Lost Worlds of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

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.

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14 Responses to Lost Worlds of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

  1. Linda Florio says:

    Good luck with the new blog!

  2. Mark says:

    Congratulations Monica! My family came over from Poland (father’s side) and Hungary/Romania (Mother’s side) at the turn of the century. Not quite refugees, but coming to America for something better. Good luck with the blog!

  3. Jasia Reichardt says:

    It’s good to learn about one’s friends. I look forward to the next instalment!

  4. Mark Roblee says:

    Thank you for preserving these important stories!

  5. Diane Radycki says:

    Congratulations, Monica! Very impressive, and the photo (your parents?) that is your blog’s banner could not be more perfect! (My own grandparents (both sides) came from Poland/Germany to escape WWI.) Take a well deserved bow. I applaud you.

  6. helly says:

    Monica, great. What an inspiring idea and interesting start. Love to read the next episode, Helly

  7. Patti kaplan says:

    Great first posting, eager to read more!

  8. Andrzej Szczerski says:

    Dear Monica,

    Great to read it. Look forward to reading the upcoming parts, especially when it comes to Skoczów, my best

  9. The people from whom we descend. Who were they and what was their lot in life? Fortunate you are to have been able to recover some of the fragments and piece parts together again, so that the person can survive through time. In my case, my past is buried in two places: Germany and Poland and the region of Kiev. Of the former, my mother’s world I have some information but my father’s ancestry is lost. Too late now. So many questions to ask but the reporters no longer exist. Refugees they were too in one generation or another.
    Monica, I look forward to reading your “tales” and congratulations for launching the website/blog. The design is terrific, and you have piqued my curiosity. In time I suppose you will reveal the identification of the pictures and the significance they possess for your texts: text now obscures the tantalizing images.

  10. Ursula Prokop says:

    Congratulations Monica, I think this blog will be very interesting and I wish you all the best.

  11. despina leitner says:

    Dear Monica,
    What a brilliant idea, Can’t wait for the next blog.
    Hugs,
    Despina

  12. Cozinus says:

    Lovely, Monica, I cannot wait for the continuation . . .

  13. David Greenbaum says:

    Your slow and pain-staking reconstruction of your family history – or better, its past milieu – is very interesting. As the grandson of yekkes, I’ve been trying to assemble a similar fonde ever since my grandmother (and last surviving member of the refugee generation) died in 2005 at 100.

  14. Mick Tresnan says:

    This is fascinating & relates to my Mothers family. Sinaiberger. The name was altered in Hungary & my G G Grandfather Adolph Sinaiberger arrived in the UK from Budapest in 1850.
    Micheal

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