"To mercy and shelter "
Originally published in the newspaper called Magyar Narancs
40% of the citizens of Balassagyarmat were jewish in the 19.th century. Once upon a time here was the second biggest orthodox synagogue in whole Middle-Europe –it was able to welcome 4000 believers-, but after the Holocaust only 136 people returned to the city. The Jewish Museum tries to show us the past of this once blooming community.
Balassagyarmat was the capital city of Nógrád county until 1950, when, during the Rákosi-era, it was considered as the „nest of rebels” and got demoted, due to the fact, that it had mostly openly civic minded citizens. But the city still to this days proudly wears its other title: Civitas Fortissima, which means: The bravest city. This title was created to be similar to Sopron’s famous title: Civitas Fidelissima (the most faithful city). Balassagyarmat earned this title, when, during the Károlyi tenure, opposing the pacifist politics of the country, and the direct order: not to engage in combat, a group of volunteers drove the incoming czech forces out of the town on 15th January of 1919. Considering the fact, that a large amount of the citizens of Balassagyarmat were jewish, we can find jewish people among these brave volunteers too. For example Sándor Weisz, who was a 21 years old merchant-apprentice and died because of a headshot, or Miklós Kondor, pilot, machine gun wielding officer, who participated in the I. World War and later received medals for his service and courage. Horthy Miklós personally gave him an acquitment, and he didn’t have to wear a yellow star. But even this wasn’t enough later on...
We heard all this information at the Jewish Museum of the Ipoly region from Béla Majdán historian, who is one of the founding members of the Kertész István Foundation, which tries to guard the jewish heritage of the town. The history of the building also reflects the hardships the Jewry of Balassagyarmat went through in the 20th century.
Originally it was built as a youth house in the early 1920’s, and it was financed by Samu Ehrenfeld, cheese-manufacturer and some other wealthy jewish families of the town. Between the two wars it served as a theatre and jazz-club, while the back of the building became the local Chevra Kadisa (the holy bureau, which organizes the matters of burrials and other important things.). After the Holocaust, the few, who came back used it as a synagogue, but after 1980 it was closed down. In the early 1990’s some local contractors wanted to turn it into either a fitness-saloon or a pub, but the Foundation, led by Joseph Roth and a handful of jewish citizens managed to avoid this. Thanks to the donations of the local government, the Mazsihisz and a few civils, the renovated building opened as a Museum in 2000. Here we can find the memories of one of the oldest jewish diaspores of the country: torahs, menorahs, archive photos and much more.
After the pillage by the turkish empire in the 18th century, the jewish merchant slowly came back to the town and in the second half of the century the city already had a synagogue and a jeshiva. In the middle of the 19th century 40% of the locals were jewish. The expanding community decided to build a bigger synagogue in 1839, but due to arguments within the community the finishing of the process was prolonged. There is a picture showing us this unfortunate condition from the 1850’s from the newspaper called Vasárnapi Újság (The Newspaper for Sunday). It shows Balassagyarmat from the slovakian side, from a hilltop, and the landscape shows all the churces of Balassagyarmat, among them the unfinished synagogue.
That was the time when Áron Dávid Deutsch became the town's chief rabbi. He was the favourite apprentice of Moses Schreiber also known as 'Chatam Sofer', who was the famous chief rabbi of Pozsony (Bratislava, Pressburg).
He had a strong will and was able to iron out all the differences in an otherwise factious, home affairs ridden community, he was able to unite the community and by the time the „emancipation law” in 1868 was released, the synagogue was almost ready, they finished it within months. It was a masterpiece, and one of the most significant orthodox jewish synagogues in eastern Europe. Then, in the second World War, the nazis used it as a storage facility, and they blasted it when they fleed the town in 9 December, 1944 It was built in an arabesque style and had two upper circle for woman and it was able to welcome as much as 4000 people.
Rabbi Áron Dávid Deutsch was one of the greatest supporters of the orthodox-wing in Hungary.
After the emancipation law in 1868 the jewry of the town became important in every aspect of the towns life, in economy, in culture, everywhere. The buildings of the main street were owned by jews, they functioned both as their homes and as shops. This was a golden era, and it is depicted on the photos from the 1910’s and the 1930’s, which ones show the employees of the Hoffman broom factory and the paint-shop of Mr. Szántó. The museum also have pictures showing christian and jewish children celebrating their birthdays together.
On the next wall there is a bit blurry picture, which shows us the last transport. The ghetto the nazis built around the synagogue became too crowded after a while and they decided to transport the jews to the nearby tobacco fields and sheds in Nyírjes. Those sheds were originally owned by a jewish man too, named Ármin Illovszky. It was his land, where he previously managed to establish a blooming farmland, with seven artificial lakes and beautiful gardens. The lakes of Nyírjes and the park is a nature reserve nowadays, and a very popular place for small trips among the youth of the city. It is an entire different question however, how much this youth knows about its history...
The employees of the Kertész István Foundation and the Bauer family, who try to hold together the small community, try everything in their power to share their knowledge with the citizens of Balassagyarmat. For example Béla Majdán regularly holds history classes in the museum, at which classes the students of the area can learn about the towns jewish heritage and the influance and importance of the jewry. Mr. Majdán told us, that he is a catholic, but he not only finished the arts department in ELTE, but he also graduated at the Jewish University of Hungary.
He has a lot to tell us. From Ipolyság to Szécsény the nazis deported 5-6000 people. And Gyarmat was their centre of activity. They dragged away 2000 jews from the city, and only 136 of them returned. The synagogue was used as a storage facility during the war, they stored weapons and food in it, and when the nazis were forced out of town, they blew it up on 9th December of 1944. It remained in ruins untill 1950, when a sapper-unit from Budapest demolished its remains, because it was deemed to be dangerous. Nowadays there is a market where it once stood.
On of the really unique piece in the exhibition is a heavy marble-stone, which was originally above the entrance of the synagogue. On it stood the words of Josepf Ferenc in hebrew and in hungarian: „I thankfully welcome the unquestionable loyality and the reverence of the jews of County Nógrád. I have no walls in my heart toward my people, not because of their religion. So you can expect royal mercy and shelter at any time too.” He said this in 1894, when the jewish delegation of Balassagyarmat visited him. But lets not forget, he only supported the jews (for example he made donations when they built the rabbi constituting institution in Budapest) after the compromise in 1861, and he charged them with heavy taxes during and shortly after the revolution of 1848 and 1849, for their participation in it.
The marble-stone had a very adventurous journey till it ended up in the collection: in the early 1990’s the farmers of the area often went to Budapest to sell their potatoe. And one of these farmers from Őrhalom told the story, how they try to rebuild the synagogue in Balassagyarmat (actually this was the time when they tried to change it into a museum), to a former soldier. The retired sapper lead the team, which blew up the remains of the old synagogue in 1950. He took the marble-stone, brought it home and he wrapped it in nylon. He immidiately gave it back to the rightful owners in 1993, after 40 years passed.
After we finished our tour inside the museum we went to visit the local jewish cemetery, which is next to the catholic cemetery. It has almost 3400 graves in it. The oldest ones are from the 18th century. It is well kept and it is divided into parcels, and it was the first national memorial ground in Hungary. It has a variety of stones, sefardi, baroque and even stones which are graced with tulips, which are tradinional local symbols. Not far from its entrance we can find the grave of Kertész István, the founding member of the organization. „Uncle” Pista lived a lonely life and was aloof. He was originally a decorator, but he spent the majority of his life looking after the jewish cemetery of Balassagyarmat. He went to the graveyard every day, to maintain the old stones, to repair the abandoned ones, and he didn’t speak any hebrew, but he tried to repaint the writings on the graves which became unreadable. He helped those, who went to foreign countries after the war, when they came back to town, to find their relatives graves. He gathered their donations and in 1992 he founded the organization. It started with 2 million Forints. He was awarded with a Pro Urbe (for the city) medal, and he died in 1997 at the hospital on America street in Budapest.
In the older part of the cemetery we can find the grave of Deutsch David rabbi, which is two meters tall and is very beautifully sculptured. He was followed by his son Joseph Izrael, and then by his grandson David, who was dragged to Dachau alongside with most of his community. During the research involving the cemetery the historians were able to uncover some of the family ties of the rabbi families of the area and the era. It is clear for example, that Sofer Moyse had ties here too.
Beside the cheese manufactorer Ehrenfeld Saul rests his son, the famous variety-director Michel Gyarmathy. And near their resting place we can find the gravestone of Ervin Vértes, which is decorated with a hungarian flag, because he died as a martyr at age 21 in the first World War at the russian front line, defending his country. He was the only son of his family.
Michel Gyarmathy was born as Miklós Ehrenfeld, on 23. January 1908, in Balassagyarmat. He died on 30. October 1996. in Paris.
Director, set and costume designer. His father, Saul Ehrenfeld was an owner of a dairy factory in Balassagyarmat. His mother was Mária Brack. He graduated in the local Balassi Grammar School, then he moved to Budapest. He attended the College of Applied Arts and studied cheramics, later graphics and scenography. First milestone on his career was Király Theater, then he worked in the Budapest Operetta Theater, Buda Theatre Company and in the City Theater. Especially he was interested in directing musical entertaintment theatres, genres and scenography projects. For example, his name was associated with preparing the design and scenery of "Maya", an operetta of Szabolcs Fényes.
He also directed the Paris-Folies revue shows in Las Vegas from 1961.
He legendarily insisted to his Hungarian roots, to his hometown and he gave many signs to this, most spectacularly, on the stage. He inserted a hungarian part to the end of his shows for long years: a real hungarian wedding which scenes was played in the Matthias Church of Buda, and in Balassagyarmat. You could see the name of the city and "Welcome!" on a decorated banner, and in the end the singers performed the Anthem of Hungary in hungarian. He published an own book with his poems in Paris in 1970. Its title was "Smiles and Tears", in which he remembers to his childhood.
He died in Paris in 1996. According his will, he was placed to the final rest next to his father, Saul Ehrenfeld on 14. November, 1996.
Two drunk skinheads attacked the cemetery on 20th August of 2009. Within ten years this was the second time such thing happened. In a small community it is common knowledge where these kind of elements meet, so the local police managed to catch the hooligans.
Majdán Béla proved that he is also a very commited teacher too, did, what nobody does in this country, he sat down to speak with the two attackers. He tried to convince them for weeks, that they are misguided and he even took them to the grave of the before mentioned Ervin Vértes -we cant know how much that affected them-. But they wrote a letter to Mazsihisz, in which they apologized, and one of them even payed for the half of the costs of the renovations after the damage they caused.
In Balassagyarmat, like everywhere in the Hungarian countryside these days, the jewish community is only barely existing. There are only around 50 jewish citizens left, and most of them are not religious. They go to the Holocaust memorial day once a year, and that is it. But the offsprings of the citizens, who died during the Holocaust, and who emigrated after the war, came back here time to time, searching for their ancestors, and now the Foundation can help their search with photos, a database and a completed map of the cemetery.
Balassagyarmat, Hunyadi street. 24. If you want to visit it, please CHECK IN first. Phone: 35/505-985, www.balassagyarmatizsidosag.hu
This article (its hungarian original) was also published on the webpage of Mazsihisz:
(translated by Béla Majdán Jr.)