Slovakian Jewish Renaissance

January 7, 2015 by  
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A cache of family memorabilia connected to a Sydney family discovered in the Slovakian town of Presov has brought back memories for Jana Vytrhlik a member of the Sydney Jewish Museum’s curatorial staff.

Jana Vytrhlik writes:

The Presov synagogue

The Presov synagogue

While it was very exciting to read the Monday J-Wire story of ‘Attic discovery of Holocaust memorabilia in the Slovakian city of Prešov’….and the subsequent unearthing of direct Australian links with a Sydney family, it didn’t come as a total surprise.

Slovakia is living through a renaissance of interest in its rich Jewish heritage. The interest often results in successful raising of government and EU funding for extensive research and restoration work of major synagogues, Judaica collections and Jewish museums.

An avalanche of offensive to anti-Semitic unrelated comments has recently appeared in the Slovak Press, but on the other hand my recent personal experience was very different.

Jana discovers her grandparents' memorial

Jana discovers her grandparents’ memorial

I travelled to Slovakia to find last traces of what’s left of my mother’s side family decimated during the Holocaust. The search for Barkany and Szanto links led me to Presov and also to Košice, Kežmarok and Bratislava. I met many amazing Slovakian people, who – while being largely non-Jewish, dedicated their professional lives to researching and teaching the history of their long lost Jewish neighbours and citizens.

In Prešov, I was deeply touched by the care and enthusiasm with which the community restored the magnificent Orthodox synagogue (1897). Today the imposing building also serves as a Jewish museum.

The women’s gallery houses the famous Barkany collection, a unique collection of Judaica of the region.

It was originally assembled by the first Jewish museum in Slovakia, founded in Prešov in 1928 by Eugen Barkany (1885 – 1967), my great uncle, born in Presov.

Similar development can be seen in Bratislava and other former centres of the Slovak Jewish population. I write this to express my gratitude to all the people I met in Slovakia who opened their hearts and shared with me their knowledge and enthusiasm for searching the past. I am sure that if I met the tradesman who discovered the precious memorabilia in Presov, he would be as welcoming as the many others I did meet.

Footnote:

I have recently joined the wonderful curatorial and research team at the Sydney Jewish Museum, Roslyn Sugarman, Shannon Biederman and Antares Wells to work with one of the most significant collections of Holocaust and archival documents.

Generously donated by the Survivors and their families, these objects provide important first-hand accounts of personal and family situations during the War.

The stories of Rabbi Dr Benjamin Gottshall (the Australian link of the Presov’s attic) and his wife have been researched and are on display in the ‘Amidah: Standing up’ section of the museum. The discovery of further documents, photographs and personal effects in Prešov, belonging to the Rabbi Dr Benjamin Gottshall’s family is therefore of a great importance for the museum’s collection. Adding additional information, missing links, research new connection and bringing pieces of history together is part of our curatorial work, and we have therefore read the J-Wire story with great interest.

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