The Albrechts never locked their door. The family home, in the far reaches of old town Bratislava on Kapitulska Ulica, was both literally and
figuratively open each night as a gathering place for local musicians and intelligentsia. Alexander Albrecht and his family lived in the home as part of his compensation from St. Martin’s Church where he presided as music director for decades. He was a peer of Bela Bartok and studied with the great composer in Bratislava and later in Budapest. As a composer himself, he was a music legend in a town which honors music legends. His son, Jan, was a music professor, violist, and expert on early music. The family home was confiscated by the communist government as part of the takeover of church property in the late 1940s. The communist state was an apathetic landlord. Before Jan’s death in 1996 friends remember the leaking roof, buckets catching the drip, drip, drip of the rain.
A few blocks away, Selma Steiner’s family were booksellers. They were also Jews – one of many Jewish families nearly erased during World War 2. Her family bookstore, “Steiner”, was a mainstay in old town Bratislava for nearly 100 years until taken by the government as part of the confiscation of Jewish property. Four of the Steiner family worked for the new Aryan “owner” – no money changed hands to denote change in ownership. Soon, the new owner decided to formally declare the Steiners “surplus” – unneeded workers. This released the Steiner family to the government setting up their ultimate deportation to Poland. Selma’s parents and two siblings died in the camps between 1942 and 1944. Five of her father’s siblings also died, four of their spouses, along with several cousins. The Steiner family didn’t dance in the streets when the war ended. When Selma returned
to Bratislava from Theresienstadt, she was nearing 20 and an orphan. She lived with Alexander Albrecht and his family. After all, it was common knowledge this Slovak born man of German nationality maintained an open home. Friends remember Alexander’s wife, Margaret, always calling Selma “my child”.
In 1948, the Slovak government agreed to return all confiscated property to the Steiners. The surviving family members cashed in and left for Israel, except for Selma and her cousin, Lydia, who elected to remain in Bratislava. Almost immediately after the settlement, the communist state confiscated all small businesses. The Steiner family continued to live on the wrong side of history. Until 1989, “BOOKS”, the state-owned bookstore, was the only major bookseller allowed to operate in Slovakia. Selma Steiner worked for a wholesale company which supplied this government bookstore. In 1991, after the fall of communism, Selma Steiner reopened her family book store in Bratislava in its original location on Venturgasse in the heart of old town. Forty six years after the end of World War 2, Selma reopened the family business with a small, simple oval sign: “Steiner”. She was 66 years old. Since her death in 2010, faithful employees own and run the store – operating it under the Steiner family name. The small oval sign remains.
This week we visited our friend, Igor, at his music shop just around the corner from the Albrecht home. I love this part of old town; derelict buildings, broken windows, crumbling plaster, caved red-tiled roofs. Igor created the Albrecht Foundation to raise the approximately 500,000 Euro required to renovate the Albrecht home and to manage the project through to completion. Grants, private contributions, public partnerships – all will be knit together to secure the funding and complete the project. A fraction of the required funds are currently secured. The work is expensive, time-consuming, and full of government requirements and permits given the historical significance of the property.
Once completed, the home will be a gathering place for musicians, lodging for out-of-town artists, a venue for music. It will be an open home for the musicians and intelligentsia from Bratislava and beyond. It will come full circle. The roof was removed last week and will be replaced in the weeks ahead. This will provide long overdue protection to the first floor domed Renaissance ceilings, the basement of 13th century stone. Igor is relentless in his focus to return the house to its prior condition. As we toured the home, I was dazed; “oh my gosh, oh my gosh”. It’s a project of daunting proportions requiring boundless energy. Igor pranced thru the house smiling. He was buoyant. “Don’t worry, I don’t see it as it is, I see it as it will be.” Luckily Igor possesses the needed energy and patience to slug thru to completion; an optimism that all needs will be fulfilled, all prayers answered.
What makes a 66-year-old woman reopen her family book store after 46 years? What causes a Slovak German family to welcome an orphaned Jewish girl into their home? What drives a music store owner to devote such time, energy and passion to return an acquaintance’s home from neglected ruin? I have no idea. Perhaps to erase the physical evidence of local sin. Perhaps to honor a family and a friend. Perhaps out of guilt or because it’s the right thing to do – an act of redemption. Frankly, the reason doesn’t matter. Thank God the human spirit is resilient.
Categories: Insiders Bratislava