Today, the word “refugee” has gone out of fashion, and yet it is still a handy term distinguishing immigrants seeking political “refuge,” from those driven to leave their countries for a better life. My parents were “refugees” from Hitler when they came to the United States in 1946. Their families had flourished in Austria and Poland, but after World War II the thriving Jewish populations of Central Europe were no more. Since my father and mother could not return to the culture of their youth, they rarely alluded to their lost heritage: they looked to the future, to their new lives in a new land. Sadly, by the time I wanted to learn more about their origins, they were no longer around to help me. Reconstructing their past on my own, I traveled to the towns they came from, sought out local historians, pored through archives. This blog is dedicated to the stories I uncovered.
Any story of a Jewish family with roots in Austria-Hungary has to begin with the Emperor Josef II and his 1772 Edict of Toleration. This imperial decree, an attempt to integrate the Empire’s religious minorities into the economic mainstream, broke up the autonomy of Jewish communities and gradually drew their members into the society around them. Until then they had been socially and culturally isolated. They spoke and kept records in Hebrew and Yiddish, had their own courts, charities, and schools, and were limited to certain occupations. Josef’s Edict allowed them to enter universities and engage in most branches of commerce. But there was a price. They had to accept German as their language, take German names, and submit to secular law. It was a first step towards assimilation but still far from emancipation. Residence requirements still held. Jews could not move from place to place since the number of Jewish families allowed in each region was limited. In towns and cities they still lived in their own separate quarters or ghettos with the boundaries strictly marked and in some places the neighborhood was cordoned off on Sundays so Jews could not mingle with Christians as they went to church.
It was precisely in these kinds of ghettos in the small towns of Moravia (Terlicko, Jemnice) and Hungary (Rechnitz, Sobotiste) that my great-grandfathers were born between 1833 and 1852 (see map in About section of this blog). They had the luck to be members of the first generation emancipated by the revolution of 1848. After that upheaval, Jews were no longer restricted in their movements and could settle throughout the Empire. By 1867 they were declared equal citizens before the law. Of the four young men starting out in life at this crucial moment, three took advantage of their new mobility to leave the confined surroundings of their birth. My initial posts will be dedicated to these pioneers—David Spitzer, born in Moravia, Leopold Guttman and Alexander Wettendorfer, originating in Hungary. By the end of their lives they had advanced so far that each, in his own way, was able to have an influence on the society their forefathers had been forbidden to enter.