QUICK! Where IS Bratislava? Who said SLOVAKIA? You’re right! Having split up Czechoslovakia at the end of 1992, Slovakia and the Czech Republic became two independent states. Their parting is sometimes called the “Velvet Divorce.” Slovakia is classified as a “high-income advanced economy,” with one of the fastest rates of growth in Europe. During the Communist era, Slovakia is said to have been the world’s biggest maker of military tanks. Now, they make more cars per capita than anyone in the world. They also manufacture lots of flat-screen TVs and monitors for brand-name, international companies.

Svatopluk

Svatopluk

Shortly after we arrive in the city, we head for a tour of the Castle area. There, in front of the restored castle, which is undergoing transformation into a museum, we find an equestrian statue of Svatopluk, son of Svetimir— the late ninth century King of Moravia. It is recorded that around 862, Svatopluk and his uncle Rastislav requested that Michael III, the Byzantine Emperor,  send missionaries familiar with the Slavic language to their realm of Great Moravia. Apparently, their subjects already had rejected their indigenous paganism and embraced forms of Christian teaching. Rastislav and Svatopluk wanted missionaries from Constantinople, having run missionaries from the Roman church out of town, favoring Byzantine religion and politics.

Michael sent Cyril and Methodius, two highly-educated brothers from Thessaloniki, in Greek Macedonia, by then the second greatest city in Byzantium. Cyril, a professor in the University of Magnaura and a master of Hebrew and Arabic, already had served the Empire as emissary to the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mutawakkil, to whose court he traveled to discuss the concept of the Trinity with Arab theologians, and, it was hoped, to improve Byzantium’s relations with the Caliphate. Cyril also had undertaken a mission to prevent the spread of Judaism in a state ruled by a Jewish king, near the Sea of Azov. The brothers were nothing short of prolific in their “nation-building,” inventing the Glagolitic alphabet for the Slavic language (from which came the Cyrillic alphabet named after Cyril and used in Russian), translating large portions of the Bible, and writing the first Slavic Civil Code.

The New Bridge

The New Bridge

From the castle’s hill, one also can see the territory through which the Iron Curtain passed —that lethally-guarded military barrier built to keep citizens of the communist East from escaping to the democratic West. There’s no visible remnant now.  Across the nearby Danube, however, stretches the so-called New Bridge—a Communist-era icon both resented and presented with a grudging kind of pride as an icon of the city. Beyond the bridge, one’s eye quickly finds the depressing Communist-era housing projects, once uniformly grey and drab beyond any counterparts in the West. Here, as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, citizens who are stuck with them for now have taken to painting them in creative, almost redemptive, patterns and colors.

Slovak Radio

Slovak Radio

In the center of town, an unusual building is for sale. Interested? It’s the upside-down pyramid headquarters of Slovak Radio, completed in 1983. Radio on a scale practiced by Eastern-bloc police states isn’t a popular or profitable business these days. The government is raising cash and taking bids. Consider the possibilities!

Bratislava Jewish Museum

Bratislava Jewish Museum

Slovakia’s WWII leader, Father Josef Tiso, a Catholic priest, was the only European leader who actually paid the Nazis to deport Jews from his country. Tiso’s anti-Jewish polemics and policies stood in contrast to the Vatican’s criticism of his and Slovakia’s deportations. By the end of 1942, about 58,000 Jews—some 75% of Slovakian Jewry—had been deported to their deaths, most of them to Auschwitz, about 200 miles away. According to the Jewish Museum in Bratislava about 70,000 Slovak Jews, were murdered during the war.

Torah Set

Torah Set

The Jewish museum, just outside the old city walls, holds one of the finest collections of Jewish treasures we have seen. We browse through Torah shields, pointers, and crowns; a synagogue bima, Passover table settings, and oil paintings of numerous rabbis. The Holocaust educational and memorial material is compact but stunning, as always, in its pathos and the impact of the sheer number of souls murdered. A multi-planar, smoked-glass memorial keeps alive the memory of the many rabbis murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.

Alfréd Wetzler

Alfréd Wetzler

Among the panels telling the story of Slovakia and the Holocaust is one bearing the name of Alfréd Wetzler, one of the very few Jews known to have escaped from the Auschwitz death camp. He and a fellow escapee, Rudolf Vrba, created a report revealing the workings and ground plan of the camp, which they dispatched with a label from a container of the Zyklon insecticide used to gas the camp’s prisoners. This allegedly constituted the first credible and convincing report the Allies received of the horrors being committed at Auschwitz and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), and led to bombings elsewhere that killed some Nazi officials. The deportations from Hungary ceased, and perhaps 120,000 Hungarian Jewish lives may have been saved.

Old Town Square

Old Town Square

Our walking tour of the old city takes us, with a local guide, through charming, narrow streets, past quirky sculptures and buildings, to the main square and the Primate’s (Archbishop’s) Palace—a city government building since 1903. Along the way, she urges us to watch our bags as we walk. When we first embarked on our tour in Warsaw, we chose a zoological code word to warn one another of pickpockets, if we should spot them: they are Elephants. Our local guide stiffens and points to two characters with backpacks who are hanging around other tourists. “Ha!” she says, not quietly, “When did they let them out of jail?”

Pharmacy Museum

Pharmacy Museum

Here’s a Museum of Pharmaceuticals—but what’s with the lobster on the sign? Folks back home in Maine do say that a lobstah is good for what ails ya.

Paparatzo

Paparatzo

Here’s another statue paying tribute to the camera-slinging tourist—or is it a monument to paparazzi?

Manhole Man

Manhole Man

Not far from him is the bronze, helmeted figure resting his arms and chin over the edge of a manhole. The locals say he’s enjoying his vantage point, peering up at the fair half of the world. Further, another brass form hangs on for dear life to a flagpole two stories up.

...slept here

...slept here

This city has a “Mozart Slept Here” plaque, and one for Franz Liszt. The latter’s first name can be spelled Franz, Franc, Ferenc, and who knows how else, throughout nearby nations who knew him.

The Primate’s Palace is, as one would expect, grand. But there’s no air conditioning—not on this unusually hot day and season, nor at any other time. It may be that the time is ripe, after these last two scorching summers, for a run at canonization for Willis Haviland Carrier, the inventor of the air conditioner! It shouldn’t be too tough to corral three miracles to attribute to the genius; it’s a sure thing a few thousand Texan lives have been extended or saved through his invention. Just a thought…

Prelate's Palace

Primate's Palace

The palace holds a complete set of six English tapestries dating back to the 1630s, depicting the legend of Hero and Leander. Our guide tells us that it is the only complete set in existence; one other museum or palace has a set of five. These were remarkably well-preserved, as they were hidden behind a wall to keep them from invaders and marauders, and re-discovered only when the city bought the palace in 1903.

Palace Interior

Palace Interior

A further attraction of the Palace is its Famous Hall of Mirrors; if you visit to see it, don’t expect Versailles… Notable peace treaties were signed in the Hall, including the fourth Peace of Pressburg (the first three must not have remained peaceful long) in 1805, after the Battle of Austerlitz, which ended the War of the Third Coalition. Guess I must have been asleep during the European History class when that one was movingly recounted…

Wine Cellar Dinner

Wine Cellar Dinner

Dinner tonight is a major treat: we dine, in two parties, at two homes belonging to a local family. Our repast is with the elder couple and our guide, in their refreshingly cool dining hall—while our counterparts feast with their English-speaking son’s family, in the same neighborhood. The patriarch is a vintner, who lost his land in the Communist agrarian re-distribution and collectivization. After the fall of the Wall, he managed to get a fair portion of it back. But their moderate prosperity depends, as it does for many, on piecing together income from multiple sources. His wine is good, and dinner is heartily tasty. As we find throughout the region, the locals discuss life under the Communist regime—and current governments—freely, with gusto, and with roughly the universal proportion of complaints.

Advertisements