from One Step Toward Jerusalem
by Bacskai Sándor
Mult és Jövö Könyvek: New York, Budapest, Jeruzsálem, 1997, 140-148.
Copyright Bacskai Sándor 1997; all rights reserved.
translated by Eva M. Thury
Translation copyright Eva M. Thury 1998; all rights reserved.
The Kazinczy-street Orthodox synagogue is cold, even though this is the end of May. The building was unheated all winter, and only gradually has the sun managed to warm the thick stone walls. The building is open only on holy days, or not even then. Sometimes the congregation celebrates the Sabbath in the small prayer house on Harang street. Next to the prayer house is another Orthodox synagogue, but this is no longer a house of worship; it doesn't even belong to the Jews. The city uses the worn, hundred year old building for book storage: most of its disintegrating piles of paper have been chewed by rats or destroyed by dampness. At night, the books and the ancient synagogue wail together, raising their moans in Hebrew, Yiddish, Hungarian, Slovakian and German, though there is no one there at that hour, no ear to hear them.
For now, the minyan at Kassa meets every day. Morning and night, as many as thirteen or fourteen old men pray together. Some arrive promptly; others are sitting around well before the service starts, waiting for the eighth, ninth, and tenth man. They talk together or they watch quietly, nodding on occasion when they hear something especially sensible.
"And you, sir, where have you come from, that you speak Hungarian so well?" one of them asked the night I first strolled in.
"From Budapest." and then they all looked at me, because strangers hardly ever turn up here, not even half strangers from Budapest.
"I hope you're for the MTK."
"No, I'm a Fradi fan."
"Well, I heard what those guys were up to last time, as usual, throwing stones at the clubhouse and shouting, 'Dirty Jews." They're a bunch of fascists. Decent Jews don't root for the Fradi."
"But after the war they were the first ones to give jerseys and balls to get the MTK started again. Anyway, I'm not a Jew." Then I had to explain what I was doing there, that I was going to what used to be a world famous yeshiva at Hunfalu where they would soon be celebrating the jahrzeit of head rabbi Samuel Rosenberg.
"What! You say you're not a Jew, but you know what a jahrzeit is. If you know what a jahrzeit is, and you know about the Hunfalu yeshiva, then you must be a Jew. I don't care what you say, I say you are." He said, looking for support to the other men. Several nodded silently.
As the time for evening prayer approached, the numbers in the little prayer house grew. Miksa Reisman was the last to enter. Two fingers together, he caressed the mezuzah hanging at an angle over the doorway, then raised the fingers to his pale, narrow lips and kissed them. His face too was narrow, and his skin very white, revealing blue veins around his eyes and at his temples. The stubble growing on his chin indicated that he had buried his third wife only a week ago, as he could not cut any of his hair during the mourning period. The Law stipulates that a Jew must not only mourn inwardly, but must also give outward signs of his grief. In fact, under ordinary circumstances he was supposed to be at home, sitting on the floor, until the Shiva or first week of mourning was over. But the death occurred just before shvues, the feast of the Giving of the Torah, and the obligation to keep the feast absolves the bereaved from "keeping Shiva." So he came to pray, but hadn't touched his beard, as that restriction would bind him for the entire thirty-day mourning period.
"I hear you're from Pest. What part of the city do you live in?" he asked me later in a weak voice. He was the third one that night to name streets in Pest, asking did I know where they were, because the questioner had once been there, or had relatives and acquaintances, maybe no longer living, whose faces and voices could be evoked merely by mentioning the melodious names of streets in the city.
"My little brother lived in Nagymezö Street," the old man said quietly in a tired voice. He was cold, too, though it was still warm; the sun hadn't set. On his shriveled ninety-two year old body, the long black coat flapped as if it had been left hanging on a broken, dried-out tree branch.
The next day, after morning prayer, everybody gathered to eat a little cake and to throw back a shot of brandy. Mr. Braun, the assistant chairman, filled a glass to the brim and held it out to me. Ferdinand Gluck, who learned for a while at the Hunfalva yeshiva, brought a book with him. Except for the rabbi's name, he remembers nothing, but here is this book -- The Master and His Student by Jozsef Guttmann --it contains everything that I am interested in knowing about. Mr. Reisman waited until we were alone, and then took out an envelope with a few photographs and the copy of a letter.
"Allow me to point out, my son, this one here." He indicated a Jewish boy who stood with three others in some sort of school corridor. The photograph was published long ago in the 1943 newsletter of the Jewish high school at Munkács. With a trembling finger, he caressed the paper, touching his son's face, his hair and his hand.
"And then what happened to him?"
"Well, what happened to Jews? I sent this picture and the newsletter to the Yad Vashem museum. I wrote a letter with it to explain everything. Also, I once wrote an article for New Life, 'Eyewitness to the deportations at Munkács' I called it. Tonight I'll bring that too."
The one-story house behind the prayer house was once the residence of Orthodox head rabbi Mozes Jungreisz. Today, the main floor is occupied by the office of a small business, while a family lives upstairs. The man works in a factory, and the woman has charge of the keys to the prayer house and the houses of worship. She also cleans the congregation's office area. When I ask her, she brings down the keys to the mikvah without a word and opens the door of the ritual bath. A narrow staircase leads down into the depths, each step seemingly colder than the one before. At the first level two twelve-foot, white-tiled pools await the arrival of the bather who will submerge himself, head and all, in the clean, cold water, until he is completely clean. The old ritual bath beneath our feet no longer waits for anyone: it has been tarnished by heaps of old furniture, boards, and dusty rubbish. Here even the lightbulb doesn't work. You can make out the circle of changing rooms around the dead bath, but the water isn't visible any more. The woman leans across the railing and drops a small pebble into the depths. Two, three seconds pass before it reaches the bottom with a hollow, lazy plop.
Beside the building extends a low fieldstone wall with an iron door leading to the congregation's courtyard. The offices of the congregation are here, along with the slaughterhouse and kosher kitchen. These facilities are not functioning now, as the raw, bumpy surface of the courtyard is littered with piles of sand and rubbish; the renovations will take until August. The project's cost is half a million koronas and an extended interruption in the meat supply, but the work couldn't be put off any longer, because in Czechoslavakia you couldn't spend any money this way until now.
At Pesach they received lime from Hungary, and not long ago, the Joint Distribution Committee sent Israeli canned goods which are being given out just now. The program has been going on for two weeks, but the supply shed is still piled high with brown cartons of canned meat and fruit. Mr. Spiegel, the congregation secretary, is very busy; people drop in one by one and they have to be given supplies, but at the same time he has to keep the distribution equitable. To make it worse, there will be a funeral this afternoon and the shames is out sick, so the secretary has to do the inspection as well, to make sure that the grave has been dug deep enough. In the cemetery he finds everything in order. After exchanging a few words with the groundskeeper, a big strapping man who looks like a village blacksmith, the secretary takes the trolley back to the congregation offices; the washing of the body can proceed.
The cemetery groundskeeper lives with his mother. The handful of vegetables grows just as well here, the few chickens scratch as successfully, the assigned apartment is no more run-down than one they would get outside the fence.
The mother works hard, rushing here and there; she is the one who assembled the coffin of rough wood. She lays down the shovel, she hoes, she rakes a bit, and then she brings a bucket and fills it full of water from a tank on a wagon parked in the yard. For the anticipated mourners she sets out a clean towel; the observant Jew washes his hands before he leaves the cemetery.
They can't use the pump in the garden because oil seeps into the ground from the neighboring bus garage and pollutes the water, making it undrinkable, complains the woman in Slovakian; I wouldn't be able to understand her if she didn't act out what she is saying with her hands. With gestures, she invites me to view the deceased if I want, there's nothing frightening about it. I wouldn't like to view the body laid out and naked; I gesture back that I prefer to take a look at the graves of the rabbis, and I start up the gradual slope to the orthodox part of the cemetery -- their plots always wind up in the back.
Jews were allowed to settle at Kassa and found a congregation only after the national assembly of 1840 passed a law extending their rights. Before that, only three or four in all could spend the night inside the city walls by renting a room at an inn. After the ban was lifted, the majority of settlers came from Rozgony, ten kilometers away, in those days the site of a well-established congregation. In 1842 the settlers built the prayer house in Harang street, and by 1886 the new synagogue had been completed, although many did not cross its threshold. In fact, the year before, a rabbinical congress had met at Nagymihály to advance self-definition and had codified the criteria for the observant in synagogue building and the conduct of worship. Even a passing glance revealed that the new house of worship at Kassa failed to meet two of the six new regulations: its builders had fancifully adorned it with towers, and they had not centrally located the almemor, the platform used for reading the Torah. The prayer house had been closed upon the dedication of the new synagogue; the Orthodox at Kassa requested that it be reopened for their use, but the neologues wouldn't hear of it. At that time in Hungary there were similar disputes in a number of congregations, and their adjudication was usually entrusted to well-known rabbis. Markusz Hirsch, the rabbi from Obuda was delegated to resolve the dispute to Kassa, but the Orthodox did not accept his decision to prohibit further use of the prayer house. From then on, there were those who preferred the open air, meeting for prayer in a garden on Szepsi street, and thereby expressing more than incidental devotion to their beliefs.
In 1871, the Orthodox group at Kassa formally withdrew from the congregation. In a few years they established more educational and charitable societies than many much bigger and more financially secure congregations. In addition to the Chevra Kadisha which was fundamental to their constitution as a congregation, they established, despite their financial problems, the Shas Chevra, the Bikur Cholim, and the Gemilas Chasidim societies, all functional in their first year, as well as a Talmud-Torah society and an Orthodox grade school. Following the break, they built their own synagogue in Harang Street, and in 1888 they began to operate their own cemetery separated by a fence from that of the liberals.
The doctrinal disputes are long gone, but the wall still stands. It has sunk a little, and ivy runs along its top, but the stones are sound. The Orthodox cemetery extends across two hills; in the valley between them runs a little stream with a small bridge across it. A bit to one side, the ruined death house is on its last legs; eyes poked out and hat knocked off, it waits for someone to take pity on it and intone its last rites.
On the hilltops, substantial little houses rise above the cemetery. The one covering the resting place of the Jungreisz family is on the near hilltop, right next to the entrance; on the other side of the stream stand the "tents" of head rabbi Brach, the gaon of Radomysle, and the rabbis of Stropko and Biecza: thus they surround and oversee their by now eternally faithful flocks.
There are no more burials here. There is only the very occasional visitor with an entreaty from Brooklyn, an imprecation from Bne Brak and a pebble or two which he does not toss, though this is the place for it; stray dogs circle the motionless white stones in the "house of life."
The man who is being buried this afternoon converted to Christianity before the war, then became a Jew once again in the sixties. They say he painted his own self portrait more than once. He is Lajos Feld, the famous painter and graphic artist; in those days, his artistic abilities saved his life. Mengele himself wanted to conduct experiments on his dwarfish body, but was willing first to sit for his portrait before the little Jew. From then on, the other SS summoned him one after the other; he had to trade his bread ration for paper and charcoal, but at least he didn't become a specimen for the enlightenment of German medical science. The secret of his nonconformity in stature was kept from the uninitiated. Later, in the seventies and eighties, prizes and commendations were awarded to the painter's students, while Lajos Feld received nothing at all, because in those days the Czechoslovakians didn't like religious men, or Jews.
"The country had three great enemies: South Africa, Chile and Israel. Of course there was no antisemitism, just antizionism: the newspapers were full of it, you could hear it everywhere," said Pal Foltyn, a member of the Jewish club, a few days later. For a while now, the young people at Kassa have been gathering once a week in the congregational complex. Thirty or more come at a time; there were at least seventy on the day the American consul visited them.
"In those days it was very difficult for a Jew to be able to get the better jobs," continued Foltyn, because he had to declare his foreign relatives in his official biography. I never denied my relatives in Israel, why would I have, they knew all about it at the police station. A whole separate department dealt with Jewish matters; they were always watching us. So in the seventies we would arrange it so that we went skiing in Idia, and we regularly met our friends from Budapest there."
Pal Foltyn is a young man. He doesn't keep mentioning the names of Sándor Pohl, Csatary and Horvath the Chief of Police, like the old men. He doesn't talk about the brick factory at Kassa from which they deported those twelve thousand Jews, among the first in the nation. Between the middle of May and the beginning of June five shipments left Kassa, but the city also saw the other hundred and thirty Hungarian transports, as it was a point of junction in the railroad line between the country and Auschwitz.
There must be two hundred people at the Sunday morning ceremony commemorating the martyrs. Dr. Czikk Juraj, the young president of the congregation, is conducting his speech in Slovakian; I understand only the place names. Mr. Frankel is standing beside me, in his hand the latest issue of Rosch Choidesch from Prague. He just came home from Israel, he gained a little weight because of his sister's fine cooking. On Friday night when he got back and headed immediately for the prayer house, he told everyone how many kinds of fruit he saw at the market, and that even on the coolest day it was 25 degrees warm, and that nobody called him a Jew -- at this everyone began to nod.
"There were eight children in my family," he says. I lean closer to hear him over the speech, "We had a little store. Well, that little kreizlerei made just enough money to feed the ten of us. Now all I have is this one sister and a brother in America, that's how many of us are left. And some Slovakian 'democrats' say it's all just a children's story, that all they did was take Jews to Germany for a labor exchange. Well, I lived through this children's story."
The martyrs' ceremony continues with kiddush at Kazinczy street. In the synagogue there are only a few old men listening to the rabbi, the young ones are out in the courtyard talking.
"They don't understand Yiddish, and I certainly can't speak Slovakian in the house of worship!" bursts out Samuel Groszmann, the rabbi, cantor and kosher butcher at Kassa. Until he was twenty years old, he learned at a yeshiva; in 1942 he fled to Ungvar to escape the Slovakian deportation. He hid out there until '44, but when the Hungarians too started the deportation, there was no place left for refuge. Afterwards he went home to Nagymihaly: from '56 to '72 he was in the service of the congregation, leading the Talmud-Torah group until it was banned. By then there were so few members left anyway -- they had died or emigrated -- that he too went to live at Kassa.
"Then I worked only at Kassa, but that was enough. Then the rabbi at Eperjes died, and then the one at Pozsony, so that eventually I had to supply the entire Slovak territory. Today I am the only one in all Czechoslovakia: next week I have to go to Pozsony, though I am 79 years old and my wife is seriously ill. At one time I used to make the circuit to Prague, but I wouldn't have the strength for that now. I have no backup, even though I miss it very much, because I am tired, and I can't endure it any more."
"Why don't they call someone from Israel or America?"
"No one wants to come here. We couldn't pay the person in dollars, and he certainly wouldn't want koronas. There is no one among the younger ones who could be trained. The learning has to start when the child is young, and the forty-year olds here don't even know the alphabet. Now it's permitted to go to temple, it would be permitted to learn, but it doesn't interest anyone. Two thousand Jews live in Slovakia, but they are completely scattered. Maybe if we were together, we could do something about it -- but as it is, there's no escape."
The door keeper at the city hospital was just having his coffee break.
"Excuse me, sir, would you happen to speak Hungarian?"
"Me? Why I do everything in Hungarian! I can't even run in any other language." he responded, and I was sorry he showed me where to go while sitting down, because I had never seen such a spectacle.
Mr. Reisman was assigned to a three-bed room; he looked up from his bed near the window, across from the door. The towel across the window was no curtain, and the sun shone right on his head. I had asked the doctor in charge what the problem was, they suspected pneumonia, she said, and he was a little weak, but he should be able to go home soon. The old man still had the IV in his slender, white arm; we smiled, when we said goodbye, at having to shake with our left hands.
"I set out the New Life for you, but they brought me in here because I was very weak." I promised to look it up in the library. I brought a kilo of oranges; in exchange he offered me tomatoes. The others watched TV while he told me about the magnificent Lonyay estate and about the theater at Munkács where, as an art-loving journalist, he had been always welcome. I was sitting there beside his bed, leaning quite close to him, but still, I barely heard it when he said, "Life was good."