HOME OF A FORGOTTEN PEOPLE
THE mountainous and wooded part of the country was racially almost uniform. The only foreign elements in this compactly Slav territory were a few sporadic German settlements and a sprinkling of Jews scattered all over the province.
The Germans came into Carpatho-Ukraine as colonists. The first contingents seem to have arrived in the thirteenth century, especially when the whole Danubian area was de populated as a result of the Tartar invasion. The then king of Hungary, who had to flee his own country before the invading hordes, is said to have invited the Germans to settle under the Carpathians soon after the Tartars had left.
But the main influx of German settlers came much later. In the second half of the eighteenth century a powerful Austrian nobleman who owned a substantial part of the country decided to exploit its untapped timber resources and called in a number of foresters from Austria. Tempted by the privileges promised them, they set out from their native villages and traveled in ox-drawn carts to their new home. There they were given plots of land, enough timber for their houses and the right to graze their cattle free of charge on the upland pastures. They settled down, began to work in the untracked forests, and were paid in kind for their services.
In spite of these privileges the settlers soon found that life in the undeveloped forests was far from easy, particularly when the authorities started to whittle away the concessions which had been granted " for all time." Some of them packed up their goods and chattels on their ox-drawn carts and drove back to the place where they came from, while others decided to move to more civilised districts. However, the majority cast roots in their country of adoption, and in the course of a few generations the German minority grew larger owing to natural increase and further immigration. According to the census of 1930, about 13,000 Germans lived in Carpatho-Ukraine, partly in the towns, partly in self-contained villages scattered over the eastern half of the country.
Some of them became Magvarised, realising that it was to their advantage to send their children to Hungarian schools and have them educated in the language of the masters of the country, who did their utmost to assimilate foreign nationals. Mixed marriages also contributed towards the denationalisation of some members of the German minority. But in the more isolated settlements the Germans retained their national character almost untouched. A typical example was the German village of Mokra where even in 1939 the local nationalists boasted that there were only two Jewish families and not a single Ukrainian. Here the Germans kept to themselves for generations, and owing to intensive inbreeding nearly everyone in the village was more or less related.
ln appearance the village was characteristically German. Cleanliness and order struck the visitor at once. The well built wooden houses were neatly plastered and ornamented with pilasters and mouldings, and their large framed windows had pots of flowers standing along the sills. There was none of the primitiveness and untidiness which is so characteristic of many Ukrainian cottages. Each German house was an almost exact replica of its neighbour, and they all stood in straight rows like soldiers on parade. The general impression was one of structural unity and a moderately good standard of life. The same was true of the insides of the houses, which had curtains at the windows, solid and respectable furniture in the rooms and a full complement of crockery in the kitchen. In fact, these settlements differed but little from villages in some parts of Austria or Germany. Their conspicuous neatness pleasing to the eve, but there was a certain monotony about it. The bright colours of the traditional costumes which make up for some of the dilapidation and untidiness of many Ukrainian dwellings were lacking ; for the Germans who lived there dressed in the ordinary, drab, West European fashion.
It was obvious that they were better off than their Ukrainian neighbours, because they were skilled and per-severing workers who lived thriftily, had smaller families and did not indulge in heavy bouts of drinking. No wonder they used to look down upon the Slav peasants even in the good old days when they were still unaware of being members of the master race.
Hitler’s clarion call was heard even in the remote German villages under the Carpathians, and a dormant pride of race was fanned into a frenzy of strutting superiority. In the seclusion of their vast forests these forgotten settlers suddenly stirred and, styling themselves Carpatho-Germans, began to mink of world conquest. Many of them paid heavily for their delusion, when they goose-stepped to death on the battlefields of the Eastern Europe which they wanted to rule.
The number of Jews living in Carpatho-Ukraine was several times as great as that of the Germans. There were about 91,000 of them and they could be found in almost every settlement of any size. For the most part they preferred to live in and near the towns, which offered more scope for their flair for business, but some lived in the remotest mountain valleys.
Although they were generally better off than their Slav neighbours, the Ukrainians did not think much of them as farmers. “The Jews are set on making money and hire someone else to work for them in the fields” was the usual comment.
There was a good deal of truth in this. The age-old social isolation and insecurity of the Jews urged them on to improve their economic position; and in the midst of a primitive and somewhat happy-go-lucky community their shrewdness, their capacity for work and their doggedness were bound to tell.
It must not be inferred from this that many Jews made fortunes. Wealth is .a relative term and one cannot squeeze great riches out of a poor country. But in every village, however small, where there was an inn, the publican was usually a Jew. He sold cheap and atrocious liquor which was consumed by the Carpatho—Ukrainians in large quantities. If, as often happened, a customer was out of pocket, he could get his drink on credit; the Jewish publican was willing to oblige, but he saw to it that he was paid in the end. Payment was mostly made in kind, and in this way the inn-keeper accumulated a surplus of land produce, timber, eggs, poultry, or sheep which he marketed in the nearest town. From the proceeds he used to buy salt, flour and some cheap necessaries of life which he sold or bartered for more local produce. In the backward villages his trade was meagre enough, but in the long run he contrived to own much of what there was to be owned. He was also the local banker and would lend money on good security. When a peasant was heavily in debt, he had to surrender a field to the gombeen man, who sometimes got a substantial portion of the available land into his possession.
In the larger settlements the Jews were engaged in all kinds of trades. They made and mended shoes, clothes and watches, repaired drains and houses. Many of the traditional peasant costumes and lambskin coats were made by Jewish tailors. Other Jewish crafts men turned out the characteristic local pottery, especially when the production of painted earthenware was started on a large scale. Souvenirs for tourists, such as the ornamented sticks called tshakans, were also made and carved by Jewish craftsmen.
By far the largest Jewish communities were concentrated in the towns. Almost half of the population living in the major towns was Jewish. Many of these Jews were poor proletarians who worked in tobacco factories, brick-kilns or distilleries and lived in squalid tenements somewhere on the outskirts of the towns. Jewish coachmen were a familiar sight on the box-seats of old-fashioned horse-cabs, and the few motor cars which could be seen in the country were driven by Jews. They were waiters in the restaurants and porters at the hotels. But there were also many educated
Jews in Carpatho-Ukraine; in fact, the greater part of the country’s intelligentsia was recruited from amongst them. Most of the local doctors, lawyers, journalists, musicians and artists were of Jewish origin. Considering the limited educational facilities, their scholarship was considerable and their knowledge of foreign languages remarkable.
Business was, however, the main occupation of the Jews. Those who had no capital to speak of, used to run most of the street stalls, where cheap clothes, fancy goods, imitation jewellery, toys, household utensils and soon, could be bought. Others who were better off owned well-equipped shops, restaurants and hotels, or were engaged in wholesale business.
Whether poor or wealthy, the Jews of Carpatho-Ukraine formed one of the most compact and distinctive communities of its kind in Europe. Many lived traditionally in accordance with the ancient Mosaic Law and kept strictly to themselves. Their kaftans of black alpaca reaching down to their heels, their wide-brimmed hats of velours or felt, their long ringlets hanging down both sides of their faces as demanded by ritual, the luxurious patriarchal beards of the older men, made them conspicuous figures. These orthodox Jews were strongly opposed to any new ideas or habits and faith-fully preserved the spirit of the Middle Ages.
The less conservative members of the Jewish community realised the value of education. Under the Hungarian régime, they studied at Magyar schools and many took their degrees at Budapest University. When the country came under Czechoslovak ad ministration they quickly availed themselves of the educational facilities which the new authorities so liberally provided for the citizens. The Jewish secondary schools, founded at Mukacevo and Uzhorod by the Czechoslovak. government, played an important part in this development.
Sorrow and pride of race welded all these diverse Jewish elements into one closely knit community. On the whole, they fitted in well enough with the Ukrainians, and the majority fulfilled an essential function within the primitive peasant society. They were the leaven in the dough. The lower classes supplied craftsmanship and business acumen; the wealthier Jews controlled higher commercial life and the law courts; the intellectuals dominated public life.
The bulk of the Carpatho-Ukrainian people did not grudge. The Jews their positions certainly not before the doctrine of racial strife was artificially introduced from abroad. Even then anti-Semitism was not rampant in the country, and the responsibility for the extermination of the greater part of the Jewish minority in Carpatho-Ukraine lies else-where.
Unlike the mountainous core of the country, the fertile lowlands to the south of the Carpathians were a hotchpotch of nationalities. After the Ukrainians, the most numerous among them we re the Hungarians , who lived almost entirely in this thriving border region where all the towns are situated.
For nearly a thousand years the kings of Hungary were the rulers of the small country under the Carpathians. In the earliest centuries the influence of the Hungarian Crown was merely nominal in the dense forests and inaccessible mountains which did not attract Magyar settlers. But at the end of the twelfth century the sovereignty of the Hungarian kings became firmly established in the lowlands, and from then on the Hungarian privileged classes gradually gained the upper hand at the expense of the Ukrainian sub1ects whose status declined consistently.
Until the end of the first World War the privileged position of the Magyars in the province remained unchallenged. Vast tracts of its forest were the property of large Hungarian landowners - some of them absentee-landlords who visited the Carpathian estates mainly to stalk the bear, the wild boar and other game. The towns had a distinctly Hungarian appearance, even though their population was very mixed. Men of influence and position officials, doctors, teachers, lawyers, judges, army and police officers, members of the gentry were mostly Magyars or Magyarised Jews. Non-Magyar nationals who wanted to get on in the world were bound to acquire Hungarian culture and outlook because there were only Magyar r institutions of higher educations Magyar peasants owned major farms in the lowlands of Carpatho-Ukraine and were quite well off, for the soil of this rather prosperous belt yields plenty of wheat, maize, fruit, vines and some tobacco, while the lush meadows are well suited for cattle and horse breeding. Many of these farmers were in a position to employ Ukrainian, Slovak, Polish and even Rumanian labour to work for them in the fields during the busy season.
This was the heyday of Hungarian supremacy, when the slogan was coined: "Extra Hungarzcmi non est i vita et si est! vita, non est ita."
Life was indeed gay and carefree for the well-to-do members of this buoyant and proud race. Though Ungvar (Hungarian for Uzhorod) or Munkacs (Mukacevo) could not vie with the effervescent gaiety of Budapest, the cafés, restaurants and taverns in the towns of the (Carpathian province were lively enough late into the night. The Hungarians liked nothing better than to sit at their reserved tables eating delicious food and drinking their favourite wine to the strains of fiery Gipsy music. They could be easily recognised among the other guests by their grand nunner, for they were inclined to show off. Whether true or not, the story goes round that a Hungarian, arriving at a café, might order two cups of coffee with plenty of whipped cream on top, one for himself and one for his horse, in order to show that his horse was no ordinary horse; and he would see to it that the waiter carried out the order to the letter.
When in 1919 Carpatho-Ukraine was detached from Hungary, the days of Magyar supremacy were over. T he Hungarian military, gendarmes and officials were gone, most of the absentee—landowners had to give up their estates for a financial compensation, and the property of the resident gentry was, as a rule, curtailed. The number of Magyar nationals dropped considerably, partly owing to emigration but largely because under the Czechoslovak administration the Jews, who used to be counted as Hungarians, were able to declare Jewish nationality. Most of the remaining Hungarians, numbering about 120,000 before Munich, did not, however, fare badly under the new régime. The farmers retained their thriving farms, the cattle and horse dealers carried on their profitable business. For the most part, the Hungarian minority was loyal to the new State where it had adequate educational facilities and a free press.
By the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia in 1939 Hungarian domination was restored in Carpatho-Ukraine, but this attempt to return to the previous state of affairs was only short lived.
The Rumanian minority, although only slightly over 12,000 strong, was more interesting than its size would suggest. It is an open question when exactly the first Rumanians came to live in the valley near the pre—war frontier. Some Rumanians claim that their nationals had settled in that part of the country before the Hungarians arrived. The Hungarians deny this . According to them, their own ancestors had come first, while the Rumanians have been living in the province about six hundred years. Be that as it may, Rumanian colonists moved into Carpatho-Ukraine some considerable time back.
A number of them made their living in the Slatina salt mines, where they were employed as skilled labour. As is usual with town-dwellers and industrial workers, they have discarded most of the traditional customs which are still preserved in many rural parts of the native country of their forefathers. Not so the Rumanian farmers, who live in a few villages of the fertile border land and made a picturesque contribution of their own to the chequered pattern of Carpathian traditions.
In appearance these villages are very much like those in Rumania proper, and they differ from the Ukrainian settlements in several respects. True, the houses are also made of wood. but they are generally in better repair. The mostly wooden roofs are steeper and the posts supporting them where they overhang narrow verandahs are thicker and more heavily carved. The interior is even more characteristic and picturesque. Wherever one looks, there are decorative strips or squares of woolen tapestry, clothing the walls, covering the beds or tables, and serving as carpets. The patterns and colours are usually bold, even though somewhat crude, and the background of the wooden walls springs to life in this impressive setting. The tapestries are home-made; Rumanian women are skilled weavers and know how to produce a striking effect with a few traditional colours.
They also make their shopping bags of very unusual colours, the ground being often dark red with much purple over it. Sometimes they decorate them with woven tapestries consisting of attractive floral designs. These bags go well with their woven dresses and aprons made of coarse woolen material with bold stripes - mostly red and yellow, black and yellow - running across it. Not all the Rumanian women wear such traditional garments, for in their villages, too, urban civilisation has encroached upon the original home-crafts. But, where they are still preserved, these traditional costumes are most striking and entirely different from the Ukrainian dresses, relying on colour-effects rather than on meticulous embroidery.
The relatively simple attire of the men has two interesting features - the belt and the hat. Like the Ukrainian uplanders, the Rumanian farmers and craftsmen are very proud of their stout and heavily studded leather belts, which are often as much as one foot broad and appear to be indispensable props of masculine dignity. In contrast to them, the hats with light blue ribbons round the tiny crowns give the men a singularly childish appearance; the more so because the ribbons cross at the back and overhang the brims in two short ends. To top it all, the hat is secured by an elastic band which is strapped under the chin or sometimes under the bulge at the back of the head.
East Slovakia Genealogical Research Strategies