On Trial in Pressburg


Pressburg, today known as Bratislawa, was a stronghold of Hungarian orthodoxy, and was distinguished for its famous Yeshiva  established by the Chatam Sofer. It was also regarded as a ‘stepping-stone’ to fame by Chazanim aspiring to achieve renown at the well- known Great Synagogue.

Rosenblatt was first Chazan at Hamburg, but his real career began at the Great Synagogue of Pressburg, and when he went to America to  be acclaimed one of the best known and celebrated Chazanim of the twentieth century, Pressburg was inundated with applications from  all over the world, especially Russia and Poland. Rosenblatt’s own brother, then Chazan at Hamburg, also tried his luck, but was rejected;  the reflected glory of his renowned brother was not in his favour, since people said that he ‘was not Rosenblatt’, only the bearer of the  name.

I was only a child in those days, but clearly remember how closely the whole Jewish community followed the comings and goings of  candidates for the coveted post of ‘Obercantor’ at the “Groisse Shul”. It was the talk of the town, and there was no shortage of ‘mevinim’  (experts on Chazanut). After each Shabbat Service, a large crowd would gather outside the synagogue, and heated discussions ensued  as to merits and demerits of a particular candidate. The most vociferous critics were some little Jews who played no important part in the  life of the community, and welcomed the opportunity of contradicting majority opinion, thereby making themselves conspicuous in the  eyes of the ‘Kehillah’.

So numerous were the applicants, that sometimes two candidates were invited for a single Shabbat. On one particular occasion, the  andidate were Chazan Shlepak of Kolomea (Russia) and Stern of Nagyszollos (Hungary). The Friday Evening and Shacharit Services were  conciucted by Shlepak, and I still remember his outstanding rendering: rich baritone voice and exquisite colorature. However, his age  spoiled hi chances – in those days, a Chazan aged fifty was considered too old to be elected. Shlepak also made the mistake of ignoring  the reprimand of Av Beth Din David Wessely who was present in the synagogue at tie Shacharit Service, and strongly objected to the  constant repetition of the prayer-text by the Chazan. To show his disapproval of this, Rabbi Wessely banged his prayer-desk with his hand  several times, but seeing that Shlepak calmly carried on repeating holy words, threw his Tallit off in anger, and hurriedly left the  synagogue in the middle of the Service.

The other candidate, Chazan Stern made no great impression, and no appointment was made for some considerable time. However,  Stern began to study music and voice-production, and was subsequently ‘Obercantor’ at Leipzig, in Germany. Pressburg invited him once  more, and this time, his success was tremendous. Mounted police had to control the crowds in front of the Synagogue, and ladies were  not admitted, as the ladies gallery was occupied by hundreds of men who could not be accommodated downstairs. Stern took Pressburg  by storm, and remained there until he went to England, to Manchester, and later to Leeds.

The Great Synagogue of Pressburg no longer stands, and the community has dwindled to a mere shadow of its former self. The city was  also noted for the anti-Jewish tendencies of its citizens, and when the War broke out in 1939, most of the Jews were deported by the  Nazis. Later, there was a ray of hope in the tiny Jewish community when Alexander Dubcek, became Prime Minister of Czechoslovakia,  and tried to give Communism a more human face, but he was soon removed from power by the invading Russians, and that prompted  many a Jew to emigrate.

The grim humour of the remaining Pressburg Jews is charactesed in the following anecdote: A Jewish tourist from London who visited  Pressburg, asked a local Jew whether they had enough to eat, and whether they could obtain meat, etc. “Yes” replied the Jew, “we have  plenty of beef, but poultry we cannot get”. “How’s that?” asked the tourist, and received the reply: “Well, you see, after Dubcek’s  downfall, everything that had wings flew away, only the ‘Behemas’ (oxen) remained behind”.

(Cantors’ Review, September 1980)