Győr and Jewry

Interview with Tibor Villányi, President of the Jewish Community of Győr

It is with pleasure that we publish the short summary of a conversation we had with Tibor Villányi, the President of the Jewish Community of Győr, in the first days of January 2022. The general question we put to Tibor concerned the past, present and future of the Jewish community in Győr. Read his answer below.

Past and present of the Jewry in Győr

I can’t say much good about the present of the Jewish community in Győr.

Religious life has shrunk to a minimum, while for me it is the most important measure of the existence of Jewish life. Unfortunately, this is the consequence of the Holocaust, and is typical of many communities in the countryside. We erected a memorial column in the courtyard of the Győr Community and the Synagogue with the names of 400 child victims deported from Győr and its neighborhood, then killed. They were all under 14-years old. They and their unborn children would now be members of a classically functioning community.

Monument to child victims
© P. Krausz

Nevertheless, I have a lot to do and I do everything I can to ensure that the great tradition of the once significant community does not disappear without a trace. Our ancestors played a prominent role in the industrialization of Győr, think of Ágoston Léderer and his peers, who were the founding owners of very successful factories as well as prominent actors of the public life in Győr. As a result, Győr has developed into a dynamic industrial city, think of the milling industry, the wagon manufacturing factory, the distillery, the electrification of the city, the multitude of textile factories, the establishment of vegetable oil factories and many other plants. These factories and plants have provided employment and livelihood for tens of thousands of Győr citizens since the end of the 19th century.

Memory board for Ágoston Léderer at the exhibition on local Jewish history of the former Home for poor and elderly
© Home – board; © P. Krausz – photo

During my presidency alone, we buried more than one hundred people in the cemetery in Sziget while hardly a Jewish toddler was born in Győr during this period. So, the process of shrinkage that began with the 1944 massacre, and which has been exacerbated by further emigration, continues unabated.

The level of interest in community affairs that goes beyond religious life is also extremely low. Regrettably, this was already typical of the generation that survived the devastation and unfortunately, they were the ones who sold and even donated the Synagogue building and the former Home of poor and elderly to the state. The Home has already been repurchased by the community from town ownership. The heavily dilapidated building has partially been renovated. On the ground floor, we set up an exhibition on Jewish religious life and the local history of Jews as well as the Holocaust. In one of the rooms, photo boards have been set up on the life of former Győr families. We have also furnished an 80-seat theater, which is suitable for cultural events. With all this, our goal is to spread knowledge, remember and retell.

The former Home for poor and elderly © P. Krausz

As said, the great Synagogue is not in our property any more, we can only use one prayer room. Saturday reception and religious holidays are celebrated there. We have a synagogue clerk and every second week a rabbi coming from Budapest to perform the Saturday service and educate community members. In August 2021, together with the Széchenyi István University, we commemorated the 150 + 1 – years anniversary of the Synagogue’s anointment in an honorable way. We had to postpone the event for a year because of the outbreak of the Covid epidemic.

It is most important to me that we preserve what we have today. To this end, I nurture our relations with the leadership of the city of Győr and the relevant governmental bodies.

The World meeting scheduled for 2024

In principle, I support the organization of the meeting and ensure that Jewish institutions such as the prayer room, the former Home for poor and elderly as well as the cemetery can be visited on this occasion. Of course, I will attend the reunion. (Note by KP: The University has already authorized the use of the great Synagogue as one of the venues for the planned events.)

The newly refurbished funeral home of the cemetery in Győr-Sziget © P. Krausz

The international nature of the initiative is also commendable, but unfortunately my experience with the survivors of Győr and their descendants living abroad is not very positive. A few years ago, I tried to arouse interest abroad for Győr with announcements published in the paper Israeli Új Kelet, but there was no reaction whatsoever. Many of these people have ancestors buried in the cemetery, which has been painstakingly tidied up and maintained, but a great number of those living abroad, although they visit the graves from time to time, does not see that the cemetery should be maintained and the graves should be taken care of. This is sad. It should be understood that, as the Hungarian state does not finance the maintenance of the cemetery, the relatives would have to pay an annual maintenance fee on a regular basis, which is not a large amount. From January 1, 2022, HUF 5,000 (USD 16) for single graves and HUF 10,000 (USD 32) for double graves. It should be noted here that this amount is a general cemetery maintenance fee, not covering the cost of repairing individual gravestones. In the last two years, we have re-erected, for memorial and accident prevention reasons, six hundred fallen gravestones without living relatives at great expense.

We are in contact with the Institute of Military History of the Ministry of Defense and, thanks to a grant received, graves of 18 WW1 heroes have also been restored.

Plans for the future

I cannot see into the future.

Of course, we will continue with our current work, such as organizing the religious activities, maintaining the cemetery, running the former Home for poor and elderly as well as ensuring our participation in the cultural life of the city of Győr.

My plans include the creation of an interactive database on Jewish life in Győr including the necessary computer infrastructure in the basement of the former Home for poor and elderly, which needs to be completely renovated. All this will cost a lot of money. I have asked for government help in this respect. The Museum of Győr would take over the running of this new, modern section of the Jewish local history exhibition already established there.

Furthermore, we will organize occasional exhibitions, such as one on Jewish weddings as supported by the Museum mentioned.

Tibor Villányi speaking at the 150 + 1 – years celebration of the great Synagogue © P. Krausz

As soon as the two-year-long epidemic subsides and the situation returns to normal, we will relaunch the lecture series of the Győr Jewish Free University.

To sum up, despite the current difficult situation, we are working, and I myself, as I said, am actively trying to fulfil my plans in a neat order, within the limits of my possibilities, in order to preserve the traces of Judaism in the life of this beautiful, historic city with great traditions.

So far, Tibor’s reply, for which we are grateful and hope that the expected success of the international reunion to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the Holocaust in July 2024, already in preparation, will have a positive impact on fostering and preserving Jewish traditions in Győr and will contribute to the enrichment of Jewish community life here. In this way, the initiators and organizers of the reunion will strengthen the effectiveness of the current activities and the implementation of the plans of the local Jewish Community’s leadership.

The discussion was recorded by Péter Krausz (KP).

Featured image – © P. Krausz