Linda and Laura’s Excellent Adventure

June 14-16, 2009

Sunday, June 14, 2009

6:33 a.m.  And they’re off!  The train platform was hard to find at first—turns out the taxi from the hotel had left us off close to the right platform but we didn’t realize that for a while.  We had unreserved seats in 2nd class so we didn’t know what to expect, but to our delight, found old-fashioned compartments.  We have our own compartment so it’s private and we can preview the trip.   Or sleep.  We ended up going to sleep last night at 1 a.m., after pizza where we saw a family from NY (on a similar trip, but to Ukraine) that we had seen at the synagogue on shabbos and the restaurant we went to and another family from Israel/Mexico.  Our 5 a.m. wake-up call was essential, as we wouldn’t have woken up otherwise…

Shabbos in Budapest was lovely.  We went to services Friday p.m. at one synagogue where we spoke with an Israeli woman visiting, but left early as we were afraid we’d miss our dinner reservations at one of the kosher restaurants that had pre-paid shabbos meals.  Dinner was excellent.  We both had delicious local heimisch dinners.

Shabbos morning we popped into the Dohany Central Synagogue to see what it was like.  We left after a few minutes for the Kaczinski Synagogue, another synagogue we had wanted to see.  Hard to find the entrance, but once we did, found the balcony with a dozen women, both locals and tourists.  There were maybe 25-30 men.  The synagogue was newly renovated with a painted green and gold ceiling.  The prayers were said very fast; the rabbi’s speech was in Yiddish, so we couldn’t understand.  Otherwise, everyone seems to speak Hebrew, more than English.  Contrary to what we saw, we learned that on Yom Kippur, all 20 of the synagogues in Budapest are full. 

We spoke with a couple of tourists after the services, including  an American-Israeli woman who was visiting for a week, and a New Yorker whose husband is Hungarian (from Pupa) and going to a reunion of survivors from that town.  His family still has an apartment in Budapest that has always been in the family. 

We weren’t hungry so we walked around the Jewish Quarter, the ghetto during Nazi times.  This is the only place you can walk around as a Jew and feel safe; otherwise there is latent anti-Semitism.  We stumbled upon a children’s dance performance where the kids were dressed in costumes of the region and did what looked like folkloric dances.  Super cute. 

Words we learned:  zarva (closed), szya (hi), kozonom (thank you).

View outside the train window is farmland.  And lots of telephone poles.

Arrived in Kosice, Slovakia’s second largest city (after Bratislava) at 9:51.  At least we figured it was Kosice because that was the time scheduled for arrival, except the signs confused us.  No signs for Kosice, only signs for Vychod.  Maybe this was the town right before Kosice?  We asked a woman who Laura helped with her luggage, and confirmed yes, this was Kosice. “Vychod” just means “exit.”  We had a good laugh at that, and learned our first new word in Slovak!

The bus station was right next to the train, so that was easy, and saw that there were buses every 10 minutes or so to Presov (Slovakia’s third largest city).  We asked the information desk for which bus we should take and she told us to take the #19 at 10:40.  So we used the facilities in the station (cost .30 Euro), got ice creams, and wandered over to where #19 would arrive.  A few minutes later, a bus labeled Presov arrived at stop #21, so we decided to take that one.  Wonder why that woman told us to take the 10:40.  Anyway, the bus ticket cost 1.60 Euro each.   We took our seats, and I fell asleep.  Presov was the last stop.

Arriving in Presov, there were no taxis at the taxi stand but people were waiting for a bus.  I asked a woman where Hotel Dukla was and she pointed right and made it clear we could walk it.  Had no idea how far or not it would be until we stopped a man with children on bikes and asked again—he told us it would be 15 minutes, pointing on my watch.  Well, it was only another 7 minutes from where we saw him.  Hotel Dukla is at the beginning of the old town, a Soviet-era hotel with a few modern touches—lights in the hallway are on motion sensors and the rooms have the electronic key cards.  Otherwise it was basic and clean.  Had wifi, although we didn’t get a good signal until later.

We set off for the town center not knowing what to expect…and we love it!  The houses are all decorated to the nines, includes relief work in white on pastel-colored buildings.  Lovely.  A smaller, provincial version of Prague.  When we set off for our walk about town, it was a ghost-town and we stood in the middle of the main street taking photos.  Turns out everyone was in church; around noon the churches all let out and by 2 p.m. the streets were busy with cars and the sidewalks with people.  Interesting it’s such a religious place after all those years of Communism.  Other than the supermarket Tesco, across from the hotel, we haven’t seen any shops open yet.

We found the old synagogue (labeled on the free map with a magen David), now the Jewish Museum.  We also found the old Jewish cemetery (similarly labeled on the map), but as expected it was locked.  Looked quite neglected from the exterior—lots of graffiti (Laura found a reverse swastika on a building on the block, and other graffiti that said (“F*** the Nazis.”)   It turns out that this was not the work of skinheads or anti-Semites, just kids playing with symbols the meaning of which they don’t really understand.

We went to the synagogue during its opening hours—each day was different; Sunday it was open from 2-4 p.m.  The synagogue is rather centrally located; just off the central square a block or so from the main church.  It was built in 1897-98 by Marcus Hollander from Tarnapol, a well-known merchant in the Kaiser’s court.   Seems he arrived in 1830 or so and was not accepted by the merchants in Presov who saw him as competition.  To win their favor, he built the Neptune Fountain that still flows in the central square.  It was interesting to me that while our family left this region in 1891, a new large synagogue was built after that; unlike in Russia and elsewhere in the Pale of Settlement, Jews did not leave this area as a response to persecution but rather they left for economic reasons. 

The synagogue is in the Moorish style, with a balcony now used for a mini-museum of Jewish ceremonial objects.  Downstairs had pews, a beautiful ark, and side study/library.   The synagogue is set in a complex of buildings around a grass courtyard that once included the Jewish elementary school, high school, butcher, and the caretaker’s residence completing the square.  Along the walls in the synagogue itself were various displays, including a collage of photos from 1945 when the synagogue was in tatters, the central platform for the reading of the Torah off its legs, beer kegs everywhere, etc.  Clearly desecrated by the local nationalist hoodlums who sent 6400 Presov Jews to their deaths.  Another set of photos showed children and their parents in school in the 1950s, so the community rebuilt to some degree afterwards.  Now there are 52 Jews left in Presov. 

The tourguide who showed us around, in German no less, is not Jewish (she’s Hungarian, she said), but from my pidgin German I learned that the previous guide died and she’s been doing this for 4 months.  She made a few errors, but I tried to tell her how meaningful it was that she was doing this, to keep the synagogue open for those who wanted to visit.  Laura and I both said afternoon prayers there; it felt extra special to bring prayers and G-d’s name back to this synagogue that has seen so much horror and sadness.  All in all, we spent about an hour there, trying to photograph every square inch and have in mind the memory of each of those who once kept this community alive and especially those who perished doing so.

Back to the 21st century and back to wandering through the town.  We found the wine museum and prison but weren’t tempted to enter either.  We chose people-watching instead, sitting down at a café for Sprites.  Luckily, the best people-watching was at our feet:  an ice cream store with a sidewalk window did an amazing business.  For some reason, and notwithstanding that we found 2 other ice cream stores in close proximity in this small town, this ice cream store had an unending line of customers.  As soon as someone was happy with his or her ice cream cone, another 4 people joined the line!  Young and old, couples and families all queued up for this particular ice cream.  We had lots of fun watching them all.

After all this, we were exhausted. 

Our guide for tomorrow’s trip just called to confirm our pick up.  His English is perfect and told us he had arranged for the keyholder to the Humenne cemetery to meet us tomorrow.  Should be great!


June 15, 2009

I woke up early to take a few more photos, including of the Neptune fountain.  Yesterday’s empty sidewalks and streets are now teeming with people going to work and kids waiting for the tram to take them to school.  Even our guide warned he might be a few minutes late if there were traffic.  Saw a few pricier cars:  Mercedes, Audi, VW, which surprised me, among all the Skodas and cheaper cars.  Someone must have some money around here, or more likely cheating on his taxes.  (Our guide’s comment to this was that the government knows about the rampant tax evasion but chooses to ignore it, deciding that consumer spending helps the economy better than what the government would do with the money.)

Preparing for the day, I rechecked some of the websites about this area, and was reminded that 100 years ago, every little hilltop around here had a Jewish community.  What a difference between that and today, and then and now in the U.S. 

We set off for the day from Presov when our guide picked us up from our hotel.  He took us past the university where he studied history and explained his interest, as a non-Jew, in Holocaust studies in which he is working on his PhD in Bratislava.  Turns out, the town where he is from had once had a thriving Jewish community, but a complete amnesia fell over the town after the Jews were deported and no one spoke about their former neighbors, the deportation, or their fate.  Our guide had intended to study the land claims stemming from Communist-era collectivization of property, but someone pointed him in this direction.  Learning the truth about his own hometown’s history lead him to develop into an expert on Jewish Slovakia; he speaks quite a bit of Yiddish but claims he is too old to learn Hebrew.  He has, however, travelled extensively throughout Israel and to Jewish institutions in the United States and is rather knowledgeable about Jewish practices, etc.

The drive in the car (1 1/2 hours) was a living history lesson where every hilltop and road had a story.  The road to Humenne, our family’s former hometown, was key, for example, as a trading route between Poland and Hungary when leather and amber from Poland were traded for wine from Hungary.  We learned about the blood libels in this area in the 1780s on the one hand, and on the other hand, that the Slovaks had the highest percentage per capita of righteous gentiles saving the lives of Jews, in Europe in the 1940s.  

Modern day’s Humenne greeted us with industrial parks of the French chemical companies here.  These factories make chemicals for textiles and provide the main source of employment for the area.

We were soon transported back in time with our first stop:  the Jewish cemetery, hidden in a maze of unmarked single-lane roads.  We were let in by George Levicky, son of Julius Levicky (died April 2009), the previous key-holder.  It is larger than we expected, although admittedly and gratefully, neither Laura nor I is an expert on cemeteries.  George, his son, and his mother, are among the 20 or so Jews left in Humenne.  (After the last rabbi died in 1969, if I remember correctly, people would go to nearby towns for Yom Kippur at least, but now no one observes much of anything.)  The headstones range in date from the mid 19th century to the late 1960s, and at some point this year will gain the new headstone for Julius Levicky.  The website for the cemetery includes an appeal for money to build a wall around it, but the wall was actually completed 2 years ago with money from the sale of the synagogue’s land to a bank in 1999 and a grant from the Lieberman Foundation of Vienna.  (Another website describes a conflict between American-Humenne Jews and Bratislava-Humenne Jews over how to use the funds from the sale of the synagogue, but George said it all went to the building of the wall, so it sounds like the Americans prevailed.) 

In a place of honor, at the midpoint of the hilly grounds and under a corrugated tin shed, lie the graves of the locally revered Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Spira and other members of his family.  I mentioned to our guide that my great-great-grandfather Marcus Rosenbluth’s father’s name was Yitzchak Isaac as well, and he explained that it was not uncommon in those days to name children after the late rabbi of the town.  Laura and I walked up the hilly cemetery reading the names out loud to each other and photographing as many stones as we could.  For me, speaking the names out loud was a form of remembrance for each of the individuals buried there.  We looked for names of our family, but were unsuccessful.  Never mind.  Just being there felt like we had achieved our goal of connecting with our roots.  We were, as I’ve learned, on what Israelis call a Tiyul Shoreshim, a Journey of Roots, and following in the footsteps of about 500 mostly Americans who visit per year.  We met the caretaker, a friendly, Slovak-speaking, old man on a bicycle, and gave him a tip and our thanks.  I got the feeling he appeared for that purpose.  While the grounds were in near-perfect condition, I spotted a tangle of vines and a rug of moss on a headstone, and in a spirit of contributing to the care of the cemetery, I worked to untangle and remove the vines and moss.  A short-lived rash followed.  I guess I’m allergic to those plants, whatever they were, but was pleased to have done a bit to help.

Jewish Humenne was part of the Dynow rabbinical dynasty, of which Rabbi Spira was a member.  The Jews during the time of our family lived in large houses in the center of town.  The houses are now all shops.  The land on which once stood the main Orthodox synagogue, as well as the ritual bath and butcher shop, was sold to a bank in 1999, the funds from which went to the building of the cemetery wall, described above.  It was easy to envision walking the block or so to synagogue from one’s house.  In those days, Jews were often merchants and the non-Jews the customers.  Relations were good, particularly after the Equalization Act passed in 1867 when Jews were legally permitted (required?) to be treated as equals and could own land, live where they wanted, etc.  This was not the shtetl, where Jews lived apart, rather Jews were clearly well integrated even though they kept their own traditions.  Marcus Rosenbluth would not have recognized the town square; while the houses (and maybe his house?) are still standing, there used to be a creek and bridges traversing them where now is a lovely park.  Otherwise, the town hall from those days is still standing as is the general shape of the old area.  It’s a pretty small area; the new Town Hall is next to the former synagogue’s land.  Julius Levicky, born Levinstein (as Laura remembers) but changed his name to sound less Jewish, had had a plaque placed on the wall of this Town Hall building commemorating Humenne’s Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

We also visited the sprawling Andrassy Castle (the same family for whom the fashionable boulevard in Budapest is named), started in the 15th century, as well as one of the ca. 20 wooden churches in the country.  This church was taken apart from its original home in the countryside and reconstructed in an outdoor cultural museum a few 100 meters from the center of town.  When asked whether the villagers minded their church being picked up and moved, the guardian of the outdoor museum shrugged his shoulders and said the Communists did it, so who could complain?

But Humenne history did not stop with the 19th century.  Indeed, the 1940s were terrible times there, with deportations in both 1942 and 1944.  The Germans only passed through Slovakia for other fronts, but general anti-Semitic policies starting in 1938 and eventual deportations were carried out by Slovak Hlinka nationalist movement guards.  They paid the Germans 500 Deutsch Marks to “resettle the Jews so they’d never return.”  They claimed they did not know they were being killed, but that’s hard to believe.  Before the War, Slovakia had 130,000 Jews.  57,000 were deported in 1942, 1000 people per transport.  Another 10,000 were deported in 1944; others were able to leave for Hungary or other parts between the deportations.  Some Jews were spared by being labeled, “Economically Important,” such as a specialized doctor, craftsman, or others who were not easily replaced, or those with the means to bribe the right people.  We stopped at the train station where the Jews were put on trains for Auschwitz and other death camps and took pictures to remember it.  Sad to hear that anti-Semitism still exists, even if only a few thousand Jews remain in the country.  Part of the anti-Semitism stems from fear that survivors will return and demand land or compensation, and part is generalized libels about Jews running the world, and being the cause of the current economic situation.

Outside Humenne was an important sawmill company, Ehrenthal, Rosenbluth and Gross, established at the end of the 19th century.  They sold charcoal and wood.  Because they owned forests for the business, they were regulated by the Ministry of Agriculture and so the rules for Aryanization during the 1940s were different than for general shops.  Thus, the business managed to provide for the families for some time.  Doubt it’s still in business these days, though.  Perhaps this was a distant relative?

Over sodas at a café in the town square, our guide talked about the changing borders over here and how no one in those days or now seems to care.  What is important is one’s nationality, i.e., ethnicity, not State-affiliation.  Thus in the 19th century to early 20th century, Jews crossed into what is now Ukraine, Poland, and Hungary, to visit family and conduct business without a care; it was all the Austro-Hungarian Empire, of course.  Probably their non-Jewish neighbors were less able to cross borders as readily, as they wouldn’t have had a common language (the Jews all spoke Yiddish) or an entrée into the businesses with those on the other side of the border (in contrast, the Jews had family connections).  For this and other reasons (including as our guide explained that Jewish businessmen took the long-view in turning a profit, earning a little from each sale, rather than the more common preference among their non-Jewish counterparts of charging more and making a larger profit from each transaction), Jewish businessmen tended to be more successful than their Slovak peers.  

Overall, Humenne, like much of the area, is still scarred by Communist era architecture ringing the old city-centers, notably extended concrete, utilitarian apartment blocks whose only distinguishing features are various-colored balconies.   There has been no interest in tearing down either Communist-era architecture or monuments to the Soviet Union.  Slovaks are grateful to the Soviet Union for liberating them in World War II and blame the local Czech Communists for the more recent oppression. 

Our guide drove us to Kosice, winding on well-paved 2-lane roads travelled by local drivers weaving around the 18 wheelers bringing goods to the area.  The roads lack side guardrails and lights, so night driving on these roads must be a bit treacherous.  Even during the day, it can be tough-going:  we drove past a recently overturned truck and saw the police were there investigating.  EU money that came into Slovakia at the time of accession was all spent in the Bratislava area 7 hours away in the West, leaving little for the remote, rural parts we’re in now.

Our guide didn’t know our hotel, the Bristol, so used his GPS.  Made me a bit concerned, but I knew my mother’s masterful research skills would not have led us astray.  Mother was right; the hotel is well-appointed, two blocks from the center of the old city, two blocks the other way from the Rabbi’s house and new and old synagogues, and has the largest bathroom we’ve had yet (though it’s too bad they didn’t invest a bit more and install a shower curtain!  Why don’t Europeans appreciate vertical water?).  Before leaving us, our guide walked us over to Rabbi Steiner’s house and introduced us.  We made plans to return tomorrow for a tour of the two synagogues and lunch; it was too late to arrange for us to eat dinner there even when our guide had called midday.  Chez Steiner is the only kosher food in town.

We checked our e-mails and then took a walk to see the town all lit-up.  Kosice is another beautiful town; enormous in comparison to Presov but of the same style with the decorated buildings, fountains, parks, etc.  It will be nice to have time to explore all this tomorrow.

June 16, 2009

The hotel breakfast here was larger that in Presov, but it was the other hotel guests that were interesting.  In Presov, we met a couple of business men (two non-Jewish Dutchmen touring the synagogue whose business is the import-export of cars between Slovakia and the Netherlands) and a British academic working with the university and his wife.  Here, in Kosice, breakfast-mates included a half-dozen businessmen.  We found that one of them is a Slovak from Bratislava working for AT&T.  He was in Kosice to check in on their support call centers.  He explained that Slovaks were effective call center operators.

Weather these past few days has been made-to-order.  Sunny but not too hot, and cooler first thing in the morning and in the evenings.  Perfect for sightseeing.  Apparently, we timed this trip just right—only a few days ago they had lots of rain.

This morning we wandered around again and I bought a book of the history of the Jewish community in Kosice.  Perfect lead-in to our few hours with Rabbi Steiner, from whom we learned so much.

Rabbi Steiner shared a portfolio of maps and drawings with us depicting the history of Jewish Kosice. Nearly all of the Jews here are originally from neighboring villages in Slovakia, but clustered in Kosice post-war when they discovered they were the sole survivors from their villages.  Bratislava has the bulk of the 2400 Jews in the country.  Rabbi Steiner gave Laura a photograph of a menorah he designed and is on display in the Presov synagogue (I remember noting his name on the label there and knowing we were going to be meeting him), along with the description of the meaning behind the piece.  He spoke mostly in Hebrew and Laura did an impressive job asking him questions in Hebrew and translating that which I didn’t understand.  He explained that Jews were only permitted to live in Kosice after 1841; prior to that they could do business here but had to leave at nightfall because it was a “King’s town.”  As soon as Jews were permitted to live here, the city granted the community land for a cemetery.  20 families a year moved to Kosice in those early years.

Between 1843 and 1900, the old synagogue next to the rabbi’s house (under which is the ritual bath) in a complex of Jewish buildings, was built and later reconstructed and enlarged.  It survived the Holocaust, but not Communism; they turned the building into a book warehouse, tore up the stairs leading to the Ark, carved holes in the walls for bookcases and generally let the detailed wall painting fall into disrepair.  Now, with money from the Rothschild Foundation (the name of which he was reluctant to disclose), a major renovation project is underway.

We visited two other synagogues:  a small synagogue with a study/library which they use now on a regular basis—the small intimate size suits the small community; and a recently renovated beautiful main synagogue built in 1927-32.  They still use this synagogue on some shabboses, and did so this past one. They get a quorum of 10 men, but Steiner, as the only one in Kosice who knows Hebrew, does everything:  leads services, reads from the Torah, and is in charge of the burial society. 

Steiner pointed out the remarkable structure of the Ark, with horizontal cubbies for placing each Torah scroll.  They have only one Torah scroll now, but he made holes in the Ark in order to place it standing up as we’re used to.

The other remarkable thing Steiner pointed to was a freshly painted wall with 4 squares of the old wall left untouched.  In 1944, 1000 Jews were rounded up and stuffed inside the synagogue.  The patches of wall saved contain the notes of the wife and children of an important merchant who wrote in Hungarian on the wall that they did not know where they were being taken.  These were their last words before they arrived at Auschwitz.  

One synagogue we did not see was the Neologue synagogue, built in 1869 next to the Town Hall in the center square.  This is now, with an addition provided by the Communists, used as Kosice’s symphony hall.

The kosher kitchen, where we joined about a half-dozen retirees for lunch, serves 2 meat meals a day (2 options are offered for each meal).  Rabbi Steiner takes meals to those not strong enough to come to the cafe.  Survivors get discounted coupons for meals because the Joint Distribution Committee provides funding for this purpose.  For us it cost 4 Euro apiece for a meal of egg drop soup, escalloped potatoes with egg slices and bits of beef, a choice (self-service) of whole pickles, grated beet salad, cucumber salad, and for dessert, stewed cherries or peaches.  After lunch, we were ready to continue our exploration.

Other sites of Jewish interest here, besides the extensive cemetery that we did not see, is the daycare center located in the complex’s courtyard.  It was reconstructed with funds from the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and Foundation Ezra in 2000.  It looked clean and inviting, but unused; there are no Jewish children in Kosice to use this center!  Why monies were put to this purpose when there was no need is curious at best.

We thought we found a couple of Jewish businesses, two jewelry stores, one called Rubin and the other Safir, but Steiner says neither comes to the synagogue or is affiliated with the community.  We can only assume that they are no longer Jewish.  

We left Rabbi Steiner after the tours with hearts full with gratitude for his sharing of his time and knowledge with us and exchanged cards.  I offered to provide books or other similar resources if he needed.  He said he’d let me know.  It seems to be a well-funded operation though.

Our self-guided tour of Kosice continued on various streets and back paths, including a productive stop at a used clothing store for Laura and a look at the “Roman baths” in the basement of our hotel.  Instead of being transported to ancient Italy, as the ads promised, we just had a good laugh at their pool with columns and ivy-strewn statuettes.  The only other thing “Roman” about the baths was the font used to identify the space.

Our last laugh in Kosice involved getting to the train station.  We asked the hotel receptionist for directions (that was easy—straight) and how long it would take us to walk there.  She thought for a minute and advised, “15 minutes.”  So, we set off with our bags and water bottles, wore comfortable shoes, and hesitated to stop to take a few more pictures.  Were we going to have enough time to get there before the train left?  We had only planned 30 minutes for the journey.  After stopping for the photo ops, we arrived at the station…whew!  2 ½ minutes later.  How anyone would think this 2 block walk and crossing through a small city park would take more than that we don’t understand.

So, now we’re on the train, enjoying the countryside and being back in Hungary.  Not sure why we simultaneously and independently let out a sigh of relief when we realized we had crossed the non-existent border (we saw a sign for the Hungarian currency, Forint), but we’re happy to be returning to a city we’ve both learned to navigate.  That and the club room at the Hotel Intercontinental that the U.S. Embassy arranged for us…

We’ve come to the end of our adventure; Laura leaves at the crack of dawn for Israel and I fly to DC via Munich in the afternoon.  We’ve both learned so much about the region, both the connection to the 19th century we were seeking and the horrors of the mid-20th century we didn’t anticipate.  The 21st century does not look that hopeful for the Jewish community here, the young people have all left for larger communities in the U.S. or Israel.  The county itself, however, is undergoing the inverse—on the macro level, foreign direct investment is changing the economy, and on the micro level, old buildings on every block are being renovated.   Although Marcus Rosenbluth would not have recognized his former home, we valued walking in his footsteps and reveling in the same sunsets he would have seen.