In the mid-2000s Emil Fish, who left his native Bardejov, in eastern Slovakia, in 1949, founded an association to preserve Jewish heritage in his home town, the Bardejov Jewish Preservation Committee. Among other things, the group is constructing a Holocaust memorial, which will be dedicated at a ceremony June 24.
Bardejov’s medieval core and the site of its former “Jewish Suburb” just outside the town walls are on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. The complex includes the early 19th century Great Synagogue, long used as a plumbing supply warehouse and now undergoing restoration, as well as a mikvah and Beit Midrash. The small, fully intact Chevra Bikur Cholim synagogue, founded in 1929, is preserved in the town center. There is also a Jewish cemetery.
In an article in The Forward, Fish writes about returning to Bardejov for the first time in 2005 and then acting to preserve its Jewish heritage:
The Jewish Suburbia is not just a holy place, it is also a historic place. The compound was one of the reasons UNESCO picked Bardejov as a World Heritage Site in 2000, turning the city into a tourist destination. It is also one of the few things left in Bardejov that shows that not so long ago — when I was a boy — there used to be hustling, bustling Jewish life there.
Being in Bardejov and seeing that the Jewish Suburbia was being used to sell and store hardware supplies was just too much. I simply could not stand by and let our history disappear. And so I acted.
That, really, is what this story is about. I acted because I felt that a part of Jewish history — my Jewish history — was being destroyed. I acted because I knew that if I did not do something about it, two generations from now there would be nothing Jewish left in Bardejov except the gravestones in the cemeteries, and maybe not even those.
Many Jewish heritage sites throughout Slovakia remain in perilous condition, despite efforts of the small Jewish community and activists such as Maros Borsky, who founded the Slovak Jewish Heritage Center and the Slovak Jewish Heritage Route.
Fish reflects about why it is important to save Jewish built heritage:
We need to preserve these places in order to educate our children and grandchildren about their history and to connect them with their heritage in a meaningful way. We need to preserve these places in order to teach them that it was not just a number that Hitler murdered, but 6 million real people who came from real places, who lived normal lives before the Holocaust, who ran their businesses and went to synagogue and sent their kids to school. When places like Bardejov’s Jewish Suburbia are restored and preserved, it ensures that there is real, concrete evidence that we were once there, and that the Holocaust that caused our disappearance can never be denied.