The people of the book remember

This is an ode to a set of volumes barely known to many of us. To be clear, these volumes, l’havdil, don’t have any sanctity associated with them, yet they contain genealogical gems from which we can glean the story of individuals, whole families, and even sense the vibrancy of long gone communities: they are registration books where the vital records of the former residents of Jewish centers were inscribed.

These volumes were maintained in various places, and many (if not most) have been indexed and can be found on-line using JewishGen, a major web site of Jewish genealogy. The information extracted for those indexes are in English, so you can easily locate an ancestor. The index generally includes a link to the microfilm of the original page in the registration book which contains more information, though in the local language. Any struggle to decipher or find the translation of the writing can be like sifting for gold – it’s amazing when found. It’s even more amazing when the pages you’re seeking can be found in the actual physical volumes held in the archives. It’s only a bit of a stretch to compare it to seeing your loved ones in person today after all those Zoom sessions.

I wanted to discover what was inscribed for my paternal grandfather’s family who had lived in Munkacs at least from the 1850s onward. As it happens, finding those records online basically wasn’t one of the options for Munkacs last summer when my son and I planned our roots trip. (Staff and volunteers from JewishGen are now indexing these volumes, and have begun putting them online, although uploading the originals will take a while yet.) The only way to access their contents was to personally travel and see the registration books for oneself – or to hire a researcher. We did both.

From Lisa Diamond, a noted genealogist specializing in the Jewish communities of central and eastern Europe, we learned that the registration volumes for Munkacs are kept about 40 km (25 miles) from there in the archives of Uzhorod (formerly Ungvar) the administrative seat of the area.

The rabbi of the Chabad center in Uzhorod recommended Baruch (aka Bela) Huber and he was indeed the man for this job. Huber got a head start, before we even boarded the plane at Ben Gurion; he emailed his photos of the registrations of my grandfather’s birth in 1888 and that of most of my grandfather’s siblings. That was thrilling to see.

Huber met us at the Budapest Airport and drove us east through the plains of Hungary to cross the border with the Ukraine and reach our base in Munkacs where we spent the night.

The next morning, on the drive to Uzhorod Huber told us there are 3000 volumes in the archives. While we couldn’t go into the stacks, peeking through the doorway, “3000 volumes” is believable. The records in the oldest volume begin in 1859. Of course they were all handwritten (with no white-out or “delete” keys invented yet) and they are meticulous. Although occasionally a family might have been remiss in recording an event in the moment and only registered it later, for the most part one sees hundreds of births, recorded in real time, running in exact chronological order.
In the 1850s Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, required that the religious leaders of his subjects keep a clear record of the births, marriages and deaths in their communities. The earliest stories of my grandparents’ families begin in this area at that time, when it was part of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. Many left before WWI, after which this northeastern segment of Franz Josef’s domain became part of the newly created Czechoslovakia. Hungary reclaimed it in 1938 – 39, Nazi Germany invaded in 1944 and the Soviets in 1945. Today Munkacs is in western Ukraine. Some of this kaleidoscopic history is reflected in the registration books.

The documentation of the Jewish subjects of the Hapsburg’s domain, until 1895, were kept by the main rabbi of the city, in the main synagogue. The information for the birth of a child included the name of the father, maiden name of mother, birthplaces of the parents and occupation, as well as names of the attendants: the mid-wife, the rabbi who was present at the baby naming or the mohel at a brit.

Following down the columns for the midwives, one can see which names repeated; they were the most sought, whether for professional skill or personable qualities or both. The full street address of the baby’s family might also be recorded. Similar types of data were recorded for marriages and deaths in the community.
The records kept by the rabbis until 1895 are in Hungarian, which uses the Latin alphabet, making them easy to read by English speakers, particularly the names and dates in the entries when the handwriting is legible, which it usually is. Sometimes the penmanship borders on calligraphy.

At the end of each civil year, the main rabbi of the community duly signed and set his big red seal affirming the correctness of the entries in those pre-1895 registration books which were his purview. The value of these volumes though does not lie in the calligraphy or the seals, lovely as these elements are.

From 1895 onward, everyone, of all religious faiths, had to report their life events in civilian registration volumes which were kept in city hall. Meanwhile, for whatever reason, not all Jews had their marriages recorded in the civil registration books. For some it may just mean that having a ketuvah, a Jewish document of marriage, was enough, and they felt no need for a civil registration then.

This period, the second half of the 1800s and into the first decades of the 1900s, were the golden age in the memories of Hungarian Jews. They enjoyed more freedom and fewer restrictions under Franz Josef than their cousins under the Czars. Through internal natural growth as well as a constant stream of new families moving in from the other side of the Carpathians, the Jewish community of Munkacs became an increasingly larger percentage of the population, reaching nearly 50% by the town.

During the Czechoslovak period, from 1920 to 1938 or 1939, Cyrillic is often used but not always. The death of the fiery leader, the Munkacher Rebbe, recorded as Lazar Spira, 1869 – 1937, appears in clear Hungarian, that is Latin script.
The historian, Raz Segal, in his most recent book “Genocide in the Carpathians,” describes the continued longing of the Hungarians for this area of the Carpathians to revive their former “Greater Hungary”. He states that this passion extended across the full political spectrum of Hungarian politics in the inter-war period.
By 1938 Hungary was a partner of Nazi Germany. Following the Munich agreement which granted Hitler the Sudetenland in western Czechoslovakia, Hungary under Regent Admiral Miklos Horthy regained control of SubCarpathia in eastern Czechoslovakia in three quick successive installments from September 1938 through March 1939. Some Jews were inclined to rejoice when the Hungarian soldiers marched in, believing it meant the restoration of their former golden age. They were quickly disabused. “There arose a new king over Egypt who did not know Joseph,” (Exodus I:8)

Huber explains that after March 15, 1939, when the whole region was re-occupied by the Hungarians, “the authorities continued to use the same registration books, [they] just displaced the Czech officers with Hungarians and started to write in Hungarian again.”

One peculiarity concerning my family, was that my grandfather’s brother, who had married in Munkacs in 1906, didn’t have the marriage registered for more than three decades, until 1939.

According to Segal, and to Erno Munkacsi, the founding director of the Jewish Museum of Budapest and author of “How it Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry,” by the late 1930s Jews were anxious to prove their long-standing Hungarian roots. They tried to bring documents that showed that their families had lived there for decades.

Thus Huber explains the very delayed registration of the marriage of my grandfather’s brother and sister-in-law.

As we know, despite these and similar practices, in the end nothing helped, certainly not for long. Segal quotes the August 1941 Hungarian Race Protection Law aimed “to protect the purity of the blood and the spirit of those who belong to the community of the Magyar race.” He also notes the refugees who were escaping into Hungary from Poland which had been divided between the Nazis and the Soviets as a potential threat to this Greater Hungary vision.

In 1941 – 1942, thousands of Jews were expelled from SubCarpathia. They were pushed across the border to territory controlled by Nazi Germany. Most were deported on the grounds of their not possessing the required Hungarian papers. Huber states that “Most were murdered in Kamenetz-Podolsk, or on the way.” These included the first wife and 2 daughters of Huber’s father. A leading personality of the community who survived was the son-in-law of the late Rebbe of Munkacs; Rabbi Baruch Rabinovich managed to return to Munkacs, and from there reached Budapest and then Palestine.

Only in March 1944, when Germany was already losing the war did the Nazis march into Hungary. They walked right into Munkacs and the provinces when most of the men were away in forced labor battalions, and the Jewish population consisted primarily of women, children, and the elderly. By July the last Jews of Munkacs had been placed on the trains to Auschwitz.

Segal writes that the erasure of the Jews didn’t end then. “In addition to the deportation of the Jews this vision [of ‘Greater Hungary’] required the obliteration of their memory.” Segal quotes the orders to destroy all the shuls and “remove all the signs and address-signs that call Jews to mind from all the houses, shops, and workshops.”

The Registration Books, however, with the listings of the names of the Jews and their parentage who had lived in the community of Munkacs from the 1850s, remained in the archives of Ungvar. The names of all the individuals, their families, whole robust communities that had thrived there for over a century were faithfully recorded. Enough names of the people who were born, married and passed through Munkacs and its surroundings to fill 3000 volumes.

We might recount at least some of the names of our forebears in a format suitable for our children and grandchildren. Memory – remembering – as others have pointed out – is an integral part of our collective identity. While we look to the future, we also let our families know of their roots as they move forward. Memory is an intrinsic element of the annual cycle of our holidays, most especially on those festival days when we recite Yizkor. The children ask questions at the seder to better remember and to remind us to feel as though we personally experienced the Exodus and the wandering in the desert. Now the youngsters have plants (or mock leaves) to recall Mt. Sinai where, spiritually, we stood together.

Have a good, healthy and joyous Shavuot – Hag Shavuot Sameah!

About the Author
Susan was born in a small town in Pennsylvania and grew up in Chicago, receiving her B.A. in English Language & Literature from the University of Chicago. She studied at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, for one year in the early 60s, and made Aliya in 1987. She has worked as a teacher and been a freelance writer. She retired five years ago from working in public relations and grant writing for the non-profit, Melabev.
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