The Prophet Elijah

Bardejov is a major city in the Saris region in northeastern Slovakia. It is close to the Polish border, just south of the Topka River and a stop on the trade route between the Baltic and Black Seas. Already a fortified town in the 14th century, it had walls and towers protecting a settlement built around a large, rectangular market place.

Jews, however, did not have a place in Bardejov until the mid-18th century, since settlement in Slovak towns was forbidden to them unless they had special permission. A Jewish presence there is first documented in 1747, when Jews from Galicia moved in, settling northeast of the marketplace and working as farmers in nearby villages. Growing rapidly, the Bardejov kehillah and hevrah kadisha were established by 1806. The first synagogue, the Altschul, was built in 1830 and in just a few years, the growth of the community required the addition of two prayer rooms.

Sticking to their Galician roots, the Bardejov community remained largely Hasidic. Three of their rabbis, Moshe Leib Halberstam, Zalman Leib Halberstam, and Chaim Natan Halberstam, were descendants of the Hasidic dynasty founded by Rabbi Chaim Halberstam. As their community continued to expand, the Jews maintained their traditions in custom and dress, whether at home or in public. Over the years, the community built a Jewish civic complex near Bardejov’s historical core. Planned according to Talmudic regulation, it came to include the synagogue, a beit midrash, a mikveh, and a slaughterhouse.

Jews and Armenians were among the first to develop the hot springs close to Bardejov as a health resort and spa. Spaciously landscaped along a narrow park, the spa became one of the most renowned in Europe and patronized by royalty. Still functioning, though not in Jewish hands, it caters to visitors from Israel, among others. The well-dressed guests stroll leisurely along the shady lanes, sipping mineral waters from specially spouted ceramic cups.

By 1935 there were 2,264 Jews in Bardejov and the community constituted 40% of the city’s population. A booklet written at that time by the Bardejov municipality devoted some space to the Jews of the area. It described them as being, mostly, shopkeepers, with a few farmers, traders and scholars. The orthodoxy of the community was still evident, and they were said to “walk around in their long black kapotes and wear traditional shtraymlekh, fur trimmed hats.” The author also remarked on the importance of religious education for the Jews, and even went on to speculate that the health of the Jewish children was imperiled because they were cooped up for such long times, daily, in the heder.

When the deportation of the Jews began in May of 1942 the kehillah included 2,700 people, of whom 2,400 were sent away. After the war, Bardejov became a place for refugee rehabilitation and a center for staging “illegal” immigration to Palestine.

In 1991, Vaclav Havel, then President of Czechoslovakia, visited the Altschul Synagogue. He declared it and the rest of the Jewish complex to be a national monument. The buildings were to be preserved, to remember the once vital Jewish presence they contained. Nonetheless, they are still occupied as storage and workshops by a plumbing supply house.

Only one Jew still lives in Bardejov, Max Spira, who hid in the Polish forests during the war. The last representative of his kehillah, he works as a shohet and a hazzan, servingthe few Jews of the surrounding areas. Still meticulously Orthodox, he often conducts services all by himself in his Bikur Holim synagogue, built in 1929. If friends should ask him with whom he prayed so audibly on a Friday evening, he replies, “Elijah, the Prophet, was with me.”

Condensed by Bryna Rothenberg from Synagogues Without Jews.