Thirty-five of the Boys came from Mukachevo, originally known as Munkacs.
Jews lived in Munkacs and the surrounding villages as early as the second half of the seventeenth century. By 1851, Munkacs was home to a large yeshiva.
The Jews of the region were among the poorest in Europe, many living in rural areas and working in agriculture.
Munkacs had a large Hasidic community. On the eve of the Holocaust, there were nearly 30 synagogues in town, many of which were shtieblech - small Hasidic synagogues. Much of the town was closed on Shabbat, and the first cinema in the town, established by a Hasidic Jew, also closed on Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
The Chief Rabbi of Munkacs, Rabbi Chaim Elazar Spira, led the community from 1913 until his death in 1937, and was the most outspoken voice of religious anti-Zionism.
In 1920, the first Hebrew-speaking school in Czechoslovakia was established in Munkacs, followed by the Hebrew Gymnasium in 1925, which soon became the most prestigious Hebrew high school east of Warsaw.
In the interwar period, the Jews of Munkacs constituted almost half of the town's population, and about 10 percent the Jewish population of Subcarpathian Rus.
On the eve of the Holocaust, Munkacs was the largest and most prominent Jewish community in Subcarpathian Rus, eastern Czechoslovakia. According to the 1941 census, 42.7% of the town’s population were Jewish.
Following the Munich Agreement in 1938, Czechoslovakia was divided up and Hungary annexed Munkacs and the surrounding region.
There was widespread Hungarian antisemitism and life became difficult for Munkacs’ Jews. Polish and Russian Jewish residents, as well as native Jews who could not prove their citizenship, were deported over the Ukrainian border into the hands of the German commando. Many men were conscripted into the Hungarian army, forced into battle on the eastern front.
In his memoir David’s Story, David Herman recalled that “Everything in my life changed when Munkacs became occupied by Hungary. I had not realised that there was such a thing as antisemitism until this period.”
He writes that after being transferred from a Czech to a Hungarian school: “All the Hungarian teachers were deeply antisemitic, and harassed the Jewish children, encouraging the non-Jewish children to do the same.”
In autumn 1943, a two-metre-high wooden fence was erected by the Hungarians around much of the Jewish neighbourhood, and all Jews were forced to move into the area.
That area was then turned into a ghetto by the Nazis.
In March 1944, the Nazis invaded Hungary and occupied the Subcarpathian Rus, taking over control of Munkács from the Hungarians.
“Things began to happen very quickly,” remarked Herman, “the Germans tightened guard on the ghetto, fences were reinforced and even more barbed wire was erected. It was now impossible to sneak in and out... All contact with the outside world was completely severed.”
The new ghetto was extremely overcrowded, with 10,000 people crammed into buildings which had previously housed just 3,000. Jewish ghettos were also set up in towns such as Uzhorod, Khust, Vinohradiv and Berehovo.
In May 1944, the SS liquidated the ghetto, with the help of the Hungarian Nyilasi Police. Herman recalled “With only half an hour’s warning, everyone was told to be packed and standing outside their apartments. The announcement caused chaos.”
As they left the ghetto, they were watched by hundreds of local residents, “jeering and spitting at us”, who were then allowed to loot the empty Jewish homes.
The Munkacs Jews were marched to the Sajovitz brick factory, three kilometres outside of town. Many of the elderly could not walk and died on the way. Upon arrival, they were forced to live in the factory’s giant kilns, where they were kept for a week.
After a week, under the supervision of Adolf Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, they were put into freight wagons and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp in occupied Poland.
On 30 May 1944, Munkacs was officially declared Judenrein, free of Jews. Over 27,000 Jews from Munkacs and surrounding villages had been deported to Auschwitz.
An estimated 85% of the Jews of Subcarpathian Ruthenia perished in the Holocaust.
An estimated 2,000 Munkacs Jews survived the Holocaust. As Munkacs was one of the last ghettos in Europe to be emptied, the Carpathian Jews had a relatively higher survival rate.
In 1945, around 1,000 of these returned, searching for family members. David Herman and his brother Abraham Herman were two of them. He recalls: “we had difficulty recognising our home town... It was bleak and barren, there were no trees, no wooden fences, and no gates. Everything made of wood had been burned by the German army” during the winter. In the absence of law and order, gangs fought each other for control of different parts of the town.
After the war, the region of Subcarpathian Rus was annexed by the Soviet Republic of Ukraine. Following the annexation, many Jews left, migrating mainly to Israel and the Americas. In the late 1960’s, there were between 1,000 and 2,000 Jews living in the mostly Ukrainian/Russian city of Mukachevo.
After 1969, the Jewish community of the city was reduced to about 300 elderly people, only a handful of whom had been born there pre-World War II and survived the Holocaust.
In 1994, a documentary was made on Hungarian television titled ‘A kövek üzenete: Kárpátalja’ (The Message of the Stones: Subcarpathia). It followed the remnants of Jewish life in the major towns along the Latorica River, 50 years after the deportations. The film showed a small group of elderly men praying in Mukachevo’s one remaining synagogue. By then, only around 70 Jews still remained.
Today, Munkacs is known as Mukachevo, and out of a population of over 85,000, only about one hundred Jews remain.
However, Mukachevo is experiencing something of a Jewish renaissance, with the establishment of a kosher kitchen, mikveh, Jewish summer camp and daily prayer services. In 2006, a new synagogue was dedicated on the site of a pre-war Hasidic synagogue.
But there is little more to indicate Munkacs’ rich Jewish heritage, a community which has almost completely vanished.