Thursday, January 19, 2012

Erasing History

It's clear to anyone who has spent more than an afternoon in Bratislava that the small city straddling the Danube possesses many charms. However, there are reasons why Bratislava usually gets brief and ambivalent write-ups in travel guides. Some tourists even deride Bratislava as dreary, drab, dumpy, and grey, and few visit for more than a day. One chief explanation for this neglect is that the Communists really worked Bratislava over, seemingly using it as a testing-ground for redeveloping a city as cheaply, functionally, and efficiently as possible, with an arrogant disregard for its rich history. This resulted in large swaths of the city's historical sections being razed to the ground and redeveloped as the Communists saw fit. Rather than preserve and restore older structures from centuries past, Communist urban planners simply knocked them down if they stood in the way of perceived progress, or if they proved too ruined and costly to repair. It's been said that Bratislava suffered more damage under Communism than during World War II. Apparently, Bratislava lost as much as a third of its historical center during Communism. The sad fact remains, many travelers come to Europe to revel in its stunning Old World charm, but the Communists built over a sizable chunk of Bratislava's.

Roughly one fourth of Bratislava's Stare Mesto (old town) was bulldozed in the late 60s for one single project: the Novy Most (New Bridge, aka UFO Bridge), and the short stretch of freeway connected to it, called Staromestska. The Novy Most is a major artery bringing traffic in and out of the Stare Mesto, while Staromestska links the bridge with the busy intersection just north of the historical center at Grassalkovich Palace, where several large, busy streets converge. To make space for this development, much of the centuries old historical Jewish quarter was razed, including the old and ornate, Moorish-styled Rybne Namestie Neolog Synagogue. Making room for the connecting strip of 4-lane freeway involved ploughing a deep, brutal scar through the western edge of the historical center. The freeway itself was laid down directly in front of St. Martin's cathedral (Bratislava's largest, most historically significant church), running little more than 10 feet from the facade. As Rick Steves notes, "if [the freeway] were any closer, it would go through the nave." Adding insult to injury, according to this article in the Slovak Spectator, St. Martin's "foundations [underwent] restoration to compensate for the vibrations generated by the traffic passing over the nearby bridge." 
Novy Most
Rybne Namestie Synagogue
Notice how close the freeway comes to the cathedral. 19 Hungarian kings and queens were crowned here in the 15-1600s when the kingdom of Hungary was ruled from Bratislava. 
While one could argue that this was a practical bit of urban planning (at least with regard to making the city more drivable, for what that's worth), it is difficult to deny the devastating effect this had on the Stare Mesto's urban fabric, history, and identity. The number of buildings that were demolished is considerable (estimates put it over 230), while the total area that was razed represented a sizable chunk of Bratislava's otherwise beautiful, centuries old historical center.

The freeway slices right through the historical center, isolating the Bratislavsky Hrad (castle) from the medieval centrum. Back in the middle ages, this strip of land between the castle complex and the walled medieval centrum laid more or less vacant. But around 1599, Jews were instructed to settle "in [the] narrow zone between the castle hill and the city fortifications. The so-called Judengasse, a part of the area controlled by the Castle, remained the only place Jews were allowed to live until 1840" ( The neighborhood expanded southward towards the Danube, fanning out in a southwesterly direction, into the space between the riverbank and the foot of the castle hill. Even though the castle and centrum were originally separated from each other by fortifications, the development of the Jewish quarter essentially linked them together, forming a somewhat seamless flow of buildings from the medieval centrum, over the western wall of the center, and about halfway up the eastern side of the castle hill. The entire southwestern portion of the razed neighborhood, a triangle-shaped area between the castle hill and Danube, remains undeveloped to this day, consisting mainly of bare, grassy knolls and circular freeway off ramps. At the far western tip of this area, you can still see a small cluster of the original neighborhood's foundations.

The area total area demolished for the Staromestska freeway and on/off ramps is highlighted by the black and white "lasso." (Click photo to enlarge). You can see how the freeway cuts through the historical center. 
Zidovska (Slovak for Jewish) street, the main artery of the Jewish quarter, ran between the castle and the old town, stretching down toward the Danube, past St. Martin's and the Synagogue, before spilling into a spacious, bustling, asymmetrical public square that connected with the western end of Hviezdoslavovo Namestie. Zidovska street remains more or less intact, currently running parallel to Staromestska (just above it to its west). However, based on old maps of the city, it appears that all of the buildings along the entire length of Zidovska's eastern side were demolished to make Staromestska. Those lots would have backed up against the outside of the centrum's western wall, which today is exposed along the length of the freeway. Very few of the original buildings along Zidovska's western side survive today, as most were knocked down and rebuilt.
Here are some before and after shots. Notice the synagogue with its two Moorish towers at the upper  right corner of the square. 
In this photo, you can see what's left of the square today,  as well as how all the buildings along the left side of the square have been replace by the Staromestska. The synagogue was sandwiched between the cathedral and the second building you see here from the right.
The road veering to the right in this photo is Zidovska. 
Here is the same view today, with the Staromestska freeway having replaced all that was built along the eastern side of Zidovska. Tragic!
The Staromestska freeway's construction not only destroyed the heart of the Jewish quarter, but it choked off the pedestrianized flow between the centrum and the castle by creating a wall between them, only passable today at a few key points. And not just any wall, but being a freeway, one that contrasts violently with the centrum's historical look and feel. The freeway obliterated what appears in pre-war photos to have been a lively, bustling public square, which also served to connect the larger, less intimate Hviezdoslavovo square with the streets leading up the castle hill. In this photo below, the square is shown to have been used as a public food market.

So, how could anyone muster the nerve to demolish a historically significant Jewish quarter? Basically, like much of Eastern and Central Europe, Slovakia was an immensely nightmarish place for Jews during WWII. Huge numbers of Jews were deported and sent to concentration camps like Auschwitz, while those who could flee did just that. According to,

"Approximately 105,000 Slovak Jews, or 77% of their pre-war population, died during the war... Of the approximately 30,000 Jews who resided in Slovakia following the end of the war and the restoration of Czechoslovakia, thousands emigrated to the newly created state of Israel, to the United States, Canada, Australia and other countries after the establishment of the Communist regime in 1948. Despite efforts to revive Jewish community life and organizational activity, the obstacles provided by the authorities, gradually eroded the ability to do so. Jews concealed their Jewishness, built new lives, and maintained the official silence surrounding Jewish history and the Holocaust."

So after the war, you had Jewish communities of varying sizes all over the country that had been largely abandoned. In fact, in some towns today you can still see old, abandoned Synagogues just sitting there, boarded up, gutted, weed-strewn and languishing. There's one in Lucenec that I've driven by numerous times, and another in Senec, to name just a few. Some of these synagogues haven't been in use since the 1930s. The mass desertion of these old communities resulted in many of their structures falling into disrepair and crumbling away.

Putting the pieces together, I'm guessing that this is partly why Bratislava's Jewish quarter fell victim to the bulldozer. I've come across numerous old photos of the neighborhood that showed some of its buildings to be in pretty rough, dilapidated condition. It's quite possible that some structures sustained damage during the war and were never repaired. By the 1960s, the area was probably seen by some as derelict and blighted. I'm not sure of the condition of the synagogue at the time of its demolition, or whether it was still in use, but it apparently just happened to be in the way. If many of these structures were abandoned, that could partly explain the Communist's apparent eagerness to demolish them. However, surely there must have still been people living in some of these dwellings, but at this point I can't find any information on who or how many people were relocated. Regardless of who was still living there, most traces of the Jews' historical presence in the city were effectively wiped out by the redevelopment.

Here is how the area looked, pre-Novy Most, from the edge of the castle hill. 
Here's how the area looks from that same spot today. The synagogue was located just to the left of the building at the center left of the photo, and would be partially obscured by the counter ballast on the crane were it still there. 
Of course with Communism having been a state-run system, neighborhoods like this couldn't rely on commercial real state development to run in and save them. Given that the money would have to have come out of the government's pocket, and that cash was in short supply, it was in the state's best interest to redevelop urban areas at minimum cost and maximum efficiency. From their perspective, why blow millions on restoring a bunch of dilapidated, old buildings? Turning the properties around and selling them for a profit wasn't an option, since private ownership of property was forbidden. It was far more economical to knock them down and build something new, which as sad as that sounds, is exactly what they did. Little did the Communists realize how this drastic approach to redevelopment would severely limit a major cash cow in the future: tourism.

It seems there was also an attitude of general indifference (if not outright hostility) among Communists toward architecture of the past. The Communists had something to prove, not just in terms of economic strength, but in creating and asserting their own aesthetic or identity. The Novy Most represented that aesthetic, both in its futuristic design and its structure (being a modern suspension bridge with only one support pylon). As far as the Communists were concerned, it was much more important to mark their territory with their own structures and monuments than to preserve old ones that had nothing to do with their vision or ideology.
The Jewish quarter from the other end, looking towards the direction of the  Danube. 
And here is that view today, albeit a block or so to the left; the Communists' middle finger to the past.  
Thankfully, historical sections of Eastern Bloc cities like Prague and Krakow somehow managed to make it through Communism (and WWII, for that matter) relatively unscathed. But Bratislava did not fare nearly as well. While Bratislava can boast of a beautifully restored historical center representing architectural eras from the medieval through Art Nouveau, it is fairly small and compact, and would have been quite a bit larger had the Communists been more interested in preserving the town's historical heritage and urban identity. Today there is a thick band of the Stare Mesto surrounding the historical center that has become a mishmash of architectural styles and eras - from ornate Hapsburg-era palaces to brutalist Communist panelaks - rendering the area architecturally incongruous in a sometimes jarring way. But this isn't entirely the Communists' fault. In fact, as early as the 1930s, well before Slovakia came under Communist rule, rational functionalists were knocking down old buildings on the outskirts of the historical centrum and replacing them with modern, boxy, streamlined apartment dwellings and shops. Some of these structures, like the Manderla building, possess their own distinct, historical charm. But again, that incongruity, while interesting to geeks, does not typically jive with the romantic, postcard image of Europe many tourists envision themselves strolling in.

What's all the more frustrating about the Novy Most is that at the time, the festering scar it created really wasn't necessary. In the late 60s, Petrzalka (the borough of the city south of the Danube) didn't even exist yet as we know it today (a massive sprawl of grey, concrete council estate housing). Back then it consisted of a public park, a small village or two, and acres of green space. There really wasn't a need at that time to bring large numbers of people back and forth across the river. Of course it's possible plans for Petrzalka's ambitious and large-scale redevelopment were already in the works, but they easily could have rebuilt or expanded the pedestrian-only Stary Most (old bridge) which lies not even a half mile down the river from the Novy Most (and remains pedestrian-only today). And if it truly was necessary to run a major artery right through the old town, they could have tunneled under the river and centrum. I mean, they had no problem tunneling through the castle hill to run a tram line to the city's western end.

At any rate, visitors standing around the western edge of Hviezdoslavovo Namestie today may have no idea just how much was destroyed to make room for the bridge and freeway. While the bridge's sci-fi design is quirkily photogenic (if a bit silly), I'm sure many people find it vexing that a noisy freeway was ever allowed to sit just spitting distance from the cathedral's facade. And there's almost nothing to indicate that a Jewish community once thrived here. However, in the empty square where the synagogue stood, in what is now called Rybne Namestie, is a monument dedicated to Jewish holocaust victims. Additionally, on the side of the freeway wall facing Rybne square, there is a silhouette of the synagogue's facade engraved on black marble. It's not much, but I suppose it's better than nothing. It is deeply upsetting to contemplate how this area might look today if the Communists hadn't brutally decimated it. And it's equally distressing that such a huge piece of Jewish history was wiped out. I mean, the sheer gall it took for the Communists to carve out such an ugly scar in what today would qualify for protected national heritage status. Alas, the best we can do is remember what was destroyed, make sure it never happens again, and accept that the Novy Most has become an offbeat and ironic symbol of Bratislava that we all have to live with; a symbol representing a maddeningly arrogant regime, but also another layer in the rich urban history of an old, European city.

An aerial view of the Stare Mesto and castle hill, facing west, pre-Novy Most. You can see St. Martin's cathedral in the center of the photo, below the castle. Few would deny how much nicer this area of the city would look today had the Communists not gone through with their plan. 

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