers,
built in the 1890s, was a ruined shell. In converting
the building, restorers chose to retain and
incorporate evidence of the devastation. The synagogue
thus also serves as a striking memorial to the more
than 2,000 local Jews who were murdered in the
From the outside, it still looks ravaged, and
inside, rather than replaster and repaint, the
architects conserved damaged frescoes and
half-obliterated Hebrew inscriptions, creating a stark
interior that provides mute testimony to the past. A
monument to Holocaust victims stands outside.
From Trnava, you can reach several other Jewish
heritage sites in less than an hour's drive. Among
-- Malacky, a town just off the highway between
Bratislava and Brno, where there is a brightly
colored, Moorish-style synagogue, designed by Wilhelm
Stiassny and now used as a school.
-- Stupava, a small town just off the highway
south of Malacky, where there is an impressive,
abandoned synagogue, built in 1803 and one of the
oldest in the country. Unfortunately, it is in
extremely derelict condition.
-- Nitra, a town east of Trnava, whose synagogue
was designed by the Hungarian Lipot Baumhorn, the most
prolific European synagogue architect. Built in 1911,
the synagogue has recently been restored for use as a
concert and exhibition hall, where an exhibition on
Jewish history is to be mounted. There is a well
preserved Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of town.
-- Cerveny Kamen castle, a mighty, 16th century
fortress west of Trnava, which houses a museum of
antique furniture and also displays some historic
Jewish tombstones. .
Bratislava's Old Town is now a pedestrians-only
warren of cobbled streets lined by pastel colored
baroque and renaissance palaces -- most of them
housing cafes, boutiques and restaurants.
There are several atmospheric cafes on the
central Hlavne namesti (Main Square), but for a
special treat don't miss the Cokolada café on
Michalska street, a few steps from the towering St.
Michael's Gate that marks one of the four original
entrances to the town. The Cokolada specializes in
chocolate goodies including a bewildering variety of
hot chocolate drinks.
A top place to stay is the chic Hotel Marrol's, a
boutique hotel at Tobrucka 4. Tel: +421-2-5778-4600;
fax: +421-2-5778-4601. www.hotelmarrols.sk.
The pleasant Chez David pension and restaurant on
Zamocka St., near the Jewish community building, is
run under the auspices of the Jewish community but is
not kosher. www.chezdavid.sk.
In Trnava, I had an enjoyable stay at the Penzion
U MaMi, which occupies a converted house in the heart
of the old town next to St. Nicolas church.
Jeruzalemska 3, 91701 Trnava. Tel/Fax:
The more upscale Hotel Dream is located on the
other side of St. Nicolas church, on tree-lined
Kapitulska, a charming street that leads from the
church. Kapitulska 12. Tel: +421-(0)33-5924111, fax:
The Relax, an unprepossessing restaurant set in
shady grounds next to the big sports complex on
Rybnikova street, serves hearty, simple fare
(including potato pancakes, a local specialty) as well
as salads. Full meals, including wine or beer, cost
less than €10.
For a more upscale dining experience, locals
recommend the Phoenix, on Kapitulska st. in a
converted old building with a lovely courtyard garden.
Also recommended is the Zeleny Dom -- Green House --
restaurant at the corner of Trinity Square and Hlavni
ulica, the main pedestrian promenade.
Ruth Ellen Gruber
Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe
University of California Press