The Last Jews of Zakarpattia

To commemorate this weekend’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, János Chialá and Tali Mayer report from Zakarpattia in southwestern Ukraine, where they met some of the region’s last remaining Jews.

The Ukrainian region of Zakarpattia has always been somewhat of a borderland, and one that often exchanged hands as borders shifted around it: in the last century, it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, of Czechoslovakia, of Hungary, of the Soviet Union and then finally of independent Ukraine. The people that have inhabited it have been just as many and various: Ukrainians, Hungarians, Rusyns, Germans, Romani and Jews, many Jews who maybe found themselves at home in a geographically “in-between” place.

Over the course of four days in May 1944, tens of thousands of Carpathian Jews were deported on these train tracks, for a one-way journey to Auschwitz.
When the Jews of Khust were ordered to move into a ghetto, Stephan’s Klein family fled into hiding in Budapest. Upon their return they found their house still standing, and one of them still lives there, a portrait of his mother hanging in the living room.

Jewish life thrived here since the 15th century, as the local rulers allowed the Jews to own land and practice many trades that were precluded to them in the rest of Europe. Often seeking refuge from persecution across the borders, Jews settled in Zakarpattia and established communities that built great synagogues, schools, printing houses, businesses, vineyards and bars. In the complex tapestry of nationalities and identities that was central Europe, the Jews were fully integrated in Zakarpattia’s life: by the end of the 19th century there were as many as 150,000 Jews living in the region.

The village of Kolochava used to be home to a a few hundred Jews, living in wooden houses by the river. It all came to an end on a bright morning in late May 1944, when a column of Hungarian gendarmes drove into the village, with orders to take all the Jews away.
Agricultural labourers wait for the bus home after a day of picking grapes at the farm of a Jewish landowner who produces Kosher wine.

This tapestry would be completely unravelled by the rise of Nazi Germany and its attempt to redraw all borders along clear, racial lines. For the Jews of Zakarpattia, the border was one between life and death, and it would cut across their history forever, marking the clear separation between the times ‘before’ and ‘after’ the Holocaust. Tilda Halpert, born in 1923 in Mukacheve, has lived through both and she has invited us to her apartment to talk about it.

A religious Jew prays his morning prayer in Kolochava. He has been sent to help the local rabbi during holidays by Chabad, a Jewish religious organization whose mission is to bring Jews together and closer to God.
Tilda at her house in Uzhhorod. Since her childhood, she had been very close to one of her neighbours, but they lost touch when they were deported. After the war he sent her a letter telling her he was alive, but had been forced to join the Red Army. They had to wait another year and half to meet again, and they were married for the rest of his life.

“When the region was part of Czechoslovakia, our relations with non-Jews were absolutely normal. Maybe some kids used to call me a dirty Jew, but we were just playing, and all the children played together”. In her childhood, the Jews lived all across the city and when the Jews came out of the synagogues on Shabbat, the promenades alongside the river turned black with their hats.

Stephan Klein doesn’t know of anybody who was born before the war and is still around in Khust. In life he learned five national anthems, and can sing them in their original languages: the one of Czechoslovakia, of the Carpatho-Ukraine republic, of Hungary, of the Soviet Union and of independent Ukraine.
Empty prayer stalls in the synagogue of Khust. With great efforts, the community managed to restore the building and the interior is more or less intact, but there aren’t enough Jews to fill it, so the Jews of Khust find it less depressing to use a smaller side room instead.

“My father used to work in a village nearby that was half Jewish and half German. It was all good with the Germans, until Hitler awoke their nationalism”. Once awake, this beast immediately set upon dismantling the world Tilda had grown up in.

Avraham Leibovits reads the order to the Jews of Zakarpattia by the German occupation forces, announcing that all Jews were to move into ghettoes and that their ‘relocation’ was imminent.
Jewish traditional dances at Kolochava’s Jewish Culture Festival, held in the local historical museum, which includes the reconstruction of a synagogue and of a certain Jewish-owned bar that apparently was the town’s main hangout spot.

By 1939 Nazi Germany took over most of Czechoslovakia, fascist Hungary invaded Zakarpattia, and war became inevitable. When in 1941 the Germans began physically exterminating those they deemed racially inferior, Hungary expelled all Jews without citizenship, handing over 20,000 Zakarpattian Jews to be massacred by SS death squads in the forest of Kaminets Podolsk. In 1944 German troops occupied Hungary, and although by this point in the war Germany was retreating on all fronts, Hitler’s obsession with cleansing Europe of the Jews was only intensified by military defeat.

Aaron bakes challah in his Brooklyn Bakery in Uzhgorod. He grew up in a Jewish neighbourhood of New York and then moved here with his wife. He is fascinated by the region’s Jewish heritage, and looks forward to showing his father that it is still possible to live a Jewish life here.
The “Club” of Khust, a weekly meeting of elderly Jews who gather to have breakfast and read the news together. Their main source is the Forverts (the Forward), a Jewish-American newspaper founded in 1897 to report on Jewish news, in Yiddish.

Among the horrors of the Holocaust, the destruction of Hungarian Jewry stands out for its brutal pace: a Jew living in Hungary in March 1944 had about one chance in three of surviving the following 12 months, and the Jews of Zakarpattia shared in this grim fate. On the 19th of March, all the Jews in the region were forced into ghettoes. Between May 14th and June 7th, more than 100,000 Zakarpattian Jews were loaded on trains and deported to the Auschwitz extermination camp, where most were killed in gas chambers upon arrival. Tilda was 21 years old when she was forced to board one of those trains, and she would be one of the few who would ever return to Zakarpattia.

Listening to a classical concert in what used to be Uzhgorod’s main synagogue, a grand building that must have been able to accommodate hundreds of faithful.

Of those who did make it through that fateful year, Stephan Abramovic Klein is the only one still living in Khust. He was born in 1928 to a family of doctors, and went to a Czech school but considers himself Hungarian. What was to happen, he says, was unimaginable even as it was already taking place: in 1943 his father invited a German patient for dinner, “who had just returned from Germany,” he explained. “[The man] told them all sorts of crazy things about gas chambers and people being turned into soap. My mother got very angry, and told my father to never invite again anyone who could say such things about Germany”. But his father did believe him, and when the German soldiers arrived, the Kleins escaped. They found a way out of the ghetto and drove to Budapest, but found no respite from the terror. “The Germans were going around the streets with loudspeakers, ordering all the Jews to report to the ghetto,” he said. “You don’t know the fear you feel when you get such an order. The soldiers had guns, and we had nothing!” They were lucky enough to meet some Hungarian soldiers from Khust who brought them food from time to time, and survived in hiding until the day the city was liberated by the Red Army.

Vasily listens to his daughter Vera practising the piano in their home deep in the countryside near Khust. He rediscovered his Jewish roots after neighbours told him that his grandparents were Jews, and now tries to keep a kosher house, for example having two fridges, one for meat and one for milk products.

Some of the few survivors decided to return to Zakarpattia, often in the hopes of finding other relatives alive. They then found themselves trapped behind the Cold War’s Iron Curtain. Although Jewish religion and cultural life were forbidden under Communism, the local Jewish communities survived, in part thanks to an influx of Russian Jews. However, when the fall of the Soviet Union reopened the borders, most jumped at the chance to finally leave Europe for America or Israel.

The office of Hesed Shapira, an organization devoted to sustain Jewish life in the region, and especially to offer care to elderly Jews. One of their most successful programs provides laptops and Skype accounts to keep in touch with distant relatives, many of whom live in Israel.

Today, just a few thousands Jews remain in what used to be great communities. You can walk through the streets of Mukacheve, a place once known as das Klein Yerushalayim (“the little Jerusalem” in Yiddish), where the wedding of rabbi Chaim Elazar Shapira’s daughter in 1933 drew as many as 20,000 guests from as far as America, and not see a single Jew. In many places, the only Jews you can find are those whose names are engraved on tombstones or on memorials to various deportations.

Irshova has no Jewish community today, so there is nobody to keep the key to the old cemetery. The combination of numbers that opens the padlock is scribbled by the gate, but to be able to read it one needs to know gematria, the Jewish method of interpreting letters as numbers.

Grand synagogues still stand empty and in need of repair, and cemeteries are overgrown with weeds. Yet Jewish life carries on. Some Jews still gather on shabbat and the high holidays, often in their assimilated, half-Christian families without speaking a word of Hebrew, sharing their tables with hopeful converts, keeping the traditions alive and with them the story of the Jews of Zakarpattia.

János Chialá is a freelance photographer and journalist wandering the shores of the Mediterranean.

Tali Mayer is a documentary photographer, with a past in news photography in Jerusalem.
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