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[Page 10]

The Zionist Movement in Győr
in the Years 1925-1942

By Tovah Karders

Translated by Martin Goodman

My first childhood memories begin in these years. During these years approximately, the path of Zionism, which had started with the activities of Ezra Grosz and his friends, continued.

Four rivers passed through the city of Győr and they divided the city into five zones. The area where most of the Jews lived was called Győr-Sziget; here a voluntary ghetto was created that was isolated from the rest of the zones of the city. About 95% of the city's Orthodox Jews were concentrated in this Quarter, as well as a small portion of the city's Neolog Jews. All of the religious institutions of the Orthodox community were [located] here [in this Quarter]: the Orthodox synagogue, the Beit Midrash52, the religious school, the elementary school, the Mikveh53, the slaughterhouse, and the matzah54 bakery.

The synagogue was constructed in 1795 in a courtyard so that it would not be visible from the street. The synagogue was close to the river; at the time of the Tashlich55 prayer, it was only necessary to go a very short distance to reach the water. Near the buildings of the Jewish institutions, was the main street of the Quarter, Hid utca [Bridge Street], which received its name because at both of its ends there were bridges which separated it [the Quarter] from the center of the city. This street represented life: “Everyone's livelihood was dependent on everyone else.” There were grocery stores, butcher shops, a bakery, tailors, clothing and shoe merchandisers, bookstores, etc. Inhabitants of the Quarter were able to obtain all of their needs on this street.

The Zionist movement developed in this Orthodox quarter [Sziget] of Győr. The first [members of] the movement were student inhabitants of Győr-Sziget who studied at the high school in the city, where they learned the doctrines of Zionism from the Gross brothers who had moved to Győr from Austria. A group of enthusiastic high school students organized/founded a scouting group called “Kadimah56.

About 40 to 50 high school students regularly assembled in an empty apartment in a large house on Akác utca [Acacia Street], which the students' parents placed at their disposal at the request of my brother Dori of blessed memory, one of the founders of the group. As a girl, I was very interested about what happened in these secret meetings – there was excited activity when they prepared for the Purim party, Chanukah celebrations, [and] Memorial Day of the Prophet of Zionism57. There were subscribers to the “Deutsche Rundshau”58 newspaper from Berlin, and each week they read a survey about what was happening in the Land of Israel.

Likewise, there were historical lectures [on] Dubnow and Graetz59, [and] literary [lectures] on Bialik, Achad Ha'Am, Tschernikovsky, and Peretz60 – these names and the activities associated with them, we learned there.

The movement belonged to the Jewish Scout movement “Kadimah” in Hungary. In 1925, there was a national camp [event] in the vicinity of Budapest; they [the scouts] sailed there on the Danube [River] in a boat.

After the boys completed high school, they founded a branch of the youth movement [called] “Brisiyah”61, and in parallel, a branch of the youth movement [called] “Aviva”62 was founded by the girls. There were five girls in “Aviva” and there was a very strong bond between us.

Zionist activity was not welcome in Győr. Both communities, the Orthodox and the Neolog, in accordance with their [respective] viewpoints, opposed Zionist organizing, and [therefore] the meetings were conducted again in secret. The older [Zionist organization members] indoctrinated and instructed the younger [members], and there were orderly “activities”.

In 1929, we had a special experience. A Jewish National Fund film about the Land of Israel called “Spring in Palestine” was shown. The showing took place in the biggest movie theater in the city, and this roused the Jewish community of Győr from its indifference.

Through the years, branches of the Histadrut Ha'Zionit [Zionist organization] and [the Jewish] National Fund [JNF] were founded, and later, a branch of WIZO63 [was founded].

Zionist activity in Győr was given a boost when Dr. Lemberger (a lawyer) and his wife moved into the city around the year 1930. They had a rich Zionist history and experience, and they guided the youth in their activities.

At the end of the 1920s, the Zionist [movement] received official recognition in Hungary, and at the beginning of the 1930s, the local branch [of the Zionist movement] was also recognized. Important leaders visited us from Budapest such as Dr. Patai, the well-known writer [and] editor of the monthly journal “Múlt és Jövõ”, Dr. Nissan, the president of the Histadrut Ha'Zionit and others.

The movement expanded, [but] on the other hand, assimilation strengthened since most of the Jews wanted to demonstrate that they were Hungarian. The city was an industrial city in which the majority of the factories were founded by Jews, such as: an alcohol distillery, factory for matches, refining oil, a flourmill, sweets factory, boat inspections, etc. Owners of the plants wished to be part of general society and not to emphasize their Jewishness.

The city of Győr was a large commercial center because it was the halfway point between Vienna and Budapest. Most operators of banks and large corporations were Jewish. In the center of the city, on the main street, there were large splendid stores; all of them were owned by Jews. The city and its inhabitants developed and the standard of living went up. The percentage of Jews in the free professions such as doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. was high. This upper stratum of Jewry belonged to the Neolog community. There were about 5000 Jews in the Neolog community and about 1000 in the Orthodox one. The Rabbi of the Neolog community was Dr. Schwarz of blessed memory who led [efforts against] assimilation.

Zionist activity was the work of a small group [from] among the members of the community that was not deterred by troubles, [and] that [was engaged] constantly on behalf of [charitable] funds and the Land of Israel, and it [this small group] achieved substantial results.

In the middle of the 1930s, meetings began with Zionists from nearby cities such as Szombathely, Sopron, Pápa, Sárvár, etc. Also, Zionism was a minority [of popular opinion among Jews] in these cities, but an active minority. Evening debates were conducted with the assimilationists and this was a source of acquiring new supporters.

At the head of every region, stood the “Head of the Galil”64. Life in the various branches was simultaneously effective and happy; bonds of friendship were formed, and sometimes the meetings led to matches [i.e., marriage].

Once a year, they traveled to the national congress that was held in Budapest.

The ascent of Hitler to power in 1933 did not disturb the tranquility of the assimilated majority. Berlin was far away and persecuted Jews had not yet reached Győr. However, the occupation of Austria in 1938 caused profound horror; Vienna was only a two-hour journey [from Győr]. Refugees that arrived spoke about the horror, but then also, there were some [individuals] who said that such a thing could not happen in Hungary. /some of the youth reacted differently; many of them immigrated illegally to Israel in 1938-39 together with refugees from Austria and Czechoslovakia. These [youths and refugees] survived after the Holocaust.

In 1935, a young man, Dr. Emil Roth of blessed memory, who had spent two years during his studies as a student of Rabbi Abraham Kook [the chief Rabbi in Palestine], was chosen to be the Rabbi of the Neolog congregation. He was a hard working man, a passionate Zionist, a saintly disseminator of the Hebrew language. We were exceedingly happy.

Also, time worked to our advantage. Rabbi Dr. Roth, worked from early in the morning till late at night, especially with the youth[s of the community]. He organized courses in Hebrew for all age groups, founded a Jewish choir, [which participated in the prayers in the Neolog synagogue] and translated the songs of the Land of Israel into Hungarian. The choir reaped successes not just in Győr, but also in other cities. He gave lectures about building of the Land of Israel accompanied with slides, and at the time of Sabbath Eve prayers, the elegant synagogue of the Neolog congregation was always full. Also, throughout the week, he gave lectures and he arranged a portion of the prayer [service] like a community sing-along.

He made the teachers in the elementary school learn Hebrew so that afterwards they would be able to teach [Hebrew]. Rabbi Dr. Roth, advanced the spread of the Zionist idea, and he did not allow assimilationists65 to interfere. Regrettably however, fate wished otherwise.

In 1938, at the time of the official appearance of the Hungarian Prime Minister in Győr, Dr. Kallós66 of blessed memory, who had the title “Chief Counselor to the Government, sat on the podium with other important persons. The Prime Minister proclaimed in his speech that the Jews must be restrained and [that] the government had decided to submit a proposal for a statute that would limit the percentage of Jews in the “free” professions and in other jobs67. The impact of the speech did not take long to arrive. Dr. Kallós became an impassioned Zionist and supported all of the activities of Rabbi Dr. Roth.

Afterwards, there were no more obstacles for the Zionist campaign; however the days of the Jews of Győr were numbered. Induction of men into work brigades began and they were taken to Akaunah68. All of the surrounding countries were under Nazi occupation. We were cut off from any possibility of escape.

I immigrated to Israel in 1945, and at that time I became aware of the awful tragedy. My dear family, whose life was founded on the Zionist vision, perished in the German Hell together with the rest of the victims of Győr. In my great pain, it was difficult to observe the tremendous experience of immigration to Israel, a life's dream, being realized at [so] terrible a price.

I lost a mother, sisters, and their little children that were already singing Hebrew songs.

When I arrived in the Land of Israel, someone from my city who had reached America wrote me, “It was your fate to live in the Land of Israel because in your dreams in Győr, you were there [in Israel].”

[Page 14]
gyo014.gif  Map of the City's Synagogues and Streets

Map of the City's Synagogues and Streets

[Page 15]

Life of a Jewish Girl
(From Childhood to University)

By Dr. Ilana Steiner

Translated by Martin Goodman

I shall relate to you my memories of the city of Győr in Hungary. (You can find its location on a map between Budapest, the capital of Hungary, and Vienna, the capital of Austria.) What I relate is an eye-witness account. Childhood events are definitely enlarged or reduced by hindsight. I do not want to speak about generalities, rather to tell you about what happened to me in the years of my childhood.

I was born into a family with many children and few means. I was raised on the lap of tradition and observance of Mitzvot69. The house had a modest air [consisting of] making do with little, and a difficult war of survival on the part of the parents. The longing to acquire knowledge and perseverance in studies was woven into my life by the personal examples of my brother and sisters of blessed memory.

Kindergarten: Children of the wealthy families attended private kindergartens in the central neighborhoods of the city. [However,] this was not my fate. Already in my first days in kindergarten, I felt the discrimination of children of the neighborhood against me as a Jewish girl. We lived in a quarter of Catholic workers. The kindergarten that I attended was run by nuns. The nuns would exchange the sandwiches in my little satchel with dry black bread. My parents of blessed memory were greatly astonished and upset when they heard me quoting verses of the prayer[s] of the Christians. In response, they immediately withdrew me from this kindergarten. I waited with longing to enter the Orthodox [Jewish] elementary school. It was a small school with four grades that was located in the courtyard of the Orthodox synagogue. We learned reading, writing, and fundamentals of arithmetic, as was standard at that time. Religious studies were central in the curriculum: reading and orientation in the prayer book. The girls gathered on Sabbath afternoons to study “Rashi script70 and the reading of “Go out and see71.

Elementary school life was joyless; the study books were dry and distant from the experience of life. The walls were unadorned, we saw no flower nor did we encounter any living thing. No joyful song ever issued from within the walls of the school. We were acquainted with the teacher's bamboo rod that would descend on the fingertips of a student who made a mistake in an arithmetic exercise or who revealed a lack of interest in the lessons. How happy we were when winter days brought snow that covered the small hill near the school. We enjoyed sliding on sleds on the snow and to go [skating] in rust-covered skates on the frozen river.

After four years of studies, I left the school and transferred – alone – to the fancy State girls' Gimnázium in the center of the city. There were doubts and fear in my heart whether I would be able to pass the entrance examination and regarding the high level of studies in the Gimnázium. On the first day of studies, I discovered that I was one of many Jewish girls.

I was very jealous of them because they were equipped with much knowledge that they had acquired at the Neolog Jewish school. I learned about the Neolog school personally from my good friend. In the courtyard of the main Neolog synagogue, the boys and girls studied in separate classes. The four boys classes were in the right wing and the four girls classes were in the left wing. Their teaching staff had good training.

Adjusting to Gimnázium life was not easy. It is hard today for you to imagine how far my home was from the school. The road had no public transportation nor were there bus or electric train lines. I had to walk for a long time in the cold, in the snow, and in the rain. On my way to school, I crossed a bridge (the city was surrounded by four rivers and the quarter that I lived in was called Sziget [and] I was almost blown by strong wind into the water because the drawing board was under my frozen arm. Only the bundle of books (for each subject, there were three books) that were sandwiched [together] with a leather strap kept me on the ground. I had to run the entire way [to school] because I did not know the correct time. My parents did not give me a wrist-watch. On my way, the clocks in the church towers displayed different times. Many times, I arrived too early and I waited on the steps in front of the locked gate of the school, and other times I was late and I stood to my great embarrassment in front of the angry principal.

With trembling and a heavy heart, I awaited the first distribution of report cards in the Gimnázium. How would my parents be able to pay such a high tuition? Would I be forced to interrupt my studies? To my great happiness, even before distribution of the report cards, the principal and the class teacher informed me that I was freed from paying tuition until completion of eight years of study in the Gimnázium because of my accomplishments in studies and [because of my] behavior, and taking into account our difficult economic status. Thus, I was privileged to have a “scaled tuition” in 1922. I enjoyed the studies and the various subjects. Most of the teachers, who included absolute anti-Semites, esteemed my effort and my strong will to learn, and related to me with special sympathy. [All] except for the mathematics and physics teacher who frequently insulted me and called me to the chalkboard using the name of derision “Lily of the Sharon72 to the accompanying laughter of the Catholic girls. It especially angered him that I was officially excused from writing on Saturdays. (Sunday was the [only] day that was free from studies.)

On Sabbath afternoons, we Jewish girls assembled to go together to synagogue for the afternoon prayer [service] at 3pm. Imagine for yourself the running and the Sabbath rest, since studies finished at two [o'clock] and I was unable to enjoy the taste of the Sabbath meal. All the children gathered in the synagogue, boys and girls who studied in the upper grades of the high schools: the Reál School for boys, the commercial school for boys, [and] the professional school for girls. After prayers, the boys were called to the Torah and they read the portion of the week. Rabbi Dr. Schwarz, would give his perpetual sermon, without content or feeling. The same Rabbi Dr. Schwarz, was hard on me during my first days73 in the Gimnázium. When he visited the Gimnázium and also at the celebration at the end of the year, he did not stop ridiculing my Ashkenazi74 pronunciation of prayers that I had learned and to which I had become accustomed during my four years of study at the Orthodox elementary school. I learned to pretend to be a Sephardi Jew in order not to have a different [pronunciation] from my comrades. Throughout all my years of study in the Gimnázium, members of every religion (Catholics, Protestants, etc.) had religion classes. We, the Jewish girls, also studied [religion] separately. What did we learn in these classes? Little. Jewish history, translation of the prayers from the Siddur75 and orientation in the prayer book, basic summaries of the Tanach76, laws, customs, and holidays.

Purim – a time to rejoice, to joke, and to dress in fancy dress. “When [the Hebrew month of] Adar arrives, [one should] increase [participation] in joy77. The days of Adar drew near, but they were ordinary work days in the Gimnázium without a sign or hint of the holiday. The religion teacher did not think of preparing for us any sort of small play regarding King Ahashverosh and Queen Esther. We, the girls of the Orthodox congregation, secretly organized a play and a Purim game [called] “Purim Spiel78. The actors of course were only girls. The organization of the women of the Orthodox congregation worked hard to prepare for the play. Under the enthusiastic leadership of Klára néni79, all of the tickets were sold. The proceeds from the performance were given as a holiday gift and as support for the needy.

Our home became a small theater. In one corner, my sister of blessed memory who played the part of his majesty King Ahashverosh, lifted her voice in rage against Queen Vashti80. In another corner, my second sister wore a black caftan81, attached peyot82 to her face, and sang with great feeling in Yiddish the well-known song [entitled] “Cheder Katan Vi'Tzar ViChamim83. You all know this song in Hebrew. I had various roles to play, including dancing. I remember that at the conclusion of my appearance, as I stood on the stage, the audience threw flowers, candy, and chocolates at me. The thundering applause filled my heart with great happiness. It was an unforgettable experience.

At the age of 12, the girls prepared for a magnificent Bat Mitzvah celebration that was held in the Neolog synagogue. I remember the festive appearance of the girls dressed in silk dresses, standing in a semi-circle in front of the Holy Ark84, and proclaiming that they would be loyal to the Jewish religion. Some of them converted to Christianity as the years passed; they became estranged from religion and assimilated.

It was only in the concentration camp that the religion teacher who had instructed generations of boys and girls saw the error of his ways and felt regret for his fatal mistake of not instructing the youth about fundamental principles of Judaism and about Zionism and immigration to the Land of Israel.

In spite of the opposition to Zionism and the negative stand of our teacher/Rabbi, underground Zionist activism spread. Our home served as a secret meeting place for the Zionist movement in miniature. [Starting] from the age of 12-13, I came in first contact with Zionist thought. I met the boy-friends and girl-friends85 of my brother and sisters of blessed memory, who came to our home for meetings, encounters, and lectures. Even representatives of Zionist youth [groups] from adjacent cities and from the capital city came to our home in order to discuss the problems of the Land of Israel in a group setting. Long arguments were conducted about the political situation in the Land [of Israel]. The meetings concluded with enthusiastic songs about the Land of Israel. We were organized into three [Zionist youth] groups: older boys were called “Brisiyah86, older girls were called Aviva HaGedolah87, and we, the female students of the high schools were called “Aviva HaTzi'ira88, and I was their leader. On Saturday nights, we gathered and prepared lectures about modern89 Hebrew literature, we read stories about the history of the people of Israel. All these activities had to be kept secret because of the school teachers and especially because of the religion teacher and the Rabbi. If our secret had been revealed, they would have immediately removed us from [within] the school building walls.

At school, we worked very hard to prove our strength and to demonstrate our educational achievements. We Jewish girls worked to endure these exaggerated requirements. You can certainly understand this [given that] in the anti-Semitic environment of 1930, that of 18 girls in the eight grade in the state Gimnázium, eleven Jewish girls completed their studies with distinction and received a special prize. An even smaller number of Jewish students were admitted into universities [because of the] (Numerus Clausus) [edicts]. The department of medicine admitted Jewish candidates [only if] all of their grades on their report cards were “very good”. Only one [Jewish] applicant with [a grade of] “good” was admitted to [study] liberal arts [in university]; all the other [Jewish students that were admitted to study liberal arts had] “very good” grades. I was admitted to Pécs University, a provincial city in the south of Hungary.

In the university, I enjoyed the sympathy of professors on the faculty. Our will to study was great (we were two best friends from Győr). We rented a small room with windows facing the entrance of the university. One day in the year 1935, we saw from the window in our room that students from the department were dressed in holiday garb, embroidered with symbols [and] bands, [and] in hats of the extremist Catholic student organizations. In letters of martyrdom to the Son [i.e., Jesus]90, they held up a placard [that read] “ENTRANCE TO JEWS IS FORBIDDEN”. Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of the university. We stayed at home. The professor started his lecture and stopped it after the first sentence. He immediately sensed our absence (no wonder – throughout the five years of studies, we sat on the first bench in the auditorium – this was the regular place for the Győr girls). He asked the secretary to tell us to come at once to his lecture. (They all knew where we lived.) We entered the auditorium. All those present became silent for a number of seconds. The lecture continued. Regretfully, this was just one isolated instance of identification with us in a sea of hate [against] the Jews.
In the university, Zionist students were involved in intensive Zionist activity. We met every two weeks, and every one had an assigned task to prepare lectures on the history of Israel [by] (Dubnow), [on] Zionist thought [by] (Achad Ha'Am, Pinsker), [and on] surveys from newspapers that dealt with the status in the Land of Israel and discussions about political problems in the Land [of Israel]. The most important thing was that in this framework, we began to study the Hebrew language intensively.

[During my] final years in university, I studied in Budapest. I joined the Zionist students group “Maccabiah91. Day and night studying to receive my doctorate demanded most of my time and prevented me from taking part in activities of the Zionist group.

End of studies, end of [my] memoirs. I was a partner in the fate of the Jewish families at the time of the conquest/occupation of Hungary by the Nazis, [I was] banished to the concentration camp “Bergen-Belsen” with the members of my family. I immigrated to the Land [of Israel] in the year 1945 in the first [wave of] immigration after the war. Is it possible to forget the childhood years that have passed? Never. My life in Israel is the complete and happy life of a Jewish woman. Every day here, I feel that I add a small stone to building the Land [of Israel], a small part in a larger complete picture.

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