Northeastern Hungary’s Tokaj wine region is famous for its sweet nectar described as “the king of wines and the wine of kings.” But it is also known for the tombs of several Hasidic “wonder rabbis” whose burial places have long been sites of pilgrimage for their religious followers, and there are a number of significant places of Jewish built heritage dating back to the 18th century.
A new tourism hub in the quaint wine-making village of Mád now caters to religious pilgrims, wine-lovers, and mainstream tourists alike. It also provides useful information for genealogists.
Called “Footsteps of the Wonder Rabbis,” the center is housed in the renovated former rabbi’s house and yeshiva that had long stood derelict next to the village’s baroque synagogue.
The synagogue, built in 1795 and one of the oldest in Hungary, also stood abandoned for decades before it was fully restored a dozen years ago. The restoration received the Europa Nostra Prize, presented in 2005.
Opened in July 2016, the professionally managed “Footsteps” center includes guest rooms ranging from dormitory style accommodation to a large private apartment. It has a kosher kitchen and dining facilities and also features a narrative exhibition on local Jewish history and the Jewish families who lived in the village and surrounding area.
The exhibit includes an interactive desk and interactive tablets; a mock-up of a period room; facsimiles of letters and photographs relating to the Jewish history of Mád; information panels, and other material. Exhibits are also mounted in the synagogue.
Project director Mariann Frank said she is in close touch with with nephew of the last rabbi of Mád, Moshe Leib Ehrenreich, who was killed in the Holocaust. The nephew, who lives in Brooklyn, contributed material to the exhibition, as have other individuals.
One of the facsimile letters on display is one, in Yiddish, from Rabbi Ehrenreich, written in 1939, in which he assures a correspondent in the United States that the rumors about the closure of yeshivas was untrue and that his students were continuing their studies with no problem.
The project’s web site offers general tourism information — including mainstream cultural heritage and nature trails — as well as information and itineraries focusing on the Jewish heritage and pilgrimage sites.
It also includes digital collections to aid genealogists — including documentation of local Jewish cemeteries, a Shoah names database, some census information, and digitized photos, documents, and interviews.
Frank, a Jewish woman from Budapest who moved to Mád in 2010, where she worked for the village administration and local wine association, said that 12,000 people had visited the complex in 2016.
She said that in general, 60 percent of visitors are Hungarians (including Hungarian Jews); 20 percent are orthodox Jews from abroad, mainly the United States, visiting the tombs of the rabbis — almost all of them have family roots in the region; 10 percent are non-orthodox Jews from Israel and other countries, and 10 percent are non-Jewish foreign tourists, also from all over the world. The Footsteps inn’s guest accommodations are listed on booking.com.
Frank said the orthodox visitors mostly come on group trips organized by a kosher travel agent or by rabbis or other community leaders, but sometimes large religious families come for a heritage tour. A torah is kept in nearby Miskolc and can be brought to the Mád synagogue for services.
She said Israeli mainstream tourists are on the increase thanks to a new low-cost air link between Tel Aviv and Debrecen, in eastern Hungary.
The “Footsteps” center project was developed by EMIH (Unified Hungarian Jewish Community) — a branch of Chabad — with around €1.5 million in EU/Hungarian government funding granted as part of a broader project for tourism development in northeastern Hungary. EMIH leased the buildings from the municipality, which owns them.
Part of the funds were also used to construct a memorial at the site of the destroyed synagogue in the nearby village of Olaszliszka, which we have posted about.
Frank also organized the placing of two large signs on the main road, on either side of the turn-off to Mád, noting the Mád synagogue as an attraction, and she also prepared and had printed a tourism map of Mád that notes Jewish heritage as well as other sights, including all the wineries in town. A Jewish culture festival and Shabbaton was held this summer.
Mád is a major center of wine-making and wine tourism in the area, thanks to significant investment by foreign as well as Hungarian winemakers, such as the Royal Tokaji Wine Company, which was founded in 1990 by British wine writer and expert Hugh Johnson. The village now boasts a gourmet restaurant and new hotels.
Jews were deeply involved in wine-making and the wine trade — already in the 18th century, they exported wine to Poland, as recounted by the 18th century wine-merchant and Jewish community leader Ber Birkenthal — Ber of Bolechow — who lived in Bolechow (now Bolekhiv, Ukraine), and described his wine-purchasing trips to the area in his memoirs. He was particularly close with the Jewish community in Tarcal, another wine-making village near Mád, and even had ritual objects made for the synagogue there.
Mád’s Jews, like almost all Jews in provincial Hungary, were deported to Auschwitz in 1944.
In 2016, two small plaques were placed on the former home of the Zimmerman wine-making family in Mád, near the synagogue and former rabbi’s house. The building is now part of the Royal Tokaji winery.
“This was the home of Miklos and Blanka Zimmermann and their two children,” one of them reads, in engraved Hungarian and English. Miklos “was engaged in the cultivation, production, and marketing of Tokaj wines, like generations of his family before him, dating from the early 1800s. In May 1944, the family was deported to Auschwitz along with other Jewish families of Mád. Blanka died in Auschwitz on October 16, 1944.”