Jewish Mementos in the Zala Comitatus


The largest city of the Zala comitatus attracted many Jews in the beginning of the 18th century as many important trade routes came together here and it had a big market area. From the mid 18th century on the Batthyány family members were the lairds of the city, they were known for their tolerance towards the Jews. The first census in the comitatus 1725-28 counted one family father who had left behind his family in Rohonc. The census of 1735 showed 13 more Jews now living in Nagykanizsa, they traded goods with their own vehicles. In 1746 7 families were counted who held their liturgical services in the prayer house, the Kis Sörház (small beer house) which had been built in 1735. In 1785 there were 420 Israelites living in the city (other sources count 501). In the mid 20th century Nagykanizsa was home to the largest Jewish community in the comitatus. However, their number started decreasing between the two world wars. The Jewish proportion of the population was the highest in the years following the reconciliation. In 1869 17,9% (2707 persons) of the total population (15.125 persons) were Jewish.

Religious life started flourishing with the rising number of Jews. In 1776 Henrik Chajim Torai became rabbi (until 1792). The oldest association in the Jewish community was the Chevra Kadisha, which bought property for a cemetery from the laird of the town in 1784. In 1786 the patron of Nagykanizsa, Lajos Batthyány, set up a contract to legally regulate the rights Jews in his estate. The prayer house soon was too small for the fast growing community. It was decided to build a synagogue on the property given to the community as a present by duke Fülöp Batthyány in 1806. The synagogue was inaugurated on September 14, 1821 after a long period of preparation (1807-1821). In 1829 the community formed a choir and on October 22, 1825 the organ rang out for the first time. In 1829 the Jewish community appointed József Mann to be the conductor, and a year later it made Jahr Farkas Goldstein cantor, he stayed in duty until 1860. Their rabbi was Mayer Szántó from 1821 to 1831, he was followed by Izsák Sámuel Lőwy who was rabbi until 1840. The synagogue was altered in classicist style after the organ was put up, in 1883 the building was renovated and in 1890 the women’s gallery was enlarged. After that the synagogue remained virtually unaltered until this day. The measurements of the ground plot are 22,61 x 29,76 m, the cornice is 14,6 m high. The classicist facade is unadorned, the side facades have five windows which close in a semi circle. The inner room with the dome has a row of pillars arching up to support the gallery, the rich detailing and the interiors are in rather bad condition now, the building is no longer in use. It is property of the municipality.

In 1883 the cemetery’s morgue was built. There was a residential house at Fő Street 6 which belonged to the Jewish community. There were shops on the ground floor, above that was the rabbi’s apartment as well as rental apartments. From 1830 on the Jewish community also ran a hospital. In 1832 the community rented a building to open a Jewish primary school. In 1842 the school had an own building. It had three boys classes with 78 students. In 1843 another class was added. During the second half of the school year this fourth class learned trade skills. Also in 1843 three classes for 111 girls were initiated. After 1850 even Christian children started coming to the Jewish school because of the formidable education it offered. Classes were held in Hungarian, German and Hebrew.
In 1857 the Jewish community founded a trade school with two classes, in 1886 a school for the bourgeois children and in 1891 a higher trade school.

Lipót Lőw was rabbi for the community from 1841-46, head rabbi after 1842, he was a remarkable figure of the Jewish reformist movement in Nagykanizsa. Because of his patriotic involvement in the struggle for freedom in 1848-49 a toll was placed on the Jewish community, later it was forced to split up. In 1851 the community was refounded but it no longer had the autonomy it had enjoyed before. The Hungarian authorities picked the leader for the community until 1859. Fassel Hirsch became rabbi in 1851, he served until 1882 and was followed by Dr. Ede Neuman who was rabbi until 1918. From 1908 to 1918 he edited the "Magyar Izrael" (Hungarian Israel) magazine which was published in Nagykanizsa. In 1869 the Jewish community declared itself neological and in 1885, thanks to the incorporation of the smaller Jewish communities in the area, it became the district’s civil center.

In the cultural domain the doctor and philosopher Mór Horschetzky (1777-1859) was a notable figure, he lived in the city from 1811 until his death. From 1845 on he was a member of the Hungarian Scientific Academy and published several books, among other things he translated the works of Josephus Flavius. Author and poet József Lőwy (deceased in 1882) who wrote in Hebrew brought the community great recognition.

During the time of dualism many Jewish entrepreneurs took part in the construction of factories and the development of trade. In 1920 the areas South and Southwest of the city became part of what was to be Yugoslavia and Nagykanizsa slowly lost its economic importance. With the conditions changing like this Dr. Ernő Winkler (1894-1944) was appointed head of the Jewish community in 1919. He was dayan and religious teacher in the beginning, after 1923 he served as head rabbi. With growing anti semitism he took great care to preserve the Jewish traditions to offer spiritual education for the youth and he emphasized welfare activities in the community.
According to a report the Nagykanizsa Jewish community gave to the central council of the Hungarian Jews in April of 1944 the congressional community had 1830 members and it was headed by the attorney Jenő Halphen, rabbi Ernő Winkler was the central registrar. The community employed 11 people. The school, which employed 2 teachers, had 70 students. The Jewish community also ran a retirement home, the Chevra Kadisha had 305 members, the women’s association counted 320, the girls’ association 288 members.

The collection of Jews began on April 26 and took 3 days. The collection camp and the ghetto were located in the buildings of the Israelite community on Fő Street. Around 1800 persons were driven together there. The first group, roughly 800 people, was deported to Auschwitz on April 28. Together with the one from Munkácser this was one of the first big deportations from Hungary, it was probably part of a “single action”, a special transport by the German security police. The Nagykanizsa ghetto was cleared on May 17 or 18, around 6 weeks after the removal of the Jews living in the V. deportation zone. The train stayed in Szombathely for a few days, the laborers in the camps there had to carry away and bury the bodies of those deceased on the way. The police of Szombathely recorded that 1217 people were on the train heading for the death camps. The train arrived in Auschwitz on May 24. In total the German and Hungarian authorities deported around 2000 Jews were from Nagykanizsa on April 28-29 and May 17-18.

After the war the Jewish community was organised anew and in 1946 it already had 279 members, as the survivors of the surrounding villages joined this community as well. In 1949 the number of members rose to 291. The community opened a retirement home which took in lonely elderly men and women from all over the country. The small community follows spiritual practice and keeps its traditions to this day.

In Nagykanizsa there are many mementos of its Jewish past. The impressive tombstones in the cemetery are indicators of the former size of the community. On the grounds of the cemetery is a memorial for the martyrs of the war and in the morgue a plaque commemorates the victims of the Holocaust. It reads: “Do not kill! In memory of our 2007 dead who do not have their own graves. 1944-1994.”

The synagogue stands in the middle of a long narrow lot between Fő Street (the main street) and Zrínyi Street, it now awaits renovation. Close to it there is a memorial, column, a reminder of the ghetto,
which was unveiled on April 27 1947. It says that: “3000 Jewish citizens of Nagykanizsa and surroundings were collected here between April 26 and April 28 of 1944 to deport them to Germany and kill them. 2700 of the 3000 died.” At the entrance of the synagogue there is a memorial which was put up on the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust in 2004 - the stone plate carrying the names of the martyrs is split down the middle, it reminds of the victims murdered despite godly ordinance. At the end of the long plot on Fő Street lies the building of the community’s prayer house, there is a memorial plaque for head rabbi Dr. Ernő Winkler there.

The building that used to be the school lies on the part of the property on Zrínyi Street. In August of 2007 Gunter Demnig, a sculptor from Cologne, put stumbling blocks in front of the houses of the five Nagykanizsa martyrs as part of his European project. A copper plate for head rabbi Dr. Ernő Winkler (1894-1944) and his son Gábor Lajos Winkler (1928-1944) was put into the pavement in front of the house on Zrínyi Street 33. On Deák Square there is the plate of engineer Elemér Grünhut (1889-1944), in Ady Street that of public health officer Dr. Lipót Goda (1866-1944) and in Király Street the copper plate of poet Ilona Tausz (1890-1944) has been put into the asphalt.
Another famous citizen of Nagykanizsa was Sándor Heves, aesthetic, translator and dramatic advisor, doctor of law and philosophy at Budapest University and chief director of the national theatre. The memorial plaque on his house reads: “The name of the famous theatrist is carried on in the name of Sándor Hevesi Theatre in Zalaegerszeg.”

by Johannes Scholem Graf & Alexandra Vogt