Rabbis grave to be saved from trampling of trolley cars

PRAGUE — The race is on to save and restore a cemetery that contains the remains of one of Judaism's most revered spiritual leaders of the 18th and 19th centuries.

For decades in the Slovak capital of Bratislava, the earthly remains of Rabbi Chatam Sofer and other leading Jewish figures have been shaken by the constant pounding of trolley cars passing directly overhead.

Because of the volume of traffic, local Jewish leaders feared that the cemetery could be damaged beyond repair.

But a $2 million project has now been launched that will not only divert the trolley car tracks away from the site but convert Sofer's final resting place in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains into a permanent mausoleum and tourist attraction.

Sofer, whose given name was Moshe, enjoyed an unrivaled reputation in Orthodox circles as a spiritual leader until his death at age 76 in 1839.

His remains were buried in a tomb surrounded by the graves of other leading rabbis and Jewish community leaders. But his peace was shattered during World War II, when the Nazi-puppet Slovak state decided to level the entire Jewish cemetery in order to construct a road.

Local Jewish leaders successfully fought to save the rabbi's grave — but it required a lot of good luck, according to Dr. Tomas Stern, a Slovak who has documented historical Jewish monuments throughout Central Europe.

Only 23 graves and 31 tombstones were saved from the bulldozers and encased in a concrete bunker beneath the road.

Years of neglect by Czechoslavakia's Communist regime took its toll on Sofer's grave.

But help eventually appeared in the form of New York City Council member Noach Dear, who with the support of the White House, formed an international delegation to visit Bratislava and save Sofer's tomb.

A deal was reached under which the Slovak government agreed to reroute the trolley cars at a total cost of $1.1 million. For its part, the delegation, which included New York businessman George Karfunkel and descendants of Sofer, vowed to restore the cemetery — a move that could cost as much as $1 million.