As the holiday approaches, my cousin, Irving Weinberger, who wrote so eloquently about “A Little Town Called Munkàcs” in Food, Family and Tradition (page 39), remembers the Chanukah of his youth in his hometown, Munkàcs, which was, at that time, in the Soviet Union . That little town of Munkàcs was claimed by many nations, depending on who was in political control: Ukrainians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks and Russians.
Munkàcs was the only city in Hungary with an almost 50% Jewish population. It was a city, he says, so rich with Jewish tradition that “neither the anti-Semitism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire or the death camps, concentration camps and slave-labor camps of World War II, not even the Soviet Union’s post-War enforcement of atheism and assimilation could erase it.”
Irving grew up in post World War II Soviet-controlled Munkàcs and attended Soviet schools. But at home his parents, Goldie and Leib Weinberger (as did other Holocaust survivors) kept Jewish traditions and strictly followed Jewish laws. He remembers that even a shoichet came to their yard to kill the cow according to Jewish law to provide meat for the family, as well as many other Jewish families. They prayed together and celebrated together, as a community. They celebrated religious observances in secret, performed by rabbis who had been educated in pre-Holocaust Yeshivas. These rabbis also gave them private Hebrew studies.
Celebrating Chanukah was no exception, and Irving remembers “baking, cooking latkes, reading the Torah, and getting together. As young people we made parties and went to friends’ homes. Our relatives would give us a little money (Chanukah gelt) and, being young, it was nice to have some extra cash in the pocket.”
The “relatives” did not include grandparents. “Only one family had a grandmother who survived; all the others perished in the Holocaust. Our non-Jewish friends had grandparents, and when you are young and you see that, you kind of miss it. But later you get used to it and accept the reality.”
After ongoing efforts of her brother, Sandor Kirsche, Goldie Weinberger and her family emigrated to the United States in 1973, joining the Kirsche family in Chicago.
Today Irving and his wife Sonia live in the Chicago area and celebrate Chanukah with their two children and four grandchildren. Those four children have childhood enriched with the love of grandparents. “We see them often, sometimes daily, and we babysit,” says Irving.
Does he ever miss Munkàcs? “Honestly, I miss the good times of being young, but I have never been nostalgic about going back.”
And he doesn’t miss (because they are always fresh and homemade) his favorite Chanukah foods: “Latkes and suganiyot!”