Jewish Life in Transylvania, Hungary Before the Holocaust


cluj 1933
Cluj 1933


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Opinion & Society

The Scorching Open Wounds of Cluj

By Ephraim Glaser

Borishka was one of the characters from the harsher memories of my childhood. She was my teacher in the early classes of elementary school. To my misfortune, she replaced my teacher from the first grade, a nice benign lady, and stayed with my class for the coming three years. She seemed to be, to my assessment, around the age of forty, unmarried, tall and very ugly; her outstanding features were her wide nose and wrathful eyes.

My first "incident" with her occurred at the beginning of the second grade, when the new books were handed out to the children in the class. The book I received, "The Geography of the town of Cluj and its district," had a hole perforated in the middle. I turned to the teacher and asked her to replace it for another book, she gave me an angered look and took down the long cane from her table and gave me a good whack, commanding me "go back to your seat." So, I was left with the memory of that faulty book and the scorching blow for the whole year.

It seems that from that day onward I ceased collaborating with the teacher and disengaged myself from all that was taught in the class. I also felt that the teacher was most enraged that she could never make me cry, something she probably regarded as an unforgivable impertinence. Although she proceeded to increase her beatings in the coming years, I could not give her or my classmates the pleasure of seeing me cry.

In hindsight, it seems obvious that this ugly and frustrated spinster was venting all her distress and frustration by beating up children.

Borishka had a sister, who was a teacher for girl's classes at the same school, also a spinster, but not as nasty. One day, Borishka punished me by sending me to her class to stand there in the corner in front of the girls. I presume that she chose that form of punishment which was most humiliating for me, as soon as she understood that I was not affected, at least outwardly, by her beatings.

I was a stubborn and consistent child, good at football and clever in the eyes by those adults who knew me, but with that teacher I simply refused to get on with my studies.

The situation deteriorated to such an extent, that my father was called in by the headmaster of the school and was told that he would have to expel me from the school if I did not improve my marks. The "worried" teacher said to my father, "if your son were willing, he could be a good pupil."

In the fourth grade I started to open up and became interested in the subjects of the class, and within a short time, I caught up with the rest f the class.

I never forgave Borishka the grief and harm I suffered under her cane for three unhappy years in the school.

Cluj, Town of my Birth

The town of Cluj, where I was born, was a nice and picturesque old town, which retained much of its medieval charm. It must have had a mystical aura, as at the end of the 19th century an Irishman by the name of Bram Stoker wrote a horror fiction named "Dracula," and for some reason, the author chose to place the main character, a blood-sucking Transylvanian count, in the town of Klausenburg, which was the name of our town in the Austro-Hungarian period. In my youth I used to roam those narrow old streets from the medieval times.

Among its many cultural institutions of the town, the Opera House was an impressive building, the pride of the town. I learned a trick to enter the opera by bribing the attendants, and so, I had a chance to see in my youth most of the operas that were performed at that time in Europe

Once we were awaiting a very special performance of the opera Tosca with a famous singer from La-Scala to act in the role of Scarpia, the Police Inspector. The guest-singer was tall and paunchy, who gave an excellent performance, until the last scene; when an unfortunate mishap turned the opera into a comedy. It happened, when Tosca was supposed to kill Scarpia and lay a candlestick with burning candles on his two sides. After laying one candlestick, as she began to lay the second one, she crossed over the large body of Scarpia. Tosca slipped and fell on Scarpia's paunch forcing the "dead" Scarpia to rise. The audience broke out in a tumultuous laughter, and when the singer came out for an encore, the inconsiderate audience received him again with roaring laughter. The hapless singer left the stage insulted and vanished from the town, never to be seen there again.


My father decided put me in into a more "advanced" heder, (religious grade school) under the tutorship of Reb Manashe, who was engaged as a teacher in the school of the Sephardic community. There I often saw Rabbi Halberstamm, who was the rabbi of their community. He strongly impressed me as a extremist, an ardent follower of the Satmar anti-Zionists, and whose way of talking and behaving was most strange to me. He came to our town from Poland, and apart from Yiddish he did not speak any of the local languages.

The physiognomy of that rabbi left a strong impression on everyone who met him. His huge black eyes that shone out of a very densely bearded face, his quick and brisk walk bore witness of an independent and very dynamic personality. I occasionally participated in his evening prayers, which were held in his modest apartment. I remember some of his fierce and loud outburst in the middle of the prayers. His devoted followers explained that the outcries were de profundis, coming from the depth of one's soul, his individual way of expressing his faith, devotion and requests to the Almighty. His outbusts raised in me some doubts, was it a dramatic act to impress his followers?

There were many stories going around about the genius and outstanding good deeds of that rabbi. He was elected as a rabbi and spiritual leader of the community at the age of twenty, making him the youngest person in the country to ever be made a spiritual leader. He was soon recognized as a complex and original personality. He went on to have a large family of eleven children and lived humbly on the modest salary that he received from the community. As it happened to all Jews of the town, he and his family were deported to Auschwitz. He miraculously survived, but his wife and eleven children perished. After his return from the death camps, that anti-Zionist has built a settlement near Netanya, bringing a large number of his followers from the U.S. to settle in Israel.

The Healing Water.

An amusing event took place within the Sephardic community in our town. This was a very religious small community; the majority of their members were poor small merchants and many drifters, who draw their income from unknown sources. Only a few were reasonably well-to-do, and carried most of the financial burdens. They built their synagogue on the Kadar Street, a side road amidst the markets of the town, a separate slaughterhouse with supervisors who were to keep the very strict dietary rules of kashrut. As customary in very religious communities, the ritual bath, called the mikvah, was created by using the water from a well that they dug in the courtyard of the synagogue.

One day the hearsay went around that the water contained a fair amount of sulfur and other minerals; from that they draw the conclusion that the water probably had curative ingredients. That rumor aroused great enthusiasm amongst the members of the community. There were already heated arguments as to how to commercialize the place and turn it into a health spa, hoping to draw nice revenue from the "healing water." As is predictable with paupers, some already prepared very inspiring plans as to how to use the sums of money that would be amassed from the income of the spa.

Their assumption that the water of the mikvah had healing qualities derived mainly from the very peculiar odor that spread from the water, as reported by those who regularly dipped into the basin. They finally decided to send a sample from the mikvah water for an analytical test in a laboratory.

To their great disappointment, the results of the tests showed that the water did not contain any irregular amount of chemicals and minerals which would lend it a healing value. Worse than that, the tests showed some fecal residues in the sample, and by all probabilities, the "special odor" emanated from a cracked sewage pipe that ran into the water entering the mikvah basin.

That amusing case, which could easily fit into one of the scenes by the famous Yiddish satirical writer, Sholem Aleichem, became the talk of the town, and one of the rhymesters made a limerick in Yiddish, featuring the people gathering in a corner of the synagogue and discussing the "smell of the mikvah." (Its original Yiddish went like that : "Me zitzt in Beis-Medrash winkel un ma bredt doos mikve stinkl"). These rhymesters used to read their satirical verses, accompanied by a tune, on the latest events or gossip of the community at public gatherings on festivals and other occasions, and quite often at the Rabbi's table.

This very religious community lived in an enclave, detached from the outside world, like those ultra-religious groups who live today in Meah-She'arim in Jerusalem. Their denomination known as 'Sephardim' had nothing to do with the Sephardim who were the descendants of the exiled Jews from Spain at the end of the fifteenth century. It was merely that their prayer book was of the Sephardic version. On Saturdays and festivals, a great part of the Kadar Street, mainly around the synagogue, was humming with Jews.

Most of the adult males were wearing shtreimels (a headgear made with fox tails), which turned the street into a colorful carnival. On the holy days, the sounds of the prayers that transcended from the synagogue were heard from far away, and on the festival of Simchat Torah the rabbi and his followers marched out in the street dancing and singing with the Torah scrolls in their arms. The synagogue being located in the vicinity of the main market, on several occasions some hooligans attacked the people entering the synagogue or threw stones through the window in the midst of the services.

cluj 1933


from the March 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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