The Way We Were

An online chronicle of the rich and lively past of Central European Jewry is rushing to document the stories of a lost world



Tibor Krausz

The Jerusalem Report,Nov 14, 2005


Most of us listen to the rambling reminiscences of old people, if at all, with indifference masked with feigned curiosity. That, Edward Serotta will tell you, is a terrible shame.

The American photojournalist and writer has made it his mission to seek out elderly Jews and ply them for their fading memories of a prewar world of vibrant shtetls, towns and Yiddishkeit, before Hitler and communism eradicated the thriving Jewish universe of Central and Eastern Europe.

Serotta, 55, a lively raconteur from Savannah, Georgia, is working around the clock to preserve some of this rich history — in photographs, in words, on film. Time is precious, he stresses: In another decade all Jews who came of age before the Holocaust will have died, and the last eyewitnesses to a unique civilization will be gone. Serotta doesn’t want to let them pass on before they can leave their recollections for posterity.

His helpers, a hundred young folklorists of various nationalities, have been working for five years in by now 15 countries across Central Europe, tracking down Jewish men and women and asking them to remember. “We provide elderly Jews with a platform to share their memories of an entire century, from the great tragedies to small comedies of everyday life,” Serotta explains from his headquarters in Vienna, where he directs his Central Europe Center for Research and Documentation (Centropa). His non-profit organization services a sprawling cyber library of meticulously cataloged archives, showcasing the fast-expanding databases of its Witness to a Jewish Century virtual museum.

The author’s grandfather, József Krausz (left), and his brother show off their medallions they had won as wrestlers before WWII in Szigetvár, Hungary. They died two days apart on the Russian front in December 1942 as members of a Jewish labor battalion

For many interviewees, he adds, it’s the first chance in more than a half century, after the obligatory suppression of their Jewishness throughout communist years, to speak openly about their younger years. They relish the opportunity, Serotta says. He recalls an elderly Holocaust survivor in Novi Sad, Serbia, telling him and his interpreters during his visit to the region in 1999: “You’re the fourth group of people to come and interview us, but the first to ask not how we died but how we lived.”

“What we’re doing is enormously important because no one else is doing it,” Serotta argues. “Young Jews in Mittel Europa who grew up in non-traditional, secular homes want to know about their individual and collective history. Dora’s [a Hungarian colleague’s] 93-year-old grandfather, for example, who still swims every day, recalled jumping ship as it approached Haifa just so he could swim to the Jewish state.

“Then,” he goes on, “we have a story from Leontina Arditi in Sofia at age 14 about clasping to her bosom the violin her father bought her after hocking his wedding band. And from Max Uri of Vienna, who had a crush on Frieda Haber but was too timid to declare it, and then on his first day in Tel Aviv in 1939 the two bumped into each other and soon got married.”

“No one has documented prewar Jewish life in Poland” in such a comprehensive manner, insists Anka Grupinska, head of the organization’s Warsaw chapter, and author of three books on Polish Jewish history. “Ours is an 11th-hour mission. In May we finished interviewing a 98-year-old lady from Lodz — great story, old gone world, terrific memory about the smallest details. In June she was hospitalized; you cannot talk to her anymore. We also interviewed her daughter, who is 80 now.”

A hundred or so other interviewers, most of them in their late 20s and early 30s, fan out across Central-Eastern Europe in search of tales to record, often spending several long days with a single elderly Jew. The aging men and women’s recollections are then transcribed, translated into English, and edited before being published online alongside their cherished old photographs — some 16,000 of them already digitized out of a growing database of more than 100,000.

“Let’s say, an elderly person like Dora Rosenberg in Subotica [now in Serbia], mentions something about Shabbat dinners in the 1930s,” Serotta explains of Centropa’s modus operandi. “We make sure to ask her: ‘Please paint us a picture of a normal Friday night.’ She tells us she remembers the polish of the silver, the gleam of the crystal, the smell of freshly baked challah. And then she adds, ‘You know, this was the memory that kept me alive during all that time in Auschwitz.’”

In late October, Serotta organized a three-day training seminar in Thessaloniki for his newly recruited researchers in Greece and Turkey, the next two locations for Centropa’s investigation. Participants received a 120-page workbook detailing research and interviewing methodology.

A group of Russian Jews sits for a portrait in 1915 in Boguslav, now in Ukraine, before political turmoil laid waste to their lives (photo courtesy of Centropa)

“Every life, every story is a world unto itself,” explains Richard Borbás, a 35-year-old editor at the project’s offices in Budapest (other offices are in Vienna) with a degree in Central European Jewish studies from the Hebrew University. “The mind-numbing scale of death and destruction of the Holocaust can only be comprehended through individual suffering and personal recollections of it.”

Take the case of Ernest Halpert, 82, from Ukraine. “Uncle Ari” has lived in several countries while never leaving his hometown of Ungvár (now Uzhgorod). The town changed hands five times during the 20th century: it has belonged to Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Hungary again, the Soviet Union and finally Ukraine. Uncle Ari has been a hasid; he has been a card-carrying communist; and he is now the shamas of his shul.


Two decades ago, while working as a photographer, documentary filmmaker and writer specializing in the region’s Jewish history, Serotta set out in search of a vanishing Old World. His camera always at the ready, he dusted off old ledgers in tumbledown synagogues, ransacked attics of derelict Jewish community centers, and pored over fading photos in family albums.

In 1999, while on assignment for ABC’s Nightline, he visited an old-age home in Arad, a town in Romania, home to the last few surviving Jews of a once vibrant community - and happened upon what an elderly caretaker called “the Chest of Lost Pictures.” Languishing forgotten was a jumble of sepia photographs depicting onetime members of the community. “It was then that it hit me especially hard that we were losing so many of these elderly Jews who had seen so much; that their memories of their destroyed pre-Holocaust world were vanishing with them forever,” Serotta recalls.

A couple of months later in Budapest, he met two freshly graduated young historians, Eszter Andor and Dora Sárdi, who were just discovering their own Jewish histories in the new liberalism and religious freedom of post-communist Hungary. The trio decided to join forces in their separate quests; soon they bumped into Dejan Petrovic, who worked for the Belgrade Jewish community and was something of a computer wizard with the know-how of how to store and manage photographs in a large online database. Thus Centropa’s Witness to a Jewish Century was born.

Shortly thereafter, several American-based Jewish charities and agencies, including the Claims Conference and the Joint Distribution Committee, agreed to underwrite much of the project's annual operating costs of $650,000. Ministries in several countries in the region have also pitched in; in Hungary they have even helped fund a Hungarian-language addition to the project. A German-language site is in the works courtesy of donations from the Austrian government.

For all its commitment to the past, Centropa doesn’t overlook the region’s Jewish present. In the 15 years since the fall of communism, Jewish life has been resurrected across Central Europe. Younger Jews have rediscovered their identities. Old community centers, previously appropriated for party offices and other uses, have been returned.

A Hungarian police certificate issued in 1946 that confirms that a Jewish resident has returned from foreign deportation (photo courtesy of Centropa)

The Centropa Quarterly endeavors to document these changes. An online library of Serotta’s own exquisite black-and-white photos (complete with maps for finding their places of origin) offers testament to revitalized Jewish life. Ruth Ellen Gruber, author of the book “Jewish Heritage Travel,” posts regular travelogues and travel tips to destinations of historical Jewish interest; Mimi Sheraton, a former food critique for The New York Times, entices readers on her gastronomic peregrinations around the region, providing recipes of traditional Jewish culinary delights.

“No one would claim that this part of the world has a bright shining Jewish future,” Serotta says. “But many young Jews here are increasingly self-conscious and redefining borders and their sense of belonging.” Yet it’s such redefinition of borders that worry others. “Many young Romanian Jews are either making aliyah or moving to the West,” laments Ildikó Molnár, the head researcher for Centropa’s Romanian chapter. “A large majority of my interview sources’ children and grandchildren have already left the country.”

Whatever the future may hold for Judaism in Central-Eastern Europe, much still needs to be known about the past. “I walked into shul on Yom Kippur here in Vienna a few days ago," Serotta says. “I looked around and said to myself: ‘That must be Oscar Wonsch, who was quite the athlete 65 years ago. And there’s Lili Tauber upstairs [in the balcony for women]. Her father rode a horse-drawn buggy to her mother’s house to propose when they lived in a small town in the foothills of the Alps. And there’s Prof. Allerhand, the wittiest, most beguiling elderly man I know. I’d better go and set up an appointment.’”


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