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Behind the Headlines a Tale of 3 Central European Cities

May 8, 1985
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Jewish youth in Central Europe, like Jewish youth in the West, are beginning to search for meaningful ways to express their Jewishness. The leadership of each of three Jewish communities there — Rumania, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia — has chosen a different way to respond to this search.

In Rumania, it is mass aliya with the creation of Jewish consciousness at its core. In Hungary, it is a concentration on the needs of the few who are religious of the expense of the many who could be pulled off the roller coaster of assimilation. In Czechoslovakia, it is the installation of a new and young rabbi who sees his role primarily in the education of the youth.

In all three of these Soviet bloc countries — recently visited by a 15-member delegation of the World Jewish Congress headed by Frieda Lewis, chairperson of its American Section — the authorities have allowed the Jewish communities to define themselves only in purely religious terms. There is no secular Jewish organizational life permitted, and no groups of any kind are allowed to organize activities, even classes, outside the official community.

The existence of variations on this theme in the responses of the Jewish leadership in the three countries to the needs of their communities, and especially of their youth, are primarily shaped by four factors. They are: the economic and political realities of the country itself, including the regime’s position on Israel; how tight a leash the community is actually on; how the leaders perceive its tightness and the possibility of loosening it; and how far they are willing to go to try to loosen it up.

While Jewish communal officials in all three countries seemed to feel free to speak with a visiting Jewish journalist, only in Rumania did some rank-and-file Jews do so openly and without requesting anonymity — and then only briefly and in the setting of communal receptions.


Rumania, with an estimated 25-26,000 Jews in 69 communities (about half of whom live in Bucharest), is a country with severe economic problems. This became obvious to the WJC delegation in the long lines in the street for food staples as well as drastic power conservation measures (in the Historical Museum, the lights were turned on when visitors entered an exhibition room and shut when they left.)

Rumania needs the most favored nation (MFN) status accorded it by the U.S. — and the good public opinion it believes helps make its annual extension possible. It is also the only Soviet bloc country which maintains diplomatic relations with Israel and allows mass aliya.

It is Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen’s acute understanding of these factors and how the interplay between them affects the Jews, plus a willingness to take risks, that are the basis of his successful efforts to stretch the leash step by step to limits unprecedented –and unmatched–in Soviet bloc countries.

“The only form of organized Jewish life allowed is religious, and they wanted to limit us to this,” Rosen told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But we are de facto fulfilling all areas of Jewish life with cultural and social activities, and there is de facto government recognition of this, too.”

Activities include over 100 synagogues, 24 Talmud Torahs, Jewish choruses and orchestras, lecture programs, an extensive network of social services — and aliya. Of the 400,000 Jews left alive after the Holocaust, most — 96 percent — have settled in Israel. Rosen believes that Rumania provides the best example of “how we can solve the Jewish problem in a socialist society.”

The “good press” Rumania has received, particularly in the U.S., for its policy toward the Jewish community has redounded to the regime’s benefit and has, in turn, strengthened its motivation to continue that policy.

Ion Cumpanasu, the Minister for Religious Affairs, assured members of the WJC delegation when they and Rosen met with him, that the special position of the Jewish community would continue. He also conveyed assurances that the government condemned and would deal strongly with any manifestations of anti-Semitism.


Hungary, with its estimated 80,000 Jews, does not have Rumania’s severe economic problems — in fact, a revival of economic growth was reported for 1984. The general atmosphere seems less tightly controlled — long leash vs. short leash — but editors of samizdat (underground) journals have occasionally been placed under house arrest and the papers confiscated.

Hungary broke off diplomatic relations with Israel in 1967. Its official expressions of anti-Israel sentiment are regarded as moderate, but Zionism is illegal. Visiting Israel is such a bureacratic hassle that few attempt it.


In what the WJC regarded as a significant “break-through,” Moshe Gilboa, director of the World Jewish Affairs Division of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, was the first Israeli official allowed since 1967 into Hungary and received as part of the WJC delegation that met with Barna Sarkadi Nagy, the vice president of the State Religious Affairs Ministry.

I Iona Seifert, secretary-general of the Central Board of Hungarian Jewry (MIOK), described the community in terms of social services and religious life — synagogues, a Jewish high school, several Talmud Torahs, an impressive Jewish museum established in 1932 on the site of the building where Theodor Herzl was born. MIOK publishes a newspaper, “Uj Elet” (New Life). Budapest is also the site of the Rabbinical Seminary, which has been training rabbis of the “Neolog” (semiconservative) movement since 1877.

But there are no youth choruses or orchestras like in Rumania or any other ongoing cultural activities organized specifically for the young people. Since the regime “does not welcome autonomous movements” and it is “politically risky” to organize, said a young academic, young people cannot meet safely except under the auspices of the official community. This means that unless the community sponsors activities for the youth, they have nothing.

Many young Jews think the community could do a lot more for the youth if it wanted to, even within the bounds of religious activity as defined by the regime. They pointed out that it is important for economic reasons for Hungary to present a good picture to the West, as it still depends on it for foreign trade and credits. Catholics and Protestants have expanded their activities, but the Jewish community, some feel, is content with a few “showcase” religious and social service programs.

Czechoslovakia’s Jewish population, estimated at between 15-18,000, is the most isolated — despite the influx of tourists visiting Prague in the wake of the recent U.S. tour of “The Precious Legacy” exhibit from the State Jewish Museum. They yearn for visitors.

The general atmosphere in the country seems that of the tight leash kind of control, with the regime fearing a repeat performance of the Dubcek Spring of 1968.

There are no diplomatic relations with Israel, and Zionism is illegal. Travel to Israel is prohibited, except on the invitation of a close family relative. The WJC delegation whose members met with Jan Pudlak, head of the Institute of Foreign Relations, was the first such group to have a meeting at such a senior level since 1968.

The regime is committed to preserving the architectural remains of the 1,000-year history of Czech Jewry. The old Jewish Quarter of Prague’s six synagogues, some housing vast Judaic collections, and the haunting cemetery, are all part of the State Jewish Museum complex, established in 1950.

The thousand years of Jewish life in Czechoslovakia are not, however, featured in school textbooks, which include only three to four sentences on “Jews and other victims of the Holocaust.” Most Czechs, despite the visits of schoolchildren to the Museum, know little about Judaism. One of the ideas raised during the discussion the WJC delegation had with Pudlak was the holding of an academic conference in Prague on the contribution of Czech Jewry to Jewish history.

The community is aware that what is really needed is an ongoing program of education on Jewish history and tradition, especially for the younger generation.

An important and hopeful development last year was the installation of a rabbi — the community’s first since the previous rabbi died 15 years ago, said Dr. Desider Galsky, president of the Council of Jewish Religious Communities in the Czech Socialist Republic.

Rabbi Daniel Meyer, who returned to Prague after seven years of study in Budapest at the Rabbinical Seminary, hopes to begin Talmud Torah classes for children and a lecture program for adults. These, however, still await official government permission.

In past years, in the absence of such a program, some individual Jews would occasionally take a few children on nature walks, imparting to them a little Yiddishkeit “along the way.” One of the Jews told the JTA, “We were like Marranos.”

(Next: Bucharest)

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