Several preparatory meetings were held towards that memorial gathering at the home of Yehuda Gonnen and at the Kefar Hamaccabiah hotel in Ramat Gan, attended by about twenty five survivors of our communities who provided detailed data about survivors, addresses also abroad and other useful information. It was decided to hold a memorial meeting and publish a history with documentation on the Helmec and district Jewish communities. Invitations were sent to our survivors to participate in that solemn event to commemorate our dear ones who perished, to take place on May 25, 1944 at the Beit Hatefutzoth in Tel Aviv. As we noted in our circular letter in June 1944, over 200 survivors with their families attended, many from abroad, and according to the participants it was a memorable event To the best of our recollection, at least two memorial gatherings were held in Tel Aviv prior to the last one on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, one at the Benei Berith hall and the other at the Hapoel Hamizrahi in July 1966. The organizers were Dr. David (Dudi) Friedman, Yaacov Rubin, Beta Janowitz, Marci Spiegel and BerI Ostreicher, to whom we are deeply indebted and send them hearty greetings and good wishes.
Following the successful and heart-warming gathering on May 25 1994, we decided to go on with the planned publication of the memorial book, recording the life and achievements of the Jewish people in Helmec and the district, including a list, as complete as possible, of the names of our dear ones who perished in the Holocaust. We are now pleased to present the book prepared to the best of our ability, edited by Aaron Ehrman and may it serve as a memorial and a source of pride to the survivors and future generations.
The devoted and enterprising organizing committee set up to mark the fiftieth year since the destruction of our communities, loyal sons imbued by their heritage and the sense of duty, handed down to them from their, our, fathers who constituted those wonderful Jewish congregations, have asked me to write the story, to edit a book about that small but proud Jewish center, a memorial to those upright good people, for future generations, dedicated to those dear ones who did not survive to live with us.
I accepted this honorable task with a feeling of awe and set to work by looking back at Helmec, at my childhood and early youth; the reminiscences became more and more vivid as I walked in its streets, yards, the places we were sentimentally bound to; our home and the homes of our neighbors, Jews and Gentiles, the school, the cheder, the familiar, though awe-inspiring synagogue and houses of prayer, our life in all the seasons of the year.
I relived those meaningful events in our everyday life with the esteemed people we looked up to and which left their indelible marks on a young Jew in those formative years. I saw once more those vital social, religious and Zionist activities of old and young and remember with pride that impressive gallery of distinguished and honorable members of the community of all walks of life: scholars, rabbis, teachers, businessmen, physicians, lawyers, the ordinary people "baale batim", who all worked incessantly to support their families and educate their children; the community servants who served our people with care and devotion.
This warm and secure home of beautiful and meaningful life of fulfillment fashioned our unshakable Jewish religious and national outlook; it taught us to be faithful to Judaism and loyal citizens and instilled in us the strength needed to stand firm in times of stress and danger.
On a more personal note wish to add the deep permanent impression of the education, upbringing and the way of our communal life in the midst of the non-Jewish local population was determining and lasting even though I left home still before my bar mitzvah and returned only on short home-leaves from far away places of studies and last time at the end of May 1945, when still serving as member of the Allied Forces.
I made then my way from the Far West and came home to witness the terrible tragedy that afflicted our people, meeting the few, some single remnants, escaped survivors, without their families, my brethren, forsaken and forlorn, erring aimlessly in the ruins of what was not long before the secure home, the proud community; the holy shrines were degraded and plundered, this in the midst of an unfriendly, guilt-conscious hostile population. I listened to their nightmarish stories of personal and collective suffering, often defying the wildest imagination, refusing or unable to comprehend.
Having been privileged on that unique occasion to offer prayers at my mother's and grandmother's gravesides, of blessed memory, I decided there and then to strive in any possible way at the first given opportunity to go on aliya, to return to our land, to Eretz Yisrael and never again tread on this cursed place, my birthplace.
There in that unrealistic, confusing surroundings, incidentally or by destiny, during those few hours of my stay after so many years of absence, I met my destined wife and life-companion, a miraculous survivor of the Holocaust and we left together the "Valley of Tears" on our long and fulfilling common journey accompanied by "zekhuth avoth" ancestral merits and their blessings, which has unfailingly stood in our stead to see our children and grandchildren living as happy and proud citizens, building and defending our Jewish state.
In addition to our personal recollections and in order to cover the century and a half of the Helmec and district Jewish communities, I found valuable relevant material and information on our area, particularly as part of the great Hungarian Jewry in general, in Jewish encyclopaedias and lexicons, as the Magyar Zsido one and also in the official sources on the Jewish population and its life in the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and later in the post Trianon reduced Hungary; details on the internal religious controversies, economic developments and how the political situations and changes of regimes affected the Felvidek and the Bodrog district.
Our focus is naturally directed to the 150 years from the genesis of our congregation at the turn of the 19th century by a nucleus of less then a minyan of faithful, enterprising group of Jews of vision, to the progress of a flourishing self-supporting community till its tragic end.
In order not to discriminate against all those wonderful people, and they were many, who contributed to the welfare of the members of the community and served it faithfully in different honorary capacities, in educational, charitable and religious institutions, in Zionist, social and other activities, we have refrained from mentioning many deserving names, except the "kle kodesh", the religious ministrants, of blessed memory, rabbis, teachers and servants engaged by the congregation to care for the daily affairs of the community, whom we all remember with affection, feeling indebted to them from childhood, who fulfilled their holy tasks with love and devotion.
We, the survivors, dispersed all over the world, who have suffered the loss of our dear ones, seen the ruins of our beautiful and honorable communities, but who also witnessed the national rebirth of Israel in its homeland, recall their noble deeds by recording their outstanding accomplishments; we are motivated by the loyalty and faith inherited and we try to live up to their moral standards, as the truest homage we can pay to the memory of those wonderful innocent people who implanted into us such high values. We, the few survivors, should therefore mention with pride the contribution of the "sheerit hapeleta", we who have escaped and remained alive to carry on the Jewish consciousness and tell the story of those who could not be with us.
As we mention some names and events of the over five decades that have elapsed since our communities' destruction, we wish to tender our sincere apologies for any omissions that may have occurred. We first extend our "yishur koah", our deep gratitude to Schön Willy, who remained in Helmec and for over half a century represented our case before the authorities and cared for the remainder of our holy shrines in as honorable as possible state. He has served an address to welcome and guide any of us who came to revisit Helmec during the years, particularly to offer prayers at the dear ones' gravesides.
There is, no doubt, no more lasting and impressive monument to immortalize the grandeur of our communities than the noble work of publishing the two handsome volumes of "Nahalat Yoel Zeev", the interesting and erudite responsa of our beloved and revered teacher and Rabbi Yoel Zeev Glattstein, who not only guided and taught his congregants during generations but also accompanied them on their final journey. Thanks are due for this important rabbinic publication to those who participated and contributed to this untiring meticulous labor of love, the "Hevra Anshe Helmec" in New York, headed by Rabbi Shelomo Dov Ostreicher, a faithful son of Helmec, who also served as editor.
Memorial meetings for our martyred families were held in recent years and were attended by Helmecers and Bodrog survivors, of whom many are no more with us. We are indebted to the organizers of those gatherings in Israel.
Those worthy activities came to a head with the impressive jubilee memorial gathering which took place on May 25, 1994 in the Beith Hatefutzoth in Tel Aviv, attended by over 200 survivors with their families from Israel and abroad. A pictorial account on this memorable event will be given elsewhere in this book, but we wish to express here our gratitude to the organizing committee for their outstanding work. Besides the impressive ceremonial part with the memorial prayers, it was a hearty get together, meeting people from home, once friends of youth, now grandparents, trying to remember and telling each other our eventful life-stories of well over a half a century.
The publication of this book of remembrance so meaningful to us, was made possible thanks to the generous contributions of all those whom their past, origin and descent, was dear. Special appreciation is due to the devoted members of the committee for their untiring and painstaking efforts and patience in gathering and compiling the lists of our dear ones who perished and preparing their names in alphabetical order, revised them several times according to Helmec and the district congregations. We beg the readers' pardon for any omission of names that did not reach us. We will remember all with love.
Sincere thanks to my colleagues for their personal contributions, for gathering documents and other relevant material. To Dr. Esther J. Ehrman for her proof-readings of my English manuscripts and to Pinhas Rubin for his personal additions, correcting the Hebrew and Hungarian texts and for their valuable remarks and suggestions.
While this book, prepared to the best of our ability, is dedicated to all those who did not survive to live with us, all of blessed memory, it is a record, an appreciation of the accomplishments and the life of those wonderful people, mainly in the Jewish communal field, in the century and a half of its existence. May it also serve future generations as a source of pride of "maase avoth" the righteous deeds of our fathers, and may their merits protect our children and us.
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The Helmec Jewish community was throughout its active and creative existence, almost for a century and a half, an example of a united and proud Diaspora community in which orthodox, hassidic and progressive members lived in harmony and mutual respect, furthering their own interests as well as those of the population in general, guided under a democratically elected honorary leadership.
The well-respected, wise and scholarly religious and spiritual guidance of the local rabbinic authority greatly enhanced this peaceful and desired coexistence. Helmec, as expected of a respected Jewish community had all the traditional services, social, charitable, religious and educational institutions, including a long established fine yeshiva; it earned the respect and recognition even of the Gentile population and the civic authorities, though not necessarily their affection and true friendship.
According to reliable sources and official records, the beginning of the Helmec congregation dates back to 1801, though there are indications that individual Jews might have lived there as early as the 17th century. The founding fathers, allowed to settle in Helmec, according to local records, were tradesman named Keller Abraham, Keller David, Rubin Nahum, Steinfest Mor, and Zinner Mor. They hardly constituted a minyan (quorum required for communal prayer), therefore they initially belonged to the Satoraljaujhely rabbinate, already founded at the beginning of the 18th century; the office of the rabbi at the time was held (till 1840) by Moshe Teitelbaum, founder of the first hassidic dynasty in Hungary.
The first minister serving the growing Helmec community was rabbi Mordechai Wald and on his death in 1875, his son, rabbi Joseph Wald was installed in his place. Rabbi Yoel Zeev Glattstein filled the last rabbinic post right up to the tragic end of this flourishing congregation.
Rabbi Glattstein born round 1870, was the son of rabbi Simeon, who held rabbinic offices in various Hungarian communities; he excelled in his studies in famous yeshivoth under renowned talmudic scholars such as rabbi Simha Bunim Ehrenfeld a descendant of Sofer, head of the known Mattersdorf yeshiva; rabbi Glattstein's erudition in talmud and halakha was acknowledged when he was still a young yeshiva student. At the age of 20 he married rabbi Joseph Wald's daughter, Sprinza, and remained tied to his father-in-law's table for many years, devoting his time to studies as well as giving shiurim to members of the congregation and the local yeshiva.
Our Rabbi was first appointed to serve the nearby Leiesz congregation of over 200 souls then, and in 1906 with the death of his father-in-law was invited, or actually returned, to fill the vacancy and lead the Helmec community together with about 30 scattered smaller congregations of the Bodrog district which fell under his jurisdiction and to which the Helmec mother congregation extended religious and other required communal services.
In addition to his being a halakhic authority, rabbi Glattstein was endowed with the quality of tolerance and understanding needed to keep his flock, from hassidic and strict orthodox to more modern inclined members, in one united congregation, as already mentioned. This was at a time when various emancipation and reform (neolog) trends were spreading within Hungarian Jewry advocating assimilation and integration into the Hungarian (Magyar) culture even to the extent of apostasy. This brought about the schism and strong polemic between the orthodoxy lead and influenced by the then halakhic authority, Moshe Sofer (1762-1839) and the reformers of whom some even refused to accept the validity of the Shulhan Arukh (code of halakhic law) in the regulation of the communities.
This 19th century Jewish religious-national controversy which continued into the 20th century caused widespread assimilation and integration into the Hungarian culture and society on one hand, but also to a counter action where many turned back to stricter more observant Judaism even to hassidsm. Fortunately Helmec and the area were affected only in debates and in the exchange of views, and the community grew more united, prosperous and respected, and identified with the traditional and the national aspiration of Judaism.
Having mentioned the deeds and merits of our revered Rabbi, who ultimately made the supreme sacrifice together with the people he so faithfully served and loved, we recalled with pride that the remnant of the flock under his care particularly his many disciples scattered all over the world, mostly in Israel and the U.S.A., showed their gratitude and loyalty to their beloved teacher and master by gathering, actually saving the manuscripts of his erudite response, which were sought from near and far and they recently published them in two impressive volumes in his honor.
The subject matters dealt with in those treatises, covering decades of an eventful historic period, almost half a century of major geographical and political changes, throws not only light and demonstrates the author's wide halakhic knowledge and clear analysis of the problems, but constitute an invaluable source of information, a true document on things that mattered and concerned the everyday life of a healthy dynamic Jewish community. Thanks and praise is due for the labor of love of all those who were engaged in the editing, particularly rabbi Shiomo Dov (Beri) Ostreicher, and enabled the publication of this work of eternal value.
We Helmecers, even if we might be biased by local patriotism, do not doubt that our community in its century and a half of activities and achievements could be counted among those healthy and creative Diaspora congregations that brought forth upright self-conscious citizens loyal to their creed and national-historic destiny.
As already mentioned, at the turn of the 19th century a few Jews constituted the nucleus of the community by establishing their homes in Helmec, initially receiving their basic religious and other specific requirements from the already established sister congregation of Satoraljaujhely. How terrible to think that the vicissitude of fate brought that wonderful community to end its flourishing existence by being led through Ujhely to its final destination.
To return to the process of its establishment, already in 1850, Helmec Jewry now somewhat strengthened, built a synagogue from their own resources. The proud edifice still standing but alas, empty and forsaken. In 1865, the number of members grew to close on 300 souls, a yeshiva was founded with the capacity to provide tuition and maintenance for 40 students; it became an institute of learning of high standard and was attended not only by local youth but also by youngsters from far and near. The custom was that families adopted out of town students for meals and thus give them a feeling of home. Generations of fine scholars, talmide hakhamim and rabbis came forth from there till its tragic liquidation with the deportation of Helmec and district Jewry in 1944.
It should be noted as we remember, the two houses of prayer frequented by members of more or less strict Jewish families and socio-cultural background differed also in the use of liturgy traditionally varied, so called Ashkenazi and Sephardi versions (nosah). While in the beth-haknesseth the Ashkenazi form of prayer was adopted with its greater decorum and less melodious tunes, in the beit-hamidrash, built in 1888 by Lazar Ostreicher, the Sepharadi version prevailed, less formal, more fervent hassidically inclined, serving, as its name indicates, also as house of study for the yeshiva students and for whoever wanted to attend different daily shiurim and the talmudic or related subjects.
The next obvious and natural step in establishing a permanent and respected congregation was the foundation of the Talmud Torah (cheder), which was inaugurated in 1890 to provide basic Jewish education for about 60 children yearly. The cheder comprised three standard classes from the age of four to bar mitzvah. Here in an intimate, happy, at times even mischievous atmosphere, there accompanied us children in the first class, Mr. Rosenbluht (called bacsi, uncle) kind of kindergarten, where that fatherly figure initiated us to the rudiments of the aleph-beth, functional blessings, short prayers, all by heart in unison and in particular to his vivid gripping stories on our patriarchs and other biblical heroes; our childish imagination would easily identify them with living figures surrounding us.
From this preliminary stage and usually coinciding with our entering the first class of the state elementary school at the age of six, we passed to more essential subjects such as the sidra (weekly portion of the humash), accompanied at least with Rashi (1040 - 1105, his lucid popular and authoritative commentary on the Bible and Talmud accompanied every student), also some Mishna and practical laws pertaining to everyday conduct from the shortened Shulhan Arukh (by Shiomo Ganzfried, Ungvar 1864). This was given to us by Reb Hayyim Hersh Zahler, perhaps with less patience, but well explained, at times using his long pipe not for smoking only.
Depending on the standard of knowledge one attained, one's aptitude and Jewish family background, one could continue to the upper class with regular studies of Talmud with the customary, traditional commentaries and related subjects. This was already a preparatory stage for those who intended to pursue yeshiva studies. The teacher was Reb Yoseph Zaiman Zeicer, a well-respected talmid hakham, who at times also acted as dayan.
The chapter on cheder and school would be incomplete if it did not mention the character and differences involved in each season of the year. Around the year we hardly enjoyed, as did our Gentile fellow pupils, real vacations, particularly those of us, the majority of the Jewish children, except girls, who attended cheder. Thus having been free from cheder, before Pesach, we still had to attend state school. For major part of the long school summer holiday, July-August, the cheder continued to function for the whole day. Then, as the school year started on September 1st, before the Yamim Noraim, this again cut short our cheder vacation.
Thus already as children we learned about the extra duties and responsibilities and also merits of being a Jew. Further commitments and activities, especially for the more observant among us, occurred on Fridays and the Sabbath. Attending school in the morning of Friday, the afternoon was dedicated for the preparations for the holy Sabbath. In addition to other chores for the home we went to the miqwe (ritual bath) to clean body and soul and then having been treated with fresh smelly traditional home pastry, specially baked for the Sabbath, we left in a solemn mood to attend the Kabbalat Shabbath, the inauguration service of the holy Sabbath.
On the Sabbath morning we attended service, and in order not to be idle in the afternoon the custom prevailed that esteemed members of the congregation versed in biblical and talmudic studies, and they were many, would come after their afternoon nap, to the cheder to test our knowledge (verhorn) and perhaps the tuition of the melamdim (teachers) too. To complete the holy day we continued to minha prayer followed by the seuda shelishit (the third statutory Sabbath meal) either at home or at the Beth Hamidrash.
The intimate "shuloys seides" as we called it, in the Beth Midrash, held in an almost mystic air, as we who attended it recollect it, deserves a few words. Only two or three minyanim of the more hassidically inclined members of the congregation gathered in the twilight around the long ready set table: There, on the right side of the ark, dark, bearded human shapes, some in streimel and bekitcher, would sing or hum appropriate zemitoth (table songs), moving their bodies to and fro to the rhythm of accustomed tunes; suddenly, you would hear the hushing "sha! sha!" that silenced the participants. In total stillness, the Rabbi, at the top of the table, discerned only in the outline of his bestreimeled head in the eventide light from the window, spoke words of homiletics, usually on the week's sidra. Every ear was bent, so not to miss a possible new interpretation. This meaningful, traditional third Sabbath meal, the substance of which; challoth, fish, drinks etc., was usually provided by one of the more trusted members of the congregation, would conclude by honoring one of the participants to say the Grace (bentchen, birkat hamazon); this was followed by the evening prayer and the recital of havdala (benediction marking the separation of the holy Sabbath from the weekdays).
Now we, the Jewish children who were exempt from attending school on the Sabbath, had to spend the whole of Sunday in cheder instead. Let me give a picture of the cycle of a day's timetable in the life of an observant Jewish child, just as we remember it. We attended regular school classes from 8-12; rushed home for lunch; went back to school from 2-4; then to cheder from 4-7, returning home sometimes in freezing, windy, pitch dark winter nights, when the streets were almost deserted. Some of us lived quite far from school and cheder.
Looking back today, not without nostalgia, on a way of life seemingly gray and difficult to bear, we might expect some envy for our less burdened non-Jewish fellow youngsters; but that is not so. The wonderful feeling of belonging, the togetherness, the warm Jewish home and family with all the pleasures and the loftiness that that entails, the making the "most of the occasional free time, the games, the other happy occasions, were more than a fair compensation for the otherwise more rigid and demanding way of life of those days.
We look back with pride at the achievements in the field of education, at the Jewish and the general cultural standards. Most of the youth in orthodox and even in more "modern" families, enrolled in yeshivoth, locally or further a field; others learned a trade, sometimes in the framework of their family undertakings; quite a number carried on to secondary, high school education and academic studies and became fine professionals and scholars in various fields.
The community's assets and possessions were considerable. We hardly need a map of Helmec of the time; every building, every landmark, the houses and even the yards are still before our eyes. Coming from Perbenik (the railway station), south-east, we passed the "koszorii" ascent, to the right the football field, to the left the flour mill, then through a mostly residential area with large yards and adjoining fields behind them; leaving the corner of the "kerekes-kut" (wheel pump-well), we came straight on the main business sector with all its shops and businesses; at the top. Brown's "Nagyaruhdz", the department store on the right, the municipal offices and the post office on the left. Further down that cobble-stoned main street, on the right, were the cheder, the dwellings of the shochetim and the miqwe. The street turned out of the town near the Jewish cemetery and the market place, leading out northeast to Ungvar and Kassa. Midway up the hill, left, were the government offices in one of the few many-story buildings in the town and nearby the elementary school where we spent many good years. Straight up the hill from the "kerekes-kut", the vicarage was on the left and opposite, the Catholic Church. A climb of another hundred yards up the street led to a large fenced compound on the right. Here was a yard, the Synagogue, the Beth Mamidrash, Tiphereth Bachurim and the Rabbi's residence.
Further details of the communal life center around the venues mentioned above. As we remember, the main hall of the Synagogue was only open on Sabbaths, Festivals and special occasions, such as the official service held on October 28th, the Czechoslovak Day of Independence. Weekday services were held in a smaller, well furnished, entrance prayer room- (pulish orstibel), where meetings of the congregations were also held.
The Rabbi and the more orthodox and chasidically inclined congregants in the Beth Hamidrash attended the daily services in the so-called Sepharadi version (nusah). Here, the Rabbi also gave his daily shiurim (lessons) to yeshiva students and interested adults. On Sabbaths and Festivals, especially on those occasions when the Rabbi gave special sermons (drushes), as on Shabbath Hagadol (preceding Pesach), the worshippers of the Beth Hamidrash would walk over to the Beth Haknesseth to listen to their Rabbi's words, yet another manifestation of harmonious coexistence.
The "Tiphereth Bachurim", was a kind of youngsters' meeting place for study, services or just to get together. Most of us were unmarried, had returned from yeshivoth or were already engaged in some work. It was accommodated in a small building between the Rabbi's residence and the Beth Hamidrash. In addition to the above services, minyanim gathered, particularly in the evenings and in winter, in one of the classrooms of the cheder; members in the neighborhood left their work and businesses to participate in the short communal evening prayers here.
As already mentioned, further down the yard from the cheder were the shochetim's dwellings and the poultry abbatoir. Next to it, on a large site, stood the miqwe. It had been dug just a few meters into the ground and it refilled easily and naturally when it was cleaned, since the level of ground water in the lower parts of Helmec was very high. This meant that every yard could afford to dig its own well and enjoy clear, fresh, cool ground water. The miqwe consisted of the usually heated deep pool of ground water for ritual immersion, a number of closed cabins and the much-liked steam bath (schwitz). As ''this public bath was the only such commodity in Helmec, there was no running water anywhere else and it was made available also to interested Gentiles on certain days. As a general reflection, valid for those who frequented the miqwe and met their fellow Jews, young and old in that intimate environment, it is true to say that this traditional practice, in addition to its ritual meaning, contributed to strengthen the feeling of belonging and identifying with the Jewish people.
Of coure there was a long established chevra- kadisha (burial society) in Helmec, the honorary members performing the holy tasks. There was an old cemetery, consecrated in 1852 (the oldest tombstone was dated 1872), which survived the holocaust. It is still being taken care of by isolated loyal Jews who live there, with the support of the local authorities.
As well as all this, the Helmec community maintained the services of religious ministrants, the Rabbi, teachers, shochatim and a shamash (beadle). We also remember with sympathy Reb Yisroel (Srultshe) Berman, the attendant of the miqwe; the caretaker of the dormitory ("schluf-stub") donated by Shalom Bleier, father-in-law of the long standing president of the congregation, Yoseph Friedman. This was a venue to accommodate guests passing through (orechim), mostly needy mendicants, some of whom regularly revisited our community on their alms collecting rounds, but also a haven for Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution, an unfortunate recurrence in Poland. In all these instances, the community extended brotherly assistance in whatever way it could afford and also made efforts to obtain a tolerant and fair attitude on the part of the authorities.
As to the demography, the social, economic and professional status and activities of the Jews of Helmec and the surrounding district, this actually seems to have been fairly similar to the situation which prevailed in other communities in Felvidek and further away. According to official, reliable sources collated, out of a total population of 3,800 inhabitants of Helmec in 1941, close on 890 (some 140 families) were Jews; and in the entire Bodrog district, scattered in 32 villages, out of 25,250 inhabitants, about 2,030 were Jews (including those of Helmec). The comparative statistical table indicates that, from 1880 until 1941, the Helmec congregation increased from 311 to about 890, while the numbers in some other communities decreased, people probably moving to Helmec, where they could enjoy better educational, social and religious facilities as well as more favorable economic opportunities.
Notwithstanding the fact that Jews constituted only 10% of the population and close on 25% in Helmec, they were dominant in trade, commerce and industry as well as in the liberal professions. Thus it was noted that occupationally the congregation numbered 6 lawyers, 5 physicians, 2 dentists, 15 traders, 35 merchants, 2 contractors; there were members of the liberal professions and farmers, one of whom owned and managed a 2,000 acre model farm and 8 holding offices. Ten needy families were supported and honorably kept by a charitable committee. Jews further owned 2 banks, held the post of district medical officer, public notary, posts in insurance agencies and others. We also vaunted skilful tinsmiths, tailors, bakers, butchers, printers and shoemakers (cobblers). Jews owned the flourmill, pubs, restaurants and places of entertainment. They dealt in cattle, wine, grain, hides and other commodities such as hardware, being wholesalers for the district and beyond.
A short description of Helmec seems appropriate here, even for those of us who still remember what it was like to belong to it. The general character of our birthplace, the home we grew up in, the whole area of Felvidek and beyond was predominantly agricultural; the great majority of the population, peasants and farmers, were engaged in mixed farming, with poultry, cattle, pigs. Each worked their own fertile cropland of vineyards, orchards and vegetable gardening. It was quite a spectacle in the early mornings and late afternoons, except in winter, to watch the domestic animals leaving the courtyards and joining the herds to be driven along the cobbled main street and out of town for the day's pasture. The clapper of the leading animal's bell, the fresh smelly dung in the street lent the place a rural character and rural indeed it was.
The lively periodical, seasonal or weekly, fairs and markets were further events, which contributed greatly to the local atmosphere and color. Here trading was mostly in livestock, dairy products, fruits and vegetables; there were also rugs, mats, baskets and other home made craftwork offered for sale by peasants dressed in their bright, colorful garments. Other local features, picturesque and very Hungarian, often of a religious character, were festive popular feasts and gatherings such as the grape harvest ball; the gypsy band with a cembalo player and the Primas (Aladar in Helmec) with his penetrating violin played enchanting tunes and swift csardas music and well known folk songs to delight the promenading public on cool summer evenings and other similar events.
In the present era of preserved, frozen, prefabricated and otherwise artificial and consumer ready foods, who would not look back with nostalgia to a season of wood gathering, sawing, chopping and storing it in piles in the storerooms for the winter; of preparing quantities of potatoes placed between layers of straw in pits dug in the ground to protect them from the frost; to stacking fresh vegetables (such as carrots, celery, parsley) in sandboxes in the cellars; to participating, with the whole family, in that almost ritual activity of pickling cabbage, cutting and stuffing it, well pressed, into large wooden barrels, then placing layers of a species of winter apples in the cabbage, which in due course acquired a delightful flavor; to the summer season of preserving pickled tomatoes, cucumbers, mixed vegetables in jars both large and small, also jams and delicious preserved fruits expertly and skillfully prepared in the home, filling the shelves of the larder, to be served on Sabbaths and special days.
Living in a Hungarian culture, aware of being part of the tolerant and liberal Czechoslovak Republic, we felt happy on seeing the state emblem, the white blue and red flag, the Czech gendarmes who lived in special quarters with their families. We enjoyed the few weekly lessons in Slovak in one elementary school, -- in the other one the tuition was in Slovak. There was also a secondary school (polgari) with four classes. Of course, there was also conscription for national service in the army, mostly tolerated by the Jews, though less so by ethnic Hungarians. Then there was the celebration of the 28th of October, the Republic's national holiday, observed with special prayers, also offered in the Synagogue. Some civil servants from the old regime stayed in office, as did teachers and some local figures such as old Rinko (bdcsi), who went on carrying out his duties, such as bringing official announcements to the attention of the public, called together with the sound of his drum. He also performed certain services for the community on Sabbaths and holy days that we Jews could not perform.
The place occupied by Jews and their importance in the general population was felt in all spheres, even though, as already noted, they constituted only about a quarter of the population in Helmec and 10% in the Bodrog district. In trade, in commerce, in the liberal professions, the Jews held a leading, almost an exclusive position. They were an integral and active part of the social, cultural, educational, even in the sporting life. Consequently, businesses, production and communication closed on the Sabbath and on festivals (no Jewish establishment kept open); the usual weekly activities came to a standstill. This greatly influenced and left its mark on the life of the general population.
This feature of Jewish influence was also manifest during such seasons as the weeks preceding Passover and the selihoth time before the Yamim Noraim. There were the preparations for Pesach, the "spring cleaning", the activity concerned with the baking of the matzoth in the large built-in oven, concealed during the rest of the year, on the premises of the talmud torah. Classrooms served to store the appropriate ingredients and were the venue for the preparation of the dough, expertly flattened on tables covered with white sheets of paper, traditionally perforated. These were skillfully lifted and several ready lots of pastry were rolled on long poles, transmitted and placed with due agility on the hot floor of the oven. All this was performed quickly and with vigilance lest the dough leaven. What an exciting spectacle and activity that was, especially for us children. Members of the congregation and from the district used to fix the days and hours for baking their lot well beforehand, packing the fresh smelling, large, round matzoth into prepared boxes, covered over with new sheets of paper or white linen, guarding them against any mishap until they would eventually be opened on the eve of Passover.
Those were unforgettable sights, joyful and meaningful occasions, in spite of having to attend school. Being exempt from cheder added to the solemn mood and the expectation, as did taking part in the activities of the family and the wider circle. It is noteworthy that towards Passover, there was a marked increase in the demand for food of all kinds, potatoes, eggs, beetroot, and fruit, vegetables and dairy products. The required new utensils, crockery and cutlery as well as clothing, particularly for children, were also much in demand. This, of course, created a boom in business activity and increased sales; all sides profited, due to the much higher standard of living and purchasing power of the Jews, compared with the majority of their Gentile fellow citizens.
The course of the life of the community made it self similarly felt in the everyday activity around the time of the High Holy Days and the feast of Sukkoth, even during the Selihoth period. That month of Elul, August-September, when nights were already cooler, was marked by quick steps, heard well before dawn in the virtually empty streets except for the other fellow-Jews, holding children by the hand and going up hill to the brightly lit Synagogue and Beth Hamidrash, a solemn air mingling with awe, to participate in the penitential selihoth prayers; the sound of the concluding blowing of the shofar as also that of the devout prayers of supplication could be heard by our Gentile neighbors. There followed the erecting and decoration of sukkoth in most Jewish courtyards and the sight of lulavim being carried on the way to the house of prayer, another sight with which our non-Jewish neighbors were familiar.
Next, to the flickering of the Sabbath candle light, the table songs (zemiroth) sung by the whole family and heard in the street, the delicious smell of the traditional Sabbath food, the hot cholent (legume and meat stew) carried home at noon on the Sabbath in large pots from the heated oven, having been placed there on Friday before the beginning of the Sabbath, in accordance with halakhic instructions. The days of Hanukah and the merrymaking on Purim, even the 9th of Av fast day were more than just noticed. Like Christmas, Easter and other Gentile feasts, the Jewish tradition and its religious necessities were taken for granted. Life was conducted in mutual respect and good relations mostly prevailed in our daily neighborly intercourse, although fraternizing between individuals and families was not usual.
The Czechoslovak Republic, in the two short decades of its existence, was a unique democratic regime, the only true one in central Europe; it respected and furthered the Jewish religious, cultural, educational, even the national endeavors. State support was given, though less than to other similar educational institutions, to the Hebrew secondary schools, which were mainly supported by generous grants, private donations and tuition fees; the one in Munkacs (Mukacevo) was established in the mid-twenties, the one in Ungvar (Uzhorod) later; both were in the most densely Jewish populated areas of Subcarpatian Ukraine and East Slovakia; the former was more socialist-Zionist oriented, the latter more Jewish- nationalistic. A number of Helmec's youngsters graduated from these Hebrew schools.
There is no doubt, and even in our limited local review of Helmec and district it is proper to emphasize it, that the main credit for these rights and privileges accorded to the Jews is due to that "hasid haumoth, one of the righteous of the nations', T.G. Masaryk, philosopher and statesman; he fought anti-Semitism fearlessly, against overwhelming odds, also in its form of 'blood libels', expressed sympathy with Zionism and recognized the right of a Czechoslovak citizen to declare his nationality as Jewish. And indeed it was with pride that one used to present the Czechoslovak passport with its entry "narodnost zidovskd", "nationality Jewish". In 1927, Masaryk visited Palestine, praised the Jewish settlements and encouraged our national aspirations.
In this favorable, liberal and tolerant climate between the two wars, our Jewish communal life flourished; Zionist organizations strengthened their ranks, conscious of the rare situation of enjoying national minority status and this prompted our members to more active political Zionism, Revisionists, Mizrahi and Agudah as well as Betar and Bnei Akiva youths attended hakhsharoth (pioneer training) and youth camps. Our first halutzim went on aliya to Palestine already in the mid-thirties.
This short period of the inter-war years was marked by economic prosperity and increased cultural activity, which, alas, came to an abrupt end on November 2, 1938, following the Munich appeasement pact in which Hungary's share was the return of the Felvidek. With its occupation by the Hungarian regime, all the anti-Semitic, racist laws limiting the rights of the Jews which had been introduced in mother Hungary were at once extended to the, in their view, returned region. Thus, not only the liberal democratic rule ended, but also the fate of Jewry, as everywhere in Hungary, worsened from year to year until, in March 1944, with the entry into Hungary of the German death units, all of Helmec and district Jewry met the same fate of destruction and annihilation.
With the ghettoization and deportations that started with all the horror, suffering and degradation that followed, the liquidation was finalized within three months. All this was carried out with diabolic fervor, accompanied by atrocities and wanton humiliation. And this was done at a time when the tide of war had clearly turned in favor of the Allies and the final defeat of the Axis was only a question of time.
With the Hungarian annexation of Felvidek, Helmec and district Jewry suffered for over five years the ill treatment resulting from economic and other sanctions imposed by the anti-Jewish enactments. This meant conscription into the notorious forced labor units, being ill treated, tortured and humiliated by the valiant Hungarian military, who were encouraged by the wicked, inhumane fascist regime and later by the bloodthirsty German command under Eichman, when so many perished.
The stage of the "final solution" came in May with the concentration of the Jews of Bodrog District, some 2,000, among whom, according to the official record, were 970 souls from Helmec, entire families, into the Satoraljaujhely ghetto. From there via Kassa, this proud and distinguished community, men women and children, aged and nurslings, were headed by their revered spiritual head, Rabbi Yoel Zeev Glattstein, who had led and guided them in their life-time and now joined them on their last journey to Auschwitz, to be added to the long list of martyrs, the countless innocent souls who perished in the holocaust.
The Magyaro-German henchmen in their bestial, super-organized drive of abysmal hatred, devoid of every human feeling, carried out their Satanic plan in spite of the fact that it was already well after the Russian victory of Stalingrad, which was to be followed by the mighty drive in 1944 that brought the Russians into Poland and Hungary and, less than a month later, by the landing of the Allies in Normandy. Thus the Germans, with the willing cooperation of their allies, fanatically pursued the annihilation of the Jewish people, knowing that their debacle was imminent and inevitable, or perhaps because of that.
Hungarian Jewry, including the Felvidek, can look back with pride on a creative, rich history of a millennium. Beginning in the eleventh century, the Jewish community contributed greatly, not only to Hungary's wealth and prosperity, but in many ways, to its culture as well. It should be said that it did not suffer the pogroms and expulsions inflicted on the Jews in the West and East. Being last on the Nazi master plan for the extermination of European Jewry, they had to pay more than their fair share, as if to fulfill the saying "kol Yisrael arevim ze baze", "the entire people of Israel are responsible for one another".
Although the purpose of this memorial publication is merely an attempt to immortalize the memory of the Helmec and district Jewish community and its distinguished part in the great bastion of Hungarian Jewry, which occupied a distinct and important place in world Jewry, we are also bound to add our outcry and accusation against the, active or passive, at times eager cooperation and collaboration of the people and the country which the Jews had chosen as their host land for many centuries. The Jews were law-abiding citizens, contributing in all spheres of life to the well being of the country. But the very neighbors one grew up with, either witnessed or participated in the destruction of their Jewish fellow-citizens, even their schoolmates, their friends and pals of yesterday. We wish also to add our protest against the almost conspiratorial silence and non-intervention, the lack of willingness to come to our rescue, of the so-called enlightened free Western world.
According to sources assessing the available data on the destruction of the Jewish communities in greater Hungary in the period 1941-1945, including the Felvidek and Subcarpathian Rhuthenia, out of 825,000 persons then considered to be Jews (including apostates), about 565,000 perished. Extensive documentation has been published, archives and memorial books, in particular by Yad Vashem, of large and small congregations. These describe specific local events, personal accounts of the pre- and post deportation periods and the terrible tragedy that afflicted everybody. It would, therefore, appear to be superfluous to repeat again here chronological dates, such as those which were anyhow closely connected and were part of the general situation and the German-Hungarian plan for the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry, even though some dates of the concentration into ghettoes and of deportations may differ.
It would seem to be rather more expedient to record personal accounts depicting events characteristic and reminiscent of the life of our community, before, during and after its physical disintegration, accounts by survivors who received their identity there, their allegiance to their people and to their heritage in that genuine, warm Helmec and district Jewish atmosphere (see the pertinent accounts in this book). Indeed the survivors, scattered everywhere, in Israel, in the USA and elsewhere, although only a small, faithful remnant, a few of them in Helmec itself, are the true witnesses. They mirror the good, loyal and upright pride and self respect, the qualities implanted in those who grew up in that environment of exemplary social, charitable and educational institutions, truly conscious of their value and their importance.
We were instilled with Jewish traditional education that guided life and behavior and impressed by the democratic management of communal affairs, based on mutual respect. Although some ultra hassidic people might have taken exception to more liberal views or to Zionism, a charitable spirit imbued with love and loyalty to Judaism and its eternal values prevailed. So we saw our brethren take up arms and fight with the Czechoslovak, British and Russian forces and join partisans and we recorded the manifestations of individual bravery and self-sacrifice.
We are the remnants, the survivors, the few who carry with us the memories of those innocents, fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters and those who lost their children, our dearest who suffered the supreme sacrifice, all of blessed memory. In order further to enhance their great merits, we have to take pride, to console and strengthen our spirit by also looking at the survivors, the offspring who represent them and what they stood for and follow in their footsteps. Those Helmecers and the people from the district are scattered everywhere; among them are scholars, scientists, rabbis, physicians, dentists, artisans, teachers, industrialists, early pioneers and valiant fighters for Israel's independence, serving in its glorious defense forces and active in many fields, strengthening and building the nation.
Special mention is due to the editors and contributors, in particular to Rabbi Dov Ostreicher, for the noble deed of editing and publishing the two handsome volumes of "Nahlat Yoel Zeev", the erudite halakhic responsa by our beloved Rabbi Yoel Zeev Glattstein. They throw light on the kind of problems and questions which troubled and preoccupied the members of the congregations and particularly the Rabbi's disciples from near and far for many decades seeking answers and rulings from their recognized authority.
It was our intention, but due to lack of recorded, or other sources, we failed to gather enough reliable information and data to draw up a list of office bearers not named here, devoted people who headed the Helmec and surrounding communities during their existence and who participated in the work of the religious, charitable and educational fields and to list the many ordinary members who contributed in many ways to the welfare of those communities.
As complete a list as possible has been drawn up of our dear ones who perished in the holocaust, in the forced labor units, or who met their death under other cruel circumstances. In order not to discriminate against any of those who perished, only a few were mentioned by name, those who were employed by the community, the shamashim we remember with affection and gratitude; all of us had fathers, mothers, sisters and brothers and dear ones worthy to be named.
May this unassuming, far from comprehensive publication of records and memories
serve the living of Helmec and district and further generations as a token of
remembrance, of pain and sorrow but also of consolation and pride.
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