Prior to World War II, the town of Bardejov, Slovakia included a vibrant Jewish community. It served as the epicenter for diverse groups of Jews that contributed their talents and skills to a blossoming integrated town. Estimates suggest that at its peak in the early 20th century, nearly 40% of individuals who lived in the area—both rural and urban residents—were Jewish. Moreover, dozens of businesses and secular social institutions that gave Bardejov its unique flavor and intrigue were founded by these Jewish residents.
However, as is the story of so many places throughout Europe, the Holocaust brought an end to this success story. From 1942-45 more than 3,000 Jews from the Bardejov area alone were deported to various places in occupied Poland, including ghettos, concentration camps, and extermination camps. As a result of the death and displacement wrought by the war, a mere 250 Jews remained in Bardejov in 1948. Prominent places of worship and Jewish cultural life fell into disrepair or were repurposed by the non-Jewish community.
Today, after nearly three centuries of continuous Jewish presence in Bardejov, there are no Jews living in the town. Their ghosts wander the Jewish Suburbium that has outlived them. As Bardejov renewed itself in the post-war era, it did so without the Jewish chapters of its past. Modern-day visitors walk by the traces of these lives and this history on a daily basis, but few are aware of the precious heritage that is sealed in brick or buried below the earth.
The Bardejov Jewish Preservation Committee (BJPC) envisions a different possibility. One in which this vibrant Jewish history is no longer ignored but celebrated and honored. This is why, in 2005, the forgotten history of Jewish Bardejov was given a renewed life when Bardejov-born Holocaust survivor Emil Fish returned to his hometown to discover the degradation of places he once knew intimately. Then and there he resolved to restore and preserve these treasured spaces and he founded BJPC the following year.
Mr. Fish, who has an Engineering degree from USC, is the president of Fish Construction Co., Inc. and Regency Park Senior Living, Inc. He has served as president of several Jewish organizations in Los Angeles. In 2009, he was appointed by President Obama to the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad (www.heritageabroad.gov).
Today, Bardejov is known primarily for its authentic old town square, which due to extensive restoration and preservation of its Medieval, Renaissance, and Gothic architecture has made Bardejov a popular tourist destination. As might be expected, tourism has become one of Bardejov’s main industries for its approximately 35,000 residents. The town draws on its rich heritage to further develop cultural traditions, such as an annual trade fair and the Roland Games (commemorating its medieval past).
In 1950, Bardejov, then part of Czechoslovakia, was declared a protected city core and extensive restoration of its cultural heritage began. These efforts culminated in Bardejov receiving the European Gold Medal by the International Board of Trustees in Hamburg in 1986—the first town in Czechoslovakia to receive the award. On November 20, 2000, Bardejov was selected by UNESCO as one of its World Heritage sites, recognized for its Jewish Suburbia and historic town center.
If you plan a visit to Bardejov and would like to visit the Jewish Suburbia, Bikur Cholim Synagogue, and the Jewish Cemetery, please contact us so that we can provide you with information regarding access (these places are locked but available to visit upon request).