BARDEJOV, Slovakia — The landscape en route to this town in northeastern Slovakia, near the Polish border, often looks like a painting. But these views are merely preparation for the scene awaiting visitors to the town’s old synagogue. The large prayer hall is one of the loveliest to be found in any Jewish house of worship in Europe that survived the Holocaust. It has columns, arches, a high, beautifully decorated ceiling and walls adorned with a variety of colors and shapes. You can gaze at all of this in wonder from the elegant women’s balcony.
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Only one thing is missing: Jewish worshipers. Longtime local residents say that the last Jew to have lived here, Max Meyer Shapiro, died in 2005.
“Today there isn’t a single Jew here,” says Pavol Hudak, 59, an engineer and resident of the picturesque medieval town. He and his son Peter, 31, a historian who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Jewish community of Bardejov, have led a project to preserve and restore the synagogue over the past few years. The work, which began in 2015, was completed a few months ago.
“We succeeded in preserving the stones, the bricks and the wood,” Hudak says proudly. “We’ve also preserved the story of the place.” He then points to the old sundial that was discovered on the façade of the building during the restoration work and is no longer used. “There isn’t anyone left to hold prayers at their proper time,” he adds.
Hudak walks through the synagogue like a groom about to be married. His eyes shine when he recounts the local history, shows off Judaica objects from the town and its environs, describes the restoration work at the site and reveals his future plans.
Why did two non-Jews decide to save a destroyed Jewish historical site before it crumbled and collapsed? To answer this question, Hudak and his son travel back in time. Jews lived in this town for hundreds of years. The first evidence of Jewish life in Bardejov is from the 16th century, but it was only in the 18th century that a real community was established here by Jews who migrated from Poland and Galicia, a region now divided between modern-day Poland and Ukraine.
In 1919 the community had 2,100 people – a third of the town’s population. At the height of their prosperity, Jews owned most of the town’s businesses and made up part of its leadership. There were 14 Jewish town councilmen and the district physician and veterinarian were also Jewish.
The persecution of the Jews began in 1939, when Slovakia was a protectorate of Nazi Germany. Before he died, Shapiro, “the last Jew of Bardejov,” had told visitors that German soldiers entered the synagogue on Yom Kippur of 1941, when it was full. The younger congregants managed to flee, leaving only the elderly. According to Shapiro's testimony, the soldiers allowed the worshipers to continue their prayers and persuaded them that they wouldn't harm them.
Indeed, on that day the Germans left the Jewish populace alone, but in April 1942 the town’s 3,700 Jews were assembled in the synagogue compound before being transported to the concentration camps. Ninety percent of the 4,500 Jews who lived in Bardejov and the surrounding areas were murdered there. The Nazis then used the synagogue as a stable, as they did in many other places. However, unlike a great number of other synagogues, it was not burned down or demolished during the war.
When asked what happened to the synagogue afterward, Hudak lowers his gaze and says that during the 1950s it was used as a warehouse for, among other things, fertilizer and sanitary fittings. Such usage did not exactly contribute to the building’s preservation. Some of the damage was irreparable.
A few hundred Jews tried to revive Jewish life in the town immediately after the war, but they were unsuccessful. Shapiro, a local who survived the Holocaust, was one of them. His children emigrated to the United States but he insisted on trying to preserve the town's Jewish heritage. For years he held the keys to the synagogue, the cemetery and the mikveh (the ritual bath). His death 12 years ago marked the death of the entire community.
The community did see one ray of light. When Czechoslovak President Vaclav Havel visited the synagogue in 1991, he promised it would be granted historical monument status. Nine years later, UNESCO declared the entire town, including the synagogue, a World Heritage Site.
But it was only in 2015, at the initiative of Hudak and his son, that the synagogue restoration project began. “The Jewish compound is an inseparable part of the town’s world heritage,” says Peter. “It’s not just a lovely place, it’s also forgotten evidence of the existence of a society that was multinational and religiously varied. It’s a 200-year-old jewel that constitutes the heritage of our forefathers.”
They harnessed their enthusiasm, entrepreneurial spirit and vision for the large preservation project, which was executed under the auspices of the municipal Jewish preservation committee. The committee is headed by Emil Fish, who emigrated from Bardejov to North America after World War II, and one of its members is Israeli architect Giora Solar, a native of Slovakia whose mother was born in a village near Bardejov.
Several professional restorers and experts in various crafts also took part in the restoration project, which first and foremost involved the preservation of murals that adorn the synagogue's walls. The father and son took on the historical research. Peter spent many hours in local archives, seeking visual documentation of the structure that would help restore it to its glory days.
“This is the oldest picture of its exterior,” he says with satisfaction, holding out a photo from 1907. It shows a structure without a roof, evidence of a fire that happened in the early 20th century. Other photos he found illustrate the interior of the building. The visual documentation he found of the wooden steps and the railing of the synagogue’s bimah enabled woodworkers to recreate it.
A number of objects from the synagogue’s earliest years were discovered during the renovations, including its geniza, which contained holy books and ashes that remained after the fire. Pavol also found Kiddush cups, dreidels, and other Judaica, some on the site and some surrounding the synagogue.
The Hudaks also examined written sources that chronicled the history of the community, its members and its buildings, and conducted face-to-face interviews with former residents who have scattered around the world, including in Israel.
They learned that the synagogue’s history actually began in 1797, when a wealthy Jewish merchant named Yosef Gutman bought a building in Bardejov and designated it for the religious needs of the nascent community. In the early 19th century he sold it to the community, which also bought the adjacent buildings and established a grand Jewish compound that included the synagogue, built in 1817, a beit midrash (study hall), a slaughterhouse and a mikveh.
The next project
The synagogue restoration was completed in April; it cost 765,000 euros ($917,500) and was funded by Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Slovakia. The question that remains is what will become of the building in the absence of a local Jewish community.
For now, the synagogue serves as a museum and memorial to the Jewish life that was eradicated in Bardejov. Groups from all over the world, including from Israel, visit the site and get a guided tour from one of the Hudaks, who give them on a fully voluntary basis. The two hope to eventually establish an education center and enliven the place by holding cultural activities there.
But they aren't finished yet – they are gearing up for their next big project. Another crumbling building across from the synagogue was also part of the historic Jewish compound: the beit midrash. Coming into the building is like entering a time warp; it’s clear that no one has used it for decades. Pavol believes that the Jewish names written on some of the walls are authentic Holocaust artifacts, that Jews who were assembled at the site by the Nazis memorialized themselves before being sent to their deaths. The preservation work that will be done in the building will likely reveal more details and information.
Only someone who has visited Jewish sites throughout Europe can understand and appreciate the importance of the work of fanatic devotees like Pavol and Peter Hudak. Without such people, who are generally local residents with a highly developed sense of history, it would be very difficult to rescue and restore Jewish sites, particularly in small towns and especially in places where there is no longer a Jewish community.
Synagogues in many European cities, towns and villages are meeting a very different fate. Some have been demolished while others stand abandoned to this day. Of the few that have been preserved, there are those that have been repurposed in ways that don't necessarily respect their history. Jewish houses of worship have become bakeries, pubs and even a public swimming pool.
That’s why Igor Rintel, head of the 3,000-strong Slovak Jewish community, appreciates the work of the Hudaks. In a pamphlet that summarizes the synagogue restoration project, he praises their vision of “transforming a ruin into a valuable memorial monument.” He adds that the two “succeeded in imagining the cultural and historical potential of the place where others just saw a dilapidated site.”