To those coming from the east, the hills and valleys between the Tisza river and the Carpathian mountains are known as Transcarpathia, the Ukrainian name of the province which means “the land beyond the mountains”, while those who live to the west call it Subcarpathia, “the land before the mountains”. Over the last century it has been part of six countries, from the Austro-Hungarian empire to the Soviet Union, and has been inhabited by many peoples: Ukrainians, Hungarians, Rusyns, Germans, Gypsies and Jews, lots of Jews who inevitably found themselves at home is such a geographically uncertain place.
Jewish life thrived here for three hundred years, as Jews farmed the land and practised many trades that were precluded to them in the rest of Europe. Then came the catastrophe of the Holocaust, which saw most of Jews deported to killing fields or to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Of those who survived a few decided to return, often in the hope of finding other relatives alive, and then found themselves trapped within the Iron Curtain of the Cold War. Although Jewish religion and cultural life were forbidden under Communism, the local Jewish communities survived, also thanks to an influx of Russian Jews. However, when the fall of the Soviet Union reopened the borders, most jumped at the chance to finally leave Europe for America or Israel.
Today, a few thousands Jews remain of what used to be flourishing communities, their synagogues standing empty and often in dire need of repairs. Yet Jewish life somehow carries on: in the towns of Uzhgorod, Vinogradiv, Khust and Mukacheve, whose Yiddish nickname once was das klein Yerushalayim (the little Jerusalem), Jews still gather on shabbat and the holidays, and try to keep the traditions alive, often in their assimilated, half-Christian families. Some have discovered their long-forgotten Jewish roots, while others have begun laying new ones, converting to Judaism or coming from other places. This is the story of the Jewish communities living on the hills and valleys between the Tisza river and the Carpathian mountains.
Photos and text by Tali Mayer & János Chialá.