70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

The Hungarian founding father of geology in Israel
László Kassai

By Éva Vadász - 2018-03-23

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Dr. Kassai László (Dr. Eliezer L. Kashai, 1922-2018), geologist, mapping and rock expert, uncrowned king of recording the locations of oil and gas deposits, passed away two weeks ago.


Dr. Kassai was Deputy Chief Engineer of Oil Exploration, the leading geologist at Lapidoth Israel Oil Prospectors Corp. and Chairman of the Israel Geological Society. He published numerous maps, articles and scientific work in geological journals; represented Israel in international geological conferences. He attended the Eötvös Loránd University of Budapest and received his PhD from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


He came from a middle-class Jewish family in Pest. When he was eight years old, his family moved from Újpest to the Csengery Street. In his short autobiography published in English (Short Moments from a Long Life), he described modestly and in detail the bourgeois milieu surrounding his childhood and adolescence. Pleasant family walks on Szúnyog Island, Uncle Boros’ dance school on the terrace of the Nagymaros café, Balatonlelle before the war, home-based Olympics at the flat in Csengery Street during the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.


Then came the year 1938 and the gym teacher had said: “Kohn, sit down and be glad you're still alive!” Upon which his father changed his family name to Kassai, but he remained forever a Kohn for the gym teacher. Still, he continued living as though there was no bloodbath around him. He was a passionate hiker and long-distance runner. In 1939, he and his team won a nationwide victory. In the summer of 1943, he rented a keelboat with his cousin and Ági, his first love. They made many excursions together.


When forced to wear the yellow star, he realized that being defenselessness meant that anyone could kick him, beat him, spit on him and even kill him without repercussions. The family property was buried in the cellar. After the family was forced to move, he hid the Palestinian map in the corner behind the oven in the yellow star building on Dohány Street. He worked, together with his father at the Szeleczky foundry works and from there he was sent into forced labor for a laundry in the seventh district. Here he made a Zionist friend, Propper (later Barkai) Jóska, who remained his good friend until his death at the age of 82 in Haifa.


On November 28, 1944, Kassai was deported from Józsefváros to Nickelsdorf. Later Wachau, Mauthausen, Gunskirchen. He returned to the Csengery Street after liberation, weighing only 33 kg, and ill with typhoid fever.


In September, he found himself at the library of the Geology Department on the Museum Ring Geological Department, looking around: I am at home here - he was thinking. These many books have been written about my beloved subject, and I don’t know what's in them. As the only Jew at the department, he began his geological studies which had become his second passion during his hiking and running. Meanwhile, he also joined some Zionist organizations and the aliyah group. He began studying Hebrew. In 1949 he was put on the blacklist of students and within a few hours he had to say goodbye to his family and friends and go via Slovakia to Vienna with Ági, get married and then go to Italy from there. In Bari, they boarded the ship Acmaut that took them to the port of Haifa in Israel.


At the Saar Aliyah reception center, in the tent camp, their bathing suits were stolen which surprised them: would Jews do such a thing? He then recalled the concentration camp, where the Jews did much worse things to one another – and he calmed down thinking that. Later they moved to Givat Shaul into a Beit Olim, a stone house built for newcomers. As soon as he arrived in Jerusalem, he visited the Geological Institute, where he soon became employed. After a week of work, he told his boss that although the job he was hired was a clerical job, he was actually a geologist. “Buy a hammer, a headlight, get 1:20,000 scale maps from the office, and a note book from the stationery store, some colored pencils, and begin to map the Jerusalem corridor all the way to Abu Gosh. You’ve ten days.” On the tenth day, he came out with a detailed map. The professor asked: “How could you do such a job on your own, doing so quickly?” Kassai responded: “I worked hard, I used stratigraphics (layer study), and when I discovered the layers, it was not difficult to determine the boundaries and irregularities of the formation.” The prof told him he was born to be a geologist.


They moved to Abu Tor with Ági. A few months later, a professor Picard said to him: “You have two weeks to write your diploma work about the corridor in Jerusalem.”  It seemed impossible to do, but Kassai rose to the occasion, and wrote it in Hebrew, albeit with some help! Picard had asked him to do such a rush job in order to be able to promote his student to doctoral studies, but life interfered, and Kassai had to go into the army. He was 29 and his first child, Juditka was born at that time as well. He was assigned to the science corps in Rehovot, next to the Weizman Institute. On the Eilat, in Arava, at the Beit Govrin, which was under the jurisdiction of the Jordanian Government, he analyzed stones, collected samples with a hand drill from the rocks inside the various surfaces of the area. He carried out a brimstone exploration in the danger zone between Beer kibbutz and the Gaza Strip.


At 31 he left the army, and Juditka, being a strong child had successfully recovered from polio that almost left her paralyzed. At the same time, Kassai realized his love of oil exploration. Together with Professor Picard, he left the Geological Institute, for the Canadian Israel Continental oil company on Tel Aviv's Rothschild Promenade, led by Abraham Friedman, the former Rothschild employee, and pursued his new area: oil exploration, which is not a science but an art. Kassai prepared the map of Zichron Yaakov and the Carmel Mountain and later moved to Beit Janaj and then to Netanya with his family. This is where his Israeli dream came through. He had a small family, a small house, a small garden with fruit trees, and a good job. These would have all been unimaginable in hopeless Budapest.


In 1954 he participated the first time in an oil drill in Zichron Yaakov. His son Jaron was born. He continued his career at the Lapidoth Oil Exploration Company, founded in 1959; he took part in international studies and conferences and later directed the drilling of nearly a hundred wells. Between 1967 and 1987, he was the President of Oil Exploration. He had visited all the countries in the world, including Antarctica in 1981. Ági, who by this time was suffering from an advanced stage of Parkinson's Disease, urged him not to miss this possibility related to NASA's Mars research.


His love, comrade, and the protector of his family harmony, Ági, passed away in 1992, at the age of 70. His third love, Márta was born in 1957 when Kassai began to paint as an autodidact. They married in 2000. “Until two weeks ago, he was my friend, my father, my husband, my better half,” says Márta today.


Dr. László Kassai has fought and helped with his research all the wars of Israel and worked for peace by way of making the land of Israel known. He retired at 91, and lived 96 years.  May his memory and workmanship be blessed.

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