Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Slovakia -- Trencin and the mixed emotions of visiting Jewish sites

Synagogue in Trencin, 1993. Monotype by Shirley Moskowitz (c) estate of Shirley Moskowitz

By Ruth Ellen Gruber

There usually comes a time when you visit sites of Jewish heritage in Eastern and Central Europe when the impact of the past -- the destruction wrought in the Holocaust -- breaks through and grabs you. I have experienced this often: I love looking at the synagogue buildings and admiring the architecture and recalling the richness of Jewish history and recognizing their importance to the cultural heritage of society at large and applauding the way that many by now have been restored for cultural use. Likewise when I thrill to the wonderful carving on Jewish gravestones and appreciate the creativity and aethestic verve that produced them. Still, I sometimes find myself unexpectedly choked up, even weeping.

I wrote about these contradictory feelings at length in the introduction to my book Jewish Heritage Travel.

And Rabbi Andrew Goldstein touched on this theme in the sermon he gave after our trip to Slovakia this month following the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route (which I posted HERE). That is why he and his wife, Sharon, held informal "services for synagogues" in a couple of the  synagogues we visited -- notably the still semi-ruined one in Liptovsky Mikulas and the Status Quo synagogue in Trnava, now an art gallery.

Sharon Goldstein chanting in the Trnava Status Quo synagogue. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

My friend, the wonderful (and wonderfully outspoken) musician Mark Rubin experienced this several years ago when he visited the Slovak town of Trencin and saw the magnificent synagogue there -- one of the most impressive buildings in town, besides the hilltop castle.

Trencin synagogue with hilltop castle in the background. Photo (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber

Mark wrote a lengthy, eloquent -- and angry -- post about his feelings on his blog.
There indeed is a fine synagogue in Trencin, but there will be no shabbes here. There are no Jews here. The stark, sudden and complete realization that though this building may still stand and from the outside is beautiful and all, there are no Jews here to pray with. Not tonight, and probably never again I imagine. A wave of depression and sadness flushes over me. I mean what was I thinking? Jews must have prospered here, I mean why else would you have such a grand house of worship? Sure, as if after all the pogroms, the harassment by fascists from within and without, and then the gentle graces of the Soviets and their labor camps that there would be anyone left? These are the kind of things I see every time I head into the Eastern parts of Europe and this is just the sort of internal conversation I have with myself nearly every time. Much like a child finding out over and over again that there is no Santa Claus, I have to tell myself yet again; “Jews used to live here.”

I have to say that I have never bit hit by this feeling when in Trencin -- and the first time I was there was about 20 years ago. On the contrary, I have always regarded the magnificent synagogue there as a magnificent survivor. You can't undo the Holocaust. But in contrast to many other synagogues, the Trencin synagogue was always maintained in pretty good shape and regarded by the town as a key component of its urban core. As long as I have been going there, it has been marked with a plaque identifying it as a former synagogue -- and there has also long been a plaque commemorating the Jews of Trencin who were killed in the Holocaust: some 1,619 Jewish lived in the city in 1940, but only 326  survived the Holocaust. Also, the synagogue complex includes a small prayer room which is still used by the handful of Jews that still do live in the town.

Today, the huge sanctuary is used as the municipal art gallery. The art on display was, um, not the best. But the sanctuary has been restored and is maintained. The wonderful stained glass and the intense blue painting of the cupola have long been cared for -- but recent restoration work has uncovered polychrome decoration on the walls that had been painted over in white. It's not sure whether this is going to be recovered.

Above photos (c) Ruth Ellen Gruber


  1. Dear Ruth Gruber,

    I am one of the 326 survivors of Trencin you mention in your article. I was born there in 1930, attended its Jewish elementary school, and was a boy soprano in the synagogue choir.

    The Trencin synagogue was built in 1913 and its Moorish cupola remains a part of the architecture that dominates the skyline of the town center. It is true that the town has used it only desultorily as an exhibition space for local art of dubious quality. But the small prayer room which you mention has been beautifully restored in 2002 by a small group of survivors. The impetus came from Paul Strassmann who was instrumental in forming our group. Paul also compiled a list of survivors who are scattered all over the world and with their help compiled a second list of the 1593 Jews of Trencin who were murdered during the Nazi period. He also commissioned a series of bronze plaques which list all these names and are installed in this prayer room.

    Full details, together with photographs, can be accessed on and I would urge you to look at this site.

    The synagogue itself was poorly maintained by the town. But a few years ago the maintenance was taken over by a Trencin Jewish family named Olga and Martin Hodal. These two are mother and son who have gradually acquired a local mini-empire of commercial properties. They have made the necessary repairs, repainted the shabby facade and made the building look very presentable.

    I could give you their e-mail address in case you have any local questions. Martin Hodal is fluent in English. I am also ready to answer any questions you may have of me.

    Peter Kubicek
    Forest Hills, NY
    Author of "1000:1 ODDS -- Memoir of a World War II Childhood"

    1. Hello,
      I would appreciate if you could give me the phone number and email-address of Martin Hodal.
      Many thanks.
      Rabbi Dr. Berysz Rosenberg
      Committee for the Preservation
      of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe