A group of boys outside the Belzer kloyz, Mukačevo, Czechoslovakia (now Mukacheve, Ukr.), ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

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Located in the present-day Transcarpathian oblast’ of Ukraine, the city of Mukacheve (Cz., Mukačevo; Hun., Munkács; Yid., Munkatsh) was the cultural and spiritual center of Jewish life in the historic region of Subcarpathian Rus’ (Ruthenia). A Hasidic center, it had the highest proportion of Jews among prewar Hungarian and interwar Czechoslovakian cities. Mukacheve is located in a region that changed hands politically several times after World War I. From the eleventh century to 1918, Subcarpathian Rus’ was part of the Hungarian Kingdom; thereafter it was part of Czechoslovakia (1919–1938), Hungary (1938–1944), Ukraine within the Soviet Union (1945–1991), and independent Ukraine (since 1991).

The Jewish presence in Mukacheve dates from the second half of the eighteenth century. Most Jews came to the region from Galicia, a former Polish-ruled province that from 1772 to 1918 was, as was the Hungarian kingdom, part of the Austrian Habsburg monarchy. Mukacheve was a small city whose inhabitants numbered from 17,200 (in 1910) to 26,100 (in 1930), of whom as many as 44 percent were Jewish. The remaining population was made up of Carpatho-Rusyns and Magyars (Hungarians).

The vast majority of Mukacheve’s Jews were Hasidic followers of either the Shapira/Spira or Spinka rabbinic dynasties, each of which was headed by charismatic and authoritarian rebbes, the most influential of whom were Yosef Me’ir Weiss of Spinka (1838–1909) and Ḥayim El‘azar Shapira (or Spira; 1871–1937). After 1918, when the city came under Czechoslovak rule, the traditional Orthodox environment with its 30 synagogues was challenged by secularization. An increasing number of young people began attending state-run schools in which the language of instruction was either Rusyn or Czech. Also in the early 1920s, Ḥayim Kugel of Minsk settled in Mukacheve, where he promoted Zionism and secular education in Hebrew. Over the strenuous protests of Rabbi Shapira, Kugel succeeded in having a state-supported Hebrew gymnasium opened in the city in 1924. Mukacheve was also the center for Jewish political life in Subcarpathian Rus’. The city was headquarters to an Orthodox Jewish party and a Zionist party; the latter collaborated with Czechoslovak Social Democrats and managed in 1935 to elect Kugel as deputy to the national parliament.

A significant percentage of Mukacheve’s Jewish inhabitants earned their livelihood as small retail-shop owners and artisans, activities that brought them into frequent contact with the population at large as well as with peasants from the surrounding countryside, who came to trade agricultural products and to buy manufactured goods. By the 1930s there was some economic rivalry between Jewish and non-Jewish shop owners, but in contrast to most other areas of Central and Eastern Europe, relations with non-Jews in the region were noted for their lack of outward friction and for the absence of pogroms and other kinds of violence.

The situation changed quickly after Subcarpathian Rus’ was reannexed by Nazi Germany’s ally Hungary, of which Mukacheve became a part specifically in November 1938. Jews of Mukacheve were excluded from the civil service and armed forces (1939), and then deprived of their legal status (1942). In April 1944 they were slated for extermination. After being placed in temporary ghettos within two of the city’s brick factories, Jews were deported until 30 May, when authorities pronounced the city Judenrein. The Jews of Mukacheve, along with the rest of the community throughout Subcarpathian Rus’ (an estimated 116,000), were destined for Auschwitz, where most were killed in the gas chambers. Of the few hundred who managed to survive and return to Mukacheve at the close of the war in 1945, most soon left, first for western Bohemia in postwar Czechoslovakia and from there to Israel or North America.

Traditional Jewish life effectively ceased to exist in Mukacheve and elsewhere in Subcarpathian Rus’. After 1945, Mukacheve became home to mostly secular Jews from other parts of the Soviet Union, but from the late 1980s many of these emigrated abroad. As a result, the city, which had about 2,000 Jews in 1970, counted only 300 mostly elderly Jews in 2000. The community does have its own branch of the Jewish Cultural Society (established in 1993), which operates a Sunday school and teaches Hebrew to students of both Jewish and non-Jewish background.

Suggested Reading

Yehuda Erez, ed., Entsiklopedyah shel galuyot, vol. 7, Karpatorus (Tel Aviv, 1959); Yeshayahu Jelinek, Ha-Golah le-ragle ha-Karpatim: Yehude Karpato-Rus u-Mukats´evo, 1848–1948 (Tel Aviv, 2003); Mel Mermelstein, By Bread Alone: The Story of A-4685 (Huntington Beach, Calif., 1979); Allan L. Nadler, “The War on Modernity of R. Hayyim Elazar Shapira of Munkacz,” Modern Judaism, 14.3 (1994): 233–264.