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[Pages 137-140]

What was Missing in Oradea

Translated by: Susan Geroe

The image we sketched of the Jewish life in Oradea would be incomplete if we didn't address its flaws. That, which was missing… At a distance of several decades in time and the fundamental changes since, one finds it curious that indeed, no one focused on this aspect.

Let us begin with the fact that Oradea did not have a Jewish cultural center. Some 30-40 peaceful years before First World War, or the 20 years between the two World Wars was not long enough for the Jewish community, estimated to comprise 25-30 thousand members, to think about the creation of such an institution. It is true that the Orthodox community had a large meeting room, but its use for the purpose of cultural presentations was not sanctioned. Thus, despite the many good intentions in the interest of promoting and popularizing Jewish arts and sciences - Jewish history, literature, movements, ethnography, and philosophy – one had to knock on unfamiliar doors for admittance. Insomuch as the idealistic "fools" never had enough money, the many good intentions here too, ran aground.

Oradea did not have a Jewish library. Until the 1920s, it had a very fine private library, the fruit of three generations' passion for collecting books that included all worthwhile publications in Ancient and Modern Hebrew literature, and Judaica works. However, this supremely rich library was taken out of the country. The Orthodox school had a library for students and teachers, one that could have been called everything but a Jewish library. A few copies of the Tnach, some tractates from the Talmud, a few copies of Kicur Sulchan Aroch – that was about all. Along the many decades, they could have acquired an abundance of beautiful tomes.

There were two bookstores in Oradea that sold prayer books and devotional articles, but they did not carry Modern Hebrew or Yiddish books. Not only Modern Hebrew and Yiddish books, but also newspapers in those languages were rare to be found. The Jewry of Oradea was hardly aware of the literary renaissance that was taking place within the Jewish realm.

The 14 bookstores that functioned in Oradea sold roughly 500 books a year, excluding textbooks, corresponding to about six thousand tomes. From these six thousand books, five per cent, or 300 books, were scholarly in nature, while the majority of the literary books stacked were cheap and trashy dime novels or mysteries and thrillers. In the seven lending libraries that functioned in Oradea, Jewish subscribers accounted for the majority of membership. These libraries had a stack of 19,500 volumes and conformed to the wants of their readers, who in large measure wanted the dime books. This type of library did not enable the reader's education or his reforming due its sheer commercial aspect, where success consisted in catering by default to the taste of mass appetite.

There was no Jewish pedagogical institute in Oradea, or in Transylvania, for that matter. This had a negative effect on the structural make up of the teaching staff. In Oradea, the concept of "cheder m'tukan", the modern version of the Talmud Tora school was unknown. Wide spread in Eastern Europe, this type of educational institution attained important results and provided its students with a well-founded Jewish education.

Oradea had a renowned Jewish hospital, but lacked a Jewish clinic, where poorer Jews could go for treatment. Between the two World Wars, Jewish doctors did a remarkable job in treating the Joint organization orphans, but the thought of establishing a Jewish policlinic did not even come up.

Oradea had many beautiful clubs where Jews were in leadership positions (Ujságiró, Unió, Fészek, etc.,), yet a specifically Jewish meeting-place was missing. A pre-emptive step had been taken in this direction in the summer of 1927. Odön Lipót Weisz rented a beautiful house with a garden at the end of Pavel Street. A worthy man, Mr. Bárány, managed the operation. This Jewish club had a kosher restaurant and café service. Even the Hebrew Language Association, Ivria, which functioned only three-four years, moved its entry-level library to this place. Karen Kajemet opened its offices in one of the rooms, Zionist organizations committed to hold their meetings there, yet the enterprise that started out so nicely failed only a few months later.

Until the last moment, the Oradea Jewry had no Jewish club. In the 1930s, as the rift between Jews and non-Jews deepened, Jewish clubs were established in the most remote parts of Transylvania. They existed in small villages like Székelyudvarhely, Maroshéviz, or Csikszereda, where Jews gathered only once or twice a week. How much greater was the need for these clubs in Oradea, where the Jewish clubhouses could have been conducive in many respects to diminishing the antagonism that separated conservative, liberal, Zionist, Mizrachist, Agudist, Hungarian assimilationist, Romanian assimilationist, bourgeois and socialist thinking Jews. The Jews of Oradea were an exception in this regard. Until the last moment, they were chasing the mirage of "Judeo-Christian cooperation"…

In an earlier chapter, we described that Zionist organizing started with the creation of the so-called Népiroda (People's Office) to promote the principles of defending civil liberties. This office, too, closed its doors after six months. It is true that in the later years of the Romanian reign the rule of law improved and people were no longer involved in close dog-fights with one another, yet many-many poor Jews could have profited from the services of a Jewish legal aid bureau.

Jewish art, specifically Jewish songs and music had no sanctuary of any kind in Oradea. The two Jewish high schools, each had a song and music club, but those never crystallized into Jewish song and music associations.

In 1921, following the model of the Hagibor of Cluj (Kolozsvár), a Jewish sport association named Makkabea was created in Oradea. Dr. Ignácz Markovits, Samu Epstein, Dr. Imre Bárdos, Dr. Odön Váradi, Gábor Kohn, Mór Goldstein, Vilmos Blum, Ferencz Weisz, and József Heller, all local leaders of Zionist organizations took active part in the establishment of this association. The emphasis was on soccer, games, and trophies. The ping-pong and tennis divisions were created in the 1930s; however, the Oradea Jewry had no gymnastics club, even though it would have filled a greater need in revitalizing the youth than the other divisions.

The media in Oradea presented a separate case. The community, which roughly represented the readership of about six Hungarian language daily papers, did not have a specifically Jewish newspaper. The weekly papers and the monthly magazines proved also to be short lived. They included "Jövendö" (1919), "Mizráchi" (1920), "Zsidó Közlöny" (1920-21), and "Zsidó Kisebbség" (1928-29). To some degree, these publications could have helped to develop a more positive Jewish public opinion, but they could not survive due to the disinterest of the readers. Published regularly from 1929 to 1940, "Népünk", a very popular weekly publication with extensive circulation, was the only exception; it was silenced only after the Hungarian annexation of Oradea.

Sándor Wasserstrom founded the weekly "Népünk" (Our People) with the effective support of the Oradea Orthodox community and continued all along as chief editor, with Zoltán Leitner as editor in charge. In the beginning, "Népünk" functioned as the official organ of the Transylvanian Mizrachi organization. In time however, the affiliation weakened, until the Mizrachi had no longer any voice in the publication.

Sándor Wasserstrom was born into an established Oradean Orthodox family of grocers. In part, he was privately schooled, then went on to graduate from the Premontrei Gymnazium. At age 22, following his marriage, he took over his father's business and during First World War made a sizeable fortune with it. After the 1918 Revolution, he purchased the József Guttmann brick factory, later acreage, and simultaneously with the brick production, he developed model agricultural farms. Later on, he subdivided the land around the brick factory and on the resulting 15 streets, he made possible the building of a new city district, the Wasserstrom settlement. Alongside these business activities, he also took an interest in Jewish community life and journalism. In 1920, with the Mizrachi program, they elected him alderman of the Orthodox community. His articles appeared in the "Uj Kelet" (New Dawning) newspaper published in Cluj, and "Mult és Jövö" (Past and Future), in Budapest. In 1924, the local chapter of the Mizrachi elected him its president.

The publishing of "Népünk" meant a turning point in both, Sándor Wasserstrom's career and his private life. Effectively, he became obsessed with his enterprise. For over ten years, in winter and in summer, without respite, he traveled through small and large Transylvanian towns; he gathered subscribers, collected dues, and noted the outcome of disputes between various communities. It was nearly inexplicable how a wealthy and childless man like him took upon himself such a nerve wrecking, often demeaning work. It seemed that his supply of emotional and physical strength was inexhaustible.

In the circle of his employees, it was discussed with a smile how he countered off requests for salary increase. His reasoning with the employees of "Népünk" went something like this: "What do you want from me? This paper is all but bankrupt… If I didn't have the income from the brick factory to cover the deficit of this paper, I should have ceased its publication a long time ago…" Conversely, when the workers at the brick factory asked for an increase, he referred to "Népünk". "The brick production is a total failure, and without my income from the newspaper, I should have stopped production a long time ago…"

The secret behind the eleven-year incomparable career of the newspaper "Népünk" beside Sándor Wasserstrom's diligent work can be found in the ambiance of the reigning effervescence within the Transylvanian communities. After the takeover from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a new current that could be called neo-Chassidism started to crystallize. Its visible head and leader was called Reb Jajlis Teitelbaum. This trend, the mortal enemy of Zionism, used every available resort at its disposal to try and grab power within the Orthodox communities. Where its efforts proved unsuccessful (as in Cluj), it did not shrink away from the idea of splitting the community. The new communities and prayer houses used the "szefard" designation. The cult authorities from Bucharest that in the beginning abhorred the Transylvanian Jewry divided into Orthodoxy and Neology, in the course of the years, permitted also the formation of the "szefard" rite. Casus belli was beside the point in this case: the election of new aldermen and Rabbinate, shohet, mikvah, donations for the KKL, or representation in the Orthodox Main Offices. The "máchlojke" (T.N.- disagreement, dispute) was not unlike the proverbial heavy stone: once thrown, nobody knew where it would land, whom it would hit… A little while later, professional defenders who pleaded the cases of the parties in dispute made their entrance as well. Best known among them were Reb Slomo Juda Brach from Baia Mare and Reb Smuel Hers Weisz from Nagysomkut. The latter also published a weekly newspaper in Yiddish, dedicated to matters of dispute, where he advertised his services to the communities that were in conflict with one another – for a suitable remuneration.

"Népünk" represented the so-called kultur-Orthodoxy that was defending against the neo-Chassidist camp's attacks. There was no shortage in subject matter and interest. The technical editing of "Népünk" weighed upon Zoltán Leitner (1896-1944), who at the beginning of his career used the pseudonym Zoltán Lukács. He was born into a well to do and well-respected Oradean Jewish merchant (later factory owner) family. His father, Lázár Leitner, was also president of the Orthodox community for a full cycle, but his true interests were centered on the Chevra Kadisha and the Jewish Hospital. As a young man, he already had a leadership position within the Chevra Kadisha, and since 1920 until deportation, he stood at the helm of the organization without interruption.

Zoltán Leitner, a seasoned journalist, edited a weekly newspaper that was colorful and attracted readership. He did not place that much emphasis on information as on the commentaries and sparkly wit of his personal articles.

In September 1940, after the annexation of Northern Transylvania (T.N. - to Hungary), the authorities banned instantaneously the publication of all Jewish newspapers. The gagging of "Népünk" stood as a symbol for the disenfranchisement and vulnerability of the Jews in the new regime and foreshadowed the gloom of the impending tragedy.

T.N. – Translator's Note

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