2021 August Hungary Sátoraljaújhely (Ujhel)
Shifting borders, mass murder, deportation, forced migration; It is impossible to travel through eastern Europe without realising what happened in the last 80 years, during WW 2 and before the collapse of communism.
Only brick remains
Once the Jewish were an integral and essential part of life here; in Hungary, Rumania, Slowakia and the Galician area (now Ukraine and Poland). But also in Lithuania, Belarus and Russia. Sometimes the reminders of their presence are still visible, e.g. a beautifully restored (Drohobych Ukraine) synagogue, or as in Zhvoka, Ukraine a hopelessly derelict one. Hebrew texts, not painted over, can be found still in Lviv centre. Or just empty places remind where once the synagogue was, sometimes with a plaque with inscription as in Sanok in Poland.
A complete Jewish quarter survived in Trebic in the Czech Republic, where only the stones know what happened as there is no descendant present of those who once lived there. The Jewish have virtually disappeared from the region as inhabitants. Visitors with a Jewish background, however, that have come to find back the “Shetl”, the place where their ancestors lived, are numerous.
In the 18th-century ultra-orthodox Jewish pietist movements sprung up in Galicia (Western Ukraine and Poland). Hasidic Jews strictly adhere to religious laws and strive to be one with God at all times. They prefer stay separate from the rest of society. Clothing, hairstyle and habits have remained the same since then. The various groups centre around the founding rabbi, who essentially interpreted the rules.
In Sátoraljaújhely (in Hebrew Ujhely) just on the border of Hungary with Slovakia, I meet Israël Freed from London on the old Jewish cemetery. It is nearly empty. The stones are illegible and the graves are not maintained for lack of surviving relatives. But two graves stand out: the tomb of Hassidic Rabbi Yismach Moshe (Mozes Taitelbaum 1759 – 1841 ) and on the cemetery itself the grave of his housekeeper Sarah. She is also considered holy.
I ask for permission to take photographs and meet Israël Freed, the head of the family group. What brings you here? I ask Israël. “We come to pray and remember our past. Nearly every summer we have a holiday near Kisvarda. We have a little house there. It is not far from the property of my grandfather, quite a large estate. After the war the communists confiscated all, so my father could not return. We know where it is but small chance we will ever get it back.”
Next to the cemetery, there is a small synagogue a memorial building with self catering restaurant facilities. A professional company keeps all in reasonable, though not very good state. Their name is proudly indicated on the signs on the entrance. The family puts stones on the graves and burns candles. The small grandchildren run around and have fun. The ladies are not happy to be photographed but when Israël tells them it is ok for a family picture they become interested.
His father survived Auschwitz and Israël later moved to London where the family is now together, his sons and daughters and his two grandchildren. “I changed the alliteration of my name to Freed due to the pronunciation in English. I am not fish and chips so to speak. Of course in Yiddish I am called Fried.”
“Many bad things happened here” says Israël, “so many deaths, Jewish, but not only us. Communism not only killed people it took away all initiative. In present-day Hungary, the spirit to do something seems to have been lost and has not returned still. Communism took away the soul of those that remained here.”