Memories of a long lost Jewish world

The town immortalised by Roman Vishniac’s images where I was an infant was, for many, prosperous and contented before the Shoah

What was it really like to live in a traditional Jewish community in Eastern Europe before it was obliterated by the Nazis? The question is important because the physical destruction of six million Jews was also a cultural catastrophe. The danger is that our understanding will consist of noble caricatures. This essay was stimulated by the contrast between the highly influential scenes recorded in 1930s Munkacs by Roman Vishniac and family snapshots from the same period.

In the process of commissioning photographs which would help to raise funds for impoverished Jews in 1930s Europe, the New York based “Joint” — the American Joint Distribution Committee — produced images which were classic works of art as well as invaluable documents showing the predicament of Jewish communities already suffering from economic deprivation and increasingly severe anti-Semitism.

Some of the most striking pictures by Vishniac, the Moscow-born American photographer despatched by the Joint, were of pious, poverty-striken, long-bearded Hasidim in mud-laden Carpatho-Ruthenian villages and in towns such as Munkacs, which the Vishniac version implies was the essence of backwardness.

At the time Vishniac took his photographs in the late 1930s, Munkacs (Mukachevo in Slavic languages) was almost half Jewish. Following the Hungarian takeover of the town in 1938 and the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the town’s Jewish refugees from Poland were driven into Soviet territory which the advancing Nazi forces soon overran. Most of the expellees were murdered within weeks in one of the first mass shootings of the Holocaust, carried out in Kamenets-Podolski by Hitler’s Einsatzgruppen. Apart from this tragedy, the fact that Hungary was an ally of Hitler at least protected Hungarian Jewry from the extreme suffering across the border in Slovakia and in Poland. Anti-Semitic economic measures and the conscription of Jewish males into labour battalions in lieu of military service functioned in Hungary as substitutes for mass murder.

As Germany neared defeat in 1944, supposedly-secret talks between the Allies and Hungarian officials to arrange for Hungary to switch sides were conducted so incompetently that Nazi agents were able to warn Hitler. He then sent the SS and Adolf Eichmann into Hungary with a mission to prevent Hungary’s desertion and to take the opportunity to deport its Jews to Auschwitz.

Nazi forces entered Hungary on March 19, 1944. Within weeks, Jews in most places, apart from Budapest, which was left to the last, were forced into makeshift ghettoes. The order to Jews in Munkacs to leave their homes for the few streets which were to form the ghetto came with a roll of drums on April 15, the last day of Passover. Jews from neighbouring villages were crowded separately into Jewish-owned brickyards on the outskirts of town. The Munkacs ghetto existed briefly. The first deportation train left on May 14, the last on May 24. According to notes left by my mother before she died last year, I was smuggled out of the Munkacs ghetto on May 5 at less than a year of age; she was smuggled out two weeks later. If the date she gives is correct, the deportations were already in full swing. Had the Christian woman recruited to visit the ghetto carrying false papers arrived a week later, it would have been too late to save her. Her mother was included in the final transport from the town, survived slave labour in Auschwitz and further camps but died a year and a half after her release. My mother never saw her again. Her father and grandfather were gassed on arrival in Auschwitz on May 26. We know that my mother’s uncle survived the selection that day since someone later reported meeting him in the camp. But he too died — where and when is unknown — as did a mass of other relatives.

“Jewish school children, Mukachevo”, c. 1935–38 by Roman Vishniac (© Mara Vishniac Kohn. CoUrtesy International Center of Photography)

So the Vishniac photographs, published in 1983 in a book titled A Vanished World, have a particular resonance. Meant to be heart-wrenching and evocative when Vishniac first took them, they were to become some of the most emblematic of any in existence. They have come to dominate public understanding of the doomed Jewish world of Eastern Europe.

There can be no question that the Vishniac pictures were not mere propaganda. There are many sources establishing widespread Jewish poverty in Carpatho-Ruthenia as well as the strength of Hasidism. Nevertheless, a focus exclusively on his most famous images may be unfair to the photographer and misleading to the historian.

Therefore it is fitting that the wonderful Vishniac exhibition now showing at the Jewish Museum in London until February 26, 2019, Roman Vishniac Rediscovered, includes, beside many of the iconic works, some of his lesser-known ones taken in Western Europe shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War. There is added biographical and explanatory material and even a silent film of Jewish refugees in Marseilles learning new skills in 1939, doubtless to promote the message of their usefulness to governments reluctant to admit them. A twin exhibition at London’s Photographers’ Gallery focuses on Vishniac’s work in New York after the Second World War.

The feeling which evidently prompted the Jewish Museum to stage its exhibition was that Vishniac’s vision in his fundraising work in Eastern Europe presented, for understandable reasons, the truth but not the entire truth. A collective portrait considerably at variance with Vishniac’s emerges from interviews with Auschwitz survivors deported from Munkacs. They were questioned when they arrived in Budapest after their liberation by DEGOB (the National Committee for Attending Deportees). With exceptions, the survivors report that Munkacs Jews generally had “lived well”. They were “tradesmen, craftsmen, doctors and lawyers”. As a cattle merchant, said one, “our father earned a lot”. Another was a grain dealer who “made a decent living until 1943”. An architect’s family lived “on a good middle-class level”. Another survivor came from a family owning two houses “in very good financial circumstances” from a furniture and stool factory.

The same relative prosperity struck me when I looked at a small number of my mother’s prewar pictures which somehow survived the Holocaust. Together with several other sets of photographs collected by relatives and friends, we discovered an alternative, more nuanced view of Munkacs’s 13,000 Jews on the eve of destruction.

 The author’s mother skiing in the 1930s (image courtesy the author)

Indeed, the variations of circumstances and beliefs within the community were so numerous that a detailed record of just one Jewish school in the town published by Aryeh Sole, who had been one of its teachers, breaks down the Jewish students into no fewer than 21 different groups (Light in the Mountains: Hebrew Zionist education in Carpatho-Russia from 1920 to 1944, 1994). The school was the Zionist gymnasium  (grammar school) which aimed to prepare pupils for life in Palestine.

There were the poor, the middle class and the wealthy (the latter doubtless less numerous than the former but significant). Members of each of these economic classes were divided on their attitudes to religion.

Sole identifies four streams regarding religious observance. His evident anti-religious stance may have made him overstate the strength of similar feelings in the wider Jewish population. He divides Munkacs Jews into assimilationists, the “merely Jewish” who did not seek to escape from their Judaism but were not devout, the orthodox, and the fanatics.

Then there were differences based on secondary schooling. Jewish children had a choice of non-Jewish schools teaching in Czech, Hungarian or Ruthenian, Torah schools of the Hasidim, the Zionist gymnasium which taught in Hebrew and finally the choice, taken typically by the very poor, of no secondary schooling at all.

The divisions did not stop there. Among Hasidic Jews, the disciples of the feisty Munkatcher Rebbe disagreed strongly with devotees of the Belzer Rebbe. My grandfather was in the Belzer camp hosting a small congregation of his followers. The Munkatcher Rebbe was also at odds with the Zionists. “Whoever sends their children to the accursed Hebrew school shall be wiped out,” he reportedly declared and “for the past ten years, I have spat whenever I pass the godless Hebrew high school”.

Hebrew, he felt, was the tongue of the holy books and of prayer. Using it as an everyday language amounted to sacrilege. Another concern was that Zionist youth groups and training camps included teenage girls and boys. Sole recounts that public meetings between the sexes “were considered licencious”. Anti-Zionist parents feared their daughters would “come under the influence of atheistic Zionist boys”. When rebellious daughters “were caught red-handed at [Zionist] youth movement activities, the episode often ended in slaps and quarrels, sometimes even in a nervous breakdown”.
 A group of young people skating, February 1935 (image courtesy the author)

The Zionists were bitterly divided among themselves. My mother recalled fistfights between supporters of the conventional Zionism of David Ben Gurion and the breakaway militants of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “New Zionist Organisation” formed in 1935. Under Menachem Begin, the “Revisionists” of this “New Zionist Organisation” were to be responsible for anti-British actions in Palestine such as bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, hanging two British army sergeants, setting off explosions aimed against Arab civilians and the killings during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence at Deir Yassin. One of my mother’s uncles, who escaped the Holocaust by obtaining a visa for Shanghai from the famed Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiuni Sugihara, was a Jabotinsky supporter. My grandmother kept out of the political quarrels.

In Munkacs, as in many other parts of Eastern Europe, rebellion against tradition and its accompanying inequality led also to Jewish support for communism, despite the dangers this involved. I gathered from one Munkacs cousin, whom I met in Pennsylvania after her survival in Auschwitz and emigration to the United States, that she had been a communist when she was growing up but was reluctant to speak of it while the Cold War with the Soviet Union continued.

Ultra-orthodox Hasidism, for all its strength in the Carpathians, was by no means automatic in pre-Holocaust Munkacs. Hasidism had emerged in the 18th century as the expression of joy, spirituality, and often of superstition. Followers of charismatic religious leaders, who came to form multi-generational dynasties, were assured that the advanced learning of religious law as expressed in the Mishnah and Talmud was not essential — a welcome message to the poor. Reverence for a chosen Rebbe was central. Particular sects characteristically had their special forms of clothing and slight variations in synagogue services. Side curls, beards and fur hats for men were essentials and came to distinguish Hasidim from the “modern orthodox” communities such as Frankfurt’s. Some of the best-known Hasidic Rebbes were named after towns near Munkacs, an indication of the popularity of Hasidism in the area — the Satmar Rebbe from Satu Mare in Romania; the Belzer Rebbe from Belz in Poland; the Vischnitzer Rebbe, originally from what is now Vyzhnytsia in Ukraine; and the Spinka Rebbe, originally from Maramures in Romania.

Within my mother’s close family, my grandfather was a fully-fledged Hasid. He worked in the successful family business but was clearly more interested in religious studies, runningsynagogue services and giving ample charity. By contrast, my grandmother seems to have been more active in the business and the circumstantial evidence indicates she was considerably less attached to Hasidism. While adhering to her expected religious role at home, for example by keeping her head covered at all times and wearing a wig (sheitel), she arranged to send my mother to a non-Jewish business school and educated her in the classics of German poetry. She hired a private French teacher to read Maupassant with her. She would take my mother on visits to Vienna but appeared to have little contact with my mother’s paternal grandparents, who lived there, preferring to stay with a non-religious girlfriend. Then there were mother-daughter skiing trips in the Tatra Mountains and visits to Venice and Rome.

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”.

Boszi, Weiss and an unknown friend, April 1940 (Image courtesy the author)

The Corso was “a main walkway through the centre of town, lined by several elegant fashion shops, many Jewish-owned.” Some of my mother’s fondest memories of her teenage years were of walks around the Corso with girlfriends. They would carry books in order to give boys also doing the Corso walk the pretext to approach and ask them what they were reading. For her, the Corso beat anything Budapest had to offer. The Berger study records her as saying that if no young man asked what book they were carrying: “We just walked with our friends until they asked or they just joined without [asking about] the book . . . as far as I remember, we just walked and they joined . . We didn’t do anything. We didn’t even kiss each other. We just walked and looked at each other.” The flirtations sometimes led to lasting relationships and “some people ended in marriage.”

A picture in one of my mother’s albums shows a close girlfriend of hers, Boszi, who she told me died in the Holocaust, having first escaped from the Munkacs ghetto to find refuge with her brother and returned to the ghetto when this effort failed. In the same photograph is a youth she identified as Weiss who had wanted to marry her.

My mother’s photographs and those of the Mermelsteins show a series of mixed group outings for mountain walks, swimming, skating and skiing. Sole’s book about the Hebrew gymnasium includes photographs of Zionist groups which, according to interviews, also provided romantic opportunities. By contrast, many marriages, especially among the ultra-orthodox, were arranged through professional matchmakers. The negotiation of dowries was part of this traditional process.

As Anna Berger found during her interviews, those to whom she spoke kept returning to their experiences during the Holocaust despite her focus on prewar life in the town. While my mother was living, I must admit that the attempt to reconstruct the fateful weeks between March and July 1944, when some 430,000 Jews in Hungarian-ruled territory were deported to Auschwitz, dominated our conversations. It was only when her health was declining that I went through her photographs with her to ask the stories behind them and began to explore her life before the Holocaust. I wish I had urged her to describe her childhood and teenage experience in far greater detail.

Yet, there is more than enough evidence — including photographic evidence — to establish a basic conclusion. Munkacs had not been a place of gloom. The strong friendships that survivors maintained with each other after the Second World War, despite being scattered around the globe, and the care they gave each other in their declining years, must have been rooted in notably generative family and social life during their growing years.

With the Soviet takeover of Munkacs in 1945, few of its 2,000-3,000 Jews, who escaped the gas chambers in Auschwitz in May 1944 and coped with the rigours of the concentration camps, chose to remake their lives there. The loving attachment to Munkacs which so many of them retained suggests that the town had brought together diverse, albeit frequently discordant, Jewish groups with an unusual chemistry.

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