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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.