Jewish Cemetery, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

I finally got in to see the Jewish Cemetery in Nagykanizsa. We’d tried a few times but it was closed. This time, the chap was driving away as we pulled up but he very kindly went back to get the key and let us in. I plan on seeing him again.

I’ve heard the heart stone beat in Salaspils near Riga. I’ve visited the artists’ colony of Terezín outside Prague that Jews believed was a gift from Hitler. I’ve been to Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Dachau. I’ve seen the memorials – the crystal chandelier in Skopje, the chairs in Kraków, the children’s memorial in Győr. I’ve partaken in the March of the Living in Budapest, heard stories of survivors, and wondered at the other five million also wiped off the face of the earth during that bleak period in history. And most hauntingly, I’ve seen the writing on the wall in Košice. But I’d never seen so many gravestones in a cemetery so close to home all marked with the word Auschwitz. It was chilling. Entire families deported, never to return. And in 1944. Months before the end of the war. They’d almost made it.

Nem tértek vissza – they did not return

Ne ölj – do not kill

The figures are staggering. In 1782, 500 Jews lived in the town. In 1830, there were 1000. In 1920, there were 3663. In May of 1944, 2700 Jews were deported from Nagykanizsa to Auschwitz. In 1945, 300 returned. In 1970, there were 100. Today, in 2020, there are about 40. What a difference 100 years makes.


Some of the oldest headstones have been set in concentric circles beneath a pillar bearing the winged wheel symbol of the Holy Spirit and the skull and crossbones of immortality. The inscriptions are in Hebrew. I was left wondering at the tests of faith these people have gone through. And still go through. That mad attack on a Rabbi’s home in New York as he celebrated Hannukah in December is a case in point. The BBC, as part of a series on the root causes of various forms of prejudice, taped US comedian Alex Edelman as he explores what’s behind anti-Semitism. It’s an interesting watch.

Some were too young to die but perhaps they escaped the worst. I wonder if these kids had known what could have been in store for them when they reached their thirties, what would they have thought. It was one of the most upsetting experiences I’ve had in a long while. And it’s still with me. It’s all very well to think of atrocities happening on the other side of the world or in the last century but somehow these graves brought it home to me how close we are to that very same level of intolerance. The PMs speech in Edelman’s BBC clip is the stuff nightmares are made of. Any Jew listening to that must have felt a cold hand from the past clutch their heart.


The stones are dark with neglect. The graves need some TLC. But with some 40 Jews gathering weekly to celebrate the sabbath, not many are left to care for those who have gone. There was little by way of colour or flowers. Little evidence that anyone had visited any time recently. The mix of Hungarian and Hebrew was unusual. The constant repetition of one word, sometimes just that one word – Auschwitz – was harrowing.

During the Holocaust, some 15 000 camps – labour, death, and concentration – were set up by the Nazis across many countries from Austria to Yugoslavia. The list seems endless. From what I’ve read, most of the jews in the internment camp in Nagykanizsa were deported on 30 April 1944. Ferenc Leicht writes poignantly about Jewish life in the town back then and I wonder if the Vilmos Balazs his aunt married after the war was the widower whose wife and child are remembered on this grave.

Leicht’s writings are worth reading if you’ve any interest at all in Jewish life in Hungary back in the 1930s and 1940s. When his parents were talking about leaving in 1939, Uganda was the only country that was accepting Hungarian Jews, something I never knew.

People say that there used to be three kinds of Jews in Hungary: Orthodox, Neolog and Nagykanizsa Jews. They also said that in Nagykanizsa not even the water was kosher, because the Jews from there were not religious at all. There weren’t any kind of Jewish organization or youth movement, except the women’s association, which the wealthier Jews made for themselves, but nobody from our family used to go there. My mother’s family with her 6 sisters was a women’s association in itself.

He relates a lovely account of 70 women from Nagykanizsa making it home.

In the meantime one of my father’s sisters, Juliska arrived, who had been deported. Juliska was in the group of 70 women from Nagykanizsa, who had been assigned to a group of 400 women and first they were taken to Gelsenkirchen [today Austria] to work, and when Gelsenkirchen was bombed they were taken to Sommerda. [Editor’s note: Both Gelsenkirchen and Sömmerda were auxiliary camps of Buchenwald. In Gelsenkirchen they made the prisoners work at the Gelsenberg Benzin AG, in Sömmerda at the Rheinmetall-Borsig AG.]. And their lagerführer [German for camp director], their commandant took care about them so well that during deportation only 2 of the 400 women died: one during and air-raid because of some shrapnel, and the other one of some illness. 398 of them returned, among them my aunt Juliska and many of my young friends from school, and all 70 women from Nagykanizsa

I wonder if he’s still alive. If he is, he’d be 90. Younger than my father who’s still alive and well, gardening and playing golf as the weather allows. Same generation. Different religions. Born in different places. There but for the grace of God…

I plan on going back to the cemetery and taking notes and doing some research because these people cannot be forgotten. We cannot forget what happened. If we do, we are destined to repeat our mistakes.

Open Monday, Wednesday, and Friday 8 am to 12 noon and Tuesday and Thursday 10 am till 2 pm. Bring flowers.

@ 2024 Mary Murphy