Unexpected and unexplained, a phalanx of glass obelisks emerge silently from the earthen mound, punctuating the atmosphere above what appears to be an anonymous tel. Some are transparent, others pebbled and translucent, but all glow with a faint green hue. Unyielding, they stand in rigid formation on the angled surface of the earth. These mute sentinels bear witness to the earthly remains and heavenly destination of 23 holy Jews of Bratislava, Slovakia, as well as the saintly scholar Moses Schreiber, known to generations of his followers as the “Seal of the Scribe:” Hatam Sofer.
Earlier this month I had the privilege of visiting the grave of this remarkable scholar as a historian traveling the Danube River with Kosher River Cruises. Together with leaders of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and 150 Jewish history enthusiasts, we cruised upriver from Budapest, Hungary to Passau, Germany exploring the thousand-year legacy of Danubian Jewry, meeting with representatives of the emergent Jewish communities, culminating in a moving ceremony at Mauthausen concentration camp for the dedication of a plaque to the memory of Simon Wiesenthal, a former prisoner who dedicated the rest of his life to hunting Nazi war criminals and the establishment of the remarkable Museum of Tolerance. Our itinerary was rich and varied, but to my surprise, one of the most powerful moments was the visit to this 18th-century gravesite and its amazing history.
A heavy black triangle juts out alongside the glass sentinels, running at an oblique angle to the road. Inside, a solemn slot-like narrow entrance allows reluctant access to the underground mausoleum where the Hatam Sofer and 22 other holy Jews lie, intact and undisturbed, since the Second World War. The story of their survival in death is as remarkable as the monument built to commemorate them.
A prewar photograph documents the size of the old Jewish cemetery of the city formerly known as Pressburg. Since the seventeenth century, thousands of Jews lay buried on the bank of the Danube, their tombstones glowing with ethereal light as darkness gave way to dawn every morning. A deeper darkness descended on the community in 1943, when local pro-German fascists confiscated the cemetery with plans to pave it over for new tram lines.
In what would be one of their last acts as a community, the Jews of Bratislava begged for permission to exhume the remains of their ancestors for reburial in the newer Jewish cemetery. For reasons which are unclear, the fascists granted this request and even grudgingly allowed for the protection in situ of the Hatam Sofer’s grave and those that immediately surrounded it.
Money undoubtedly played a role in this begrudging mercy, probably accelerated by a rumor that a terrible curse would befall anyone who disturbed these holy bones. A massive concrete sarcophagus was constructed around the protected tombs, sealing them in below the tram lines that eventually carried Bratislava’s commuters to work every day.
With the fall of Communism, a consortium of philanthropists, Jewish communal leaders and Slovak politicians arranged for the construction of the modern mausoleum designed by the award-winning Slovak architect Martin Kvasnica. The non-Jewish Kvasnica, born in 1958, had previously only worked on one small Jewish project, a kosher kitchen for the emerging Bratislava community, led by Chief Rabbi Baruch Myers, a Chabad shaliach originally from New Jersey.
Researching the complex considerations necessitated by Jewish law, Kvasnica designed a memorial befitting the stature of the Hatam Sofer. Dignified and otherworldly, Kvasnica’s artistic genius literally invites the pilgrim to descend–literally–into the grave of Rabbi Sofer, while at the same time the visitor perceives the ongoing influence of this immortal spiritual giant. Kvasnica’s art demonstrates how not even the Nazis could extinguish the flame of his Torah.
The disciple who first encounters the site may be puzzled by the mute aqua obelisks standing above ground, but that first sensation is dissipated by the unease one feels walking into the black stone entryway. Narrow and confining, open to the sky like a traditional ohel-grave, the floor slopes down to a right-angle entry on the left. A last warning to the visitor is posted there in Hebrew, English, German and Slovak: respect this holy place.
Only one word separates the Hebrew text from the translations: the word lefanekhah. Readers of Hebrew thus receive a nuanced message: “A holy place lies before you.” The site has sanctity for all visitors, but for Jews, this is personal. This is the grave of our revered teacher, a link in the chain of transmission of Torah from Sinai to the present day, a chain that reaches to our own generation.
Rabbi Schreiber (1762-1839) was first and foremost a posek, a Rabbi trusted with the difficult task of rendering decisions on Talmudic law. Known for his scholarly erudition, he was particularly distinguished for his articulation of a path for the Jews of his tumultuous times. The rapid political, social and economic changes of his era were nothing less than tectonic in scope, as society wrestled with the possibility of granting emancipation to the Jewish minority. Many Jews openly embraced the political freedoms associated with emancipation, but when it was slow to arrive in German-speaking regions, many opted to simply convert to Christianity to receive the economic, professional and social benefits of abandoning Judaism. Other Jewish communities tried to stem the tide of assimilation by partially adapting to modernity, adopting external non-Jewish mannerisms like dress and language while attempting to remain true to the essential tenets of Judaism.
The Hatam Sofer (alternatively spelled Chasam Sofer) disagreed vociferously. His view of the benefits of modernity was decidedly negative: in exchange for a mess of pottage, the Jews were sacrificing their birthright. Proclaiming a strenuous opposition to the temptations of acculturation, he formed the nucleus of the Haredi approach to modernity, expressed in numerous communities throughout Israel, North America and Europe.
Kvasnica brilliantly captured the enduring impact of the Hatam Sofer’s legacy while preserving the unusual underground sarcophagus created in the 1940s. After descending into the well-lit central chamber, the sloping ceiling is interrupted by what appears to be the protruding lower edges of the green obelisks that rise above ground. The effect is one of strange continuity, as the visitor suddenly recognizes the interconnectedness of the surface world and the subterranean legacy of these spiritual giants. Like intellectual engines, they feed the upper world with their radiant energy–tallest among them is the marker of the Hatam Sofer himself.
The experience of holiness is overwhelming. Standing with my wife, I recited a brace of Psalms in memory of the Jews buried here, along with the many martyrs of the Holocaust.
May the memory of the righteous be a blessing.