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The Pews Held Nothing but Memories

You could almost hear the powerful voice of the cantor resonate through the open spaces, the rabbi solemnly intoning his service, and the congregation shuffling in their seats.

TWO Slovak friends recently took me on a tour of the city of Presov in eastern Slovakia. We filed in and out of museums, private galleries, and the town's many places of worship.

It was Sunday morning, and all of Presov seemed to be at church. The city's two largest cathedrals were filled to overflowing. At least 50 people at one, and more than 75 at the other, stood outside the doors listening to the beautiful hymns from a distance because there was no more room inside.

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At the end of the town, one of my friends asked me, almost incidentally, whether I would like to see the old synagogue. The temple was normally locked, but for some reason the gate stood open and we were able to go inside.

It had been a beautiful temple, a majestic place, with high ceilings, blue and gold painted wood decorating the walls, and a large balcony for women observers. You could almost hear the powerful voice of the cantor resonate through the open spaces, the rabbi solemnly intoning his service, and the congregation shuffling in their seats.

But now all was quiet. The stone had slowly chipped and fallen from the outside walls, the paint trim had dried and peeled, and the pews, row after row of the most elegant dark wood, held nothing but memories.

I could almost see the memories - the children flipping mindlessly through the prayer books when the rabbi talked too long. I could see their fathers' reprimanding eyes, and the women watching their grown sons and thanking God for them.

And I knew where they had ended up, most of them. Three months before I came to Presov, I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and walked the empty field where fires had raged and the puddles still hold rain and bone.

Then the strangest thing happened. One of those memories spoke to me. "This was the most beautiful temple in Czechoslovakia," a voice said. "I don't know why the Germans didn't destroy it." An older man emerged from a room at the back of the synagogue, followed by a few others.

"Are you a Gentile?" he asked me. "Or are you Jewish?"

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"Then this place must have a special meaning for you."

He took me outside. "This," he said, pointing to a decaying building, "was the Jewish community center. And that building across the street didn't always look like that. It was another temple. This building here had the toilets."

"No, it didn't," said one of the other gentlemen. "We had to go to the hotel to use the toilets."

"Perhaps you're right," the first man said. "We were schoolmates together. There."

THE schoolhouse was made of the same pale reddish stone as the community center and the building that didn't house the toilets. Together, the three tall structures formed a large courtyard in front of the synagogue. I looked at the broken windows of the school where the children must have stood, where these two men must have stood.

"When did you leave?" I asked.

"In 1948," he answered, and then, knowing what I really was asking, "I came back from Auschwitz. We both did."

More than 6,000 Jews from Presov died during the Holocaust. Of the few hundred who survived, only about 40 are still living. On a Sunday morning in Presov, I met two of them visiting from Israel.

It was hard not to compare what I had seen: the enormous cathedrals, beautifully refurbished and overflowing with worshippers. And the old synagogue, empty but still majestic, like an abandoned king. And it was difficult to fathom Hitler's success in Eastern Europe. For centuries, the Jews were forced in and out of this part of the world. But none of their persecutors was as effective in the near eradication of a people and its culture as Hitler armed with the machinery of the 20th century. There are so few Jews remaining in Presov that they have trouble finding the required 10 for a service.

I went back into the temple to look for the eternal flame, a symbolic light over the Torah signifying that the temple is still in use, but I couldn't find it. It may have been there, but like the remaining Jews of Presov, it would have been partially hidden, a dying flame. And I gazed at the pews. After 50 years, should the Jews come back to the pews of Presov, I wondered? Would they be welcome if they did?

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