The Determinants of Jewish Identity in Inter-War Transylvania. Studia Judaica 1996. 68-77.
Nevertheless, the historical experience of the Diaspora Jewry evinces a profound dialectic of this identity which, in fact, is a historical and not a natural organic datum

Lya Benjamin

The Determinants of Jewish Identity in Inter-War Transylvania


The task of the historiography of Transylvanian Jewry is to cast light upon who Transylvanian Jews were and are, upon their distinct experiences within the framework of European Jewry's life in the Diaspora and, at the same time, upon their place within the general context of local history. In presenting historical phenomena one should not keep within the limits of the mere chronological and factual sequence of events; a circumstantial history is not enough. One must also understand who generates an event and what are its significance and consequences. From the perspective of complex historical research, a human community crystallized in a definite and unitary territory should not be conceived of as simply a geographic term, it is eo ipso the carrier of a certain identity, of an entire cultural and spiritual universe, of a particular life-style and way of thinking, of a specific self-perception and perception of the other. In light of such a view, the Transylvanian Jews do not merely stand for a geographical reality, but also for a communal identity, an ethno-cultural entity characterized by a certain variation and diversity within its very innermost structure. In the present study I will try to consider some of the specific ways in which the communal and ethno-cultural identity of the so-called assimilated Transylvanian Jewry asserted itself in the inter-war period. Frankly speaking, it seems hazardous at first sight to link the identity question to a particular historical context when, actually, communal identity based on language, culture, religion, common tradition and so on is an a-historical and trans-historical datum that spans time, seemingly related to a primordial source, a foundation stage, or to a destiny without any reference, rather than to a historical or social definition.

Nevertheless, the historical experience of the Diaspora Jewry evinces a profound dialectic of this identity which, in fact, is a historical and not a natural organic datum. Identity, stamped on the innermost and deepest strata of our individual and collective sub- and unconsciousness, is a cultural and not a natural datum. Not once does Erich Fromm emphasize the fact that psychoanalysis has demonstrated the compelling force that the ideational universe has upon the structuring of the unconsciousness. [1]

So, who are the so-called assimilated Transylvanian Jews as far as their identity is concerned?

Generally speaking, within common knowledge as well as in the historical and socio-political literature of past and present, the Transylvanian Jews are labelled as Hungarian Jews.

Undoubtedly, this assertion mirrors a historical reality. A Jewry living within the area of a Hungarian intellectual world, settled in a Transylvanian multinational environment, emancipated in the second half of the 19th century according to the most genuine principles of the French Revolution and, at the crossroads of the 19th and 20th centuries, exposed to the influence of Viennese modernity, could not avoid the crystallization of a double Jewish-Hungarian, but also extremely complex identity.

The specific features of this identity display a certain continuity within the new historical context, after Transylvania's unification with Romania in 1918, although one witnesses, at least partially, what Heinz Kohut would call "self-restructuring".[2]

Historical changes do not only urge the individual to build up a new identity, but at the same time, compel the entire social group to reshape and redefine the structure of their assumed identity.

In a significant article entitled The National Jewish Movement Is Three Years Old[3], — Ernő Marton explained the first signs of quasi-structural changes within the identity of the Jewry under consideration: in the following terms: "Emancipation set forth the idea that there is no Jewish nation. Emancipation set the Jews free only as individuals not as people: Jewishness was deemed to mean but a cult, not an ethnicity or nationality. According to this viewpoint, for 50 years they have undergone a process of forced Magyarization. But — Ernő Marton concluded especially after the outbreak of the war, the assimilation process slowed down in its rhythm, making room for a new form of Jewish self-consciousness. The Jews started to return to their roots. Assimilation became anachronistic".

The metamorphosis, emphasized by Ernő Marton, mainly refers to the assimilated Jews who contributed to the molding of the Transylvanian Jewry's personality in the process of their cultural and political self-assertion and in their relationships with others.

During the period under discussion, those Jews embarked upon a new historical course, the post-assimilation and post-emancipation road, heading for Zionism or for a certain autonomy which displayed specific political and cultural claims, with the purpose of "living" and surviving under the circumstances of the Galuth.

The representatives of that Jewry – according to Ernő Marton – participated in the revolutionary national movements that were taking place in the collapsing Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, maintaining their own claims and asserting a Jewish self-consciousness.

As it is well-known, on the 20th of November 1918, the National Union of Transylvanian Jewry was set up. It was an organization with a marked national character that claimed the status of a national minority for Transylvanian Jews.

Thus ended the first stage of emancipation during which the Jewry of Hungary displayed a strong tendency to melt into the Hungarian nation; the second stage consisted of an attempt at self-assertion by upholding claims according to the very spirit of the Alba Iulia declaration of principles.

Nevertheless, despite the revival of self-consciousness, the double Jewish-Hungarian identity remained a cultural reality. As a matter of fact, most Transylvanian Jews were Hungarian speaking people: if we are to trust a 1910 statistic it seemed that for about 70% of them Hungarian was their native language, which meant that language was a close and indestructible link between the Jews of Transylvania. In this respect the words of the poet Ernő Salamon, quoted by professor Gall as a profession of faith in his double minority status, are extremely illustrative: "When speaking any other language /stammer", Ernő Salamon wrote a few days before his death in Ukraine, where he had been sent to perform forced labor by the Horthyst authorities.[4]

But one must emphasize the fact that the feeling of belonging is of a cultural-spiritual nature. From the ethno-national, psychological and emotional point of view, the Jews of the post-assimilation period broke with the Hungarian minority: this is certified by the setting up, after the Union, their own political and collective organizations that maintained their specific claims, to say nothing of the evidence for a different mentality. This general attitude did not exclude individual participation in the Hungarian party, for instance. There were Jews who were members of the Hungarian party, members of the Parliament, and there were also Jews who were summoned to court for their Hungarian revisionism.

The complexity of this experience proves how intricate the historical reality of Jewish life in the Diaspora could be. One has to make accurate distinctions between all the aspects and levels of this existence. Things are not univocal: the truth is manifold, that is why genuine discourse must be simultaneously plural so that it would not fall, through simplified historical evaluations, into the error of general assigning of guilt.

Oddly enough, within, the framework of Greater Romania Transylvanian Jewry wished to be considered apart not only from the Hungarian minority or the Romanian majority, but also from the Jews living in the other historical Romanian provinces. On the eve of the 1920 spring elections, Octavian Goga came to Cluj to suggest to the Transylvanian Jews to vote for H. Streitman, pointing out that Romanians "would have a favorable attitude if a Jewish intellectual of the Old Kingdom represented Transylvanian Jews in Parlia­ment, and Streitinan, who was familiar with the culture of the state and with the Romanian language, would be the most suitable". The Jews rejected his proposal. As early as November 1918 they adopted a specific position which asserted their will to integrate into the new state as a self-sustaining and distinct national minority. They wished for denominational, cultural and political self-administration: they wanted schools in which their children would be taught in Hebrew. All these, however, they wanted within the boundaries of loyalty to the new Romanian state.[5]

The new attitude of assimilated Transylvanian Jewry faced the strong opposition of the Hungarian minority, of the representatives of the Hungarian nationalist circles. It was a question of political interests. The Hungarian party wished to be the representative of all the Hungarian speaking citizens of Greater Romania. This wish was also stated in the party's program. All Hungarian speaking citizens were considered as a homogenous mass, without distinct interests.[6] The aforementioned attitude wouldn't have been disquieting if it had not been reflected in the social, political, cultural and economic realities of the time. It was perhaps a more uncommon case in the Jewish post-emancipation and post-assimilation period that a non-Jewish community should have been so prejudiced in its views because of Jewish anti-as­similationism, as was the case with the representatives of the Hungarian minority in inter-war Transylvania. The leading mouthpiece of the Jewish position, the newspaper" Kelet significantly mirrors the controversial issues of this reality: "Let the Hungarians answer me an article entitled Jewish Souls Awake to Consciousness asserted do they honestly perceive us as Hungarian, as Szeklers, as Hungarian peasants, or as the Tchangoes of Bukovina? And let the Hungarian Jews answer the same question, whether they themselves could identify themselves with the Szeklers or with the Hungarian peasants?"[7]

In return, the editorial staff of "Magyar Kisebbség", a publication that pretended to fight for the harmonious living together of all minorities, attacked and actually offended the activity of the Zionist movement in Transylvania and the Jewish policy of self-assertion, as well as the Jews' tendency to set up their own cultural and educational institutions.

It is significant to mention the fact that not seldom did the Romanian nationalist press take advantage of Jewish-Hungarian dissension, making use of it for political purpose. For instance, on the 15th of November 1924, the newspaper "înfrăţirea" noted: "the Transylvanian Hungarians are deeply annoyed with the Zionist movement and the financial support granted by Transylvanian Jews for the reconstruction of Palestine. The leaders of the Hungarian party resort to the Jews not because they love them but because they need their financial and moral support. Because, otherwise - the newspaper concluded - there's no other more anti-Semitic nation than the Hungarians".

Not for the first or last time did the Jewish question appear in the debates between Romanian and Hungarian nationalist circles which accused one another of antiSemitism.

Of course, in the first decade after the Union, Hungarian antiSemitism was still kept under cover on account of the conjectured interests of the Hungarian party that included among others, the need for Hungarian Jews' votes.

Thus, "Ellenzék", the Hungarian political daily newspaper in Cluj, stigmatizes as disloyal and traitor an assimilated Jew who, in the summer of the 1931 elections, didn't vote for the candidates of the Hungarian party. These remarks by Miklós Krenner writing under the name of Spectator, well-known for his democratic views, gave some Jewish intellectuals the opportunity to stand up again for Jewish pride.

"It is time we spoke about the relationship between the Transylvanian Hungarian minority and the Transylvanian Jewish minority, and to make clear that neither side may be entitled to blame the other – wrote a Jewish lawyer, Izidor Erdős of Târnăveni, in "Új Kelet", on May 20, 1931. After 1918 — the article went on — the Hungarian population became a minority here, just like Jewry has been for two thousand years of Diaspora. Why do the Hungarians fail to understand that they cannot treat us anymore the way they did when we were a minority under their rule. In Hungary, before the war, the Jews and the Hungarians had mutual interests, the Jews and the Hungarian nation that granted them their emancipation in the 19th century had a common road. For this the Jews are still grateful, and they shed their blood in World War I. But, in 1918, Jewry has naturally made a vow of loyalty to the new authorities, as naturally as the Transylvanian Hungarians have adopted the Romanian citizenship. Under the new circumstances the situation of the Jewry brought up in the spirit of the Hungarian culture and tradition was much more intricate than the situation of the Hungarians themselves. I feel close to the Hungarian culture, but within the framework of the legal system of the Romanian state. Thus, an impartial judge must understand that we are entitled to have our own candidates in Parliament and our own political party, not against but beside the Hungarian party.

Over my cradle — concluded E.I. in his article — the poems of Janos Arany and Sándor Petőfi were recited. In my family were read Jókai and Mikszáth. And I was hurt and smiled a bitter smile when Antal Radó, József Kis and Ferencz Molnar were expelled by the racist extremists from among the Hungarian poets. I felt almost physically wounded when Mr. Krenner called us traitors".[8]

I have quoted this article in extenso because it is significant for understanding the intellectual evolution of one of the representatives of Jewish liberalism (who, at the end of the 19th century, changed his name from Engelman to Erdős) from Jewry's tendency to assimilate to the Hungarian community to the attempt to preserve the Jewish identity. And, obviously, he was not an isolated case in point.

The Jewish question was an almost constant presence in the columns of "Korunk". The originality of this review's attitude towards the Jewish question did not consist in the fact that it displayed a militant position against antiSemitism. For the "Korunk" editorial staff such a position was only natural. Of greater interest were their theses concerning the new self-assertive attitudes displayed by the assimilated Transylvanian Jewry, as well as their tendency to keep themselves apart from the Hungarian minority. And even if some authors peremptorily rejected the fact that the concept of nationality could be applied in describing Jewish identity, and evaluated the Jewish question in the light of quasi dogmatic Marxist opinions, nevertheless such texts put into evidencepost-assimilationisin as a major trend characterizing the Transylvanian Jewish community. We may illustrate the aforesaid assertion by the analyses by Imre Ferencz Vida and soon.

The writings on this subject by the late professor Gyula Csehi are relevant and significant. Csehi believed that the most amazing Phenomenon in Transyivanian Jewry's position was its Zionist attitude, while Zionism in Hungary was still the same insignificant sect as it was before the war. Csehi defined local Zionism as "the Transylvanism of the Transylvanian Jewry" .[9]

But Csehi revealed also a personal commitment to the Jewish question. Thus, in 1936, he made the following confession: "I speak about those Jews who, like myself, have preserved of their Jewish ethnicity only the remains of a more or less religious education, the faith in the after-war Jewish nationalism, the experience of the oppressed and marginalized and, above all, solidarity with all in need whose native language is neither Hebrew nor Yiddish, but who may no longer claim to, belong to the nation whose language they are speaking[10].

Csehi appears as a prototype of the modern Jew for whom the community as destiny (Otto Bauer's Schiksalsgemeinschaft) was a cohesive factor within the ethnic and national identity of any minority similar to the Jewish. Being aware of the danger that threatened the Jewry of our country too, he felt solidarity with all those in need, irrespective of their class.

The same idea of active commitment to the collective destiny that history keeps in store for the Jewish ethnic group is conveyed by an anthology of Transylvanian Jewish youth, published in 1936 and significantly entitled Kelet es Nyugat között (Between East and West).[11] These were young Jews who wished to find the historical roots of their people in the East, but who, spiritually speaking, were bound by countless threads to Western European culture.

This type of Jew, belonging to modern culture, who grew up and was educated both in Transylvania and in the Trasylvanian Jewish milieu, is suggestively characterized by György Ligeti, of Transylvanian origin, one of the most remarkable of the modern composers.

"My native language – said L.G. — is Hungarian. Nevertheless I'm not a genuine Hungarian because I am a Jew. Even so, I'm not a member of any Jewish community, thus I'm an assimilated Jew. But I'm not completely assimilated because I'm not converted. At present I live in Austria and I've been an Austrian  citizen for a long time. However I'm not a genuine Austrian, but an immigrant and my German will for ever preserve a Hungarian accent".[12]

Thus, the Transylvanian Jews never denied their Jewish identity and defined their affiliation to Hungarian culture with extremely delicate shades of difference.

"To question your Jewish identity means to have already lost it - says Emmanuel Levinas. But, it also means that you care for it, otherwise you would avoid questioning it".[13]

Transylvanian Jews, the so-called post-assimilationist Jews, who ventured to reassert Jewish identity did not question it but merely asserted Jewish conscious­ness. We must agree with Bromlej who tracked down the most important constitutive element of ethnic identity within the realm of consciousness. "The awareness of common belonging is already a warrant for survival". [14]In preserving the consciousness, culture and tradition are almost the key elements.

Jakob Niemirower nourished the hope of achieving spiritual union of all the Jews in the Romanian provinces by the cultural means of the science of Judaism. As early as 1928, the philosopher-rabbi of Romanian Jewry wrote: "In Greater Romania there are many kinds of Jews, classified according to the cultures they belonged to before the war. We wish to unite these different kinds of Jews in order to form a new noble type of Romanian Jew. According to my "iabneist" theory, this ideal may be more easily achieved through the cultural means of the science of Judaism".[15]

The historical process under consideration was stopped by the well-known tragic events. I'm not trying to draw any conclusion. My intention was an attempt at bringing to the awareness of researchers in the field the necessity for a more discriminating treatment of the contents of the expression "Hungarian Jew", which was ascribed a negative connotation for a long time both in literature and in everyday life: Transylvanian Jews were regarded with suspicion as if the fact that they were Jews was not enough, they were Hungarians on top of that.

My approach does not have conjectural aims; as a Transylvanian Jewish woman I do not feel the need to find excuses for the fact that in most cases Transylvanian Jews belong to the Hungarian spiritual world. I only wish to explain the phenomenon as a natural process, a consequence of the Diaspora circumstances and to put into evidence all the contradictions and internal tensions of this extremely intricate reality.

I wish to plead for the depolitization of the historical research which must not be confused with tendentious political interpretation. Let us hope that Paul Valéry was not right when he claimed that historical works belong to the most dangerous of spiritual poisons as they raise hate among nations.

[1] Reiner Funk, Erich Fromm mit Selbstzeugnissen and Bilddokumenten, Hamburg, 1983, p. 29.

[2] Cf. Jaques Le Rider, Modernitatea vieneză ci crizele identităţii, Al. I. Cuza, University Press, 1995, p. 368.

[3] Marton Ernő, A zsidó nemzeti mozgalom három éves, in Új Kelet évkönyve 1921-1922.

[4] Gall Ernő, A kettős kisebbségi sors in "Korunk", 8/1991.

[5] Új Kelet", August 15, 1920.

[6] Cf. Mikó lmre, Huszonkét év. Az erdélyi magyarság politikai története. 1918 december 1 - től 1940. augusztus 30 - ig, Budapest, 1941.

[7] Dr. Lath Henrik, A zsidó lelkek öntudatra ébredése in "Új Kelet", May 21, 1931

[8] Dr. Erdős Izidor, Spectátornak üzenem in "Új Kelet", May 20, 1931.

[9] Csehi Gyula, Egységes-e a transzilvániai zsidóság? in "Korunk" no. 7-8/1938;

[10] Idem, Zsidók Európában in Csehi Gyula, Felvilágosodástól felvilágosodásig, Bucharest, 1972, p. 195.

[11] Kelet és Nyugat között. Zsidó fiatalok antologiája, Cluj, 1937.

[12] György Ligeti, Mein Judentum. Herausgegenben von Hans Jurgen Schultz, Berlin,

1978, p. 236.

[13] Cf. Jacques Le Rider, op. cit., p. 265.

[14] Cf. Gáll Ernő, Kelet - európai irástudók és a nemzeti-nemzetiségi törekvések, Budapest, 1987, p. 25.

[15] "Sinai" Review, Annual of the Jewish Studies, editor-in-chief Dr. M.A. Halevy, Bucharest, 1928, p. 3.