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This website presents the Jewish heritage of the town of Senec. The monuments described here – the synagogue, cemetery and ritual bath (mikvah) – survive as traces of the town’s once-prosperous Jewish community, which previously formed an integral part of the local society. The majority of Senec’s Jewish population perished during the Holocaust. Some survivors attempted to rebuild Jewish life here during the postwar period. The final blow to the local Jewish community was delivered by the communist regime, which persecuted community chairman Ján Bernfeld and his family. The synagogue was later expropriated and used as a storage facility.

After decades of neglect the Jewish monuments of Senec are currently undergoing restoration. This will not bring Jewish life back to the town, but at least the memory of Senec’s Jewish past will be preserved for future generations. This endeavour would not be possible without the support of the Bratislava Self-Governing Region, which acquired the former synagogue and is restoring it for use as a cultural venue and a space for dialogue between various religions.

Chairman of the Bratislava Self-Governing Region Juraj Droba with Rabbi Misha Kapustin (Federation of Jewish Communities in the Slovak Republic) and Catholic priest Martin Kramara (spokesperson of the Slovak Bishops’ Conference) at the ceremonial launch of refurbishment works on May 21, 2018. Picture credit: Bratislava Self-Governing Region

Synagogue

Senec’s synagogue stands in a prominent location on the town’s main thoroughfare, at Mierové Square No. 12, in close proximity to the Municipal Office. The synagogue was built in 1907-1911 to serve the religious needs of the local Jewish community, which then numbered about 400 souls. The community belonged to the Orthodox movement and the synagogue architecture reflects this. The building is towerless, had no organ and the community’s women had their own section upstairs.

The architecture of the synagogue is a distinctive mélange or Rundbogen and Moorish styles. A tripartite street façade features a central rose window and typical horseshoe-shaped entrance portal. Topped by the Ten Commandments and the Star of David, these features are flanked by two turrets that are continuations of the horizontal pilasters that divide the façade into three parts.

The synagogue was once a part of the Jewish community compound, which comprised a ritual bath (mikvah), matza bakery, rabbi’s office, small prayer hall and other community buildings adjoining it in a courtyard. These have been lost or only partially preserved as archeological finds, as is the case with the mikvah and the baking furnace.

The origins of synagogue constriction in Senec date back to the 1820s, when the size of the local Jewish community rose above 60 souls (1828: 69 souls) and it built its first house of prayer on the main market square. As was customary in the period before Jewish civic emancipation, synagogues were built inside closed courtyards, where other community institutions also clustered. Synagogues in those days did not have impressive façades facing the main public spaces, but rather served the religious needs of communities that kept a low profile in public.

The Jewish community of Senec continued to grow during the 19th century, reaching 414 souls by 1900. By then it was time to build a new house of prayer that reflected its size and could provide enough space to accommodate the whole community. A new synagogue was constructed in 1907-1911 that very much resembled the typical synagogue architecture of the latter quarter of the previous century, a period during which numerous Slovak synagogues had been built. This was a growth period for most urban Jewish communities in the Hungarian Kingdom. By that time, Jewish citizens had been emancipated and enjoyed legal rights, as reflected in the era’s self-aware synagogue architecture, featuring splendid street façades topped by Jewish symbols – Stars of David and Ten Commandments – that were visible to Christian fellow-citizens.

The quest for an appropriate historical style was part of the 19th-century discourse affecting many architectural types (e.g. theaters, educational buildings, museums, town halls, churches) and synagogues were no exception. The so-called Rundbogen style (neo-Romanesque) pointed to Judaism as the older brother of Christianity (the Romanesque style preceded Gothic, which was considered very much the ideal style for churches). On the other hand, the Moorish style, with its typical horseshoe arches (and other Arabic architectural elements), pointed to the Oriental roots of Jewish tradition and the golden age of Jewish culture in Muslim Spain. The synagogue of Senec combines both of these styles.

As required for synagogues, the entrance vestibule was a transitional space between the entrance from the public domain and the sanctuary. This was a place to pause and reflect that the synagogue had been built as a sacred space in which to worship God. A small washbasin behind the doors was installed for worshippers to wash their hands before prayer. A memorial plaque to Simon Popper affixed over the basin was dedicated by his son Emil in 5667 [1907]. The Poppers were wealthy agricultural entrepreneurs in Senec, and the main benefactors of the local community even though they resided in Bratislava. Unfortunately, the plaque was stolen in 2018.

The synagogue sanctuary is a single hall with a built-in women’s gallery (ezrat nashim), supported by cast-iron columns decorated with ornamental capitals. Originally, these were colored and the gallery had a mechitzah (a wooden screen that separated the women’s prayer space). As this was an Orthodox synagogue, the bima (an elevated platform for reading the Torah) was placed in the center of the hall and the ark was located on the eastern wall, facing Jerusalem. The ark was accentuated by a large horseshoe-shaped niche and round window above. Traces of blue coloring and an irregular six-pointed star decoration in plaster have been preserved in the niche. As is common for synagogues, tzedakah (charity) boxes were placed on the western wall of sanctuary on both sides of the entrance. The best-preserved feature of the sanctuary is a period wooden cassette ceiling, which was until recently pierced by grain chutes dating from the communist period, when the synagogue was used as granary.

For centuries, since the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the synagogue has been the central institution of Jewish life. Referred to as mikdash me’at, a small sanctuary, it in principle substituted for centralized temple ritual including sacrifices. The synagogue is called in Hebrew “beit knesset”, a house of assembly, where the Jewish community meets for regular prayers: three times a day on regular days, and also on Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The Torah scroll is kept in the ark and is taken out and read during the service if a minyan (quorum of ten men) assembles for prayer. Such was also the practice at the Senec synagogue and its entrance portal once featured a Hebrew inscription: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham / And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

The synagogue continued to be used by the Jewish community until the 1950s, when it was confiscated by the communist state and used a granary and storage facility. According to the information we have, the Torah scroll was given placed in the custody of the Jewish Community in Galanta.

In the early 1990s, the abandoned and dilapidated synagogue was returned to the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Slovak Republic. Today, there are no Jewish residents in Senec and therefore no need to use this building for its original purpose. After many years of failed attempts to restore the building for cultural purposes, the former synagogue was purchased for a symbolic one euro by the Bratislava Self-Governing Region. In May 2018, a project to restore the building was launched. After its completion in 2021, the former synagogue will be used as a venue for cultural events. The former women’s gallery will feature a permanent exhibition of Jewish Heritage in the Bratislava Region.

Mikvah

The archeological remains of the former ritual bath (mikvah) have been preserved in the synagogue courtyard. Originally, there was a group of buildings that sheltered various Jewish community institutions here. The beth midrash was a study house full of religious books where men gathered for daily study and daily prayers were also held. The Chevra Kadisha association maintained the cemetery and organized burials. The rabbi had his office here; he was the district rabbi for the area, which also included villages around Senec. Dwellings for community employees were located in this yard. A matza bakery was also situated here. The beth midrash continued to be used until 1964, when the tiny Jewish community (or rather its remnant) still existed. Later on, the buildings were abandoned and demolished, and the area was used as a local junkyard.

In 2012, archaeological research was conducted. The site was cleared of debris and junk, and the remains of the buildings were discovered. The matza oven was transferred to its new location within the courtyard in 2014. Both finds will be integrated and presented in the compound of the restored synagogue.

The excavated mikvah is a rare example of an ancient Jewish ritual bath in the Bratislava Region. Such a facility plays an important role in the religious life of a traditional community. Immersion in its water has a ritually purifying effect. Women go to the mikvah before marrying and then on a monthly basis, before resuming marital relations following menstruation or childbirth. Traditions regarding men’s use of the mikvah vary between communities, but men mostly immerse themselves in the mikvah before the Yom Kippur holiday and as bridegrooms before weddings. The mikvah is also used as part of the ceremony during which men and women convert to Judaism, as well as to make new kitchen dishes kosher.

To build a mikvah has always been costly and technically complicated due to  the many rabbinic laws regulating its construction. Ideally, the water should be from a natural spring. If such water is not available, rain water can be used. This is collected in a tank, which is connected to the immersion pool. Given the limited amount of rain water that can be stored in the tank and in order to provide all-year-around operation of the mikvah, a sophisticated system to increase the volume of water has been established. In another tank, called a bor zeria (seeding tank), additional fresh water flows naturally by gravity into the rain water. This intermediary tank supplies the immersion pool.

The mikvah is an intimate space connected with religious ritual, which has a strong spiritual meaning for the user. The pool has several steps so that an individual descends comfortably into the water, and on the last step fully immerses (including their head) and recites the prescribed blessings. A frequent misconception is that the mikvah has a hygienic purpose, but it is in fact connected to ritual purity. The person using it must already be clean before immersion, and for this reason three additional washbasins (or bathtubs) stood in this room along the wall (the water taps are still preserved). The water was heated in the anteroom, where a manual water pump and heating boiler with another water tank were located.

According to Jewish tradition, the mikvah providing for family purity is the most important community institution. Construction of the ritual bath must precede the building of the synagogue. The synagogue and even the Torah scroll may be sold in order to raise funds to establish a mikvah. Conserving this unique monument in Senec is therefore a very important contribution to preserving Jewish heritage in the Bratislava Region.

Cemetery

The Jewish cemetery is an important relic of the town’s past. The compound, which contains the graves of about 200 of Senec’s Jewish former inhabitants, is located on Trnavská cesta, opposite house number 50. The cemetery was established in the 1880s, when the Jewish community of Senec stopped burying its dead in the nearby village of Reca. The location of the compound was then far away from the town, next to a brick factory. The factory compound was recently redeveloped as a residential neighborhood with family houses.

The cemetery is owned by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Slovak Republic and is in fairly good condition. An earlier masonry wall at the front of the compound was replaced by a metal fence in 2018. The cemetery is therefore easily visible from the main road.

The compound has a rectangular shape, covering 2,424 square meters, and is accessed from the south-eastern side, which faces the main road. We systematically documented the cemetery, and identified 196 graves. Many headstones have fallen onto their inscribed sides and are now overgrown. In addition, many headstones have been stolen over the years and only their bases remain to mark the existence of the graves. The oldest documented tombstone dates to 1888, the most recent to 1944.

About 30 percent of the cemetery land has been used, with graves mostly located in the south-eastern part of the compound. The rows were numbered from the north-western wall of the cemetery (the most remote part), from left to right. The most prominent was the first row, where Rabbi Breznitz and his wife were buried. A few graves of children are located at the edge of cemetery, close to the entrance and today easily visible from the fence. Men and women are buried together.

The headstones are mostly simple traditional vertical stelae (matzevot), expressing the conservative character of the local Jewish community. A simple matzeva has a horizontal or semi-circular ending. More complicated versions are architectonically arranged. Another type of tombstone is represented by typical obelisks, mostly from the 20th century.

The inscriptions are predominantly in Hebrew, with some in German and Hungarian. Some older gravestones are textually rich, with poetic Hebrew texts commemorating the deceased, as was common in the past.

A few of the tombstones indicate the priestly status of the deceased (symbolized by the blessing hands of Kohanim), although no special section for Kohanim is present. Several headstone bases bear the names of relatives who perished during the Holocaust. This was a common way for surviving relatives to memorialize family members who had no graves.

The tombstones were produced from various materials. Most were made of dolomite and some from sandstone. The more expensive tombstones were produced from granite and black granite. Sadly, as this was the most sought-after material, these were most often stolen from the cemetery, so only the bases of the headstones are left. The cemetery was hidden behind a high brick wall for decades. During the 1990s the compound was cleaned by the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Slovak Republic, thanks to an initiative by surviving Jews from Senec who were by then spread around the world. A local caretaker was appointed.

In August 2017, a heavy storm has damaged the cemetery wall, which was subsequently demolished for safety reasons. In 2018, a new wall was erected by the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Slovak Republic, thanks to financial support from the German NGO European Jewish Cemeteries Initiative (ESFJ). With a view to integrating the cemetery into local cultural heritage and raise awareness about its existence, the cemetery is now visible from outside through a new metal fence. A gate features a Star of David, indicating the Jewish character of the compound to the general public.

Given the new-found interest in Senec’s Jewish past and the restoration of the former synagogue for cultural purposes, the cemetery has been integrated into a special Jewish heritage educational program for secondary schools. This program is conducted by the Jewish Community Museum and the Faculty of Theology of the Trnava University. The local Anton Bernolák Gymnasium participated in the program in 2019.

History

The history of the Jewish community of Senec (German: Wartberg, Hungarian: Szempcz, Szenc) is intertwined with the history of the town. Individual Jewish families lived in Senec in the 17th-18th centuries, but the beginnings of an organized local Jewish community date back to the first third of the 19th century. In 1828, the town had 69 Jewish inhabitants, who established their own synagogue and other community institutions (mikvah, school). Senec was a prosperous market town and Jewish economic activity was connected to trade and agriculture.

The community in Senec was still linked to the Jewish community of the nearby village of Reca, where the district rabbi resided and a cemetery was located. As in many similar situations (Mliečno vs. Šamorín, Šarišské Lúky vs. Prešov), the dynamic growth of the nearby town, which provided entrepreneurial opportunities and attracted the young, meant that the community in Reca gradually declined in size and importance. This process accelerated after the legal changes of 1840, which granted Jews in Hungary the freedom to reside and lifted restrictions on their settlement in towns (except mining towns).

Between 1869 and 1900 the number of Jewish residents of Senec grew from 168 to 414, representing 11.7 percent of the town’s total population. Following the 1868-1869 Pest Congress, which resulted in the division of Hungary’s Jewish communities into Orthodox, Neolog and Status Quo Ante, the Senec community opted to join the Orthodox movement in 1871. The seat of the rabbinate remained in nearby Reca until the 1880s. Rabbi Menachem Schön (d. 1882), author of Minchat Pitim, served his communities as rabbi for 50 years and is buried at the cemetery in Reca. The first rabbi of Senec was his son-in-law, Rabbi Isaac Breznitz (d. 1919), who studied at the Pressburg yeshiva under Rabbi Samuel Schreiber (Ketav Sofer). Rabbi Breznitz and his wife Bertha (d. 1925) are buried in Senec. The last rabbi of Senec was their son, Emanuel (Menachem Mendel) Breznitz (1882-1944) who also studied at the Pressburg yeshiva and was a student of Rabbi Simchah Bunim Schreiber (Shevet Sofer).

The community built its new synagogue in 1907-1911 and also maintained a school of four classes that employed two teachers. The language of tuition was at first German, changing in 1874 to Hungarian, and in 1922 to Slovak. The community’s ritual bath stood behind the synagogue. Kosher animal slaughter was provided by a shochet. From the 1880s, the Jews of Senec established their own cemetery in the northern part of the town, near the brickyard. It was maintained by the Chevra Kadisha burial society. There was also a women’s association, a Bikkur Cholim (visiting the sick) association, and a Shomrei Torah (Guardians of the Torah) association.

Senec underwent considerable economic growth in the second half of the 19th century and in the 20th century. The railway connection with Bratislava and Pest was established in 1850. The town was electrified, and a brickyard (1880) and modern mill were built (1908). Jewish residents were involved in the local economy and owned a majority of the local small businesses (in the areas of restaurants and inns, bakeries, horses and cattle, leather and shoes, textiles, metalware, and wood). Two lawyers, a local dentist and a pharmacist were Jewish. All three medical doctors in Senec were Jews, including Dr. Jona Székely and Dr. Josef Raab (1902-1944).

Old cemetery in Reca

The 1930 census provides us with a detailed snapshot of the local Jewish population, which had then peaked at 502 persons, or 9.0 percent of the total population of 5,609. Senec was at the time a predominantly Hungarian-speaking town, but local Jews spoke both German and Hungarian. During the Austro-Hungarian period, they were culturally oriented more towards Vienna than Budapest, and many had family ties there. The Czechoslovak Republic granted Jews the option to declare their nationality as “Jewish”. In the 1930 census, 60.9 percent of Senec’s Jews did so. This was a way out of the dilemma of loyalty that many local citizens of the new state faced, i.e. whether to self-declare as Slovak or Hungarian. In politics, most Jews voted for the Jewish Party, which had an active branch in Senec. This division was also visible in local sport: Jews mostly supported the METEOR football team, rather than rivals STZK.

The Jewish community created its own political microcosmos and engaged in internal political disputes between various Orthodox and Zionist political movements. One side was represented by Agudat Israel, which also maintained the youth organizations Tzairei Agudat Israel (for boys) and Beth Jacob (a movement for girls). Zionists were represented through several youth movements: Hamizrachi (religious), Hashomer Hatzair (secular socialist) and Maccabi Hatzair (with a strong focus on sport).

Following the Vienna Award signed on November 2, 1938 the southern territory of Slovakia, including Senec, was ceded to Hungary. Anti-Jewish laws were introduced and Jews without Hungarian citizenship were deported to the newly demarcated border with Slovakia. Senec became a border town and a place of illegal border crossing. In the spring of 1942, Jews escaping from deportations then taking place in Slovakia passed through here to what was then the relative safety of Hungary. Many were caught by the Hungarian border police and imprisoned or murdered.

Graves of Rabbi Isaac Breznitz and his wife Bertha

Jewish young men from Senec were conscripted to army labour units, where they served in harsh conditions and many perished. The situation worsened further in the spring of 1944, when the German army occupied Hungary, the Arrow Cross Party formed a new government and deportations of Jews to extermination camps began. On May 10, 1944, 450 Jews from Senec and nearby villages were assembled on the square in front of the synagogue and transported to Bodoháza farm, where they stayed until June 13. They were then moved to the Nové Zámky ghetto. On June 14 and 17, they were transported to the Nazi extermination camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau, where most of them were murdered upon arrival.

About 70 Holocaust survivors returned to Senec after the war, but in the following years most of them left, going to Bratislava or emigrating from Slovakia. The first community chairman after the war was Imrich Ehrenfeld, succeeded in 1948 by Ján Bernfeld, who was arrested in 1957 by the communist regime and imprisoned for two years. The synagogue was seized from the community in the same year and used as granary and storage facility throughout the communist period. A tiny community continued to meet in the prayer hall in the courtyard until it was dissolved in 1964. A handful of Jews continued to live in the town for a time, but today no Jewish residents remain in Senec.