We are now at the start of the nine days before Tisha B’Av, mourning the destruction of both ancient Temples of Jerusalem (586 BCE and 67 CE respectively). It is also appropriate during this period to recall other once dynamic Jewish communities that were destroyed in recent times – even as we intensify our pleas, in this age of corona, for the survival of our own.
This past September, my son and I went to visit the town where my paternal grandfather and all my grandfather’s siblings, the Herskovics clan, were born and raised – and where my maternal grandmother, Elka Klein Weiss, spent the formative years of her girlhood – Munkacs, Austria-Hungary. My son and I crossed the border into the Ukraine to seek it. Munkacs, is one destroyed community with several distinct features, among them the changing cast of governments who ruled it. We consulted various sources before our trip and continued the process afterwards. Sources not directly quoted in the body of this blog are listed at the end.
Munkacs lies in the far northeastern corner of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains that cradles it. It’s in the basin of the Latorica River and beneath a heavily wooded mountain range. In its day Munkacs served as a commercial hub connecting places on the other side of the Carpathians with an opening to the plains of Hungary to the west.
For most of its history the area around Munkacs depended on an agrarian economy that barely changed over the years. Many Jews took advantage of the rare permission to own land, often farming it themselves. They engaged in all phases of forestry, were fruit growers and vintners and worked as coachmen, in short, hard workers in labor intensive occupations. These roles were contrary to the stereotypes prevalent in Galicia, from where they were said to have come, but they fit this rustic environment. According to all studies, despite a stratum of middle class or even wealthy townspeople in Munkacs proper, the area of the SubCarpathians was one of the most impoverished areas of Europe.
It was multi-ethnic and multi-lingual: Magyars, Rusyns, Roma and Jews, among others. Relations with the non-Jews were generally good, or good enough at its prime in the late 19th century, “Better than in other countries,” said my grandfather’s sister (Personal recollections of Sadie Herskowitz Feinberg, born in Munkacs in 1894, recorded on tape November 1974, in Pittsburgh, PA)
In the Golden Age for the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under the reign of Franz Joseph (1830 – 1916), of the House of Hapsburg, beginning in 1867, they acquired civil and political rights not available to their cousins in neighboring parts of Europe. In 1895 their legal position got even better, when Judaism was regarded as a recognized religion, equal to any other.
They formed the largest single minority in Munkacs, a larger percentage of the town’s population (at 44% of 26,000 residents by 1930) than in any other prewar Hungarian or interwar Czechoslovak cities, Paul Robert Magocsi states 2010. Mukacheve. YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. (accessed July 20, 2020).
The cheder system for boys was strong although compulsory secular education at the Hungarian school beginning at age 6 had priority. “We had to go to school. We were forced to go to [the Hungarian] school! Every half day you missed you had to pay a fine,” Aunt Sadie said. This meant the boys put in long days, attending cheder after the public school ended, and from some accounts also before the start of the day at the public school. For older boys who completed this part of their education, there was a noted yeshiva.
From the very beginning of its growth and development in the late 1700s, through its brutal demise in 1944, Munkacs was known for its traditional values. “It was a very religious city,” Aunt Sadie said, “All the Jewish stores were closed on Shabbes.” Similar statements were made by those who were born in Munkacs decades later. “Munkacs was a very, very Jewish city,” said a cousin. “Shabbes was Shabbes and everything was closed, and you could feel the Shabbat. There was another city [an important administrative center] but Munkacs was livelier.” (Personal recollections of Charlotte Farkas, born in Munkacs 1925, recorded on tape Nov. 1995 in Tamarak, FL)
By the early 1940s Munkacs had 30 synagogues, some tied to different Chassidish groups (such as Belz, Spinka and Vishnitz) and numerous small neighborhood shuls. There were two main synagogues in Munkacs, the Beis Knesses HaGadolo or central synagogue for non-Chassidim, dating back to the early 1800s, and the Beis HaMidarash of the Munkacser Rebbes across the street.
Cousin Rozie, z”l, described her mother coming from shul on Yom Tov, “When she returned [home], on Rosh Hashana, or Yom Kippur, from Beit HaKnesset, and she was so – at home she also prayed, she always prayed at home, on Shabbat – she was modern, went to the theater and to films – read books – but her heart was, on Rosh Hashana, you know, she davened with so much devotion! I was certain, 100%, that she would have it good! How could G-d not heed a woman like this! I’m not just saying this! Who ever knew her – she was so very good! And so very modest!
“There was someone who lived near us, a distant relative, with children, and her husband was so sick, a shoemaker, and there weren’t any social welfare programs. Many times she sent me before Shabbat with a platter of cake she had made, and under the plate was 10 shekel, 20 shekel. Every poor person. She had such a good heart! And what was her end?! And not just her – what people there were there! Believers! The faithful of the faithful.” (Personal recollections of Shoshana Klein, born in Munkacs 1917, recorded on tape, July 2006 Kvar Sava, Israel)
There were numerous charitable organizations, as in most any Jewish community then or now.
One of the most prominent and popular cantors of Europe and America in the old days, Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (1882 – 1933), received his first full-time position in Munkacs in 1900. Later, in the US in the 1920s he declined an offer of a leading part in The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson, taking a lesser role, basically playing himself instead. You can hear his renowned voice on YouTube.
Unfortunately, not all in Munkasc was melodic. Unseemly internal conflicts also marked life there. The Munkacser Rebbe, Rabbi Hayim Elizar Shapira (1872 – 1937), a recognized scholar and author with a dominant and fiery personality had difficult relationships with other Chassidish leaders. His antagonistic attitude to the Belzer Rebbe, Rabbi Yissakhar Dov Rokeah (1854-1926) who had sought refuge in Munkacs during the First World War carried over to the Belzer’s successor and led to the civil authorities’ intervention. Levi Cooper, Rabbi in Tzur Hadassah, wrote his doctoral thesis on the Rebbe and has produced several articles since, including the one from which much of this material on the Rebbe is taken: “The Reactionary Rebbe”, Segula Magazine (January 2014, pp. 45-51).
When the Rebbe’s only child, Haya Frima Rivka (1915 – 1945) married Rabbi Baruch Yehoshua Yerahme’el Rabinowitz (1914-1997) some 20,000 people filled the streets of Munkacs to catch a glimpse of the happenings. They nearly doubled the whole population of the city at that time. The film crew that accompanied the event, took the opportunity to film the rest of Jewish Munkacs in some of its variety.
Munkacs and the surrounding SubCarpathian territory endured multiple border changes under various national governments as a result of the wars among the neighboring European nations. Following the First World War, the Kingdom of Hungary, which had been on the losing side, was greatly reduced in territorial size and population. According to the Trianon Treaty signed in June 1920, a major part of SubCarpathia, including Bereg County, which contained Munkacs, was ceded to the new nation state of Czechoslovakia.
Some changes proved beneficial for the residents. Under the Czechs, the Jews were granted their own national as well as religious classification, which is apparent in the 1921 census, now available online. Each person’s national status is listed in one column, and their religion listed in a 2nd column. Jewish people were listed as such under both designations.
Also, under the new democratic regime educational choices in Munkacs grew, with the advent of Czech and Russian public schools in addition to Hungarian. In 1921 a Hebrew Zionist educational system that included secular subjects taught in Hebrew was first instituted in Munkacs by Dr. Chaim Kugel (1897 – 1953). He was founder and director of the Hebrew Gymnasium (academic high school) which broke ground in 1924, to the displeasure of the Rebbe.
One former student interviewed by Anna Berger for her thesis remembered the school this way: “The school was Zionist and was educating us to go to Palestine. All the factions were there—Hashomer Hatzair (Socialist Zionist), Tsionit Klalim (General Zionist), Mizrachi (later National Religious), Betar (Revisionist Zionist) – leftist, rightist. Everyone got on.” Quoted in Munkacs: A Jewish World that Was, MA Thesis, University of Sydney, (June 2009).
In addition to heading the school, Dr. Kugel was elected as a representative to the Czech parliament. When the Hungarians regained control of the area, his opposition to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia meant he was in danger and had to flee. He and his family eventually reached British Mandate Palestine, where he became the first mayor of Holon.
The dismemberment of Czechoslovakia began with the Munich Accord of 1938 which granted the Sudetenland to Hitler. It led to the Hungarians, who had become partners of Nazi Germany, regaining the greater part of SubCarpathia, including Munkacs. Within Hungary anti-Jewish laws were being instituted and were imposed on SubCarpathia as well. These laws quickly unwound the rights that had been slowly acquired through many decades of the earlier dual monarchy and Czech democracy. The third piece of the Hungarian anti-Jewish legislation in July 1941 resembled the Nuremberg Laws. It classified Jews as a racial category, meaning that even those who converted out of Judaism could not escape the growing web of persecution.
Unique to Hungary was the drafting of Jewish men into ostensible army units, but without weapons, since these were in fact slave labor units. Only a small percentage of these men survived. (Robert Rozett, Conscripted Slaves, Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front during the Second World War, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, Israel, 2013)
The final change in international borders bringing the full force of the Shoah into Munkacs, was the Nazi German entry into Hungary in April 1944. They managed this with a very limited number of troops, correctly relying on the cooperation of their Hungarian partners.
SubCarpathia was the last major European Jewish population center (116,000 souls) to be targeted for extermination. It was nearly the end of the war by then, and it was primarily the Hungarians who handled the removal of the Jews in 6 weeks, brutally and swiftly. On May 30 the authorities pronounced Munkacs Judenrein. (Magocsi, ibid.)
Is there nothing left of the Jewish community of Munkacs? Here’s what we found with the help of Bela (Baruch) Huber, our very knowledgeable guide who took us through the town and around the general area and was of inestimable help in the archives.
When Huber drove us into Munkacs, it was already nightfall, but by the beams of his headlights we could see the cobblestoned street. “Moshe Herskovics,” naming my great-grandfather “walked on these cobblestones!” Huber said. Was he serious? How long do cobblestones last anyway?
After settling into our hotel rooms, we walked to the corner of a major intersection. The central shul of Munkacs, built in the early 1800s, had stood at this corner, but it was destroyed long ago. A bank occupies its space today. On the side of the bank building are two plaques, one is a small memorial plaque in remembrance of the Jews who were collected here and marched away. The other plaque is in memory of Raul Wallenberg and the street, which has gone through many name changes, is now Wallenberg St.
We went to the old cemetery knowing it had been plowed up by the Soviets, who ruled over Munkacs from the end of the war to 1991 when the Ukrainians gained independence. A photo of the scarred emptied lot is found in Genocide in the Carpathians, by Raz Segal (Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA, 2016, p. 114). This is where my great-grandmother who passed away before the Shoah had been peacefully laid to rest, along with many of the Jewish community of an earlier time. Today it’s a Memorial Park, with what seem like memorial stones laid out as you’d find in any normal cemetery. Looking closer, however, you see these stones have no names attached, since there’s no way of knowing who is buried in which spot. Fragments of the original memorial stones, some even with names or parts of names still visible, have been fashioned into pyre designs in the middle of the cemetery or are attached to the walls surrounding this place. This Memorable Park is kept locked. You need connections to know it exists, let alone get in to see it. The absence of names is a major gap. It is a painful lacuna, this erasure of the families, the individuals, who once so thickly populated this community!
A relatively short drive away is the “new cemetery”. Some families were forewarned about the impending destruction of the old one and were able to re-inter their loved ones and erect new stones in their memory. The Rebbe of Munkacs, his parents and grandparents are re-buried here, in a covered family plot, with appropriate memorial stones. Behind the Rebbe’s headstone are piles of papers, wedding invitations, and copies of pending court cases and the like, that are brought by the faithful – whoever is pleading for success in any issue lays the papers on the Rebbe’s grave. In this cemetery we saw stones that are particularly large, they list the names of all the relatives murdered by the Nazis, in addition to the name of the loved one that avoided that fate and was re-interred in this place. This new cemetery is the rare location in Munkacs where some names are preserved.
This past month the Czech census of 1921 went online. What use can we make of it? You can look up any family who lived in any town in SubCarpathia. The census is not indexed, so you need to manually scroll down the lists in the town or village you want to check – and then it’s like strolling through a place you may have heard about, and noticing all the families that once lived there. For a city like Munkacs, where there were about 20,000 people in 1921, of which nearly half were Jewish, it helps to know the street where they lived. The instructions by Lara Diamond for using the census are easy to follow: Lara’s Geology
Wouldn’t it be a great project to over-lay a Google street map of a town – or a segment of a city – with the names from the census in the correct location? Of course, it’s not just the names that matter – it’s knowing how the people lived. The names would, however, be a beginning.
Back in town, we visited the courtyard surrounded by the former home of the Rebbe’s family.
The Rebbe’s daughter’s home was reconstructed into a modest but proper shul. “Boomie” Avraham Leibovitz is a long timer who keeps it in order. We met him and a couple other men who said they come here on a regular basis (this was all pre-corona of course.) None of these men were born in Munkacs. There are no former Munkascers nor their descendants who live in this town. We were told there are 100 Jews living in Munkacs who had been sent here in Soviet times from other parts of the FSU. “Is that 100 families, or 100 men, women and children?” I asked. “That’s 100 men and women,” Boomie answered. “There are no children here, the children are all in America or Israel.”
Do they have regular services? “Only on the holidays,” we were told, when yeshiva boys come from abroad to make a minyan and conduct services. There are also talks given by the Chabad Rabbi who comes down from Ungvar (Uzhorod) from time to time.
In 2011 however a major event took place in this synagogue. The current Munkacser Rebbe, who was born here in 1940, arrived from Brooklyn with a contingent of 300 followers. Grand Rebbe Moshe Leib Rabinovich, grandson of the last powerhouse of a rebbe, returned for the first time to his ancestral home to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of his grandson. For a couple days they restored, in Munkacs, the spirit of times past. It was a one-off that is also preserved on YouTube.
So where is Munkacs? Not just the once-in-a-lifetime Munkacs that’s now barely getting by – but a vibrant Jewish center containing multitudes, filled with children and women and men – that Munkacs?
In the final segment of his major study, The Carpathian Disapora: The Jews of Subcarpathian Rus and Mukachevo, 1848 – 1948, (New York: East European Monographs, No. DCXXI, 2007, p. 341) Yeshayahu A. Jelinek asks, and answers a similar question. He acknowledges various groups of then still living former residents in the Czech Republic who maintain communal organizations, plus various organizations of survivors in North America and especially Israel, of memoirs being written and university students descended from SubCarpathian ancestors who produce course papers devoted to the topic. Jelinek refers to several Chassidic groups, Sanz, Spinka and Satmar, who, like the Munkacser Chassidim in Brooklyn, once thrived in the Carpathians and still maintain their groups’ traditions wherever they live.
But he concludes, “Despite all these efforts, with the passing of the older generation living memories are rapidly fading and ultimately vanishing. Before long it will only be the written record that will preserve the memory of the once flourishing Jewish world of Subcarpathian Rus'”
There is much truth in this.
In addition to the books, though, there are online sources that may not have been as prevalent when Jelinek was writing in 2007 as today. Especially during this corona time, some web sites are more active than ever (in no particular order): JewishGen, Yad Vashem, Aish HaTorah, US Memorial Museum of Holocaust Studies, YIVO and other sites in cyberspace. There is archival material that’s being digitized and posted online plus genealogy sites like Ancestry and MyHeritage.
Yet all that, agreed, is still not the same as the living voices of the witnesses whom we can no longer address with our lingering questions. We surely mourn, and will continue to mourn, the catastrophic loss of whole communities. We mourn the passing of each person of the last generation that saw with their own eyes those lost communities when they were whole and vibrant.
Does Munkacs, then, only exist in our mind’s eye?
Where is the spirit of Munkacs? The spirit of the Chassidim, I’m sure, will outlive all of us. Where, though, is the spirit of the community synagogue and the Hebrew Gymnasia? Will they continue?
When Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai established Yavne, he didn’t try to recreate the Temple in Yavne. He tried to preserve its essence and continued learning. We preserve the memory of Munkacs when we preserve the best of its values. The essence of Munkacs was in the work ethic (regardless of occupation), the dedication to studying, a determined nature and resilient disposition, and a place where “Shabbes is Shabbes”. That spirit lives in many homes and communities, shuls and day schools around the world, and certainly here in Israel to one degree or another. It’s where children learn and sing and play and their elders watch and kvell. It’s in my community and maybe yours. I hear the children on their families’ patios and behind the walls of their apartments right now. They’re not out on the street as much as before corona, but they’ll return in full force soon, G-d help us all.
Chedva (Fradie) Bretschneider, Memoirs, Hebrew (1995), English translation by Bretschneider’s daughter, Vered Rubin, Unpublished (2016)
Valerie Jakober Furth, Cabbages & Geraniums: Memories of the Holocaust, (Boulder: Social Science Monographs, 1989).
Laszlo Karsai, “Jewish Deportations in Carpatho-Ruthenia in 1944”, Acta Historica 101 (Szeged, 1995), pp. 37-49.
Levi Cooper, The Admor of Munkacs, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira: the Hasidic Posek – Image and Approach, Faculty of Law, Ph.D. thesis, Bar Ilan University, (Ramat Gan, March 2011).
Paul Robert Magocsi, “Short History of Jews in Transcarpathia”, http://www.rusyn.org/pop_jews.htm accessed July 19, 2020.
David Olivestone, “Standing Room Only: The Remarkable Career of Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt”, Jewish Action, Fall 2003.
Robert Perlman, Bridging Three Worlds: Hungarian-Jewish Americans, 1848-1914, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1991).
Raz Segal, Days of Ruin: The Jews of Munkacs During the Holocaust, translated from the Hebrew by Naftali Greenwood, (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem 2013).
Avraham Tzin, Lech-L’cha, Memoir in Hebrew (Israel: Privately Published 2007).