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[Pages 3-7]

History of the Marghita Jewish Community

Translated by Susan Geroe

Marghita, a small town in Bihor County, is the administrative center of nearly fifty surrounding villages. The town and its districts are strongly linked to Oradea, through economic, social, and cultural ties. According to legend, Marghita was named after the feudal lord, Count Csaky's daughter. The folk say goes that the young countess drowned herself in the small river, the Berettyo.

The main occupation of the inhabitants was agriculture and cattle breading. The vineyards, wheat fields, and fruit orchards of large estate holders surrounded the town. The expansive meadows and fields reached to the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. Weekly market days and fairs held every two months attracted merchants from far away. During the last thirty years, in the communist era, some larger industrial enterprises were also established in Marghita. Aside from Jews, Hungarians inhabited the town as well. This situation changed after 1945, when Transylvania was re annexed to Romania. Since then, the Romanian population has steadily increased.

 

The Jewish Settlement and Establishment of the Jewish Community

There are no authentic historical data and thus we don't know exactly when and under what circumstances have the Jews established themselves in the town. Based on a document dated November 1, 1721 found in the Hungarian Archives, Jewish settlement in Marghita dates back 250 years. A senior clerk named Forester, who sent it to his superiors in Bratislava, had provided the above data. He reported in this document that the local Jewish population having been frightened by the Romanian uprising took refuge in Oradea and Carei.

This report justifies the Hungarian saying that the whole world is but a town. Just as in the Ukraine, when the Cossacks who rose up against their Polish oppressors first butchered the unprotected Jews from the cities, so the uprising Transylvanian serfs against the Hungarian lords first turned against the Jews.

It seems that the Jews returned to Marghita after the defeat of the uprising, but there is no exact date as to when this happened. The next closest document is dated 140 years later. We quote the following from the book of Imre Szabo, commentator for the Transylvanian Jewish Community: “…in the middle of the last century (1861), when they demolished the old wooden praying house to build in its place a new synagogue, they found the official foundation stone documentation dating to the year 1742.” This proves that the Jews who took refuge from the Romanian threat, returned and twenty years later built their own praying house. We have no data about their numbers, but it is certain that that number was not significant. However, by 1840, there was an organized Jewish Community in Marghita, because the Chevra Kadisha had been established that year. Not much later, the community hired Rabbi Hillel Lichtenstein, know as R. Hillel Kolomajer.

Today Ferenc Wollner, the oldest and perhaps the only Jewish inhabitant of Marghita, copied and sent at our request the writings of the 1848 Captain Karoly Palfi, in which we find social statistics for the year 1872.

“…There were 621 houses and 3900 people in this little town in June of 1872. Of these, 2400 were Calvinists, 800 Catholics, and 700 Hebrews (Jews). The Hebrews have a beautiful temple and their own school. Three Jews live in their own house. These are merchants Matyas Altmann, Abraham Weiss, and Moric Kallos. (The last mentioned name is that of Natania retired Doctor in Chief Laszlo Kallos's grandfather.) The treasurer of the Reader's Circle is physician Dr. Lipot Gelbstein. There are two Jewish doctors in town. They are: internist Dr. Gelbstein, and surgeon Dr. Wallenstein…”

Blessed is the era of which no written documentation exists – so, according to a French historian. We can say the same about our little community. We refer specifically to the old golden era of Franz-Joseph. It seems that there were no events of any significance (anti-Semitic occurrences) worth mentioning in the lives of the Jewish community and even the arguments within, which happened also elsewhere and upset some contemporaries, had no effect on the peaceful, benevolent lives of the Marghita Jewish citizens.

In 1900, the town's Jewish population reached 18% that is 940 Jews out of a population of 5200. In 1930, of the total number of 6000 inhabitants, 1600 were Jewish (27%), while the 1944 deportations afflicted 2660 Jews (31%) of the total population of 8600 people.

 

Historical Changes And The Jews Of Marghita

Tempora murantur et nos mutamur in illis – holds the Latin saying; times change and we change with them. While this is generally true, it does not refer to the observant, traditionalist Jewry. World history and local events affected their fate, political status and economic well being, but did not touch the mental or spiritual world of faith of the believers, or their adherence to tradition. Naturally, the remark was valid for the religious Jewish population of Marghita. Their manner of thinking, life philosophy remained the same, and furthermore, the administrative organization within their community, the rituals, also stayed as they were in the days of their fathers. Praying houses, schools, social organizations, their manifestation of happiness or mourning practices remained unchanged. They respected their rabbis as always. No one worked on Saturday or holidays. And no one would be caught smoking a cigarette while walking on the street on Saturday.

The Jewry of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and of the Hungarian Kingdom within it was a tolerated entity, but for long centuries, it regarded itself foreign among people. But the great world-shaking changes of 1848, followed by the Compromise of 1867, brought emancipation for the Jews of the monarchy. The Jewish population, given its nature, felt much gratitude for the equality. The Hungarian language, the well-spoken Hungarian language, replaced Yiddish and Hungarian newspapers and literature became the mental nourishment of the “Hungarians of Israelite religion”. Educated people assimilated fast and the rabbis, dressed in soutane, preached in Hungarian in their Neolog Synagogues. Law regarded Jews not as an ethnic minority, but a religious denomination. The reason behind this consisted in the fact that “believers in the Laws of Moses”, opposite the more prolific nationals (Slovaks, Romanians, Serbs), would augment numerically the statistics in favor of the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Jews liked and respected the Emperor, representative of the liberal world, but their hearts beat for the freedom fighter Lajos Kossuth, hero of the 1848 Revolution. Identification with Hungarians and Hungarianism was so strong that even during the Romanian reign between the two world wars, the Transylvanian Jewry was reading Hungarian books and newspapers, while the older generation, out of spite, would not learn Romanian. The Jewish National movements succeeded in winning over their co religious brothers only in the 1930s, who until then voted for the Hungarian candidates. This is how the Transylvanian Jewish voters elected two outstanding politicians, Dr. Jozsef Fisher and Dr. Tivadar Fisher to the Romanian Parliament.

 

[Pages 7 - 13]

During World War One

The World War that started in 1914 found a well-rooted Jewish community in Marghita, one that did not feel out of place within the country. Although it was not permeated by “hurray patriotism” - the stylish fad of the times, it considered its civic obligation to honorably fulfill the draft orders for military duty. Those who stayed home were awaiting news from the frontline with great worry, and the Jewish Community helped the families of the men who were in the army, as needed.

The four-year war took its toll from among the Jews of Marghita as well. Nandor Uran, Jeno Weisz, Mihaly Berger, Miklos Farkas, Vilmos Farkas, Ede Wollner, Jozsef Ezri, and Jeno Bruder were among the fallen heroes of the community. Jozsef Weisz, David Friedmann, and Jeno Bruder of Balyok succumbed to wounds they sustained on the frontline and also died. Dezso Feldheim, Jeno Feldheim, L. Mandelbaum, Bernat Weisz, Mayer Grunfeld, Aron Weisz, Gyula Berger, Samu Berger and pharmacist Ferenc Weisz became permanently disabled. Several men received medals for their heroic deeds, among them Bernat Weisz and Mayer Grunfeld, and due to their 75% disability were exempt from deportation in 1944.

In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell militarily and politically. A revolution ensued, the republic was proclaimed, and a few months later, the dictatorship of the proletariat took over the democratic regime. As everywhere else, in Marghita too, they created the local dictatorial councils from among the ranks of the workers' movement veterans. Some Jews also participated in this event, including Samu Kertesz, David Mandelbaum, Lipot Rubinstein, Sandor Schwartz and Margit Klein. However, the reign of the “tanacskoztarsasag” (a communist type republic based on that of the Soviet Union) came swiftly to an end. The Romanians occupied Transylvania and marched even into Budapest. Most of the communist leaders escaped and in Hungary, the Horthy reactionary regime was installed.

 

After the Change of Regime

At the beginning of the regime change, while the turbulence crystallized, Jews had been suffering. Such was the case in the Transylvanian region annexed to Romania and of course, our little city was no exception. Let's be honest about it, one of the reasons for the tense situation with the authority was because Jews, often defiantly, stood by the Hungarians. Once the short lived military government changed to civil government, spirits also quieted. Jewish Communities retained their autonomy guaranteed earlier by Hungary and the pursuit of personal welfare was only minimally limited by the semi official discrimination. The corps of Romanian officials soon made friends with the Jewish population.

The Jewry of Romania, numbering one million, won national minority status. This change was a consequence of Romania's demographic situation. Following World War One, 40% of the country's three-fold increase in population was made up of minorities (Russians, Germans, Hungarians, Bulgarians, etc.,). The three million Transylvanian Hungarians created especially a thorn in the flesh for Romanians. Thus, by “promoting” Jews, and within them the Transylvanian Jews who numbered one quarter of a million, to national minority status, they automatically reduced the number of Hungarians. And the Jewish population, given that they could no longer be Hungarians, yet were not willing to become Romanians, were forced to declare themselves just that - Jews. As such, they enjoyed more privileges in the eyes of the Romanian officials than the untrustworthy Hungarians who were always winking toward the Motherland.

Peaceful coexistence had been disturbed from time to time, particularly in bigger cities, by outbreaks of Romanian anti-Semitism. In 1927, the national conference held in Oradea by university students ended in demonstrations and anti-Jewish rioting. People did not lose their lives, but Jewish institutions and synagogues suffered the consequences of the riots. Students intruded the synagogues. They burned Torah scrolls, broke windows and robbed stores. From Oradea, the demonstrating students traveled to Cluj, but meanwhile they stopped in Huedin and organized pogroms in those two cities too, as they did in Oradea. The Oradea Rabbinate ordered a day of fasting to commemorate the ravaging of the synagogues on the 13-th of Kislev, which was yearly observed by our Community as well.

The Goga-Cuza fascist government presented a much more serious threat, because it wanted to “solve” the Jewish question in the Nazi spirit. Luckily, this government did not last long (from the end of December 1937 to February 10, 1938) and thus was not able to carry out its devilish plans. Although Jews did not suffer material damage, the fascist succeeded in one area. For weeks, the country's one million Jewish inhabitants were searching their genealogy and running around to obtain written certification about their identity. All this happened because the government, to justify the planned deportation of the Jews, required that they prove Romanian citizenship going back three generations.

This government fell due to pressure from the Western democratic powers, as well as because of the looming anarchy, which threatened the entire country. Following the Royal take over, Jews were able to once again breathe easier. The revision of citizenship rights remained the only enforced provision. And because Romania was the classical example of corruption, those who were unable to produce the required documents bribed politicians and officials, thus after a year from the issue date of this provision, there was not one Jew left without citizenship.

Two years before the “Vienna Dictate”, under the influence of Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism gained strength throughout Europe, and Transylvania was no exception. The media became more and more hostile and the number of anti-Jewish insults increased, but compared to what was to follow later, the situation was still ideal.

We spoke so far about the development of Marghita's Jewish community and about the political changes that affected significantly the fate of Transylvanian Jews, among them, of course those of the Marghita Jewry.

 

Jewish Life in Marghita

Until the beginning of this century (XX-th*), the Jews of Marghita constituted a group that was solid, monochromatic, and thinking alike. They were honest, God fearing people, whose lives evolved around the great synagogue. They gathered on weekdays, holidays and Sabbaths, in the evening and morning to pray together as a community and listen to the teachings of their rabbis. They obeyed rigorously the commandments of the faith, sent their children to study in cheders and yeshivas, worked industriously and conducted business with integrity. They based their view of the world on two facts: was it morally acceptable in the eyes of God what was happening, and was it good or not for the Jewry. On elections, they cast their votes for the government's party for the simple reason that it was better for a Jew not to set himself up against the majority. Their ideology rested on two principles: belief in God and attachment to their own kind.

They knew little about Chassidism and their rabbis; Socialism and Zionism did not arouse great reverberations within their circle. The Grosz brothers, David and Meyer, Yisrael and Akiva Bernat, and Slomo and Hillel Heller were among the first young men from well to do middle class families to study in famous yeshivas in far away cities. The majority of the youth studied in the yeshivas of local rabbis. Highly admired Ezriel Friedmann committed a revolutionary act by sending his four sons to university. After obtaining their degrees, they settled back in the city. Moshe and Aharon Cvi were attorneys, Benjamin a doctor, while David became a banker.

The uniformity and harmony within the Jewish Community changed following World War One, when a larger Chassidic group established itself in the city. Not that there were any objections against them, since among them were “talmidei chachamim” such as R.Eizik Lefkovits, R. Avrohom Chajjim Glick, and R. Chajjim Spitzer. Rather, their Chassidic customs, caftans, head covers, separate praying houses, Sephardi prayer books, caused misgivings among conservative members. They were worried that this small but enthusiastic Chassidic group would break up the unity of the community. During the war and immediately afterwards, several Chassidic families arrived to Marghita, among them the Rabbis of Razla. A few longtime Ashkenazi congregants joined them as well and by the time they built their praying house, membership rose to fifty. Later, the Ashkenazi worry proved to be without merit. The members of the two praying houses coexisted peacefully within the Jewish Community. The Chassidim adapted themselves to community life and participated in exemplary fashion in the social work of the Jewish Community.

Communist philosophy spread wide in Romania due to the misery and suffering caused by war and also by example of the Russian Revolution. Marghita's local group was relatively strong compared to the rest of the country. From among Jews, some veterans, artisans and non-religious youths joined them. The Party functioned legally until 1924. Following the banning of the organization, its members continued their activities within the so-called Workers' Block, while trying to hide from officials their real purpose and political image. This was not very successful, because the Romanian security services were on the lookout and kept an eye on the Block's activities. Often they held searches at the homes of the suspects. Several members were taken to Court in Oradea and then incarcerated. The police gave an especially harsh treatment to Jewish communists. Samu Kertesz, Jozsef Grosz, David Mandelbaum, the Weisz brothers - Bela and Jailis, suffered a great deal for their ideology. Jewish solidarity did not break down under these circumstances either. Jeno Vadasz, director of the United Bank, used his great connections with the authorities to ease the situation of his Jewish brothers and many Jewish communists could thank him for having survived their harsh prison sentences. It was well known about Jeno Vadasz that he always helped everywhere an injustice occurred, or if a Jew was in trouble. In the 1930s, the authorities increased their persecution against communists. The Schoen brothers, Lajos and Erno, spent long years in prison. Erno died in the Doftana prison, in 1940, when the prison building collapsed following the earthquake that hit Romania in that year.

In the 1920s, the Young Zionist movements started to organize in Marghita, while in the 1930s, the Agudat Israel local group was established by initiative of its young religious members. We will talk separately about these activities, as well as about the first Olej of Marghita, its Chalucim, and the first passengers of the “Maapil” ships and their adventures.

From our writings so far, the reader can see the great changes our little community underwent during the first half of our century. While the elderly watched the changing times with total disinterest - the appearance and disappearance of spiritual currents - the new generation was passionately interested in everything that happened in the world at large. Groups were created within this once quiet community, where people were divided by their views of religion, social, political or world concept. It speaks to the glory of the Marghita Jewry that these differences did not and were not intended to weaken the respect for one another, or their love and feelings of fellowship for each other. Despite differences of social class or opinion, every Jew participated in the happiness and sorrow of his fellow Jews, and in promoting the welfare of the Jewish community. The Jewish Community and the leaders of its institutions were elected not according to the parties to which they belonged or their social status, but according to their talents and merits. Those who were in need received help according to their needs, not according to their political affiliation or degree of observance.


* Translatorís note

 

[Pages 19 - 21]

Petri Street and the Jewish Circle

The Jewish population in Marghita did not live separately, nor did it separate itself from the Christian population. One could find Jewish residents on every street of the city. Still, most of them lived on Petri Street. The Jewish Circle (a row of houses linking Petri and Kortvelyes Streets) and the Jewish Street (Wollner St.), as their names show, were part of the Jewish neighborhood. The main street's name had often been changed, but because it led to the neighboring community of Petri, people referred to it always as Petri Street. This had been the city's commercial center. Most stores and offices, as well as the Jewish Community's institutions were located here. Parallel and to the east of Petri Street, one would find Kortvelyes Street, a quiet Gentile upper class neighborhood, undisturbed by traffic. To the left of the main street stretched large backyards and vegetable gardens, all the way to the other side of the city, towards the grain markets and the stockyards. It was here rather than in the center of the city that they held weekly market days. Merchants and vendors built their permanent booths in this large suburban market.

Houses on the main street were built next to each other, without space between them. An exception was the Jewish school, which was surrounded by a garden. Several families, sometimes six to eight, lived in multi dwelling buildings on the main street. In each of their spacious backyards, there were structures typical to rural life, like a baker's oven, poultry yard, stockpiles of wood, or a water well. The outer image of the homes hardly changed at all between the two World Wars. The main street was not paved and was dusty in the summer, slushy in the winter. Some of our friends who visited Marghita a short while ago said that the city has developed a great deal in the past years. Several streets have been paved and multistory dwellings have replaced the one-story peasant houses.

On Saturdays and holidays, the working weekdays' noise ceased, and a holiday atmosphere settled above the main street. Stores were closed, there was no vehicle traffic and only devoted congregants dressed in Saturday outfits were seen strolling on sidewalks, or hurrying to either a place of worship or of learning. The image, in mood and reverence was similar to the one found in Bne Brak or Mea Searim.

There were twelve buildings within the Jewish Circle and Christians lived in only two of them. Four houses served as Jewish social institutions. A sidewalk existed only on the right side. When it rained, people could not walk on the opposite side of the street and even farm-wagons got stuck in the muddy unpaved road.

This little street had no official name. Gentiles called it by the name of Reb Chajjim Jozsef Wollner, a rich shoe manufacturer whose lands and building structures extended over half of the street. Later, after the ritual bath building was constructed here, they referred to it as Mikve Street. The imposing building of the Mikve was built on the northern side of the street, on the corner of Kortvelyes St.; next, there was the house of the bath personnel. The Matzo bakery, and the house of Reb Jiszrael Bernat, the Jewish Community's secretary, recorded as the property of the Chevra Kadisha, followed. For the most part of the year, the Matzo bakery served as “Linat Cedek”. It was a shelter for panhandlers and merchants passing through the town. Right next to this building stood that of the Talmud Torah with its six large rooms. Two of the rooms were used by congregants for praying on Saturdays and holidays. Across from these three large buildings stood the Chassidim's Bet Midrash, which constituted a center not only for the Chassidim from of Sighet and Satu Mare, but was also the spiritual and religious center of the Jewry from the neighboring towns. R. Jozsef Jakov Berger, the Torah scribe (Sefer stam), lived next to the Talmud Torah.

It is obvious from this short description why the Wollner Circle was the spiritual and religious center of the city's Jewry. A picture of the main street would not be complete without mentioning a few words about the Marghita “promenade”. On Saturdays and holidays, the street portion from the Synagogue to the end of Petri Street was the favorite promenade for the city's young people of all manners. This is where they strolled between Mincha and Maariv – separately the young men and separately the young ladies. It was a wonderful sight for the eyes and the heart to see this pageantry of young people. The observant, the nonobservant, as well as those vacillating in between, peacefully coexisted next to each other. As if by mutual understanding, Christians strolled on the other side of the street.

Our little city's Jewry lived a peaceful, content and quiet life until Satan spread its reign over Europe and in its frantic rage condemned our loved ones among our six million brothers to death – the old, the children, the women, the innocent good hearted Jewish people.

Earth! Earth! Don't cover their unlamented spilled blood!

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