Sam Margolis in Bekes County

By Sam Margolis, October 17, 2008

The tragic story of the Jews who lived in Békés County, a poor, rural region in South-Eastern Hungary, was grimly echoed throughout a large section of Central and Eastern Europe.

A once thriving community was decimated during the Second World War. Most survivors emigrated to far-away places: Israel, the US, Australia.

Only a smattering remained during the Communist era and, as the decades passed, the numbers dwindled.

But their story is still being penned, and by the most unlikely of chroniclers.

Istvan Balogh, a 22-year-old non-Jewish student, has already written two books about local Jewish life.

"Before I was even 10, my grandmother would tell me stories about Jewish life here when she was young. She recounted how her best friend, a Jewish girl named Rozsi Leichter, was taken away, only to perish later at a concentration camp," Balogh says.

"From that point forward, I was drawn to the story of this community that once lived here amid my own, yet was no longer here."

He started his first book, about Jewish life in his home town, Totkomlos, when he was just 13. Balogh's fascination remained so strong that he enrolled at Budapest's University of Jewish Studies, and is now in his third year.

His second book is a painstakingly researched tome about the Jews from Békés County, detailing hundreds of Jewish buildings and landmarks within dozens of communities, marking their location and whether local councils have maintained them.

"Every weekend I would come home and plot out which city, town or village I would go to. I would ask officials in the settlements where the Jewish landmarks were. If they were in a bad state, I would ask them why the situation was this way," Balogh says.

"I also searched through local registry offices, traced the names on tombstones, spent hours poring over documents in local libraries - anything that he could use to find connections between those people who lived in Békés County and who could help me make the picture more complete."

Through these sources, Balogh was able to gather the addresses of survivors and relatives of former residents. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive. From those responses, he was able to piece together what had once transpired in this area, now mostly devoid of any Jewish life.

"The letters which came back to me were not only invaluable for research, but they also helped bring in a human element which was mostly missing in my desire to learn more about what had taken place here," he said.

Balogh's next goal is to take his intense interest in Judaism one step further. He plans to become a professor of Jewish studies - and to convert.


Last updated: 4:35pm, September 23 2009