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Published: July 14th 2015
Today we journeyed east from Vienna on a 90 minute excursion by ship on the Danube to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. It meant giving up the day to see museums in Vienna in order to explore a once highly significant administrative center of the Hapsburg monarchy, and a once fascinating location for a deeply entrenched Jewish community in the urban center and its environs that was known until 1919 as Pressburg by most people.
This blog will be shorter than previous ones, not because Bratislava called forth fewer ideas and emotions, but possibly even more. Rather, it was a 10 hour day and I'm beat. Suffice it to say that the first time the city came to my attention was back in 1999 when I took a course a history course at JTS on the emergence of modern Orthodox Judaism. My professor at the time, and now my colleague, introduced us to the famous head rabbi of Pressburg in the first half of the 18th century, Moses Sofer, known by his acronym Chotem Sofer. He was a zealous anti-modernist, and one of the most formidable rabbinic figures in the 19th century. While his ideological perspective was one that I reject emphatically, his place in modern Jewish history and modern Judaism cannot be ignored.
And so I knew that this provincial capital in a now tiny country was connected to some of the most profound controversies in the encounter of Judaism with modernity.
But what I want to share here today is what it felt like to stumble unexpectedly on a piece of the past that in some ways is trivial but that speaks to me of the sanctity of all life, and especially when the past is suppressed or evaded, as seemed to me to be the case in this little city. Yes, there is a piece of the Jewish cemetery with the grave of Sofer that has been restored in the past decade, and a museum on the site of a once great synagogue, neither of which we managed to see because the day got away from us. But otherwise I felt as if there was absolutely no trace of a Jewish presence in a place that was once a hub. Then we walked into a small trinket shop, off the center of the old square, that was also a quasi museum of old artifacts from the 19th and 20th centuries, such as cash registers and coffee urns. The stuff of everyday life of a bygone era. I wandered into the back room, entranced by these items. In one of the glass cases there were old beer and liquor bottles with explanations in tiny typed script, with a few in English, almost like a home made museum. I noticed a bottle with the name Josef Fischer on it and peered in to read the summary. The bottle dated from 1944. The original producer was the Jewish firm of Josef Fischer and Sons. But because of the Aryan race laws the company was taken over by Slovaks, hence the name below Fischer's.
We returned to Vienna. I wondered who these Fischers were and what had become of them. The Internet led me down two distinct paths: one, a link to the US Holocaust Museum with an overview of the Bratislava Jewish community before, during, and after the war. Lo and behold two families were singled out to give a feel for the history and one was the Fischer family. The family had owned a restaurant in the center of the city, which might help explain the slivovitz bottle. But there was no mention of Josef. I kept hunting and came across a digital document of forged El Salvadoran citizenship papers for one Josef Fischer of Pressbourg, his wife and their two small children, circa 1944, from Geneva, Switzerland, with a remarkable narration explaining the document. Another inspiring example of brave human beings, Jewish and non-Jewish, determined to help strangers in dire straits. See this link if you are curious:
I'm still not sure what became of Josef Fischer. But his bottle, at least, has a home in Bratislava and an explanation of its origins. For this I am grateful.
I guess there was a lot to say, anyway.
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