[This entry treats the Jewish community of the current Slovak Republic since the 1990s. For earlier history of Jews in the region, see Czechoslovakia.] The Slovak Republic became an independent state in 1993 following the dissolution of the Czech and Slovak Federal Republics. Its constitution guarantees that the country will be a multicultural and multiethnic parliamentary democracy.
Interior of Pushkinova Street synagogue, Košice, Slovakia. The Hebrew inscription above the ark reads: “Know before whom you stand” (Berakhot 28b). Photograph by Guy Shachar. (© Guy Shachar)
The 2001 census put Slovakia’s population at 5,379,455. Of these, just 2,310 people identified themselves as Jews by religion, with another 218 defining themselves as Jews by ethnicity. These numbers represent an increase over the census of 1991, when Jews identifying by religion numbered 912. Statistically, then, the Slovak Jewish community is among the smaller communities in Europe and is to be regarded, in no sense disparagingly, as on the periphery of the Jewish world. Profoundly affected by the Holocaust, the Jewish population of Slovakia was further diminished by emigration in the immediate postwar period (1945–1949) and again after political upheavals in 1968.
On 17 November 1989, Slovakia marked the fiftieth anniversary of a brutal clampdown on Czech university students by Nazi authorities. Czech universities in 1939 had been shut down and students were forced into concentration camps. In 1989, Prague students marked this anniversary with a massive demonstration that spread to larger towns throughout the country. In many ways 17 November 1989 signaled the end of communism in Czechoslovakia. One of the subjects that became open for discussion in the momentum established on that date was the Jewish question, a topic that during the totalitarian regime had been marginal or taboo. An integral part of the development of the Slovak Republic has included discussions about the role and fate of Jews in the history of that country.
Today’s Jewish community is a loose and voluntary group whose members are at any time free to join or—should they prefer to operate in the anonymity of secular society—to leave. Only a few see the community as the prime locus of their social engagement or self-fulfillment. In institutional terms, Slovak Jewry is represented by the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities in the Slovak Republic. Also active are such secular organizations as B’nai B’rith and the League of Esther. The Jewish Religious Communities in Bratislava and Košice organize social events for different age groups. Communities are fragmented and any formal religious ritual—once a strong cohesive element—is now relegated to the sidelines. Reading, museum visits, and talks have to some extent replaced traditional observances.
Visitors to the tomb of Ḥatam Sofer, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), 1974. Photograph by Jacob Roth. (YIVO)
Two trends are visible in the young generation. The first, and larger, group of young people has at some stage experimented with Judaism but with no lasting effects. The second, and smaller, group has remained active within the Jewish community and over the long term has constituted a demographic reservoir of Slovak Jewry. This group, however, is extremely small, numbering about 20. Slovakia’s accession to the European Union, in particular, is expected to prompt a wave of emigration by young professionals, and young Jews will be among them.
The creation of the Slovak Republic in 1993 was soon followed by the realization of a long-held ambition: the opening of the Museum of Jewish Culture in Bratislava on 20 May 1993, followed by a small permanent exhibition on Judaism in Prešov in eastern Slovakia on 20 November. The museum, which operates under the Ministry of Culture, is the foremost institution charged with preserving, researching, and promoting Slovak Jewish culture. It runs exhibitions in Žilina and Trnava; organizes them abroad; and has a very active publishing program. Its Judaica Slovaca imprint brings out collections of papers on Judaism, Jewish culture, and the history of Slovak Jewry. There is also great interest in works by Slovak and other authors about the Holocaust. The museum has now extended the scope of its publications to include fiction, poetry, and art history by authors of Jewish ancestry or whose writings relate to Jewish figures in art.
The opening of a Jewish restaurant in Bratislava in the summer of 1993, together with the ceremonial inauguration of a rabbi, Baruch Myers, did much to make the public at large aware of the existence of active Jewish institutions such as Bratislava’s Jewish Religious Community and the Central Union of Jewish Religious Communities. The rabbi and his work in the Jewish community have brought about a renewal of traditions, as well as the introduction of new ones (among these are Hanukkah celebrations and the founding of a heder), in which other institutions also participate. July 1996 saw the establishment of the Institute of Judaism at Comenius University in Bratislava; it is a research, teaching, information, and publishing body that caters to the general public as well as to university students.
This rediscovery of Jewish identity, and not only by young people, has been made possible not least through the renewal of regular services at synagogues and liturgy during Jewish festivals. This is true above all in the Bratislava and Košice communities, which have functioning synagogues. Recent surveys have identified 120 synagogues and 600 Jewish cemeteries in Slovakia. However, their conditions are often appalling and there is no prospect of reconstruction. Many of them will probably cease to exist within a few years and with them will go the last traces of once thriving Jewish communities.
Dušan Čaplovič et al., Racial Violence Past and Present, trans. Martin R. Ward (Bratislava, 2003); Ješajahu Andrej Jelínek, Židia na Slovensku v 19. a 20. storočí, 2 vols. (Bratislava, 1999–2000); Pavol Mešt’an, Anti-Semitism in Slovak Politics, 1989–1999, trans. Martin R. Ward (Bratislava, 2000).
Translated from Slovak by Martin Ward