Honoring Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia Jewry in Ben Shemen Forest

Thursday, October 08, 2015 9:47 AM

KKL-JNF and the World Organization of Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia Jewry honor the memory of the 100,000 Jews from that region who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

With several hundred people in attendance, KKL-JNF and the World Organization of Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia Jewry honored the memory of the 100,000 Jews from that region who were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust, at a moving dedication ceremony for a trail and plaza in the Ben Shemen Forest on Sept. 30, 2015.

Avraham Leibovitch looks for name of his village, Uzhorod, on the KKL-JNF sign listing the names of 70 villages in the Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia region and the number of Jews who died in each one. Photo: KKL-JNF

Michael Ben Abu, KKL-JNF Director of Israel Fundraising. Photo: KKL-JNF“Today we stretch out our hands to the people of that wise community. Their story is part of the story of the Jewish people,” said KKL-JNF Israel Fundraising Director Michael Ben Abu. He acknowledged the especially large crowd who had come from all over Israel for this dediation ceremony. “We are proud to partner with the World Organization of Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia Jewry for this project.”

He reminded the audience that the Jewish community of Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia had been part of those who had voted for the creation of KKL-JNF at the fifth Zionist Congress in Basel in 1901, for the development of the Land of Israel.
“Now you too are part of that development of the land,” he said.

Among those present at the ceremony were the Mayors of Kiryat Gat and Kiryat Ono, Hungarian Ambassador to Israel Dr. Andor Nagy, Ukrainian Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko, representatives of Yad Vashem and of the Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jews.

Yitzhak Klein, director of World Organization of Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia Jewry. Photo: KKL-JNF“It is very emotional for us to be here in this forest in Ben Shemen, with the scenery which reminds us of the land which we are all connected to,” said second generation holocaust survivor and director of the World Organization of Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia Jewry Yitzhak Klein.

The first written mention of Jews living in Zakarpathia is in a document from the year 1515, Klein said. The rich and varied Jewish community, which constituted some 15 percent of the local population continued to flourish there until World War II.

Located in the Carpathian Mountains, Zakarpatia experienced many changes between World War I and World War II. Currently part of Ukraine, Zakarpatia was under Czechoslovakian rule until its annexation by Hungary following the destruction of Czechoslovakia by fascist Germany in 1939. With the rise of Nazism, the fate of the 130,000 Jews, including religious laborers and craftsmen, Hassidim, Zionists and secularists, was in peril. In the 1940’s the majority of Jewish men were forced into Hungarian labor battalions. In 1941, 20,000 Jews were deported and shot in Kamentz-Podolsk.

Yitzhak Livnat, Holocaust survivor from Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia unveils memorial plaque in memory of Jews from Zakarpatia-Transkarpathia who were killed in the Shoah. Photo: KKL-JNF“No more prayers were heard in the synagogues, no more voices of the young Jews studying in their schools were heard,” said Klein.

In the ensuing years, Hungary established 17 ghettos from which 100,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz in 1944, where the majority perished. Following the war, some of the survivors made their way back to Transcarpathia -which had become part of the Soviet Union -while others moved to Israel and other Western countries. Most members of the community made Aliyah in the 1970’s and 1990’s. Today only a few hundred Jews remain in Transcarpathia.

“We, the second generation, decided to bring new life to the community and in 2001 we created our organization and are continuing with the traditions in memory of our loved ones who lived there for hundreds of years and who died in the concentration camps,” he said. “We in the organization see ourselves as witnesses and a bridge to these traditions. You need to tell about the communities’ traditions of music, food, crafts and pass on the heritage of the Jews of Zakarpathia.”

Rabbi Mordechai Engelman, third generation Holocaust survivor of family from Zakarpatia-Transkarpatia. Photo: KKL-JNFFinally, when they decided to honor the memory of this community, it seemed most appropriate to do so together with KKL-JNF, he said. This site, in Ben Shemen Forest, includes a large semi-circular stone bench for visitors, a memorial plaque and a sign with a description of the community and the names of 300 villages and the number of Jews who lived in them.

He thanked KKL-JNF for their management of the project as well as the Hungarian and Ukrainian ambassadors and the many community families for their help in completing the project.

Singer Moran Magal, whose father is from Hungary and lost family in the Holocaust, sang a song written in 2014 especially for the March of the Living ceremony in both Hungarian and Hebrew, and a Kleizmer band played traditional music from the region.

“It is a mitzvah to keep the memory of our past alive,” said Rabbi Mordechai Engel, a third generation survivor of Zakarpathian Jews, addressing the audience. “Remembering our past is the basis of our future. Without our past there will never be a future. The biggest victory over the Nazis is this gathering of hundreds of Jews who came to Israel and raised families here. We must not forget the final wishes of those who perished, that we not forget them or their traditions, or their Torah.”

Hungarian Ambassador Dr. Andor Nagy. Photo: KKL-JNFSpeaking in Hebrew, Hungarian Ambassador Dr. Andor Nagy said that he had been happy to be able to turn to his good friend KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler for help with the project.

“Though I have never been to Zakarpathia-Transcarpathia I now feel I have to be there, this place from where you come and where you studied and had friends and your first loves, this place where so many Jews were killed by Hungarians. Those Hungarians were bad people and what they did was a sin,” said Nagy. “But there were also some Hungarians who saved Jews. Now you live in the Jewish homeland, but your roots are in Zakarpatia, which connects you there always.”

Ruthie Fixler, whose family members perished in the Shoah, read a poem she had written in their memory.
“We are the generation who were saved from the hole, but we are the generation who has a hole within us. We grew up without grandfathers and grandmothers, with parents who returned home broken,” she said.

Yitzhak Livnat, who grew up in Zarkaptia-Transcarpathia and survived the Holocaust, unveiled the memorial plaque.

Ukrainian Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko. Photo: KKL-JNFUkrainian Ambassador Hennadii Nadolenko said that it was important not only to remember, but to perpetuate the memories of those who perished under the Nazis, noting that his country was now marking the 74th year of the massacre of Babi Yar.

In his city, said Kiryat Gat Mayor Aviram Dahari, the Jews from the Zakarpatia-Transzakarpathia are an integral and important part of the community.

“May you continue to gather here and pass on your heritage to your children, and may there be lots of children so Israel can blossom,” he said.

“This is for the next generation, so they will remember” said Avraham Leibovitch, as he searched the list of villages on the KKL-JNF sign for the name of the Transcarparthia village of his birth, Uzhorod. “It is fitting that there be such a memorial here, though it hurts the heart to remember the tragedy.”

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