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Jewish Ukraine: 10 facts about the Jews of Uzhgorod

Highland Jews, Transcarpathian Jews in Vishnyak’s photos, the philharmonia in the synagogue, the mysterious Star of David on a map, a lamplighter in bronze and a “killer whale” with Jewish ancestry.

This chapter of the “Jewish Ukraine” project recounts the joys and trials of the life of the Jewish community of Transcarpathia – Uzhgorod and environs. Despite the relative territorial proximity to Lviv, the old Jewish center of Western Ukraine, according to the chronicles Jews in Uzhgorod settled several centuries later than in Lviv. And earlier than other Jews of Ukraine, they experienced the horror of the Holocaust – today’s Transcarpathia was part of Hungary at the time, which was on the side of Germany, and so it is thought that these were the first Ukrainian Jews to be put in ghettos and then in concentration camps. Read about other, less unhappy facts from the history of the Jewish community of Transcarpathia in our new selection.

1. …in the period of Israeli dominance…

Research by the archeologist, ethnographer and folklore specialist from Mukachevo Tivodar Legotsky (1830-1915) indirectly shows that Jews lived in the Uzhgorod region (Ungvar) back in the 13th century. The first official mentions of Jews in Uzhgorod date from 1575. At the end of the 1720s, around 30 Jewish families were already living in the town. A document written in Hebrew that was found by historian Mor Gorovits shows that a small Jewish community was founded in Uzhgorod in 1724.

2. Jewish highlanders

In the 18th-19th centuries the majority of Jews of Transcarpathia were employed in wine-making and agriculture, but they were very poor. The local authorities sometimes gave them special permission for begging, so that they could get by. In general, in this area the percentage of Jews living in villages (mainly in mountainous regions) was the highest in Europe. In the late 1930s, Jewish highlanders accounted for 65% of all the Jews in the area.

3. Transcarpathia – the center of attraction for Eastern European Jews

In the late 19th – early 20th century, the Jewish community of Uzhgorod and environs began to increase because of immigrants – Jews from nearby areas moved to this region, to escape the pogroms and to enjoy more economically favorable conditions which had been created there at that time. According to the census of 1921 (within the newly-created republic of Czechoslovakia), in Sub-Carpathian Rus (as this region was called in Czechoslovakia), 93,023 Jews lived, around 15% of the total population. In Khust, there were 169 Jews per 1,000 inhabitants, in Uzhgorod the figure was 305.5, in Mukachevo 478, almost half the town residents. And in 1930 102,545 Jews lived in the area.

4. The Ungvar rabbi and writer

The Orthodox rabbi Sholom ben Iosef Gantsfrid (1804-1886), who wrote several books on Jewish religious law, was born in Uzhgorod and spent his life there. At the age of 8 he became an orphan, and the Uzhgorod rabbi took him into his family to bring him up. In 1830, Shlomo abandoned his trade and became a rabbi. He began to write, and at the age of 30 he published his first book, devoted to the laws of writing Torah scrolls, tefilin and mezuz (according to the recognized authority on Halakha in Hungary, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, this work became mandatory for people mastering the profession of sofer.) At the age of 60, Shlomo ben Iosef Gantsfrid published another important book – a brief anthology of laws necessary in everyday life, “Kitsur Shulkhan Arukh”, which went through 14 editions. The rabbi left this world on the night of Shabbat, and his grave in Uzhgorod became a site for Jewish pilgrims to visit.

5. Transcarpathia through the eyes of Vishnyak

The life of Jews in Transcarpathia from 1935-40 is recounted most vividly by the incredible series of photos by Roman Vishnyak, a photographer of Jewish ancestry, who was born in Russia and emigrated to the USA. These photographs show vignettes from the lives of local Jews. The archive of all his works, including Transcarpathia, has been put in the public domain by the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the International Center of Photography (USA).

6. Andy Warhol, the Ruthenian inspired by Jews

Andy Warhol (Warhola) was not born in Ukraine and was not a Jew, but nevertheless he has some connection with Jewishness and Uzhgorod. The founder of pop-art was born in the USA into a family of Lemk emigrants (Ruthenians, a regional group of Ukrainians), from the village of Mikova, which is in Slovakia today. Warhol never identified himself as a Jew, but Jewishness clearly inspired him – in 1980 he presented the series of works “10 famous Jews of the 20th century”, including portraits of Sarah Bernhard, Golda Meir, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein.

Warhol’s connection with Uzhgorod was established quite recently – last summer seven red and black striped poles appeared in the city, which symbolize the famous Campbell’s soup cans, and at the end of 2014 a mini-statue of Warhol was unveiled in Uzhgorod, forged from bronze (incidentally, there are many of these tiny sculptures in Uzhgorod).

7. The lamplighter in bronze

On 23 October 2010, the day of the 1117th anniversary of the founding of Uzhgorod, a statue of the Lamplighter was unveiled in the city center, the prototype for which was a Jew from Uzhgorod who was simply known as Kolya or Uncle Kolya. He was the only “head of city lamps and shop windows”, and thanks to him all the old electric lamps of the city were lit.

8. The Mauritanian synagogue

In 1904 in Uzhgorod, a synagogue of the Orthodox community was opened – it was built in the neo-Mauritanian style. The most striking element of the building façade, which was built with funds from local Jewish magnates in the community, was the central balcony with the depiction of the Star of David in a large circle. One of the inscriptions on the building reads: “Built in the year 5964 by the Jewish calendar.” During the Soviet period the building was given to the philharmonia, which “lives” there to this day. Naturally, the Jewish symbols and elements were removed – the Star of David was covered by a wall with a large window in the middle.

9. The Transcarpathian Star of David

In May of 2015 there were reports on the Ukrainian Internet that a Star of David could be clearly seen on Google Maps, in the village of Gecha in the Transcarpathia Oblast. The village, which was founded in 1319 and was previously called Mezogecha, is in a region where many Jews once lived – mainly Hungarian Jews. During the Nazi occupation mot of the local Jewish population was taken to the death camps, and local residents thought that the Star of David, a symbol of protection for Jews, may have been made by a Jew during the difficult 1940s. But a more prosaic explanation was soon found. Specialists claim that the six-pointed star is the remains of a Soviet air-defense system of mid-range missiles (S-75 “Dvina”), and the resemblance to the Star of David is just a coincidence.

10. The London killer whale of Jewish ancestry

Robert Maxwell, born as Jan Ludvik Hoch (1923-1991), was born into a Hasidic family in the village of Solotvina, which at the time of his birth was located in Czechoslovakia, and is now part of Ukraine. When the Hungarian occupation began, he moved to France, and then to England, and fought against Hitler’s troops (almost all of his closest relatives died in the Holocaust). After the end of the war he began to work in the media business. His list of achievements is a long one – he was the chairman of Mirror Group Newspapers and the Macmillan publishing house, and his media empire also included the computer game publishers Mirrorsoft in England, and Spectrum Holobyte in the USA, and in 1990 he founded The European newspaper.

Surprisingly enough, this major player in the publishing business – according to his biographers – had no books in his house. London society did not like Lord Maxwell very much. For his appearance (193 cm tall and with a weight of 136 kg) and his pushy way of making deals, he was called the “killer whale”. Robert Maxwell died in rather mysterious circumstances – his body was found without any signs of violence in the sea near the Canary Islands, where he was sailing his yacht.

 

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