There are controversial opinions regarding the first settlement of Jews in Carpatho-Rus. However, it is clear that the first substantial emigration of Jews into the region took place after the 1648-1649 riots in Galicia and Ukraine. During the 18th century, Jews continued to migrate to the area. The annexation of Galicia to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, following the partition of Poland in 1772, facilitated and accelerated this migration, which stemmed mainly from the search for better sources of income. The emigration of Jews, mainly from Galicia, to the region continued throughout the 19th century – until the beginning of the First World War. The large waves of immigration from Galicia significantly influenced the first communities in the region. Naturally, the first rabbis in the region were from Galicia, and their Hassidic influence was decisive. After the Hungarian Revolution against Austria in 1848, Rabbi Menachem Ash, the rabbi of Ungvár, appealed to the Hungarian authorities and proposed a plan for the organization of Jewish communities throughout the region. This plan, aimed mainly against Reform Judaism, symbolized the influence of the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer) and his disciples on the Jews of Carpatho-Rus.
The 1860s brought changes and turmoil to the communities of the region. In 1865, twenty-five rabbis gathered in Michalovce, a town in eastern Slovakia, not far from Ungvár, and came out against the reform initiatives that had begun to penetrate Hungary at that time. Among other things, the gathering declared Yiddish as the only permitted language of sermon, and caused a great dissatisfaction in the Reform movement, which tended to adopt the Hungarian language. This famous verdict was signed by a total of 71 rabbis, 16 of them from the Carpathian communities. In 1868, the Congress of Hungarian Jews convened in Budapest, creating a great rift between the Orthodox Jews and supporters of the Neologic Reform movement. The Orthodox left the Congress and in 1870 founded the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of Carpatho-Rus, led by Rabbi Moshe Schick of Huszt in the Mármaros district in eastern Carpatho-Rus, which explicitly forbade any contact with the Neo-Jewish communities. The division, therefore, became a routine. This was an addition to an existing divide among the Orthodox rabbis themselves, between the “Misnagdim” and the “Hasidim”, which led to many quarrels, fights and mutual allegations.
At the same time, there were important changes in the political situation of the Jews in the eyes of the Hungarian authorities. In 1840, the first law was enacted to improve the condition of the Jews, allowing freedom of residence and full economic freedom to Hungarian and Carpathian Jews. In Szeged, Jews were granted full rights in 1849 as a prize for their contribution to the Hungarian national struggle, and in 1867 full emancipation was granted to all Hungarian Jews. However, the immigration of Jews into the region, which gained renewed impetus after the pogroms in Russia in the early 1880s, sparked echoes and created a public and parliamentary debate in Budapest. As a result, border control was toughened. In some cases, impoverished immigrants were sent back to where they came from, and the authorities set strict criteria for obtaining a permanent residence permit in the region, which was the cause for the first victims of the Holocaust among the Carpathian Jews. In addition to the Jewish immigration into the region, there was also Jewish emigration from Carpatho-Rus to other destinations in the world, mainly to America. Nevertheless, the communities of the region kept growing.
This is not the place to elaborate on the Jewish life in the region, and numerous texts were written about it elsewhere. However, the separation of these communities from the surrounding world is worth noting. The region was low in raw materials, and therefore its industrialization was slow. Most of the population – including the Jews – concentrated in villages and towns; many were, in fact, very poor. The Joint spent more than $ 1 million in Carpatho-Rus and Eastern Slovakia between 1919-1937, for rehabilitation purposes only. Those who worked were engaged mainly in agriculture, various crafts, harvesting trees and transporting them on barges, tiny peddling, coachmanship, day labor, and the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. In the larger cities and towns, the Jews were responsible for a large part of the commercial activity, brokerage, and banking – and a few were professionals, mainly lawyers and doctors. Naturally, Jews also earned their living from religious positions – serving as rabbis, judges, collectors, ritual slaughterers, and “cheder” teachers. There were also Jews who served as teachers in non-Jewish schools, mainly as Bible teachers for Jewish children. Understandably, a very thin layer of Jews belonged to the upper class and possessed significant wealth.
The connection and relations between the Jews of the region and the rest of Hungary’s Jews were characterized mainly by feelings of alienation, isolation, and misunderstanding. While the Jews of Hungary were in a trend of assimilation and showed an enthusiastic willingness to integrate into the Hungarian culture around them, the Jews of Carpatho-Rus adhered to a very religious and rather withdrawn lifestyle that opposed any openness to the culture surrounding them. The national pride of the Jews in the region was in clear contrast to the Hungarian Jews’ tendency to see themselves first as Hungarians. The Rabbinical Assembly in Mikhalovce (see above) is an example of this attitude for the Jews of Carpatho-Rus. Philip Freudiger, one of the leaders of the Hungarian Orthodox community, said in an interview after the Holocaust, “I am Hungarian – and Pod-Karpatsko-Rus (sic!) did not belong to us at all.” This indicates that the Hungarian Jews’ approach to the Jews of the region showed prominent trends of continuity from the formation of Jewish communities in the region to the Holocaust.
The Enlightenment was late to reach the region, in the days of the Czechoslovak Republic, and of course, the rabbis’ hold on the communities was firm and decisive, adding spiritual detachment to the physical detachment of the region. This detachment was intensified by the poor cultural situation of all the residents of the area and greatly affected the state of Jewish education, at least until the First World War. In fact, non-religious Jewish education hardly existed before World War I, and this issue, like most of the community’s affairs, was entrusted to the rabbis. Small children were raised from a young age in the “cheder”. The few who were not required to work full-time and help support their families learned later in Yeshivas of the various towns in the region, and there were also children and boys who were sent to local schools, if there were any – these were, before the First World War, mainly Hungarian. Beginning in the 1920s, with the rise of Zionism in the region, the seeds of secular Hebrew education began to emerge, to the great dissatisfaction of the Orthodox rabbis.
In conclusion, the Jewish communities in Transcarpathian Ukraine on the eve of the First World War were young, closed, culturally undeveloped and poor. In many respects, there was no significant difference between the average Ruthenian and the average Jew in the region, and in the absence of education and Zionism, most of the Jews in the region took upon themselves the constant struggle for everyday existence. The rabbis’ control of the communities was almost absolute and was manifested in all aspects of life. The end of the First World War and the annexation of the region to Czechoslovakia brought the Jews of the region into a whole new era.