Synagogues Without Jews: photos. "Koszeg has changed little since the Middle Ages, when its streets were designed in herringbone pattern, to retard invaders. Lying close to the Austrian border and the neighboring Jewish settlements in Austrian Burgenland, Koszeg was the home of a 500 year-old Jewish community that had a cherished synagogue from the mid-19th century.

In 1393, Jews from Bohemia and Germany were invited by the rulers of the Koszeg fortress to settle in the town. They were given religious freedom but were heavily taxed. In 1532, a Hungarian army of 2500 defeated a Turkish force of 55,000. Jews participated bravely in that war and were rewarded for their valor with land and other benefits. Koszeg remained a battleground, internal as well as external; so in the seventeenth century Jews fled to safer localities. They left behind precious property, including Torah scrolls that were confiscated. Immigrants from Burgenland's seven communities joined M. Schlesinger, the only Koszeg Jew in 1735, and the kehillah started to grow again. For a synagogue, the community used a small building on the land of Siesel Spitzer.

Jews became active in trade, industry and the professions. Phillip Schey of Koszeg, an influential leader, philanthropist and industrialist became the first Jew in Hungary to achieve noble rank. Baron Schey funded construction of the synagogue in Koszeg in 1859. He also funded an interfaith hospice and the first kindergarten in Hungary. The community flourished, to a maximum of 266 persons in 1910, but their numbers diminished as Jews moved to the major cities and young Zionists left for Palestine. The town archivist, Dr. Istvan Bariska found touching photos and documents that testify to the Jewish cultural life in Koszeg.

Starting in 1940, Germany conscripted male Jews in Hungary for forced labor, marching them to various deadly destinations. Toward the end of 1944, Nazi Germany was losing the war to the Russians, but their impending collapse only intensified the extermination policy they applied against the Jews. The 117 Jews of Koszeg were confined to a narrow crowded space, denied contact with the rest of the town and their kin in the labor Battalion III/4. On July 4 all were deported to Auschwitz.Five thousand Jews conscripted to forced labor from all over Hungary were temporarily quartered in Koszeg. Hani Serene, a gentile woman who secretly baked bread for the men in forced labor, remembers their tragedy and their unspeakable misery. Forced to work in the Ukraine at sub zero temperatures while living on a daily ration of 17 ounces of bread, they witnessed the trains that transported Jews from the east to the death camps. Forced westward again, when the battle went against the Germans, they were marched in the snow for 20 days, passing through empty villages in Hungary that once thronged with active Jewish life. One of the few stopping points was the town of Koszeg.The survivors of Battalion III/4 organized a reunion in November 1988. A group of 14 survivors gathered at the synagogue in Koszeg, where they affixed a bronze plaque on the outer wall. In Hebrew and Hungarian, it commemorates the Koszeg kehillah and the Jews in forced labor who perished there.

A local bank bought the synagogue building with vague intentions of conversion to an antiques shop. The Hungarian Jewish Culture Society has hopes for a fitting memorial and a Jewish museum; to teach and to remember. So far, nothing has been done, and the synagogue that was the center of a rich culture life awaits restoration. Today the building is exposed to the elements and the structure is deteriorating." [February 2009]


Kőszeg Jewish cemetery: Caretaker is István Ródler, Cemetery utca 30. [March 2009]

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 March 2009 12:01