By Prof. Dr. R. L. Braham
Measured in historical milestones, the history of the Jewish community of Dej or Des as it is known in Hungarian is a very brief one. Although Jews are known to have lived in the rural communities surrounding the city since the turn of the nineteenth century, they were permitted to settle in Dej itself only toward the end of that century.
Their brief history notwithstanding, the Jews of Dej reflected in a dramatic fashion the rise and decline of Hungarian Jewry as a whole. Following the emancipation of 1867 and the consequent unchaining of the energies and talents of the Jews, they contributed richly not only to the flourishing of the local and national Jewish community but also to the industrialization and modernization of Hungary. The successes of Hungarian Jewry during the pre-capitalist, liberal era of Hungary (1867-1918) were to a large extent due to the community of interests (Interessengemeinschaft) that existed between themselves and the ruling, landowning Magyar aristocracy. The latter, having steadfastly refused to engage in what they thought were demeaning middle class occupations, opened up new vistas for the Jews in industry, commerce, and finance. This spirit of toleration and cooperation between the Hungarian aristocracy and Jewry became solidified when many noblemen were made silent partners in Jewish enterprises through their enlistment as stockholders or board members. As a consequence of this policy of toleration, Hungarian Jewry considered itself an integral part of the Hungarian nation, and the Magyars, in turn, accepted the Hungarian-speaking Jews as their equals.
While the liberal democratic developments of the pre-World War I era gave new impetus to the process of assimilation which was most clearly visible in Budapest, the Jews of Dej, like those of Transylvania as a whole, continued to cling to their traditional, basically orthodox way of life. They retained the religious, cultural, and socio-economic aspects of the typical ashkenazi shtetl of Central Eastern Europe relying on both Yiddish and Hungarian as their vehicle of communication.
After the end of the First World War, the lifelines of the Jewish community of Dej were severed from those of Hungary and its destiny became intertwined with that of Rumanian Jewry. For a little over two decades, the Jews of Dej shared the fortunes and tribulations of the Jews of Rumania witnessing and suffering the consequences of the increasingly more virulent anti-Semitic measures adopted in response to both domestic and Nazi German pressure.
When the city, together with Northern Transylvania, was re-occupied by Hungarian troops in September 1940, many a Jew had expected the return of the good old days of the pre-1918 era, unaware of the harsh anti-Semitic measures that were adopted in Hungary during the interim period. No sooner had the Hungarian authorities established themselves, than the Jews awoke to the political realities of Trianon Hungary. They were soon made to feel the full impact of the Hungarian anti-Jewish laws of 1938 and 1939 and shared the burdens of the ever exacerbating anti- Jewish measures of the World War II era.
The political-military misfortunes of Hungary and the consequent German occupation of March 19, 1944, unleashed the centrifugal forces that drew the Jewish community of Dej, like those of all Hungarian provincial Jewish communities, into the vortex of the Nazi inferno. It was destroyed within the span of a few months on the very eve of the Allied victory.
The historical responsibility to commemorate the tragedy that befell Jewry during the Nazi era and to rescue the cultural treasures of the Jewish communities for future generations belongs to the survivors. The remnant of the once great Jewish community of Dej and its environs is very fortunate in having in its midst the very dynamic and dedicated Zoltán (Csima) Singer, who has assumed upon himself the implementation of this historical task. Toward this end, he has assiduously collected for many years the data and documents and illustrative material required. Divided into eleven chapters, this memorial book portrays the drama of an East European Jewish community in a vivid though deeply moving manner. The first nine chapters describe the rise and fall of the community; the last two chapters narrate the fate of the survivors during the post- liberation era.
The merits of this book are intertwined with the self-sacrificing efforts of Zoltán Singer and his handful of collaborators. To them the survivors of the Jewish community of Dej and its environs owe everlasting gratitude.
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