Jewish culture and its heritage in Slovakia after 1989: urban sites of remembrance in Kosice and their meanings.

Author:Vitti, Vanda
Position:Report

"The last regime has destroyed the Orthodox synagogue"

This is the headline of an article (Jesensky 2006) (1) published in 2006 by the Slovak daily SME. (2) It was devoted to the oldest synagogue in Kosice which was virtually destroyed during the Socialist era. Kosice is home to nine officially recognized ethnic minorities, and the ecumenical church district has ten member groups. The city is generally viewed as the multi-cultural and multi-religious urban center of East Slovakia. Numerous buildings reveal its Jewish heritage: a community center with the oldest Mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) in Slovakia, four synagogues, a Yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish school for studying the Talmud and Torah), two Jewish schools, two cemeteries, and a house of culture called 'Kasino'. The number of buildings, their size, architecture and distinctive decor, suggest that there used to be a sizeable, rich and heterogeneous Jewish community in the city.

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About 12,000 Jews lived in Kosice before the Holocaust. (3) Today, the city's Jewish community comprises 300 official members which is nowadays the second largest in Slovakia. Fifteen thousand Jews from Kosice and surrounding areas were deported to Auschwitz, and only 2,000 of them returned to the city after the war. Many Jews emigrated when the communist regime came to power in 1948, and some others did so after the collapse of the Prague Spring in 1968. (4) Only a small group stayed in the city, but after the political rupture in 1989 many members of this group moved to Western countries.

Today, it is mostly material relics that bear witness to Jewish life in Kosice. In the socialist era, the authorities expropriated the buildings of the Jewish community that remained intact after the Holocaust. Like in many other Slovak cities, these buildings were no longer used for their original and intended purpose. The Orthodox synagogue on Zvonarska Street (Slovak for "Bellmakers"), for example, served as a storage facility for the State Library. Jesensky 2006, quotes an art historian, observing the renovation of the synagogue:

Never in my life have I witnessed a greater act of barbarism. They robbed the furniture, disposed of it in a landfill or completely destroyed it. Today, it is no longer possible to restore some parts of the interior to the original state. For example, they broke open the holy shrine used for storing the Torah, installed boards in it and put the writings of Lenin inside. For years, rain has been pouring through the leaking roof, so plaster has come off the wall revealing brickwork, and the stucco has fallen off too.

In 1989 the process of restitution started, and the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community which is now responsible for renovating it. Since the building is dilapidated this is a serious challenge. The renovation work was scheduled to be completed by 2013 when a museum of Jewish culture in East Slovakia will be inaugurated in the building. Kosice was designated to be the European Capital of Culture in the same year.

According to the cultural studies scholar, Jorg Skriebeleit, places serve:

... as a medium for constructing cultural spaces of remembrance that can be associated with a variety of meanings and connotations. These interpretations of places as media of remembrance or as symbols are, in turn, dependent on the cultural and societal discourses surrounding them; i.e., they rely on the subjective experiences and attitudes of the groups affected and interested, groups using the site, and groups involved in the discourses in question (Skriebeleit 2005, 219).

What 'space' do the Jewish community and the Jewish culture occupy in the city and its memory? How does the synagogue, as a material space, structure individual activities and social relations in the city? What meanings and functions do objects and spaces of remembrance acquire when they become linked to the memories and experiences of the inhabitants of Kosice?

Narrative Spaces in the City

There is a reciprocal relation between space and social life. The urban environment reflects structures and ideas; at the same time, the materiality of the built space structures social action. Yet the past is not just present in material relics; in the urban space, there are conscious and intentional acts of marking past events in order to preserve their presence in the here and now (Binder 2009, 15).

Beate Binder portrays urban space as a product of social construction. According to her, social construction in this case is based on the reciprocal effects that people and buildings have on each other. Different actors decide where in the urban space past events should be remembered, and which objects and spaces should act as media of commemoration in order to become part of the cultural memory. According to Aleida Assmann, cultural memory evolves from a wealth of knowledge and experience. Divorced from their original living bearers, they have been transferred to material data media and have become part of social practices (Assmann 2006, 47).

In this article I am presenting some ethnographic observations made during the fieldwork I undertook for my Ph.D. dissertation, which is devoted to the development of Jewish life and culture in Slovak cities after 1989. I will focus on the question of how synagogues, as sites of remembrance, draw some features of the past into the present and thus function as "zones of contact between the past and present" (Assmann 2006, 217 ff.). With the help of examples, I will sketch out the nature of these "contacts" and look at breaks with the past. I view synagogues and their urban environment not only as socially constructed, but also as narrative spaces. As Rolf Lindner remarks, "cities are not empty pages, but narrative spaces in which particular (hi)stories, myths and parables are inscribed" (Lindner 2006, 57).

Difficult Struggle for a Future

Synagogues confront the policymaking bodies of the new Eastern Europe with a far more complex problem than do cemeteries: something must be done with the synagogues .... "Doing something", however, creates an even greater dilemma, especially in the post-1989 era when the disjuncture wrought by the Holocaust is exposed again and in new ways (Bohlmann 2000, 45).

Despite its status as an (inter)national heritage site, the...

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