70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Hungarian engineers making aliyah

By Zsuzsa Shiri - 2018-03-09

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

In 1903, 24 university students in Budapest had a great idea and founded Makkabea, the first Hungarian Zionist student association. The initiator Nisan Kahan from Transylvania was a law student, who had already become acquainted with the ideas of Theodor Herzl. He, together with Samuel Krausz, Herzl's personal delegate, joined the other founder, Mór Bisseliches. Krausz became the first president, soon followed by Bisseliches, who brought in new members from the non-Zionist, Jewish Youth Association that had previously been founded in opposition to the far-right Turul Alliance.

Makkabea, 1913 Budapest

With the help of Makkabea, several new Hungarian Zionist associations were born: Jehuda, of the office workers and sales clerks, Ivria, of the high school students, Deborah, of the Zionist women, Akiba, of the rabbinical seminary (which also operated a high school at that time), the Fencing and Athletic Club (VAC) of athletes, Kadima of the Jewish Scouting Movement, and the Aviva-Barissia Movement with specifically socialist doctrines: Aviva for girls, and Barissia for boys.


In Makkabea, not everybody was ready to move right away to Palestine to found a State, but those who were seriously committed to the idea of studying Hebrew and returning to the ancient New Country, organized independently as Bar Kokhba. After World War I, Trianon, and particularly after the White Terror and Horthy's entry on a white horse as the Regent, many of them felt that the time had come to leave Hungary, and in the early twenties dozens of young Hungarian intellectuals, mostly engineers made aliyah together to Eretz Israel ,helping each other. While still in Pest, they had formed the group Mehandes to prepare for the big voyage.

The first wave came in June 1920 with Jenő and Imre Brünn (Shlomo and Nathan), Imre’s future brother-in-law, István Török (Jacob), Béla Szívós (Eitan), Moses Sternheim (Moshe) - all engineers. A lawyer from Pozsony, a Dr. Unger, had come up with fake papers: according to their documents, they were all born in Palestine, just returning home, since back then Sohnut was not yet there to arrange the paperwork for them.

Jenő and Paul Brünn

A Palestine Office was set up in Pest the same year, and within a few months, the next group of forty was allowed in officially, among them engineers, technical specialists, students and builders. The start was still not easy for them: the engineers Aszod and Katzburg became victims of the 1921 riots.


Their Zionism did not end with the landing in Haifa: in Palestine, under the leadership of Jenő Brünn (izraelinfo has recently written about one of his grandsons), they formed a group called Hagomel. They kept helping each other with money, accommodation, work and mutual protection. They were well organized, constantly corresponding; as soon as one of them had learned of an engineering job, he told all his colleagues. They have created a fund for those who were unemployed or needy, to help them live and survive, and be able to stay, if they had already committed to a re-start. Their first job was a wage-earner’s simple physical work: building terraces, reinforced with stone walls in Kiryat Anavim. Meanwhile, they lived in a rented house at the edge of the old town, threw their money in a common kitty, and together they cooked, did the laundry, led a common household - boys and girls mixed, which, at that time counted as a very revolutionary idea.

Hungarians on a Friday night in Jerusalem in the twenties.

They soon found employment as engineers; the Hungarian engineers began to invade the Palestinian Mandate. Urban engineers have moved from Tiberias tru Hadera to Jerusalem, leading projects in swamp drainage, city sewerage and construction works everywhere. Not everybody was an engineer, but people with other skills, too, found work: Pál Brünn was a specialist in vehicles; he began to organize public transport, and with his fellow drivers he created the future Egged company.

The construction of the Rex cinema in Jerusalem based on Hungarian engineers' plans

There were also many architects among them; lots of their buildings still stand as mementos of their work. In Jerusalem, the quarters Talpiot and Beit Hakerem are home to their first houses, and in Rehavia they have also built several buildings. In 1927, after the earthquake, the Mosque of Al-Aqsa was damaged, and by the way, the not exactly Jew-friendly Hadis Amin al-Husseini  Chief Mufti had asked them to save the building.  Based on the design of Jenő Brünn, in a six-month-long project, the building became supported by a reinforced concrete ring between the dome and the supporting walls. And at that time on Fridays, the anti-Semitic mufti offered abundant meals to the Hungarian specialists at the Mosque.


The engineer of Ármin Beregi, who had made aliyah in 1921, remembered the heroic time later: “Back then, there were no tools in the country; I had made the first tools with a Ukrainian village smith. When I pulled the first iron-structure 16-meter binder up to 14 meters high, and in one day I had it put together with a team of former teachers, lawyers and clerks as my crew, and they could only look at it after work, one of them shouted: Un das ham mir gemacht? (And it is us who did all this?)”



The photo above: the HaGomlim commune of Jerusalem in the twenties.
Source: David Giladi: Pesti mérnökök – Izrael országépítői [The engineers of Pest – the builders of the State of Israel], Budapest, 1992.

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