An Instagram Influencer Documents Jewish Heritage
Actress Jamie Lee Curtis is on a mission to help restore the only synagogue in Mateszalka, a tiny town in eastern Hungary where the parents of her father, acting legend Tony Curtis, were born.
The synagogue, now largely in shambles, was built in 1852. In 1888, the country’s first electric streetlight, made of iron, was installed next to it. Eighty years have passed since the synagogue possessed any kind of congregation. The vast majority of the 17,000 Jews in the Mateszalka Ghetto, which was comprised of local Jews as well those from the nearby Maramaros district, were murdered in Auschwitz.
Jamie Lee Curtis has pledged to partner with municipal authorities to raise funds for the project. Also drawing attention to the building’s needed preservation is the increasingly popular Instagram account Abandoned Jewish Memories (@abandoned_jewish_memories, with 15,000 followers), launched in 2018 by Hungarian graduate student Matyas Kiraly, who has Jewish heritage on his mother’s side.
When Kiraly, 25, first stepped into the decaying landmark on a sunny afternoon last summer to pay tribute to the murdered Jews of Mateszalka, he sang Oseh Shalom and prayed amid the hauntingly beautiful walls decorated with floral and geometric motifs. The visit and subsequent photos posted to Instagram became one of more than 100 locations that Kiraly has documented and shared on social media in an attempt to chronicle forgotten and crumbling Jewish sites across Central and Eastern Europe.
As he works toward his master’s degree in Jewish culture and history at the Budapest University of Jewish Studies, his Instagram mission has led him to explore cemeteries, Jewish quarters and synagogues in Poland, Ukraine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. He is often accompanied on his sojourns by his brother, Miklos, and father, Laszlo, who is Christian.
According to Kiraly, Abandoned Jewish Memories serves as a conduit for young generations already active on social media to discover the history behind the staggering number of decaying Jewish heritage sites in the region, and which today have practically no one to relate their history.
“It is important to me to educate people so that a Jewish descendant can see and learn about their ancestral lands,” said Kiraly, whose grandfather survived the Holocaust in the Budapest Ghetto. “It’s just a mitzvah that I take pride in because I hope that in Hashem’s eyes, I’m doing everything possible to educate Jews and non-Jews alike on Jewish culture and history.”
“After finishing my studies, I’d love to tell the stories behind the sites and places I’ve visited in a book,” said Kiraly, though he has no firm plans. “There are still numerous places I’d like to see, like Belarus, or returning to Ukraine. Unfortunately, these sites will have to wait for now, but hopefully, they will be accessible soon.”
Orge Castellano, PhD, is a Spanish journalist, writer, and researcher.