Ernest Galpert -- Growing Up Religious

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The story of a Hasidic childhood in one of the centers of Orthodox and Hasidic Judaism of Central Europe. Mukacevo (as it's called in Czech, or Munkacs in Hungarian) is a town that was in five countries between 1918 and 1991: the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, interwar Czechoslovakia, wartime Hungary, the Soviet Union and today, Ukraine. Mukacevo had a majority Jewish population (before it was wiped out during the Holocaust); its great rabbinical courts feuded constantly with each other.

Ernest Galpert, born in 1923, spent his childhood mornings in a religious school and his afternoons in a secular Czech school. His father had a grocery store and the family spoke Yiddish at home. During the war, Ernst was taken into forced labor brigades while his parents and sisters were deported to Auschwitz. Only his sisters returned and left for Israel soon after.
Ernest remained, hoping his sweetheart Tilda would return from the camps. She did - they married and raised two sons in Mukacevo, then in the Soviet Union. When Communism fell in 1991, one of Ernest's sons left for Israel while Ernest and his other son began helping run the Jewish community.
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Ernest Galpert grew up in Munkács, a town in the Carpathian Mountains that, over the course of the twentieth century, belonged to five different countries. When Ernest was born, Munkács was under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as a part of Hungary. At the end of the First World War, the Treaty of Triannon stripped Hungary of some of its territory. A result of this was that, following the formation of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 (when the historic regions of Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia combined) Munkács became part of Czechoslovakia.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was the first Czechoslovak president. Read a chronology of key events during Czechoslovakia's statehood (1918-1992) provided by the BBC.

In 1938, England, France, Italy, and Germany signed the Munich Agreement. This Agreement ceded the Sudetenland to Germany; this divided Czechoslovakia, transferring Munkács to German-allied Hungary. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, a key figure in the negotiations, believed appeasing Adolf Hitler’s territorial ambitions was the most logical way to avoid another large-scale war. Read more about Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement here. The agreement was negotiated among Europe’s major powers without any Czechoslovakian representative- today’s Czechs and Slovakians often refer to the agreement as "the Munich dictate" or the "Munich betrayal". Read a transcript of the original text here.   

The Sudetenland was of immense strategic importance to Czechoslovakia, as most of its border defenses were situated there. As a result, the Agreement left Czechoslovakia vulnerable to German military power. On the 15th March 1939, Germany violated the Munich Agreement, invading and occupying the remaining provinces of the rump Czechoslovak state. To solidify this, Hitler proclaimed the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia from Prague Castle on the day of the invasion. Read a translation of the Protectorate here.

The Hungarian president at the time of the Munich Agreement was Miklos Horthy, who, after Hungary's alliance with Germany and Italy, began instituting anti-Semitic legislation similar to that in Germany.

In 1944, Carpathian Ruthenia was liberated by Soviet troops. Having been under Axis control, the area was nearly returned to Czechoslovakia, but a group of communists from Munkács petitioned for separation from Czechoslovakia and incorportation into the Ukranian Soviet Socialist Republic. Once part of Soviet Ukraine, Munkács became known as Mukachevo. Of the ethnic Hungarian population in Carpathian Ruthenia, many fled to escape life in the Soviet Union, and many who remained were deported to Gulags. Find an overview of the period here.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Mukachevo is now a part of Ukraine.


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Munkács was one of the largest Jewish communities in Czechoslovakia, Jews comprising 42.7% of its population. Living in a rural area, most Jews in Subcarthanian Rus were employed in manual or agarian labour, and Munkács was, as a result, a very poor area.

Jewish Munkács was known for its large religious community and Zionist activity. Read about the history of Jewish Munkács here. At the end of the First World War, Munkács served as the Czech headquarters of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, an organisation dedicated to supporting Jews and Jewish community welfare during times of struggle or crisis. Explore their website to learn more about their aims. 

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many Zionist organisations were founded in European Jewish communities. Zionism, the movement to return the Jewish people to their homeland of Israel, was first popularised by Theodor Herzl's text Der Judenstaadt (in English, The Jewish State).

The Jewish community in Munkács was mostly Hasidic. Read more about Hasidim on the Jewish Virtual Library.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Mueseum has an archive of historical footage, including film of Munkács.

Before 1918, Munkács was part of Hungary. Read about history of Jewish Hungary here. From 1918 to 1938, Munkács was Czechoslovakian. This page contains information about Jewish life in Czechoslovakia between the wars, a time of prospertity and minimised anti-Semitism.

After the Second World War, Munkács was absorbed into the Soviet Union. The Soviet state had a complex relationship to religion, and it was not uncommon for people to disguise their Jewish affiliations. Read more about Jewish life in Soviet Ukraine here, and the Soviet Union's early conflict with religious organisations here.

Find more information on the Jewish community in Munkács during the twentieth century here.

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The Second World War began in September 1939, when the German army invaded and occupied Poland. France and Britain, Poland's allies, responded by declaring war on Germany. Large numbers of Polish refugees escaped to Romania, many going on to the West, where the Free Polish Forces were formed to fight against the Axis Alliance. Of the Polish pilots who escaped to Britain, many joined the RAF, where they comprised a significant portion of the flying forces.

Allied to the Axis powers, anti-Semitic legislation began to appear in Hungary in 1938. Despite having been the one to initiate these restrictions, president Miklos Horthy later resisted German pressure to deport the Jewish population of Hungary to concentration camps in Poland. While a large portion of Jewish communities from rural Hungary were deported (either to concentration camps or to Budapest), many Jews were able to survive the war in Budapest. Explore this page for an overview of the restrictions placed against Hungarian Jews, and life in Hungary before the German occupation of 1944.

Hungary officially joined the Axis Alliance in 1941, declaring war on the Soviet Union. Hungarian forces took part in the invasion of Russia, however after heavy losses and a terrible defeat at Stalingrad, Horthy attempted to leave the alliance, arranging armistices first with the Western powers, then the Soviet Union. These armistices were made void when the German army invaded and occupied Hungary, toppling Horthy's government. Read more about Hungary's involvement in the war here. In October 1944, seven months after the invasion, German powers installed Ferenc Szalasi as president. Szalasi was the head of the Arrow Cross Party, Hungary's fascist and brutally anti-Semitic political faction. The Arrow Cross operated a reign of terror between Szalasi's October appointment and the Soviet liberation in April 1945.

The situation in wartime Budapest had not been good for its Jewish population. However following the German invasion, conditions worstened significantly. June 1944 saw the creation of yellow-star houses, crowded and poorly supplied living quarters for Jews, marked with a yellow star over the doorway. Prior to the formation of the Budapest Ghetto, it was believed that scattering Jewish residency throughout the city would deter Allied bombing attacks, whereas condensing the Jewish population to one area would leave the rest of the city open to destruction. When this strategy proved ineffective, the Budapest Ghetto was established in the city centre in November 1944.

Ernest was taken for forced labour. This was a scheme that, from 1944, required healthy Jewish men to undertake physically demanding tasks, often construction or strategic fortification near front lines. Conditions were harsh and supervisors could be brutal, with many labourers dying. However men performing forced labour were not taken to concentration camps, and many people survived the war this way. Learn more about the Hungarian forced labour scheme here.

From May 1944, German troops began deporting Hungarian Jews to concentration camps. Ernest's parents, sisters, and girlfriend were all taken to Auschwitz, the largest camp in Poland.

More information on life in Hungary after the 1944 invasion can be found here.

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    Czech Republic, Hungary

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