Story & images

Tali Mayer

Janos Chiala

Ilya Ginzburg

The last Jews of Zakarpattia

SHARE

The region of Zakarpattia, situated in the Carpathian Mountains of southwestern Ukraine, has always been something of a borderland – changing hands as the borders around it have shifted. In the last century alone, the province previously known as Carpathian Ruthenia has been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union and then, finally, Ukraine. The people who have inhabited it have been just as heterogeneous: Ukrainians, Hungarians, Rusyns, Germans, Romani and Jews.

Jewish life has thrived here since the 15th century, when local rulers allowed Jews to own land and practice many trades that were precluded to them in the rest of Europe. They lived in both the towns and the countryside, farmed the land, spoke the local languages and lived peacefully alongside their neighbours. Zakarpattia, in fact, was one of the few places in Central and Eastern Europe never to have experienced a pogrom.

T

Z

MORE IMAGES

Often seeking refuge from persecution in neighbouring countries, Jews settled in Zakarpattia, where they established communities and built great synagogues, schools, printing houses, businesses, vineyards and bars. In the complex tapestry of nationalities and identities that was Central Europe, the Jews were fully integrated into Zakarpattian life. By the year 1910, a census of the Hungarian Kingdom reported that as many as 150,000 Jews were living in the region.

But that tapestry would unravel with the rise of Nazi Germany and its attempt to redraw borders along racial lines. For the Jews of Zakarpattia, the border was the one between life and death. It would cut across their history forever, drawing a line between the times 'before' and 'after' the Holocaust.

Z

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

THE TRAIN

TO AUSCHWITZ

Ninety-three-year-old

Tilda Halpert, who was born in 1923 in Mukacheve, a town where half of the residents used to be Jewish, has lived through both times. She invites us into her Brezhnev-era apartment in Uzhhorod to talk about it. “You don't keep kosher, do you?” she asks, looking concerned as she leads us into the living room. When we answer that we don’t, she responds: “Goddverdankt (thank God, in Yiddish), I wouldn't have anything kosher to offer you.” She serves us coffee and biscuits.

At first, she doesn't understand our questions about relations between Jews and non-Jews before the war. “Back when were all living in Czechoslovakia, our relations with non-Jews were absolutely normal,” she says. “Maybe some kids used to call me a dirty Jew, but we were just playing, and all the children played together.”

Z

MORE IMAGES

T

Tilda Halpert

During her childhood, Jews lived throughout the city and, she says, when they came out of the synagogues on Shabbat, the promenades alongside the river turned black with their hats. “My father used to work in a village nearby that was half Jewish and half German. It was all good with the Germans, until Hitler awoke their nationalism.”

Once awake, that beast immediately set about dismantling the world Tilda had grown up in.

By 1939, Nazi Germany had taken over most of Czechoslovakia. By the time fellow Axis power Hungary invaded Zakarpattia, which was then in Czechoslovakia, war was inevitable.

When, in 1941, the Germans began exterminating those they deemed racially inferior, Hungary announced the expulsion of all Jews without citizenship who could not prove their long-term residency in the region, and handed more than 20,000 Zakarpattian Jews over to the SS death squads. They were massacred in the forest of Kaminets Podolsk.

On March 19, 1944, German troops occupied Hungary, and although by this point in the war Germany was retreating on all fronts, Hitler’s obsession with cleansing Europe of its Jews was only made more urgent by its impending military defeat.

Among the horrors of the Holocaust, the destruction of Hungarian Jewry stands out for the pace at which it happened: A Jew living in Hungary in March 1944 had about a one-in-three chance of surviving the next 12 months. The Jews of Zakarpattia shared this grim fate.

In April 1944, all Jews in the region were ordered to move into ghettos, fenced off areas set up in towns across the region. In the town of Mukacheve, one ghetto was established in a former brick factory, which was conveniently located near the train station and even had loading platforms on the railway tracks. Between May 14 and June 7,
more than 100,000 Zakarpattian Jews were loaded onto trains and deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, where most were killed in gas chambers upon arrival.

Tilda was 21 years old when she was forced to board one of those trains. She would be one of only a few who would eventually return to Zakarpattia.

"Maybe some kids used to call me a dirty Jew, but we were just playing, and all the children played together"

Z

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

‘THE SOLDIERS HAD GUNS,

AND WE HAD NOTHING’

S

Stephan Klein

"[A German patient] told us all sorts of crazy things about gas chambers and people being turned into soap"

Of those who made it

through that fateful year, 88-year-old Stephan Abramovic Klein is the only one still living in the town of Khust. He was born in 1928 to a family of doctors and despite attending a Czech school, he still considers himself a Hungarian.

What was to happen, he says, was unimaginable even as it was unfolding. In 1943, his father invited a German patient for dinner. “[He] had just returned from Germany, and told us all sorts of crazy things about gas chambers and people being turned into soap. My mother got very angry, and told my father to never invite again someone who could say such things about Germany.”

But Stephan’s father believed him, and when the German soldiers reached Khust, the Kleins escaped. Together with a friend who owned a taxi, they found a way out of the town and drove to Budapest. But, as soon as they arrived there, “the Germans were going around the streets with loudspeakers, ordering all the Jews to report to the ghetto,” Stephan recalls.

Z

MORE IMAGES

“You don't know the fear you feel when you get such an order. The soldiers had guns, and we had nothing.”

The Kleins were lucky to meet some Hungarian soldiers from Khust who brought them food from time to time. They survived in hiding until the city was liberated by the Red Army in February 1945.

Z

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

‘ONLY 100 JEWS

WERE LEFT’

D

Dora Fixler

“The neighbours thought all Jews kept gold hidden in the walls, and ripped the whole building apart”

Dora Abramova Fixler,

92, was not as lucky. Born in 1924 in Solotvino, a small village on the Tisza river, Dora also considered herself to be Hungarian. Yet one day Hungarian gendarmes arrested her as she walked in the street with her sister. They were deported to Auschwitz, where they saw most of their friends and relatives die.

After they were liberated by American soldiers on May 5, they decided to return to their village to see if anybody from their family had survived. They hadn't.

“Out of 5,000 Jews who were there before the war, only about 100 were left,” she says.

Her sister migrated to Israel through Czechoslovakia, but by the time Dora decided to follow her, the border had been sealed, and she was caught by the Soviet border guards who told her to stay away from the border.

The same thing happened to Tilda. She had returned to Mukacheve to look for her family and was barred from leaving in 1947. She had found her house destroyed: “The neighbours thought all Jews kept gold hidden in the walls, and ripped the whole building apart,” she says.

Stephan’s family walked for 10 days to return to Khust. On the way, they met some Jewish officers from the Red Army. “They asked us where we were going, and we answered we were going home. They told us to go west, because we didn't know what the Soviet Union was.” Lost as they were, the refugees decided to go east anyway. Then the border was closed and, in Stephan’s words, “that was it”.

Z

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

‘THE FUTURE

IS ZERO’

Seventy-year-old

Avraham Leibovits is the president of Mukacheve’s Jewish community. He shakes his head when we tell him of our plan to write about the past, present and future of the Jews of Zakarpattia. With such a past, he says, “the future is efes (zero, in Hebrew)”.

He isn't too happy about the present either, and adds: “Now you can go into a Jew's house and not find a single Jewish thing. Most of the Jews we have now were educated in the Soviet Union, and their wives are not Jewish. You will not find what you are looking for.”

Z

Avraham Leibovits reads the order [...]

[...]

to the Jews of Zakarpattia by the German occupation forces, announcing that all Jews were to move into ghettos and that their 'relocation' was imminent.

But Jews still have a presence in Mukacheve. There are two active synagogues and a community centre that serves free kosher meals. There was even an active shochet (ritual slaughterer). “Not so many people eat kosher here, so I don't have enough customers,” he told us. He has since moved to Israel.

Ukraine's economy has been struggling, making migration a tempting choice, especially for Jews who would automatically be granted citizenship of Israel.

There is one street that is still known as the 'Jewish street', but only one Jew lives there today. Natasha Spiegel, 68, says her father used to tell her stories about life before the war, “but to me it was all some strange legend, and at school they told us exactly the opposite”.

“He wanted me to marry a Jew, but in my school we were only four Jews,” she says.

Natasha eventually reconnected with her Jewish identity during the 1990s, when a Hungarian rabbi called Shlomo Hoffmann arrived in Mukacheve and reopened a synagogue.

Z

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

‘WHEN THE RABBI CAME,

Z

Esther Malkha peeling apples [...]

[...]

for the Rosh Hashana dinner, which marks the Jewish new year, at Mukacheve's other synagogue. The rabbi of this community is no longer alive but his followers continue to gather, especially on Rosh Hashana, which is celebrated with food, vodka and apples dipped in honey.

The best person

to tell the story of Rabbi Hoffmann is 55-year-old Esther Malkha, who is today responsible for making sure that Mukacheve's other synagogue is open on Shabbat. “Before Rabbi Hoffmann there was nothing here, nothing,” she says, “while before the war there were 16 official communities, each with its own synagogue.”

Esther's father was a shochet, and after the war he worked in a Soviet meat factory, secretly preparing kosher meat.

THERE WAS NOTHING HERE’

Z

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

‘THE FOOD THAT KEPT

E

Esther Malkha

“Nobody knows what the future will be, but it will not be good.”

The town of Uzhhorod

has an active synagogue and Hesed Shapira, an NGO devoted to sustaining Jewish identity and providing care for elderly Jews. But identity is a complicated concept in Zakarpattia, as we witnessed at the funeral of an old Jewish woman. She had been married to a non-Jew and did not raise her children as Jews, so the procession only passed by the synagogue on its way to the Christian cemetery, where she was buried next to her husband.

“My mother was Jewish,” says her daughter Tamara Ostian “but I don't know what I am. I guess I am just Carpathian.”

When Rabbi Hoffmann arrived from Kiev in 1989, he had to start from scratch. After a long legal struggle, he convinced the local authorities to return the synagogues to the Jewish community and then managed to raise the funds to restore one of them. “He taught us basic Hebrew so we could pray, and arranged for the men to finally have their bar mitzvah,” Esther remembers.

But Rabbi Hoffmann believed that there was no future for Jews in Zakarpattia. “He wanted everybody to move to Israel, if they were to remain Jews. Eighty percent of our community left, but I was too old and I do not like to fly on planes,” says Esther.

Hoffmann's community eventually lost ownership of the synagogue, which was taken over by the official, better-funded Jewish community, and then the rabbi died, leaving his followers without a guide. “Nobody knows what the future will be,” Esther reflects, “but it will not be good. The old will die and the young will move to Israel.”

JUDAISM ALIVE’

Z

Aaron Levitz bakes challah [...]

[...]

in his Brooklyn Bakery in Uzhgorod. He grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood in New York and then moved here with his wife. He is fascinated by the region's Jewish heritage, and looks forward to showing his father that it is still possible to live a Jewish life here.

A

Aaron Levitz

“I always thought I was Russian. Then I discovered I was Jewish, and now I try my best to keep the traditions.”

Twenty-four-year-old Aaron Levitz is a Jew from New York. He recently opened a kosher bakery in Uzhhorod.

“Under communism, it was food that kept Judaism alive here – people could not go to a synagogue, but could still eat gefilte fish,” he says.

He moved to Ukraine after becoming fascinated with the country's great Jewish mystics, such as Baal Shem Tov, who roamed the Carpathian Mountains performing miracles and healing Jewish farmers.

Aaron works with Shimon Alexander Zhorin, 42, whose mother did not tell him about her Jewish heritage until he was a teenager. “In the Soviet Union, nationality came from the father, and my father was Russian, so I always thought I was Russian,” he says. “Then I discovered I was Jewish, and now I try my best to keep the traditions. In the Soviet Union there was no religion, no identity, there was only communism, and look where that got us.”

The effects of 60 years of state-mandated atheism are visible in the synagogue of Khust, where we have been invited to take part in the celebration of the Shabbat, so that for once there might be someone able to read the texts in the original Hebrew. As the function goes on, mobile phones ring one after the other – a serious infraction of the Shabbat, on which the use of electronic devices is strictly forbidden. “Anyway, I am not religious,” Stephan says, “I come here because I don't want the community to end.”

Z

MORE IMAGES

As he shows us the synagogue, the president of the community, 54-year-old Vova Katz explains that he needs “a million dollars to restore it”.

“Where will we find them?” he asks.

In the huge hall decorated with oriental arabesques, rows of prayer stalls stand deserted, and hundreds of books are piled on dusty shelves. “People keep finding Jewish books in their houses, and they bring them here, in the hope that we might know what to do with them.”

Z

Uzhhorod's main synagogue [...]

[...]

seen across the river Uzh. Built in 1910, the oriental-style building could host hundreds of worshippers. But it was left empty after the entire Jewish community was deported to Auschwitz. The Soviet authorities took it over and converted it into a music hall, after removing any visible sign of its Jewish past.

After the prayers, he invites us to his house to meet his mother. She was born in the east of Ukraine, and moved to Zakarpattia 60 years ago, as part of the Soviet efforts to 'Russify' the region. Her granddaughter moved to Israel, and is raising her own daughter there, but Vova's mother speaks to her every day, thanks to a laptop and Skype account provided by Hesed Shapira.

It is said about Baal Shem Tov, and many other mystics in the history of Judaism, that if you believe the stories about him, it means you are stupid, and that if you don't believe them, it also means you are stupid. “It must have been the same with the Soviet Union,” Aaron reflects over a beer in the middle of the baker's long night of work making challah bread for the coming Shabbat. “If you believed in it, it meant you didn't have a heart. And if you didn't believe in it, you did not have a heart either.”

Z

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

‘HERE IN UKRAINE,

Mass migration,

which its sealed borders had tried so hard to prevent, has been one of the Soviet Union’s hallmarks. But in the post-Soviet spaces, the displacement is not only one of geography but also of identities, as people try to fill the void left behind by communism.

Some do it by discovering their Jewish roots, as did Vasily Gritzik, 45, who comes to a synagogue in Khust but has not yet formally converted to Judaism. “I read Marx when I was young, and I can tell you that he didn't have anything to do with the Soviet Union,” he says.

When he grew up, his neighbours told him that his grandparents had been Jewish, and he felt he could finally “find answers for the higher questions”.

“Here in Ukraine, we are all lost souls,” he says.

WE ARE ALL LOST SOULS’

Z

MORE IMAGES

THE LAST JEWS OF ZAKARPATTIA

Return to top

Story & images

Tali Mayer

Janos Chiala

Ilya Ginzburg

 

Design

@konstantinosant

 

Production

@AJlabs

But the search for answers to the soul's higher question is not restricted to Jews and their descendants. Throughout Zakarpattia small groups of subbotniks, a Russian spiritual stream of Christianity that aims to return to the Old Testament, are embarking on the journey of converting to Judaism, a notoriously difficult process.

They educate themselves about Jewish customs, dress up as orthodox Jews, circumcise their sons and spend long nights drinking vodka while discussing the finer points of Jewish law. Their relationship with Jewish communities is complicated to say the least, and it will be a long time before they are accepted and officially converted, but in the meantime they take pride in Zakarpattia's long Jewish history, and in their own way are totally committed to contributing to its preservation and continuation.

Today, but a few thousand Jews remain in what used to be great communities. The town of Mukacheve was once known as das Klein Yerushalayim (the little Jerusalem, in Yiddish). People here still talk about the wedding of the daughter of Rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira, a great sage and founder of the Munkacz sect. Held in 1933, it was attended by as many as 20,000 guests from places as far away as the US. But, today you can walk through its streets and not see any signs of Jewish life. In many places, the only Jews you can find are those whose names are engraved on tombstones or memorials to this or that deportation.

Grand synagogues stand empty and in need of repair, while the cemeteries are overgrown with weeds. Yet Jewish life carries on, and some Jews still gather on Shabbat and the holidays, often in their assimilated, half-Christian families, without speaking a word of Hebrew, or sharing their table with hopeful converts. The old will die and the young might move to Israel, but the traditions are alive and so is the story of the Jews of Zakarpattia.