Lajos Erdélyi, Holocaust survivor who pioneered documentation of Jewish cemeteries in Romania, dies at 90

Lajos Erdélyi, a Holocaust survivor from Transylvania who as a journalist and photographer was a pioneer in the post-Holocaust documentation of Jewish cemeteries in Romania, passed away aged 90 on 22 March 2020 in Budapest.

Erdélyi became a photo journalist, and in the 1970s became interested in photographing Jewish cemeteries. His Hungarian-language book Régi zsidó temetők művészete (The Art of Old Jewish Cemeteries) was published in Bucharest in 1980.

The quality of the printing is not the best, but the images of cemeteries and individual matzevot in a score of Jewish cemeteries in Romania are striking, and the book was a landmark publication regarding Jewish cemetery documentation. It in, Erdelyi also wrote about Jewish history, about the development of gravestone styles and burial practice, and about the symbolism used in the carvings and epitaphs.

Lajos Erdélyi was born in 1929 in the Transylvanian city of Târgu Mureș (Hungarian: Marosvásárhely). His father Emil, a local Zionist leader, ran a small drugstore on the main street of the city. Like most Jews in the region, the family spoke Hungarian. When the city was annexed by Hungary in 1940, most Jews welcomed the changes at first, only to realize soon that the anti-Jewish laws of the Hungarian government had harsh consequences for them too.

In March 1944, the German Wehrmacht occupied Hungary. Soon thereafter, most Jews from Northern Transylvania were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Lajos’s mother Helén and his sister Júlia were murdered immediately upon their arrival. Lajos and his father were sent to camps in Lower Silesia for forced labour. The two of them managed to stay together until their liberation about a year later. Their longest haul was in Dörnhau, a satellite camp of the concentration camp Groß-Rosen, where they had to conduct brutal physical slave labour in mining shafts.

After liberation, father and son returned home into their native city which once again belonged to Romania. It was there that Lajos met his future wife Anni, a girl from Czernowitz, at a Zionist youth organization. At first, Lajos believed in the ideals of Communism, but the reality of the dictatorship soon made him change his mind. He found his niche as a photographer and a journalist in the editorial staffs of cultural magazines of the Hungarian minority. In the 1970s, he began to photograph abandoned Jewish cemeteries across Eastern Europe. He was a pioneer on this field – his illustrated books found a large audience and made him well-known internationally.

In 1988, as life under the Communist dictatorship in Romania became increasingly unbearable, Lajos Erdélyi and his wife moved to Budapest. He continued his work undiminished. As the years went by, he became a very sought-after witness of the Holocaust, not least because of his immense knowledge and his incredibly friendly personality. The audience in Berlin had the chance to get a glimpse of that as well when his memoirs, published in German by the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, were presented in the Hungarian Embassy in June 2017.

Lajos Erdélyi stayed active until the very end of his life. In December 2019 he was honoured with an award for his commitment to Jewish culture in Hungary. The thoughts of the Foundation Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe go out to his wife Anni, his daughters Tamara and Zsuzsa and the grandchildren.

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