|RIDING LADY LUCK ON ARCHIVE ROLLER COASTER|
|Friday, 06 February 2009|
Theodore Grossman (New York)
Want some advice on how to get the most from the archives in Hungary and Slovakia? Take along a rabbit’s foot or amulet, or ask your psychiatrist to come along on the archive roller coaster ride and hope that lady luck will go your way.
Then again, be clear as to who you are, and what you want from your trip. Oh, sure, we all want to access the archives and learn about our ancestors. But the trip can be far more -- never-to-be forgotten adventures that include seeing the country from buses and trains, staying in cheap hotels, unexpectedly making dear friends, and experiencing what happens when we arrive unannounced at town halls in out-of-the-way villages. Those are the things that I experienced, and it’s what I want again and again.
ASSUMPTIONS MADE ON AN EARLIER TRIP
Back in 2006, after my first trip to Hungary and Slovakia, I sensed that success would be found in the archives of little villages, while failure loomed in the big cities. Although I based this discovery on just two archives, I convinced myself that it was in the villages that researchers were treated as guests, and the philosophy was “my house is your house,” while things were cold and bureaucratic in the cities.
My enthusiasm about the villages came after a one-day visit to Petnehaza, which is about 20 kilometers south of Kisvarda, in eastern Hungary. It’s where my grandmother was born and raised, and married my grandfather.
I had no idea what to expect on this initial visit, but with help from my taxi driver, I was able to access all the relevant birth, wedding and death records concerning my family members during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I even received a special gift that I will treasure as long as I live.
“I love that map on your wall,” I said to the archivist, merely making conversation about the big, colorful map of Hungary prior to the Treaty of Trianon, which forced Hungary to give up 70 percent of its territory at the end of World War I.
“Here,” take it,” she said while extending her hand and displaying a warm and
“How much do I owe you?” I asked.
“Take it,” she repeated while pulling it off the wall and handing it to me.
I then realized that it would have been inappropriate to refuse this special gift, which now hangs on my bedroom wall.
More than two years later, I continue to be amazed about my good fortune and this incredible act of generosity.
I also went in 2006 to Kosice, the large city in eastern Slovakia which Hungarians continue to call Kassa, which was home to my father, grandparents, and many uncles, aunts and cousins after World War I. That’s when the city’s name changed from Kassa to Kosice, and control passed from Hungary to Czechoslovakia. It became part of Slovakia when Czechoslovakia split in 1993.
My visit to Kosice’s municipal archive turned out to be a waste of time, perhaps, in part because I speak no Slovakian, and my interpreter was an 18-year-old who was intimidated by bureaucrats that shuffled us from office to office without allowing us access to any records. By the end of the day, I had given up the chase, blamed myself for being so poorly prepared, and wondered if there would be any point in coming back.
EARLY ON, I RELIED ON THE EXPERTS
Prior to returning to Hungary in 2008, I sought out the advice of Ferenc Katona, a staff member at the Holocaust Memorial Museum Archive in Washington, D.C. Katona is an authority on Hungary’s many archives, having established excellent relations with key personnel at several of them. Katona also wrote a letter on my behalf to the district archive in Nyiregyhaza, a gold mine of information about Hungarian Jews in northeast Hungary. He also put me in touch with knowledgeable archivists Zsuzsanna Toronyi, director of the Jewish Archive in Budapest, and Pavol Salamon, who works at the Budapest Archive, but lives in Kosice, and is knowledgeable about many archives in Slovakia, among them Kosice and Bratislava.
Katona also advised me to obtain a letter of recommendation from a Hungarian scholar. This connected me to Imre Goldstein, a cousin of mine who lived with my family in 1956, after he and his brother fled the Soviet tanks during the Hungarian Revolution. He now resides in Tel Aviv. I greatly appreciated Imre’s letter, but I must confess that, much to my disappointment, none of the archivists asked to read it.
This fact influenced my decision to travel to archives unannounced. If nothing else, it appealed to my desire for adventure.
LUCK BEYOND MY WILDEST DREAMS
This was the visit in 2008 that reinforced for a while my belief that the good archives are in the villages in Hungary and Slovakia, because this is where public service, and treating researchers as guests are the rule.
My new reference was the village archive of what was Csuz, when it was a part of Hungary, prior to 1920, and Dubnik, a part of Czechoslovakia, after that. Dubnik became a part of Slovakia in 1993, when the Czech Republic and Slovakia split. It’s a small village with a population of about 1,500, and is located about 60 kilometers north of the Danube River, which separates Hungary and Slovakia.
Csuz turned out to be the most successful experience I would have. It was where my father and all but two of his15 siblings were born and raised. The family, including my great-grandparents, moved to Csuz from Biharszeplak, a village near Debrecen, in 1893. Grandpa and great-grandpa made the move after jobs became available there.
I must confess that I was totally unprepared for my trip to Csuz, and but I was excited about our adventuresome approach. I didn’t contact anybody in Csuz about the pending arrival of my Kay wife and me. I cannot speak a word of Slovakian. For that matter, I didn’t even know how to get there, and had to rely on local people who did not speak Hungarian or English to direct me Kay and me to the right bus from Nove Zamky, a Slovakian town that’s accessible from Budapest by train. Fortunately, they sent us in the right direction, but they also advised us to get off one stop too soon, and in a residential area that, at the time, seemed completely deserted because the residents were inside on that hot, muggy day. So there we were, walking along, and pulling our suitcases, without any assurances that we were going the right way. But after what seemed like an eternity, we came across a large building with the look of a town hall. So we walked through the front door, unannounced, because we saw some activity on the other side of that door.
Thank the good Lord that we didn’t turn around and go back, because what happened next would be nothing short of magical, and the highlight of our entire trip. Despite the complete lack of preparation, lady luck was on our side. Not only did the staff members speak Hungarian, they also directed us to an area that contained all 14 of my family’s birth records, plus relevant marriage and death documents, during the years 1893-1914. And after this warm and friendly staff helped me locate and read all the documents, they provided me with 11” X 17” copies, of each of them, and at no charge.
The Csuz archives also enabled me to learn the occupations and ages of my grandfather and great-grandfather. Well, maybe not. The records listed my grandfather and great-grandfather as a cantor and a metzo (Hungarian for cutter). But what kind of cutter? One authority said they did the circumcisions. Another claimed that they were the local butchers and/or inspectors of kosher meats. Maybe they were both, in which case I hope that they never confused the two roles. Another thing is apparently true. Occupations of this kind were often passed down from generation to generation. That would explain why grandpa and great-grandpa held the same jobs.
There was also conflicting information about my grandparents’ ages. One birth record indicated they were 10 years apart. Others listed the gaps as eight, seven, and five years.
The family left Csuz when World War I began, and my grandparents were dispatched to what is now Serbia. It was where my grandfather served as a chaplain for the Jewish soldiers, and my grandmother ran a kosher kitchen for the troops.
While my wife and I were gathering this information at the archive, we were served coffee, soda pop, water, candy and cookies. And shortly after we began wading through the documents, we caught sight of a woman who was speaking fluent English as she entered the archive. Little did we know at the time that one of the archivists called and asked her to come down to the town hall and see if she could provide us with any additional help. The woman, a Slovakian who was married to a man from England, later gave us a tour of the village that included a walk alongside the Jewish cemetery. The staff also contacted the curator of the local museum, resulting in another guided tour the next day. Even the mayor extended a helping hand. He got us in touch with a man from a nearby town who for years has been doing research on the Jews from Csuz who died in the Holocaust. His research led me to a most informative visit with Klara, Kovac a Jewish woman who survived deportation to Auschwitz. Ms. Kovac greeted us in a short-sleeve shirt that exposed the number that had been branded onto her arm by the Nazis. She was one of only a handful of Jews still living in the area, but she had something on her mind besides archives. More about this later.
When it was time to leave the village, we followed Katona’s suggestion that we. show our appreciation by providing gifts to the hard-working, helpful people who are paid so little. With this in mind, we presented boxes of chocolates to the archive staff and our local tour guide. Kay also took some photos, which she later sent to our new-found friends.
MORE GOOD FORTUNE, THIS TIME IN A CITY
No, there weren’t candies or chocolates handed out at this archive, and I blame myself, for failing to show more appreciation after we hit another jackpot, this time in Nyiregyhaza, a middle-size city of 173,000. Nyiregyhaza is home to a district archive in eastern Hungary and, I would soon discover, a repository for the records I saw in 2006 in Petnehaza, plus many more. It is also the site for records from other nearby villages where my grandparents, great-grandparents and many other family members once lived.
Here was a staff that not only enabled us to access relevant records. The people there also alerted us to little known records that provided us with additional information about my grandparents and great-grandparents, and their families. Some of these documents were in bad shape, and it wouldn’t have surprised me if they had been denied to the public. I consider myself most fortunate that they informed me about them and allowed me to look at them.
One such document was the diary of a rabbi who served the villages where my father’s ancestors were born and raised. It contained a reference to a discussion between my grandfather and the rabbi regarding an interpretation of Jewish law.
My experience in Nyiregyhaza challenged me to rethink my belief that the best archives are in the villages, and the least helpful ones are in the cities. It also made me realize that relevant records might be found at a national, district, and/or village archive, and therefore the genealogist should always remain patient, persevering, upbeat, and eager for adventure, because lady luck may be just around the corner after a door was closed elsewhere, even in a city.
NOT MUCH LUCK AT NATIONAL ARCHIVE
I assumed prior to commencing last year’s trip that my best source of archival records would be the National Archive in Budapest. I can’t entirely explain why I felt that way, but I honestly believed that this would be where I would find all the information I was seeking. How could it be otherwise, I thought to myself, convinced that the letter from Imre Goldstein would open the necessary doors and provide me with the information I was seeking.
“Welcome,” said the man in charge. “How can we help you?” he continued, then extended a hand and pointed me to a booklet which named the relevant microfilms that would be available to me.
But as I skimmed through the pages, I became concerned, because they appeared to be the same microfilms which I had already read at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints Family History Libraries in the United States. These films, like those held by the Mormons, stopped after 1895, when control of the documents passed from religious institutions to the state.
I convinced myself that there had been a mistake, and that all would be cleared up the next day. So I marched up to the front desk and asked the woman there for permission to see the man in charge one more time. The look on her face told me this was a bad idea, but I didn’t grasp her warning until it was too late. About a minute later, the man appeared, but this time there would be no handshakes or smiles.
“This better be quick,” he said, clearly irritated.
“I told him that I was led to believe that the archive had all the post-1895 records that I wanted to see.
“Not true,” he answered. “They’re at the Jewish Archive,” he said.
I decided not to argue, or confront him with information I had obtained elsewhere. Suffice it to say that even though the experience at the National Archive felt like a roller coaster ride going straight down hill, But by now I was beginning to feel that there was no reason to panic, as more accessible archives could be found elsewhere.
JEWISH ARCHIVE WAS ALWAYS CLOSED
Was the man from the National Archives correct? Are there relevant records only at the Jewish Archive? “Some yes, some no,” answered Jewish Archive Director Zsuzsanna Toronyi, who also charged that the National Archive is always trying to send Jewish researchers to the Jewish Archive.
But I never got to find out what was there. The Jewish Archive, which is located alongside Budapest’s magnificent Dohany Synagogue, was locked shut on all six of my trips there last spring and summer, and there were no signs indicating the days and hours when the archive would be open. Even the staff at the synagogue and the Jewish Museum next door confessed that they didn’t know when the archive was open.
I eventually had to accept the fact that I would have to return to the United States without getting inside the Jewish Archive, even though I had tried over and over again. I chalked this up to bad luck, but I did get to communicate with Toronyi by telephone and email. And I have not yet given up getting inside the archive door and seeing if there is information that will be helpful to me. I intend knock at this archive’s door on my next trip there, but before I showed up one more time at the archive, I will attempt to get assurances from Toronyi that the door will be open and she will be there.
LADY LUCK HAS LEFT AND GONE AWAY
I was feeling discouraged and in need of a psychological boost after my experience in Budapest. And where better to go next than Petnehaza, the highlight of my trip in 2006. I would have bet every cent I owned that this would be another exhilarating experience, and that it would restore my enthusiasm for archives and research. And why not? My experiences in small, rural archives had all been positive, and I could think of no reason why this particular trip would be different.
I even figured that I wouldn’t need a taxi driver this go-around to help me communicate with the staff there. This time I would go by bus from Kisvarda., and while on my way, I envisioned the scene at the town hall --- warm greetings, hugs, and presentation of a big box of candy to the woman who gave me that special map two years earlier. It never dawned on me for a second that things would be different; that is, until the archivist walked into the office.
Surprise! My friend had gone away, and a new archivist was at the desk, and this one seemed determined to keep me from seeing the records. The only book she would bring to her desk was an index that contained some family names, but with no supporting information about them. The entire visit lasted about 15 minutes, and provided me with virtually no new information other than the realization that village archives weren’t always helpful, and that I should be careful about my assumptions.
One other thought. I wanted to pick up the chocolates and take them with me as I walked toward the door. But I didn’t dare, and, truth be told, the experience wasn’t so bad. I had already learned a lot about my ancestors during the 2006 visit to Petnehaza, and my visit to Nyirighaza two years later. Moreover, I was becoming more confident that records denied in one archive would turn up in another.
LOTS OF ADVENTURES IN A SINGLE DAY, ALL WITH A HAPPY ENDING
Nevertheless, I felt that the experience in Petnehaza had turned my world upside down, leaving me a lot less confident about my upcoming trip to another nearby village the day next day. But it didn’t slow me down. I was back on the bus, this time headed for Nyirjako, the town just past Petnehaza, and the birthplace of my grandfather.
Things started badly, or so I thought, the minute I walked into Nyirjako’s town hall, explained who I was, and why I was there.
“Sorry, the archives are not here,” answered the woman at the front desk. I immediately became suspicious that I was getting the runaround.
The woman tried to explain, but I didn’t understand what she was saying. My limited knowledge of Hungarian had been exposed. Things were at a standstill, and I didn’t know what to do.
Meanwhile, while all this was going on, another woman in the office got on the phone. But I was paying little attention to her and her call, figuring the conversation had nothing to do with me.
Surprise! After what seemed like an eternity, but was really no more than about 15 minutes, a woman entered the town hall, carrying her two-year-old daughter on her back, and brining me some surprising good luck.
The woman was speaking fluent English, and she quickly announced that she is the English teacher at the local school, and that she dropped everything after getting the phone call in which she was asked to come by and serve as translator between me and the staff. The teacher, named Andrea, confirmed that the town hall staff had gotten it right, that the Nyirjako archives were in Baktaloranthaza, the next town up the road. Andrea not only cleared up the confusion, she also left her daughter to play with the staff at town hall while she walked me to the bus stop and waited with me until public transportation arrived.
I got to the Baktaloranthaza town hall shortly before noon that same day, and was quickly directed to the archive office. But right from the beginning, things started badly. Although the archivist told me to come back after lunch, I sensed her irritation and felt that she didn’t want to see me. I spent the lunch hour preparing for the worst.
But lady luck returned when a woman walked into the room, all smiles, speaking fluent English, and expressing interest in my project. It turned out that she was a Hungarian who was married to a Scot, and was thrilled to meet an English speaker in this little village. More importantly, she was the archivist’s supervisor, and she told her to allow me to see all the records that would pertain to my great-grandparents, grandfather, and great aunts. No wonder my roller coaster day had a happy ending. And what a string of adventures!
BLIND LUCK IN KOSICE
I was afraid to go back to Kosice, because I feared that I would again be shuffled from office to office without getting access to any of the records. I felt that way even after being advised by H-SIG’s Vivien Kahn to go to the synagogue and see Rabbi Jossi Steiner, because he might know some people who could help me at the municipal archive.
The rabbi also showed me books containing the names of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and directed me to the Jewish cemetery where my grandfather was buried. But knowing somebody at the archive? Sorry.
After our meeting concluded, I sat myself down in the synagogue office, wondering what to do next. Just then a young woman walked by and sat down. We exchanged pleasantries, after which time I asked her if she knew anybody who could help me access records at the municipal archive. “I’m willing to try,” Sonia Uicikova answered confidently while admitting that she knew nothing about the archives. What the heck, I thought to myself. Things couldn’t go any worse than what happened two years ago.
Our visit started horribly, in the form of a “Closed” sign at the front door. Since I was scheduled to leave Kosice the next day, I shook my head in disgust, then took a step away from the building.
But Sonia was not about to admit defeat. In fact, she seemed to enjoy the challenge of getting into the archive on a day when it was closed, so she kept banging on the door until a man appeared on the inside. The next thing I knew, the two of them were speaking to each other in Slovakian. I had no idea what they were saying, but when the man turned and headed down the hall, Sonia told me that we might get lucky. Minutes later, I got to understand her cause for optimism. The man returned, opened the door, then told us to follow him down the hall. A few seconds later, we reached the room where the records were kept. Sonia’s eyes met then those of the archivist. Both smiled broadly at each other. “I know her! She is my friend!” Sonya explained triumphantly. You couldn’t believe how happy I was about this stroke of good luck in the form of finding marriage certificates of uncles and aunts, and my grandfather’s death certificate. Chalk this one up as another great adventure, and with another happy ending.
BETTER LUCK AT A BRATISLAVA UNIVERSITY
I hadn’t planned to visit the capital of Slovakia, but when archivist Salamon Pavol mentioned that the 1930 and 1940 censuses were in the national archive, I couldn’t resist making a one-day trip to Bratislava. As things turned out, the censuses were arranged by street address, and since I didn’t know the streets where my relatives resided, I came up empty.
More encouraging was my visit to Comenius University, where I met the director of the Holocaust Studies department. E. Nizhansky is the author of seven books filled with lists of Jews in Slovakia who were deported to the gas chambers. He expressed confidence that he could help me obtain information about some of my uncles, aunts, siblings and cousins who lived in what remained a part of Czechoslovakia during World War II. Other parts of the country were returned to Hungary when the country allied itself with Hitler and the Nazis. Those records would have to be found in Hungary, Professor Nizhansky said, probably at the National Archive.
PRICE TAG HELPS EXPLAINS LACK OF GOOD LUCK IN VIENNA
I believed that I had good reason to visit the war archive in Vienna, because a professor who spoke at the Jewish Genealogy International Conference in Las Vegas in 2005 said there were records in Vienna about Hungarian Jewish soldiers in World War I.
I very much want to see those records, because my grandfather was a Jewish chaplain, one of my father’s brothers was a prisoner of war in Italy, while another brother was apparently selling weapons after it became clear that Austria-Hungary was going to lose the war. He fled to the United States without getting caught.
I came across a book at the archive which contained the name of the POW, Ferenc Grossman. I was also informed that researchers in Vienna could search their archives for information about my grandfather and uncles, but it would cost me 32 Euros per half hour. That was a little out of my price range, given that it could take months to find what I was seeking.
Then again, there is a real possibility that this information is in Hungary, not Vienna. That’s the contention of several who have written to H-SIG. Knowing this, I checked the military archive in Budapest, but came up empty-handed.
YOU DON’T JUST GET YOUR RECORDS AND LEAVE
By the end of my three-month adventure, I had come to realize that there is also more to genealogy than reading documents and visiting cemeteries. It also consists of establishing relationships with those who helped me along the way. I made several dear friends during my trip to Hungary and Slovakia, and I look forward to keeping in touch with them for years to come.
Among them is Rabbi Steiner, who made only one request while helping me with my research. It was that I help reestablish a connection between the approximately 60 Jews, virtually all of them very old, who are now members of the Orthodox synagogue he serves, and those former members or their descendants among the thousands who belonged to the synagogue prior to World War II. The rabbi hopes to accomplish this by posting on the synagogue’s walls old photos of the synagogue and its members.
Klara Kovac had a very different type of request. The woman, who lived in Csuz prior to World War II, and knew my great-grandmother, Etelke Braun, expressed a passionate desire to have Dubnik’s Jewish cemetery cleaned up and cared for. The cemetery definitely needs work. The grass hasn’t been cut for years.
I told Ms. Kovac that I would appeal to both the owner of the property that abuts the cemetery, and the mayor, to honor her request. I followed that up with a letter that was written in English, then translated into Hungarian by the mayor’s acquaintance who has been doing research about Jews from Csuz during the Holocaust. That letter apparently helped get a commitment from the mayor to clean up the cemetery next summer.
When the interview concluded, I gave Ms. Kovac a box of candy. She accepted it reluctantly, reminding me that what she really wants is proper care of the cemetery, not chocolates.
Still other new-found friends are the mayor of Dubnik, who hopes to study in the United States, and citizens in Dubnik with whom we recently exchanged Christmas cards.
And lest I forget Kosice’s Sonia, who honored me by listing me as her friend in the new rage, Face Book. We have been emailing each other off and on the past few months. It has been lots of fun.
Even before beginning my trip, I mistakenly came to believe that I would be able to get all my questions answered during last summer’s three-month stay in Europe. In retrospect, I cannot believe how unaware I was about the project I have taken on.
Genealogy searches never end; well, almost never. I think of the woman whom I met during the summer of 2007 at the Family Resource Center in Salt Lake City who told me that she finally found her mother’s maiden name and birth record after searching for them for 50 years! I think of her often. One side of me is inspired by her story to spend the rest of her life in the archives. But the other side tells me there may become a time when I get discouraged and give up..
For now, however, I want to do more and more genealogy research, providing it’s in the countries where my ancestors once lived. I want to relive the emotion I felt when I walked down the same street in Kosice where my dad once sold cigarettes and newspapers, or entered the public school in Petnehaza, knowing it’s the very spot where my grandmother once resided. These experiences alone are enough to bring me back again and again, even on those occasions when lady luck is not on my side..
Theodore (Ted) Grossman was editor and publisher of three newspapers in the Pacific Northwest before he retired in 2006. His newspapers won many awards, including Community Service and General Execellence. Upon retirement, he was awarded the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association's highest honor, that of Master Publisher.
Mr.Grossman became actively involved in genealogy upon his retirement from the newspapers. His father was born in pre-Trianon Hungary, in a village that later became a part of Czechoslovakia (now Slovakia). After Trianon, the family moved to Kosice (formerly known as Kassa), where they stayed until 1925, the year when many of them migrated to the United States.
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