by Emil F. Knieza
The blood had not dried away, the tears kept on streaming, the canons roared and soldiers fell in the bloody battle field during the liberation of Michalovce by the Soviet army on the 26th of November 1944. The first survivors could be seen returning to the almost empty town. Individuals, pairs and trios who broke through the fire line began to arrive from the near forests or from Partisan groups. During January, February and March the first of those who were liberated returned from Polish concentration camps, mainly from Auschwitz and Gleiwitz.
One minian became two, three and even more and by the end of summer 1945, especially after the return of concentration camps refugees from Austria and Germany. Michalovce began to breathe and live a Jewish life. The greater part participated in the new life and the establishment of the new country. Others refused to remain in a place which reminded them of so many tragedies and sorrows. There was much hesitation and preparation with regard to immigration. People engaged in preparing the necessary documents.
Zionist pioneering youth movements renewed their activities and 'traditional', stormy debates between the 'Shomerim' and the Beytarim' were once more inflamed. In short, the congregational life resumed its course though to a small degree in comparison to its extent before the war.
Nearly 10% survivors out of 6,000 Jews of Michalovce returned to town. In the year 1945-1947 the Michalovce congregation consisted of approximately 800 Jews among them more than one third gathered there from the neighbouring villages: they could not remain alone in their native village where they had not found even one survivor. If we add to this estimated number some tens of our fellow citizens who did not return home but stayed or moved to Kosthitza, Bratislava and Praha, we could arrive at a number of 900 or 1000 souls. Namely not even one sixth of the Jews of that region survived.
The town and the congregation with its property had been destroyed and on their ruins a new Jewish life was established. The first representative of the congregation was Goldsmith who served for ten years as the public leader.
It was necessary to build everything anew. The big synagogue was completely destroyed. The rest of the synagogues, the big, the little, and the Klaus stood on their place but the destruction from within was
tremendous and they were not fit for prayer gatherings. It was repaired adequately so that public prayer was resumed, in the morning and in the evening, and the place sufficed for all.
A new wave of emigration reduced the Jewish population to half namely to hardly 400 souls. The rhythm of life slowed down and the Jewish activities began to fade away. After the year 1957 150 souls left Michalovce to over-seas countries or to other towns in Czechoslovakia. According to my knowledge, about 200-250 Jews lived in Michalovce in 1967 including children who were born after the war. The public leader to-day is Adolf Shimovitz who came from one of the villages. The only congregational secretary who is recognized by the municipal authorities and who receives a monthly fee is Shmuel Grossman from Shodovtza. Grossman occupies five positions at a time: he is the inspector, the beadle, the tutor, a sewer and the Hebra Kadisha.
One a week, a ritual slaughterer from Koshitza arrives in town. Grossman lives in the late Rabbi Ernfeld's apartment and his second is the beadle of the big synagogue Rubin.
I visited the town of our youth several times. Michalovce has changed so as to be hardly recognized. I saw it last in 1967. Roaming in its streets, going to and fro I searched for traces of the past.
Potatoes are grown in the same place where the big synagogue used to stand. Weeds cover the area where the eight-stories school building stood. Only the kitchen and the Motzot bakery have remained of all those past buildings. This building serves to-day as a municipal printing house.
As in a dream I listened, my eyes closed, to the noisy, gay laughter of dark haired children, released for a short intermission by their tutors. But when I reopened them, I did not see or hear anything. I walked quietly, as in a holy place, over this whole deserted area which was destined to become a huge dwelling place.
I stood near what was formerly the little synagogue recalling Friday nights. No sooner had it darkened when we had broken into this place with Moshe Goldstein and Yankle David Friedman, told horrid stories and listened to Rabb Barish' hoarse singing. For many years we haven't heard this tune of our best loved Zmiroth. To-day, this place is occupied by an office where Shimon Grusman serves as the congregational secretary.
The big yard of the big synagogue is deserted. This sight reminds you instinctively of a quiet tune sung by your parents, sitting on the synagogue
floor, barefooted, mourning in Tisha Be'av. How doth the city sit alone, that was full of people; how is she become as a widow.
Entering the synagogue I glanced at the Holy Ark and in my mind's eyes I heard the clear ringing voice of Joseph Vicler, the ritual slaughterer, I heard the sweet bards around him. But reality knocked me down: everything was empty. Only from one corner of the Pulish I heard a restrained voice of a child. It was Yehuda Markovitz one of the children with whom the tutor rehearsed the weekly chapter of 'Humash'.
In the street, in front of the nice fence which surrounded the synagogue, you could not see any more the young boys who stare, with desirous eyes and ambiguous looks, at the girls who walked proudly on the esplanade, daughters of Berkovitz, Moskovitz, Lefkovitz, Klantz, Kasler and First. Only the hundreds of names notched on the fence-bricks tell every passer-by a silent story of those who had lived there. Hadovna street has not changed externally. The street as well as the sidewalk where we emerged 30-40 years ago, remained unchanged. But Satarai square has changed its face. It is occupied by the central bus station which reminds you of that of Tel-Aviv.
I walk on Hadovna street near Treuhaft's and Friedman's yards. Also the Baumers, the extensive family lived there. On the other side of the yard lived a very dear person, Mrs. Gleich, the mother of Hashomer Hatzair. I look for the Klaus yard but I don't find it. It ought to be in this yard.
I have never been religious or pious but my sentimental approach to the Hassidic world in Michalovce will remain the same in my heart forever. I was always attracted by the Hassidic circles which I used to visit especially on Simhas-Tora. I enjoyed watching the devotion of the Hassidim and witnessing their deep faith. I remember old Rabbi Frenkel, the short Rabbi Yadele Friedman, Grossman and the blacksmith named Shimon Cohen. The gay Hassidic tunes are deeply engraved in my heart and even now more than once, in a close circle of friends and relatives, I repeat and sing them. It is a kind of farewell to my youth, a poor one though, but of a happy and gay Jewish atmosphere.
Only the house front hints at the busy life of boys with smooth and curled side locks, while inside, Zmiroth were sung. On Simhas-Tora, Rabbi Yadel Friedman, Rabbi Frenkel, Rabbi Shimon and others were dancing and encircling the Tora.
To-day there are noisy machines; to day the Klaus serves as a garage.
The town changes, its streets put on new lights. Houses as well as people change. The wheel of life turns and only we who lived this past, know what lies hidden behind the street stones, the house walls in Stanino and in Halvona, Hodna, Hodovna a Doina streets. The yards disappear, the streets widen and the town grows for others, for new comers. On those who survived and those who live no more
At one time I was personally acquainted with every Jew in Michalovce with nearly all 4,000 of them. To-day there are only 200-250 left. From time to time when I happen to be in town I visit them. I'll tell only about some of them to enable you to form a picture about their life to-day.
The Goldsmidt Brothers live and work as they did 40-50 years ago in the same workshop, in the same yard where Visner's bakery used to be. The eldest of them is 82 years old and the younger is 78 (may they live until 120). They are hard and industrious workers. Who does not remember Hillel, Hillel Landrovitz whom I always used to visit? I saw him last in 1963. A year later he died at the age of 74. Who did not know Michalovce brave Samson? When I visited him he complained about his health and more about not receiving a license to work in his profession because the authorities were afraid lest he would become an exploiter. He did not succeed in convincing that Hillel's horses were not and would never be capitalistic horses. Hillel served even during the revolution in the revolutionary army of Bela Kuhn, the Hungarian. He was never an exploiter in his life.
Not more than three children out of 14-15 of the Markovitz family survived the Holocaust: two daughters, Rozika and Yulanka (the latter died in the meanwhile) and one son, Liush, who lives in Paris. Rozika is Sh. Lande's wife. They were both active in the first group of Partisans in Vienna mountains.
You remember undoubtedly Itzik Targer who, during the capitalistic period did not miss one communist demonstration and took part in placards distribution as well. To-day he is keeping in the background, inactive, and works as an upholsterer. He is critical and bitter though his economic situation is good. But man does not live by bread alone. His youthful dreams were shattered by a reality which was far from his pink visions about a future new world.
During my visit, Lefkovitz, the fighter of the Spanish Civil War was
congratulated for his 60th anniversary. He is now in charge of the social section and is responsible for the income folio too.
The few who survived were dispersed to all corners of the country: Bratislava, Praha and other places. Among them there are scientists, writers, artists and senior officers of all fields of life. Imrik Bor, (the son of Lefkovitz) is a famous cardiologist in Praha.
On part of those who live no more - -
The ashes of my parents and my closest relatives were not buried in the cemetery of Michalovce; they were not brought to a Jewish grave. I did not go to my ancestors' grave; I went to the cemetery to pay honour to those who had been once my relatives, in the proximity of whom I was brought up, molded and shaped. I stood for a while near every grave which reminded me of someone. For a longer time I stood by two monuments, those of Israel Baruch Galik and Abraham Deutch. The first fell during the battles of the Czechoslovakian legionary who imposed a collective punishment on the congregation in that year. Galik was 32 years old when he was executed. I find fit to mention this fact in our memorial volume.
I was born in Nezina village which is located eight kilometers south of Michalovce.
Only 4-5 returned of a relatively large number but they did not remain there for a long time. They, as well as I, went to the old cemetery which had been once two kilometers away from the village. To-day it is located by the village side on the way to Petrovtza. The place is forlorn and wildly overgrown with grass. Here and there you can hardly see signs of monuments. I took a photograph of that of a famous genius Rabbi David Aichlor.
The fence rotted long ago but the cemetery is entire. There are no signs of harm. Nearer to the Lobortz there is a still more ancient cemetery some say from the 16th or 17th century. I mention this because I heard an interesting story which touched this ancient place. A native dweller told me that according to the original planning the enlarged road had to pass through this cemetery. When the members of the village council heard of this they rejected the plan all alike. They refused to disturb the final resting place of their dead citizens. The dead had enough hardship during their life. We should honour their memory and let their soul rest in tranquility. The plan was indeed cancelled.
There is no escape, no way to stop. The Jews disappear from this part of the world. Step by step the Jewish traces in Michalovce were lost too. They have lived in this place and it surroundings for hundreds of years. Now we witness the unprevented fall of this Jewry.
But, inspite of the tragic lot of this big congregation there still remain the fruits which have been developed for a long time by previous generations. These fruits feed the generation who live to-day under the bright blue sky of Israel. With those fruits our native country was renewed. In this county the sons and grandsons of those who remained alive are joined with the descendants of those inhabitants of the annihilated exile. It is renewed due to those, whose ashes lie in ancient cemeteries or were dispersed by the Nazi in out-of-the-way places in occupied Europe. They are the ashes of those who bore proudly for two thousand years the torch which is born by the present generation towards a more brilliant future.
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