VILMA VUKELIĆ ON HER JEWISH ORIGINS
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, my great-grandfather Veitl Monostor left his hometown of Pressburg [today’s Bratislava] and began wandering as a pious Bocher [student of Talmud] from one community to the other, following the Danube in its downstream course. He stopped on his way wherever there were good Talmud teachers and learned book scribes. In this way, as he was gradually advancing further and further onto the Great Hungarian plain, he greatly extended his knowledge. One day, walking through the area called Baranya, he stopped in a small isolated village called Baan [today’s Popovac] situated on the feudal estate of Archduke Karl of Aspern-Essling [Archduke Karl of Teschen, Emperor Franz Joseph’s brother] and away from all major roads. There he met a pious man called Nathan Taussig (also known as Reb Nate Baan), who lived under the archduke’s protection and goodwill and was thus allowed to settle permanently on the estate and open a shop, both otherwise prohibited to Jews.
Reb Nate Baan was born in Vienna. He arrived in Baranya as part of the archduke’s entourage. His Viennese relatives, the entire Taussig family, enjoyed the protection of the Habsburg family, who were greatly indebted to them. The Taussigs not only had the right to live in Vienna permanently but were also able to own their house. Furthermore, they were exempt from wearing the “Jewish badge” and were allowed to employ numerous servants, which meant that whole families could become part of the household in the guise of servants and enjoy the same protection as their masters.
The “protected Jews” or “court factors” were in those times the only people entitled to handle money, since there were still no regulated monetary institutions in Europe and royal dynasties were up to their necks in debt due to constant warfare. They had the ability to raise huge sums of money to finance court prodigality, served as mediators in closing business deals, proved to be useful advisors, and thus gained a certain reputation as well, until their services were no longer required. For the smallest of offences, often based on a simple denunciation, they would then be thrown in the dungeon, executed in horrible ways, and their property confiscated.
The members of the Viennese Taussig family, including my great-grandfather Reb Nate Baan, were Habsburg court Jews. They kept that position well into the nineteenth century. The Austrian financier Theodor von Taussig, born in 1849, was the director of the Länderbank of Austria and acted as Emperor Franz Joseph’s private banker. He greatly contributed to the advancement in the mining industry, the creation of the Danube Steamboat Shipping Company, and was personally involved in the process of nationalization of Austrian railways. The pretty and intelligent daughter of Reb Nate Baan, Theresa Taussig, was born and raised by the end of the eighteenth century as part of that Viennese family. In 1820, she married the Talmud scholar Philipp Rosenbaum, recently arrived from Pressburg. They were my great-grandparents. They moved to the nearby village of Beli Manastir (or Pél Monostor in Hungarian), also on the archduke’s property and mostly inhabited by Swabian Germans and Šokci [of Croat origin] where her father made sure that they had the right to settle and open a small shop. My great-grandmother Theresa (known henceforth as Resele of Monostor) assumed from the start the full burden of running the shop. Her shop was the only one between Darda and Villány and had loyal customers from all the outlying villages. She was selling printed fabric, linen, aprons and kerchiefs, household and farming tools, nails and mouse traps, petroleum, salt, and sugar. She was on familiar terms with her customers; she knew their circumstances and spoke their language. She would rebuke frivolous girls tempted to spend too much money on dressing up, telling them, “Didn’t you buy a new kerchief and an apron just a few days ago? Get out of the shop or I will tell your mother!”
While my great-grandmother was thus running the store, standing behind the counter, weighing salt and measuring cloth, taking care of the cattle, fields and vineyards, raising the children, and making sure that servants did their work, my great-grandfather (still a relatively young man at the time) sat in the airy gazebo surrounded by a flowery garden. During the winter months, he would be in the warm back room, wearing his black corduroy cap on his head and studying his Talmud. He would often bend over his folios, frowning when he was tortured by certain indecipherable issues that could not be resolved regardless of his superb rabbinical knowledge. There were always the “pro” and the “contra” arguments, creating conflictual interpretations and, ultimately, made everything even more complex. But it was a God-pleasing occupation. This is what his wife Theresa also believed and left him in peace. And so, while he was carefully reading aloud each word in a soft singsong tone all by himself, springs, summers, autumns and winters were passing by, without him paying any attention to his environment. He spent his days and years, in fact, his entire life, without even noticing that it was his wife who made everything around him run as it should. (p. 37-40)
ON BECOMING AWARE OF DISCRIMINATION
I was good at mathematics, excellent at writing and reading, but when it came to the recitation, I was simply brilliant. There was nothing I could be reproached for in this respect. At the exam time, I would stand up with pride and self-confidence and provide answers that usually surpassed what had been asked of me. I was thus one afternoon deeply concentrating on my calligraphy exam. The template read, “Domovina kakva bila, rođenom je sinku mila!” (“No matter what, the homeland is always dear to its native son”).[i] I had a good quill and I was successful in making all my letters lean at the same angle, with thick and thin lines neatly distinct. While I was so engrossed in writing, Melanka Matić, who shared the same desk with me in the classroom, suddenly gave me a push with her elbow. As the result, the entire examination sheet on which I was working got spattered with ink from my pen. The teacher had just stepped out of the classroom for a moment to have a brief chat with Miss Firly in the corridor, and Melanka was laughing at my state of despair. With a derisive expression on her face and in a superior tone of her voice, she declared, “Croatia is not your homeland, even if you write it out a hundred times! You may be a good pupil, but you will still not go to heaven, but to the place where only wailing and gnashing of teeth could be expected. The catechist told us that in class today!”
Growing up in the protected environment of my home, I had been unfamiliar with anti-Semitism. I made good friends at school and in the Long Courtyard and we went along perfectly well at all times. I was, of course, aware of my Jewishness because I had separate religion classes and did not participate in the religious practices intended for Catholic children. This was, in my eyes, only a minor difference in our ways of living but not a difference in the degree of our worthiness. That is why I did not suffer from any form of inferiority complex. I felt entirely at home among my friends and behaved the same as any other child. There was no doubt that Croatia was my homeland. That was what our textbooks were saying. My father also used to say, “Every person has to love the country in which he was born and in which he lives.” I sang the anthem “Lijepa naša”[ii] in unison with all the others and was annoyed if anyone maintained that Nikola Šubić Zrinski was Hungarian![iii]
And now Melanka maintained that I was not Croatian and that I would never go to heaven but to some horrible place where wailing and gnashing of teeth were all one could hear! … I had only a vague understanding of death, and heaven and hell were completely alien concepts to me. I knew nothing about angels and devils, or saints and martyrs, which play such an important part in the Catholic cult. What was I then supposed to be afraid of? But that event hurt my sense of pride. I felt humiliated and insulted by Melanka’s words. …
“Why are you saying that Croatia is not my homeland, the same as yours?”
“Because you are a Jew and you Jews are nowhere at home. In that way, you don’t have a homeland either.”
“But I am at home here, just like you.”
“Really, dearie? Well, that’s not true. You can’t compare yourself with me because you Jews crucified our Lord Jesus Christ. That is why you must now pay for it.”
“I didn’t crucify anyone!” I yelled, outraged. “I was not even born then.”
“Doesn’t matter!” declared Melanka spitefully. “So what if you weren’t in this world at that time? Later generations must pay for the sins of their forefathers. That is what the catechist taught us today. It is in the Ten Commandments, he said!”
The teacher returned to the classroom. Red in the face with excitement, I showed my spattered exam paper and explained what had happened. I also told her that Melanka insisted that I would end up in a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth.
She was silent for a moment, and, then, with her voice raised, she exclaimed that it was not for us to meddle in those things and we should leave it to Our Lord and the catechist instead to make a judgment. It appeared to me right there that she was on Melanka’s side! Then she gave me a new sheet of paper to write on and rebuked me by saying that in future I should be more careful with the ink.
“But she pushed me! And she said I would go to a place of wailing and gnashing of teeth…” Suddenly I had a tight feeling in my throat. There was a coldness in the air around me and I was stunned. Did it mean that they were not my friends after all? They looked at me with pity but none of them offered help. And the teacher was unfair! She did not rebuke Melanka, who deserved it, but me. Why, I asked myself? (p. 71-3)
[i] From the poem Dvije Ptice (Two Birds, 1845) by Croatian poet Petar Preradović
[ii] The Croatian anthem begins with the words “Lijepa naša domovina…” (“Our beautiful homeland…”). It was recognized as the Croatian people’s anthem long before it was officially and constitutionally confirmed as such in the second half of the twentieth century. Poet Ivan Mažuranić wrote the original lyrics in 1835, and Josip Runjanin put it to music in 1861.
[iii] Nikola Šubić Zrinski (1508–1566), also known under his Hungarian name Zrínyi Miklós, was Ban (Governor) of Croatia, and most of all, a famous military commander in the service of the Habsburg monarchy. He participated in several crucial battles against the Ottomans, who, led by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, made serious attempts to invade the totality of Hungarian and Croatian territory and to penetrate further north into Europe. Zrinski’s death in 1566 during a heroic, but finally unsuccessful, defence of the fortress of Szigetvár is legendary. Both Croatia and Hungary claim him as their national hero.