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Mixed swimming by a lake in Carpatho-Ruthenia. The author’s mother is top left (COURTESY OF MICHAEL  PINTO-DUSCHINSKY)


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.
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Marilyn Herman
December 9th, 2018
11:12 PM
Thank you for this interesting article. It throws light on a lot of things. My father (David Herman's brother), was from Munkacs.

Ros Gelbart nee Herman
December 8th, 2018
12:12 PM
I so enjoyed your account of Jewish life in pre-war Munkacs. My father and his family lived near the Corso and he also spoke of the diverse and vibrant community. We self-published his memoirs, which included childhood memories of family life as well as his experiences in the Holocaust, in David’s Story - see www.45aid.org. Thanks also for so many helpful pointers to other writing on the subject!

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