Ex-Bay Area man with mission works to revive Slovak Jewry

Four generations after his family immigrated here from Poland and three decades into a successful law practice, Henry Siegel left his job, adult children and Tiburon home to move back to the Old Country.

Together with his wife, Greta, the San Francisco lawyer signed on as a volunteer with the Peace Corps. Eastern Europe was the "X" on his map.

The couple had luck on their side when they got their assignment to Slovakia. Although their volunteer duty ended four years ago, the couple stayed on to promote democratic institutions in the former communist region and to help revive the Jewish community there.

The Siegels returned to the Bay Area to visit their children last month with no intentions of lingering. After all, they've got pressing business in Europe.

"I have thoughts of the Bay Area in my head every day wherever I go," Siegel said during his recent visit. "But [Slovakia] is old and different and the language and feelings are different. It becomes a challenge for a Western American to be able to maneuver and communicate."

Greta Siegel is now the director of training and development for the Budapest-based Open Society Institute, the brainchild of American philanthropist George Soros. The organization funds and promotes democratic reforms in the region.

Henry Siegel has been teaching entrepreneurship to new and prospective small-business owners. In his spare time, he organized a Friends of Slovakia Association to refurbish historical buildings throughout the country.

The first projects on his list are the restorations of an abandoned prewar-era synagogue and an old weed-choked Jewish cemetery.

"Restoring a Jewish cemetery is very sacred in the Jewish religion," Siegel pointed out, "even more so than [restoring] the synagogues."

Already, Siegel and others in his group have cleared away the tall grass and brambles from around the gravestones. Volunteer youths repainted the Hebrew lettering that had faded during years of neglect.

But some funds are still needed to rebuild the walls around the cemetery, build an access walkway and restore the entrance area.

The cemetery lies just outside the town of Spisska Podhradie in the northeastern region of Slovakia. Spisska Podhradie in Slovak means "the area beneath a castle," the remains of which still stand across a grassy clearing from the town.

Siegel also wants to restore the town's decaying 19th-century synagogue, located in a Gypsy neighborhood. The shul once accommodated a Jewish community of several hundred families. The community was a center of Jewish learning with a school, a mikvah and a cemetery association. But most of the community perished or scattered during World War II.

Today, only a few families from the original Jewish community remain in Spisska Podhradie. In all of Slovakia, there are some 2,000 Jews, Siegel said.

After the war, the Communist rulers of Czechoslovakia — the previous incarnation of the country — gutted the synagogue and used it for warehouse storage. The Communists did little to maintain the building or preserve it from the elements. And in the nine years since Slovakia was liberated from Communist rule, the Jewish community has not had the resources to repair the weathered shul.

By the time Siegel and his group took on the project, there were stirrings of reviving all things Jewish in Slovakia. Young Jews in the capital city of Bratislava are eager to take up some type of progressive Judaism, he noted. While the only rabbi in Bratislava is Chassidic, the youths are getting support for their interests from liberal Jewish communities in London and Vienna.

Siegel, a former member of the Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael, said he also wants to assist their efforts.

Meanwhile, his group has succeeded in raising enough money to complete the restoration of the exterior of the Spisska Podhradie synagogue. But they still need $50,000 to finish the interior, the courtyard and a small administrative outbuilding. Siegel, who returned to Slovakia earlier this month, hoped to win the attention of American foundations and philanthropists as well as far-flung descendants of the prewar Jewish community during his Bay Area visit.

When the restoration is completed, the Spisska Podhradie Jews will lease the synagogue for 30 years to the city as a community center, where cultural and civic events can be held. The women's section of the synagogue, which is upstairs, will be a museum of regional Jewish history.

Siegel said he is negotiating with Paris-based Israeli artist Yaacov Agam to sculpt a menorah fountain for the synagogue's courtyard. The sculpture would be a tribute to those lost in the Holocaust.

Siegel and his wife plan to relocate to the Bay Area at some point. For now, however, their work remains in Eastern Europe.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.