Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Boring Bratislava

[Australian Aboriginal art]

This is not an entry that's going to win me any accolades from the Slovakian tourism ministry (assuming there is such a thing).

I headed off for Slovakia this morning, sharing the train car with a Malaysian Catholic priest taking a break from his masters studies in family therapy at the university of Dublin, to visit friends in Bratislava. Oddly, the border guards on both sides didn't stamp our passports, but only just inspected them, as we crossed from Austria into Slovakia (same thing on my return, too).

Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is not exactly welcoming to tourists. Only as I was waiting for my return train to Vienna did I find the tourist information booth (in a small room off a corridor branching to the left from the first hall you come to as you come up from the platform). I knew the Jewish Cultural History Museum was a fifteen-minute walk from the station, but in which direction? I decided to take a bus towards the center.

I managed to buy a bus ticket and got off in the main square opposite the presidential palace. On the map I looked at last night, the museum looked like it was just off the Danube river, so I made my way down towards it.

The city isn't as bad as you might think: many of the buildings in inner Bratislava are fin-de-siecle beaux arts style constructions. I found my way to St. Michael's Gate, which is the entrance to the Stara Mesto (the old town).

[Michelska Brana]

From there, I headed down to the Old Town Square, but at no point did I find the street I was looking for: Zidovska ulice (Jews' Street), where appropriately enough, the Museum of Jewish Cultural History is located. I asked for directions, knowing that I would understand none of the answers: I just went off in the direction they pointed, and whenever I came to a fork in the road, I asked someone else. I finally found the museum, not where it was listed on the map, but instead at the bottom of Bratislava Castle.

[Bratislava Castle]

I went in and paid the 200 Sk for a ticket (about $9). For that, I could see five small rooms. Actually, the museum is quite pathetic, but it's of significant value for my research and well worth the money in that regard.

The first room was the most important for me. Besides the 5 or 6 cabinets of Jewish ritual objects, there was a display on Slovakian Jewish history. It begins with some speculation that since the Romans came here in the 2nd Century, there might have been some Jews who came at the same time. Eventually we leave the realm of myth and make our way towards the present. Finally we come to the Holocaust, and the brevity of the display was breathtaking. I jotted down some notes on the text for use in my article:

Anti-Semitism in Slovakia in the 1930s was the result of "national tension between the Czechs and Slovaks."

"The Slovak State emerged under the tutelage of Berlin," in 1939, and this led to the destruction of Jewish life in Slovakia.

After the war, the majority of Slovakian Jews, who were survivors, left the country by 1949.

Entirely absent from these brief statements are the following facts:

That Slovakia was ruled by Monsignor Josef Tiso and leader of the Slovak People's Party. Under his leadership, Slovakia closely aligned itself with Nazi anti-Semitic policies, and Slovakia was the first Axis partner to agree to the deportation of Jews in March 1942. In 1942, there were some 88,951 Jews in Slovakia. Over the next several months Slovakian police deported some 57,000 of them to Slovakian-run labor and concentration camps. From there, they were sent to the newly constructed extermination camps in Poland. Over the course of the war, some 70,000 Slovakian Jews were deported to Nazi camps, with over 60,000 of them murdered.

Just a tiny omission.

To be fair, the Slovakian government has established a memorial museum to the fate of Slovakian Jews in the Holocaust. You can find it in the restored synagogue in Nitra. Go ahead, try to find Nitra on a map. Try to find the train schedule to Nitra. When I got back to Vienna, I looked it up on Deutsches Bahn. It only takes 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one change of trains. Nitra is a tiny, out-of-the-way town, 99% of tourists who come to Slovakia will miss it.

The next four rooms in the museum are on Jewish customs, publishing, and a small memorial to Slovakian rabbis who died in the Holocaust. In fact, the museum was so small, I thought I missed something, so I checked with the cashier who said, no, that was all of it.

After that, I had lunch and headed back to the train station. On the train, I met some American college students who had spent two full days in Bratislava. I asked them what they did all that time. "People watch," was their answer. There really wasn't that much to do in the city.

Back in Vienna, I went to the Albertina to see their wonderful exhibit on "Die Brücke." Over 280 works by these artists, larger I think that the exhibits at the museum of the same name in Berlin. Just a terrific collection. Here's one of my favorites, by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff:

[Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, "Du und Ich," a wedding present to his wife]

I also checked out their special exhibit on Australian Aboriginal art, a new artistic movement that has emerged since the 1980s. You can see an example of what this art looks like at the top of this entry.

Then I headed to the Aida Cafe in Stephansplatz to have some kaffee und kuchen. The kaffee was a melange, the kuchen was a slice of Cardinalschnitte Schokolade. This has a layer of lady fingers on the bottom, then a thin layer of raspberry jam, then a one-inch thick layer of light chocolate mousse, followed by another layer of raspberry jam, and topped off with lady fingers and dusted with powdered sugar. Just delicious. I had a nice time, eating my cake, sipping my coffee, and reading Hannah Arendt on totalitarianism (I think I may propose a special topics graduate class on totalitarianism in modern European history).

[Cardinalschnitte Schokolade, as shown at the Aida Cafe website]

Now it's back to the hotel and then to dinner. I'm going to try to have something light at the Kleines Cafe. Tomorrow afternoon, it's off to Budapest.


Steve said...

how difficult is it to find:



I remember sitting in Stephansplatz near the catherdral and picking any number of about 200 cafes in the area, sipping coffee and eating some obscenly delicious sweet and feeling very bohemian while doing so. Enjoy...

J.B. said...

Yes, but try finding it without a computer, and when you can't find the town on any of the maps posted in the trainstation. Train routes are listed by the final destination, but if you don't know where the town is, there's no way of knowing which of the charts you should be studying.

Steve said...

Nah I was kidding. You need a mobile device like a Sidekick but that's just my pecniary professional interest talking. Data Roaming in Europe can be obscenely expensive. Actually one of my Beta testers lives in Budapest and he's a good guy. You might want to look him up and say hi from Steve.

András Margitay-Becht Lionis Ltd. Erno St. 11-13, First Floor 9th District Budapest H-1096 Hungary +36 70 312-1683 margitay@gmail.com mba@trial.danger.com

Matus said...

You use photos from http://bratislava-photo.esem.sk/ so it would be nice if you would link to that webpage.

J.B. said...

Sure, no problem.