In a remarkable discovery, hundreds of gravestones (matzevot) from the destroyed old Jewish cemetery in Bratislava have come to light.
Dating mainly from the 18th to the early 19th century, they were found piled up in a neglected and heavily overgrown area near a far wall of the city’s active orthodox Jewish cemetery, where they apparently had lain undisturbed for nearly 80 years.
Tomáš Stern, president of the Bratislava Jewish community, said around 300 (or more) baroque gravestones had been discovered, in a recovery action carried out since February.
“This is probably one of the most important projects for the preservation of the cultural heritage of our community in recent years, which certainly goes beyond regional significance,” he said on the Bratislava Jewish community web site.
Stern told Jewish Heritage Europe (JHE) that fragments will be used to create a commemorative lapidarium at the orthodox cemetery, while the best preserved intact stones will be transferred back to the site of the old cemetery and re-erected, as a complement to the underground Chatam Sofer memorial, which includes the only tombs from the Old Cemetery that were not removed or destroyed.
The Old Jewish Cemetery was established near the bank of the Danube river in the 1690s, and served as Bratislava’s main Jewish cemetery until 1847. It was demolished during WW2 in 1942-43, when a tunnel was built near the site.
The matzevot were removed, and most of the graves were exhumed and reburied in a mass grave in the orthodox cemetery. Only 23 tombs were preserved at the site, including that of the great sage the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839).
Encased in a concrete shell and covered over, these remained intact under the surface, and even in communist times were a site of pilgrimage.
They are now conserved in a memorial compound designed by the architect Martin Kvasnica and constructed in 2000-2002.
Aside from the 23 conserved in the Chatam Sofer complex, the matzevot from the Old Cemetery were presumed to have been lost or destroyed.
However, Stern told Jewish Heritage Europe that in the 1990s he learned that at least some of these gravestones had survived.
“One of the last members of the [Jewish community], who participated on the matzevot removal[…] was still alive, and told me that in the bushes [of the orthodox cemetery] there are the stones from the old cemetery,” he said. People checked the area, but only saw around 20 or 30 stones, he said.
This year, he said, as president of the community he was able to raise the funds to clear the area and look further: an operation that involved cutting trees, removing heavy brush, and clearing accumulated soil to reveal hundreds of heaped up intact stones and fragments.
The Bratislava Jewish community is carrying out the project, but is cooperating with outside experts, such as Daniel Polakovic, from the Prague Jewish Museum, who will oversee the translation of epitaphs, and Martin Kvasnica, the architect of the Chatam Sofer memorial, who will advise on the placement of matzevot at the site.