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Czech Republic and Slovakia

CZECH REPUBLIC AND SLOVAKIA

(For earlier history of these regions, see *Czechoslovakia.) Czechoslovakia split peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia on January 1, 1993. Israel established formal diplomatic relations with both new countries.

Czech Republic

Jewish life in the Czech Republic continued the process of revival that began after the fall of Communism in 1989. As the only rabbi in the country, Prague Rabbi and Czech Chief Rabbi Karol Sidon, who took up his post in late 1992, was a major catalyst in this. About 3,000 Jews in the Czech Republic, including 1,300 in Prague, identified with the community in the early 21st century.

There were numerous classes, conferences, cultural and social events. An old age home was opened in Prague in late 1993, and a Jewish kindergarten opened in 1994. The ritual orientation of the community was strictly Orthodox. This alienated some people, particularly younger people, products of mixed marriages, who felt a Jewish identity but were not Jewish according to halakhah. A number of them gravitated to an alternative Havurah group, Bet Simcha, that functioned outside the mainstream of the official Jewish community and made a point of appealing to people who were not halakhically Jewish but wanted to take part in Jewish activities. In 1994 another "liberal" Jewish group, Bet Praha, was formed, mainly appealing to the hundreds of American, English, and Canadian Jews in the city. At the High Holidays in 1994, Reform services, conducted by a visiting rabbi, were held in Prague's High Synagogue.

A new segment of Czech Jewry were Jews from Carpatho-Russia, who in the years 1946–48 opted to settle in Bohemia and Moravia rather then remain citizens of the Soviet Ukraine. They chose to settle in the big cities, like Prague and Brno, and in the region formerly called "Sudeten," where the old German community was expelled to the German Federal and Democratic Republics. Remnants of Carpatho-Russia Jewry could also be found in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), Liberec, Usti nad Labem, and Teplice-Sanov. The Carpatho-Russian Jews comprised the pious element of Czech Jewry.

The former pious Moravian Jews were all but annihilated. Traditional Orthodox communities of the Silesia-Teschen region and the Orthodox of southern Moravia almost disappeared. The ancient synagogue and cemetery of Mikulov is a tourist attraction but does not represent Jewish communal life.

A large part of Prague's Orthodox Jews were also immigrants, newcomers from Slovakia and Carpatho-Russia. Therefore the recurring tension between Orthodox Jews and self-identified Jews sometimes also reflected the differences between the remnants of old-time Czech Jewry and the immigrants. Thus issues of faith, the generation gap, and intellectual differences upset the communal life of the Prague congregation. The center of Bohemian-Moravian communal life was nevertheless concentrated in Prague, which offered regular educational-intellectual and social activities and preserves a modicum of religious life.

The memory of Czech Jewry is preserved in the Pinkas synagogue, on whose walls the names of all Bohemain-Moravian Jews have been inscribed. The Jewish Museum of Prague, and naturally the Altneuschul and the adjacent ancient cemetery, preserve the memory of Czech Jewry. Memorials were erected in numerous towns and municipalities also care for surviving synagogues and cemeteries, but by and large it can be said that, except for Prague and Brno, intensive Jewish life, for all practical purposes, has ceased to exist in the Czech Republic.

The Czech Republic had very good relations with the State of Israel. Economic ties are close. Restitution of Jewish property remained an issue. A number of properties that had been owned by the Jewish community in 1938 were returned to the community. The most notable was the Prague Jewish Museum, including its priceless collection of Judaica and half-dozen synagogue and other buildings in which the collections were displayed, all of which was returned to the community in October 1994.

There was continuing concern at incidents involving right-wing and skinhead groups who primarily attacked gypsies but also shouted antisemitic slogans.

[Ruth E. Gruber /

Yeshayahu Jelinek (2nd ed.)]

Slovak Republic (Slovakia)

While the exact number of Jews living in Slovakia is hard to establish, the estimate is that some 5,000 lived in the country in the early 21st century. Most of them lived in the capital, Bratislava, with the second largest Jewish community in Kosice in Eastern Slovakia.

In addition to these two congregations, nine more were active, serving all the Jews living in the towns of the vicinity. These nine were Galanta, Nove Zamky, Dunajska Streda, Komarno, Nitra, Zilina, Banska Bystrica, Presov, and Michalovce. The tendency was toward decline as the Jewish population abandoned the countryside or died out.

The British-born Lubavitcher rabbi, Baruch Myers, arrived in Bratislava in May 1993 as the city's first rabbi since the departure of Rabbi Elias Katz in 1968. He launched education and youth programs and for the first time, a huge Hanukkah menorah was in public in Bratislava in a ceremony attended by President Michal Kovac and the Israeli ambassador.

After the "Velvet Revolution" (1989), Jewish communal, religious, social, and political life received a big boost. Among the principal actors in this revolution in Bratislava were several Jews, in particular Fedor Gal, who was the leading figure in the organization called "Public Against Violence" (Verejnost Proti Nasiliu, vpn). He and other Jews were later squeezed out of political life.

The representative institution of Slovakian Jewry was the Central Association of Jewish Religious Communities in the Slovak Republic, with its seat in Bratislava. It represented local Jewry in all matters affecting its life, including activities for restoration and restitution of Jewish communal and private property, representing Jews in Slovak elected and communal bodies, organizing religious and social activity, and maintaining relations with Jewish organizations abroad, including the Israel Association of Jews from Czechoslovakia. Among its important political tasks was the struggle against frequently occurring antisemitism. Antisemitism made itself felt in the desecration of surviving Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, attempts at rehabilitation the Slovak state, the first satellite of the Third Reich, and its president Father Dr. Jozef. Also, and attacks on Jews in the media. Rabbi Myers was attacked in Bratislava on September 5, 1993, by skinheads. A survey in April 1993 showed that a large percentage of the population had negative feeling about the Jews, and this state of affairs has not changed. It also provides fertile ground for anti-Israeli Arab propaganda. Anti-Jewish publications, including "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," are regularly published. In 1990 the Slovak Parliament made a public apology to the Jews and in October 1993 a landmark law aimed at partial restitution of property claims by churches and religious communities, including the Jews. The Jewish community listed over 300 properties, including over three dozen synagogues, buildings, and schools. In 2003 another law provided for the partial return of "Aryanized" or confiscated Jewish property.

In 2002, Slovakian authorities reached an agreement with the Association of Jewish Religious Communities on partial indemnification of Slovakian Jews who lost their property during the Holocaust. Slovakia has good relations with Israel, and Israeli figures like the president and the speaker of Parliament have visited Slovakia, as have the Slovak president and the prime minister visited Israel.

Among the important Jewish institutions in Slovakia mention should be made of the Jewish Museum, which is part of the Slovak National Museum, as well as the Holocaust Documentation Center and a variety of cultural enterprises, including the frequent publication of books of Jewish content by Jewish authors and the Ezra foundation for social and humanitarian activities. Within Comenius University an Institute for Jewish Studies is active.

Slovakia proclaimed September 9, the date of publication in 1941 of the so-called "Jewish Codex," based on the Nuremberg laws, as the National Day of Holocaust commemoration. A memorial was erected on the mass grave in Kremnicka, a memorial exhibit was constructed in Auschwitz, and in Sobibor. In Poland, where most of Slovakian Jews perished, a plaque was put up. The state supported all these undertakings financially and morally.

The Association cares for Jewish cemeteries and synagogues, including the construction of a mausoleum over the graves of famous Bratislava rabbis in the ancient cemetery, such as Moses Schreiber-Sofer (Hatam Sofer).

[Yeshayahu Jelinek (2nd ed.)]

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