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Munk, Me’ir Avraham

(1830–1907), Hebrew author. Me’ir (Adolf) Munk’s autobiography, Sipure korot ḥayai (My Life’s Histories), completed in 1899, is a unique document in the history of Hungarian Jewry. Few book-length autobiographies or memoirs written by Jews in nineteenth-century Hungary have come down to us, and Munk’s composition is additionally the only extant example of the genre to have been written in Hebrew.

Munk’s work anticipated, to some extent, the flowering of Jewish memoir literature that occurred between the turn of the century and the outbreak of World War I. His work was not published during his lifetime, and the original Hebrew manuscript disappeared sometime during or after World War II. Fortunately, a fine Hungarian translation of Munk’s complex Hebrew prose was completed in 1942 and was finally published in 2002. Munk’s work is both a revealing autobiographical document and an invaluable source about the history of nineteenth-century Hungarian Jewry during critical decades of transition. Traditional Jewish culture and society was still intact when he was born in 1830; a generation later, nearly half of Hungarian Jewry had abandoned the Orthodox way of life.

Endowed with a formidable memory, aided no doubt by extant family correspondence, Munk’s frank autobiography provides a panoramic view of Jewish institutions in flux, especially in the northwest region of Hungary known as Oberland. His story is a first-rate historical source of details on the extended and nuclear family; on Jewish economic pursuits; on the community; and on matchmaking and marriage. Especially informative is the extensive section on educational institutions, detailing the heder and above all the yeshiva.

Munk was the third of eight children of Dov Ber Munk and Haile Felsenburg (only three survived into adulthood). Munk’s father was an illiterate peddler, and the family lived under harsh economic conditions. Nevertheless, scholarly traditions on both sides of the family ensured that no expense was spared to give the sons high-level heder and yeshiva educations. Munk studied at the yeshiva of Avraham Ullmann in the Burgenland community of Lakenbach (Lakompak) and later with Yitsḥak Aharon Landesberg in Galgócz (Freistadtl). He considered becoming a rabbi, but instead became a merchant in Nagyvárad (Oradea; Grosswardein). He took part in the struggle against the Neolog camp in his community. However, in light of the extensive space he devotes to the world of the yeshiva, it is ironic that the Orthodox Munk educated his children in a manner quite different from his own upbringing and did not send his sons to yeshiva.

From sources other than Munk’s autobiography, we know that he was keenly aware of the events of the day and took firm stands. He wrote essays on the Reception movement and the religious politics of the 1890s, about the socialist movement, and on political murder in France. A biographic sketch he wrote about his eldest son, Bernát Munkácsi (1860–1937), a distinguished linguist and ethnographer, displays both pride in his contribution to Hungary and bitterness about the pervasive antisemitism in the Hungarian state and society in the wake of the Tiszaeszlár affair that deprived his talented son of a university career. Although Munk was a dedicated member of the Orthodox community, he did not seem to have been troubled by Bernát’s appointment as the chief inspector of the Budapest Neolog community’s education system.

While Munk met with only modest success as a merchant, his children enjoyed spectacular upward mobility. Another son, Gábor, was a prosperous merchant who married into the wealthy Orthodox Lindenbaum family, becoming a wholesale distributor and real estate owner and one of the wealthiest men in Budapest. The genealogy put together by Bernát, published posthumously, is an important source for tracing the transformation of the Munk family in Hungary over a period of more than two centuries.

Suggested Reading

Bernát Munkácsi, A . . . Munk-család, ed. Ernö Munkácsi (Budapest, 1939); Michael K. Silber “Utoszó” [Afterword], in Életem történetei, by Meir Avraham Munk, ed. Michael K. Silber, pp. 333–352 (Budapest and Jerusalem, 2002).