By Naomi Baum
Graz, Austria and Maribor, Slovenia are both old towns, with histories that begin in the Middle Ages and boulevards graced with ornate buildings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The two towns are a mere 60 kilometers apart, and though a border separates them, they both were part of the region called Styria. Graz was a provincial capital with many grand buildings and palaces, while Maribor was a sleepy backwater with only a few imposing municipal buildings.
The stark differences in the cities’ synagogues provide a window into the Jewish history of these two communities. In these histories, we can find both “the best of times” as well as the “worst of times” for Jews who made their home on the continent called Europe.
Graz, the first stop on our recent trip to Central Europe, is the second-largest city in Austria. Jews lived there in the 13th and 14th centuries, were expelled in 1497, and returned in the late 18th century. By 1934, the registry shows that 1,720 Jews lived in Graz. In the collective Jewish memory, Graz earned special infamy in its eagerness to become the first Judenrein city in Austria—a town completely rid of its Jews. Graz was notably successful in this pursuit, and local citizens, in their anti-Semitic frenzy, desecrated the Jewish cemetery and burned the stately 19th-century synagogue down to its very foundation. While some Jews managed to escape, the majority of Graz’s Jews were deported and killed by the Nazis. After World War II, a small number of Jews returned to the city, and today about 100 Jews affiliate with the Graz community, meeting only for High Holy Day and cultural events.
After arriving in Graz at 10:30 p.m. on a balmy evening in early June, we set out from our hotel to walk around the charming old town, a lively area of restaurants and pubs filled with college students. During our walk, we stumbled upon an outdoor exhibition that detailed the tarnished history of Graz during World War II. We learned that the synagogue had been rebuilt and rededicated on November 11, 2000. This was a chilling 62 years to the date after Kristallnacht, the night that the original synagogue had been torched and destroyed.
After this introduction to Graz’s infamous history, I found it difficult to continue appreciating the beauty of its old palaces and gracious plazas, its wonderful Austro-Hungarian architecture and its impressive promenades. When we went to sleep that night, I promised myself that first thing in the morning we would visit the synagogue to pay tribute to the Jews who had lost their lives, and to stand quietly for a moment in prayer. And so we did.
The synagogue was easy to find, located on a main, tree-lined street that borders the Mur River, running through the middle of town. The original synagogue, designed by the Viennese architect Maximilian Katscher and completed in 1892, was an imposing square brick building that rose 30 meters into the sky. It was undoubtedly a familiar landmark on the Graz skyline until it was destroyed 46 years later.
The current synagogue building, built by the municipality in reparation for the past and dedicated a mere 14 years ago, is imposing as well, with many features reminiscent of the original structure, including the domed cupola. We knew that the synagogue would be closed. After checking the website, we learned that one needs to reserve a tour at least three weeks in advance in order to gain entrance. While there are occasional services and cultural events for the tiny Jewish community of Graz, most of the time this is an empty building without much activity.
As we made our way on foot around the building, we felt like pilgrims coming to remember and pay tribute to the lost souls and the extinguished Jewish community of Graz. Looking closely at the imposing dome constructed of glass, we identified words imprinted from the Bible circling the dome, noting that the opening sentences of each weekly portion was carefully transcribed onto it. It was beautiful.
We continued our trek around the rather large, red-brick building, and as we rounded the second corner to the back side of the building, I felt a cold knot of fear spread through my body. The foundation stones in front of us were identical to the red brick of the entire building but with one small difference: they were blackened with soot. These were bricks from the original synagogue that had been destroyed in that terrible act of hate, more than 70 years ago! Here were the original bricks, bearing silent witness to destruction, hate, and the Holocaust. My eyes filled with tears.
As we left Graz, the gray skies parted and a sliver of sunlight pierced the clouds. We headed southeast for an hour or so, making our way to Maribor, home to one of the two remaining synagogues in Slovenia. The Maribor synagogue is actually one of the oldest synagogues in all of Europe and a close rival to the Alt-Neu Schul of Prague, dating from the 14th century. The synagogue is located, not surprisingly, on Zidovska ulica (Jew Street), and is easily found with the help of well-marked signs and tourist maps.
As we descended the steps into the trim, whitewashed, stone building, the history of the Jews of Maribor unfolded before us. Our knowledgeable (non-Jewish) guide, who is the only staff member at the synagogue, told us that Jews represented some 20% of Maribor’s population from the 13th to 15th centuries, when the synagogue was built in the prevailing Gothic style. To prove her point she showed us the two beautiful Gothic arches framing the ceiling and the impressive external buttresses facing the Drava River below. When all of Maribor’s Jews were expelled in 1497, the synagogue was taken over by the Catholic Church, and the street was renamed All Saints Street.
Similar to the Jews of Graz, Jews began returning to Maribor in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century, 113 Jews were registered; however, no new synagogue was built. By the time the Communists came to power in the early 20th century, the original synagogue had been transformed from a church into an apartment building. The Maribor Jewish community was liquidated when the Germans invaded Slovenia, and after World War II no Jews returned. Thus, Maribor is a town with a synagogue but no Jewish community.
In the late 1980s, the municipality began an urban renewal project and realized the architectural significance and tourist potential of the structure of the ancient Jewish synagogue. Thus, the synagogue, along with several other municipal buildings, was renovated, and since 2000 the synagogue has operated as a museum and occasionally hosts exhibitions with Jewish themes. On the day of our visit, the synagogue had an exhibit, consisting of several posters and photos, about a Swiss diplomat who saved many Hungarian Jews during the Second World War. Outside the synagogue, there is a memorial to the Jewish community of Maribor that perished during the Holocaust.
As we walked through the small building, we saw stone arches and a reconstructed sanctuary, whitewashed and stark in its lack of decoration. Most moving, however, were the original keystones—the stones placed at the summit of the graceful Gothic arches. These keystones, found during the building’s renovations, are proudly exhibited along with other archaeological finds. The renovation was meticulously executed, and as we walked around the building, it was not difficult to imagine Jews gathering in this sanctuary on Shabbat and holidays, raising their eyes to the heavens to give thanks to G‑d, in this simple yet elegant sanctuary.
Two synagogues, two beautiful monuments to communities that were once vibrant with life. Today they are, for the most part, synagogues without Jews. Pilgrimages to these places give me pause as I remember the long and troubled history of our people. At the same time, these synagogues offer silent witness to the strength of the Jewish people, who brought their faith and culture with them over the centuries to the far reaches of the earth, never giving up on their connection to G‑d, to Jerusalem, and to their people. v