[Fwd: In case you are interested...] #hungary
Bobby Furst <bobby1st@...>
I am forwarding an e-mail that I received >from Jessica Rosen, a Peace Corps worker stationed in Vranov nad Toplou, Slovakia.toggle quoted messageShow quoted text
I have written to her asking if she could get copies of the documents that she mentions.
Redondo Beach, CA
-------- Original Message --------
Subject: In case you are interested...
Date: Wed, 21 Mar 2001 02:54:07 -0800 (PST)
From: jessica rosen <email@example.com>
To: "Joan F." <firstname.lastname@example.org>, Bobby Furst <email@example.com>
I am sending to you an essay I wrote about my first visit to the Vranov cemetery. This is not for publication, but rather to help tell friends and
family about my experiences here. I am also working on a short story on a similar theme, and wrote this to help me get my thoughts in order. I wasn't
sure if you would be interested to see it or not, so please feel free to ignore it completely.
We are just starting to get meetings going on some sort of cemetery/Jewish history project. I will keep you posted on any positive developments. I
hope all is well with you.
All the best, Jessica
Lessons, Past and Present
I did not come to Slovakia with any burning desire to delve into the regionís Jewish history. I have never been a religious person, nor have I ever
felt a particular interest in the Holocaust. I came to Slovakia wanting to tackle todayís problems, todayís racial conflicts, not those of an era gone
by ? an era with which I had never felt any special connection.
Even if I had been interested, Vranov nad Toplou, the small town in Eastern Slovakia to which I had been assigned, offered little to spur the
imagination. Almost all of the townís historic buildings were torn down during communism, replaced by utilitarian concrete structures that are high of
function, low on form. It is as if all history before the Russian liberation in 1945 had been wiped out, omitted >from sight and recollection.
Lacking an inherent interest in the issue, and without an evocative presence of past Jewish life, I all but forgot about its existence. My days were
filled with meetings in Roma (gypsy) communities, a group many consider to be the next target of ethnic strife in the region. These meetings were
filled with intolerance and ignorance ? each group categorizing the other through a series of negative stereotypes which pass for communication in
many parts of this country.
What I failed to see then, and am just beginning to see now, are the parallels between todayís racial enmity and yesterdayís tragedy, yet they bear a
startling, if opposotional, similarity. The Jews were hated for their wealth. The Roma are hated for their poverty. The link between the two groups is
that both have carried the blame for the majority populationís lack of economic success; a blame which has led to violent acts all too often in past
and recent history. Not wanting to face the complexities of gray, the majority population has forced its minorities into the categorization of black ?
hopeless, frightening, other. It suddenly seemed clear that in order to understand the present conflict with the Roma, it would be essential to
understand the past conflict with the Jews.
The Jewish community in Vranov nad Toplou before World War II was by far the wealthiest, best educated segment of the population. Among them were the
townís doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, and businessmen. The rest of the population, comprised mostly of Greek and Roman Catholics, bore a deep
resentment toward these people. Their success was viewed as the reason for everyone elseís failure. If it weren't for them, many non-Jewish citizens
believed, those high paying jobs would be ours. If it weren't for them, our children would be the ones to go to university. If it weren't for them...
Echoes of this sentiment resonate still, although them now refers to a different population. But I am getting ahead of myself.
My own discovery of the Jewish past of Vranov nad Toplou, and what it may have to teach me about the future of race relations in this part of the
world, began one dreary afternoon in early February. A friend had suggested that we go for a walk, the purpose of which was for her to show me some of
the harder to find sites in town. I had been here for 5 months and, since this is a small town of only 22,000 inhabitants, I doubted there was much
that I had not yet uncovered on my own. It was then that she asked me if I had seen the Jewish cemetery. Jewish cemetery? I had no idea that there
even was one. I had seen no synagogue in town, and I have never heard anyone mention any Jewish families. In fact, it seemed as though a Jewish
population never even existed, so it had never occurred to me to look for a Jewish cemetery. As I was soon to discover, there is little chance that I
would have found it on my own.
The Jewish cemetery in Vranov nad Toplou is a lonely plot of land clinging tentatively to a hillside behind the local hospital. It is guarded by a
concrete wall, the rim of which has been slowly chipped away by home builders who took it upon themselves to use it for a fence, edifice or stove.
This decaying barrier is sealed with a rusted iron gate, the gaps of which are large enough to permit entry to anyone willing to risk a trip to the
doctor for a tetanus shot. It is clear that there are many who are so brave, or so thoughtless. One of the gates hangs loosely on its hinges,
misshapen >from countless tugs. But the evidence of intruders is much greater past the gates.
Up the steep hillside, past the uncut grass and weeds, past the ashes >from intrudersí late night bonfires, are the graves. A few headstones stand
nobly intact, like boxers weary >from the fight but too proud too fall. Many more, however, have succumbed to the insults of time and vandals. They lie
as they fell, tumbling down the hillside, diving into the grave they mark. The names on the headstones, in those rare cases in which they are legible,
are written in Hebrew, Hungarian, and German, languages that bear witness to empires and cultures long since expelled >from the region.
I want to learn more than my friend can tell me, so for our next visit we come with a guide. Our guide, Igor, is a local man who has spent the past 3
years studying the cemetery and the hidden past it occasionally reveals. He speaks with passion about the injustice of letting this place go to waste,
letting it be destroyed. He speaks of anti-Semitism and ignorance. He speaks of loss. And yet he is not a Jew ? he is Greek Catholic, and laughs when
I asked how he became so interested in this place.
He wasn't, he tells me, until the day he went for a walk with his children and they came upon the cemetery. His children asked why it looked so
rundown ? why it was not taken care of as theirs was. Unable to answer his children's question, he began to investigate. In time, what began as a
passing interest became a consuming passion. He tells me to forget my other projects; forget the Roma. îYou are here for another year and a half?î he
asks. I nod an assent. îThen I will give you no peace. This is the work you should be doing.î I wonder about that. At the very least, he has sparked
We must start at the beginning, he tells me, go in the proper order. He shows me their houses ? the places I now know as bakeries and markets and
empty lots. This one here, this was owed by the Schwartz family, he was a doctor. And this one, look here ? this was owned by a a builder, a very
wealthy man. Doctors, lawyers, entrepreneurs...they were the elite.
He guides me through a history that many in Vranov would prefer to forget. My friend, a woman who is remarkable both in her knowledge of local history
and her compassion, is stunned by this as yet undiscovered aspect of her own past. When he speaks of hatred, she shakes her head. When he tells of the
complicity of Vranovís citizens, she protests. She cannot believe that her father's generation was capable of such acts, active or passive as they may
have been. To her, the war has always been a time during which everyone suffered as one, and the idea that a single group of her own neighbors was
singled out for torture and death is as strange to her as if she had just been told that there had never been a war at all.
We make our way through town to an empty lot, bordered now by a drug store and a dry cleaner's store front. This, Igor says, is what he wanted to show
me. I look around, trying to discover the hidden significance of whatever it is that he wants me to see. Slowly, almost ceremoniously, he pulls out a
large black and white photograph. It is a picture of a grand, elegant building that was, until its destruction in the early 1980ís, the local Jewish
It is hard for me to believe that such a structure once existed here. It is the kind of building I have seen in Budapest and Krakow, but would never
have expected to find here, in this dingy little town whose identity seems inextricably linked to its utter lack of charm and beauty. I am told that
the synagogue and the connected community center were once the epicenters of cultural life. This was where the dances were held, where the newest
fashions were flaunted, and where many non-Jewish citizens were seldom invited. It was a place of prestige to those who belonged and a symbol of
condescending superiority to those who did not. Little wonder that it would come to face an unsentimental demise.
We stand together in the cold, lamenting the loss of this rare piece of history in a town which has destroyed almost all vestiges of its past. Despite
its beauty, the synagogue had few defenders. After the war the Jewish population shrank >from roughly 20 percent of the total population of Vranov to
only those few families who were bold or desperate enough to come back. By the early 1980ís, the synagogue had been too ravaged by the effects of
heavy spring rains and brutal winter winds to be saved without a significant financial expense. Expediency won out over history, and a demolition crew
was called in to destroy the building. With it fell the last remnant of the once flourishing Jewish community of Vranov.
My tour isn't over. Now that I see have seen the beauty, it is time to view the grotesque. Igor goes back to his notebook and begins to flip through
page after page of documents, most of which I cannot read. He locates what he is looking for, pauses, and then hands the notebook to me. He points to
a letter which is dated 1942. It seems to be a list of names...a list of names. My God. The piece of paper I am holding in my hands is a copy of the
original document that sent 1007 Jewish citizens of Vranov, almost the entire community, to their deaths in the Polish Concentration Camps. I am too
stunned to speak.
It has taken me weeks to be able to discuss the experience of seeing that list of names with any sort of coherency. That list ? name, birthday,
address ? told more about fear and hate and ignorance than any book or film could ever convey. And it wasn't only Jewish names on lists like the one I
saw, but Roma and other groups as well. Miraculously, some of the relatives of the people on that list are still here. Terrifyingly, the patterns that
preceded that list are also still here; I see them every day. How can it be that 20 percent of a townís population is wiped out and yet the citizens
have learned nothing?
I said at the beginning that I arrived here wanting to tackle todayís problems, todayís racial conflicts, not those of an era gone by ? little did I
know then how little there was to distinguish the two, and how much the past would teach me about the present. The Jews and the Roma of Vranov were
and are very different communities, joined together only, but significantly, by the fear and anger with which they have been viewed by the majority
population. >from the bipolar vantage points of wealth and poverty, they have borne witness to the same aggression and antagonism. Racial and social
conflict in Slovakia, as in so many other parts of the world, is a not a problem that exits in a vacuum, formed by the quantifiable socio-economic
policies of the past. It is something that lives and breathes and speaks each time we choose to not to see a person, but rather to see them.
Moderator: Thanks so much to Jessica for her moving account of her visit to Vranov and to Bobby for passing this on to us all. VK