A Forgotten Moorish Synagogue Amidst Uzhgorod’s Tangled Ethnic History

Late last year, while walking around the otherwise somewhat drab western Ukrainian town of Uzhgorod, I came upon a building which looked like something straight out of 1001 Arabian Nights: a Moorish-influenced synagogue constructed in red brick with Andalusian-style motifs and flourishes displayed on the façade.  Originally constructed in 1904, the synagogue features ornate and curved decorations in tandem with the contemporary Jewish style of Central Europe, as well as a distinctive central horseshoe arch.  At the time the synagogue was first built, Uzhgorod formed part of the old Habsburg Empire, and in fact the synagogue was designed by two leading Austro-Hungarian architects of the day.

Uzhgorod is the local administrative capital of Transcarpathia, a region known for its multi-ethnic character.  Ever since the fifteenth century Jews had thrived in Transcarpathia, where they were allowed to own land and practice certain trades from which they were excluded in other parts of Europe.  Within the towns and countryside, Jews lived peacefully side by side with other minorities and even spoke their languages.

Uzhgorod’s Multi-Ethnic Character

For the most part, such positive acceptance continued up through World War II.  Indeed, even though the Austro-Hungarian Empire promoted “Magyarization” of Transcarpathian Jews, the monarchy eventually emancipated them.  After World War I, Transcarpathia was taken over by newly-independent Czechoslovakia, and even though local officials practiced anti-Semitism towards the Jews, the latter enjoyed political freedoms and could assert their own identity.

Though the Jewish community has dwindled over time, Uzhgorod has a long history of positive multi-ethnic co-existence.  That, at least, is the impression I got from speaking with Uzhgorod native son Denis Pilash, a veteran of Maidan’s progressive political protest and co-editor of Kyiv’s Commons Journal.  Though he defines himself as Rusyn, Pilash also has Hungarian, Croatian, and perhaps even German, Tatar and Jewish roots.  Prior to World War II, he told me, Transcarpathia was known for inter-ethnic harmony and the area was one of the few places in Central and Eastern Europe which didn’t experience anti-Jewish pogroms.

Evgenia Navrotska, a native Russian speaker and historian who teaches at the Romani Studies Department at Uzhgorod National University, echoed Pilash’s perspective.  Speaking to me at a local coffee shop, she told me that Uzhgorod was historically home to various Jewish sects including Orthodox and Hassidim.  Prior to World War II, almost 10,000 Jews lived in the town, that is to say about thirty percent of Uzhgorod’s population.  In addition to the Moorish synagogue, Jews owned and operated a local hospital and old-age home.

Test of Multi-Ethnic Tolerance

Despite this tolerant history, World War II represents a big blot on Uzhgorod’s reputation as a multi-ethnic haven.  Just months before the outbreak of World War II, Transcarpathia reverted from Czech to Hungarian control, and though Jews continued to maintain their way of life, with some even managing to assist their kinsfolk who had arrived in the area after fleeing persecution in nearby Slovakia and Poland, the warning signs were growing more ominous.

In short order, the Hungarians expelled so-called “Jewish foreign nationals” from Transcarpathia, that is to say Jews who could not prove their citizenship even though they had been living in the area for generations.  Needless to say, most wound up being exterminated by the SS in German-occupied Poland.  Others were shipped to Kamenets-Podolsk, a Ukrainian city which had been occupied by the Germans as Nazis advanced into the Soviet Union.  There, Transcarpathian Jews were murdered by the German SS with assistance from Hungarian units as well as Ukrainian conscripts.

Next, the authorities in Budapest turned their sights on local Hungarian Jewry which began to long for the earlier days when Transcarpathia formed part of Czechoslovakia.  In March, 1944 Germany occupied Hungary outright and promptly set up ghettoes obliging Jews to move to fenced off areas in towns throughout Transcarpathia.  On Passover, all Jews living in Uzhgorod and the surrounding area, which amounted to 25,000 people, were forced into a brick factory and lumber yard which had been converted into a ghetto.  Three weeks later, the community was deported en masse to Auschwitz, where most died.  To their endless discredit, Hungarian authorities oversaw such deportations, which resulted in the annihilation of about eighty percent of all Transcarpathian Jews.

From the Soviets to Modern Day Ukraine

Some months later, the Soviets overran Transcarpathia and incorporated the region into the USSR.  Needless to say, by this point most Jews who had managed to survive the Holocaust simply packed up and emigrated overseas.  Those who chose to stay, however, were subjected to religious discrimination.  In Uzhgorod, almost the entire Jewish community had been wiped out and the old synagogue, which some regard as the most beautiful in all of Europe, was left vacant.              In short order, the Soviets removed all visible signs of the building’s Jewish past.  For good measure, the authorities then turned the synagogue over to the state-run Ministry of Culture, which later converted the structure into a Philharmonic.  Currently, it is eerie to watch old newsreels of Uzhgorod and its once flourishing Jewish community.  A grainy, pre-war black and white video, for example, shows the synagogue with a large star of David engraved within the interior archway of the structure, a motif which was subsequently removed.

Walking through Uzhgorod today, one can discern only the vaguest vestiges of the town’s vanished Jewish history.   On the day of my visit, the old synagogue was putting on a concert.  Inside, the building was slightly dark, musty and off-putting.  Purchasing my ticket, I ventured up to the second floor where a sparse audience listened to classical music performed by an organist.  Behind the synagogue, I spotted a nondescript Holocaust memorial, consisting of a metal column surrounded by a circle on the ground emblazoned with a star of David.  Later, my contact Navrotska took me on a walking tour of Uzhgorod, along the way pointing out the bare outlines of Jewish decorative motifs displayed on buildings.

Fragile Balance

Today, some may wonder whether World War II represents a historic curse which Uzhgorod may find difficult to extirpate, or rather just an aberration on the otherwise long trajectory of multi-ethnic co-existence.  Such questions have been placed front and center since the dissolution of the USSR and the absorption of Uzhgorod into modern-day Ukraine.  Having already been subjected to abuse at the hands of Germans, Hungarians, Soviets and perhaps to a lesser degree by Czechs, Uzhgorod’s tiny Jewish minority now wonders what it might expect from Ukrainian rule.

Thus far, Uzhgorod has maintained a healthy ethnic balance, and according to Navrotska, the town comprises many minorities including Azerbaijani, Georgian, Belarusian, Gypsy and Russian-speaking Ukrainians.  However, this balance could be threatened by the emergence of Ukrainian nationalism and right-wing political forces, which have become more visible since the Maidan revolution and the onset of war with Russian-backed separatists in the east of the country.

Uzhgorod’s local officials haven’t exactly helped matters.  Take, for example, former mayor Sergey Ratushnyak, a politician who became embroiled in anti-Semitic controversy.  Speaking to a local paper, the mayor remarked that Jews were to blame for all of Ukraine’s troubles.  As a candidate in the 2010 presidential election, Ratushnyak attacked a political rival, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, calling him an “impudent little Jew” who was “successfully serving the thieves who are in power in Ukraine and is using criminal money to plough ahead towards Ukraine’s presidency” (neither Yatsenyuk or Ratushnyak wound up winning the election).

Holodomor as Anti-Semitic Trope

What’s more, over the past few years Uzhgorod itself has witnessed a number of ugly anti-Semitic incidents which have tarnished the city’s tolerant image.  In 2015, for example, vandals smashed nineteen headstones at the local Jewish cemetery.  The following year, vandals splashed red paint on the Holocaust memorial and left anti-Semitic leaflets including one displaying a Soviet hammer and sickle with a message in Ukrainian reading “Holodomor: remember who murdered your people.”

A Stalinist-era famine resulting from forced collectivization, Holodomor resulted in the killing of 3.9 million people in Ukraine including Jews.  Then as now, however, anti-Semites have linked the Soviet state to the Jewish intelligentsia.  After the attack on the memorial, the vandals sent a video of the incident to local media accompanied by a statement explaining that they had desecrated the monument as revenge for Holodomor, a genocidal act which had been perpetrated by Jews.

The famine has been a familiar trope: in 2017, a day after graffiti calling for “Death to Kikes” was scrawled on the wall of the Hesed Shpira Jewish social services building in Uzhgorod, a local Rabbi awoke to find anti-Semitic slurs spray-painted on his synagogue.  The message, which was scrawled on the building on November 25th, Ukraine’s official Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Holodomor, read, “We remember 1932-1933: take revenge.”

Understandably, such vandalism is greatly concerning to the local Jewish community, since the synagogue serves as a community center and hosts a Jewish kindergarten.  The synagogue also puts on youth events and the like, and as such there are always plenty of children around.  Footage from a camera installed at the charity center revealed a group of men wearing masks while committing the vandalism.

Interview with Local Expert

Just what does Uzhgorod’s Jewish community have to say about such developments?  For answers, I caught up with Michael Galin of Hesed Shpira social services organization, an outfit which is funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (or JDC).  After the incident at the local synagogue, he and his colleagues engaged with the police, but the authorities failed to consistently follow up and vandals were never identified.   On the other hand, Galin told me he had never personally experienced anti-Semitism in Uzhgorod, and he was doubtful that vandals enjoyed any type of broad-based support.  “Moreover,” Galin added, “the local population has supported us on the Internet and in private conversations.”

In recent years, local Jews have staged a number of events in Uzhgorod, ranging from a challah baking workshop to photo exhibits to klezmer concerts to dance festivals to commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day.  Despite this growing cultural awareness, Galin remarked that Uzhgorod’s Jews were in a “pretty miserable” state.  To hear the local expert speak, it would seem the Jewish community is more threatened by lack of resources than any lurking anti-Semitism.  Two years ago, in fact, JDC cut its funding to Uzhgorod’s Hesed Shpira, though the outfit continues to provide a small amount of assistance to the wider Transcarpathian Jewish community.

To make matters more difficult, JDC has not offered to assist in the upkeep of a museum showcasing Transcarpathian Jewish culture.  When JDC decided to sell the Hesed Shpira building, which housed the museum, Galin asked what the high-ups wanted him to do with the exhibit, to which they flippantly replied “Whatever, take it wherever you like.”  As a result, the displays are in horrible condition and lie in dusty crates at a local warehouse.

Forgotten Moorish Synagogue

In the midst of such shortfalls, what are the chances that the old Moorish synagogue will be restored to its former glory, let alone returned to the Jewish community?  Today, plans are afoot to restore the glass mosaic dome of the building, which is now covered in a tin roof.  Meanwhile, the Jewish community occasionally leases the synagogue to organize cultural events.  At the very least, Galin hopes that one day the Philharmonic might showcase the holdings of the old museum on Transcarpathian Jewish history.

There’s little doubt that in Uzhgorod, the iconic Moorish synagogue sticks out more than any other building, yet it’s unclear how many city residents have a clear grasp of the building’s history.  Intrigued to get to the bottom of such questions, Galin’s son once stopped passers-by on a nearby bridge spanning the Uzh River.  As part of a film project seeking to demonstrate the importance of setting up a museum in the old synagogue, the young man interviewed local people while filming them on video.

Throughout all his conversations, the young man pointed and asked the same basic question, that is to say “Do you know what that building is?”  Older people replied, “It’s a Philharmonic, but it used to be a synagogue.”  However, the younger generation simply responded, “Philharmonic,” without being aware of the building’s past.   “The younger generation knew nothing,” Galin told me, adding “for them, Jews are simply people dressed in funny hats and beards.”

Will Ukraine ever come to terms with historic anti-Semitism, let alone educate the next generation about the country’s Jewish history?  Political activist and Uzhgorod native son Pilash remarked that his country had advanced though challenges remain.  “There has been some progress in overcoming this harsh anti-Semitic legacy and embracing Ukrainian Jews as part of an integral part of society,” he said, adding however that some lingering prejudice still exists.  Rather than creating divisions, politicians should cultivate a Ukrainian identity which is inclusive and encompasses not only Ukrainian culture but also puts Jewish Ukrainians and others on an equal footing.  Ultimately, Pilash declared, it’s going to be a long road though Ukraine has no other choice but to move forward so as to “overcome this long-held ethnic chauvinism and xenophobia.”

Leave a comment

Content | Menu | Access panel