The Szombathely community was established as an independent organization in 1830, outside city limits more precisely, as in those days, Jews were not permitted to settle in the city proper. Immediately following its creation, the community elected the first rabbi, Lajos Konigsberg, previously a merchant. The rabbi, however, possessed all necessary preparation, acquired from the National Chief Rabbi of Nikolsburg, fact strengthened also by the Chatam Szofer of Pozsony. He proved to be a scholar and was observant, leading his congregation in this spirit until his death, on Saturday, December 14, 1861. The first synagogue was built in 1836, across from the Abbey of Szentmarton. During his rabbinate, 1848 was significant as the year that brought freedom for the Hungarians, but not for the Jews. They continued to be excluded from every line of the provisions within the Constitution. On a Tuesday before Pesach, on April 4th, deplorable anti-Semitic disturbances took place in Szombathely. The uncontrollable rioters attacked the synagogue, tore up the Torah Scrolls, broke into the cellars of Jews and wasted their wine. Next day, during a people's meeting, they chose April 24 as the final day for the expulsion of the Jews from the city. These manifestations ended only upon significant intervention by the government commissioner who was dispatched to the scene. Despite all the troubles, and shortly following them, when all nationalities rebelled and the trumpets were sounded, the Jewry took an exemplary part in the militia, and also enlisted in the established army corps.
Damages suffered from the destruction of the rioters were repaired with a compensatory sum of 12,445 forints. At that time, the community also modernized the set up within the temple, by placing the Almemor (Bima) in front. The elementary school was functioning already since 1846 and its first two teachers were Freistadtl and Strem. Dr. Bernstein, as mentioned earlier, has described in details the history of the Szombathely school, which by 1855 included five grade levels.
The revenues of the community were generated from: 20 krajcar tax (gabella), wine selling, kosher restaurant, and later, community dues. Members also had to pay a fee for the initial admission into the community, a new by rule adopted since 1858. In 1857, young Emperor Franz Joseph visited Szombathely. The community voted the sum of 200 forints towards the reception of the Emperor. In the same year, they purchased a house to accommodate a school. Following renovations, in the spring of 1859, the three-year "lower gymnasium" was already able move into the building. The Rabbinate has been vacant after the death of Rabbi Konigsberg, until February 26, 1865, when they elected Dr. Lipot Rockenstein. His contract was renewed once, but not further, possibly due to a disagreement that concerned a moral offense. During his tenure, cultural disagreements started between the Neologs, who held progressive views and formed the majority part of the congregation, and the Orthodox group, composed of those members who wanted to stay close to the traditional religious Jewish laws. On April 16, 1871, when Rabbi Jozsef Stier of Vagujhely was invited, the chasm was already evident. At this point, the Orthodox leadership separated, took possession of the synagogue, and during the month of Iyar of the same year, elected Markusz Kornfein as substitute rabbi.
In 1880, the Neolog majority of the congregation built a new synagogue, based on the blueprints of the famous Viennese architect, Schone. The sketch itself cost 60,000 forints, the construction another 130,000. The beautiful modern style temple represents one of the first synagogues with towers in the country. In part, the construction costs, in another the increasing burdens, drove the community into difficult financial circumstances. First, they tried to improve the situation with a forced loan, but then, in 1892, they found a collateral-type loan with an acceptable mortgage payment. At the beginning of 1891, Rabbi Dr. Stier left Szombathely to assume the rabbinate in a Berlin synagogue and for the time being, the parish rabbi, Zsigmond Richter replaced him. On July 3, 1892, they elected unanimously the scholar and historian, Dr. Bela Bernstein to the Rabbi's Chair. They built in the vicinity of the beautiful new synagogue a Rabbi's residence, offices, a boardroom, and with another 28,000 forints, a school. They spent 200,000 forints within 15 years.
The Orthodox community also started to flourish. At the time of the separation, it counted 54 members. In 1898, they created a separate Jewish public school. Rabbi P. Jungreisz from Abaujszanto occupied the rabbinate between 1896 and 1898, and then in 1900, they elected Rabbi Markus Benedikt, a relative of the Nikolsburg Rabbi. By that time, the congregation increased to 150 members.
For a long time, nearly 45 years, Rabbi Benedikt led the Orthodox community. Meticulous in maintaining exemplary order, an upstanding puritan, he dedicated himself with specific attention to the education of the youth. He taught generations, partly through the Yeshiva, which he personally headed as long as his strength permitted, as well as religious schoolteacher in various Szombathely high schools. The tragedy that befell us added bitter insult to injury in the case of this man who led a saintly life. The name of our leader, already in his advanced years, was among the first on the name list of Holocaust victims in Szombathely. There was no sparing or mercy on judgment day.
Between the two World Wars, even during times of general stagnation, the Jewish community thrived remarkably, expanded, and religious life strengthened. In the last decades, Dayen Gestettner filled a significant role. Teachers Gyula Klein and later, Mr. Bonyhadi, several melameds, among them Mr. Haut, who demonstrated an exemplary attitude within Ahavat Israel, were leaders in educating our young students.
The larger Congressional (Neolog) community, which we mentioned earlier, underwent changes as well, including a new election for the rabbinate, when Dr. Bernstein, due to family reasons vacated the Rabbinical Chair to accept an appointment as Rabbi of Nyiregyhaza, in 1908. After a few interim rabbis, they elected Dr. Jozsef Horowitz, former Rabbi of Karansebes, a great speaker with strong insight, whose aim was to upkeep a throbbing Jewish life within the community. In a few years, World War One broke out and many members from within the congregation were recruited to serve in the army, leaving their families at home, in a dire situation. Revolutions followed the four years of war fighting, and public safety became endangered, particularly as far as Jews were concerned. A media hooligan named Lingauer-Lekai, a particularly dark hearted man, lacking any trace of conscience, and not choosy among the vehicles he used, was publishing day after day rabble-rousing articles in the newspapers, poisoning public life in Szombathely.
Rabbi Horowitz, putting matters in perspective arrived independently to the Zionist mode of thinking. He taught his sons to love Eretz Israel and identified himself with every aspect of Zionist development. His sermon on Pesach 1939, when he stood steadfast and the only counsel he was able to give his congregants was - Emigrate! - remains memorable forever.
Unfortunately, only a few members took his advice, and merely a short time later, the cataclysm of Second World War began.
By 1935, this larger community included about 400 paying members. According to occupation, the membership fell into the following categories: 11 wholesale merchants, 5 farmers, 6 teachers, 223 merchants, 21 lawyers, 20 office clerks, 5 industrialists, one journalist, 52 independently wealthy, 33 workers, etc.,
Neither congregation showed evidence of division according to occupation or size, as seen from the above listing. Presidents of the Orthodox community were the late Samuel Spitzer, Samuel Frey, Sandor Hirschenhauser, Ede Steiner, Adolf Kosztelitz, Marton Holtzer, and others. All Jewish programs had enthusiastic sponsors. Among them, Mr. and Mrs. David Braun and Attorney Dr. Erno Heimler were exceptional, by instilling the Zionist spirit in the youth. Antal Rado, the writer and literary translator was born in Szombathely, as was his father Adolf Roder, who taught there. The cantor of the congregation, Miksa Goldstein was an acknowledged liturgical music composer. In the economic arena of the past centuries, it was precisely the Jewish business enterprise that elevated the small rural town of Szombathely from a dusty, insignificant little town to a vibrant commercial and industrial trade center of Western Hungary. The textile mills and industrial shelling were almost exclusively Jewish enterprises, which also provided a great deal of employment opportunity.
It is known that the city of Szombathely obstinately refused to allow Jewish people to settle inside the city. Instead, they had to live outside the city limits. Thus, descendants of such old families as the Stadlers, (Szt. Marton), Filipp (Operint), Hermann Singer (Rohoncz), the Grunwalds (Szokefold), Aron Pick (Rohoncz), Lipot Kohn (Szt. Marton), Nathan Mayer (Szt. Marton), lived in the surrounding villages at the perimeter of the city.
Today, all this developing and thriving Jewish life belongs in the past. We were left with nothing more than the sad memories of former greatness. Everything was trampled, ploughed down by German boots in 1944, all taken away by the death train.
When on that ever-memorable March 19, the German commands sounded on the streets of Szombahely as well, shocking disbelief took hold of the Jewish soul. They felt that they've come to the last chapter of the tragedy.
A Gestapo Scharnfuhrer named Arndt arrived with a six-member detachment and booked suites at the former Palace hotel. His first disposition was to call upon the Jewish communities to send him within two hours twenty thousand pengos to the hotel, which unfortunately they did. Then, he set up the Gestapo offices on Thököly Road.
When he made his appearance at the Jewish Council's meeting, he gave the third degree to every member of the council. He brutally expelled an exempted gold medal decorated former lieutenant. A series of constraining orders followed, then ghettoization. In Szombathely, the ghetto was set up in May. Since the emptying of the ghettos and entraining of their inhabitants occurred from east to west, the Szombathely and Sárvár ghettos were last in line, yet only very few people attempted to escape or hide. One of the reasons for this had to do with complete ignorance. Jews were forbidden from traveling by rail and using postal correspondence. The community leadership in Budapest was equally uninformed, all the while irrational optimism and ultimate despair alternating in everyone's thoughts.
While the local police force seemed ashamed to follow its instructions and did not mistreat anyone, the commander of the ghetto, the sadist Police Inspector from Szombathely, Dr. Karoly Furdos was a near antithesis and humiliated at every possible chance the Jews who were already in deplorable conditions.
When the German Gestapo saw that the local police force behaved relatively humanely with the Jewish population concentrated in the ghetto, it took steps to have a special detachment of the Nagyvarad Police Academy take over the supervision of the Szombathely ghetto. It was at that time that the tormenting, beating, and torture of men, women, and children began.
The ghetto population's next stop was the motor-works factory. From there, two trainloads took to Auschwitz the Jewish inhabitants of the Szombathely ghetto, which meanwhile expanded with the addition of the district ghetto population. One trainload went through Sopron, the other through Kassa; only the final destination was the same.
Transferring and shoving into the cattle cars took place under the most atrocious circumstances. There is a single example, which is most revealing in this instance. The daughter of the esteemed physician Bertalan Schwarz, and wife of former bank director Geza Parczer was in the last hours of labor, yet they threw her up into the cattle car. The train was still at the Szombathely motor-works when the poor woman gave birth to her little girl inside the wagon filled with nearly 90 people, thus increasing the number of martyrs.
We must remember with piety the name of Dr. Imre Vese (Wesel), who filled the dangerous job as the (Jewish) Council's leader with great self-sacrifice, and suffered a martyr's death as compensation. We are publishing separately an article relating to this matter, written by Dr. Ivan Hacker, a former member of the Jewish Council, presently living in Vienna, Austria.
Today, the commemorative monument for the Martyrs stands next to the once monumental Neolog synagogue. One number indicates the tally of men, women, young girls, mothers and children, young and old people who were taken to the place from where there was no return.
4,228! Four thousand two hundred twenty-eight people became victims to the craze of fascism, to the lies and murderous ideas of the Third Reich.
Presently, a very small, diminished Jewish community preserves the memory of the martyrs. Immediately following liberation, there was some revival of Jewish life, first with the help of Joint, and also within the lifeline of the two congregations. Unfortunately, those few returning Jewish residents had to notice that the frame of mind within the general environment had not changed a great deal. They did not follow the example of their own district prelate, Bishop Sandor Kovacs, who on every possible occasion, if only by words, for the lack of other choices, stood by the discriminated people. Every returning Jew lost relatives and there was no family in Szombathely without victims. Having lost the zest for life, they all went in different directions, some here, and others there, throughout the world. Many from among them went to the land of Israel.
This is how the fate of the distinguished Jewry of Szombathely, a community with a great history, once Mother and City in Israel unraveled. Beautiful synagogues, schools, and institutions that relay the history of their ancestors, stand empty and ravaged.
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