The Synagogue at the End of the World (Memoir)

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(Note to reader: the following is taken from a work in progress, a blended memoir about contemporary Jewish identity and the legacy of the Holocaust. I hope you’ll join me on this ride.)

By Leah Eichler,

The synagogue at the end of the world is not what you would expect.

Imagine a large, single room building in the middle of a gravel stone driveway beside the village’s only store and pub. Blink and you’ll pass it, a precious gem hiding in plain sight. I found it in my maternal grandmother’s village in Hungary, called Beregdaroc, about half a kilometre from the Ukrainian border.

I grew up hearing stories about the village, as if it were Chelm or Anatevka, a mythical place born out of the imagination of the likes of Sholem Aleichem or Isaac Bashevis Singer. But they never wrote about Beregdaroc, or likely even heard of it, so the village grew in my imagination.

Over the years, I’ve questioned its existence. There are almost no references to Beregdaroc anywhere online. A brief Wikipedia page tells you only that “Jews lived there” once and nothing else. A voice inside me has been beckoning me to Beregdaroc for some time but I was conscious that I was travelling to a place my grandmother never wanted to return to.

In anticipation of my trip to Hungary, I reached out to a distant relative on my father’s side, who still lives in Budapest, and asked if she’s ever heard of Beregdaroc. She looked it up as I did, on Wikipedia, and then later on a map.

“It’s at the end of the world,” she told me in disbelief. I sensed her concern for my safety and her puzzlement. She held her tongue but I could hear her words anyway. Why would anyone want to go there?

It’s a question I still don’t quite know the answer to, but I’m here anyway, at the village at the end of the world, only to discover that in it, a synagogue still stands, even though this area has been free of Jews since the last ones were deported 79 years ago.

I never expected to find a synagogue here. I hoped to find graves, maybe evidence that someone, somewhere remembered my family. Then the mayor, who graciously escorted us through the village, points us to this unassuming building, where Jews once prayed.

I look at the others — my boyfriend Isac, my son Azriel, and our guide, Karesz, to see if they saw what I did. It struck me like an archeological find, proof of life in village that for years I’ve equated only with death.

The two narrow doors look locked and only slightly more dilapidated than the black and white picture we later found of the building, taken in 1980 by a photographer documenting abandoned synagogues. I touch the outside wall and wonder who was the last Jew to enter this building, to understand its intrinsic value? I place my face close to the window — there are two on either side of the door, both different sizes — but they are too dirty to see through.

In an act of chivalry, the town’s mayor forces open the door with his shoulder. I believe my enthusiasm for the building is contagious, as if he can now see the value to someone like me. He stands by the door to let me squeeze inside, which I do, careful not to disturb the cobwebs hanging from the ceiling and windows. I can see two metal tables, connected to make a T. At the far end rests an abandoned basket with some tubes and tools sticking out.

Through Karesz, who translated, the mayor explains that the room was most recently used to process dairy. That strikes me as simultaneously impossible and sacrilegious. The room seems too small for commercial use and it’s not immediately clear if there’s electricity or running water. And it feels holy; the dusty breath from singing voices still hovers in the air.

Instinctively, I turn to the wall behind the basket and think, that’s where the ark would have been. In my mind, I see the small podium and behind it an ornate closet to house the Torah. Most worshippers would bring their own prayer books, but a few extras would be available, under the table.

Reluctantly, I turn around, conscious of turning my back even to the ghost Torah, but I want to examine the small window, higher up on the back wall. It would have been used to let in fresh air as the dozen or so men prayed.

“It must have been only for men,” Karesz suggests as if reading my mind. The room is not big enough to divide in half, to have women sit separately. Even with a dozen people, it would likely be standing room only. Hot in winter, dusty, bodies pressed against each other in prayer, young boys on the floor tired, or misbehaving.

I make for the door, suddenly claustrophobic. Why is this building still standing? I ask myself. And not buried or destroyed like most of the other evidence that Jews ever lived here? Is it intrinsically valuable? Could the villagers not be bothered?

A woman whose fence pushes up next to the synagogue chimes into the conversation, her proximity giving her first-hand knowledge of the building.

“There was no running water in the building at the time, but there was a well next to the synagogue with a hand pump and people would use it to wash their hands before they entered the building,” Karesz translates for me. This woman couldn’t be much older than me; I wondered how she knew, what crumbs of information have been passed down from owner to owner, generation to generation.

The neighbour smiles as she turned on her garden hose and began to casually water her plants. It seems slightly absurd to me, the meticulous care for her flowers, and none for the sarcophagus next door.

I spot the remnants of the pump about 10 feet away and the evidence hits me hard. History and the current day begin to collide in my psyche. My grandmother was here, inside this building, as a child to get her dad, or later to find her brothers. The municipal building is close by. I wonder if she walked by the synagogue one last time on the morning of April 17, 1944, when the horse-drawn carts took her and all the other Jews to Beregszasz, to the ghetto there, before being shipped off to Auschwitz.

I search for Isac and Azriel, to root myself back in the present. I find Isac on the main street as a class of schoolchildren walk by. As the only Black man in this village, and possibly the only Black man they have ever seen, he is something of a celebrity.

“Well, hello,” I hear him say to the kids.  They crowd around him curiously but respectfully.

Meanwhile, Azriel shoots photos of the road splitting around a picturesque church, which I later look up. It’s Protestant, dating back to the early 1400s. The worshippers in the church and the ones in the synagogue would all have known each other. It’s a small village — maybe 700 people lived here in 1944. Not many more live here now. How old is the synagogue? That I still don’t know.

Isac and Azriel both amble towards me, as does Karesz. This is my trip, and they are eager for a sign that I’ve seen everything I need to see, and we can all return to Budapest, to civilization.

But I’m not ready to go. I glance at the synagogue and miss it already, worried I might never see it again. Only an hour earlier, I’d visited the local Jewish cemetery, with a couple dozen tombstones, only a few of them still legible. They stick out of the ground like broken teeth. I am immediately drawn to the three in the centre and after wiping it down quickly, I’m face to face with my family name.

“Your ancestors were calling you,” Isac said. “And now you found them.” I cried at the thought that no one has visited them almost 80 years but I was able to say goodbye.

But this synagogue produces different emotions. It’s dead and alive. Unlike the cemetery, I feel the spirits here, haunting me with holiness. This place can be resurrected. But for what? This village has been Judenfrei for almost 80 years. In a few more, any sign of Jewish life will likely be completely eliminated from the village.

What if I buy it?

 No, Leah, I tell myself. That’s crazy. The concrete is crumbling. The roof is likely unstable. You’re not Jamie Lee Curtis. The synagogue she invested in is only 26 miles away. There is nothing redeemable about this building, I tell myself, and yet somehow, I love this one-time synagogue. So what if it’s nestled beside neighbours who don’t appear to think of it at all, just a short walk from the Ukrainian border, where a war rages? I feel attached to it, protective. If not me, then who?

Back at the street, the schoolchildren appear to have lost interest in Isac. Azriel absent-mindedly shoots more photos.

“Do you think the owner would want to sell the building?” I ask Karesz, and I wonder if the mayor understood. Azriel tells me later that the mayor’s eyes immediately lit up as I asked and after exchanging a few works with Karesz, he picks up his cellphone to make a call.

A few minutes later, a man with a soft face and round belly shows up, smiling at the mayor. The fact that people can just show up (the mayor, this businessman, the schoolchildren) all serves to remind me how different this place is from home. Things move slower, with less urgency. Outsiders are a curiosity. They want to help. I begin to understand why my grandmother felt so connected to this place. It only occurs to me later that perhaps they wanted to help out of pity. Or guilt.

“It’s his place,” Karesz tells me, and I smile at the gentleman, although I later discover the building technically belongs to his wife. The man explains how the land is linked to the store, the pub, and the barn across the driveway. Selling it would require everyone’s approval but he believes it’s easily done. Documents later show that the gas company has a right of way on the land, too. Karesz assures me all of this is doable.

“Do you think you want to buy it?” Karesz asks quietly. The mayor looks at me. So does the owner. I don’t need to turn around to know that Isac is also waiting for my answer. The look on his face will offer no clues but I’ve become an expert reader of his expressions. He’s well-versed in my eccentric interests and knows better than to apply logic to them in public.

“Let me think about it. Do my due diligence,” I reply, within Isac’s earshot.

“You know, my father was the Shabbos goy,” the man says through Karesz, and I try to do the math, to see if he means father or grandfather. Maybe he is older than I estimate. On occasion, these roles get passed down through the generations. For a brief moment, it occurs to me that his family may have been the only ones to hold onto the key when the last Jew was deported. I ask Karesz to take down his contact details and let him know we’ll be in touch.

“Do you think he just assumed the building when the last Jew left?” I ask Karesz when we return to the car.

“It wasn’t that simple,” he replies. “The synagogue, like all Jewish property, would have been nationalized.”

I have so many questions. Who owned it before it was nationalized? Who would have been allowed to buy it when in the early 90s, nationalized property was reversed? Was anyone ever compensated?

Later, we find out it has swapped hands several times since the early 90s. For a few years, it was owned by a charity called the “Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg county board of trustees.” It was founded in 1991 by one private person in the municipality of Mátészalka.

At another point, it was registered as a shopping centre 3131 square metres large. That’s 33,701.8 square feet. Was there a plan to turn it into a large shopping centre in a village of this size? Could they tear down this last sign of life for a mall? I shake the thought from my mind. A village this size would never need a shopping mall, I convince myself, to make me feel better.

On the drive home, I can’t stop thinking about the synagogue. Do I want to be tied to the place that watched my family get deported? Do I want to right a wrong? I don’t know the answer, but I can imagine its potential. I daydream of turning it into a museum of the Jews in the village, tracing their history, highlighting a microcosm of a genocide. Instead of six million, here there were maybe 50. But in a village of 700, isn’t that enough?

Karesz and I talk prices. He recently purchased an apartment on the outskirts of central Budapest. There are enough dilapidated buildings to go around for the intrepid investor. Based on sales in neighbouring villages, we guess I could offer $3-$4 million Hungarian Forint, the equivalent of between US$9,000-12,000. Repairs would be around $15,000, we guess off the top of our heads. Legal fees would be around US$600. Sales tax may apply. There’s maintenance, electricity, waste, water. Then the arduous and expensive task of documenting the Jews of Beregdaroc. I watch as we drive past the sign that first welcomed us to Beregdaroc, and it reassures me that there’s a good chance that I’ll be back. Maybe that’s what I really want: a reason to come back.

We say our goodbyes to Karesz at the Hertz car rental office back in Budapest. We are back in the world. Maybe not our world, but one we recognize.

At dinner that night, I joke about the synagogue as if it were a done deal. It seems simultaneously doable but daunting, like jumping out of a plane, only to realize you need to still open your parachute and find a safe place to land.

“Did you call your cousin?” Isac asks nonchalantly. I know he’s referring to Eva, my Hungarian “cousin,” the woman who coined the term “the village at the end of the world,” which appears to have captured my imagination. We met for dinner on our first night in Budapest, when I explained my purpose for the trip. She’s one of the 80,000 Jews leftover from the 800,000 before the war.

“We texted,” I tell Isac. The dinner left an impression on all of us, especially Isac. He and Eva hit it off like old friends.

“She said something at dinner that stuck with me,” Isac recalled. I know what he’s going to say. The Holocaust didn’t seem to interest her much, from what I gathered at our dinner. Truthfully, it didn’t appear to interest many of my relatives growing up, who were more than happy to put the tragedy in their rear-view mirror. But for Eva it was different. For her it wasn’t about forgetting so much as conserving her energy. She cared about people deeply. In all our correspondence she said she loved me and meant it. She said we are family and meant it.

“Eva said,” Isac reminded me, “why look back when we can look forward. There are people that need us now. The dead don’t need us.”

The dead don’t need us, that may be true. But somehow, I couldn’t shake how much I needed the dead.

Read other links in the series:

The Village at the End of the World

Simon Wiesenthal, meet Henry Morgantaler

Who Gets to Tell the Story of the Holocaust?


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