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The Origins of the Jewish Community of Kisvarda

The small city of Kisvarda is the major center of the north-eastern portion of Szabolcs County, located about 25 kilometers from the county capital of Nyiregyhaza. It lies at an important crossroads, bordering on three countries. The main road and rail line (built about 1870) from the Ukrainian border through Nyiregyhaza and on to Budapest run through Kisvarda. The district's fertile soil, favourable location and economic resources contributed to its development. It became a regional center of agriculture, industry and commerce.

These favourable geographic and economic factors made it an attractive place for the settlement of Jews as they drifted back into Hungary, which was slowly recovering from the devastation of the Turkish occupation that ended about 1690. The first Jews settled in Kisvarda with the special permission of the aristocratic Esterhazy family, the major landowners in the area at that time.

In 1747, Kisvarda sent the list of its Jews to the county governor, with the remark that it had collected barely half of the special taxes levied on the Jews. The majority fled from the collection. According to this report, there was only a single Jew living within the town of Kisvarda itself, and eight Jewish households in the surrounding villages. By the time of the 1784 census, there were 118 Jews in Kisvarda.

Later censuses showed a rapid rate of increase. The following figures show the Jewish population and, where available, their percentage of the total population of Kisvarda:

Year Jews % of
1840 500 22.5%
1869 1238 28.2%
1890 1483 29.6%
1900 2614 31.6%
1910 3036 30.2%
1920 3454 30.2%
1930 3658 25.8%
1941 3770 25.5%
1946   804 5.5%
1948   650  
1953   355  
1977   160  
1996     22  

Jews played a central role in the development of economic life in Kisvarda, as they did throughout Hungary from the early part of the 18th century. Jewish merchants were active in commerce. In other parts of Hungary, Jews were active in trade or as craftsmen, but the economic conditions in Kisvarda allowed them to enter occupations in which there were practically no Jews in most other counties. There were many Jews in the Kisvarda area who owned land, working either as small farmers, or in some cases acquiring substantial estates and renting land to tenant farmers. Jews were also active as owners of granaries and storehouses for the region's agricultural produce such as potatoes.

Jews established factories to process the agricultural products. These included numerous flour mills, distilleries, and vinegar and starch factories. The first Jewish bank in Kisvarda was established in 1869.

Jewish Religious Life in Kisvarda

In 1782 there were 393 Jewish families in Szabolcs County, living in 106 different communities. The largest was in the town of Balkany, with 19 families. At this time Nagykallo was the capital of Szabolcs County, and also the seat of the chief rabbi of the county.

The Kisvarda congregation was formed in 1796, with the establishment of a Hevra Kadisa. In its early days, the Kisvarda congregation was a branch of the congregation of Nagykallo.

The Jews of Kisvarda were unhappy about being subservient to another community, and looked forward to the day when they could become independent. The process of separation began in 1840, when the congregation of Nagykallo was preparing to elect a new chief rabbi, who would govern not only the town of Nagykallo but the Jews of the entire county.

The Kisvarda community objected to all the candidates, and turned with its complaint to the county government. In a written petition submitted on May 5, 1840, the Kisvarda community stated that the county's Jewish judge was undertaking the election of a new rabbi on an illegal basis. The complaint noted that the communities of Nadudvar, Bator and Dada had been invited to a meeting in Nagykallo on March 24. However, the Kisvarda community had been invited for April 24, which was a holiday, on purpose so that they would be unable to attend. The Jews of Nagykallo wanted to elect a candidate who was related to a leading family, and that family was influential in the above-named communities.

The Kisvardians did not like any of the candidates. Two of them were without any reputation. The one who was put forward because of his family connection was described as being of "inferior and little scholarship. Moreover, he was 70 years old, promising only a few more years of service, which would not justify the expenses of installing him in the position." The fourth was also felt to be "of insufficient education to fill the seat of the county's chief rabbi." They asked that, if they were expected to share in the expense of maintaining the rabbi, they should be entitled to help in choosing him. The Kisvardians wanted to consult with other chief rabbis, and the election should be held only after their recommendations regarding a rabbi of international repute was obtained.

In 1844, the Kisvarda community split permanently from the rabbinate of Nagykallo. They elected as rabbi Abraham Weinberger, from Galgocz, who was destined to serve the Kisvarda community for 40 years.

Jozsef Benedek, who had been appointed rabbi of Nagykallo, at first tried to resist the split, and wanted to bring the matter before a religious court. However, he did not find support among his colleagues and finally accepted the independence of the Kisvarda congregation.

The Kisvardians did not regret their decision, nor were they disappointed by their new rabbi. He proved to be peace loving, pious and charitable. He immediately set about establishing a yeshiva that would form the community's future spiritual leaders, and would establish Kisvarda's reputation as one of the country's leading centres of Jewish learning.

Rabbi Weinberger himself had been a child prodigy. He was not yet 13 years old when his fame spread from his birthplace of Dukla, in Poland, to Brody, where the famous Rabbi Heschele Harif resided. Rabbi Herschele travelled to Dukla so that he could meet the prodigy, and soon found that the rumours had been true, and that this was a unique genius. He immediately proposed to young Abraham's father that Abraham should marry Rabbi Herschele's 12 year old daughter. Abraham's father, a simple cloth merchant, was more than pleased to make this connection with a famous rabbi's family, and the match was set. When the bride and groom were 14, the wedding took place. In later days, Rabbi Abraham noted with pride that he became a father at the age of 16.

When Rabbi Herschele moved to Hungary, he took his young son-in-law with him, whose reputation as a great talmudic scholar soon spread in that country also. By the age of 21, he was appointed rabbi of Galgocz, whence he came to Kisvarda.

Rabbi Abraham sought in every youth the spark that would lift them to heavenly heights. He did not favour those students who accepted his words without thinking about them, but rather those who thought and came to their own understanding of the doctrine.

Rabbi Abraham's greatest pain came from seeing the frequent privation of his yeshiva students. These students knew days when their only nourishment was spiritual. The majority of members of the small congregation were themselves poor, and could not afford to give the yeshiva students the support they deserved. The town's Jews contributed to their support by taking in, one day a week, one of the yeshiva students and giving him a meal. The weekly fair was held on Thursdays in Kisvarda, and yeshiva students who were from out of town looked forward to it eagerly, hoping that there would be a visitor who would bring them a package from home.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum

The outstanding personality in the last stage of Kisvarda's religious history was Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum. He led the community for 45 years, from 1898 to 1943. He was appointed Chief Rabbi of Kisvarda at the age of 33, to replace Rabbi Moshe Grunwald, one of the world's leading sages.

Kisvarda was a true cross-section of Hungarian Judaism, ranging all the way from the extremely religious "shtreimel wearers" to non-observant members of parliament. Naturally, each faction sought to rule the congregation, and there was no shortage of serious disputes among them.

Rabbi Rosenbaum was the force that kept the community together, who could balance the competing factions. With his infinite patience, he disarmed the combattants. The high regard in which he was held derived both from his genial personality and the fact that he could trace his ancestry all the way back to the Maharal of Prague. He attracted hundreds of students to the yeshiva, and supported many of them from his own pocket. With his warm heart, he went to great lengths to help the poor.

He was held in such high regard that nobody challenged his authority, and not a single Jewish store was open on Saturday in Kisvarda. He raised the community to such a level that it became famous throughout the country. For decades, Rabbi Rosenbaum was a member of the Central Council of Hungarian Rabbis. After the death of the Chief Rabbi of Budapest, Rabbi Koppel Reich, the Orthodox rabbinate of Hungary nominated Rabbi Rosenbaum to represent them in the upper house of Parliament. He was qualified for this not just by his great scholarship, but also by his skill as a speaker. However, in his modesty, he declined this great honour.

Rabbi Moshe Rosenbaum passed away in 1943. He was succeeded as chief rabbi by his son Shmuel, who had been prepared for that position from his youth.

Prior to being appointed rabbi, Shmuel earned his living as a wood dealer in Kisvarda. This did not keep him from studying, and even in the wood store he always sat with a book of the Talmud open beside him. It was told that, if a customer could not pay cash for the wood, he extended credit as long as they could recite the ten commandments.

By the time Rabbi Shmuel took office, the storm of the Holocaust was looming. His responsibilities expanded; he was required not just to strengthen his flock spiritually, but to counsel them in the face of the horrible tragedy that was upon them. More and more painful news came from the front regarding members of the forced labour battalions who were perishing. More and more Jews lost their livelihoods as a result of the anti-Jewish laws, and turned to the rabbi for support.

In their young rabbi the congregation found a fitting leader. He lived and suffered with his flock. He was one of the few Hungarian Jewish leaders who fully appreciated the gravity of the situation. He tried to help, where possible in, rescue efforts. He went with his congregation into the ghetto, where he displayed his great strength of character. There, too, he dealt with important religious issues and other judgements. His faith did not waver. Suffering strengthened his determination, and posterity can remember him by the halakhic judgements that he rendered as his world perished. These are preserved in a book edited by his son, Rabbi Pinchas Rosenbaum, who was appointed as the last chief rabbi of Kisvarda in 1947.

Sabbath-Keeping Kisvarda

Every Hungarian city had its particular character. In those towns where the Jewish community was mainly of the Neolog branch, the Jews were not particularly noticeable. It was quite different in those Orthodox communities whose members strictly observed the Sabbath. In these cities all the the Jewish stores were closed on Saturday. And, since the vast majority of shopkeepers were Jewish, these cities were very quiet on Saturday. Commerce came to a near complete halt.

The great majority of Kisvarda's Jews were religious. However, even those who did not adhere strictly to every Orthodox commandment would not dare to keep their stores open on Saturday.

Among Kisvarda's Jews there was also a large, active Hassidic community. On Saturdays and holidays one could see them in great numbers walking the streets of the "Klaus" in their caftans and shtreimels. The hassidim established a Beth Midrash separate from the main congregation. In 1921, their leadership issued a rigorous set of rules for membership, including a requirement that their wives cover their hair with kerchiefs rather than wearing wigs, and wear dresses that reached to their shoes. Girls 12 years and older were required to wear dresses at least two hand-breadths below the knees.

Zionism in Kisvarda

Theodore Herzl, in a prophetic statement, declared that "I would give up on trying to convert the outlook of the Hungarian Jews, if I believed that their heartfelt patriotism will lead to the end of antisemitism in Hungary.... The greater their economic and cultural success, the more shocking will be their fall. There is no escape from Jew hatred, and by the time they realize how little their patriotism has gotten them, it will be too late."

Herzl's Zionist dream received less support in the country of his birth than almost anywhere else. Immediately after the 1897 Zionist Congress in Basel, Samuel Kohn, Chief Rabbi of Hungary, declared: "We are Magyars of the Hungarian religion. There is no place for a Jewish national movement among us."

The Kisvarda congregation followed this official position. The older generation in the community looked askance at a movement that would take their children along an alien path. They were particularly concerned about the left-leaning aspects of Zionism, and the dangers it posed under the Horthy regime.

However, some young people resisted this hostility, making up for their relatively small numbers by the quality of their effort.

The Kisvarda youth Zionist organizations were founded in 1933. They organized high quality cultural programs. Mor Frankl gave a moving euology after the passing of Arlosoroff, while Erno Rosenfeld Dr. Laszlo Scher gave lectures about the great prophet of Zionism, Herzl. Erno Adler and Peter Fischer were the organizers of this program.

Even those Jews who did not subscribe to the political aims of Zionism had a charitable impulse toward the poor settlers in the holy land, and most Jewish homes in Kisvarda had a charity box for money to go to Palestine.

Zionism soon flourished in Kisvarda. For their Hanukkah celebration in 1934, they were able to attract as eminent a speaker as the poet and author Jozsef Patai, the editor of the leading journal "Mult es Jovo" ("Past and Future"). Patai had links with Kisvarda. He was born in Heves county, but he started his Jewish education at Kisvarda's famous yeshiva.

A major banquet was put on in honour of this illustrious guest, which was attended not just by Zionists but by all elements of the community. The lawyer Dr. Miklos Schonwald, president of the congregation, declared his support for the aims of the Pro-Palestine League, notwithstanding his Magyar patriotism.

One of the great heroes of Zionism, Dov Gruner, was born in Kisvarda in 1912, and attended the yeshivah there before studying engineering in Brno. He joined the Betar movement, and illegally made aliyah in 1940. In 1941 he joined the British army, and served in it for 5 years. Following the war, he joined the Irgun, and was captured during a raid on a police station. He was executed by the British in 1947, in spite of international appeals for clemency. In a letter to Menahem Begin shortly before his execution, he declared that "if I had it to do all over again, I would do nothing diffferently." His memory is preserved today in Israel with a sculpture by Hannah Orloff, depicting the young lion of Judah in battle with the lion of Britain.

The Holocaust

The ghettoization of the Jews in Kisvarda commenced on April 8, 1944, with the transportation of the first group from the countryside. The ghetto was situated in the most Jewish district of Kisvarda. It began on the left side of Horthy Road, continued with the left side of Bessenyei Road, and included both sides of Deak Ferenc Street and Petofi Street. The roadways were closed with barriers.

The families transported from the surrounding villages were put into two lumberyards and the courtyard of the synagogue. As long as their supplies lasted, they cooked for themselves, but their situation worsened when they ran out of supplies.

The Jews of Kisvarda proper who lived outside the ghetto were moved into it between April 15 to April 30, 1944. No writer has a rich enough imagination to describe the endless humiliations and beatings inflicted on the Jews by the Magyar gendarmerie. Men, women and little children were taken from their homes and squeezed into a terribly overcrowded ghetto. A total of 7000 Jews were squeezed into a small neighbourhood, a few families in every room. Every night, the gendarmes dragged away individuals who were suspected of having hidden their wealth. They would return cruelly beaten, covered in blood, unable to stand on their feet.

The gates of the ghetto were first opened on May 29 and once more on May 31. Each time, a group of 3500 was taken to the trains and started on their way to an unknown destiny. Their painful road led to the hell of Auschwitz, from where only a few managed to return.

The town of Kisvarda still stands. The Jewish visitor, whose heart is filled with longing for his dear ones, meets only strangers in what was once known throughout Hungary as "little Jerusalem." That Kisvarda lives only in dreams.

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