We have all heard stories of tzaddikei umot Haolam who heroically risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust – Raoul Wallenberg, Chiune Sugihara, and Nicholas Winton, to name just a few. Some hid Jews in their homes, some transported Jews to safer locations, while others helped provide Jews with food or falsified documentation. Each hero defied authority and put their lives and the lives of their families at risk. The magnitude of their actions is crystal clear to us all.
There are other people who may not have risked their lives during the Holocaust, yet do their utmost to keep the lessons of the Holocaust alive, albeit in a much less dramatic way. Irmgard Jurkovich is one such woman. Irmgard, who is not Jewish, was first born in 1941 and has lived almost her entire life in the town of Kittsee, a suburb of Austria where my father lived.
As a six-year-old child, Irmgard walked past the Jewish cemetery in Kittsee and wondered where the Jews were, as she had never seen any. You see, the Jews of Kittsee were viciously thrown out of their homes by the Nazis on Pesach of 1938. They were forced to live in inhumane conditions on a cargo barge in the middle of the Danube River, as no country would take them in. Several months later they were sent to a detention camp in Budapest until they were able to immigrate to safety.
Once Irmgard understood what had happened to the Jews of Kittsee, she made it her mission to perpetuate their memory and do everything she could to prevent history from repeating itself by increasing awareness of and heightening the sensitivity to the Jewish people among her fellow Austrians.
Irmgard has an archive in her home loaded with photos, documents and books connected to the Jews of the town. She has authored several books and pamphlets on the subject and she and her husband Joschi give tours.
Irmgard also used her role as headmistress of the local school of Kittsee to further her mission. She had her students participate in many projects that involved meeting and interviewing survivors and their families in Israel, Hungary and the US. Her students entered the “Year of Tolerance” competition in 1995. They won the competition and the prize of spending a week in Israel. One of her students spoke at the inauguration of the Hall of Encounter in the Rechavia Gymnasium. Another spoke at Yad Vashem during the memorial ceremony in the Valley of the Communities.
She has since retired as principal but is often asked to speak at the University Extension in Eisenstadt and Kittsee and the Austrian Embassy in Bratislava/Pressburg. Irmgard studied Jewish religion, culture, and history and shares what she learned in order to remove the stereotype of Jews. She visited Jewish cemeteries in Burgenland and Prague and studied Hebrew. She seizes every opportunity to speak about her findings and initiated an annual “European Day of Jewish Culture.” She also erected a memorial plaque where the Kittsee shul once stood. It says (loosely translated), “Here was the synagogue of Kittsee, which was desecrated by the National Socialists in April 1938. We commemorate the victims and persecutees of the Jewish community of Kittsee.” Irmgard holds the key to the Jewish cemetery and has photographed all of the kevarim.
Nine years ago, my husband and I traveled to Austria to visit my father’s hometown. In anticipation of the trip, I reached out to Irmgard who was able to provide me with all sorts of information about my family. She provided documentation of my parents’ address in New York and of their trip to Vienna in 1975. She also sent contact information of all of my father’s classmates who were still alive. She has helped me with my family research and patiently answers my endless questions. Irmgard put me in contact with people from my father’s hometown and their descendants. She connected me to the daughter of the Austrian caretaker of the Kittsee shul where my father’s family lived. She is surprisingly well versed in Jewish tradition and culture and even sends me greetings and articles about the upcoming Jewish holidays. She once sent me a picture of Rav Elyashiv, zt”l, saying birkat hailanot.
When my husband and I traveled to Kittsee, we spent the day with Irmgard and Joschi. They took us to where the shul stood, to the Jewish cemetery and to the police station where the Nazis rounded up the Jews. She even took us to meet the burgermeister (mayor) who had met with my parents 35 years earlier. He had actually remembered my father’s family from before the war. She also took us to see the kever of the Chasam Sofer, which is 5 kilometers from her home, right over the border in Slovakia (then Pressburg/Pozsony, now Bratislava). Before we came, Irmgard had invited us for a meal in her home. When we explained that we eat strictly kosher, she was very respectful and told us that she would find a kosher restaurant to take us to. She found a kosher style restaurant. When we told her that we couldn’t eat there either, she told us not to worry; she would make sure to find a restaurant that met our standards. When Irmgard sets a goal, nothing stands in her way. She found us a Chabad restaurant in Bratislava.
When I returned to Kittsee with my brother several years later, Irmgard again hosted us along with someone who was producing a documentary about Jews who had returned to Burgenland. The producer and his crew spent the day with us. My brother and I were very touched when Irmgard presented us with my father’s third grade report card. She had found it by sifting through the contents of the school building when it was slated for demolition and kindly saved it for us.
For several years I have been trying to get Irmgard the recognition she deserves. Of course, Irmgard herself has never been interested in recognition. She describes her cause as being very close to her heart. Just recently, however, she got the recognition she deserves. Hans Peter Doskozil, the Chief of State of Burgenland presented Irmgard with the Golden Order of Merit of the Austrian Republic and insignia in the Landhaus (Parliament) in Eisenstadt in the presence of the entire government of Burgenland. The “Joseph Hayden Brass” played music in the session hall followed by a beautiful dessert reception.
At last, a fitting tribute for four decades of dedication to the last Jews of Kittsee.
Irmgard is passionately driven by the mission she has chosen in her life. She is active in perpetuating the memory of the last Jews of Kittsee on a constant basis. If there would have been more people like Irmgard living during the years of the war, it is certainly possible that historical events would not have unfolded in the tragic way that they did.