70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Kárpátalja picnic

By Zsuzsa Shiri - 2018-02-28

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

They are descendants of Hungarian Jews who lived in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Czechoslovakia, Soviet Union, and Hungary – even though they did not set foot outside Munkács.

Each year, during the first Saturday after Pesach, the Jews of Kárpátalja [Subcarpathia] from all over the globe, meet in the Ben Shemen forest in the center of Israel. They usually come to their meeting with their children and already grandchildren today, where they recall memories of their childhood and youth spent in Ungvár, Munkács or Szőlős.

Almost all Jews left Kárpátalja; most of them in the seventies and eighties, and the rest in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union was disbanded. Despite the scattering of their communities, they are very much interconnected: through fate, the similarities between the family history of the generations who meet in the Ben Shemen forest and the similarities of their childhood and youth in the Soviet Union, their shared experiences.


After the end of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, the Kárpátalja Jews became citizens of Czechoslovakia, with its exceptionally democratic system within the Central European scene between the two world wars, where their Jewish identity became their priority. In Munkács, in 1921, they founded a Hebrew high school where the less religious were sending their children, to partake in a Zionist education and learn the Hebrew language provided to young people aged 10-18. Side by side with them, the anti-Zionist Hasidic culture of the region was flourishing, and the court of the rabbi of Munkács also enjoyed a golden age.


Carpathia was given to Hungary with the First Vienna Award, and from 1938, it was ruled by the much less democratic system of the Hungarian authorities. The Budapest authorities could not make up their minds about this strange, self-proclaimed Jewish institution and so it was permitted to reactivate after a brief closure.

In Kárpátalja, a disproportionately high number of “stateless” Jews were killed in the mass murder of Kamenyec-Podolsk, as many have not been able to prove their nationality, even though they have been living in the mountain villages for 6 to 8 generations. But they were religious, and the rabbis took care of all paperwork, registering them only with the religious community, so their ancestors remained invisible to the authorities, and at that time they could not get access to the records. The deportations of 1944 then definitively sealed the fate of the community. Except for men in the forced labor service, everyone was transported to Auschwitz, from where only a small percent returned. They became the parents of Ben Shemen Forest Meetings.


They went home after the war, many just to wait, full of hope, for their returning relatives, but Stalin had closed the border at the end of '45 and nobody could come or go anymore.


Most of them were the only ones left from their old family – but the lonely survivors held together, and instead of their devastated families, they tried to create a new one during the Soviet captivity. From 1946, a Jewish baby boom took place in Kárpátalja: thus the last Jewish generation of Kárpátalja was born. They had no grandparents, for these all became victims of Mengele's selection, or later they were considered too old, that is, over forty, and only a few of these people survived the camps. The parents, however, tried to preserve their family and community traditions in the openly anti-Semitic world of the Soviet Union, even in the 1950s, during the processes led against Jews. Most of them still managed to light the Sabbath candles, secretly, hidden in the inner chambers. At school there were pioneers, at home Jews; and their parents did their best to give them everything in the crooked Soviet black market era, and, above all, they tried to provide them with a good education. Meanwhile they followed the news to keep track of the fate of the young Israel through distant relatives and acquaintances who got out in time. After the Six-Day War in 1967, the borders were opened for a while, and at this time masses of people from the post-war generation chanced a future in the unknown. They fled to wherever they could - to America or to Israel, and many of them moved to Budapest through various bureaucratic opportunities.


Wherever they went, they worked diligently and proved themselves successfully. Today there are hardly any survivors among them, and the post-war generation, the last of the Kárpátalja Jews, gives a huge communal picnic each year to Israel and themselves, for a day-long celebration of their liberation and successful start of a new life.

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