Židovské suburbium Bardejov
Suburbium Bardejov
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Bardejov Jewish History

Part of the history of the town of Bardejov is the history of the Jewish community. For more than 300 years Jews lived in harmony with the majority and other minorities. The strong and independent Jewish community left behind a precious spiritual and cultural legacy. Through the centuries Bardejov became a rich and distinguished royal town. In the year 1247 King Belo IV confirmed and dedicated to the Cistercian Order huge areas of land around the town. Part of the boundary was the river, called Jewish Brook (Sydovpathak). This title confirms the presence of Jewish merchants on a very significant route connecting the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea. This route crossed through Bardejov.

The oldest written note about the sojourn of Jews in the town is dated 1599. In the tax documents we could find names of Jewish families like Juda Stencl and Salamon Hedereich. Three decades later, the Jews were expelled from the town. They moved into the neighboring villages. They started to settle again in the town after the Black Death bubonic plague epidemic in the 18th century. Their presence was still not stable because they were not recognized as citizens with full rights and had to pay higher taxes. This tax was called the tolerance tax. They were mostly involved in trade, leasing of land and real estate, buying and producing alcoholic beverages. Due to the reforms of Emperor Jozef II in the last quarter of the 18th century, the standing of the Jews improved, at least the economic and religious aspects. The family of Nathan Guttmann settled in Bardejov. According to tradition his widow, Rachel, and other members of the family were considered to be founders of the Jewish community of the town of Bardejov. Rachel was a very skillful merchant and leaseholder of the mill and the land. The first members of the community founded the synagogue, school, cemetery and shelter for poor people. A Rabbi and a ritual butcher satisfied the religious needs of the community. Isaac Landau, Rosenfeld and Sobel achieved success as entrepreneurs in trading of agricultural products, lumber and wine export. In 1808 the Jewish community was officially established In Bardejov. At the same time, Jewish communities were established in the neighboring villages of Zborov, Kurima and, later on, in Raslavice and Lukov. Simultaneously, the Jewish burial brotherhood Chevra Kadisha was created, which was considered to be an essential part of the community. The first chief rabbi was Rav Chaim Dov Beer Spira. He was followed by Markus Mordechai Friedman and Abraham Chaim Orenstein. Abraham Chaim Orenstein was a disciple of the famous rabbi Chatam Sofer from Bratislava who was the author of the book Words of Abraham. He was followed by Moshe Halberstam, the grandson of the famous rabbi from Sandek. In the second half of the 19th century the Jewish community tripled in size. They substantially helped to rebuild the town after its destruction by fire and improved its economy. These gradual improvements allowed Bardejov to become the religious and administrative center of Jews from 40 surrounding communities. In late 1868 and early 1869 there was conflict within the Jewish communities of Hungary. The members of the Bardejov community joined the Orthodox movement. Their beliefs were influenced by the Hasidic religious movement’s beliefs in joy, song, dance and rhythmic expression, demonstrating a longing of the religious believers to join their soul with God. Most of the Jewish families came from Galicia (Poland). Bardejov had provided them with the proper environment to live a peaceful life in accordance with their religious beliefs. The local community was interwoven with the Jews of the Polish town, Nowy Sącz, the seat of the famous rabbinical dynasty of Halberstam. Their descendants in Bardejov were chief rabbis from the 19th century up to the end of the WWII. Development of the Jewish community continued into the 20th century. At the beginning of the century Jews were in possession of approximately 220 enterprises and 80 craftsmen workshops. The Jewish community was partly engaged in the economic life of the town and the nearby spa. The outbreak of the World War I caused stagnation in the entire Bardejov community. Many found an escape through emigration.

The standing of the Jews in the society was improved with the creation of the Czechoslovak republic in 1918. In the new democratic environment, the Jews acquired a status of a national minority, and they were able to participate in political life. The gradual improvement of the living conditions in Bardejov had an impact on the growth of the Jewish population, which became the sixth largest in Slovakia. During the first republic, Bardejov became the most sought after place for Jewish immigrants from Galicia (the area that straddles the modern-day border between Poland and the Ukraine). In the early 1920s Jews in Bardejov owned 187 shops, 3 industrial factories, 2 financial institutions and several smaller factories. Some of them held public positions such as notaries, physicians, veterinarians, professional engineers and builders. There were approximately 60 Jewish craftsmen. Some local Jews traded lumber and sold or imported grain and wine. Most of the members of the Jewish community in Bardejov belonged to the middle class. The next major group consisted of poor Jews, who obtained social assistance from Jews who were better off. This support was a form of solidarity in accordance with the Jewish faith. The looks and behavior of wealthier Jews did not differ from the rest of the Jewish population. In the late 1920s the Jewish community consisted of 350 families comprising a total of approximately 2,500 people. Jews from the town and 30 surrounding villages were under the administration of the rabbinical office of Bardejov. There were three synagogues in Bardejov, a mikvah (ritual baths), several houses of prayer and study (Beit Hamidrash), a ritual slaughterhouse and a cemetery. The Jewish school – Cheder – enhanced Jewish religious life, and the higher Jewish education was provided by the yeshiva. There was a big library and three printing presses. Jewish clubs formed the basis of the social and the spiritual life of the members of the community. Their activities were miscellaneous — charitable, cultural, social, educational and religious. All of these clubs contributed to the unification of the Jewish community and became symbols of their independence. Towards the end of the 1930s, after the declaration of Slovakia’s autonomy and the dissolution of the so-called First Republic, the situation of the Jews dramatically deteriorated. The Hlinka’s Slovak People’s Party took power and adopted a negative approach towards the Jews, inspired by the political orientation of the German Nazi party.

The independent state of Slovakia was created on March 14th, 1939, as a result of the German plan to destroy Czechoslovakia. The Slovak government was committed to coordinate its foreign and military policy in accordance with its Nazi partner. Following their example, Slovakia chose to fight against the Jewish enemy. During the first three years of the so-called Slovak state, the Jewish community was forced out of the social and economic life of the town. The greatest number of Jews were affected by government measures aimed at the expropriation of Jewish property of all kinds and a significant reduction of their income, causing major social problems for the Jewish community. Together with a set of strict racial laws and anti-Jewish regulations, this led to the one and only solution – the deportation of Jewish people from Slovakia. From March to April 1942 almost 3,600 Jews were deported from Bardejov and its vicinity. In just the first three months, 83 percent of the Jewish population was deported. So-called “family transports” from Bardejov, departing on May 15 and 16, 1942, headed for the ghettos in Konskowola, Rejowiec and Opole Lubelskie in the territory of occupied Poland. Many were killed in the ghettos or taken to certain death in the extermination camps of Sobibor and Majdanek. Many other Jews from Bardejov were also imprisoned and died in Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, Buchenwald, Dachau, Gross-Rosen and Mauthausen. Only about 500 Bardejov Jews survived WWII, and 300 of them returned to their hometown of Bardejov.

As the survivors returned to Bardejov, they had to cope with their new living conditions. Representatives of the former regime, who were involved in the new power structure, influenced the investigation, as well as punishment for the crimes committed against the Jewish community. The Jews of Bardejov viewed these punishments as merely symbolic, and it did little to help them attain appropriate social status and assimilate back into their former homeland. More serious concerns were being raised by the new waves of anti-Semitism. Most Jewish families in Bardejov that were faced with numerous difficulties made the decision to emigrate. After the creation of the Jewish state, many emigrated to Israel as well as to other countries. The Communist takeover in “Victorious February“ in 1948 and massive unlawful uprisings in the early 1950s contributed to this emigration. Those that remained hoped that Communism would create a socially just society and provide a counter balance to Nazism. The historic developments over the following decades caused a gradual decline of activity in the Bardejov Jewish community. At the present time, there are no Jews living in Bardejov. Only echoes of its vibrant past remain, thanks to the significant ongoing restoration work of former Jewish buildings, the building of the Bardejov Holocaust Memorial and the continued uncovering of this rich past interwoven into the fabric of the town’s history.

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© Federation of Jewish Communities in Slovakia. All rights reserved. Eligible authors of displayed renderings are Dr. Ing. arch. Ján Krcho, PhD. & Ing. arch. Michal Mihaľák.