History

The Jewish Community in Sighet

Menachem Keren-Kratz

 

The Jewish settlement in Maramures began during the 17th century, when Hungary was still a part of theOttoman Empire, and intensified during the 18th and 19th centuries. Most Jews immigrated from neighboring Galicia following the harsh economic conditions and waves of anti-Semitism that prevailed there at the time. Sighet, the county's seat, soon become the religious and cultural center for all the Jews in Maramures. In 1870about2,500 Jews lived in Sighet, composing almost a quarter of the population. Many Jews in the villages of Maramures engaged in agriculture and manymerchants and industrialistsdealing with their products settled in Sighet and contributed to its prosperity.

The Jews of Maramures were characterized by a combination of three factors: Fully observing Jewish tradition and customs;Simple living, sometimes on the verge of poverty,in a culturally enclosed Jewish community; Striving for excellence in religious studies and admiring spiritual and Hasidic leaders. The rabbis of Sighet, which functioned also as social and political leaders, tried to block modern trends from influencing their congregation. Indeed, phenomena such asassimilation, conversion, religious reforms and mixed marriage occurred in Sighet decades after they become common in other Hungarian communities. To maintain the Orthodox lifestyle the rabbis in Sighet led and supported the religious supreme academy – the yeshiva – in which hundreds of students studied the Talmud most hours of the day.

At the same time, a small group of Orthodox intellectuals, influenced by the concept of enlightenment, established a cultural center in Sighet. In mid-1870s its members published two Hebrew newspapers, the first in all of Hungary. By the end of 19th century Jewish immigration increased and the number of Jews in Sighet reached 7,000, consisting one third of the population. This boasted the economy and during the turn of the century another dozen newspapers were published accommodating the community's needs. The newspaper industry, both for Jews and non-Jews, was soon dominated by Jews which served as printers, journalists, editors and publishers.Sighet also became known as a printing center for religious books, and its print shopspublished hundreds of Jewish holy books, written both by local and foreign Rabbis.

Following WWI Maramures was divided and lost it commercial connections with the northern part of the region which was annexed to Czechoslovakia. After recovering from the economic crisis which followed the war, the Jewish congregation of Sighet regained its strength and by 1920 its 11,000 Jews made up almost half of the town's population. At that time Zionist activity intensified in spite the objection of the town's rabbis and although most of Sighet Jews adhered to tradition, many joined Zionist organizations. Others joined non-Zionist Orthodox organizations, the Jewish party ornon-Jewish socialistic organizations. These changes were well demonstrated by the many political and partisan newspapers published during the interwar period.

The 1920s and 1930s were characterized by a surge of cultural activities. Many more Jewish boys and girls enlisted in the municipal schools in addition to their traditional studies. Jewish painters and sculptures exhibited their works, musicians played in concerts halls and coffee houses and Jews established their own chorus. Local and visiting actors performed Jewish plays at the local theater and Jewish and non-Jewish movies were shown at the local cinema. Authors wrote prose and poetry, public libraries were packed with youngsters reading whatever they could put their hands on, and lectures were given by prominent Jewish intellectuals. Jews established a football and tennis teams that competed with other Jewish and non-Jewish ones.This activity was well documented in the literary and cultural magazines published during the 1930 until the Holocaust. 

In the hundreds of years the Jewish community existed in Sighet, it kept good relationship with its non-Jews neighbor's. Children shared the same schools, streets and playgrounds and grown-upsinteracted and worked side by side with non-Jews. This situation began to change in the late 1930s as antisemitic regulations were imposed. In 1940 northern Transylvania,Sighet included, was annexed to Hungary and even worse decrees were enforced. Among them was the compulsory service in the Labor Battalions which many Jews didn't survive.In mid-April 1944, after the Nazi regime took control over Hungary, all Jews were ordered into the ghetto. During May 16-22all detainees were loaded on freight trains and sent to the extermination camp in Auschwitz. Of the 10,000 Jews residing in Sighet before the Holocaust only 1,000-2,000 survived. Many survivors returned to Sighet and tried to rebuild their community. However, due to the communist regime most Jews immigrated to other countries but mainly to Israel , and by mid-1960’s only a few hundreds were left.  

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