Jewish Mementos in the Zala Comitatus


After Nagykanizsa and Zalaegerszeg the third largest Jewish community lived in Keszthely. According to the census of Jews in 1725-28 5 families who had come from Rohonc rented property here. In 1875 134 persons, 24 families, lived in one of the outer streets of the city. The city was the center of the Festetics estate and thus grew continuously more bourgeois, the number of Jews increased sixfold until 1890, and continued to grow at slower pace until the last census in the monarchy in 1910. In the first half of the 20th century the Jewish population started to decrease due to moving and lower reproduction. In 1941 755 Jewish persons were registered, another 74 were qualified as Jews.
In 1810 count Festetics allowed the Jews to settle in the main streets of Keszthely, even outside of the Jewish houses.

The first synagogue of Keszthely was built in 1780 to replace the former rather small prayer house. In 1812 the Jewish community bought it from the municipality together with the rabbi quarters. The growth of the Jewish community and its purchasing power soon made the construction of a new synagogue necessary. In 1852 the new synagogue was constructed and in 1894 the classicist building was altered in early eclectic style. An organ was added in 1898. The birth house of composer Károly Goldmark to this day has kept its original character.

The Israelite community of Keszthely was founded in 1766. Rabbi Alexander (Sándor Waltersdorfer) became the first president, he headed the Jewish community between 1798 and 1820. His successor, Izrael Lipschitz, lead the community from 1822 to 1828. In 1830 Ruben Goldman took on cantor duties. His son, who was to become a world famous composer, was born on May 18. The congressional community functioned as center for the estate from 1855 on. After 1897 religious life was lead by the nationally renowned historian Dr. Sándor Büchler.
From 1849 on the Keszthely Jewish community had a primary school with four classes. It closed in the 20th century. The property of the Jewish cemetery was presented as a gift to the community by Count (II) Tasziló Festetics in 1894 and in 1910 the morgue was built.
After World War I anti semitism grew in Keszthely. More and more families moved to Budapest, the Jewish population quickly decreased In 1920 987 Jews lived in the city, in 1930 there were 872, in 1941 only 755 remained. In 1929 the entire Jewish community including all rural members counted 1400 persons, most of them were merchants, craftsmen and intellectuals.

In the first half of April 1944 855 names were collected in Keszthely district, 748 of them from the city, 107 from the surrounding areas. The Jews from this district were moved to the ghetto by May 15. Two ghettos were constructed downtown Keszthely, the “upper” and the “lower” ghetto. The entrance to Goldmark House from Kossuth Street was closed up, the gates to both ghettos opened onto Hajdú Street. By May 26 the supervisors of the ghettos had compiled the list of names of those inhabitants falling under their order. According to this register 768 persons were placed in the Keszthely ghetto. 30 of the 18-48 year old men were called in for labor and deported to Kőszeg on June 13. The inhabitants of the upper and lower ghetto were brought to Zalaegerszeg on June 20, they were put in the brick factory on the outskirts of Andráshida. From there they were deported to Auschwitz on July 5. The register of Jews deported to Zalaegerszeg held a total of 719 names (not including the roughly 150 forced laborers).

More than 800 Jews from Keszthely were murdered during the Holocaust. The survivors put up memorial plaques for their relatives in the synagogue and in 1955 inaugurated a white marble column in memory of the martyrs, it stands at the entrance to the synagogue. In the beginning of the 1970s it was replaced by an obelisk of granite. Every year on the first Sunday in July stones and wreaths are put down in memory of the 829 Jews commemorated by the obelisk. In 1946 126 Jews lived in the city, in 1958 there were around 80. The Jewish community was reorganised and took up its religious and cultural activities. The liturgies for larger celebrations were held by the head rabbis (Dr. László Szirtes, Dr. Ödön Singer, György Landeszmann, Tamás Raj) who drove to the city for these occasions. The day to day life in the community was organised by the local presidents. During the 1990s many of its former property was returned to the community and religious life once again flourished under the leadership of president István Goldschmied (1993-).

Keszthely has a lot of mementos of its Jewish history. The Israelite cemetery on Goldmark Károly Street is well taken care of, apart from them many impressive tombstones the morgue, built in 1910, is also in very good condition. The synagogue downtown, in the courtyard of the Goldmark House, was renovated in 1995. In 1997 the outside was renewed and also there were decorative paintings done in the interior. The former council hall was transformed to a prayer hall, it was renovated and a gas heating system was installed. In 2004, for the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust, the Keszthely assembly put up a memorial plaque in the yard of the synagogue. A “biblical garden”, containing the plants and a small version of Kineret Lake as described in the Bible, was planted at the Eastern side of the synagogue. This garden is unique in Hungary and all of central Europe, it was inaugurated on September 3, 2003.

In the Mayer Weltner-Haus (Petőfi Street no. 1) which was given back to the community in 1993 a Talmud Torah Centre was established, there is also a Büchler memorial room containing a collection of the wise head rabbi’s personal items. A marble plate on the wall of the classicist Weltner House, built around 1930, commemorates the founder of the hospital, Mayer Weltner. Keszthely has not forgotten its citizens of Jewish descent. There is a street named after Dávid Schwarz (1850-1897), inventor of the steerable airship, and a cultural centre named after Károly Goldmark (1830-1915). For both of them there are memorial plaques. The old master himself was present at the inauguration of the Goldmark plaque in 1910. And in the theatre and congress centre there is a hall named after the “prince of theatre”, Lajos (Berger) Básti (1911-1977).

by Johannes Scholem Graf & Alexandra Vogt