“Each of these towns is a place filled with the normal life almost everyone aspires to – a daily round of family and work, food and sex, conversation and sleep. But they are also places that have been subjected to waves of utter catastrophe, of a kind outsiders like me cannot begin to understand.” – Simon Winder, Danubia
Satoraljaujhely, a border town in the far northeastern part of Hungary, is so sleepy and seemingly normal that it is hard to believe that anything notable ever happened here. It is pleasant and quite average, with a few attractions, but nothing that would be especially inviting for tourists. The best and brightest of the citizenry will leave the town and likely never come back to live here. They are headed off to university and hopefully a job in Budapest. The locals are not going to make much noise either. They are the kind of hardworking Hungarians who quietly go about their business for decades on end, living out their lives in a provincial, private anonymity ignored by the larger world. Most likely they will die unknown except to themselves and each other. This deceptive ahistorical existence is new to Satoraljaujhely. Looking back across the past hundred years it is apparent that Satoraljaujhely is presently enjoying an unprecedented peace. The World Wars, border alterations and pogroms have become a thing of the past. Looks are truly deceiving when it comes to modern day Satoraljaujhely. The current state of domestic somnolence is the exact opposite of the last century which was a vortex of violent political and social transformations.
A Past That Changed Everyone & Everything
Today, Satoraljaujhely is known as little more than a border town, literally at the end of the road in Hungary, yet that road continues on beyond the border into a land which a hundred years ago was a core part of the Kingdom of Hungary. Slovakia is just a stone’s throw away, divided from the town by a mere stream. It was not always this way. In a place as staid and unmemorable as Satoraljaujhely it is hard to grasp the radical changes that have occurred in just over a hundred years. The town’s present compared to its past is paradoxical. Here is a quiet town that has undergone tremendous upheaval. Satoraljaujhely today is a product of the past and at the same time nothing like what it used to be.
In 1913, Satoraljaujhely was the center of a thriving region. It was the administrative seat of Zemplen County in the pre-war Kingdom of Hungary. At that time, around 30% of the population was Jewish. There was no such thing as a Czechoslovakia or a Slovakia and Hungary was a Kingdom not a republic, ruled over by a monarch from an 800-year old dynasty that was on the verge of disintegration. The First World War would have been impossible to imagine at the time. Obviously nothing like it had ever occurred in European history. It would have seemed impossible that a worldwide conflagration could change the social, economic and ethnic composition of such a provincial backwater. Today the year 1913 is viewed ominously, through a lens darkened by clouds gathering on the horizon. But this view is skewed by hindsight. No one in Satoraljaujhely had any idea of the tragedies of their innocence they were about to suffer
Of Greater Evils To Come
The First World War marked a watershed in the town’s history as it brought grief, loss and shortages. Near the end of the war mounting frustration exploded into violence in the form of virulent anti-Semitic incidents. The Jews of Satoraljaujhely bore the fury of an exhausted populace strained to the limit by years of war. Scores were assaulted. One such incident is told in the Vanished Communities of Hungary: The History and Tragic Fate of the Jews in Újhely and Zemplén County. In July, 1918 gendarmes stormed a synagogue in search of supposed Jewish army deserters, “The entire congregation, including those who were sixty and seventy years of age, were marched through the center of town to the Central café in the principal square and from there to police headquarters, all this before the eyes of jeering and derisive throngs who lined the streets. …The search did not uncover a single deserter from the army.” This despite the fact that 250 Jews from the town had served in the army, of these 36 had died fighting in the war. The roots of the Holocaust in Hungary were apparent twenty-five years before the Second World War. The hatred fomented in Satoraljaujhely against the Jewish community was a precursor of greater evils to come.
In 1920 Satoraljaujhely underwent its most radical and long lasting transformation due to the Treaty of Trianon as one-fifth of the town’s land base and a quarter of its population was given to Czechoslovakia. A new town was created from existing parts of the old one. It was given the name of Slovenské Nové Mesto (Slovak New Town). The Ronyva stream, a slumbering watercourse formed the border. This border may have been based on a geographical feature, but Hungarians saw it as artificial. Following the border change, Satoraljaujhely was no longer the center of a historic county. It was now on the edge of insecurity. Someone would have to take the blame. That would tragically turn out to be the town’s Jewish population.