Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

18 Av 5764 - August 5, 2004 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Sixty Years Since the Destruction of Jewish Hungary

by M. Ben Shalom

"Jews lived on Hungarian soil for a thousand years," says Mrs. C. Bronstein, who was born in the town of Szentes in southeast Hungary. "They contributed to the Jewish world some of the leading gedolim and tzaddikim of the generations whose names strike a chord in the heart of every Jew to this day. Everywhere they ventured they developed commerce and industry, bringing prosperity and jobs for local residents."

A school principal and an outstanding educator, Mrs. Bronstein describes herself as one of the surviving remnants. She has published several books on the Holocaust and Hungarian Jewry including Ke'aleh Nidaf, Acharei Hara'ash, Masa El Ha'avar, Al Eileh Ani Bochiyoh and Shever Bas Ami.

Every erev Shavuos, Am Yisroel completes Sefiras HaOmer, "yet there is another count that will go on until Techias Hameisim," she writes. "This is the count of the firebrands plucked from the fire among the Jews of Hungary. From Pesach until the end of Sivan 5704 (1944) their world came crashing down. During this bitter and harried period their families were taken away for extermination at Auschwitz and only a handful remained alive. Those who remained were chosen by Providence to survive in order to keep the embers glowing and to perpetuate the generational chain of Torah scholars and mitzvah observers.

"Today the wounds are again being opened before they have healed over--and they will never heal over. Salty tears blind the eyes when memories surface from the cobwebs of the past. The private pain over the loss of families mixes with the collective pain over the Torah world that was annihilated and is no more."

Mrs. Bronstein will never forget that day at the end of Adar, 5744 (1944). Her father, HaRav Akiva Koppel Yaakov Herman zt"l Hy"d came back from his store in Budapest in the middle of the week. "He came to Szentes all white, afraid and flustered. I never saw my father like that. He said, `The Germans took over the capital. No one can go in or out of Budapest. . . . They are arresting anyone who looks Jewish.'

"To my mother he added in a low voice that we nonetheless overheard, `The Budapest askonim sold the Jews in the small towns. They hid the bitter truth from us.'

"Father sat down and sank into learning. It was not long. Maybe an hour, maybe less. Powerful knocks on the door. My older sister rushed to open the door. . . . In the doorway stood Hungarian police officers with their feathered caps. `In the name of the law we have come to arrest the head of the family,' they said in a metallic voice. They rushed him. `Hurry up. We have no time.'

" . . . maybe a dozen more men, pure-hearted and honest, were taken along with him. They were the last of the men in the community . . .

"After that we were also taken to Gehennom on the Earth. We lost my mother and younger brother . . . when we came back after a year, my sister and I -- skeletons, embers saved from the Nazi inferno -- they told us of our father's suffering in Auschwitz and Flussenberg. `Your father was a great tzaddik. He bought a pair of tefillin with a portion of bread and rose to the Heavens wearing them.' " Mrs. Bronstein lists Hungarian Jewry's spiritual dowry before the First World War: 200 yeshivas with 11,000 talmidim(!), hundreds of shtetls and dozens of towns with 725,000 Jews -- until the 24th of Adar 5704 (1944) when Adolph Eichmann, may his name be blotted out, crossed the border with his company of storm troopers. The serene life of Hungary's Jews, many of whom kept halochoh down to the last detail, would never be the same again.

The question of who were the "Hungarian Jews"is determined according to geographical lines that really extend slightly beyond the borders of Hungary. There were Jews who couldn't speak a word of Hungarian but were still considered Hungarian Jews. The survivors we spoke with stress that the concept of Hungarian Jewry was determined by the Austro-Hungarian Empire that ruled from Czechoslovakia to Yugoslavia and Transylvania (part of Romania).

Hungarian Jewry consists of two groups: the Jews of the North and West of Hungary in the Oberland region were under the influence of German kehillos and were non-Chassidic, classic Ashkenaz communities, based on the way of life and the customs they adopted, while the Jews of the Unterland who lived in the eastern part of Hungary were under Chassidic influence along with the Jews further to the east in Carpathia.

"In these places," explains HaRav Shmuel Avishai Shtockhammer, chairman of the Mash'abim literary center and secretary of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah of Agudas Yisroel, "one can find the naissance of many different groups of Chassidus such as Vishnitz."

The town of Vishnitz was in Bukovina. After World War I the court of Ohev Yisroel, the father of the Imrei Chaim and the grandfather of the current Admor, fled to the town of Grosswardein on the Romanian-Hungarian border.

Other Chassidic courts from Hungary include Satmar, Sighet, Munkacz, Spinka, Nadvorna, Kaleb, Stropkov, the Admorim of Kretchnef (today in Rechovot, Kiryat Gat and Jerusalem), HaRav Pollak (later the Admor of Petach Tikva), Ungvar and Erlau. (Ungvar and Erlau were not really Chassidic, says HaRav Shtockhammer.) HaRav Dushinsky was also originally from Hungary (Oberland) along with HaRav Aharon Roth, the author of Shomer Emunim, who engendered Chassidic outgrowths such as Bergszas and Toldos Aharon. Tzanz came from the city of Klausenberg and Papa, Galante, Skulheed and Shomrei Hachomos were all from Hungary.

The Jews of both Oberland and Unterland had many yeshivas and Torah life flourished. Major rabbinical figures like the Chasam Sofer and HaRav Menachem Mendel of Rimnov played a prominent role in the life of Hungarian Jews. The Chasam Sofer, who went to Bratislava (Pressburg), laid the path for Hungarian Jewry and many Jews of Hungarian background are part of the communities he established.

Following the French Revolution the winds of the German Enlightenment blew as far as Hungary, but the Chasam Sofer is especially known for his strong stand against the storm, strengthening religious life throughout Hungary and keeping Hungary's Jews strong in emunoh and mitzvah observance.

Earlier, the Maharal of Prague (in nearby Czechoslovakia), the Noda BeYehuda, HaRav Yehuda Assad and others left their imprint on Hungarian Jewry.

Before the Holocaust, Hungary boasted HaRav Meir Yehuda Frei, rosh yeshiva of the Ashkenaz-style Yeshivas Shuran, HaRav Sholom Weider of Nirdhaus, HaRav Yehoshua Buksbaum of Galante, HaRav Dovid Dov Meizlish of Auhal, HaRav Chaim Eliezer Shapira of Munkacz, author of Minchas Elozor, HaRav Shmuel Dovid Unger of Nitra, HaRav Elimelech Kahane of Ungvar, HaRav Sholom Eliezer of Ratzport, HaRav Mordechai Yaakov Gottlieb of Mishkoltz, HaRav Yaakov Elimelech Panet, HaRav Anshil Katz of Sardali, HaRav Shlomo Zalman Ehrenreich of Shimloy and HaRav Ze'ev Wolf Gintsler of Pahar-Dramat.

In an article as short as this one we cannot even list all the living Jewish communities in the area before the Holocaust. The above is just a sample.

Had the pleading by HaRav Weissmandel, the rov of Bratislava, been heeded and the train tracks to Auschwitz bombed by the Allies, Hungarian Jewry may not have been destroyed . . . But who can know cheshbonos Shomayim, who can know Hashem's secrets?

Nevertheless, not all hope was lost. "The sound of Torah did not cease entirely, but was hushed and became subdued," wrote the late Rav Nosson Karpel Neugershal, a talmid at the Slovakian-Hungarian Yeshivas Shuran, a few years after moving to Eretz Yisroel. "I believe this same flame of Torah now flickering among the embers is still destined to burn bright and to start a large and strong fire whose light will break through the darkness of the Diaspora . . . These precious bochurim dispersed by the wicked authorities and taken off for forced labor in various places will rise up and gather around their esteemed rabbonim and will take their places in the botei medrash and will resume their studies with the same fervor as before."

Jewish Purity

According to Mrs. Bronstein the spiritual treasures once held in Hungary are beyond counting. "We have a feeling that a redeemer has yet to rise up and reestablish Hungarian Jewry in all its past splendor. Normal eyes are unable to sob over the terrible loss, but rather a special source of tears is needed to mourn the world that was destroyed, the great leaders of the nation, the tinokos shel beis rabbon, the pious women, the talmidei chachomim fathers, the precious bochurim learning in the botei medrash, as well as the honesty, the chessed, the pure emunoh in Borei Olom, the uncompromising education in Torah and mitzvas. And this is what characterized Hungarian Jewry most of all: honesty and mitzvah observance without compromise."

In his book Igro Depirko HaRav Tzvi Elimelech Shapira of Dinov, a talmid of HaRav Menachem Mendel of Rimnov, compiled responsa from his rebbe. In one of the questions HaRav Menachem Mendel is asked why it is that there are Jews who send their sons to cheder and to shul and teach them to say, "Omen, yehei Shmei Rabboh," as all kosher Jews do, yet in the end the child does not blossom into a kosher Jew. His answer: because the child was raised with non-kosher money.

The motto of Hungarian Jewry was just the opposite: kashrus and honesty in ruchniyus and in gashmiyus. The clerk and the teacher must come to work on time and the merchant must conduct business dealings with honesty and integrity.

Therefore, before the Holocaust, they merited numerous offspring blessed by Hashem. They used their time wisely and lived sparingly in modest homes with simple clothes, but demanded the very best in spiritual matters and Torah growth, in mitzvah observance, in discrete tzedokoh and chessed, and such matters. They avoided bitul Torah scrupulously and showed meticulousness and dedication in every job and undertaking. Glorious botei knesses, holy yeshivas and talmudei Torah were supported by the community. To these sacred objectives the Jews gave generously, even if it meant less food on the table.

In Munkacz Mrs. Beinhorn recalls how on Fridays the streets would fill with men rushing to the mikveh who, after the tevilloh, would take care not do melochos but would spend their time studying parshas hashovua or reciting Shir Hashirim.

"Then everyone would head off to his own kloiz. The Vishnitz kloiz was on Koshot Street, the beis medrash for Ziditshov Chassidim was on Shogar Street; the Belzer shtiebel was on Kartolia Street along with the Spinka kloiz and others. With more than half of the population of the city Jewish there were organized communal institutions such as Bikur Cholim, Chevra Mishnayos, Tzedokoh Vechessed, Linas Chessed, a public kitchen for the needy, and various women's organizations operating in cooperation and harmony.

"We didn't study at Bais Yaakov because there was no school," she reminisces, "but the house itself was a living classroom for mussar and halochoh. Every mother was a private teacher for her daughters, guiding them in the halochos of the home and kashrus, and was even a workshop for home hechsherim that were passed on from mother to daughter. Mother would teach us how to embroider for our trousseau with our initials as well as knitting and craftwork, cooking and baking, and everything we needed to know as Jewish wives. I loved to read during my childhood, but I was also taught that the work learned in the home is of the utmost importance."

The Yeshivas of Hungary

"The Jews of Hungary are characterized by Jewish purity," says HaRav Shtockhammer. "These are Jews who took at their motto the verse: `Tomim tihiyeh im Hashem Elokecho, to fulfill Torah and mitzvas with temimus without inquiring and demanding explanations. They had Jewish warmth in avodas Hashem and in every aspect of their lives. The askonim who later arrived in Eretz Yisroel also stood out for their purity, honesty and integrity."

All of them remember the early days of Jerusalem's chareidi neighborhood Kiryat Mattersdorf, first of the outlying neighborhoods, which was founded by HaRav Simchah Bunim Klein, the son of HaRav Ephroim Fishel Klein. Mattersdorf in Yerushalayim and its neighbor Unsdorf were named after two of the "Seven Sisters" kehillos in Hungary, technically Burgenland, Austria. The Hungarians who founded these communities were widely known for their honesty and integrity.

In Eretz Yisroel, in addition to the Admorim, survivors included HaRav Dovid Sperber, gavad of Rashov and one of the leading gedolei Torah there (one of the Afarchasto De'aniyo), and his son-in-law HaRav Yehoshua Deutsch, now of Katamon. HaRav Akiva Sofer, author of Daas Sofer and the great-grandson of the Chasam Sofer, served as the rov of Pressburg before the Holocaust and was saved during the early years of the war. A member of Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah before the Holocaust, he went on to set up Yeshivas Pressburg in Jerusalem. HaRav Yosef Adler, known as the Gaon of Torda and also a member of the Moetzes Gedolei Hatorah, also came to Eretz Yisroel from Hungary.

"Ovi Mori HaRav Nosson Karpel Neugershal, zt"l," recounts Rav Mordechai Neugershal, "was a talmid of Yeshivas Shuran and remained one all his life. Many years after his petiroh in 5736 (1976), among the writings he left behind, I found three aged notebooks containing a heartwarming description of the yeshiva and life there, along with an article on its function and purpose, all penned with grace and talent. They were written a few years after his arrival in Eretz Yisroel, and the fluidity of the language and the clarity of his writing style are amazing, considering it was such a short time after he began to learn Hebrew."

Shuran is located 50 miles northeast of Bratislava, which itself lies at the confluence of Austria, Hungary and Slovakia. A distinguished yeshiva with 200 bochurim, it was considered the second largest in Hungary after Yeshivas Pressburg. Although based on the Lithuanian model, in many ways its approach was unique to the Hungarian yeshivas of the era.

The rosh yeshiva, HaRav Shlomo Meir Halevy Frei, the son of the Kesav Sofer's son-in-law, radiated his gadlus to all of the talmidim, who never forgot him. In Hungarian yeshivas, the rosh yeshiva was never off traveling far and wide to collect money for the yeshiva, since the kehilloh was expected to support the yeshiva.

In Hungary, the rosh yeshiva and the rov of the kehilloh were generally one and the same. When a rov was asked to head a kehilloh, negotiations were conducted for the setup and maintenance of a yeshiva revolving around the question of how many talmidim the community would support to study there. A rosh yeshiva who sought to extend the bounds of Torah and bring in as many local talmidim as possible would ask the residents to support a large yeshiva.

"The yeshivas known as `Hungarian yeshivas,'" writes HaRav Nosson Neugershal in his notebooks, "are also the yeshivas in Slovakia, Transylvania, Hungary, Yugoslavia and part of Austria (Burgenland). These yeshivas had many fundamental aspects in common, and all of them had a single father: the father of the Hungarian yeshivas, the Chasam Sofer. This great, fabulous gaon olom was the founder of Hungarian orthodoxy, its teacher and guide. Thanks to the work of this man of great deeds, chareidi Judaism in Hungary was preserved, comprising by far the largest segment of Judaism there."

Saying Sholom to the Rebbe

Many families sent their sons to the Hungarian yeshivas, including Jews leading a very meager existence who waited eagerly for the day when they would be able to send their sons to achieve greatness in Torah. There was also a minority of Jews who, although they managed to make a comfortable living, felt it was enough to send their sons to study Torah without having to pay for their support. Nevertheless they were sent to yeshivas instead of gymnasium or university.

"It seems to me," writes HaRav Neugershal, "in Hungary there are more [such families] than in other Diaspora countries. For these Jews the primary concern and aim is not just to support their own household but also to be able to support their sons studying in faraway yeshivas. They do not worry about the cost of the long journey and board, as long as their sons are learning in what they see as the best yeshiva. They have total faith in Chazal's axiom that a person's livelihood is determined from Rosh Hashanah until the next Rosh Hashanah except for money spent on Shabbos, Yom Tov and their sons' learning. If one spends more, one receives more. With great devotion and total satisfaction, the father goes to the post office every month with a bundle of money in his hand thinking, `This is the "reward of my labor." I am sending this money, earned through sweat and blood, to my son away learning--not medicine or law, but Toras Moshe!'

"It is hard to say whether the yeshivas adjusted to suit the various material conditions of the talmidim or whether the talmidim adjusted themselves to the material conditions . . . Thus it came about that Yeshivas Shuran was not suited for the sons of beggars or the sons of misers. The vast majority belonged to the type of families and people who readily sent their sons to study Torah and to rise up in ruchniyus and even supported them.

"Yeshivas Shuran was founded in 5609 (1849) by HaRav Feivel Plaut, author of Likutei Chover ben Chaim. He was a talmid of the Chasam Sofer, zy"o. When HaRav Frei was appointed moro de'asra he also agreed to head the yeshiva," writes HaRav Neugershal. He then proceeds to pen a fascinating description of the way of life, starting with the journey to get there.

"A few days before the start of the zman, a sense of bustling activity could be felt in the entire town, from the train station authorities to the wagon driver waiting outside the station. Yeshivas Shuran was known by the authorities as the Rabbinat Hochshule or the Talmudishe Hochshule (School for Advanced Talmudic Studies), which made us eligible for a 50 percent discount on train fare. This was no light matter. My journey, for example, instead of 80 grush, cost just half that, and I was not among the farthest away . . .

"The wagon drivers could already tell which bochurim were greenhorns and they would take their luggage straight to the yeshiva building, i.e. the main beis medrash. After the train ride, the first destination [of new bochurim] was the Rebbe's house. At this point, I must note that in Hungarian yeshivas the yeshiva director [i.e. the rosh yeshiva] is called `rebbe,' and nothing else. Nobody dared to utter his first name, not in his presence and not out of his presence. If they hadn't called him up to the Torah every Shabbos I wouldn't know his first name to this day.

"In a cramped but very well-lit hall one waits in line for a bit until a gabbai brings you into the Rebbe's inner chamber. He greets you by saying `Sholom' and you kiss his hand and he does not refuse. The Rov, whose every external feature speaks of dignity--because of the countenance on his handsome face and because of his clean, pressed attire--asks you questions like, `Where are you from?' `How old are you?' `Where did you learn until now?' and based on the answer to this question sometimes other questions arise such as, `Why did you stop learning there and come here?' which can be an unpleasant question at times. Then you depart, stepping out of the Rov's chamber with total gratification. You have now taken care of the day's most important matter of business, for through this visit, in effect, you have been accepted to the yeshiva."

He also recalls there were three types of students at every yeshiva: First, the "chozer bochur," prominent bochurim who not only had the ability to learn but to teach as well. They would take one or two talmidim who needed help and guidance in gemora. The second type was the "bochur'l," who would pay the prominent bochurim to learn with them. The in-between type was called "shiur geiher," who studied for the shiur alone, without any help.

"At Yeshivas Shuran the Rosh Yeshiva's son was known as Rav Dalmash (after the small kehilloh in Slovakia where he lived until being appointed a dayan and moreh between bochurim, particularly between the bochur'l and the chozer bochur.

"The bochurim of Shuran had to find themselves a place to live, which was not hard, within whichever price range the bochur could afford. Interestingly, at the edge of the town was a neighborhood of goyim where there wasn't a single house without a room rented out to a yeshiva bochur. About a third of the yeshiva lived there."

The Manza Committee was composed of veteran bochurim who served as gabboim. They were in charge of the money collected from the parents of every bochur staying at the yeshiva. The Manza provided the material sustenance and its gabboim took care of the food supplies and paying the bill at the market, the bakery, the butcher shop, etc. There were other committees as well.

HaRav Neugershal says that the daily schedule began at 4:30 am, just like at all Hungarian yeshivas. "At wakeup time, three taps were heard on the window of your room. The awakener coming to awaken. He was so experienced that he knew the inner workings of the boys in his zone. (There were only three wakers in total, who divided the town into three zones.) And of course there were assiduous talmidim who greeted the awakeners with the sound of their own Torah learning. He who has never known the taste of Torah learning two hours before tefillas hashachar has not known the sweet taste of learning. Your brain is a sort of tabula rasa that can absorb anything, no matter how difficult the sugya.

"The tefilloh at the yeshiva is truly avodoh shebeleiv. At our yeshiva we prayed in Nusach Ashkenaz. The shaliach tzibbur would wait until the Rov had finished each and every segment. Nobody spoke during the tefilloh, not before Borechu and not after. After the tefilloh, five chapters of Tehillim were recited, followed by Yehi Rotzon and Sholosh Esrei Middos with tremendous fervor. While the tefillin were being taken off and put away the bochurim would say the final parts of the tefilloh, each according to his own practice. Then the Rov would leave the beis medrash, approaching a few of the bochurim along the way to affectionately ask about their spiritual state. `Tell me, my son, when did you get up this morning? Do you find the weekly shiur difficult? Have you gone through parshas hashovua with Rashi? Do you ever study mussar seforim?'"

HaRav Neugershal then describes the learning schedule in their rooms where most of the bochurim prepared for the shiur the Rov would give at noontime. "Walking the streets and alleys of Shuran during these hours you could feel you were in the vicinity of a yeshiva. The sound of Torah streaming forth from the low houses with their roofs of straw and clay or brick, melded with the atmosphere you breathed in . . . "

Taking Meals

Hungary's largest yeshiva was Yeshivas Pressburg in Bratislava. Unfortunately, we did not receive descriptions from Holocaust survivors but according to Mrs. Bronstein, "Yeshivas Pressburg transformed into a symbol of nobility, integrity, observing mitzvas and most of all, uncompromising hasmodoh in Torah learning."

At Yeshivas Serdhelei, the yeshiva headed by HaRav Anshel Katz, Hy"d, were heart-stopping niggunim that captivated the hearts of all who heard them. "They say even the sheigetzim of the town would gather Friday nights under the windows of the yeshiva, humming and whistling the niggunim with deveikus."

This was because the nobility and refinement of the bochurim, who were engaged in Torah study all week long, was ingrained in their being and the song bursting forth from their pure hearts would speak even to the heart of the goy.

In Munkacz, Mrs. Beinhorn's hometown, the bochurim would eat teg (also called kest)--a few days at the home of established, distinguished baalei batim. At the Klein home, her parents would host several bochurim for teg during the week and sometimes two bochurim would even arrive together. "In the winter of 5745 [1985]," recounts Mrs. Beinhorn based on an account appearing in her book, Alim She'alu Min Ha'afar, "a gracious Jew in rabbinical attire told me, `Over fifty years ago I ate teg by you. No, you wouldn't remember me. You were too little. But I will never forget your parents' special hachnosas orchim.' The man continued to speak appreciatively about my father's home, which was later destroyed."

This was not the only home to be destroyed. Thousands of homes were devastated and the Jews who filled them with Jewish vitality never returned. We could carry on writing about them, for every Jew has a story to tell, but instead we will wait until the footsteps of the Redeemer are heard and then all of these innocent Jews who rose up to Heaven in a storm will be able to tell their stories themselves, for then they will be far more powerful.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.