Hun­gary’s gen­tile Jewish-his­tory man

The Jewish Chronicle - - World News - BY SAM MAR­GO­LIS

THE TRAGIC STORY of the Jews who lived in Békés County, a poor, ru­ral re­gion in South-East­ern Hun­gary, was grimly echoed through­out a large sec­tion of Cen­tral and East­ern Europe. A once thriv­ing com­mu­nity was dec­i­mated dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. Most sur­vivors em­i­grated to far­away places: Is­rael, the US, Aus­tralia.

Only a smat­ter­ing re­mained dur­ing the Com­mu­nist era and, as the decades passed, the num­bers dwin­dled.

But their story is still be­ing penned, and by the most un­likely of chron­i­clers.

Ist­van Balogh, a 22-year-old nonJewish stu­dent, has al­ready writ­ten two books about lo­cal Jewish life.

“Be­fore I was even 10, my grand­mother would tell me sto­ries about Jewish life here when she was young. She re­counted how her best friend, a Jewish girl named Rozsi Le­ichter, was taken away, only to per­ish later at a con­cen­tra­tion camp,” Balogh says.

“From that point for­ward, I was drawn to the story of this com­mu­nity that once lived here amid my own, yet was no longer here.”

He started his first book, about Jew- ish life in his home town, Totkom­los, when he was just 13. Balogh’s fas­ci­na­tion re­mained so strong that he en­rolled at Bu­dapest’s Uni­ver­sity of Jewish Stud­ies, and is now in his third year.

His sec­ond book is a painstak­ingly re­searched tome about the Jews from Békés County, de­tail­ing hun­dreds of Jewish build­ings and land­marks within dozens of com­mu­ni­ties, mark­ing their lo­ca­tion and whether lo­cal coun­cils have main­tained them.

“Ev­ery week­end I would come home and plot out which city, town or vil­lage I would go to. I would ask of­fi­cials in the set­tle­ments where the Jewish land­marks were. If they were in a bad state, I would ask them why the sit­u­a­tion was this way,” Balogh says.

“I also searched through lo­cal reg­istry offices, traced the names on tomb­stones, spent hours por­ing over doc­u­ments in lo­cal li­braries — any­thing that he could use to find con­nec­tions be­tween those peo­ple who lived in Békés County and who could help me make the pic­ture more com­plete.”

Through th­ese sources, Balogh was able to gather the ad­dresses of sur­vivors and rel­a­tives of for­mer res­i­dents. The re­ac­tion was over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive. From those re­sponses, he was able to piece to­gether what had once tran­spired in this area, now mostly de­void of any Jewish life.

“The let­ters which came back to me were not only in­valu­able for re­search, but they also helped bring in a hu­man el­e­ment which was mostly miss­ing in my de­sire to learn more about what had taken place here,” he said.

Balogh’s next goal is to take his in­tense in­ter­est in Ju­daism one step fur­ther. He plans to be­come a pro­fes­sor of Jewish stud­ies — and to con­vert.

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