On June 24, Royal Tokaji—one of the most renowned wineries in Hungary’s famed Tokaj region—unveiled two plaques on the exterior of its winery in Mád. The copper plaques honor the Zimmermanns, a prominent Jewish family who owned the property before World War II. The Zimmermanns’ wines were well-known throughout Europe from the mid-1800s on, and bottles of their sweet Tokaji aszú dating from the late 19th century can still net thousands of dollars at auctions.
It took a year of hard negotiations before the winery agreed to acknowledge this Jewish family publicly. Only about a dozen people were present for the ceremony: a couple associates of Royal Tokaji and eight descendants of Zsuzsanna Zimmermann—a Hungarian-American Holocaust survivor who was deported with her mother, Blanka Zimmermann, from one of the winery’s two buildings in 1944. The ceremony was modest; in the end, nothing but two white tablecloths thrown on the plaques indicated that a memorial celebration would take place in front of the adjoining buildings of Royal Tokaji later that day.
The plaques on the beautifully renovated white walls of the winery were shiny but rather small, as if to express the conflicted relationship of a country with its nearly disappeared Jews. In the end, the modest unveiling, and the labyrinthine buildup to it, tell a complicated story about Hungary’s relationship with its Jews, even Jews whose product ran in alcohol-infused rivers through the national cuisine.
The story of the plaques goes back to Zsuzsanna Zimmermann, 87, who now goes by the name Susy Oster. She moved to Long Beach, California, after she was liberated by U.S. troops in Nazi Germany in 1945. In an oral interview she gave about her life in 1994, archived at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, she tells how she and her mother were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in April 1944. Her mother was later killed there. She and her brother George survived the war, but other members of her family were murdered, along with 300 other Jews from their village. Oster married and had two children.
In 2015, one of her children, Beverly Fox, who had always known that her Hungarian ancestors were winemakers, tasted a fabulous sweet wine from her mother’s hometown, Mád. She was inspired to look for a wine trip in Hungary—and accidentally found out that their former home, cellars, and vineyards are owned by the Royal Tokaji Wine Co. Taste Hungary offered a “Tokaj Jewish Heritage & Wine Tour” and in the photos of the company’s website, there were images of the Jewish cemetery in Mád, including the headstones of Fox’s great-grandparents. Oster, Fox’s mother, immediately recognized the building complex that stands in front of a war monument as her childhood house.
In fact, Oster still has a postcard of the monument and the house. But on Royal Tokaji’s website, in the section on the winery’s history, there was a mysterious gap between the 1700s and the Communist and post-Communist eras. After this surprising historic find, the family approached the company.
The family thought that copper plaques and a revision of the website would be an appropriate way to explain the past. For a while, Royal Tokaji insisted on the family proving they used to be the owners. “Deported people hardly had a chance to take their official documents with them,” explained Gerry Oster, Susy’s son. “It was them who should prove that they were not ours. It was never a secret that this was the Zimmermann home. I guess it was OK to admit it when they thought that all of them were dead. Once they learned that some had survived the Holocaust, their thinking changed.”
The Osters made it clear from the first moment that they were not seeking any financial restitution. “It has always been a bit of a blank what happened here, which I was expecting the family to explain to us,” said László de Demon, director of Royal Tokaji. “But they couldn’t. All that we knew was that the previous owner had bought everything from the Hungarian state. Things were confiscated by the Germans during the war.”
The truth, of course, is somewhat different. In Hungary, there are still quite a lot of people who would feel uncomfortable to talk about how they “became owners” of certain things after the war. The Hungarian state robbed its citizens twice: before and after 1945. The Commissioner of Abandoned Goods was established in 1945.
“This authority was a very disgusting and horrifying feature of the post-Holocaust Communist system,” explained László Karsai, a historian of the Holocaust in Hungary. He claimed that lawmakers formed the organization so that properties stolen from Hungarian Jews could officially be nationalized. First, the properties of the murdered had been nationalized, according to Karsai, and then the properties of the Hungarian-Germans, and by 1948 nobody was missing from the list. These crimes were treated equally by the newly democratic Hungary after 1990—only a partial compensation has been carried out, and the Hungarian law didn’t differentiate between the parties. Compensation for the stolen assets meant only a small payment from the state to most people.
There’s a Hungarian joke: “Communism is a system where anti-Jewish laws apply to everyone.” Honestly discussing the role of Jews in Hungary’s economy and their place in society is a sensitive matter even today. No plaques explain the contribution of Jews to Hungary’s economy. Their properties were once enormously valuable, yet almost nobody has received anything nearing the value of what they lost. But thousands of buildings in the Hungarian countryside remain silent witnesses to the murdered Jews.
After a year, Royal Tokaji has finally revised its online historical summary, which now duly explains in Hungarian and English what the Osters have asked for. And the company agreed to put up the plaques. “In terms of educating, these plaques with names are more important than a visit to Auschwitz,” Gerry Oster said at the ceremony. “This was our ancestral home for generations, so it gives us satisfaction that this is now openly acknowledged.”
Susy Oster’s two children and four grandchildren traveled all the way to Tokaj for the ceremony. But Royal Tokaji did not invite many others. It could have told the world a unique story about a Jewish family—whose wines won golden medals at competitions in Berlin in 1892 and in Paris in 1896—and their tragic fate in the Holocaust, and an unexpected discovery on the internet. The mainly British-owned company’s hesitation was puzzling, because the current owners didn’t have any role in taking the assets away.
One of the shareholders of the company is Hugh Johnson, the world-famous wine expert and historian. De Demon, the director, a British citizen of Hungarian origin, said that in fact Johnson was in Mád on the day of the unveiling ceremony, but he did not attend. He had something else to do that morning, De Demon said, and “you cannot expect an old man to go everywhere, anyway.”
But the plaques went up. “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.”
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