With popular Instagram account, Europe’s abandoned Jewish sites aren’t forgotten

In a small public library in a modest township on the outskirts of Budapest called Nagyteteny, a holy Ark for holding Jewish Torah scrolls is embedded into the eastern wall. Etched above the once-used holy space in gilt Hebrew lettering are the words, “may God be with us, just as he was with our fathers.”

Matyas Kiraly stands quietly observing the Ark but refrains from taking any pictures after the librarians rush over to let him know photography is forbidden inside the library. Sneaking out of sight up to the second-floor mezzanine, this Times of Israel reporter snaps a few photos anyway.

The Baroque-style building dates back to the early 19th century and once served as an Orthodox synagogue for the area’s Jewish community, the entirety of which was deported to Auschwitz during the Holocaust. Kiraly has been here before — and to the nearby Jewish cemetery — to document them for his Instagram account, Abandoned Jewish Memories. On this mid-May afternoon, Kiraly is revisiting the sites and has invited The Times of Israel to accompany him.

Since 2018, the 24-year-old Kiraly has visited over 100 sites across Central and Eastern Europe for his Instagram project and has built an audience of nearly 14,000 followers from as far away as South America, the United States, and Israel. He posts in English to make himself understood as broadly as possible.

The synagogue-turned-library was built in the Baroque style by a Jewish community that first arrived in the area from Moravia in 1737.

Located 15 kilometers (nine miles) southwest of central Budapest, Nagyteteny was originally an independent village, but was incorporated into the Budapest municipality in 1950 along with neighboring Budafok. The Jewish community numbered close to 500 in the late 1800s, but by 1930 had shrunk considerably to roughly 150 people — likely as the Jews migrated closer to the city center. The community was largely Orthodox.

With the Nazi occupation of Hungary in the spring of 1944, the Jews of Nagyteteny were transferred to the nearby ghetto in Budafok. Three days later, they were put on trains to Auschwitz. Only 10 survivors returned to Nagyteteny after the war.

For decades, locals made use of the building as a warehouse and storage for library books. In 2013, it was renovated and turned into a public library, with the Ark left in place as a testament to the past.

Exiting the building, Kiraly points to an inscription that remains above the door, written in Hebrew as well as Hungarian. “From sunrise to sunset, God’s name should be praised,” it reads. Kiraly also notes five trees planted in front of the library. He says there are two theories about what the trees may represent. Some say they were planted by the five families who survived the Holocaust; others maintain the trees represent the Five Books of Moses. Judging based on the apparent age of the trees, Kiraly believes the second theory to be the likelier.

The spark is lit
In the short walk through the tranquil streets of Nagyteteny to his second destination, the old Jewish cemetery, Kiraly talks about what drew him to his project.

“My mother’s father was an Orthodox Jew from the city of Miskolc who survived the Holocaust in the Budapest ghetto, and my grandmother is a Baptist. My grandfather died before I was born, but there has always been a strong Jewish identity in my family,” Kiraly, who is not considered Jewish according to religious law, says.

“My father is a Christian, but he wears a necklace with the Ten Commandments on it. And he wants to live in Israel — I think he’s a big Zionist,” says Kiraly.

Kiraly says that his parents were supportive about his desire to attend the Budapest University of Jewish Studies. It was there that a professor, Dr. Istvan Balogh, got him interested in Jewish cemeteries. For his undergraduate thesis, Kiraly wrote about the abandoned cemetery in Budakalasz, located between Budapest and the town of Szentendre, where he grew up.

Budakalasz was also the site of a ghetto that held many Jews before they were transferred to the death camps and contains a mass grave holding the remains of forced laborers — both Jewish and non-Jewish — who were killed earlier on in the war around 1941, years prior to the Nazi occupation.

“I don’t know for sure, but they were probably shot when they were too sick or weak to continue working,” Kiraly says.

Kiraly says the Budakalasz cemetery was “nearly demolished” when he found it, and that he and his father worked to pick up the toppled headstones. They were eventually helped with funding and manpower to restore the cemetery by the Jewish MAZSIHISZ umbrella organization, the country’s EJC affiliate.

During a trip to Slovakia in the spring of 2018, Kiraly and his family visited a dilapidated Jewish cemetery outside of Bratislava. He says he launched the Instagram account to document his first photos of the cemetery.

“I figured 10,000 people would be a good number of followers to reach, so that’s the goal I set when I first set up the account,” says Kiraly. “I never advertised, I just reached out and interacted with people. By the beginning of 2019, I had reached my goal.”

To help fund his trips, Kiraly sometimes buys religious books that he finds over the course of his travels and sells them via his Instagram page. He says the texts attract buyers from around the world.
“This is so much more than kitsch,” he says. “These are items with deep spiritual and cultural meaning.”

Kiraly is pursuing a master’s degree at the Budapest University of Jewish Studies and works as an archivist at the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, located in the well-known Dohany Synagogue compound in Budapest’s 7th district. He is working to map prewar Jewish life across the Austro-Hungarian Empire by looking over public and private property titles that were owned by Jews prior to the Holocaust and compiling them in a database. It is through this work that he’s able to estimate that there are likely around 2,000 Jewish cemeteries spread throughout Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and western Ukraine.

He says, “some of my Instagram followers in America asked me to help search out where members of their family are buried here, and I had to find them. It feels fantastic and it gives me strength.”

“What they have in the museum is amazing, the records of the communities, and the artifacts — the Torahs and the Torah crowns, and so on,” Kiraly says. “Nearly all the Jews in Hungary were murdered during the war, and when the survivors came back, they collected what had survived from the community — Torah scrolls, records, whatever — and brought it all together.”

‘There was trash everywhere’
“I’m sorry, but I wasn’t able to get the key,” Kiraly says, as he hoists himself over the shoulder-level brick wall surrounding the Nagyteteny Jewish cemetery. “I hope that’s not a problem.”

Within the walled cemetery, there are perhaps 200 graves altogether. Nearly all of the headstones in the first few rows have been toppled, and many bear jagged edges along the fault lines where they snapped. The sun is shining and it’s pleasantly warm in the cemetery, which is serene, bordered on three sides by open meadow.

“These have almost certainly been destroyed by vandals,” Kiraly says of the truncated graves. “You can see where they’ve been broken.”

Walking through the knee-high grass, he stops to point out some of the earliest graves, which date back to around 1750. Like the synagogue, these stones are carved in the Baroque style brought to the area by Jews from Moravia and Czechoslovakia. Many of the stones are so time-worn, the lettering can no longer be made out.

When Kiraly first came to this cemetery last year, the area closest to the street was piled high with refuse.

“It was like a garbage dump,” he says. “There was trash everywhere, it was filled with bags of dog shit that people had thrown over the wall.”

Kiraly says that when he returned home that first day, he went to a neighborhood Facebook page and asked if anyone from the area would like to help him clean the place up. A response was not long in coming.

“People told me to go to hell,” he says. “They asked why we don’t clean a Christian cemetery, and suggested that the owners of this cemetery clean the place out themselves. The only problem is that they were all killed.”

The municipality has since removed the garbage, but Kiraly believes it was out of a desire to keep the neighborhood clean rather than a feeling of duty to the deceased.

“I’ve reached out to people in other localities before, and it was never like this,” Kiraly says. “People in other places were never angry, but here they were upset. It was probably the worst experience I’ve had so far.”
Still, Kiraly finds documenting and looking after neglected sites to be extremely rewarding.

“If you try to find a synagogue or cemetery here in Hungary, it’s usually the abandoned ones that are most visible,” he says. “If an American Jew was trying to find one in the United States, it would be so much easier to find a community that’s alive. But many places here are totally forgotten and abandoned, and I want to show that.”

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