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Cultural Analysis, Volume 10, 2011

Jewish Culture and its Heritage in Slovakia after 1989: Urban sites of remembrance in Košice and their meanings

Vanda Vitti
University of Munich (LMU),Germany

Abstract: This multiple-perspective ethnographic case study explores the current meanings of the Jewish cultural heritage for the Jewish community of Košice in Slovakia and its urban environment. Based on interviews with experts, and narrative interviews, archival research, media monitoring, object-analysis, and participant observation, the author’s analysis focuses on the city’s synagogues which emerge as narrative spaces triggering discourses of conflict between different interest groups and witnessing social practices that address cultures of remembrance.


The building of the Orthodox Synagogue
on Pushkin street in Košice (photo taken in 2010).

The building of the Orthodox Synagogue on Pushkin street in Košice (photo taken in 2010).

"The last regime has destroyed the Orthodox synagogue

This is the headline of an article (Jesenský 2006)1 published in 2006 by the Slovak daily SME2. It was devoted to the oldest synagogue in Košice which was virtually destroyed during the Socialist era. Košice is home to nine officially recognized ethnic minorities, and the ecumenical church district has ten member groups. The city is generally viewed as the multi-cultural and multi- religious urban center of East Slovakia. Numerous buildings reveal its Jewish heritage: a community center with the oldest Mikveh (Jewish ritual bath) in Slovakia, four synagogues, a Yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish school for studying the Talmud and Torah), two Jewish schools, two cemeteries, and a house of culture called ‘Kasino’. The number of buildings, their size, architecture and distinctive décor, suggest that there used to be a sizeable, rich and heterogeneous Jewish community in the city.

About 12,000 Jews lived in Košice before the Holocaust.3 Today, the city’s Jewish community comprises 300 official members which is nowadays the second largest in Slovakia. Fifteen thousand Jews from Košice and surrounding areas were deported to Auschwitz, and only 2,000 of them returned to the city after the war. Many Jews emigrated when the communist regime came to power in 1948, and some others did so after the collapse of the Prague Spring in 1968.4 Only a small group stayed in the city, but after the political rupture in 1989 many members of this group moved to Western countries.

Today, it is mostly material relics that bear witness to Jewish life in Košice. In the socialist era, the authorities expropriated the buildings of the Jewish community that remained intact after the Holocaust. Like in many other Slovak cities, these buildings were no longer used for their original and intended purpose. The Orthodox synagogue on Zvonárska Street (Slovak for “Bellmakers”), for example, served as a storage facility for the State Library. Jesenský 2006, quotes an art historian, observing the renovation of the synagogue:

Never in my life have I witnessed a greater act of barbarism. They robbed the furniture, disposed of it in a landfill or completely destroyed it. Today, it is no longer possible to restore some parts of the interior to the original state. For example, they broke open the holy shrine used for storing the Torah, installed boards in it and put the writings of Lenin inside. For years, rain has been pouring through the leaking roof, so plaster has come off the wall revealing brickwork, and the stucco has fallen off too.

In 1989 the process of restitution started, and the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community which is now responsible for renovating it. Since the building is dilapidated this is a serious challenge. The renovation work was scheduled to be completed by 2013 when a museum of Jewish culture in East Slovakia will be inaugurated in the building. Košice was designated to be the European Capital of Culture in the same year.

According to the cultural studies scholar, Jörg Skriebeleit, places serve: a medium for constructing cultural spaces of remembrance that can be associated with a variety of meanings and connotations. These interpretations of places as media of remembrance or as symbols are, in turn, dependent on the cultural and societal discourses surrounding them; i.e., they rely on the subjective experiences and attitudes of the groups affected and interested, groups using the site, and groups involved in the discourses in question (Skriebeleit 2005, 219).

What ‘space’ do the Jewish community and the Jewish culture occupy in the city and its memory? How does the synagogue, as a material space, structure individual activities and social relations in the city? What meanings and functions do objects and spaces of remembrance acquire when they become linked to the memories and experiences of the inhabitants of Košice?

Narrative Spaces in the City

There is a reciprocal relation between space and social life. The urban environment reflects structures and ideas; at the same time, the materiality of the built space structures social action. Yet the past is not just present in material relics; in the urban space, there are conscious and intentional acts of marking past events in order to preserve their presence in the here and now (Binder 2009, 15).

Beate Binder portrays urban space as a product of social construction. According to her, social construction in this case is based on the reciprocal effects that people and buildings have on each other. Different actors decide where in the urban space past events should be remembered, and which objects and spaces should act as media of commemoration in order to become part of the cultural memory. According to Aleida Assmann, cultural memory evolves from a wealth of knowledge and experience. Divorced from their original living bearers, they have been transferred to material data media and have become part of social practices (Assmann 2006, 47).

In this article I am presenting some ethnographic observations made during the fieldwork I undertook for my Ph.D. dissertation, which is devoted to the development of Jewish life and culture in Slovak cities after 1989. I will focus on the question of how synagogues, as sites of remembrance, draw some features of the past into the present and thus function as “zones of contact between the past and present” (Assmann 2006, 217 ff.). With the help of examples, I will sketch out the nature of these “contacts” and look at breaks with the past. I view synagogues and their urban environment not only as socially constructed, but also as narrative spaces. As Rolf Lindner remarks, “cities are not empty pages, but narrative spaces in which particular (hi)stories, myths and parables are inscribed” (Lindner 2006, 57).

Difficult Struggle for a Future

Synagogues confront the policy- making bodies of the new Eastern Europe with a far more complex problem than do cemeteries: something must be done with the synagogues. ... “Doing something”, however, creates an even greater dilemma, especially in the post-1989 era when the disjuncture wrought by the Holocaust is exposed again and in new ways (Bohlmann 2000, 45).

Despite its status as an (inter)national heritage site, the oldest existing synagogue in Košice5 is one of the many “tragic” objects that form part of the Jewish cultural heritage in Slovakia. Nevertheless, there are good prospects for it to be saved. If the renovations are completed by 2013 and the museum of Jewish culture does open, this synagogue will be a rare example of a successfully restored site related to Jewish culture. Located in the city center and housing the new museum, the synagogue will fit well into the multi-religious and multi- cultural image of the city. Moreover, it will be economically beneficial for the Jewish community, thanks to admission charges. All in all, the synagogue will have a multi-faceted symbolic value: it will serve both as a site of remembrance for the Jewish community and as a museum disseminating knowledge about Jewish culture in East Slovakia among members of the general public. Notably, commemoration of the Holocaust will be an essential goal of the restored synagogue: the names of the murdered Jews from Košice will be inscribed on its walls. This would be a welcome change from the situation with the Jewish cultural heritage in Slovakia today:

Out of 107 synagogues and prayer halls in Slovakia, only about six are used as active Synagogues, about fifteen of them serve at least partially as cultural venues. These include a broad spectrum of uses: from specialized art galleries to cinema halls. The remaining synagogues are warehouses, dwellings and shops, and also abandoned sites (Borský 2010, 136).

Besides two Orthodox, there are two more synagogues in Košice: one is Chassidic, converted into a technical laboratory in the 1950s, the other is Neolog, turned into the “House of Arts” around the same time (Borský 2007, 123). The Neolog synagogue has been the seat of the Philharmonic Orchestra of the State ever since and is owned by the City Council. Since 1994 the Jewish community has been fighting in court for the ownership of this synagogue and of the Yeshiva also owned by the city council.

Cultural Heritage at the Intersection of Social and Cultural Memory: Remembrance in the Urban Present

Among the residents of Košice there is a distinct interest in the history and culture of Judaism in their city. One proof of this is the popularity of the guided tour “Jewish Košice” operated since 2005 by the Košice City Information Center. These tours are conducted twice a year and, according to a city guide I interviewed, they are more popular than any other tour offered by the Center because they give a unique opportunity to see the interior of the buildings belonging to the Jewish community. Notably, some of these buildings were inaccessible to the public in the past. When the tours take place the other Orthodox synagogue on Pushkin Street becomes a site where the strange encounters the familiar: visitors learn about Jewish history and culture and approach this authentic place as if it were some exotic curiosity.

During my field work, I interviewed some inhabitants of Košice and found that the majority hardly knew anything about the synagogues in the city center. Neither were my interviewees aware of the Jewish community or its cultural activities. Yet, even if it remains outside the orbit of everyday life of the non-Jews in the city, it can be assumed that they possess at least some knowledge about the community thanks to the publications in the local media.

My research in the archives of local newspapers revealed that they did not only regularly cover the history of the Jewish community, but also informed readers about the situation with the synagogues as regards problems with their restitution and renovation. In the early 1990s, when the press began to show interest in the Jewish community, the journalists focused on the Jewish holidays and days of commemoration. In 1994, for example, there was a report on objects of commemoration headlined “The history of Judaism in Košice dates back to the 15th century” (Duchon 1994). Headlines, such as, “The State returns destroyed property” (Hriadelová 2000), or “The Jewish community goes to court over the House of Art” (Hriadelová and Jurkovičová 2001) testify that, in the last few years in particular, the media have been reflecting upon the current conflict of interests over the ownership of buildings with complex history.

I conducted online interviews with the current mayor, who has been in office since late 2010, and with his predecessor. Both said that the Jewish community and its traditions constituted an integral part of the city’s culture, and so people highly value the contribution of the community to city life. The Club of National Minorities and the Commission of Churches, both municipal organizations, represent the interests of the Jewish community vis-à-vis the city council. Besides, the Jewish community is a member of the Ecumenical Church District which also closely cooperates with the city council. The Jewish community is an active participant in an important cultural event—an annual Festival of Sacred Art which brings together people of various creeds. Finally, associations run by members of the Jewish community organize various public cultural events, such as concerts, exhibitions and recitals. Big events are always attended by official representatives of the city administration. On closer inspection, I noticed that these events were frequented by the same group of people. Later, the organizers confirmed my observation.

There is ample evidence that the media and the city are interested in the Jewish cultural heritage. As the sociologist Maurice Halbwachs states, no memory is possible outside a shared social framework (Halbwachs 1967, 2). The social framework embedding the past and present of the Jewish community can be traced in Košice. However, it is maintained by a relatively small group of citizens and some sections of the media. It seems that the Jewish Community fails to reach the wider public. On the one hand, it does not advertise the events it organizes frequently enough, and the scope of publicity remains limited. On the other hand, not all inhabitants of the city are capable of accessing the social and cultural memory of the city. In sum, as results of my field work demonstrate, the Jewish cultural heritage remains in some people’s functional or “canon” of memory: the type of memory characterized by its relatedness to, and its presence in everyday life. Yet, for the majority, things are different: the Jewish cultural heritage is located in their “memory-archive”, which is latent and constitutes an unconscious, hardly accessible archive of recollections (cf, Assmann 2006, 56; and 2010, 37).

I am now moving away from the discursive frames of memory and will take a close look at the synagogues and their current role in the life of Košice. My aim is to allow the spaces of remembrance to “speak”.

“Restoring the past by connecting it to the present”

But synagogue restoration in Eastern Europe is not truly about plaster and drywall. It is about restoring the past by connecting it to the present. Such continuity, such processes of transition, however, cannot be undertaken effectively. The historical disjuncture is too great. It is, nonetheless, precisely this historical disjuncture that can be sutured and repaired, if not restored (Bohlman 2000, 68-69).

In the case of the synagogue on Pushkin Street, it has proven difficult to connect the past to the present and ensure that the marks of history remain visible in the restored appearance of the building. This synagogue, the newest one in town, is one of the few buildings that remained in the hands of the Jewish community in the socialist era. Its members have used it continuously for religious purposes. One of my interviewees, an expert employed at the Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments, remarked that everything in this synagogue had been “liquidated”, including “the ornate windows and stained glass”. It was reopened in September 2009 after a laborious process of renovation that took six years.

Designed for 800 people, the synagogue on Pushkin Street is an impressive edifice which stands out against the adjacent old buildings, most of which need restoration. The wall next to the entrance carries a memorial plaque dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust. The interior decoration of the building absorbs visitors, whose eyes are immediately captured by a well-chosen combination of wood, metal, textile, and stone. The clear-cut structure, soft light and a balanced color range contribute to the atmosphere of opulence. However, a closer look reveals that here and there the newly renovated brickwork is blemished. In the left- and right-hand corners of the building, next to the Torah shrine, one can easily notice large stains on the light painted wall. The stains look as if they could be caused by leaking water and, according to the representative of the Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments, drainage pipes behind the walls should have been inspected and replaced but were not, which might cause further damage. Both members of the Jewish community and employees of the Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments say that they did not always find it easy to communicate and cooperate with each other. The Jewish community has to carry out all the renovation and restoration work needed, and this work has to conform to the guidelines of the Office for the Protection of Historical Monuments. But it is the community that is solely responsible for funding the project. Since the money allocated by the Ministry of Culture for restoration of old buildings is insufficient to finance all the renovation projects, the Jewish Community failed to get significant support. Even though the restoration processes were partly funded by Košice City Council and a number of foreign foundations, the Jewish community was forced to sell the ‘Kasino’ and the Talmud and Torah school in order to rescue both Orthodox synagogues. The struggle for saving the buildings is accompanied by disputes and conflicts of interests between the client and contractors. One example is emergence of marks on the brickwork which prove that restoration work was done inadequately, threatening the future of the buildings.

On the wall with the water stains in the synagogue on Pushkin Street, there are signs of the Holocaust. These are four messages written in pencil by Jews who were held in the synagogue shortly before their deportation in April 1944. Two of the messages are identical. They read: “I am here, I don’t know where they will take me. 21.IV.1944. Lily”. One of the messages was signed by Lily’s small son. For her elder son, a survivor, these messages are the only visible memory of his family from the period. The inscriptions were discovered during the restoration of the building and were sealed and protected with the help of a special technique. Hidden behind the back of long benches placed in front of the wall, the inscriptions become visible only when small doors in the wooden benches are open. Otherwise, the benches completely cover up the messages.

According to Aleida Assmann, such “traumatic places” are “multi-faceted, ambiguous, and associated with different memories and interpretations” (Assmann 2006, 221). Besides obvious signs of the past, visitors discover many others that are mere hints and are hardly visible. Whenever the rabbi explains what is special about the synagogue on Pushkin Street to the ever-expanding groups of people visiting it during the guided tours of “Jewish Košice”, he shows them the messages on the wall. At this point, at latest, he will start talking about the synagogue as a witness to crimes against humanity during the Holocaust. According to Wolfgang Benz, there is no place where remembrance crystallizes “in a more terrifying and imposing way than at the historical site, at the places where things shaping memories and determining commemoration happened” (Benz 2005, 197).

Following Aleida Assmann, the synagogue should be seen as a palimpsest or as a traumatic place containing palimpsests. “Despite the fact that in this place, a certain history has culminated and found its catastrophic conclusion, history is continuing even here and presents itself in the form of a “stratified’ space” (Assmann 2006, 225).6 In the synagogue, history has not stopped: the signs of history and trauma have been preserved and are passed on to younger generations. Moreover, new signs have been created that threaten to destroy old ones, as exemplified by restoration work breaching the guidelines. But how is the Jewish community using this space?

Religion and Tradition: The synagogue as a space for collective and individual negotiations over history and identity

The synagogue is an ethnographic site, not just a place to experience community but a liminal b o r d e r space where one crosses into the sacred spaces of the past. The synagogue is also a narrative space, where the texts that narrate ritual and ritualize history concentrate time and the experiences of being Jewish (Bohlman 2000, 46).

In the course of my fieldwork I spent some of the Jewish holidays with a Jewish family, my interviewee Lea and her mother. During Rosh ha Shana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, I observed the ceremonies in the synagogue, afterwards recording the account of events and my impressions in my ethnographic diary.

While we are sitting down on the benches reserved for women, Lea’s mother takes out her lace shawl and covers her head. This indicates that she is married, and some other women in the synagogue also wear lace shawls. Around us, prayers are underway. The cantor is singing, and the rabbi standing in the center of the synagogue is calling up a number of men, one after another. All of them wear kippot (skull caps), tefilin (phylacteries), and prayer shawls. One by one they walk up to the shrine, read out passages from the Torah, touch the dark red velvet curtain in front of the shrine and return to their seats. I am captivated by the liveliness of the ceremony, the singing of the young cantor flown in from Israel for the occasion, and the devout atmosphere around me. Apart from Lea and me, there are only three young women present. Only a few of the older women pray in Hebrew. Lea’s mother has brought a prayer book. She tells me that it belonged to her late mother, but she is unable to read it. Her mother died recently, and as they had been very close to each other the daughter adopted some of the Jewish traditions observed in her home: she lights a candle on Shabbat, fasts on Yom Kippur and prepares traditional dishes for each of the holidays.

The synagogue evokes memories of the past in the people who visit it. This is also evident in a statement by one of my interviewees. During a concert in the synagogue, this man is showing me a chair in one of the rows in front of the Bimah (a pulpit located in the center of an (Orthodox) synagogue). This is where his father used to sit. At this point, the individual and family memories activated in this space become connected to the ritual practices of the Jewish community. In turn, this connection contributes to the development of identities of the actors involved (cf, Assmann 2006, 208 ff.).

At first sight, it is hardly noticeable that only a few of the people present are able to join in the prayers. Most others appear to be listening, with the exception of Lea and her mother who are having a lively conversation. I keep on watching the people around me and notice that many are not praying but talking to each other in whispers. In fact, only a small group is actively participating in the service. When asked afterwards, many of my interviewees confirmed this observation. They go to the synagogue in order to commemorate deceased family members, revive the family tradition or just to meet their friends and acquaintances.

The synagogues may symbolize Jewish religious life to outsiders but, in actual fact, very few people observe the Jewish religious tradition. Due to the Holocaust, there was a rupture in the Jewish religious life in Slovakia. So far, it has not been possible to revive it, partly due to the ban on religion in the socialist era, which created a gap of knowledge and a gap between generations. At present, there are no young Jews left in Košice Jews to keep up the religious traditions. This is both a product of a lack of interest and of labor emigration to the West after 1989. Hardly any of my interviewees, members of the Jewish community, are religious. People are motivated to observe the tradition and go to the synagogue because they want to commemorate and pay respect to their Jewish roots and ancestors. One example is the decision of Lea’s mother to wear a lace scarf in the synagogue and to fast on Yom Kippur. The rabbi confirmed my observations: “My attempt to guide these people to religion is like a single drop in the ocean”.

Conflicting palimpsests

Spaces of remembrance and memory, relics and marks of the recent and the long-gone past are located close to one another in urban space, and they are closely interwoven. Cityscapes are like palimpsests on whose surface signs overlap, intersect and communicate with one another (Binder 2009, 15).

Beate Binder suggests that we should “read” cities. I have tried to decipher the content of the narratives connected to some places and spaces of the Jewish community in Košice, as well as their partly overlapping, partly conflicting, meanings. My impression is that after the repressive regimes of the past, the citizens of Košice and the Jewish community are only step by step learning how to handle the Jewish cultural heritage of their city. First and foremost, this is reflected in the existence of “conflicting palimpsests” in which different layers of the city’s history interact and interplay. Sometimes this leads to conflicting interpretations as manifested by the “inheritance dispute” between the city council and the Jewish community, and by talk about the problems caused by restoration work at the synagogues. These current discourses merge with the diverging, partly traumatic, memories of the actors, members of the Jewish community who are in the process of negotiating their strategies of handling tradition and, thus both individuals’ and group identity of the Jewish community of Košice.

Wherever past and present meet, there emerge almost irreparable ruptures in the brickwork of memory archives and of (hi)stories inscribed in them:

A place is everything one seeks in it, everything one knows about it, everything one associates with it. As much as it is concrete and physical, it appears multi-faceted if looked at from all the different perspectives (Assmann 2006, 225).

Translated from the German by Alexander Gallas

1 All the translations from Slovak are by the author. [ Return to the article ]

2The SME (“We are”) is one of the most- read dailies in Slovakia.[ Return to the article ]

3There are no exact numbers on the Jewish population in Slovakia. According to the census in 1938, there were 11,420 Jews in Košice, 20% of the total population of the city, cf, Slovenské Národné Múzeum [SNM] Múzeum Židovskej Kultúry. 2010. Encyklopedia Židovských Náboženských Obci. A-K. Edicia Judaica Slovaca, 200 and 210. Bratislava.[ Return to the article ]

4The Prague Spring was an attempt by the then leader of Czechoslovakia Alexander Dubček to liberalize and democratize the country controlled by the Communist Soviet Union. The reforms were stopped violently after the invasion of the troops of the Warsaw Pact (for further reading see Williams 1997; Mannová 2000, 274 ff.; Borský 2007, 47).[ Return to the article ]

5Maroš Borský’s project “Slovak Jewish Heritage Route” has documented the entire Jewish cultural heritage in Slovakia. As a result of this work six Jewish sites and objects of remembrance have become part of the European Route of Jewish Heritage, and the synagogue on Zvonárska Street is among them. (cf, Accessed 25 November 2011.[ Return to the article ]

6Translator’s note, in which the italics are his: “The original quote: ‘Obwohl eine bestimmte Geschichte hier kulminierte und zu einem katastrophischen Abschluss kam, ist auch hier die Geschichte weitergegangen und stellt sich als eine räumlich‚ geschichtete‘ dar’ contains word play that does not translate into English: Assmann highlights common etymological roots of the German words Geschichte, (history), Schicht (stratum) and geschichtete (stratified)”.[ Return to the article ]

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_____. 2010. Re-framing memory. Between individual and collective forms of constructing the past. In Performing the past. Memory, History, and Identity in Modern Europe. Eds. Karin Tilmanns, Frank van Vree and Jay Winter. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 35-50.

Benz, Wolfgang. 2005. Authentische Orte. Überlegungen zur Erinnerungskultur. In Der Nationalsozialismus im Spiegel des öffentlichen Gedächtnisses: Formen der Aufarbeitung und des Gedenkens. Eds. Petra Frank and Stefan Hördler. Berlin: Metropol, 196-203.

Binder, Beate. 2009. Streitfall Stadtmitte: Der Berliner Schlossplatz. Köln: Böhlau.

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Hriadelová, Slávka, and Klaudia Jurkovičová. 2001. “Židovska obec sa súdi o Dom umenia.” In SME, 9 April. http://www.sme. sk/c/32604/zidovska-obec-sa-sudi- o-dom-umenia.html Accessed 1 December 2011.

Jesenský, Mikuláš. 2006. “Ortodoxnú synagógu zničil bývalý režim.” In SME, 20 December. http://www. znicil-byvaly-rezim.html Accessed 25 November 2011. Accessed 25 November 2011.