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Left: The author’s mother, c.1938, upon graduation from business school. Right:The author’s grandmother and great-grandmother, 1930s (images courtesy the author)

My grandmother’s siblings also had contrasting religious attachments. Her brother Moishe left Munkacs, reportedly because he wanted the chance to be less religious without offending his parents. By contrast, her sister Rozsi (who later saved my life and then my mother’s by arranging for a non-Jewess to fetch each of us from the ghetto with false papers) was immersed in observance throughout her life. The book produced by her daughter Sori Kraus, Sori’s Story (Feldheim), includes a fascinating child’s-eye view of our family’s demanding Passover rituals in what she calls “Marvellous Munkacs”.

There were gradations of religion among my mother’s Jewish friends and there were non-Jewish friends too. Vali Mermelstein, who survived the Holocaust hiding in Budapest, as did my mother, was one of eight daughters of a Jewish family which operated a plant for bottling spring water. Vali attended the Zionist gymnasium and remained religious throughout her later life in London. One of her sisters married a rabbi; they died with their children in Auschwitz. None of Vali’s other six sisters grew up to be religious. The novelist Charlotte Mendelson is the granddaughter of one of them. The photographs reproduced by permission from a family publication by Vali’s nephew shows the same secular pursuits as those of my mother (The Mermelstein Letters 1939-1947, by Gordan Hausmann, C.H. Hausmann & Co).

The mixture of traditionalism and modernising trends in 1930s Munkacs emerges from an academic thesis on prewar Jewish Munkacs (Munkacs: A Jewish world that was, by Anna Berger, University of Sydney, 2009). Most of her research cannot now be reproduced since many of her 20 interviewees are no longer alive. The importance of her work is becoming ever more evident.

She describes a number of social venues usually avoided by Hasidim but popular with many Jews of different levels of religiosity. There were a number of kosher restaurants as well as kosher and non-kosher coffee shops including the non-kosher Homdi cafe on the upmarket Corso. This “was the favoured afternoon gathering place for ‘the elite’ — wealthier ladies who would meet there elegantly dressed in hats, gloves and Persian lamb coats”.

She also reports on a non-kosher hotel whose bar “saw some gambling action. Men, many of them Jews, often young and unmarried, met there to play cards or billiards for money and drink.” Though disapproval of movie-going was typical among the ultra-orthodox, “for the rest of Munkacs Jewry, live theatre and films were a popular pastime”.
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Marilyn Herman
December 9th, 2018
11:12 PM
Thank you for this interesting article. It throws light on a lot of things. My father (David Herman's brother), was from Munkacs.

Ros Gelbart nee Herman
December 8th, 2018
12:12 PM
I so enjoyed your account of Jewish life in pre-war Munkacs. My father and his family lived near the Corso and he also spoke of the diverse and vibrant community. We self-published his memoirs, which included childhood memories of family life as well as his experiences in the Holocaust, in David’s Story - see www.45aid.org. Thanks also for so many helpful pointers to other writing on the subject!

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