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On (And Off) The Jewish Heritage Route

On (And Off) The Jewish Heritage Route

‘You can’t tell Americans how to pronounce Kosice,” my husband, Oggi warned me.

We were planning an excursion to Slovakia’s second-largest city, a former European Capital of Culture with a stunning historic center and a well-preserved trove of Jewish heritage sites. But Kosice has the misfortune to be graced with a name whose middle syllable, for English speakers, is the kind of vulgarity that elicits titters from my inner 8-year-old.

Perhaps that explains why Kosice (koh-shih-tsa) is virtually unknown to American travelers, for whom Slovakia itself remains a bit of a cipher. From a tourist’s point of view, that’s good news — as was Kosice’s status as a 2013 Capital of Culture. All the concerts, special exhibitions and other events notwithstanding, I always enjoy a city in the year or two after the hype has faded. You get the renovated transit and refurbished attractions without the crowds and high prices.

Despite a postwar plague of Soviet-industrial construction, central Kosice retains that cobblestoned, red-roofed quaintness associated with Central European cities like Prague and Budapest. But with just a quarter of a million inhabitants, it’s smaller, quirkier and more provincial — making it an ideal stopover on an itinerary that might include those larger cities, Vienna or Bratislava (all of which have convenient air and rail connections).

The recuperation of Jewish heritage sites was a major part of the Capital of Culture celebrations — and of the Slovakian Jewish Heritage Route, a network that highlights the dozens of antique synagogues, Jewish quarters and other vestiges of what was once a region rich with Jewish life.

According to official figures, Kosice was home to nearly 12,000 Jews in 1930, more than 16 percent of the population. In a city with the ethnic variety typical of Hapsburg Europe — a mix of Slavic, Hungarian and Roma — the Jewish community was itself diverse, representing distinct modes of worship and cultural affiliations. And it was vanquished nearly overnight: in just one month in 1944, Kosice’s Jews were shipped off to Auschwitz, most of them never to return.

But several prewar synagogues survive in some form, their proud, lavish façades a testament to mournful memory. Several have been repurposed: one is a concert hall, another a book repository. The Orthodox synagogue on Pushkinova Street, a mauve Art Deco masterpiece, is considered one of Kosice’s loveliest buildings, while the domed former Neolog shul — known postwar as the House of Arts — has been refashioned as the home of the State Philharmonic.

Both are on a Jewish-heritage walking tour put together by city officials (a full itinerary is at the website, along with the center of Kosice’s modern Jewish life — the Kehila Kosice on Zvonarska Street. A restored 1880s synagogue facade welcomes Jews to a historic complex that includes the community center, a small chapel with regular services, a 19th-century mikvah, a kosher cafeteria with a daily menu of Central European favorites, Jewish educational facilities and more.

With just under 300 members, this community — while a shadow of its prewar self — is healthy and active. The Kehila hosts regular exhibitions on Israeli and European-Jewish arts and history, as well as concerts of Jewish music, lectures and other cultural events.

The Jewish cemetery is also still in use — a symbol of the degree to which prewar Kosice has stubbornly survived. Numerous buildings in the city center date to medieval times, including a picturesque bell tower and the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth, a stern Gothic edifice from the 14th century that is the country’s largest church.

But Kosice’s buzz has less to do with its past and more to do with its burgeoning presence as a young, lively town. Unburdened by the weighty historical import that defines tourism in Prague or Vienna, Kosice is free to reinvent itself — to reassess its history, including the influence of its Jewish history, and to forge a new, modern culture.

That explains the profusion of beer gardens packed day and night throughout the city center; the throbbing beat of nightclubs that have sprung up in post-industrial lofts; and the crowds strolling up and down Hlavna Street, Kosice’s lovely main thoroughfare. It also explains the surprisingly appealing menus at cafés where young chefs are enlivening Central Europe’s traditionally stodgy, heavy fare with lighter, more contemporary cuisine.

Alongside the goulash, you might find a salad of winter oranges and kale with fennel and pears, for example. And the university crowd is as likely to munch hummus with its beer as pretzels. But coffeehouses — social staples of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire — are still ubiquitous, ensuring that in this corner of Old Europe, tradition survives alongside the new.

To walk the length of Hlavna Street, in fact, is to stroll through history. From the gargoyles of St. Elizabeth to baroque-era facades to lacey Art Nouveau institutions like the State Theater, which fronts a popular park with a lighted, musical fountain, Kosice wears its past proudly. And if some parts of that past — particularly the Holocaust — are rather dark, then Kosice’s rebirth as a forward-looking city is all the more welcome.

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