Though I was thrilled to travel to Eastern Europe with my family this summer, I didn’t understand my father’s unmitigated insistence that we go. Of course, I knew why he wanted to take my sisters and me to Prague and Bardejov — the cities my family hails from — but I couldn’t comprehend the reason for his urgency.
Just two years ago in high school, I journeyed to Eastern Europe with my senior class. I visited the Warsaw ghetto, Majdanek, Treblinka and Auschwitz — the concentration camp that both of my paternal grandparents survived. While I looked forward to visiting Europe this summer, I wasn’t sure why my father found it imperative to bring my family again to the “old country.” My father’s persistence won out, and off we went.
From the moment we landed in Prague, we were seeing the sights. Our successfully-completed itinerary included the Jewish quarter, Saint Vitus’ Cathedral, the Prague castle, the Old New Synagogue, the Charles Bridge and the old Jewish cemetery, where my great-grandparents and Franz Kafka lay to rest. Though I was deeply impressed by Prague’s beauty and history, I didn’t feel a connection to the city. Like most other camera-hoisting English speakers, I was simply a detached tourist. However, that feeling quickly changed once we arrived in the remote town of Bardejov, located in the northeastern Slovakian hillside.
Both of my father’s parents were born and raised in the shtetl of Bardejov which, at its peak, was home to some 3,500 Jews and the same number of Slovaks. My grandparents spoke often of the small medieval town and our visit struck a deep chord with me. By the time we arrived in the late afternoon, most of Bardejov’s historic sites were closed, except for one building—the Chevra Bikur Cholim Synagogue, my grandfather’s synagogue.
The remarkably intact building was once the epicenter of Jewish life and religious discourse in Bardejov. Its primary caretaker was an old Slovakian man who had gone to great lengths to preserve the memory of the half of his town that disappeared after 1944. The fruits of his labor were on display in the back of the sanctuary. In the cheder, or study room, the caretaker had set up a vast collection of photos of Bardejov’s Jewish residents, all of which he had collected from remaining townspeople.
As I carefully surveyed the photos with my dad, we discovered pictures of my grandfather’s sister, Erica, his brother, David, and finally a photograph of his youngest brother, Aaron, who perished in Auschwitz at the age of six.
Holding the photographs of my ancestors in the very place of their origination was a moment both surreal and poignant.
In that moment, I had ceased to be a lone individual. I was a sum. I had in my hand images of my ancestors. I realized I have my grandparents, my parents, and the town of Bardejov itself to thank for my very existence. I approached the rest of my visit with a refined perspective of myself, the places I encountered, the communities which once existed in those places and the different modes of living within those communities.
One such mode is the old-fashioned Jewish schooling system which my grandfather experienced. I couldn’t help but consider that some of its practices could enhance our own educational system. For example, chavruta, the method of working with a designated study partner. English Prof. Ralph Williams actually employs this strategy of chavruta here at the University.
Furthermore, I marveled at the dynamics of community interaction in Bardejov. Jew and Gentile cooperated to maintain a prosperous town and an educated youth. Although the circumstances of Hitler’s war disrupted and ultimately eradicated Bardejov’s pre-WWII culture, one can’t dismiss the values it set forth. Today we might even stand to learn a thing or two from the bipartisanship once displayed in this little Slovakian town.
Simply put, there’s something extremely valuable in seeking each of our own histories and gaining an appreciation for a time radically different than ours. My grandparents’ unique past made my own experience connecting with my roots an especially moving one. Those whose family history is rooted in very different soil than mine can stand to benefit from acquainting themselves with their past. It’s possible for heritage to create a better present and lend a meaningful perspective to the future.
Sarah Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.