Novi Bečej and Vranjevo through History

Explore the extraordinary past of Novi Bečej and Vranjevo through the pages of the book 'Novi Bečej and Vranjevo through History.' Uncover political events, economic development, and cultural heritage of these Banat towns through richly documented stories. Follow the evolution from the earliest days to the present, delving into the intricate threads of political intrigues, economic transformations, and cultural ascensions. Experience the past through the eyes of the author as the pages of the book unfold before you, providing a unique perspective on the life and legacy of these significant locales.

Settling of Jews in Novi Bečej and Vranjevo

Jews have been present in Hungary since the time of the first kings, and more intensive settlements occurred after their expulsion from Bohemia and other countries in Western Europe during and before the Crusades. They not only found refuge in Hungary and Poland but also prospered significantly in these countries. This, of course, should not be misunderstood, as they faced various difficulties, perhaps similar to those experienced by Jews in other Central and Western European countries during that time. For instance, the Austrian authorities created difficulties for them when settling in Banat after the expulsion of the Turks or in places closer to the border.

Their settlement began in the second half of the 18th century, comprising Ashkenazi Jews from Hungary, Slovakia, Poland, and Germany. The challenges they faced are evident from the fact that the Hungarian Diet in Pressburg (Bratislava) in 1840 introduced Article XXIX of the law, recognizing the right of Jews to settle in all places in Hungary, Croatia, and Slavonia, provided they were born in Hungary, obtained legal residence, and had no moral faults.

However, this legal provision, seemingly favorable to Jews, was implemented in the Veliki Kikinda district in a way that led to a kind of cleansing of Jews. Bečej, being not far from the border, received its first Jewish families at a time when they already had smaller colonies in nearby towns such as Bečkerek, Stari Bečej, and Žombol. Due to the strategic location of Novi Bečej and its importance in trade, Jews found their place among the significant merchant families of Serbs and Greeks at that time.

Initially, their trade was focused on small "späceraj" (peddler) shops with colonial goods, but with the construction of the railway in Banat and the Temišvar–Kikinda–Szeged or Bečkerek–Kikinda–Szeged railway lines, coupled with the role of banking capital in trade, they gradually took over the grain trade in Novi Bečej. By the early 20th century, and especially between the two World Wars, the entire grain trade was in their hands.

Their diligent work and the perseverance that characterized the Jews enabled them not only to progress numerically but also materially in Novi Bečej and Vranjevo. Many beautiful houses on the main street of Novi Bečej were owned by them. They were not only good traders but also contributed numerous intellectuals to Novi Bečej: lawyers, doctors, and others.

There is no information about when the first Jewish families settled in Novi Bečej and Vranjevo, so we will rely on V. Stajić's data on the Kikinda district. Jews in the Veliki Kikinda district were first mentioned on February 23, 1784, in an order from the Vicegerent Council, "to be recorded in the protocol of magisterial sessions by legal witnesses the place that prohibits Jews from trading in the District."

Later, there were requests from Jews to settle in the District, including some data related to Vranjevo. Herman Polak, a Jew from Bereg (probably Bereka), applied for residence on May 13, 1834, in Vranjevo, stating in his application that he had provided various services to the town. This request was rejected, referring to orders stating that Jews were not qualified to obtain residence. However, in the same year, Joseph Kraus, who had been living peacefully and honestly in Vranjevo for over twenty years, was mentioned.

In 1834, a Jew named Toma Vajsberger from Karlov sued Isaac David, a Jew from Vranjevo. In the same year, the Jewish community in Temišvar annulled decisions by the District Magistrate granting residence to Herschel Levi for Kikinda and Joseph Ney for Vranjevo. When the Chamber Administration in Temišvar found out about this, it nullified the decisions and demanded that the mentioned Jews must seek residence permit from them.

The Jewish cemetery in Novi Bečej was established in 1825, indicating that there were already more than twenty families at that time, prompting the need for a separate cemetery. The cemetery was located in Vranjevo, on the road towards Novo Miloševo on the left side, where Jews from both places were buried.

According to the 1825 census, there were 24 Jews in Vranjevo, 14 in Karlov, 9 in Kumane, etc. At that time, there must have been more Jews in Novi Bečej, given the flourishing trade. In 1822, there were 250 Jews in Veliki Bečkerek, and they opened their first-grade school that year.

The synagogue (Jewish church) was built in Novi Bečej in 1865. The first data on the number of Jews in the Novi Bečej district comes from the population census on October 31, 1857 (237 souls). According to the 1921 census, there were 244 Jews in the district. The district was much larger in 1921 than in 1857, including the villages that previously belonged to the District. However, this shows that the number of Jews decreased due to emigration during and after World War I.

During Austro-Hungarian rule, there were probably more Jews in Novi Bečej than the 1925 data suggests. Some of them left these areas that were annexed to Yugoslavia because they considered themselves Hungarian Jews, given that they spoke Hungarian at home. This assumption is supported by data on the number of Jews presented by Elek Fenvesi in 1851 in the surrounding villages. In that year, for example, there were about sixty Jews in Vranjevo, fifty in Beodra, and eighteen in Bočar, indicating that there could have been around one hundred fifty to two hundred Jews in Novi Bečej at that time.

It should be noted that Jews did not massively leave the Vojvodina region after World War I. Rather, it pertains to Novi Bečej, from where they probably moved to larger cities earlier, as they materially strengthened to the extent that Novi Bečej no longer offered suitable business opportunities.

Jews were not only good traders but also very enterprising in other areas of the economy. For example, in 1868, Jozef Rozenberg and Samuel Sorger from Turski Bečej signed a contract with the Nadalj municipality for the construction of embankments and drainage within eleven months. In return, the municipality granted them the entire marshy area of 376 acres for eleven years of free exploitation. The contractors completed the work ahead of schedule.

All these hardworking and enterprising people, who were a significant factor in the economy of Novi Bečej, experienced a tragic fate in World War II.

The Jews of Banat faced the unfortunate reality of being the first to experience the horrors of the fascist regime. Immediately after the occupation of Banat, the Germans established three internment camps for Banat Jews in Zrenjanin, Novi Bečej, and Pančevo. Already in the second half of April 1941, Jews were ordered to wear a yellow armb and with the Star of David and the inscription "Jew" around their left arm as a sign of identification. In Novi Bečej, they were arrested and placed in a grain warehouse at the end of the main street. Later, they were released to their homes, but during the night between August 14 and 15, 1941, all Jews were arrested and interned in the mentioned camps.

All Jews from the northern Banat, including the Veliki Kikinda, Novi Kneževac, and Novi Bečej districts, were housed in the mentioned warehouse in Novi Bečej. Joseph Klapka, a municipal official from Vranjevo, was appointed as the commander of that camp. All internees were strictly forbidden from maintaining any contact with citizens outside the camp. According to camp administration data, there were 696 Jews in the Novi Bečej camp.

After a few days, precisely on August 20, 1941, all Jews from the camp in Novi Bečej were transported by train to Belgrade. There, men over fourteen years old were interned in the Topovske šupe camp, and by mid-October 1941, all of them were executed. Women and children were placed in Jewish houses in Belgrade, from where they were taken to the Sajmište camp in the first half of December (December 12), 1941. Using a special truck imported from Germany, they were gassed with poison in groups of one hundred to one hundred, then taken to Jajinci, where they were buried.

After the Germans were expelled, and World War II ended, only those Jews who found themselves far outside Serbia and Banat survived. Unfortunately, there were very, very few of them. The five-member family of Adolf Schlesinger, a grain merchant (Adolf with his wife, son, and two daughters), survived as they had moved to Split before Germany attacked Yugoslavia, where the husband of the older daughter, Marija, lived. They crossed to the island of Korčula from Split and stayed there until the capitulation of Italy in the fall of 1943. After that, it was easy to join the partisans or transfer to the liberated part of Italy. Besides the family of Adolf Schlesinger, Jovan Schlesinger, one of the three sons of Arthur Schlesinger, a merchant from Novi Bečej, survived. Janči, as he was known in Bečej, was in military captivity in Germany as a soldier of the former Yugoslav army. Another girl, the daughter of a merchant of women's hand embroidery, whose surname I do not remember (their house was on the main street in the part from the Lutheran church towards the station), also survived. How she survived is not known, but after liberation, she appeared with a request to return the property of her parents.

In this tragedy that befell the Jews of Novi Bečej, and not only them, it should be noted that Đura Schlesinger, son of Arthur, Stevan Schlesinger (Pišta), son of Josip, and Bergl Herman, son of Đula, were arrested as communists and shot among the first ninety communists in Zrenjanin at the end of July 1941. On that occasion, Mirjana Dunda Huven, a girl about twenty-five years old, daughter of Huven, a leather merchant from Novi Bečej, was also shot.

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