By Dr. Alex Sternberg

Historical Background of Vegvar

The Rittberg-Vegvar-Tormac-Temesvar region was settled in 1794 by Schwabs, a local people of mixed German and Hungarian ethnicity; the land became the property of the Hungarian treasury and the Hungarian government after the Schwabs left due to difficulties working the land. The Royal Hungarian government brought in ethnic Hungarian colonists who inhabited the abandoned houses of the fleeing Schwabs and settled the area.

After the 1848 Revolutionary War, the town, now called Rietberg (after an Austrian general who was the lover of Maria Theresa the queen), began to experience some stability and growth. By 1867, serfdom was abolished and the land became the property of those who worked it. The name of the town changed to Vegvar (the Last Citadel) in tribute to the original settlers from 1794 who built a fortified village in the style of those days and invested into it all their hopes and aspirations for a new and prosperous life.

By 1901, Vegvar could boast of 3,060 inhabitants, 601 houses, and two distinct banking institutions, the Végvár Savings and Mutual Help Association, founded in 1891, and the Communal Loan Cooperation, founded in 1901. City Hall was built and with it schools and a church. Vegvar was developing and prospering. After the end of the First World War and the signing of the Treaty of Paris (the Trianon Agreement), the area was ceded to Romania with the name changed once again, this time to Tormac. Although inhabited by exclusively Hungarian ethnics, they found themselves in the Temesvar region belonging to a foreign government, Romania.

Jewish presence in the greater Temesvar region, encompassing towns such as Vegvar, dates back to the 1600s when the first Jews arrived from the Balkans to set up a commercial presence. Their conditions improved markedly after the region was re-annexed to Hungary from Turk and Austrian rule in 1778.

Between 1880 and 1910, the ratio of Hungarian-speaking Jewry in the town grew from 27 to 65 percent of the population. According to the 1930 census, some Jews listed themselves as Jewish, while others declared Hungarian to be their nationality.

Hungarian Jewry at the time was experiencing a religious schism between the traditional Orthodox, the status quo, and the newly formed Neolog (a Conservative-style movement gaining popularity with Hungarian Jews who desired to assimilate into Hungarian society).

The Neolog movement was modeled after the prayer style of the famous Vienna synagogue, the Stadttemple. Jews, just like others in Hungary, were content to follow the styles and fashions dictated by the “intelligentsia” emanating from Vienna. Disputes erupted regarding worship, prayers recited in Hungarian rather than in Hebrew, and the placement of the bimah. Weddings and funerals also underwent modernization in the Neolog practice. Although such changes in liturgy were minor when compared with the more radical changes advocated by the Reform movement (rejected by most Hungarian clerics as too extreme and radical), they did cause an explosion within organized Jewry, with consequences lasting well into the Holocaust.

In addition to the proposed changes in synagogue worship, the Neolog advocated the pursuit of a secular education along with the traditional religious education advocated by the Chasam Sofer, the leader of the Orthodox faction. The attempt to forge a unified Hungarian Jewish Congress failed, and the schism between the groups became even more entrenched. Separate national entities were formed, representing those communities who followed the Orthodox and the Neolog, and there were those who did not wish to be affiliated with either one.

The Orthodox gained 56 percent, the Neolog 38 percent, and the unaffiliated less than 6 percent of the membership. It should be noted that the uniquely Hungarian Neolog movement attempted to maintain a close adherence to Orthodox practices, upholding the Shulchan Aruch; their members, however, were eager to assimilate and had little tolerance for observing the Sabbath or maintaining a strictly kosher diet.

After the Trianon Agreement, the Jewish communities of Transylvania that were ceded to Romania continued to maintain these divisions. By 1930, 65 percent of Hungarian Jewry was Neolog.

Vegvar

It was a bright and sunny Thursday morning on April 6, 1911, in Vegvar, Austria-Hungary. Adolf Elek, dressed in his good suit, as always, was pacing nervously. The bank reluctantly gave him the day off for the auspicious occurrence. After all, his wife, Karola, was expecting their child, a child long-awaited. Today, it would be different, Adolf thought. He felt that this time the child would not be stillborn, as those before. Even by the odds of chance, they were bound to be lucky today. The midwife had come an hour before and was busy tending to Karola. There was nothing to do but wait. Adolf began to nervously pace the living room of his modest home.

How did he end up in Vegvar, a small provincial town in Erdely, in County Temesvar in Transylvania, he wondered? It was certainly no Vienna. He managed to secure a position in the recently opened financial institution, the Communal Loan Cooperation. He never wanted to be a banker. Medicine was his passion. But that dream became a fading illusion, as his parents could never afford the tuition. With great reluctance, he studied economics and finance, and upon graduation, he settled into the quiet life of a banker/bookkeeper in Vegvar.

Karola suddenly cried out. The baby was coming, Adolf thought. And not much after, he heard the welcome sounds of the baby’s wailing. He rushed into the bedroom impatiently, no longer able to contain himself. The midwife held the screaming baby up to him. A girl! With great relief, he patted his wife’s arm. “A girl.” He was pleased and asked if the baby looked healthy. Will things be alright?

They named her Olga, after a grandmother.

Vegvar was as remote a village as one can imagine. Dating back to the Roman era, Vegvar was a station for wounded soldiers sent to recover near the hot thermal springs. Originally called Tormac and later Rittberg, depending on the ruling powers, it was conquered by the invading Huns in the year 749, and subsequently by the Turks, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and the kingdom of Hungary. Vegvar was not noted for anything special, with its citizens owing allegiance to whoever conquered the territory.

Vegvar was naturally not the dream town Adolf had hoped to settle into, but his position in the bank was a respectable one, and it was steady work. And now, he was a father, a family man. Things were looking upward.

Adolf lived a quiet life with Karola, trying not make any waves. Never particularly religious, they were one of three Jewish families living in Vegvar. But he shared the hope for a better tomorrow envisioned by the recent Hungarian founding fathers who named the village Vegvar, or “Last Citadel,” putting all their hopes and aspirations in that place.

When Olga turned six, she was enrolled in the local elementary school. Karola walked Olga to the small one-story schoolhouse with a red-brick roof and many windows. Olga was a good student, curious, with a great memory. Under the watchful eyes of her mother, the daily homework of repetitions in handwriting and math were completed before there was any thought about going outside to play. Karola was a strict and exacting mother.

At the end of first grade, major changes began to occur in Olga’s life.

Following defeat in World War I, Austria-Hungary disintegrated. The ethnic Romanian majority in Transylvania elected representatives, who then proclaimed union with Romania on December 1, 1918. Olga was seven years old at that time. The Proclamation of Union of Alba Lulia was adopted by the Deputies of the Romanians from Transylvania, and supported one month later by the vote of the Deputies of the Saxons from Transylvania. In 1920, the Treaty of Trianon, signaling the reality of the end of the First World War, established a new border between Romania and Hungary, leaving the whole of Transylvania within the Romanian state. Hungary protested against the new borders, as over 1,600,000 Hungarian people, representing 31.6 percent of the Transylvanian population, were now trapped on the Romanian side of the border.

Adolf, a staunchly assimilated Jew, was Hungarian, a coveted status among many Jews, reached only after decades of struggle for emancipation. As a Hungarian, Adolf refused to live in Romania. The political climate and situation also presented him an opportunity to escape his provincial background. He uprooted his family and moved across the border to Hungary. At first, he settled in Balmazujvaros, a town in Hajdú-Bihar County, in the northern great plain region of eastern Hungary, approximately 300 kilometers north of Vegvar. However, with a population of over 19,000, positions were difficult to find. After a few years of struggle, he moved again, finally settling in Dombovar in 1924.

Dombovar was a town with a population of 13,000. The Jewish community of close to 800 people offered an opportunity for Olga to learn about her heritage and this was also attractive. This community was assimilated into Hungarian society. Jews spoke Hungarian and connected with the Neolog movement. Adolf obtained a position as the chief bookkeeper in the local bank. The family was accepted in Dombovar society and began to flourish.

Never one to personally carry religious practice to excess, Adolf allowed Olga to attend the synagogue and to participate in the Jewish social events, such as sing in the choir on Friday evenings. With few educational options for girls, 13-year-old Olga was enrolled in the town’s elementary school, run by Catholic nuns.

(To be continued.)

Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz – My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor.

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