Jewish Mementos in the Zala Comitatus


Jews started settling in the market town of Zalaegerszeg in the first third of the 18th century. According to a record from 1711 it was a Jew from Rohonc who first came to live in Zalaegerszeg. To this point there had been no Jews in the town. The first census of Jews in the comitatus of 1725-28 mentions Jews by the name of Salamon and Dávid who had come from Rohonc, their families still lived there. Already in 1735 several families (16 Jewish persons) were counted, they lived together in one household. In 1785 there were 16 families in Zalaegerszeg, 103 Jews, this was six times more than half a century earlier. The Jewish population grew continuously from the end of the 18th century on, its proportion was highest in 1869, when there were 937 Jewish citizens. The total number of Jews was at its highest in 1930, 1657 Jews lived in the city then. According to the available sources the Jewish community was founded in 1750. The first rabbis were Izsák Benowitz, Eliakim Götz and Smelke Meiseles. The first synagogue was built on a piece of property given to the community by Szombathely bishop Szenczi (it was finished in 1857) , the newer synagogue was built on the Iskola (school) Street. The growing Israelite community had eventually needed a larger building. The community was lead by director Dr. Gyula Boschán and head rabbi Izrael Engelsmann. At first an alteration to the original synagogue had been planned but in the end a prize was put out for the design of a new synagogue. Of the five submissions for the contest the design of architect József Stern from the capital was chosen the winner and the construction was taken on by Tamás Morandini, a local entrepreneur, who offered to do the exteriors and interiors for a total of 100.000 Crowns. Construction began in April of 1903 and on September 1, 1904 the synagogue was inaugurated. The ground floor of the eclectic - romanic and oriental - building measured 15,34 x 30,01 m. The facade is characterized by two thick towers with dome tops, between them there is a lancet arch. The main and side facades feature romanic and gothic elements (small rows of windows with large concave round windows). The synagogue, impressive in its size and appearance, became one of the most important buildings in the city, with its two towers it stood out well from the city scape. The building was destroyed in World War II and in 1960 purchased by the municipality which had it renovated according to a design by local architect Gyula Pelényi. The renewed synagogue was opened to the public as a concert and exhibition hall in 1983.

In 1868 the Jewish community joined the neological movement. In 1885 it became an estate district. Its most important institutions were the Chevra Kadisha, the Talmud Torah, the bread association, the women’s association and the Chanukah association. The Israelite primary school which had been opened in 1820 was taken over by the municipality in 1869, and then went into state possession in 1897. The Jewish community ran another school from 1942-43.
In 1929 the Jewish community counted 1048 people in the inner territory, meaning in Zalaegerszeg. 333 of them were taxpayers who mostly had so-called free occupations, they were civil servants or merchants. The honorary head of the Jewish community was Dr. Gyula Boschán, Jenő Rosenthal was the actual administrative director and Dr. Mózes Junger was the head rabbi of the community from 1921 on. In 1930 there were 1041 Israelite persons, the census of 1941 counted 873.
The influence of the far right began to grow in the city. The city council implemented the second of the “Jew Laws” by excluding its Jewish members in 1939. Of the 30 permanent members the council had in 1938 13 were found to be Jewish.

According to a report to the Central Committee of Hungarian Jews the congressional community had 1076 members in April of 1944, its leader was the “former lawyer” Dr. Imre Berger, rabbi Dr. Mózes Junger kept the register. A “closed off accommodation” for the Jews was planned then, they were to be placed in the houses on Kölcsey, Kis, Alsó, Madách, Mária, and Sas (Rothermere) streets and those on Kovács Károly Square as well as the houses on Iskola and Tompa streets. The Central Committee of Hungarian Jews received the report on the formation of the ghetto on May 10. A week later the Christians were removed from the area and on May 16 the ghetto was founded. The Jews from the city, the wider Zalaegerszeg district, from Lenti and Nova (375 families, 1221 persons) were forced to move there. The inhabitants of the rural ghettos were collected in camps in the Grünbaum brick factory on Bak Street and in the factory on Andráshida Street on the outskirts of the city between June 15 and 24. Together with the city Jews a total of 3450 persons was held. The Jews from the III. and IV. police districts were deported on a train with four carriages between July 4 and 6. The train left Zalaegerszeg on July 5 carrying 2900 people and arrived in Auschwitz on July 7. Along with the formation of the ghetto and the deportations began the confiscation of Jewish wealth.

In April of 1945 the returned Jews, around 100 persons, founded a council for the protection of their interests, it was banned by the Russian city command in June. In 1947 the Chevra Kadisha was reorganised and in the same year a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust was constructed. Until 1949 the Jewish community had decreased to 196 members, its president then was Imre Gózon, the managing director was Kálmán Márkus. 16 towns were part of this community. In 1958 60 Jews lived in Zalaegerszeg, in 1962 however, there were only 30.

There are many Jewish mementos in Zalaegerszeg. On the well-kept cemetery there is a Holocaust memorial of grey granite, built in 1947. The wall piece of the memorial reads “In memory of the 1100 martyrs and forced laborers displaced from Zalaegerszeg. Their death was caused by an alliance of hatred. Their memory is kept by love.” The tombstone of Joszef Haas is worth noting, in 1981 the Association for City Preservation and the Göcsej Museum placed a memorial plaque for the Jewish heroes of the struggle for freedom in 1848-49 by his grave.

The names of the victims of the Holocaust have been engraved into the boulders put up in front of the entrance to the cemetery. On the first floor of the city’s concert and exhibition hall (the former synagogue) a memorial plaque was put up in 1989. It says: “In memory of the over one thousand victims from Zalaegerszeg Israelite community.” Close to the synagogue, on Tompa Street, which used to be part of the ghetto are, the Béke - Shalom Baráti Társaság (peace - Shalom friendship association) put up a memorial plaque in 1994, it carries the following inscription: “This is the site of the center of the Zalaegerszeg ghetto in May - June of 1944. On the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust we remember the past for our present and the future.”

Near the memorial plaque for the ghetto one also finds the plaque commemorating the lawyer, royal Hungarian government councillor, and lifelong honorary member of the Zalaegerszeg Israelite community and the board association, Dr. Gyula Boschán. He was a descendant of an old Zalaegerszeg Jewish family, held several public positions and enjoyed great respect in the community. He was also a member of the commission for legality of Zala comitatus and of the city council. He was deported in 1944. The exact circumstances and date of his death are not known. On the 60th anniversary of the Holocaust a street in Zalaegerszeg was named after him.

On the wall of the fire department is another memorial plaque, it commemorates the engineer Sándor Garai who was murdered in Auschwitz. He had constructed several public buildings in his hometown. In August Gunter Demnig also placed his stumbling blocks in Zalaegerszeg. They were put into the asphalt in front of the former houses of head rabbi Dr. Mózes Junger (1874-1944), lawyer Dr. Imre Berger (1903-1944) and textile manufacturer Frigyes Schütz (1873-1944), all of them had been famous citizens and were murdered in Auschwitz.

by Johannes Scholem Graf & Alexandra Vogt