Preserving ‘Abandoned Jewish Memories’ Online

Synagogue in Nowy Korczyn, Poland. Credit: Mátyás Király
Synagogue in Nowy Korczyn, Poland. Credit: Mátyás Király

Mátyás Király, also known as “Abandoned Jewish Memories”,  gives his thousands of Instagram followers insights into European Jewish culture and history. Striking images are combined with explanations of everything, from the life histories of Hasidic rabbis, to the specific symbols on a Torah scholar’s grave (“lions, menorahs, birds, flower bouquets, Levite pitchers, Kohanite hands, deer and Shabbat candlesticks” are common).

Jewish cemetery in Gura Humorului, Romania. Credit: Mátyás Királi

I had the opportunity to ask Mátyás about his project, and what it means to him.

Daniel: How did you first get interested in Eastern European Jewish culture (were your ancestors from similar places to the ones you explore today)?

Mátyás: The Jewish branch of my family is believed to be from Galicia. So you could say it comes from a similar place where your questions reached me in Bukovina. Although I did not know my maternal grandfather, the family carried on his Jewish identity. He himself (from Miskolc, North East Hungary) was an Orthodox Jew. He and his family survived in the Budapest ghetto, but unfortunately two of his brothers and a sister were victims of the Holocaust. My parents raised me with a Jewish identity: you could say the yiddishe mame and the Jewish neshume (soul) were present in my life. We go to synagogue on the big holidays, eat matzo ball soup as a cold remedy and we call it Jewish penicillin. My interest in the subject, however, was acquired at The Budapest University of Jewish Studies under the influence of my teachers. I wrote my thesis on a community near Budapest and when I visited the cemetery (Budakalász) as a primary source with my father, I was hit by horrific conditions, with all forms of vandalism and indiscretion. So we started to work on it, partly with our own hands, and Mazsihisz (the Federation of Jewish Communities Of Faith in Hungary) also gave money to restore it. This was the situation that started me on this journey and this project.
Daniel: Why did you decide to preserve these memories yourself?
Mátyás: I simply live here in Europe, and it’s not just my family ties that started me on this journey, but these abandoned places are the memorials of people who died in torture, and usually it’s only the cemetery or the synagogue that commemorates them. I feel that this work is the way I can preserve their memory and show the world what happened and what’s left of them.
Daniel: What does this project mean to you?
Mátyás: Everything. My official job is archivist at the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, but it can work so well with the Abandoned Jewish Memories project that they complement each other, and what I learn helps me in both areas.
Yiddish advertising in Lviv, Ukraine. Credit: Mátyás Király
Daniel: What is the most memorable or meaningful place you’ve been to while preserving Jewish memories?
Mátyás: It’s a difficult question, because every place has a tragedy and every place has something that fascinates me. Perhaps it was the Jewish cemetery of Busk in eastern Ukraine that moved me most. The carvings of Hasidic and Kabbalistic gravestone symbols were in themselves a fantastic sight and research material for me, but what is truly memorable in its horror is the mass grave in the area next to the cemetery. Members of the community buried their dead in this place three hundred years ago, and then, because of a sick ideology, the whole community was executed and buried at once, severing a three-hundred-year-old line.
Jewish cemetery in Busk, Ukraine. Credit: Mátyás Király
Another important place for me is Sastin. The synagogue in this small town in western Slovakia was one of the first places I researched and wrote a post about. Since then they have begun to renovate the ruined building but I could still see the original ceiling paint of the house of G-d that has seen better days.
Synagogue in Sastin, Slovakia. Credit: Mátyás Király
Daniel: Generally, how easy/difficult is it to do this work and find Jewish graveyards and synagogues in Eastern Europe?
Mátyás: It’s not difficult to find these places, I usually select several targets. That’s not the problem, but there was a case here at home that highlighted the downside of this job. I was photographing the cemetery of a village near Budapest, and there was a lot of litter and vandalism in the cemetery. I brought this to the attention of the local Facebook group. I wanted to help them clean up, restore their heritage. All but one person sent me anti-Semitic texts. This is the hard and sad part.
Daniel: I’ve also seen your collection of rare Judaica items – how do you find these items to add to your collection?
Mátyás: I usually look for these things at online auctions or in antique shops in Budapest, and if I were to find something related to Hungarian Jewry, I would, with a heavy heart, definitely submit it to the museum where I work, as this is what the profession requires of me. Of course, there are a lot of valuables circulating at auctions that should not be in private hands, but that’s another matter.
Daniel: What are your hopes for the future with this project?
Mátyás: I’ve been to many places, more than 120 synagogues and more than 150 cemeteries across Europe. I’ve also had longer trips that covered a whole region and I want to write about these trips in a book, where I want to present the Jewish culture of the area through the atmosphere of the trip, and to analyse and scientifically interpret a special feature, such as a gravestone symbol. In addition, I would like to complete a trip to Belarus one day.
Thank you very much to Mátyás for this conversation – be sure to look into his work!
About the Author
Daniel Pesin’s writing has been published internationally by newspapers such as the Sunday Times, Jewish News, the Jewish Tribune, and the Algemeiner.
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