Jewish Political Life and Press in Transylvania between the Two World Wars.

Gheorghe I. Bodea:

Jewish Political Life and Press in Transylvania between the Two World Wars


The present attempt is the beginning of a larger study. We have already published three articles in the volume Holocaustul din nordul Transilvaniei 1944 (The Holocaust in Northern Transylvania. 1944). No investigation claims complete novelty as it does not completely end research in the field it explores.

Romanian society was deeply affected by the events of 1918 and by the emergence of the Romanian national State. Romania has consequently become a modern state. Among the fundamental principles stated in Alba Iulia on December l, 1918 was the guarantee of equal rights for all citizens regardless of nationality. "The union of Romanians in one single State will completely be fulfilled and guaranteed in the future if it is consequent to the new times. The new civilization will not permit the punishment of the child for the parents' sins, therefore the same rights to all citizens, to all nationalities living on this land have to be guaranteed".[1]

Compelled by these principles the Jews from the Romanian Monarchy but of Transylvanian origin decided to adhere to the decisions taken at Alba Iulia. On March 1S, 1919 they voted the following motion: "The Transylvanian Jews living in Bucharest, assembled on March 18, 1919, beeing acquainted with the Declaration of Alba Iulia, open heartedly adhere to its programme and the stipulations concerning national liberty; native language in schools, administration and Court, proportional representation in Parliament and Government. equal rights; cultural, religious and political autonomy, as well as the freedom of speech, fully correspond to the liberal and democratic principles of these times".[2]

Following this a committee of the Jewish population of Transylvania presented the voted motion to Mihai Popovici, counsellor for Transylvanian affairs at the Ministery of the Interior.[3]

After 1918 Romania numbered more than 800,000 Jews of different physical aspects, cultures, ways of life and religious orientation and practices. These differences are related to the fact that part of Romania was Eastern European while another was more Central European. However, Jews were united by religion and by their fear of antisemitism.[4]

In Transylvania, "the influence of the Habsburg Empire was felt, the climate was Central European, the temples were. larger, the people were better educated but colder than those in Moldavia", saws dr. Moses Rosen.

This subtelty and better education were most obvious in the religious problem. In Transylvania at least three separate communities were present: Orthodox, Neolog and Status quo-ante. Among the Orthodox we may distinguish the Hashimides from Sătmar. The Orthodox strictly respected traditional Judaism. Those from Sătmar were against Zionism, claiming that this movement was not based on the Torah. The Orthodox community had created hundreds of Jeshivot, i.e. schools for studying the Talmud and the Torah. In the Transylvanian towns and villages there was a powerful Jewish life.

Another surprising phenomenon can be encountered in Satu Mare and Sighet, in Maramureş County, where Jewish peasants cultivated considerable stretches of land[5].

In Transylvania until 1918 there was no separate political Jewish life. The Jewry was part of the Hungarian society.

After 1915 essential changes took place in politics. The Transylvanian Jewry ceased to be a part of the Hungarian nation and became a distinct minority.[6] A determining factor of this phenomenon was Zionism.

The political ideology of Zionism which came to light with the Balfour declaration on November 2, 1917, was clearly formulated in Transylvania in the period following the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. Jews recently returned from the front did not manifest a national feeling but rather organized groups for the defence of life and prosperity, even when certain ideas of the wilsonian concepts were felt. Some entirely Jewish armed defence groups were set up. In Sighetul Marmaţiei there was the National Jewish Council and on November 20, 1918, the Jewish National Union of Transylvania was set up. It did not, however, declare itself Zionist, trying to win the population.

Culturally the national Jewish movement in Transylvania opened primary and elementary schools, set up Jewish sports associations, and for young girls organized intense social activities. Jewish consciousness was kept alive by the visits of members of the international Zionist organization as well as by the press such as "Uj kelet", a daily newspaper printed and edited in Cluj.

In the first decade after the Union the Transylvanian Jews complied with the Romanian State order, thus breaking up the Hungarian passive resistance towards the Romanian State. This happened when the Hungarian Zionist Jews tried to protect their own interests in a new way.[7]

In 1928 there were 142,459 Jews in Transylvania who considered Hungarian their native language.[8] Living mainly in Transylvanian towns, they represented about 14% of the population in these towns. After the Union of Alba Iulia, when Zionism came into being, the Jewish population split in:

1. The National Union of Transylvanian Jews, set up on November 20, 1918, changed its programme after becoming the Transylvania and Banat Union of the Izraelite Community (August 31, 1922) which represented the Jews' interests grouped in the union. Its Central Hebrew Bureau was in Cluj and one of its leaders, since 1924, was Bárdos Imre, a lawyer from Oradea.[9]

Among all the Jewish organizations this union comprised the most members. The Jewish Party of Romania set up in May, 1931 had its roots in this union. Its leader was Fischer Tivadar, a lawyer from Cluj, and president of the Jewish National Union till 1928.[10] The Jewish Party had its own representatives in the Romanian Parliament.

2. The Jews' Union of Romania. In 1909 in Bucharest the Union of the Earthy Jews (Uniunea evreilor pămînteni) was set up and in 1923 it became the Jews' Union of Romania". Its representatives in the Romanian Parliament as well as the newspapers "Curierul izraelit" and "Libertatea" claimed equality for all citizens. Many of its leaders were Zionist and in order to achieve their own programme they tried to get the support of the Romanian National Liberal Party.[11]

In 1927, Jakobi Emil became president of the Jews' Union of Romania in Cluj, then elected senator from Bihor county on the lists of the Liberal Party. In the following years, the Jews' Union of Romania had very few members in Transylvania but the United Jewish Party made up by the two organizations was very strong. One of the Jews' leaders was Fischer József, a lawyer from Cluj, who ran for a long time the "Estilap" newspaper in Cluj.

3. The B'nai Brith Lodge. The B'nai Brith World Humanist Union in Transylvania had five lodges (in Cluj, Braşov, Oradea, Satu Mare, Tîrgu Mureş) counting about 300 members of Jewish intellectuals regardless of their political principles.[12]

4. The Hungarian Party of Romania. At first many Jews of Hungarian education were in the Hungarian Party of Romania. From this point of vue we must stress up the personality of Kecskeméti Lipót (b. 1865), chief rabbi in Oradea, author of many literary, biblical and philosophical works published in books or papers. After 1918 he declared himself against the national Jewish movement in Transylvania considering religion to be the only way of historical expression. He wrote "Jews are educated through their native language which will always be holy for them but it is not a national language".[13] Later Kecskeméti Lipot admitted that the Transylvanian Jews could not just reject the Hungarian language and culture in which they were born and educated.[14]

At the beginning of the 1930s the Jews in the Hungarian Party of Romania were fewer and fewer. We may mention some of them: Hegedüs Nándor, Hexner Béla, dr. Roth Hugó etc.

There were three Jewish religious groups in these years: the Neolog, the Orthodox and the Sephardi. The Transylvanian Jewry with a Hungarian education took part in all Hungarian social and cultural activities. They also supported the Hungarian theatre still considering themselves part of the Transylvanian Hungarians.[15] Many of the Transylvanian Hungarian intellectuals such as physicians, writers, lawyers, engineers, artists, newspapermen were Jews. These intellectuals had always tried to he assimilated with the Hungarians. After the Union of Alba Iulia, the Romanian State encouraged the Zionist movement and many Jewish intellectuals adhered to it by their own will. However, many Jews embraced Zionism either because In Hungary antisemitism became stronger and stronger or for economic reasons.[16] Thus the Zionist movement encounters a real flourishing in the Jewish press, in the Pro Palestina action, etc.[17]

In order to illustrate the Importance of the Jews in Transylvania and their educational, cultural, economic and financial position, we have to quote some statistical data reffering to Cluj, which are relevant for the situation in Transylvania:

























In order to increase the number of the Hungarian population, the Hungarian census made during the Habsburg Empire counted many Jews and Romanians as Hungarians.

After 1918 the number representing the Hungarians is still increased because many of the baptized Jews were counted as Hungarians. Between 1920-1938 there is an increase of the Jewish population of towns. Thus in Cluj it is 61% compared to that of Romanians which is 65.6%.

In 1910 in Oradea there were 15,155 Jews and in 1930,20,287.

In 1919 in Cluj there were 93 lawyers of which 9 were Romanians, 2 Transylvanian Saxons and the rest Jews and Hungarians. In 1938 there were 360 lawyers 190 of which were Romanians and 170 were Jews and Hungarians.

In the elementary school of Cluj in 1938 there were 4,557 pupils and 303 teachers out of which 593 were Jews and 416 were Hungarians.

The Hungarians had 5 secondary schools with 1486 pupils and 130 teachers. In the primary schools there were 5,625 pupils, 3,225 of which were Romanians, 1654 Hungarians and 719 Jews. The Hungarians and Jews had 13 confesional primary schools more, with 2,373 pupils and 68 teachers.

In 1937 there were 2,736 registered artisans in Cluj. But in fact there were more because many were not registered. Among 2,736 artisans were: 1528 Hungarians

665 Jews

438 Romanians; 80 Germans

25 other nationalities


1,107 Jews (i.e. 1 in 12 Jews)

684 Hungarians (i.e. 1 in 73 Hungarians)

487 Romanians (i.e. 1 in 75 Romanians)

51 Germans (i.e. 1 in 47 Germans)

44 of other nationalities

The Romanian merchants represent only 27% of the total while the Jews and the Hungarians represents 70%.

Out of 453 enterprises encountered up to December 31,1937 in the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Cluj 246 (i.e. 57%) were Jewish, 83 (i.e. 19%) Romanian, 75 (i.e. 17%) Hungarian, 10 (i.e) German, 23 (i.e. 5%) of other nationalities.

In 1937 in Cluj and in the county of Cluj there were 16 Romanian banks to a population of 218,28] Romanians. At the same time there were 14 Jewish and Hungarian banks to a minority population of 127,305, so there was 1 bank to 13,643 Romanians and l bank to 9,094 citizens of ethnic minority.[19]

We would also like to mention some of the chief rabbis in Cluj such as Dr. Weinberger Moses (Neolog), Glasner Akiba (Orthodox) and the leader of the Sephardi. There were 4 sinagogues in Cluj at the time.

As for as the press is concerned, in 1928 there were 14] newspapers and magazines in Cluj alone: 42 Romanian, 65 Hungarian and Jewish, 28 in other languages, 6 German.

A decade later the Hungarian interests were represented by 30-35 daily newspapers with 150,000 copies. Many writers, newspapermen and journalists published in these papers and became active not only in the daily political press but also in the cultural, scientific, and literary one. Moreover, some of the Jewish newspapermen were linked to the publishing of some working class, socialist, social-democratic and communist (legal or illegal) papers and magazines writ ten in Romanian, Hungarian, German. Some of the most important publicists are Dr. Deutch Ernő, chief rabbi in Braşov (1927), Eisler Mátyás – chief rabbi in Cluj, who studied the Semite Language, Jewish history, history of Jewish literature and published more than 200 articles on this topics.

Aradi Victor, sociologist and writer, author of the well-known novel "Catharina, Our Lady" was the editor of "Jövő Társadalma", a magazine published in Cluj since 1926. Bárd Oszkár, a physician in Gîlgău village, as well as a playwriter and a poet, who died in a Nazi gas chamber, became famous in the Transylvanian cultural life between the two World Wars through his poems and plays written in Hungarian. He also translated "Zamolxe" by Lucian Blaga in Hungarian.[20]

We may also mention Dr. Fried Ábrahám from Sighet, a great supporter of the Jewish press and also leader of the Jewish national movement in Sighet, who took part in the 14th and the 15th International Congress of the world Zionist movement.

After 1920 many journalists and writers from Hungary (many of them born in Transylvania), sharing communist and social-democratic views, took refugee in Romania running away from the Horthyst terror. Many of them worked for the Hungarian and Jewish papers in Transylvania. Kádár Imre, Dienes László and later Bartha Lajos, Örmös Ede and his son worked for "Keleti Újság". Dienes László started editing "Korunk", working with Salamon László, Diamant Izsó, Korvin Sándor, Kovács Katona Jenő and many others.

Antal Márk, a mathematician, who had come to Romania in 1920, was principal. of the Tarbut Jewish School where many future journalists were educated.

Grünfeld Vilmos, Grünfeld Samu and Kahána Bernát, journalists, played an important part in the publishing of the Hungarian newspaper "Brassói Lapok"[21] Benámy (Ben Ami) Sándor was publisher of "Nagyváradi Napló" in Oradea.

Farkas Antal, Győri Ernő, Mikes Imre, Indig Ottó, Aradi Viktor and many others came to Transylvania at this time.

One of the major Transylvanian papers edited in Hungarian at this time was Új Kelet" of Cluj, representing the Zionist Jewry. This remarkable paper, edited by the young journalist Márton Ernő, one of the leaders of the Zionist movement in Transylvania after 1918, kept alive the Zionist consciousness. We may mention Darvas Simon, Giszkalai János, Hátszegi (Zuckermandel) Ernő, Benámi Sándor as well as Ujvári Péter, Kaczér Illés, Sas László, Szabó Imre, Faragó Miklós were some of the most appreciated journalists who published in "Új Kelet".[22]

In January 1936 the Jews' Central Council of Romania was set up with Dr. W. Filderman as leader. On December 20,1937 at the general elections, the Jewish Party received 43,681 votes i.e. 1.42% of the votes, without receiving any electoral seats. It proves that the political parties or groups of the minorities were not interested in gaining power or even in wielding power but in obtaining economic, political and cultural rights.23 It can be concluded that the groups, the unions, the federations and even the parties belonging to the minorities in Romania between the two World Wars were rather groups of pressure than political parties. Most of these pressure groups (except the national-socialist, fascist ones) were democratic forces.

This work is a first but necessary try at reconsidering a world often neglected by our historiography. The life and work of the Transylvanian Jewry between the two World Wars is not only a page of Jewish history but also of Romanian History.

[1] Marea Adunare Naţională. Acute şi documente, vol. I, p. 16 — 18

[2] "Adevărul", Bucharest, March, 20, 1919.

[3] 1918. Unirea Transilvaniei cu Romania, Editura Politică, 1978, p.666.3rd edition, revised and enlarged, Bucharest.

[4] Dr. Moses Rosen, Primejdii, încercări, miracole, Bucharest, Editura Hasefer, 1990, p.27.

[5] Ibidem.

[6] Ligeti Ernő, Erdély vallatása, Cluj, 1922, p.75.

[7] Metamorphosis Transilvaniae. 1918-1936, Cluj, 1937, p.13.

[8] Idem, p. 20.

[9] Erdély Lexikon, Oradea, 1928, p. 25.

[10] Al. Gh. Savu, Sistemul partidelor politice din România. 1919-1940, Bucharest, Editura Ştiinţifică şi Enciclopedică, 1976, p. 53.

[11] Mihai Rusenescu, Ion Saizu, Viaţa politică în România. 1922-1928, Bucharest, Editura Politică, 1979, p. 114-115.

[12] Metamorphosys Transilvaniae, p. 17.

[13] Erdély Lexikon p.140.

[14] Ligeti Ernő, op cit, p. 83

[15] Metamorphosis Transilvaniae, p. 21.

[16] Idem, p. 27; see Székely Béla, Az antiszemitizmus története, Budapest, 1936.

[17]  Metamorphosis Transilvaniae, p. 27.

[18] Dr. Octavian Buzea, Clujul. 1919 - 1939, Cluj, 1939, p. 95-97.

[19] Ibidem.

[20] Idem, p.25.

[21] Ligeti Ernő, Súly alatt a pálma, Cluj, 1941, p.53.

[22] Al. Oh. Savu, op.cit., p.98.