Sarospatak is a small farming town in Northeastern Hungary. It is bordered on the northwest by the Carpathian Mountains, known for its fertile vineyards and on the southeast by the Bodrog river, and a vast fertile plain. It is roughly situated between the towns of Kerister, home of the Keristerer Rebbe and Sátoraljaújhely, home of the Yismach Moshe, the Satmar. Prior to World War II the town of Sarospatak had a population of about 10,000 people approximately 10 to 15 percent of whom were Jewish. Jewish residents were engaged in a variety of trades including owning vineyards and making wine, they were farmers in the valley, tailors, carpenters, shoemakers, and glaziers. Despite being a small village like neighborhood the town was well known for the Rakoczi castle where the famous Rakoczi family, one of the noblest and richest families in Hungary, lived. Before the second World War a suburb of the town was also home to three centers of advanced education, a Protestant Theological University, a teacher’s college, and an aviation school.
For many decades the townspeople dwelt side by side harmoniously interacting with one another daily. Sarospatak had two synagogues, a Jewish cemetery which still exists though currently in need of care and a mikveh. One Jewish family owned and worked a vineyard producing Tokay wine, they also had an apple orchard and a dry goods store in the town. The owners offered very liberal credit to townspeople, Jew and gentile alike, and were known as a source of charity to all. I know that family well. It was my family. My paternal grandparents, along with my father and his three siblings and an aunt and uncle lived in the house next to the Sarospatak Town Hall and were well respected by the gentile townsfolk even after the Nazi regime began exterminating Jews in other areas of Europe. My grandfather, who I am named after, was the comptroller for the Kehilla in the Town and I am told that many sought his guidance. I tell you this to provide some context. My father and two of his brothers survived Auschwitz, Birkenau, and several labor camps. The others were gassed upon their arrival in Auschwitz.
My father was not a psychologist nor an historian. But he made it a point to be well read and educated. A friend of his told me that if it wasn’t for the war my Dad would likely have been a scientist. Over the years he made it a point to tell us about his early life in the town and at Passover he made discussing the Holocaust and his personal experiences a part of our Passover Seders. It was his way of reminding us that “In every generation” there are those who wish the Jewish people harm. My brother and I asked him to record his life memories and he complied. With the help of one of my children the cassette tapes that contain his verbal historical record were transcribed and we now have a text that our family reads from every Passover Seder. It is a record that focuses on strength and resilience but also contains insights and warnings.
One of the points that my father made was that as the Nazi’s came to power in 1930’s Germany antisemitism began to spread through the town. Among the most vocal antisemites were students at the universities. Seemingly the bellwether for what was to come, when the university students came into town, they would hold rallies and make a habit of verbally and even occasionally physically harassing Jewish townspeople. With time they became even more aggressive, and the non-Jewish residents of the town often followed suit.
I shudder when I see news reports of what is taking place on university campuses across the world and most openly and blatantly in America. This barefaced antisemitism expressed by university students reminds me of the warnings, the same sorts of behaviors that preceded the Holocaust in Europe and found their way into the town of Sarospatak. Even more so than the town square rallies held by Muslims across the world shouting “from the river to the sea” the unrest on college campuses, where the young, elite, and allegedly educated are portends a terrible despondency for me. They have access to university resources including publicity, psychology, and the prominence of the universities they attend and the professors who encourage them. They remind me of my father’s experiences as a child in his hometown and what followed as hatred spread.
I have never seen myself as a prophet of doom and I make it a habit to be an optimist, it is part of who I am and my unending focus on resilience. One thing though that psychology teaches us is that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior, and we should always take people at their word. Anti-Semitic storm clouds are growing. Historical patterns are remerging in full blown fashion. We must be aware and prepared.