Visitors to the tomb of Ḥatam Sofer, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now in Slovakia), 1974. Photograph by Jacob Roth. (YIVO)

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(Ger., Pressburg; Hun., Pozsony; Yid., Preshborg), capital of the Republic of Slovakia. Situated on the Danube River at the crossroad of major highways, Pressburg was a gateway into the Kingdom of Hungary. Until the rise of Budapest in the nineteenth century, it was the most important commercial center of Hungary, as well as its capital, serving as the seat of the kingdom’s administration until 1784 and the site of the Diet until the Revolution of 1848.

In medieval times, Pressburg was home to an important Jewish community in what was primarily a German city. After the disastrous defeat of the Hungarian kingdom by the Ottoman Empire at Mohács in 1526, Jews were expelled from Pressburg; a new settlement took form toward the end of the seventeenth century. While excluded from the royal free city, Jews began to settle in the suburbs of Schlossberg (Pozsonyváralja) and Zuckermandel, towns that belonged to the Counts Pálffy, who were the hereditary prefects of Pozsony county and captains of the city. At first, court Jews such as Simon Michel Pressburger settled in the city, founding its first bet midrash and other institutions. By 1736, the community had grown substantially to 770 people. Only a third were locally born, and about a quarter had originated in Vienna, whence Jews had been expelled in 1670. The rest had come for the most part from Bohemia and Moravia, a few from Poland. Some 50 years later, the census of 1785–1787 recorded nearly 1,700 Jews.

Throughout the eighteenth century, Pressburg was the largest and most important community in Hungary. Its location at the seat of administrative and political power as well as its proximity to Vienna made it a natural address for distressed communities throughout the country. The wealthy Theben family, whose members often stood at the head of the Pressburg community, fulfilled the functions of shtadlonim (intercessors) throughout the second half of the eighteenth century. Pressburg was also the venue of countrywide assemblies throughout most of the century, where such matters as allocating the Toleration Tax levy or consulting on lobbying tactics were decided. Moreover, Pressburg’s legal and internal administrative arrangements—the privileges it received from the Pálffys and its communal regulations (Polizeiordnung)—served as models for other communities, as did the regulations of its ḥevrah kadisha’ (burial society).

Pressburg’s central role was firmly established also by its position as a leading center of learning. From the term of Mosheh Ḥarif of Lemberg (1736–1758) on, the community was able to engage outstanding rabbis: Akiva Eger the elder (1758), Yitsḥak Landau of Dukla (1759–1762), Me’ir Barbi of Halberstadt (1768–1789), and Meshulam Igra of Tysmenitsa (Tysmeniecz; 1794–1801) all belonged to the first rank of Talmudic scholars of the eighteenth century. Landau and particularly Barbi maintained large yeshivas that vied with the great academies of the day.

Students at the yeshiva established by Mosheh Sofer in 1806, Bratislava, 1907. Many became well-known religious leaders later in life. (YIVO)

Still, it was the tenure of Rabbi Mosheh Sofer (Schreiber; better known as Ḥatam Sofer) of Frankfurt from 1806 to 1839 that marked the heyday of the community. Henceforth, his name and the rabbinic dynasty he founded were linked indissolubly with Pressburg. By 1835, there were about 3,000 Jews in a city of some 35,000; it was the third largest Jewish community in Hungary after Óbuda and Pest. If Pressburg lost its preeminence in numbers, wealth, and national leadership, it maintained its high status by virtue of the prestige that the yeshiva and the rabbi enjoyed at the very apex of the traditional Jewish world. With a student body numbering at times 400, there was no yeshiva of comparative size within Hungary or even elsewhere in Europe. As the leading ideologue of an uncompromising Orthodoxy, Ḥatam Sofer imbued his students with a conservative ideology encapsulated in his motto: “He-ḥadash asur min ha-Torah!” (Innovation is forbidden as a biblical prohibition!)

At the time of his death in 1839, there was no comparative rabbinic figure in Europe matching Sofer’s stature as a rabbi, preacher, scholar, head of yeshiva, and halakhic decisor. It was his charisma that ensured that he would be succeeded as rabbi of Pressburg by his son Avraham Shemu’el Binyamin (known as Ketav Sofer; 1839–1871), grandson Simḥah Bunem (1872–1906), and great-grandson Akiva (1906–1939).

Yet it was precisely during Ḥatam Sofer’s lifetime that the harmony of the community was disrupted. An important segment of wealthy merchants and intellectuals under the sway of the Haskalah and modern currents sought to introduce educational reforms. While a secular school had been established with much fanfare in 1783 during the reign of Joseph II, it withered away in the ensuing years. After a failed attempt in 1811, the reformers succeeded in 1820 in setting up a primary school with a combined secular and religious curriculum. It was a private institution, but sponsored by the newly elected head of the community, Wolf Breisach. Breisach, who was repeatedly reelected until his premature death in 1827, even convinced the authorities to shut down the yeshiva, albeit for a short time. Significantly, not long after, the Orthodox majority in the community, headed now by Avraham Hirsh Lemberger, established a communal Talmud Torah that also combined secular and religious subjects and stood under the supervision of the rabbi.

Some attempts were made to introduce religious reforms along the lines of the Viennese rite instituted by the preacher Isaak Noah Mannheimer. An opposition of about 60 members led by Leon Biach set up a Jewish casino in 1842; enjoying the patronage of wealthy Viennese families of Pressburg origin, especially the Biedermanns and Todescos, they also inaugurated a fine building to house a primary school. During the initial days of the revolution in 1848, Adolf Neustadt, the editor of the local German language paper, the Pressburger Zeitung, stirred up the casino members to carry out a coup and seize the communal leadership.

Men of Neustadt’s party greeted the outbreak of the revolution on 15 March enthusiastically by joining the National Guard and pressing the Diet then in session in Pressburg to emancipate Hungary’s Jews. The fearful Orthodox communal leadership, however, issued a public declaration distancing itself from these moves in an effort to calm the outraged citizenry. The town’s burghers equated the revolution with the freedom to express popular resentment against the Jews and used the opportunity to redress the “injustice” created by Jewish expansion beyond the ghetto walls. Legislation adopted in 1840 permitted Jewish settlement within the previously prohibited cities, and Jews began to open retail shops in Pressburg proper. Fearful that the Diet would grant Jewish emancipation, the burghers demanded that Jews be disarmed and expelled from the National Guard. The violence that broke out on 20 and 21 March was sufficient to quash any emancipatory efforts on the part of the Diet. A month later, around Easter, riots broke out throughout Hungary, but the seat of the worst violence against Jews, indeed in all of revolutionary Europe, took place in Pressburg. The Todesco house situated outside the ghetto gates was furiously taken apart brick by brick, and the community as a whole suffered enormous damage to property. While Jews were severely beaten, there was no loss of Jewish life.

Deeply disappointed by pogroms and vacillating liberals, Jewish literati in Pest, Prague, and Vienna issued a call to immigrate to America. In Pressburg, this movement, numbering several dozen families, was led by the publisher Philipp Korn, who had been a close collaborator of Moritz Bloch (Mór Ballagi) in his Magyarization projects.

Pressburg was the scene of ferocious anti-Jewish rioting in the years that followed. Violent disturbances took place around Easter in 1850, and a generation later there was nearly a week of popular violence in the fall of 1882 during the Tiszaeszlár blood libel and again in the summer of 1883. Blood libels continued to occur, and once again, the springs of 1887 and 1889 witnessed outbreaks of anti-Jewish disturbances. The early 1880s also saw the rise of a modern antisemitic movement whose first branch opened in Pressburg with the Westungarische Grenzbote as its mouthpiece. In the 1884 elections, three candidates of the antisemitic party won seats in parliament in outlying areas.

The first reliable modern census in 1869 recorded 4,500 Jews, constituting about 9 percent of the city’s population. The town and its Jewish inhabitants had indeed grown, but not nearly at the pace of the rapidly expanding metropolis of Budapest. Moreover, the proximity to Vienna some 50 kilometers east—a boon when Jewish residence in the imperial capital had been restricted in pre-1848 days and Pressburg had served as a convenient suburb for commuting Jewish businessmen—now served steadily to siphon off the community’s more enterprising and reform-oriented elements. In the immediate decades after 1850, a substantial proportion of Viennese Jewry, perhaps as much as a quarter, had its origins in Pressburg.

The growth of the community enabled the thick network of associations and societies dedicated to charities, welfare, health, and various levels of study to mature. In the previous generation, Ḥatam Sofer had also stood at the helm of the fund-raising in the western half of Hungary for communities in the Land of Israel. Under Ketav Sofer, the Hungarian Shomre ha-Ḥomot Kolel was founded in Jerusalem; it was natural that the Pressburg rabbi stood at its head, sharing the presidency with the rabbi of Ungvár (now Uzhhorod, Ukr.), the preeminent Orthodox community in the east.

Pressburg established a new synagogue in 1864. The community was staunchly Orthodox, led by the respected Ketav Sofer and presided over by the Pappenheim and Bettelheim families. Nevertheless, the synagogue’s architecture (it had two slim towers); the appointment of Feisch Fischmann to preach in German; and the possibility that the neo-Orthodox rabbi Esriel Hildesheimer might be invited as co-rabbi set the teeth of the ultra-Orthodox on edge. That the conservative legacy of Ḥatam Sofer would be abandoned by his own son in the very community he served so faithfully over the years scandalized zealous militants, including Ḥayim Sofer and Akiva Yosef Schlesinger, themselves natives of the town. The Edict (pesak din) of Michalovce issued by these men in 1865, harshly condemning synagogue innovations, specifically targeted the perceived deviations in Pressburg. In fact, the ultra-Orthodox had reason for concern, for Ketav Sofer contemplated introducing some form of secular studies in the flagship yeshiva. Indeed, the Pressburg delegates to the Jewish Congress of 1868–1869, in close consultation with the rabbi, elected to side with the moderate Orthodox camp led by Hildesheimer.

Moderation, however, was not enough to prevent a split in the community after the death of Ketav Sofer. Soon after the election of Simḥah Bunem (known as Shevet Sofer), as his father’s successor, a minority seceded to form a separate Neolog community in March 1872. Ignaz Bak served briefly as its first rabbi before he went on to publish the Ungarische Israelit; he was followed by Julius David from 1876 to 1898. Finally, the idiosyncratic and opinionated Samuel Funk held office during a rapidly changing period, from 1898 until 1940.

Pressburg became an important center of Hungarian Zionism at the turn of the century, with Sámuel (Samu) Bettelheim, a scion of one of the leading Orthodox families, playing a key role. He founded the first Zionist society in Hungary in 1897, gathering adherents among the yeshiva students. The first Hungarian Zionist Congress was held there in March 1903, and Pressburg became the seat of the Zionist Organization in Hungary, with Bettelheim as its executive. A year later, the town hosted the first congress of the religious Zionist party, Mizraḥi, eliciting the sharp protest of 121 Hungarian rabbis. In the years that followed, the various Zionist parties all came to be represented in Pressburg with the youth movements of Bene Akiva and Shomer ha-Tsa‘ir organizations especially strong. In the meantime, not a few disappointed religious Zionists, including Bettelheim himself, turned to embrace the new Agudas Yisroel movement.

Rabbi Akiva Schreiber greeting Kaiser Franz Josef on the latter's state visit to Bratislava, Austrian Empire (now in Slovakia), 1913. (YIVO)

With the establishment of Czechoslovakia, the newly named Bratislava came to house the central institutions of the Zionists, Mizraḥi, and Agudas Yisroel in Slovakia. A separate kolel of Slovak Jewry was also set up with Rabbi Akiva Schreiber (Sofer) at its helm. The central bureau of Orthodox Jewish Communities of Slovakia was established, headed by Rabbi Kalman Weber, and it cut ties with Hungary. The Neolog communities followed suit later in 1926, establishing in Bratislava a combined Status Quo and Neolog central office, Jesurun, headed by Victor Stein. While the Orthodox could continue to recruit rabbis from the local yeshiva, the Neologs were placed in the embarrassing position of having to appoint Hungarian graduates of the Budapest Rabbinical Seminary. There were no plans to establish an analogous institution in Bratislava. The community also became the headquarters of the Jewish People’s Union Party when Jews entered the political arena as a national collective with the Jüdische Volkszeitung as its organ.

Roughly one-third of the Jews of Bratislava elected to declare themselves Jews by nationality on the 1921 and 1930 nationwide censuses; the rest opted for Magyar, Czech, German, or Slovak identification. This marked, of course, a considerable change from the results of the 1910 Hungarian census that had recorded a high percentage of Jews speaking the Magyar language. However, in Bratislava the proportion of Jews opting for Jewish nationality fell considerably below the average of more than 50 percent for Slovakia as whole. Many, especially those affiliated with the Neolog community, continued to identify themselves as Magyar, although unfavorable comparisons between the antisemitic policies of interwar Hungary and the relatively liberal ambience of Czechoslovakia tended to temper such sentiments. And of course many more, including those who declared themselves Jewish by nationality, continued to speak Magyar, inviting accusations of disloyalty by the Union of Slovak Jews, a small Slovak assimilationist organization that discerned even in the Jewish nationalist orientation a hidden pro-Magyar agenda.

In the interwar period, Jews entered the municipal council and the municipal administration. With the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in March 1938 and the subsequent establishment of the independent Slovak state a year later, Jews suffered discrimination and dismissal from public posts, and were barred from the liberal professions. Akiva Schreiber succeeded in immigrating to Palestine at the end of 1939 with a substantial number of students of the yeshiva.

In 1940, the Jewish population of Bratislava peaked at more than 18,000 people, constituting 13 percent of the capital’s inhabitants. However, the activity of all Jewish organizations save the religious communities was now prohibited; Jews were evicted from entire neighborhoods; Jewish students were expelled from public schools; and Jewish property confiscated. From autumn of 1941, about half of the Jews were expelled from the city to the provinces; by the summer of 1942 about two-thirds of Bratislava’s Jewry had been sent to extermination camps. An underground resistance work group headed by Gisi Fleischmann of WIZO and Mikha’el Dov Ber Weissmandel contacted international Jewish organizations in an attempt to save the remaining Jews of the city and the surrounding area. With the Slovak uprising in August 1944 and the subsequent occupation of the country by the Germans, many of the remaining Jews in the city were deported. About 13,000 Jews from Bratislava were murdered during the Holocaust.

The community came to life once again in April 1945, serving as an important transit point for the thousands of displaced Jews on their way to Palestine and Western Europe. With the Communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, thousands left the city, most making their way to Israel. By the middle of the next decade, Bratislava numbered some 3,000 Jews; by the 1960s, however, there were only about 1,000. Rabbi Eliyahu Katz was the spiritual leader of the united Orthodox–Neolog community until his departure for Israel in 1968. Since Slovakia became a separate state in 1993, Rabbi Daniel Meyers has filled this role, while the community, numbering 800 in 2000, was presided over by Peter Salner.

Suggested Reading

Joseph Ben-David, “The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Society in Hungary in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century,” Jewish History (Dordrecht) 11.1 (1997): 57–97; Sándor Büchler et al., “Pozsony,” in Magyar Zsidó Lexicon, pp. 718–721 (Budapest, 2000); Yehoshua Robert Büchler, “Bratislavah,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Slovakyah, ed. Sándor Büchler, pp. 65–84 (Jerusalem, 2003); Hugo Gold, ed., Die Juden und die Judengemeinde Bratislava in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart (Brünn, Czech., 1932); Yeshayahu A. Jelinek, “In Search of Identity: Slovakian Jewry and Nationalism, 1918–1938,” in A Social and Economic History of Central European Jewry, ed. Yehuda Don and Victor Karady, pp. 207–227 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1990); Jacob Katz, “Towards a Biography of the Hatam Sofer,” in Divine Law in Human Hands: Case Studies in Halakhic Flexibility, pp. 403–443 (Jerusalem, 1998); Michael K. Silber, “Shorashe ha-pilug be-yahadut Hungaryah,” (Ph.D., diss., Hebrew University, 1985), pp. 17–48; Ya‘akov Toury, Mehumah u-mevukhah be-mahepekhat 1848 (Tel Aviv, 1968); Shmuel Hacohen Weingarten, ‘Arim

ve-imahot be-Yisra’el, vol. 7, Toldot yehude Bratislavah (Jerusalem, 1960).

YIVO Archival Resources

RG 1097, Benjamin Eichler, Collection, 1839-1972; RG 1244, Max Schay, Papers, ca. 1910-ca. 1975; RG 854, First Pressburger Sick and Benevolent Society, Records, 1906-1974.