[Page 9 - English]
History of the Town of Topoltchany
Our hometown Topoltchany is situated in Western Slovakia, in the fertile valley of the River Nitra. Mountain ranges surround the valley on three sides: to the West, the Inovel mountains; to the North, the Vtatchnik and the Tribetch range to the East. Only to the South, the valley opens and stretches down to the Danube. This topography makes for a mild climate; the mountain ranges protect it against cold winds, while the river waters its soil. These conditions favoured settlement from early times; soil and climate made the valley very fertile. Rich archaeological finds have proved this fact.
That preceded Topoltchany drew its name from a castle, Topulkhan, the ruins of which can still be seen near the village of Podhradie, some 15km to the Est. This castle must have been built by the Slav rulers of the Great Moravian Kingdom in the 9th century and its early Slavic names, with little change, became the name of our town – Topoltchany.
Following the Magyar invasion, the region of Nitra was annexed to Hungary (at the end of the 11th century) and it served the Hungarian rulers of the Arpad dynasty as an important military outpost in defence of their country against German and Czech invasion and influences from the West.
We do not know exactly when the town of Topoltchany was founded. It is first mentioned as such in a document in 1173, still under its old name, as belonging to the King's domain. By then, it was no longer an appendage to the caste. Later Topoltchany was given as a fief to the Turda family and when they died out in 1235, to a Hungarian knight – Denes (in the reign of Bela IV). At this time, a number of villages and manors already belonged to the town; whose boundaries as mentioned in Bela IV's document were as follows: to the East the Bosch flour mill on the river Nira; to the North, the fields of the village of Praznovce; to the West, the villages of Tovarniky and Nemtschice and in the South, the little stream of Chocina. We have no record of when
Topoltchany officially became a township. The earliest document mentioning it as such is of 1342 when King Karol-Robert imposed a special tax upon the towns of Hungary, demanding from Topoltchany 15 measures of silver payable within 15 days. In 1347, King Louis the Great conferred upon the town the privilege of its own jurisdiction.
In the beginning of the 15th century, town and castle were bestowed upon the well-known Szecseny family by Emperor Sigmund who did much to help develop the town into a trading centre. From 1429 the road toll was levied. But this situation didn't last long: in 1434 the Husits under Ian Shmikovsky conquered the town and castle and used them as a garrison and a military outpost. This rule was maintained for many years and the local inhabitants suffered greatly. A document of 1481 shows that after the expulsion of the Hussites, King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary gave the town to one Michael Orszag and his son Laszlo. Later, the knight Levay ruled over the region.
We have few records from the 16th century. This is probably because of the Turkish wars that raged during the period. Topoltchany too was not spared. In 1599, strong Turkish forces invaded the town which was totally destroyed. The inhabitants were either slaughtered or sold into slavery and their property looted. The Turks did not stay long but it took many years to rebuild the town.
In 1731, we read of another catastrophe: a huge fire consumed nearly all the houses. The reconstruction and building activities undertaken after the fire gave the town the shape it preserved to our day. During this period, in 1779, the main Catholic Church was erected as a gift by the Baron Stummer who family lived at the village of Tovarniky and, over a protracted period, contributed greatly to the development of Topoltchany.
This development was continued in the 19th century and many private and public buildings were erected, converting Topoltchany into one of the major trading and supply centres of the Nitra valley. Its artisans were organized in guilds and their products became famous.
A set-back was caused by the revolution of 1848-49 and thereafter came a period of virtual stagnation: the first factory in town – a sugar factory – was founded in 1870 by Baron Stummer. It employed about 300 workers and produced some 6000 tons of sugar a year, mostly for export. For many years
this remained the only industrial enterprise in Topoltchany.
In 1885, a hospital with 77 beds was erected – another gift of the Stummer family. The census of 1885 showed for Topoltchany; 350 houses and 4500 inhabitants, 2650 of whom were servants; 1160 Germans and 530 Hungarians. The large number of Germans is explained by the fact that most Jews gave their nationality as German. This is confirmed by the religious breakdown: there were 2900 Catholics, over 1500 Jews and the rest were Lutherans.
There were no major changes in the character of the town following the World War I. The great depression that set in during the late 20's also hit Topoltchany and a number of enterprises had to close their doors. The town lost much of its importance and at the outbreak of World War II; it had no more than 12,000 inhabitants.
World War II did not touch Topoltchany directly. It suffered no retaliatory actions except for a short scuffle during the Slovak national uprising in September 1944 and at the time of the German withdrawal in March 1945.
The Jewish Community of Topoltchany Its Origins and Fate
I have to state at the very onset to whoever wants to investigate the history of the Jewish communities in Europe, that the sources at his disposal are very limited. This is especially true with regard the Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe because of the holocaust. In the countries concerned, it is extremely difficult to obtain official documents relating to Jewish communities and, in many cases, the research worker can only throw up his hands and write off this most important and often unique source of information.
In addition, archives of the Jewish community were largely destroyed or lost during the war years and there is nothing left but to make do with incomplete and secondary sources, and to try and reconstruct from them the history of these communities.
When working on the history of the Jewish community of Topoltchany, I was faced with all these difficulties. Together with the destruction of the Great Synagogue in town, we also lost, among the rest, the archives of the community and other printed material that was, so I was assured, of great historical value.
This is not all: the old Jewish cemetery situated at the corners of Masaryk Street (Spitalgasse) was desecrated at the beginning of the war and a paved road went through it. Parts of the headstones were transferred to the new cemetery but most, and certainly the older ones were torn up and broken and inscriptions on those that were left are no longer legible because of neglect. Now, in the absence of written material, these old tombstones might have served as an important source of information with regards the names and data on persons active in Jewish life.
There is no access to another source of information on Jewish life in Topoltchany: under present circumstances, the town archives are closed to us. So only two sources were left for us to draw upon: 1) books
or pamphlets published in Israel or abroad where Topoltchany or its Jews are mentioned, with evidence of living people who were active in the community or in any way connected with it. Unfortunately, there was little mention of Topoltchany in the Jewish press or periodicals in the days of the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy. No more than short notes can be gathered here and there. This explains itself by the peculiar character of our community. In praise of our fathers, it should be stressed that in contradistinction to most Jewish communities in Hungary, there was no split in Topoltchany and it remained united to the bitter end. Now, most of the wealth of Jewish literature in Hungary was written by reformists – Neologues, as they were called – while the Jews of Topoltched to the Orthodox wing. No cooperation existed between the two and so it happened that the community of Topoltchany never got the publicity it warranted by size, importance and contribution to Jewish life in the country.
Jews came to live in Western Slovakia rather early. Important communities and their leaders became famous in the middle Ages.
In the Nitra district, there were a number of ancient communities that are frequently mentioned in old documents. However, this existence was sporadic rather than permanent as very often the Jews were expelled, had to settle elsewhere, after some time were allowed to return and so on. Such was the lot of the Jewish people in the Hungarian Kingdom in the late middle ages.
We know nothing of any Jews living in Topoltchany in those days. Jewish merchants are mentioned in a document of the 14th century but no community, so people must have been allowed to stay in town temporarily, as the fairs of
Topoltchany were already well known. It seems that single Jewish families settled on the manor, in the vicinity, under the protection of the nobles and then did visit the town on business. No Jewish community seems to have existed in Topoltchany before 1526, the year of the Battle of Mohacz, in which the Turks defeated Hungary. During the long Turkish wars, the district of Nitra became a contested border area. Towns lost their inhabitants and the lot of the Jews was especially hard. Communities dispersed as everybody tried to save his life – very often unsuccessfully.
With the end of the fighting towards the turn of the 17th century, a new period in Jewish life begins. Moravian Jews, steeped in Jewish tradition and cultural values, which had been living shut up in their ghettoes for centuries, now came out to settle on Hungarian territory. At home they had been suffering from restrictive legislation and outright expulsion and here, they found new living space and served as the seed from which Hungarian Jewry later developed.
The new communities were mostly founded close to the Moravian border and modelled their habits and institutions after the Moravian pattern. They took their rabbis, dayanim (judges), shochtim (butchers), and teachers from their old homes. Their young men went to study in Moravian Yeshivoth. These close ties went on for many generations and typify the Jews who came to settle in Slovakia and Topoltchany.
We have a very interesting document dated 11th Dec, 1649. It was signed in the castle of Hlohovec. This is an agreement between Prince Adam Forgacz and five Jews from Uhersky Brod and Uherske Hradiste (both in Moravia). By this agreement, the Jews Meir ben Jolish Selig, Abraham bar Jacob, Meir bar Josef, Meir ben Moshe and Meir ben Schmuel Katz are given the right to levy road toll at Tolpoltchany. As the right to levy road toll curtailed the right to settle, this is proof that the above-mentioned 5 were the first to settle permanently at Topoltchany. This means that Jews came to this town rather early, ahead of the big immigration wave of Moravian Jews into Hungary, and Topoltchany was one of the first places where Jews were allowed to settle permanently.
From the word Selig (date) added to the father's name, we learn that we are dealing with older, married people, 4 of whom were apparently related to each other (4 by the name of Meir, probably named after the same ancestor). We also
conclude that they must have had substantial property both in Moravia and Hungary as they undertook to pay considerable sums for the right they were granted and gave this property as security in case of non-payment.
We do not know the number of family members of these founders, nor whether they all continued to live in Topoltchany. We know, though, that in 1727, a Jew of Topoltchany named Meir Moshed asked for permission to move to Nove Mesto with his family. As Jews named Meir signed the above-mentioned agreement, it might well be that this Meir Moshe was one of their descendants.
We have another document dated 1746 relating one Jakob Isaak and his family – 6 altogether – who, at the time were living at Topoltchany. As among the signers of the agreement, we also find an Abraham Jakob. Our assumption is strengthened that the Jews who came to Topoltchany in 1649 and their descendants, were among the founders of the community. Unfortunately, there is no more evidence from the 17th century and we know nothing about the year when the community was established, how many numbers it had, nor who were its leaders, rabbis, etc., or any other details of its early existence.
The 18th century brought in many changes. There was a mass immigration of Jews into Slovakia or Northern Hungary as it was then called, and many new communities were established. Of this period, we also have a wealth of contemporary material including Topoltchany; yet we cannot tell exactly when the Old Synagogue was built (Shomre Torah) which, according to expert opinion, belonged to the first half of the century. We also do not have the names of the rabbis who served at the time. We found an important piece of information in the Vienna Jewish Calendar for the year 5676 (1915-16). Among other details about the Jewish community of Topoltchany, it says that there is an old Jewish cemetery in town, consecrated about 160 years ago. If this is true, it means that this cemetery dates back to about 1755. Other sources too come to confirm this view and also the fact that the Synagogue Shomre Torah belongs to the same period, maybe a few years earlier than the cemetery. If so, we can be more or less certain that about the middle of the 18th century, a full-fledged Jewish community was functioning in Topoltchany. In spite of attempts to expel the Jews from town, there was no interruption in Jewish presence. Now, about these attempts: In May 1727, Count Peter Bereny, under whose protection the Jews of Topoltchany
lived, received a royal order to expel them. We do not know exactly who was behind this; inhabitants of the town who feared them as competitors in trade or the rulers – the Catholic clergy whose hand was felt in many hardships imposed upon the Jews at the time. The documents bring to light the interplay of forces between the court who gave the Jews protection and the higher authority that interfered personally in order to see the expulsion carried out. On the one hand we have a Hungarian nobleman, Count Peter Bereny who lived at the village of Krntcha near Topoltchany. The Jews were living on parts of the town that belonged to him. This count, whose ancestors had, together with the property, also acquired the revenue from the Jews, had no interest at all to remove them as he derived a very handsome fixed income from them. It was apparently no special love for the Jews but material interest that made him balk at the royal order. After receiving additional warning to comply, the count wrote on 29th May, 1727 to the Hungarian royal court office asking for permission to keep the Jews who were living on his estate. Among his reasons, he gives the severe damage to his position and income he was likely to suffer if the Jews were forced to leave. In reply to this appeal, Count Peter Bereny was told on August 19th, 1727 that the King had not changed his mind and that the Jews would have to leave. As a matter of fact, not all the Jews were expelled but only a few of them and then for a short time only, to mark formal compliance with the King's order. To understand the outcome of this struggle between the supreme authority of the King and the local interest of the nobleman, who feared a diminishing of his status and revenue, we should remember that it was not a matter of a few isolated Jews depending upon the good graces of a nobleman, but of a well-established community able to enlist the support of the count who was dependent upon them for his income.
Who then were these Jews of Topoltchany at the beginning of the 18th century? Our knowledge is limited and we shall mention only two outstanding persons: Eliezer Topolchan and Abraham Kepetch. The first was probably born in Topoltchany as it was the custom in those days for Jews to add the name of their birthplace to their own and their father's name. A document, to which we refer, was dated 1711 and mentions him as middle-aged, so that he must have been born about 1670. By the way, the name Topolchan is rare, in fact only mentioned in connection with him and his nearest relations.
The first document is dated 31st May, 1711 and names 5 Jews of Topoltchany: Eliezer Topolchan, Abraham Kepetch, Hirsh and Isaak Jakob and Bürgel. All these Jews took part in fighting the Hungarian rebels on the side of the imperial army in the skirmishes around the fortress of Neuhäusel (Nove Zamky), and the supreme commander of the imperial forces, field marshal Count Palfy, extols their behaviour both on the battlefield and in the substantial aid they extended to his army. Count Palfy states expressly that the above-mentioned brought over a number of officers to the imperial side and also gave material aid, the nature of which is not mentioned.
A second letter connected with the first was also written in 1711. It is addressed to the government by the 5 above-mentioned Jews who, on the strength of their merits at the siege of Neuhäusel, as confirmed by field marshal Count Palfy, asked for certain privileges.
From these letters we learn the names of the Jews of Topaltchany at the time: Hirsh and Isaak Jakob belong to the family of one of the first 5 Jews who settled in Topoltchany in 1649. We know no more details about Bürgel, but on Abraham Kepetch and Eliezer Topolchan, we have 4 more documents which show that they must have been substantial men of good standing the in the Jewish community and outside it.
Their service to the Emperor in 1711 was rewarded and their business connections were widespread and extended to the court. In 1715, 5 years after the war in which they took part, their situation must have been well consolidated. The 1716 documents are of a commercial nature dealing with loans and security transactions between Abraham Kepetch and Eliezer Topolchan on the one hand and Count Butler on the other. Abraham Kepetch's wife applied to the king as her husband and Eliezer Topolchan were away from home on business trips.
The Jakob family lived in Topoltchany for nearly 100 years after arriving first in the town in 1649. Hirsh and Isaak Jakob took part in the war against the Hungarian rebels and were apparently grandchildren of the first Abraham Jakob.
In 1746, the Nitra region office confirmed that Isaak Jakob and his family, altogether 6 persons, were permanent residents of Topoltchany by right. The
same can be said of the Meir family, 4 of whose members came to Topoltchany in 1649, and there are records of their descendants down to 1727 at least. In that year, a Jew by the name of Moshe Meir asked for permission to move to the town of Nove Mesto (Neustädtel) together with his two sons and their families. As this family is no longer mentioned in Topoltchany, it seems that the permission was granted. We hear of another Jew, Leib Boschan, a man of substance and one of the heads of the community, who also moved from Topoltchany to Nove Mesto, which at the time had a large Jewish community that attracted many newcomers.
The name Boschan comes from the village of Boshany near Topoltchany and is proof that Jews were living in the villages as well.
We conclude this list of names with a document dated 5th July, 1756. It is a warrant for the arrest of a Jew, Jakob Nitra aged about 35 and living at Topoltchany with his wife and three children. He is accused with others of having robbed the manor house of Hungarian noblemen, Gabor Pronay. The warrant gives many details about the accused and se we know that he was a native of the district of Nitra.
In the 18th century, existing Jewish communities expanded and new ones were established but, at the same time, there was persecution and legal restrictions imposed mostly during the reigns of the Emperor Charles VI and of his daughter Maria Teresia who both hated Jews. Every now and then, new orders were issued, new taxes imposed and Jews were expelled.
In 1735, a census of Jews was held in the provinces of Hungary, the aim being to increase taxation. We have many details of this census and they show that the province of Nitra had the greatest number of Jews in all Hungary; over 2000, mostly immigrants from Morovia. The figures for Topoltchany are none too reliable. By a conservative estimate, it seems that there were some 75-80 Jews in town in 1735. The official figures are certainly not correct as for obvious reasons; the Jews had an interest in giving low numbers. It should be borne in mind also that at the time, many Jews living in Hungary held no legal rights of residence and were, of course, not counted, so that the real number of Jews in the province of Nitra and Topoltchany was probably much higher.
Other documents, mainly dating from the 1750's, deal with restrictions on
the right of residence and they refer to Topoltchany too. In the reign of Maria Teresia, residence and travel rights of Jews were severely restricted. This hit hard: e.g. the livelihood of many peddlers who had to visit towns and villages. In a letter dated 2nd April, 1753, Jewish tradesmen of Banovce, next door to Topoltchany, applied to the Royal Governor of Hungary asking permission to visit the town in order to collect money which Jews of Topoltchany owed to them. In this letter, the Jews of Banovce describe their situation caused by the restrictions and asked to have them rescinded.
Other documents of the period deal with the same subject of residence and travel rights. In this respect, there were differences of interest between the Royal Governor, who represented the Empress, and the local nobility under whose protection the Jews lived. Local nobility and provincial governors were deriving considerable income from the Jews and suffered from the restrictions imposed upon them that hamstrung trade. The nobles did whatever they could to improve the situation and also repeatedly applied in writing to have restrictions on residence in the province of Nitra and Topoltchany removed.
In a patent dated 3rd August, 1753, new limits for the residence of Jews were fixed by the district governor of Nitra, including the town of Topoltchany, down to the river Nitra. Annexed to this document we find a long list of villages east of the river and close to the running settlements where rights of residence were abolished.
In 1755, a royal order was issued enjoining the local authorities to expel all the Jews from any place within 7 (geographic) miles (30 English miles) from the mining towns. This did not affect the Jews of Topoltchany but many others.
On 20th December, 1758, the elected representatives of Nitra province applied to the royal province governor strongly demanding the repeal of the expulsion order and establishment of new borders of Jewish residence to include the area east of the river.
Far-reaching changes occurred when the Emperor Joseph II (1780-90) ascended the throne.
This enlightened ruler issued the Edit of Tolerance (1782) which abolished many of the former restrictions. Thereafter, a mass immigration of Jews set in to towns where they had not been allowed to live before. Following
this migration wave, new communities were established while the older ones were expanding rapidly. The emperor's aim was to take the Jews out of their isolation and to integrate them in the general trend of education. Among other things, he ordered schools for general education to be founded for Jewish children throughout the monarchy.
In 1785, he had a new census of the Jewish population taken and the figures show that the Jewish community of Topoltchany too had expanded and had by now reached the number of 200.
At this time the old Synagogue Shomre Torah had already been standing for some time as a centre for Jewish community life.
So now we are approaching the 19th century which brought the community to its most flourishing state and made it one of the finest in Slovakia. By that, we mean not only the growth in numbers, but mainly the development of spiritual values.
This development is characterized by the very close connection with the centres of Jewish learning and wisdom in Moravia which had existed from its very beginnings and throughout the 18th century, as well as by the personal ties with the big and important centre of learning at Bratislava (Pressburg at the time), whose heads were the G.R. (Gaon-Rav) Moshe Sopher, known as the Hatam-Sopher (the name of his outstanding work) and his sons. They were the decisive influence in the development and direction of the Jewish community at Topoltchany. These ties were closest at the time of the rebbi Moshe Sopher and impressed their mark on all facets of Jewish life in Topoltchany. For generations, all rabbis, dayanim and teachers were exclusively pupils of the Hatam-Sopher and his son Katav Sopher, among them R. Naftali and R. Jakob-Shalom Sopher, who made Topoltchany their home. Spiritual ties were strengthened by family connections when R. Yehuda Tzvi Friedman, a very learned man and wealthy trader in hides and skins, married the Hatam Sopher's daughter. Dozens of young men of Topoltchany who had gone to Pressburg for their studies, returned to their town to spread its fame.
1810 is an important date in the history of the community. While the number of inhabitants was approaching 500, this year saw the foundation of the Yeshivah that was to contribute greatly to its' fame. The outstanding figures
among the founders of the Yeshivah were the rabbis. Rav Asher Anshel Roth and Rav Abraham Ulman. The first was born in Topoltchany in 1778, educated in Moravian Yeshivah and served as second rabbi until 1810 and as dayan and teacher at the yeshivah from then on until his death in 1839. He was a great scholar and his sons too were famous as rabbis of various communities.
Rav Abraham Ulman became chief rabbi of Topoltchany in 1790. He was born in the township of Leckenbach in Burgenland where his father was chief rabbi. Upon his arrival at Topoltchany, he became one of the founders of the Yeshivah that, in the 130 years of its existence, produced generations of rabbis and scholars who spread its fame far and wide.
The Yeshivah was located near the old synagogue in a house belonging to the community on Lipova street. We have a long list of outstanding rabbis and scholars who taught there.
Apart from the founders, R. Asher Anshel Roth and R. Abraham Ulman, there were: The Gaon-Rav, Zeev-Wolf Tartzes; the Gaon-Rav Benjamin-Wolf Lev; Rav David Tzvi Katzburg; Rav Jehoshua Filip; Rav Aron Eckfeld; the Gaon-Rav, Jermija lev; Rav Jakob Shalom Sopher; Rabbis David Ulman; Naftali Sopher; El'azar Lev; Pinhas Link; Heshayah Friedman; Moshe-Tzvi *Tartzes*, the Gaon-Rav Feivel Kaleb Schlesinger; Abraham Prager; R. Isaak Schweiger; R. Menahem-Mendel Deutsch; R. Hayim Fürst. All these, and others, were teachers at the Yeshivah during the last century and were its [?]
Typical for the 19th century was internal migration of Hungarian Jews from the older community in Slovakia to the interior of the country. As a consequence of this tendency that made it felt throughout the century, some formerly flourishing Jewish communities dwindled down and some disappeared entirely. Topoltchany too had its share of young men leaving the town but not to an extent to stop its growth. If at the beginning of the century there were 500 Jews in Topoltchany, a generation later, in 1830, there were already 600.
Following the foundation of the Yeshivah, dozens of young men from near and far came to study and gave the human landscape a certain flavour it was to retain for many years.
The Jews were not about one third of the total population of Topoltchany; they no longer lived here on sufferance. It was they who made the town famous for its fairs and as a trading centre that supplied the whole region with its merchandise. At the same time, the community also developed its institutions and outstanding rabbis were its leaders.
Rav Abraham Ulman officiated from 1810-1825. He was a personal friend of the Hatam Sopher and a great scholar in his own right who also wrote a number of books. Upon the death of his father, he returned to his native town of Lekenbach to be its chief rabbi until his death in 1849. His sons too became rabbis in various communities. One of them, R. David Ulman, wrote a book about his father called The House of Abraham.
The Gaon-Rav Benjamin-Wolf Lev, author of Shaaré Torah (the gates of learning) was elected to the post of chief rabbi of Topoltchany in 1826. He was born in 1772. His father was the Gaon-Rav El'azer, author of Shemen Rokah.
He studied first with his father and later with the Gaon-Rav Leib Prostnitz in Moravia. In 1813 he became chief rabbi of the community of Kolin in Bohemia where he began to write the first part of his famous book, which he completed when serving in Topoltchany. He contributed greatly to the shape of the community which, in his time, became an important centre of Jewish learning. In 1837, following differences with the heads of the community, he went to the town of Vrbové, where he was chief rabbi until his death in 1851. His sons, sons-in-law and grandsons were all important rabbis in their day.
The Gaon-Rav Zeev-Wolf Tartzes was born in 1785 in Mastersdorf, studied with the Hatam-Sopher and became famous for his learning and piety. First he was dayan in his native town and for 40 years, from 1826 on, he served as rabbi and as Av-Beth-Din (Head of the rabbinical court) at Topoltchany. His ways were pure and holy and he was venerated in his day by great men. He wrote a book: Tifereth Shabbat, Pné Shabbat and died in 1866. His son, R. Moshe Tzvi Tartzes inherited his post as Av-Beth-Din. He too was a famous rabbi and a great scholar.
The Gaon-Rav Jeremya Lev, son of the Gaon-Rav Benjamin Wolf Lev, was born in 1811 in Kolin, Bohemia. He devoted himself to study from early youth and became known as a scholar. His alma mater was the Yeshivah of
Nikolsburg, Moravia, whose head was R. Mordecai Banet. He then settled at Topoltchany where his father was chief rabbi.
When his father moved to Vrbove, he took his place. In 1854, he went to Ujhel, one of the major Jewish communities in Hungary, where he served until his death. In 1867, he was among the founders and leaders of the Shomre Dat association for the preservation of religion and religious customs and again reform, which he fought sharply. He headed the delegation of orthodox rabbis at the Congress of Hungarian Jewry in 1868-69. He was much honoured by non-Jews and as one of the leaders of a delegation of Orthodox Rabbis; he was twice received in audience by the Emperor Francis-Joseph. He died in 1874, leaving a number of important writings.
Rav El'Azar Ben Gaon-Rav Jeremya Lev was born in Topoltchany in 1831 where his father and grandfather were chief rabbis. He studied and later taught at the local Yeshivah and, when married, settled in his native town where he became a prosperous merchant. Many communities offered him the post of rabbi but he refused. When his father died, great rabbis entreated him to fill his place as chief rabbi of Ujhel and in the end he accepted. He was one of the great scholars of his time and was honoured and respected by the Emperor and his ministers. He died at Ujhel in 1918. Among the many books he wrote, we mention Pekudot El'Azar.
Jakob Shalom Sopher was born in Bratislava in 1815, a relation and pupil of the Hatam Sopher who cherished him very much. At the end of his studies, he married in Topoltchany where he served first as Dayan and later as rabbi an outstanding scholar who left a number of books including: Sha'are Naftali. He died in Topoltchany.
One of his sons, Rav Moshe Sopher, was Rabbi and Av-Beth-Din at Tisa Fured and another son, Rav Sussman
Sopher, became famous as rabbi and preacher of the Orthodox community in Budapest.
The Gaon-Rav Naftali Sopher, brother of Rav Jakob Shalom, was also born in Bratislava. He was a pupil of the Hatam Sopher and, after the latter's death, of his son, the Katav Sopher. He was married in Topoltchany to the daughter of Rav Lippman Friedman; taught at the Yeshivah and served as Dayan and rabbi. In 1860, he moved to Iglo where he became chief rabbi. Among his scholarly works are: Gvul Bnei Naftali and Yalkut Beth Efraim. He died in 1899.
The Gaon-Rav Feivel Kaleb Schlesinger served in Topoltchany as chief rabbi from 1860-1908. He was born in 1828 in Trencin where his father was one of the leaders of the community. He studied at Bratislava (Pressburg) with the Katav Sopher. He was greatly honoured and loved by all members of his community and showed much wisdom in the management of its affairs. This he proved at the time of the great crisis in the Jewish community in Hungary. It is largely the merit of Rav F.K. Schlesinger that the community of Topoltchany did not split and remained faithful to its spiritual tradition. In 1908, when he was 80, he retired and was succeeded by his son Nahum. He died in 1911. He wrote the books: Torat Bar Nash and Hai Agadot.
Rav Pinchas Link was born in Top and studied at the Pressburg Yeshivah under the Hatam Sopher who loved him and called him a bookcase. At the end of his studies, he returned to his native town where he served from 1850 as rabbi, dayan and teacher at the Yeshivah till his death in 1882.
Rav Yeshayah Friedman was born in Topoltchany a grandson to the Hatam Sopher. He studied at Pressburg and gained fame as a scholar and erudite. A number of big and important communities offered him the office of rabbi, but he refused. In Topoltchany he became rabbi, dayan and teacher at the Yeshivah.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, life had been tranquil. This changed in 1848 when a revolutionary wave swept all over Europe and deeply stirred the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. In various parts, anti-Jewish riots broke out. During the Easter week, following the disturbances in Bratislava, there was violence in shops in towns and villages in Western Slovakia. In the first week of May, looting robberies and cases of assault occurred in the vicinity of Topoltchany and many Jews had to suffer, mainly in villages of Krusovce and Podhradie in Banovce and Nove Mesto. In Topoltchany, riots broke out on 3rd May, when mobs of peasants from surrounding villages, together with local inhabitants, broke into Jewish shops and homes, causing severe damage. Not like elsewhere, Jews were not seriously injured in Topoltchany except for stone throwing and beatings. Damage to property was considerable and it took a long time to repair. It was mainly stores and shops that were looted but also Jewish booths on the market as it had happened to be a market day.
During the revolution and the Hungarian war of liberation, the revolutionary government of Lajos Kossuth, granted the Jews equality of right in the Hungarian monarchy. This was rescinded after the revolution failed.
The bloody battles fought at the time did not touch the Jewish community of Topoltchany as it abstained from taking sides thus saving itself the troubles which affected many other Jewish communities.
During the following years tranquillity was not restored to the Jews of Hungary. For years, a fateful struggle was going on within the communities between the Orthodox and the Reformers Neulogues as they were called in Hungary. The struggle became so exacerbated that the government was forced to step in, favouring of course, the reformists. In 1868 it issued an order for delegates to be elected by the Jewish communities to a special assembly which would have powers to settle all matters concerning the administration of Jewish communities, as the majority would decide. This assembly, known in history as the Congress, was to play a decisive part in the development of Jewish life in the countries under St. Stephen's crown for generations to
come. The electioneering was keen and it still heightened the tension and the differences that had been very wide even before.
The Congress convened in December 1868 and differences, instead of being healed, grew worse.
When the Neologue majority tried to force upon the Orthodox a number of resolutions that went against their religious convictions, the Orthodox walked out. The results were destructive for Hungarian Jewry which, following the Congress, split in three; and the split never healed down to the days of the Holocaust. As a results of the split, a National Office of Independent Orthodox Communities was set up in 1871 (known as Landskanzlei), which was officially recognized by the authorities.
Parallel with it, the Organization of Neologue Communities was created. There were also some communities that continued as before (status quo) and in time, there was complete severance between the different persuasions.
Echoes of this War among the Jews even reached the Emperor who had to intervene personally in a number of cases and to hand down decisions on spiritual matters. Unable to reach agreement, the litigants would apply to the
secular gentile courts to give judgment on matters that normally would have been one of their business. There was a delegation from Topoltchany at the Congress. It was headed by the chief rabbi, Rav Feivel Kalib Schlessinger, and appeared as a united body. The rabbi made a brilliant speech calling for unity within communities on the basis of tradition; his moderation made a deep impression on the hearers and also outside the Congress hall where the Jewish press discussed it widely.
Unfortunately for Hungarian Jewry, his counsel did not prevail and, after the Congress, Jews were irremediably split and at loggerheads which each other.
Fortunately, our community was one of the few who did not suffer; it remained united.
Tolerance and respect for different opinions and the leadership of the chief rabbi who in those days proved his greatness and never succumbed to selfishness, saved the Jews of Topoltchany from the dire fate that overcame so many others.
After the death of the great Rabbi F.K. Schlessinger, his place was taken by broadminded men who followed in his steps and maintained unity so that life in the community could unfold free from internal strife and reach spiritual and economic prosperity.
The community as such joined the Landskanzlei of orthodox congregations at its foundation and was ruled by its statute, which became legally binding and remained in force, with minor changes, to the end.
At this time, 1880's and '90's, Jews also took their place in municipal activities and later on, two of them were elected to the post of vice-mayor. They were: Josef Felsenburg and Karl Pollak. Dr. William Berger became district medical officer and his work was highly appreciated.
Statistics showed 1500 Jews in Topoltchany in 1885. At the head of the community were respected persons, resourceful leaders who managed public affairs very well. With the growing number of Jews, the old Shomré Torah synagogue became inadequate and insufficient to hold all the worshippers so that smaller places for prayer meetings had to be opened all over town.
The situation was felt to be undesirable and time and again there was talk of a new main synagogue. The idea had however to be shelved as impractical.
With growing prosperity, the time came at last when the dream could be realized and planning and construction could proceed. The public as a whole, and first and foremost the leaders R. Feivel Kaleb Schlessinger, R. Issak Schweiger, R. Abraham Prager and R. Mendel Deutsch bent to the task. Building started in 1895 and in 1898 the great synagogue of Topoltchany was inaugurated in the presence of hundreds of guests, representatives of communities from the whole country, famous rabbis and, of course, those directly involved the Jews of Topoltchany.
Much thought was given to the planning and the result was a splendid building, the most beautiful in town and the pride of the Jewish community.
This was a worthy conclusion of the 19th century which had brought the Jews of Topoltchany prosperity and high hopes for the future.
The beginning of the 20th century may be described as its most flourishing period regarding both economic and spiritual life when people were brim-full with energy and confidence.
In 1908, Rav Feivel Kaleb Schlesinger retired as chief rabbi at the age of 80. The community had to let its beloved leader go with regret and, according to his wish, his son Rav Nahum Schlesinger was elected in his place. Rav Nahum Schlesinger was born in Trencin, studied with great teachers and was well known to the members of the community. He had a very extensive grasp of both religious and general knowledge; his temper was equable and friendly towards everyone. He followed his father's ways in every respect.
As deputy chief rabbi and Av-Beth-Din, there served from 1880 onwards, Rav Isaak Schweiger whose activity in Topoltchany extended over 50 years; and contributed greatly to the spirit of the community. He was born in Uhersky Brod (Ungarisch Brod) in Moravia and was educated at the Yeshivoth of Vrobe and Ungvar and finally under the guidance of Rav Katav Sopher in Pressburg. He then married and settled in Topoltchany, studied and taught at the local yeshivah and was appointed rabbi and Av-Beth-Din. Hundreds of his pupils do remember him as an outstanding scholar and exegete. One of his pupils, a famous rabbi in his own right, devoted a chapter in his book to Rabbi Yitzhak Schweiger of which we quote here a few sentences: His personality was pure and holy; his soul was sensitive and limpid. His appearance was like one of the figures of olden
times: of high stature, broad shouldered and a beautiful and radiant face he was like his teacher, the Katav Sopher, Rav Yitshak Schweiger died in 1922; before his end, he wrote a book named Birkat Yitshak (Isaac's Blessing) which was distributed to his many pupils and family relations.
What then was the shape of the Jewish community at Topoltchany on the eve of World War I? Its total population amounted to about 2000 of which some 250 were taxpaying householders and voters. Chief Rabbi was Rav Nahum Schlesinger and additional rabbis and dayanim, Rav Yitzhak Schweiger and Rav Mendel Deutsch. At the head of the community there was an elected body called Reprasentanz chaired by Jakob Eckstein and his deputies, Ignatz Weimann and Moshe Bernfeld. Other elected members were: Jakob Hilwert, Moritz Kopfstein, Salamon Gelley, Ludwig Kohn, Ludwig Muller, Moses-Ahron Low-beer, Philip Link and Bernat Schlesinger. Chief kantor was Benjamin Ze'ev Abrahamson and kantors and shohatim were Moshe Grosinger and Moshe Weiss.
In 1911, the death of the great rabbi, the Gaon-Rav Feivel-Kaleb Schlesinger occurred and a period in the history of the community came to an end.
The Community, its Institutions and Activities
After the split which had occurred in Hungarian Jewry, each of the parts organized in a separate countryside-body that managed the affairs of its adherents in its own way. As soon as it was formed, the community of Topoltchany as whole joined the Organization of Orthodox Congregations (Landskanzlei) whose head office was in Budapest. The Hungarian government recognized this organization soon after its creation and gave legal sanction to its Statutes that remained binding on all members up to the end of World War I.
Following the war and the foundation of the Czechoslovakian Republic (CSR), great changes became necessary. The Slovakian communities that until now had belonged to a countrywide body, suddenly found themselves cut off from their centre when the Austro-Hungarian monarchy ceased to exist.
In the C.S.R. and for the first time, the Jewish minority was recognized as a nation. The republic enacted democratic legislation and created institutions that facilitated their spiritual, religious and economic development. In 1920, the Organization of Orthodox Congregations in Slovakia got official recognition and the right to administrate its communities according to their religious convictions without outside interference. Community institutions had full freedom of action although the old statutes were still in force. Some communities, ours among them, adapted the statute to local and more modern conditions, but life in our community continued to follow traditional habits and customs, common to the Jews of Western Slovakia and largely under the influence of the Pressburger Yeshivah.
Some important changes in the statutes of the community were introduced when Salamon Gelley was its chairman. There was at the head of the community an elected body of 31 called the Repräsentanz (in German), which, out of its midst, elected the chairman and other functionaries. The Repräsentanz managed affairs according to statutes and by-laws that gave it power to levy taxes and collect
them to maintain schools, recognized by the ministry of education; to administrate the property of the community, etc. Regarding details of worship, the Repräsentanz maintained close contact with the chief rabbi and the dayan the former being the final authority.
Secret elections for the Repräsentanz were held each 4 years. Eligible voters were all householders who had paid the tax, or their widows. Taxation was progressive, according to the means of each householder so that everybody could bear his share and vote. Only a small minority was exempt from the tax and therefore also excluded from voting. A couple of weeks before election day, voters lists were published so that anybody not included might have time to appeal. I have a list of voters for the year 1934 in which 311 names appear. Generally, in Topoltchany, only one generally agreed list of candidates was submitted, although the handing-in of more lists would have been perfectly possible. The list (or lists) was prepared by the Repräsentanz and brought to the notice of the public a few days before the election. Voters had the right to delete the name of a candidate whom they didn't like and insert another name instead. This happened frequently. There were 36 candidates 31 seats in Repräsentanz and 5 deputies.
Electioneering time brought great activity, first around the composition of the list of candidates and then propaganda to ensure the election of those proposed by the Repräsentanz. There were also meetings to persuade people in order to secure a number of seats for people of traditional Orthodox views. These always got 75-80% of the seats. The elections were organized by the elections' committee and the secretary of the community kept the protocol. There was very little excitement and the whole matter was carried through in perfect order. The language used in the meetings of Repräsentanz was German. For many years, the protocols were kept by the secretary Eliezer Lieberman.
As to the election of the chairman, there were two methods: in the former days, when the heads of community had been the sole representative of their people with the government, and their authority had, accordingly, been extensive, direct elections were the rule and the candidate who received a plurality of votes was declared elected.
Later on, this was changed and the chairman was elected by the 31
Repräsentanz out of the midst. Generally, one or more of the members proposed a candidate and in the absence of objections, voting was by show of hands. If more than one candidate was in the field, voting was secret and the plurality decided. In the same way, the other functionaries were also elected.
Committees, Functions and Fields of Activity
The Finance Committee had 5-6 members, with the treasurer as chairman. It managed revenue and expenditure and fixed the amount of tax each member of the community would have to pay. This was supposed to be in proportion to his economic situation but protests and appeals were frequent. The committee's powers were wide. It could enforce payment with the aid of the courts and in some rare and extreme cases recourse was made to execution. The financial situation required revisions and reassessments and such changes had to be approved by the Repräsentanz in plenary session. Discussions on matters of taxation were apt to be stormy.
There was a committee of economy of 3-4 members whose task was the maintenance of community property. The community of Topoltchany held a great deal of property, real estate such as synagogues, schools, a ritual bath and other bath houses, a Matzoth factory, slaughter house and butcher stores and also dwelling houses and other landed property. All this required constant management and care. The Gabbaim were in charge of religious institutions especially the Synagogues.
The School Committee was the only one whose members were not necessarily elected out of the Repräsentanz and it was autonomous in its activity. It was the custom to appoint the chief rabbi as chairman, and there were 12 members besides. It had to supervise the teaching and see to it that vacancies on the staff were filled. Under its jurisdiction, there was the elementary school and the (secondary) Talmud Torah, called Machzike-Torah. The elementary school was recognized by the Ministry of Education and received a grant in aid.
The Hevrah Kadisha was an independent institution operated under an ancient statute going back to the 16th century Rabbi of Prague Loew ben Bezalel, the Maharal. This statute, with adaptations necessitated by time and local conditions, was in force in many Jewish communities in the Habsburgian Monarchy. Thus, the task of the Hevrah Kadisha in Topoltchany was to carry out all the
functions which go by the name of Gemilat Hassadim (charitable deeds): maintenance of graveyards, psalm-reading, arranging funerals, consoling the bereaved and also assistance: visiting the sick, extending medical aid and other charity. All these functions were carried out by members gratuitously. There was no legal obligation for anybody to join the Hevrah Kadisha, but as a matter of fact, the overwhelming majority did so. Any new candidate had to pay an entrance fee of 100-500 kc; a sum far from negligible in those days. For 3 years, he was a candidate called Mladshi and only thereafter, he became full member. Membership fees were due once a year and varied from 50-100 kc, according to the ability to pay. Management was organized much upon the same lines as that of the community. Elections were held every 4 years for the 4 gabbaim and the treasurer. Once a year, at Passover, there was a general assembly of members to discuss current affairs and above all, matters of finance.
In general, the financial situation of the Hevrah Kadish of Topoltchany was sound. Most of its revenue came from burial arrangements and from the sale of burial places that were expensive; up to 5000-6000 kc. Another source of income was fees for saying Kaddish in the synagogues at 'Yahrzeit'. All revenue of the Hevra Kadish was devoted to charity and it's care of the needy which were highly appreciated.
Under the administration of the Hevrah Kadisha, there were two graveyards in Topoltchany: the old cemetery was situated at the corner of the Spitalska St. Opened in 1755 c.a.; it was one of the oldest in Slovakia. It was closed at the end of the 19th century. At the beginning of World War II when the fascists came to power, it was desecrated. The Hevra Kadisha succeeded in transferring a few of them to the new cemetery. The rest was brought there as well after the war when the municipality decided to use the ground for the construction of apartments. Today, no traces are left of the old cemetery.
The new one on Krushovska Rd was inaugurated at the end of the last century. It still exists owing to the devotion of a number of people to whom this tie with the past is dear. There no longer is a Jewish community in Topoltchany but the cemetery is maintained in a proper and dignified manner through contributions of former inhabitants now scattered all over the world.
The Great Synagogue
The Great Synagogue was built at the end of the 19th century and dedicated in 1898. Those were years of prosperity for Hungarian Jewry and many communities could afford to erect splendid new synagogues. As everywhere, the synagogue was the centre of Jewish life in general and especially of religious life. In Topoltchany, the Great Synagogue stood in the centre of town on Ruzhova Street, its eastern wall turning to the market place. It could be seen from afar and excelled in its beauty. It was indeed among the finest in Czechoslovakia. Like many other synagogues of the period, it was built in the neo-classic style combining classic and oriental elements with modern ones. The construction was in the hands of the architect and contractor Bilig of Topoltchany. The building could seat 500 people and the pillars supported the women's gallery that surrounded the hall on three sides. The upper floor also housed the community offices and the meeting room of the Repräsentanz.
The great synagogue remained open to worshippers to the day when the last Jews were transported from Top on 8th September, 1944. Thereafter, it served as a storeroom for property taken from Jewish homes after the expulsion under the administration of the local branch office of the treasury. Upon returning to Topoltchany at the end of the war, survivors found only ruins where once the synagogue had been. They were told that the Germans had burnt it before leaving in March 1945. Many years later, an entirely different story emerged. According to information received from a number of local inhabitants, it was not the Germans who set fire to the Synagogue but Slovakians. The same authority asserts that several people amongst whom the non-Jewish porter Mokran and a number of treasury officials who held the keys, had been systematically carrying away large quantities of property. When they learned of an impending control visit to check the inventory, they were afraid lest the theft be discovered and set the building and its contents on fire. Being afraid of punishment after the liberation, the townspeople accused the Germans. Unfortunately to this day, it has not been possible to verify this account. We only know that the synagogue was burnt and with it, Torah scrolls and other sacred vessels, not only of our community of Topoltchany, but also boxes and boxes of similar contents that had been brought to Topoltchany from Eastern Slovakian communities. In addition, the
archives of the Jewish community were destroyed and with them invaluable historic documents.
In the 1950's, the ground was sold to the municipality that erected store rooms for cloth on the spot.
The Old Synagogue Shomre Torah was built after the pattern of old Synagogues in Moravia in the Baroque style. The main floor was a few steps lower than street level to confirm the verse of Psalms 130:1 Out of the depths have I called Thee, O Lord.
Internal decorations too were probably similar to other 18th century synagogues, but we are not sure. This old synagogue too was built in the centre of town on a large piece of ground that belonged to the Jewish community looking towards Lipova Street. In its day, it was the centre of all Jewish life around it were built the Yeshivah, the butcher shops, a poultry, slaughter house and apartments for the community officials. To the east overlooking the market square, there was the chief rabbi's house and in its yard, the homes of the dayanim, the shohatim, etc. When the new great synagogue was built, the centre of gravity moved there but the old synagogue continued to be used until the expulsion in 1942 when it was closed. Later on it became a store room until in 1960, it was pulled down to make room for apartments.
The Rosenthal Shul (synagogue) was built by the family Rosenthal who were estate owners in the village of Nedanovce in memory of their son who fell in World War I.
It stood on grounds belonging to the community and behind it, the Rosenthal built a house for the Shohet Isser Schwartz who formerly had been working in the villages around Topoltchany including the Rosenthal farm. In the same house, a number of rooms were set aside for the Yeshivah students from out of town.
The synagogue could seat several hundred worshippers and it also had a women's gallery. Internal arrangements were in good taste. Prayers were held to the date of the expulsion in 1942. Thereafter, it housed religious literature collected from the private libraries of the Jews who had been sent to their fate. The Slovakian treasury employed a few Jews who had temporarily been exempted from expulsion, to sort and pack these books in order to sell them abroad.
Somehow the Rosenthal Shul was wholly unaffected by the war and, when in 1945 Jews returned to Topoltchany, they found 4 undamaged Torah scrolls in the Ark and all sorts of sacred books besides. After the war, the community had this synagogue repaired and services were held until 1965. When the last Jews left Topoltchany, the Torah scrolls were removed and the building closed.
In addition to these synagogues, prayer meetings were held in many places in town. I would mention the meeting room of the Agudath Israel that was presented throughout the year. Prayer meetings were held at the home of the aged, at the house of the chief rabbi, in the yeshivah. Smaller places of worship were built by the Bernfeld family at the market square and by the Ecksteins on the corner of Krusovska Rd. These were also used as Beth-Medrash study rooms.
The Yeshivah of Topoltchany was well known in Slovakia. It dates back to 1810 when it was founded owing to the initiative of the rabbis R. Abraham Ullman and R. Asher Roth. It was housed in a building erected for the purpose, close to the apartments of the rabbis. The first years were difficult but by and by, the yeshivah developed and became one of the largest and most famous in old Hungary.
The turning point coincides with the coming to Topoltchany of the G-R Benjamin Wolf Lev to serve as chief rabbi and head of the yeshivah.
Attracted by the name of this famous teacher, dozens of pupils from all parts of the country came to study at Topoltchany. The community responded to the call of its rabbi and took upon itself to support dozens of these pupils so that they could devote themselves to study free from material cares. This continued also under the successors of R. Benjamin Wolf. The Yeshivah reached the apogee of its development at the end of the 19th century in the days of R. Feivel Kaleb Schlessinger and R. Isaak Schweiger. At that time, R. Abraham Prager, an outstanding scholar, was its head and the number of pupils reached 150 apart from several dozen from Topoltchany itself. Many of the hundreds of alumni who are scattered all over the world became well-known rabbis and scholars in their own right. The central community was behind this institution and helped to support the needy among the students.
After World War I and the political changes in its wake, the
Yeshivah declined. In the 1920's and 30's, it had no more than 80 pupils. In those days it moved to the new house of the chief rabbi and the former premises were used to house the students.
The teachers were then the Gaon-Rav Abraham Eliezer Weiss and the dayan Simon Tzvi Haberfeld. Management was independent from the community according to tradition and to its venerable statute. Financial aid was given by the community and, besides, the Yeshivah received gifts from Aliyoth to the Torah and from special drives for the so-called Yeshivah fund. After the war, the building remained empty and was recently pulled down to make room for dwelling houses.
The Beth-Midrash Machsike Torah
This school had a long and glorious history of over one century. It was in fact from the very outset a little yeshivah for those who graduated from the Jewish primary school. Machsike Torah was founded at the beginning of the 19th century to help prepare Jewish youths for higher studies. It stood on the grounds of the community on Lipova Street, back from the Old Synagogue. Later on, when the number of pupils grew, the community erected 2 more classrooms on Sokolska Street. In 1928, another enlargement took place. A new house was built as a gift from Moses Hochberger in memory of his parents and therewith, the school took its final shape.
This school was most important and became famous for its high standards of teaching.
Its flourishing is inseparably connected with the name of Rabbi Hayim Fürst, an outstanding scholar and educator, whose numerous students remember him with unbounded veneration and love. He served with the school for 50 years.
R. Hayim Fürst was born in the village of Oslany and after studying at Pressburger yeshivah, went to Frankfurt-Main where, in addition to Jewish subjects, he also acquired a great deal of general learning skills. He had a profound knowledge of the Hebrew language and inculcated its love to his pupils. He also insisted upon the purity of the German language that was in use in the Beth Hamidrash. At the 50th anniversary of his activity as a teacher, his many pupils from all over the world came together in a worthy celebration to pay tribute to their great teacher.
In the Beth Hamidrash, there were 4 classrooms and the course of studies was planned 3-4 years. The curriculum included the Bible, the Mishnah and Talmud. There were 6-7 lessons a day. In the evening, all pupils had lessons in general subjects on the level of the secular secondary schools and these too were recognized by the authorities. During the last years of the Machsike Torah school, classes were divided as follows:
Grade A: Rabbi Abraham Felbert; Grade B: Rabbi Haim Fürst; Grade C: Rabbi Ben-Zion Braun and Grade D: Rabbi Pinhas Deutsch. When R. Hayim Fürst finally retired, only 3 classes with 200 pupils were left. The Beth Midrash came under the supervision of the school committee that also controlled its budget.
The school was closed in 1942 at the time of the expulsions. After the war, the building was returned to the Jewish community that used it as a Kosher Kitchen and dining room for the survivors who had come back from the concentration camps.
The Jewish Home for the Aged
The structure was built by Mr. Ignatz Weimann, one the notables of Topoltchany, on the community grounds at the corner of Mararyk Street soon after World War I. Before construction could begin, the difference of opinion had to be smoothed out between Mr. Weimann and the Reprasentanz. The donor demanded that the management of the institution be independent of the community and that a special body of trustees be appointed for the purpose. He also wanted the ownership of the ground on which the house was to be built, registered in the name of the new institution. A lively public campaign ensued on this issue.
In the end, the current head of the community, Josef Bernfeld, reached a full understanding with Weimann and building could begin.
There were 15 rooms for the inmates of the home apart from accommodation for the staff; there was one kitchen, bathroom and conveniences and also a synagogue used not only by the inmates but also by Jews who lived nearby. Mr. Weimann acquired 2 Torah scrolls and on Sabbath and holidays, there used to be 50 worshippers with Mr. Schmajovic acting as Kantor and Mr. Adlof Lowy as Gabai. The house stood in the midst of a large garden where many Jews promenaded on Saturdays.
A celebration was held at the inauguration of the home and on this occasion,
A marble tablet was unveiled in honour of the generous gift by Mr. Ignatz Weimann and his wife Regina. The committee of trustees was headed by the chief rabbi, the G-R Abraham Eliezer Weiss and Mr. Philip Hilwert was chosen as manager and treasurer. These 2 excellent men took charge of the institution as long as it existed and the Jewish community as well as the general public of Topoltchany took pride in its administration.
Mr. Weimann deposited the amount of Kc800,000 a considerable sum at the time in a bank account, the interest of which served for current expenditure and maintenance.
In addition, people used to pay according to ability upon entering the home. Altogether the means at the disposal of the institution were adequate.
When war broke out and the fascist regime took over the bank, deposit was confiscated and the situation became strained accordingly. Gifts were collected to make continued operation possible and to take in more people whose situation had deteriorated because of the persecutions. In 1942, the inmates of the home were among the first victims to be deported and the premises stood empty. Later, they were used as classrooms for Jewish children as the Jewish elementary school had been taken over by the government and made into a vocational school which, of course, admitted no Jews.
Of the aged people, none came back after the war and the community used the rooms to accommodate, temporarily, the survivors who had come back from concentration camps. In 1947, the municipality tried to sequester the building and only energetic protests by Mr. Simko staved this off.
A year later, the property was sold to the municipality that used it for offices; the purchase money was transmitted to the J.N.F. and to the Haganah.
The Soup Kitchen
This institution too was situated on the grounds of the community at the corner of Masaryk and Polna Streets. It was opened in 1925. It was a very large piece of land where there was room for a number of institutions: the old cemetery, the matzoth factory, the poultry slaughter house and levirate's for the shochet as well as the home for the aged.
Mr. Simon Reif, a wealthy wood merchant, donated two-thirds of the amount necessary to erect and support the kitchen; the rest was collected from
the members of the community. There was now a pre-equipped kitchen, a large dining room, store rooms, etc. Management was on the same lines as that of the home for the aged with Simon Reif at the head of the committee of trustees. This institution fed those among the poor who were designated by the community, free of charge. It also catered to yeshiva students and pupils of the Beth Midrash: Machsike Torah from outside
Topoltchany, who had not been assigned to householders for meals on fixed days. Apart from that, there were Jews who for one reason or another, had to take their meals at the kitchen and paid only a minimal price.
Current expenditure was largely covered by fixed monthly payments made by Mr. Reif. In addition, there were gifts on various occasions such as Aliyoth to the Torah in the Synagogue. The local women's league played an important part as its members did part of the cooking and serving. This was another example of the public spirit that prevailed in our community. About 120 people were being fed every day. The large and tastefully furnished dining room was quite often used for meetings or performances which various Jewish organizations used to give. During war-time, it was also used for prayer.
This Kitchen functioned up to 1944 under the management of Mr. Ludwig Löwry. It became all-important following the outbreak of the war and the persecutions when it was practically the only place where Jewish refugees, who managed to reach Topoltchany in those days, could get food. Later, the Kitchen organized some food supplies for those detained in labour and concentration camps. All these beneficial activities came to an end when the last Jews were deported in September 1944.
The Kosher Meat Stores
These were housed in the old community premises on Lipova Street next to the old synagogue. It was a large store parcelled out into a number of butcher shops that sold kosher meat. The Jewish community owned the shops and rented them to the butchers, reserving the right of inspection which was exercised by a permanent Kashrut control officer in whose hands were the keys to the premises. For many years, this job was held by Mr. Israel Feldman and nobody was allowed to enter when he was not present. There were 5-6 shops whose
Owners undertook to strictly observe the laws of Kashruth in keeping with the orthodox character of the community. The butchers lived up to their obligations including one non-Jew called Laois Pistel.
Revenue from these shops was high since apart from the fixed rent, the butchers also collected a tax of 2-3 Kc/kg. Nobody was allowed to sell Kosher meat in Topoltchany except on the premises of the community. When the fascists came to power, Kosher slaughter was forbidden by law and the municipality closed the shops. After the deportations, the empty shops were made into carpentry and in 1960, all the buildings on site, including the old Synagogue and the Yeshivah were pulled down and apartments went up instead. A landmark of Jewish history in Topoltchany was also destroyed. Experts thought that the buildings must have existed for 200 years.
The Matzoth Factory was founded after World War I. It was situated on Mudronova Street. Ownership and management was in the hands of the community. The factory was in operation for only a few months before Passover. Its output was large enough to supply the whole district.
During the season, some 30 people were employed, mostly Jews. In addition, there were inspectors to assure Kashruth. The price was fixed in advance at market price level, equal for all. Needy people got their supply gratis. Next to the factory there was the poultry slaughter house which employed 3 shochatim.
The Jewish Elementary School
The school underwent a number of changes. In the beginning, only the traditional Cheder existed in Topoltchany. Next, reading and writing in the German language were added to the curriculum. After 1850, the community decided to have a Jewish elementary school where, apart from bible and prayers, general subjects were also taught. The school was first housed on Krusovska Rd, opposite the Link house in a building later acquired by Mr. Adolf Weiss (the stage-coach owner). There were 3 classrooms for boys only. Girls were only admitted much later. The school was under the supervision of the community and its school committee, headed by the chief Rabbi, the G.R. Feivel Kaleb Schlesinger. General subjects were taught in German.
After the merge between Austria and Hungary in 1867, the Hungarian language was recognized as the official language on Hungarian territory. Then it too was included in the
curriculum in addition to German. In the 1880's, another class was added and a few years later, a 5th. Lessons were held in the traditional way and the school was officially recognized, although the management was left in the hands of the community. At the end of the 19th century, the teaching staff included: Philip Kohn, Schenk, Reiss, Rischer and Armin Weiss. Religious subjects were taught by Rav. P. Rudolf and Rav. Jakob Ehrenfreund.
In the 1890's the school was moved to Tovarnica Str. where later the hotel and café Machac was built. The transfer to the new premises became necessary as the old place had become too small for all the Jewish children who were being sent there from the vicinity and even from outlying villages. After 1900, the teaching staff consisted of: Schenk, Breuer, Witman, Hauer, Jakob Echrenfreund and Mrs. Hauer.
Sometime later, the house was sold and the community erected a large, modern school building on Mudronova Street near the district court. This building, which is still standing, contained 8 classrooms, an apartment for the janitor and a spacious courtyard. 5 classrooms were used for general subjects; 2 for religious studies and 1 served as staff room and office. This was the state of affairs until 1940 when 3 classes were opened for pupils who had been expelled from public secondary schools. Until 1918, teaching had been in German and Hungarian. After the foundation of the CSR, the Slovakian and German languages were used. During this period, Armin Weiss was still director and with him on the staff were: Joachim Pollak, Paul Witman, Reiman, Schenk, Breuer and Rav J. Ehrenfreund.
Great changes occurred during this period. Following the law on compulsory education, the school took in hundreds of pupils from the town and the surrounding villages; also a new generation of teachers conversant in the Slovakian language. Joachim Pollak became director and with him served: Ladislav Steiner, Edward Kreiner, Victor Schlesinger, Charlotte Weiss. Hermann Trutzer and Armin Schenk taught religious subjects and Mrs. S. Lichtenstein taught handicrafts.
In the late 30's, what was to be the last school committee was elected. Its members were: the chief rabbi, the G-R Abraham El'azar Weiss chairman, and Emmanuel Link, Adolf Haberfeld, Elhanan Friedman, Emmanuel Gelley,
Dr. Max Eisdorfer, Dr. Wilhelm Welwart, Isidor Simko, Josef Felsenburg, Philip Krojnik, Ludwig Weil and Bernat Schlesinger as members.
When, at the beginning of the World War, the Jewish pupils were expelled from government secondary schools, 3 new classes were added to the Jewish school to ensure further regular studies. The community and especially its school committee and the teaching staff had to face a new situation overnight and did their best to maintain the traditional high level of teaching. A member of young and highly trained teachers of both sexes, born in Topoltchany, joined the staff and had their share in improvement and in the introduction of modern methods.
In those very difficult times, Mr. Ladislav Steiner was director of the school, helped by his devoted staff: Edward Kreiner, Victor Schlesinger, Charlotte Weiss, Dora and Gerti Schwartz, Roth, Janka Prager, Micky Steckauer and Rudolf Schwartz. Religious subjects were taught by Hermann Trutzer and Armin Schenk as before. We want to stress the devotion of these teachers who stood by their charges to the very last and kept up lessons even while deportations were going on and the number of students was dwindling from day-to-day. In 1942, the government sequestered the building. Nearly all Jewish children had been sent away and education came to an end. Later on, when deportations were halted temporarily, lessons for the few Jewish children left was resumed in the now empty home for the aged. The final end came in 1944. For nearly 100 years, the school at Topoltchany had educated generations of pupils for the Torah and for life.
JewishGen, Inc. makes no representations regarding the accuracy of
the translation. The reader may wish to refer to the original material
JewishGen is not responsible for inaccuracies or omissions in the original work and cannot rewrite or edit the text to correct inaccuracies and/or omissions.
Our mission is to produce a translation of the original work and we cannot verify the accuracy of statements or alter facts cited.
Topoľčany, Slovakia Yizkor Book Project JewishGen Home Page
Copyright © 1999-2016 by JewishGen, Inc.
Updated 11 Dec 2013 by MGH