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[Pages 121-124]

Student Congress in Oradea

Translated by: Susan Geroe

Hegedus Nandor said the following in his memoirs relating to the deplorable memory of the student congress held in Oradea: “A world tragedy exploded and it's painful that during the winter of 1927, nobody in Oradea recognized its magnitude.”

The summary of the events is the following: in December 1927, the Bratianu government, against the advice of top local leaders, allowed the national student convention to take place in Oradea. Scandals and anti-Semitic waves that transpired from the same type of gathering organized in Iasi a year earlier caused legitimate worries in Oradea.

On Tuesday, December 6, special trains from the Old Kingdom brought into the city a multitude of students throughout the day. Five thousand singing vivacious young people arrived. They were mainly lodged in private homes, thus many of them with Jewish families. A few hundred of those students, spellbound by a group of Iron Guard members sporting the national attire, wanted to make their Oradea visit memorable. It was the first time when the Swastika appeared in Oradea. The more bellicose students painted it on a wide carton and wore it around the neck like a bib.

A few law students from the Oradea Law School, familiar with the local layout and facts, noted the names of some (Jewish -TN)* institutions and persons to be debased. The first shocking incident erupted during a student meeting held in the theatre, on the second day of the convention. The students recognized among media reporters Fleischer Sandor, a Jewish staff member of the Nagyvarad newspaper, and somebody also brought into attention that Ned Keller, a former American army officer was sitting in the audience. Keller, although a born Christian, married the daughter of Armin Gero, a Jewish man, and one-time commander-in-chief of the Oradea garrison. Several students gravely manhandled both Mr. Fleisher and Mr. Keller and it was only with great difficulty that they were freed from their attackers.

In the dawn of the third day, on December 8, a group of soberly thinking students left the city, while later in the day, the destruction began. The students wrecked not only Jewish stores, but also committed depredation and sacrilegious acts inside synagogues, the likes of which until that day were unknown in Oradea or indeed in other parts of Erdely.

At that time, the City Commander assumed responsibility, ordered military patrols to gather the students, loaded them onto waiting train cars and sent them on their way, out of the city. The students went to Cluj, where they continued their vandalism.

“The student congress of Oradea was marked by grave atrocities,” wrote Hatszegi Erno, reporter for the Uj Kelet, a newspaper published in Cluj, in his article on December 7, 1927. The subtitle of the article read “The victims of the atrocities are fighting for their lives. All the Jewish store signs on the main streets were smashed. All stores in Oradea are closed since Monday afternoon. A severe state of emergency was declared in the city.” The report continues: “The second day of the National Student Congress in Oradea evolved in a fervent and blazing atmosphere. The local authorities, in a totally unexpected way, stopped long distance telephone service, thus completely obstructing the media from direct and accurate reporting. Monday, the entire day, it was impossible to establish communication with Oradea. Tuesday, only as a result of enormous hardship could one reach the Oradea long distance operator and after asking for any connection, one received the short answer that the number did not respond. As a consequence of this groundless measure, today in Cluj, the most bizarre versions circulated about the Oradea events.”
The account further describes that Monday, the session opened in a “somewhat friendly atmosphere”. The city appeared to be relatively quiet. Stores were open, traffic was normal, although those who had no business being out, kept from showing in the streets.

The story informs that reporter Fleisher Sandor tried to save himself by running out of the theater, but a group of students took after him, caught up with him before he could reach the offices of the Nagyvarad Newspaper and beat him bloody. “Police Prefect Bunescu, who was nearby, immediately hurried to the scene of the assault and shielded the reporter from further injury with his own body.”

“This fight,” continues the report, “was like an omen: from this instant on, the speed of events seemed as if straight off a film reel and the atrocities followed one another. The zealous demonstrators mobbed the Sonnenfeld Palace where the headquarters of the 'Nagyvarad' and 'Nagyvaradi Estilap' editorial desks are located, and smashed the newspapers' business signs, crushed several display windows, and destroyed an entire shipment of printing paper. Additionally, they blasted records and archived material, as well as the owners' newspaper collections.”
As soon as the Oradea authorities realized that the demonstrations were taking such a serious turn, marshal law was imposed. Two army regiments and several units of police battalions divided in squads spread out through the streets. Yet, in the first hours, this state of emergency proved to be ineffective against the attacks of the demonstrators, which inflicted one after the other some of the gravest atrocities. First, students were looting on Szacsvay Street, where they bloodied two young Jewish men. Then, the center of gravity moved to the main streets. They smashed all Jewish owned firms' business signs on Kossuth Lajos Street, Rakoczy Road, Nagypiac Square, Szent-Laszlo Square, Zoldfa Street. They also broke the huge windows of Marmarosch-Bank clearing-house and Fonciera Insurance Company. The merchants on Fo Street pulled their metal roll-up shutters at he sound of the first clash, closed their stores and hurried home. The streets were completely empty save the demonstrators and army forces.

At the same time, on Nagypiac Square, the rebels rounded up bearded Jewish men and cut off their beards and payot with scissors. While the barbarism continued, they even beat up a Christian priest whom they mistook for a Jew. Similar fate awaited the few gallant army officers who wanted to protect Jewish pedestrians. The police seemed powerless facing the situation that was deteriorating ever further. The demonstrators picked up Prefect Bunescu, placed him on their shoulders and paraded with him around the theatre while singing the anti-Semitic anthem. Then, in the presence of the prefect, they smashed the windows of the synagogues.

In the following day's news account, the reporter of the newspaper “Uj Kelet” writes, “the night of Tuesday onto Wednesday was the night of horrors in Oradea”. At this time, the students used crowbars to break up the iron roll-up shutters of the stores, smashed their display windows and their interior furnishings. Next, the street mob appeared, looted everything and carried away all that was possible.

Afterwards, the demonstrators directed their assault against the Jewish synagogues. About three hundred students attacked the Teleki Street Synagogue, built only a year earlier. They beat in the doors with sticks and beams, pushed their way to the interior of the sanctuary, dislodged the benches, chairs and everything that was movable, and threw them out through the broken windows into the courtyard. There, they built a bonfire and burned all the furnishing of the synagogue. Next, the demonstrators took the Torah Scrolls, the candle holders, the Cover of the Ark and the talitot, lifted them in the air and carried them to Bemer Square, where they built another bonfire and burned everything.

One of the synagogues' roofs caught fire from the bonfire, but the demonstrators extinguished it before the firemen arrived.

A sad view awaited the residents of Oradea the following morning. Ruins were everywhere and among the ruins, there were moaning, ravaged looking men. As a rough estimate, more than a hundred men were beaten bloody, among them several in critical condition. Six Jewish temples were vandalized. The synagogue surroundings became a harrowing site. The Great Synagogue on Zarda Street had all its windows smashed, its interior furnishing broken to pieces. Prayer books, shreds of talitot, torn up Torah Scrolls, and pieces of glass from broken chandeliers were lying about among the shattered benches. The Zion Synagogue on Kossuth Lajos Street displayed the same image. There, they burned Torah Scrolls. Wednesday morning, several young men wearing student caps were seen hurrying toward the train station with Torah Scrolls under their arms. They were taking them along as victory trophies.

The civilized world expressed protest. News about the shocking events attracted foreign media representatives. French and English reporters drove through piles of smashed window display glass and were taking in wide-eyed the disgraced synagogues, the scattered Torah Scroll pieces, and listened to detailed accounts of the bloody incidents.

The government that merely wanted to sidetrack public attention from interior problems it was facing realized that it overshot its mark. They sent to Oradea General Mosoiu, the Minister of Transportation, leader of Bihor County's Liberal Party. Mosoiu visited the leader of each Jewish institution, Chief Rabbis, and all representatives. He expressed his regrets in the name of the government, and announced that they would compensate for all damages. Also part of the compensation was the immediate transfer of the County Prefect and Chief of Police from the city. Regarding indemnification, the Bratianu government kept its word.

The Oradea Rabbinate declared the 13th day of Kislev a day of mourning and fasting. Chief Rabbi Benjamin Fuchs, following historic Middle Age models, compiled Selichot prayers that were printed out and included in the general order of prayers.

Twenty years later (and post Auschwitz!) Hegedus Nandor sadly comes to the conclusion that everyone came to term with events of those days. However, Oradea was the signal, a historic signal and perhaps so much would have turned out differently, had they recognized that an avalanche had started under the crust of the Earth in this border city.

This is how Hegedus Nandor continues:

“The lava awoke the Jewry to a bizarre horror. Until now, we believed that the often repeating horrors in the lives of Eastern Jewry - pogroms and arson were not our, that is, Western Jewry's concerns – rather that of primitive, uneducated, countryside Russian, Bessarabian, and Moldavian Jews. When we sometimes heard that hooligans set fire to a village, a few hundred men were butchered with the help of Kazaks, we felt sorry for them, but felt not much solidarity with them. If some charity action was started, we donated, and with that, we helped ease our conscience. Now, here in Oradea, they showed us for the first time that there was no difference between a Jew from Berdicsev and one from of Oradea. And, not too many years later, even the peaceful, most cultured Jew from Berlin found out that there was not any difference at all between him and the Jew from Berdicsev. Did they learn from it? Not much! Even in 1944, when they first deported Jews from Upper Hungary, we were reassuring ourselves: 'well yes, they are deporting those backward Jews and we can't help them, but we are quite different…'”

T.N. – Translator's Note


[Pages 143-144]

The Three Great Rabbis of Oradea

Translated by: Susan Geroe

I dedicate this translation to the memory of my uncle, Michel Simpson, a former son of Oradea.

Due to a happy coincidence, in the period between the two great World Wars, in a far away land, in Oradea, three renowned rabbis functioned: Rabbi Benjamin Fuchs of the Orthodox community, Dr. Lipot Kecskemeti of the Neolog community, and Reb Jisrael Hager, the Rabbi of Wishnitza. Each weighted heavily within his own community. They resided at approximately 200 meters distance from one another, and all three passed away around the same time, within a short three-month period from each other.

Chief Rabbi Benjamin Fuchs passed away first, on the Sunday morning of March 15, 1936 (21 Adar 5696). It happened during an Agudat Jisrael organized townhall meeting that took place in the Commercial Hall on the occasion of Dr. Shlomo Ehrmann's visit to Oradea, the leader of the Western European movement.

Rabbi Fuchs gave speeches that were filled with enthusiasm, this time however, he was all fire and passion. He described the catastrophic situation of the Jewish people, the danger of the spreading anti-Semitism, and at the same time, he added, that instead of pulling together, the Jewry wasted time with internal fighting.

At a given moment, his voice stopped, he touched his heart and collapsed. They immediately laid him down on the Presidential table and sent for a doctor. Dr. Armin Weinstock ran over from his neighboring residence, and first, he tried to take his pulse, then, used the stethoscope, and finally his face showed shock and dispair. At that moment, the Shma Yisrael prayer spontaneously sounded from the lips of the crowd that numbered more than one thousand people.

They covered the body of the Chief Rabbi with the green wool tablecloth and ten men lifted him on their shoulders and carried him across Nagypiac Ter, all the way to his residence.

Dr. Benjamin Fuchs died at 12 noon and the Representatives of the Community and of the Chevra Kadisha held a joint mourners meeting in the Community's board room. The great hall was overfilled with congregants, besides the representatives. President Istvan Ullmann announced the tragic news in a hardly audible voice. He eulogized the outstanding achievements of the deceased Chief Rabbi, all done for the benefit of the Orthodox Jewry of Oradea, as proof of his undivided love. Following Mr. Ullmann, the gray haired President of the Chevra Kadisha, Lazar Leitner pronounced in a teary broken voice “Nafla ateret rasenu” - the crown fell from our head because Benjamin Fuchs was not only the Chief Rabbi of the Oradea Jewry, but through him, we lost also a truly honest, puritan human being. Lazar Leitner added that at the time, as President of the Community, he inaugurated Benjamin Fuchs as Chief Rabbi, and now, as President of the Chevra Kadisha, he had to bury him.

Salamon Fuchs, brother of the Chief Rabbi, also a member of the civic leadership delivered the eulogy on behalf of the family. “I sense with worry the pulling apart,” he said, “that exists in the midst of the Jewish people throughout the country and I do not wish that the country's biggest community follow the fate of all the others.” Then, in the interest of the community's inner peace, he asked the leadership of the Community and the Chevra Kadisha that were present to elect unanimously as new leader of the congregation Jakab Klein, the Rabbi from Halmi, and brother-in-law of the deceased.

According to the newspapers, the members of the community received the suggestion of Salamon Fuchs about filling the Rabbinical Chair with noisy “Jechi” yells. When the noise subsided, President Istvan Ullmann responded to the sudden recommendation, which caught everyone unprepared. He said that they couldn't adopt such a proposal at this tragic hour, since the by laws called for the final decision in those matters be determined during a meeting of the civic leadership and in open discussions within the congregation, and a specially convoked community assembly for such purpose.

On Monday afternoon, at two o'clock, thousands of people were already converging towards the Mor Fuchs Street Great Synagogue, which became filled with those who received invitations. Soldiers, in formal uniforms, stood guard at the Synagogue entrance. Representatives of the authority, Dr. Bancila the Prefect, Dr. Bledea, the Mayor, Mr. Dancea, the Vice-Mayor; the Roman-Catholic Bishoptry representative, Secretary Zitzman and Dr. Halasz, the Eastern - Greek Church representative, Pastor Boca; the Neolog congregation's representatives, Dr. Armin Adorjan, Dr. Bela Konrad, and Dr. Bela Kabos, all sat in the front rows. Chief Rabbi Dr. Lipot Kecskemeti was recovering in a sanatorium in Budapest at the time and thus unable to be present at the funeral of the person who was not only his relative, but also his friend.

More than thirty Transylvanian and Hungarian Rabbis were present at the funeral, along several personal friends of the deceased. The eulogies continued for hours. First, Reb Jajlis Teitelbaum, Chief Rabbi of Szatmar (Satu Mare) spoke, followed by Menachem Szofer, Rabbi of Targu Mures (Marosvasarhely), who spoke in the name of the Central Bureau. Then, Reb Pinchas Zimmetbaum, President of the local Rabbinical Council, Chief Rabbis Teitelbaum of Sziget, Freund of Szaszregen (Reghin), and Sperber of Brasso (Brasov) also delivered farewell speeches.

The question of who would follow in the Rabbinical Chair gained no resolution either during the year of mourning, or later. Eight long years had passed from the death of Chief Rabbi Fuchs until deportation, yet the Rabbinical Chair of Oradea remained orphaned throughout that time.

 

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