The only remaining traces of a prior Jewish presence in Ljubljana are the names of two narrow streets in the city center, Street of the Jews (Zidovska ulica) and Passage of the Jews (Zidovska steza), the place of the medieval ghetto until the 1515 expulsion.
The remains of a neighborhood of about thirty houses have apparently been found beneath the Baroque buildings here, constructed in the seventeenth century atop the medieval foundations.
The Jewish presence in Ljubljana probably dates from the 12th century. According to historian I.V. Valvasor, following its destruction by fire, the Jews renovated the city’s synagogue in 1213. A ghetto consisting of a few dozen houses probably stood in what is now Jurcicev Square. The Jewish population never exceeded 300. The community had a school and a beth din. The district has since been completely rebuilt, in the 17th century and then in the 19th.
Expelled from the city in 1515 by Emperor Maximilian, the Jews could only return from the regency of Joseph II. The 19th century was more welcoming, the Jews resettling and obtaining emancipation in 1867. In 1910, there were 110 Jews in Ljubljana, having no full community and being attached for religious services to that of Graz in Austria. When the city was integrated into Yugoslavia, the community was attached to that of Zagreb.
The synagogue was probably located at number 4 Zidovska steza street. The Jewish Cemetery is located on a plot of the Zale Municipal Cemetery. About twenty tombs, very modest. In the center of the cemetery is a monument in memory of the victims of the Shoah. Which was erected in 1964.
Robert Waltl, a theater manager who later discovered his Jewish origins, began in 1999 to renovate an abandoned building to accommodate a theater. Approached by Jewish artists who no longer had a synagogue since the closure of the last one in Ljubljana, he ceded a floor of the theater to transform it into a Jewish Cultural Center including a Jewish museum, a place of remembrance of the Shoah and a synagogue. Rabbi Ariel Haddad, based in Trieste but touring the Jewish communities in Slovenia every week, holds prayers there regularly.
Established in 2013, the Jewish Community Center of Ljubljana aims to share the diversity of Judaism, with an emphasis on culture and understanding, opening its doors to all Slovenian Jews and tourists. It is based on three pillars: history through a museum tracing the history of Slovenian Jews from its beginnings to the Shoah, religion in its synagogue and its festival hall and finally culture with a place dedicated to workshops and exhibitions. The synagogue was opened in 2016. Services are held there for Shabbat and major holidays. Here’s our interview with Robert Waltl, Director of the JCC Ljubljana…
Jguideeurope: Are there educational projects proposed by the Center and how is the city of Ljubljana participating in the sharing of Jewish culture ?
Robert Waltl: The very idea of establishing the JCC grew out of the realization that Slovenian children (and adults) know practically nothing about the presence of Jews on the present-day territory of Slovenia and that their knowledge about the Holocaust is narrowed down to the events that took place elsewhere than in Slovenia. So, after conducting surveys among schoolchildren, we decided to start various educational programs and to erect a colonnade in front of the houses of Holocaust victims in Ljubljana, Lendava and Murska Sobota.
The first were the educational mornings about the Holocaust, which we carried out within the Festival of Tolerance, mainly with Holocaust survivors, double Oscar winner Branko Lustig and rescued Jewish boy Tomaž Zajc, and partisan survivor Dr. Anica Mikuš Kos. Various other experts also take part in the talks. The principle was that we first watched together a film or a theater performance on the subject of the Holocaust and children in the Holocaust, such as “Villa Emma”, “Run Boy Run”, “Belle And Sebastien”, “Framed: The Adventures Of Zion Man”, “Fanny’s Journey”, “The Jewish Dog”,… After the performance there was a discussion with a Holocaust survivor and various experts.
Shalom – Playful Learning about Judaism is a program enabling us to explain the basic concepts of Judaism, holidays, beliefs, life and death. The programs are tailored to age groups. We also have special programs for adults (Slovenian and foreign visitors) on the history of the Jewish presence on the territory of today’s Slovenia. In addition to theater and film, we often organize various exhibitions, concerts and lectures alongside our educational programs.
The City of Ljubljana cooperates with us in the Stolpersteine project by installing paving stones for the victims of the Holocaust and raising awareness of the Holocaust in Ljubljana. The City of Ljubljana also supports some of our theater projects, such as “The Jewish Dog”, “The Diary of Anne Frank”, “Amsterdam”… We are currently working with the City Museum of Ljubljana on the first permanent exhibition about the Holocaust in Ljubljana, which will be on display in our museum from September.
Rabbi Alexander Grodensky organizes thematic lectures on Judaism and religion and teaches Torah for the members of the community. One of the problems encountered is that the Jewish Cultural Center does not have the permanent support of the city or the state, which do not recognize the importance of our Center for the citizens and residents of Slovenia.
In times of intolerance and renewed war in Europe, our mission becomes even more important. We also appeal to the world Jewish public to help us, because a small Jewish community like ours in Slovenia cannot bear the financial burden alone.
Can you share a personal anecdote about an emotional encounter with a visitor or researcher during a previous event?
In the years before the Corona, between 4-5,000 visitors came to our center. We have hundreds of moving accounts from our visitors who have recognized our efforts and tremendous efforts in trying to revitalize Jewish life in Slovenia, as well as our Holocaust awareness programs. If before 2013 there was not even a single memorial to the Jewish presence in the history of the city, today we have a memorial plaque on the site where the medieval Ljubljana synagogue stood until 1515. We also have 68 stolpersteine for 68 victims of the Holocaust.
In September, we are opening a stolperschwelle for another 150 Jewish refugees, mostly expelled from NDH-Croatia in 1941. In the Museum, before the beginning of the renovation, we had three powerful art installations dedicated to the Slovenian victims of the Holocaust, which evoked an immense power of remembrance and emotion in the visitors.
Along with the stolpersteine, there was also an art collection of portraits “Undeleted”, by the intermedia artist Vuk Čosić, which brought the faces of our ancestors back to life from the memory of oblivion. Of course, the atmosphere of the 500-year-old, half-ruined house in which we worked until the renovation for 2 years now with our own funds also contributed to the feeling. In addition to a small museum, we will open a memorial synagogue dedicated to the Slovenian victims of the Holocaust, managed by the Liberal Jewish Community of Slovenia.
The building will also house the exhibition dedicated to the Holocaust in Ljubljana, a Judaica collection, a meeting room and library, as well as common spaces shared with the Mini Theater, a café and guest residences.
Guests have often shown their appreciation through their donations, which have made it a little easier for us to cover our running costs. We hope that with the renovation of our center and new activities, more visitors from all over the world will come to visit us every year.