48°13' N, 22°05' E
Kisvarda Home Page Contents:
Alternate Names and Pronunciation
Unlike many other towns in this region of wandering borders, Kisvarda has always stayed part of Hungary, and its official name has always been Kisvárda (pronounced Kishvarda – the first a as in “far,” the second as in “ball”), but it is sometimes abbreviated to Varda. “Var” is Hungarian for a castle, and the ruins of a medieval castle can still be seen here. The Yiddish-German translation, often used by the more hassidic elements of the community, is Kleinwardein or Klaynvardayn. “Kis” in Hungarian means small, which is “klein” in German. Hence, it is translated into Hebrew as Virdayn Katan.
Kisvarda is a small city in north-eastern Hungary, with a population of about 18,000 as of 2005. It is located where Hungary becomes quite narrow, and it is close to the border with Slovakia, Ukraine and Romania. Today, there are only a handful of Jews left in Kisvarda, but in the early decades of the 1900s, they made up close to a third of the town’s population. Perhaps even more remarkably, Jews made up 10 to 20 percent of the population in the villages scattered around Kisvarda, and in many cases these Jews were farmers, which is quite unusual in European Jewish history.
Kisvarda was the business centre of a large agricultural region, with industries such as distilling and milling that were related to agriculture. It was located on the main rail line from Budapest to points east, which helped spur the growth of commerce. Jews were important in all the forms of business, including running most of the small shops in the town. Indeed, there were very few stores open in Kisvarda on the Jewish Sabbath. Almost all the Jews of Kisvarda were Sabbath observant. The central synagogue was mainstream Orthodox, while there was also a substantial community of ultra-Orthodox hassidic Jews who maintained their own bais midrash and school.
Following the Nazi invasion of Hungary, in the spring of 1944, the Jews of Kisvarda and the surrounding villages were confined to a ghetto in the area around the synagogue. After a few weeks, they were deported to Auschwitz and various labour camps, where the majority of them perished. The German soldiers were few in number, and the actual incarceration of the Jews was mainly undertaken on their behalf by the cooperative Hungarian gendarmerie. Arguably, the Hungarian collaborators did not know what fate awaited the Jews at the other end of the line. However, putting innocent old men, women, and children, fellow citizens for many generations, into crowded boxcars should by itself be considered quite an atrocity, even without knowing what would happen to them at Auschwitz.
A few hundred survivors returned to Kisvarda after the war, but many of these left in 1956 during the anti-communist revolution, especially the younger ones. When I first visited Kisvarda in 1973, as I backpacked across Europe, there were a few older cousins still living there, and I was able to join them to make a minyan for Sabbath services in the bais midrash. They are all gone now, and the congregation is no more.
While the Jews are gone from Kisvarda, there are some important physical relics. The former main synagogue, now converted into a museum (shown in the photo above, as of 2007), is still the most impressive building in the town. A large Jewish cemetery, with several thousand graves, remains well preserved. Among the loss of everything else, even that is something to be grateful for, because in many other places (particularly in Slovakia, just across the border) even the gravestones from the cemeteries are gone.
Kisvarda’s Jewish community lasted for about 250 years. It was not a transient community. The vast majority of the Jews were settled by the early 1800s, as can be seen in the census of 1848, which found that almost all the Jews resident in Kisvarda had been born in Kisvarda or its vicinity. Therefore, by the 1900s the Jews there had a strong family association with the town. Most Jews in Kisvarda spoke Hungarian rather than Yiddish as their primary language, and identified themselves as Hungarians.
The Jewish relationship with the national majority in Hungary was generally more congenial than in most of the other east European countries. Throughout the European diaspora, the Jews have been seen as alien wanderers and interlopers, and were rarely perceived as legitimate citizens of their countries. In Hungary, historically the Jews were often better accepted than in other countries. During the Crusades, Jews were slaughtered in western Europe by marauding crusaders; by contrast, King Kalman of Hungary brought out his army, and successfully defended the Jews against foreign Crusaders (around 1096). A unique feature that sets the Magyars apart from other nations is that they identify themselves as immigrants to their own country within recorded history. The Magyar nation has a known year, 896, when their previously nomadic tribes settled in the territory of what is now Hungary. By contrast, most of the other nations of Europe are the products of gradual ethnic evolutions whose origins are lost in the mists of time.
To a medieval Magyar, a Jew might have been different, but he could hardly claim that he was more of a foreigner on the soil. Indeed, Jewish gravestones dating back to Roman times have been found in Hungary, so Jews were actually there before the Magyars.
In the 1500s, most of Hungary was conquered by the Turks (who ruled until they were expelled by the Austrians in 1690). In the process, much of Hungary, including the area of Kisvarda, became severely depopulated, and the country was very underdeveloped economically. In the 1700s, the great landowners of the Hungarian nobility who had reconquered the land were eager to encourage immigration, particularly by literate Jews who could carry on commerce. Whereas in most countries the Jews had to beg entry, in Hungary, for a time at least, they were actively welcomed by the authorities. Kisvarda and the surrounding areas were owned by the Eszterhazy and Karolyi families, who each held vast estates encompassing hundreds of villages. Count Sandor Karolyi's lands stretched from the southern outskirts of Kisvarda down into Transylvania, and there are records of him bringing in Jews from Austria to help populate his estate. In fact, so keen was he on encouraging Jews to live on his land that, in 1724, he had a rabbi brought from Bratislava to live in his capital city of Nagykaroly (now Carei in Romania).
According to most historical opinions, Jews were not legally entitled to own land in Hungary until 1867. (This is not completely verified, and in any event, prior to the land reforms that took place in 1867, almost all the land was owned by the nobility. Very few Christian Hungarians owned land either.) However, many Jews leased land from the nobility. Often, these were small pieces of land used for a shop or a mill. However, some Jews in the vicinity of Kisvarda became prosperous agricultural entrepreneurs, leasing hundreds or even thousands of acres, which they would in turn sub-lease to smaller farmers.
While there were no doubt always some Hungarians who didn’t like the Jews, relations were generally quite good for most of their history in this region. My father, growing up in a small village near Kisvarda in the 1920s, had many non-Jewish friends, and has no recollection of antisemitism. In the early part of their history in Hungary, Jews were almost the only members of the middle class. However, as an ethnic Magyar middle class emerged, economic rivalry with the Jews increased, and this contributed to anti-Jewish measures, particularly as economic conditions severely deteriorated following Hungary’s defeat and loss of territories after World War I.
In World War I, both of my grandfathers were loyal Hungarian soldiers. In World War II, their wives and many of their children were murdered, at the hands of the Germans, but with the collaboration of some Hungarians. They were deported from their homes, and the few survivors who returned found that their possessions had been stolen or discarded. One consequence is that relatively few photographs of Jews have been preserved from pre-war Kisvarda. In my family, the few photos we have left exist only because they were preserved by relatives in Budapest or the United States. A few older photographs can be seen here.
On both my mother's and father's side (born in 1925 and 1922, respectively), most of my known ancestors, traced back to the late 1700s, lived in or near Kisvarda. My father's family lived in the farming village of Gemzse, which I have written more about here. The people from these surrounding villages depended on Kisvarda for many of their central religious services, and in some cases the records of births, deaths and marriages for people in the villages were recorded in the books of the Kisvarda congregation. Quite often, people who were from the surrounding villages would say that they were from Kisvarda. This sometimes causes confusion for their descendants trying to trace their roots.
I was born in Budapest, and brought as a small child to Toronto, Canada in 1956. I have never lived in Kisvarda, and yet I have a strong sense of nostalgia for a place with a tight-knit community, where my family lived for generation after generation. Those were days of large families. First cousins were so numerous that people hardly kept track of their second cousins. My mother tells of how she used to go out for walks with her family on the Sabbath, and everywhere they went, there would be a house full of relatives where they could drop in and visit. Of course, the world has changed, and this kind of nostalgia for the small town life that is gone can be found among people in many countries that have become urbanized in the past few generations. However, for people like this whose roots are in Canada, England, France, etc., there will still be some remnants of the old community left that they can revisit.
A memorial book (yizkor book) was prepared by a committee of survivors living in Israel and North America, and published in Israel in 1980. I have translated sections of that, which can be read by clicking here.
The lists of martyrs’ names that were included in that yizkor book can be seen by clicking here.
Records of births, deaths and marriages, microfilmed by the Mormons, cover the period from about 1850 to 1900, and have been collected into JewishGen’s various
Would you like to connect with others researching Kisvarda? Click the button to search the JewishGen Family Finder database, which lists the contact information of others who are researching Kisvarda, and the family names they are interested in.
You may find a long-lost relative. I’ve found a few third and fourth cousins through JewishGen. (You must be registered and log in as a member of JewishGen to use this service. Membership is free, but charitable donations are welcome, as indicated below.)
Of particular interest is the 1848 census of the Jewish population. An HTML version of it that I have compiled can be found by clicking here. A spreadsheet version that transcribes the original Hungarian, including the occupations of the individuals (which is not in the HTML version) can be obtained by clicking here. The information from these censuses is also included in the JewishGen databases, but for somebody researching Kisvarda specifically, it is useful to have the whole census in one piece.
A detailed history of the Jewish community was published as a book by Mr. Istvan Nezo, a librarian in Kisvarda’s public library. Mr. Nezo is not Jewish, but has devoted a considerable amount of effort to that research, and we owe him a debt of gratitude. The book was originally published in Hungarian, but an English translation (unfortunately, without the illustrations) is available. More information about it can be found here.
Gabriel Erem (formerly Eichler) of Toronto, my cousin’s husband, is a prominent member of the small post-war generation of Jews who grew up in Kisvarda in the 1950s. A moving personal memoir that he has written about Kisvarda can be accessed here.
The former synagogue is now a municipally owned historical museum of the region, known as the Retkozi Muzeum. It has general exhibits of old furniture, local crafts, and agricultural implements. However, its interior preserves the main features of the synagogue, with the original painted ceiling, stained glass windows, and balcony of the women's section. One large room is a memorial to the Jewish community, with a large wooden menorah and marble plaques on the wall inscribed with the names of the martyrs of the Holocaust. An annual memorial service is held here each spring. The museum has a website, but at present it is only in Hungarian.
The museum's hours as of 2009: April 1 to October 15, 8:30 to 4:30 (closed Mondays). October 15 to December 1, Monday to Friday, 8:30 to 4:30. From December 1 to March 31, it is only open by appointment. Tel.: (45) 405 - 154.
Next to the main synagogue is a smaller building that houses the former Bais Midrash. It has been restored and preserved as a small synagogue, but it is not in regular use. The museum staff have a key to it, and will take visitors to it on request.
The synagogue is right in the center of Kisvarda, across the street from the main square with the library. A map showing where the main Jewish institutions in Kisvarda were located can be seen by clicking here.
The other main destination for Jewish visitors is the cemetery, which has been well preserved and contains several thousand gravestones. The cemetery has been cleared of underbrush, but there is no listing available of grave locations. There is a caretaker who lives on the premises, or did when I visited in 2007, and who will open the cemetery’s gates for visitors. (I have also heard that there is a key kept at the Vulkan metals factory, which is located nearby.) The cemetery is at the southern end of town, on the main street heading south (Arpad Ut). First there is a large Christian cemetery, and the Jewish cemetery is on the left hand side as the road rises to go above the railroad tracks. Because of this overpass, the cemetery is easy to miss, as you don’t immediately see it from the road. There is a little driveway heading off the road where you can park.
A variety of photos of Kisvarda as it is in recent years can be found here. These are mainly photos I took on visits to Kisvarda in 1998, 2001, and 2007.
Unfortunately, English is still not widely spoken in Kisvarda, as many people who learn a second language here choose either German or Russian. Therefore, getting around in Kisvarda is not completely easy for those younger descendants who don’t speak Hungarian.
There are daily trains from Budapest to Kisvarda. Taxi service is available once you arrive at the station in Kisvarda.
You can rent a car in Budapest, and drive to Kisvarda in under three hours, as there is now a major motorway (the M3) that goes as far as Nyiregyhaza, the capital of Szabolcs county. The distance is 280 kilometers, as calculated by courtesy of Google’s map. If cost is no object, your hotel in Budapest can usually arrange for you to hire an English speaking driver to take you there, and it is an easy day trip.
Compiled by Peter Spiro
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Copyright © 2009 Peter S. Spiro