During the eighteenth century, Jews began to settle in the fertile plain formed by a bend in the Tisza River, which flowed from the mountains of western Ukraine south toward the Danube. In the aftermath of the Turkish invasions of Hungary a few decades earlier, the newcomers found opportunity to raise their families and build a community there in the town of Kisvarda. By 1784, more than a hundred Jews lived in Kisvarda, and that figure grew as the community prospered in relative safety. The first synagogue in Kisvarda was founded in 1796, along with a burial society.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Jewish population of Kisvarda exceeded a thousand souls. In addition to working as merchants and in the skilled crafts, Jews here became landowners and farmers. Some owned the warehouses that stored the region’s potato crops before shipment to markets near and far. By 1869, the Jewish community had its own bank. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Kisvarda was home to more than 2,600 Jews, and their community had a reputation for adherence to orthodoxy. Not even the secular would open their businesses on Shabbat. A significant population of Hassidic Jews lived in the town as well.
One of the Jewish families of Kisvarda was the Kuhns. When the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, three generations of Kuhns were deported to Auschwitz: Yisrael Meir Kuhn, his son Miksa, and his grandson Sandor. Sandor’s two older brothers had already been conscripted into the Hungarian Army to toil in a forced-labor brigade. When the family arrived in the death camp, Miksa and Sandor alone survived the selection process at Auschwitz’s gates. When Rosh Hashanah arrived, they were among a group of prisoners who gathered in a field during a work assignment to take turns reading in whispered voices from a smuggled prayer book. When they were caught, some were sent to the gas chambers; others, including Miksa and Sandor, were sent off to another camp – Mauthausen.
At Mauthausen, father and son were separated when Sandor was taken to work at a German airplane factory near Vienna. As the Soviets closed in, Sandor was taken on death march back to Mauthausen, and it was from one of his fellow inmates on the march that he learned of his father Miksa’s death. When Sandor finally arrived back at the camp, he was one of just 300 from the original 3,000 prisoners who set out on the march.
Liberated by the Allies in 1945, Sandor was just fifteen years old. He made his way to America, where he began using the English version of his name, Alex Kuhn, settling in Detroit, where a kind family took him in. It wasn’t until the 1950’s that Alex learned that his older brother Erno had survived in the Soviet gulag and now lived in Budapest. They reunited and remained close for the remainder of their lives.
Today, Alex’s grandson Daniel Kuhn lives in the Washington, DC, area and is active with 3GDC to keep the memory of Kisvarda’s Jewish community alive.