Memories of Jewish life in Carpathian Ruthenia 100 years ago

La ville de Mukachevo en 1938, photo: Ladislav Lappa

This year marks the 100 year anniversary of the Treaty of Trianon, which was signed on June 4, 1920, making the region of Carpathian Ruthenia part of the Czechoslovak Republic until 1939. Before and throughout the interwar period, the region was inhabited by one of the largest Jewish populations in Central Europe. William West, who turns 101 years old in September, was born into a Hungarian Jewish family in the town of Velké Loučky, five kilometres outside of Mukačevo in Carpathian Ruthenia. West recalls what life was like in Mukačevo before World War II and the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia changed everything.

William West’s story begins in Velké Loučky, a small town five kilometers outside of Mukačevo, in the region of Carpathian Ruthenia. The region is often called Subcarpathia, or Podkarpatská rus, as it lies in the western basin under the Carpathian mountain range. Today, Carpathian Ruthenia belongs to Ukraine, but in 1919, the year West was born, the area was in a state of great transition.

The dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 after the Second World War changed the map of Europe dramatically. From 1918 to 1919, Carpathian Ruthenia was mostly controlled by the newly-formed Hungarian Democratic Republic. However, on November 8, 1918, the first National Council was held in western Ruthenia to determine the future of the region. Some council members wanted to remain part of the Hungarian state or to unify with the Ukrainian state, while others wanted autonomy. Then, in 1919, Ukrainian Cossacks led by Semyon Petliura attempted to conquer Mukačevo but were successfully fought off by a Jewish civilian guard. For a time, Mukačevo was split between Czech and Romanian armies and a passport was even needed to cross certain streets. Finally, on June 4, 1920, the region officially became part of the Czechoslovak Republic as a result of the Treaty of Trianon.

William West, photo: archive of Anna West

West remembers his relatives were initially unhappy about the split from Hungary, which would become a separate nation state with much reduced borders. West’s father had even served in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War. But under the treaty, Jewish residents of Mukačevo were granted official minority status along with all other Jews in Czechoslovakia. This gave them rights, and in many towns Jews were well represented on the municipal councils. A deputy was also sent to parliament in Prague. By 1930, Jews in Carpathian Ruthenia formed nearly 30% of Czechoslovakian Jewry. In Mukačevo alone Jews constituted 43% of the population.

Education was important in West’s household. At the age of six, his father enrolled him in a Czech elementary school, though he could not speak the language.

"None of us could speak Czech. We all spoke Hungarian, all of us. My dad felt like through osmosis I’ll learn the language, but I didn’t and they kept me back the first year."

After the experience at the Czech school, West briefly attended a Hungarian school, before he transferred to the Munkacs Hebrew Gymnasium, a secondary school where the curriculum was taught in Hebrew. The school was founded in 1925 and received a personal donation from then-Czechoslovak President Thomas Masaryk in the amount of 10,000 crowns. Historians have described the school as the most prestigious Jewish secondary school east of Warsaw. Chaim Kugel, the director of the school who advised West’s father about enrollment, was a leader of the Czechoslovak Jewish Party and was elected to the national parliament in 1935.

"The friends I made in school at the time became permanent friends. Now, later on, after several grades, we all just spoke Hebrew amongst ourselves. It was our main language. So forget about Hungarian, Czech, about Russian. All we spoke was Hebrew among ourselves."

Carpathian Ruthenia in 1935

When West graduated from the Munkacs Hebrew Gymnasium in 1939, the situation in Europe was rapidly deteriorating. In March 1939, Nazi Germany, which had already annexed Sudetenland, invaded the Czech provinces of Bohemia and Moravia. Hungary seized the opportunity to regain the northern territories that it had lost in the Treaty of Trianon and promptly annexed Carpathian Ruthenia, including Mukačevo. During this time, new anti-Semitic laws were passed limiting ownership of property and restricting free movement. West remembers this time as tumultuous and frightening.

"We had a radio at the time, there were no TVs available obviously, and this radio was always set on Warsaw. Because Warsaw always had jazz music which we kind of all favored, some American music, but in between it was like a German station. And [there were] nothing but Hitler speeches and oh, it frightened the heck out of us. My mother strictly forbade to have this station [on]; she was afraid of it."

By May 1940, West and his two brothers, John and Eduard, left for Budapest to obtain visas that would allow them to travel through Greece, Portugal, and eventually to the United States. Their plan was to reunite with their father, who had already left Hungary, and his relatives living in New York. Their mother, mother’s family, and their youngest brother would stay behind in Mukačevo and later be transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp in 1944, where they all perished. Just as West and his brothers received their visas, on August 31, 1940, West was apprehended and interrogated by the secret police in Budapest.

William West, photo: archive of Anna West

"Here I was, totally flabbergasted, you know? And this guy shoved me between two buildings and started asking questions. The question was: I want to see your ID. I took out my ID card with my picture on it from the Hebrew Gymnasium. And he started questioning me. ...I was questioned for two solid hours, this, this, this, and this, and in the meanwhile I was already having tears in my eyes. I thought it was going to be a bad ending."

Surprisingly, the police let him go and offered information that would benefit West’s escape from Europe: Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Foreign Minister and son-in-law of Benito Mussolini, would be arriving in Budapest and, as such, the Oriental Express train leaving from Budapest that day would be West’s last opportunity to get out of Hungary. West and his brothers narrowly made the train out of Budapest and arrived in Piraeus, Greece on September 1, 1940.

As at the outset, the rest of West’s journey out of Europe was perilous, one marked by encounters with submarines during their time at sea and with the Gestapo while on land. West also recalls the kindness of other Jewish refugees on their passage, who ultimately stepped in to help him and his brothers arrive safely in Lisbon. Once in Portugal, West and his brothers went to American embassy to renew their visas.

"So we come to the embassy and there are hundreds of people, hundreds of people, if not thousands, milling around the embassy. I told them that our visas have expired. And they said to us you have to fill out a new application form. The application form said your nationality. Had I put down Hungarian, I would have never gotten it [the visa]."

Mukačevo, photo: Tamara Kozlenko, CC BY-SA 3.0

West put down Czechoslovak as his nationality and later realized that if he had marked down Hungarian, he likely would never have made it out of Europe. He discovered in the years after the war that the Czechoslovak government-in-exile, then led by president Edvard Beneš, exerted political pressure in order to have visas expedited for all former Czech citizens that were stranded overseas. By December 1940, West and his brothers found passage on the SS NYASSA from Lisbon, where they had awaited renewed visas for many months. They arrived in Hoboken, New Jersey some days later.

After the war, it is estimated that some 2,500 Jews returned to Mukačevo, but after it was annexed to the Soviet Union, many left for Czechoslovakia and Israel. Under Soviet rule, synagogues were confiscated and some Jews were imprisoned for practicing sheḥitah, a Jewish method of slaughtering certain animals for food. Today, only a small Jewish community remains.

Shortly after his arrival in New York, West enlisted in the U.S. Army and served in the Battle of Kwajalein in the Pacific campaign. Later he returned to Europe to study medicine at the Ruprecht-Karls University in Heidelberg, graduating in 1952. For over 50 years, West worked as a pediatrician in the San Joaquin Valley in California. West did not return to Mukačevo until 2006, but he was able to reunite with his former classmates of the Munkacs Hebrew Gymnasium in Tel Aviv in 1975 and later in Los Angeles. He currently resides in Stockton, California with his wife Brigitte. A plaque in Prague’s New Jewish Cemetery memorializes the members of West’s family who perished in Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Author: Anna West
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