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A group of young people skating, February 1935 (image courtesy the author)

The Zionists were bitterly divided among themselves. My mother recalled fistfights between supporters of the conventional Zionism of David Ben Gurion and the breakaway militants of Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “New Zionist Organisation” formed in 1935. Under Menachem Begin, the “Revisionists” of this “New Zionist Organisation” were to be responsible for anti-British actions in Palestine such as bombing the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, hanging two British army sergeants, setting off explosions aimed against Arab civilians and the killings during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence at Deir Yassin. One of my mother’s uncles, who escaped the Holocaust by obtaining a visa for Shanghai from the famed Japanese consul in Lithuania, Chiuni Sugihara, was a Jabotinsky supporter. My grandmother kept out of the political quarrels.

In Munkacs, as in many other parts of Eastern Europe, rebellion against tradition and its accompanying inequality led also to Jewish support for communism, despite the dangers this involved. I gathered from one Munkacs cousin, whom I met in Pennsylvania after her survival in Auschwitz and emigration to the United States, that she had been a communist when she was growing up but was reluctant to speak of it while the Cold War with the Soviet Union continued.

Ultra-orthodox Hasidism, for all its strength in the Carpathians, was by no means automatic in pre-Holocaust Munkacs. Hasidism had emerged in the 18th century as the expression of joy, spirituality, and often of superstition. Followers of charismatic religious leaders, who came to form multi-generational dynasties, were assured that the advanced learning of religious law as expressed in the Mishnah and Talmud was not essential — a welcome message to the poor. Reverence for a chosen Rebbe was central. Particular sects characteristically had their special forms of clothing and slight variations in synagogue services. Side curls, beards and fur hats for men were essentials and came to distinguish Hasidim from the “modern orthodox” communities such as Frankfurt’s. Some of the best-known Hasidic Rebbes were named after towns near Munkacs, an indication of the popularity of Hasidism in the area — the Satmar Rebbe from Satu Mare in Romania; the Belzer Rebbe from Belz in Poland; the Vischnitzer Rebbe, originally from what is now Vyzhnytsia in Ukraine; and the Spinka Rebbe, originally from Maramures in Romania.

Within my mother’s close family, my grandfather was a fully-fledged Hasid. He worked in the successful family business but was clearly more interested in religious studies, runningsynagogue services and giving ample charity. By contrast, my grandmother seems to have been more active in the business and the circumstantial evidence indicates she was considerably less attached to Hasidism. While adhering to her expected religious role at home, for example by keeping her head covered at all times and wearing a wig (sheitel), she arranged to send my mother to a non-Jewish business school and educated her in the classics of German poetry. She hired a private French teacher to read Maupassant with her. She would take my mother on visits to Vienna but appeared to have little contact with my mother's paternal grandparents, who lived there, preferring to stay with a non-religious girlfriend. Then there were mother-daughter skiing trips in the Tatra Mountains and visits to Venice and Rome.
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Marilyn Herman
December 9th, 2018
11:12 PM
Thank you for this interesting article. It throws light on a lot of things. My father (David Herman's brother), was from Munkacs.

Ros Gelbart nee Herman
December 8th, 2018
12:12 PM
I so enjoyed your account of Jewish life in pre-war Munkacs. My father and his family lived near the Corso and he also spoke of the diverse and vibrant community. We self-published his memoirs, which included childhood memories of family life as well as his experiences in the Holocaust, in David’s Story - see www.45aid.org. Thanks also for so many helpful pointers to other writing on the subject!

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