The Jews of Tokaj

I had to visit Tokaj recently – primarily for a work-related visit with the University at Sarospatak – but while I was there my hosts arranged some interesting visits to wine producers.  One of these was Chateau Dereszla, which was particularly from the socio-historical point of view.  I’m grateful to the manager there, Laszlo Kalocsai, for much of the information which follows.

Dereszla is in the village of Bodrogkerestur.  The domaine was founded in 1406 by the Hungarian Court as a place to store wines and tithes; wine was provided to the court and the church; later it passed down through various Franco-Austrian-Hungarian aristocratic families. There is a 19th century cellar – and there is also an 18th century vinoteka. As the picture below shows, this comes with a cannonball embedded in its wall, dating from the 1848 revolution of Hungarians against Austrian domination; the battle during which it was shot actually took place in early 1849, was a Hungarian victory.  As a result the cannon ball is now highlighted in the Hungarian national colours.

What interested me most, however, was a separate wine cellar adjacent to the main site, just up the hill from the vinoteka.  This is known as the ‘Jewish cellar’ as it was owned by the Klaber family, Jewish wine merchants based in the town of Sopron, way in the western part of Hungary, who dug it out at the start of the 19th century.  They used it to source and store local wines before selling them elsewhere.

Jews were important in the Tokaj region, arriving around the beginning of the 18th century,  particularly Hasidic Jews from eastern Poland.  In the town of Bodrogkerestur there was a synagogue and, during the 19th century a rabbi who could perform miracles, attracting many visitors to his home, and becoming the most influential Jewish religious leader in the region (indeed, one tourist website suggests that during this period Tokaj was perhaps the most influential centre for the Hasidic Jews outside Ukraine).  Rabbi Shaya’la died in 1925 and is buried in the Jewish cemetery on the hillside up about Dereszla.  This remains a place of Jewish (mainly Hasidic) pilgrimage to this day.  Apparently there were about 40,000 pilgrims per annum in pre-COVID times – making them a substantial part of the tourism business of the region.  Some tours even sell themselves with a double focus on the wines and Jewish heritage. 

Meanwhile, according to Laszlo, the Jews were very involved with wine in the region starting from the end of the 18th century. They were generally forbidden to grow grapes and own vineyards, but they had a major role in the oenology and commerce of the area and he said it was a ‘catastrophe’ when, in the space of a few months from April 1944, they were all forcibly removed. The Klaber family cellar was seized by the Hungarian state, and appropriated later by the Hungarian regime. Later it was taken on by Dereszla, with a connecting tunnel linking it directly to their other cellars.

Since the Holocaust the Jews of Bodrogkerestur have recreated their synagogue. The village is also home to three churches: Roman Catholic, Luther and Greek Catholic. The link between wine and religion is often strong, and it’s important to remember that it is not just significant for Christian worship, but in Jewish ritual as well, with four cups drunk during the Seder – the Passover meal.

As you can see from the picture, the Jewish cellar now houses a fascinating Dereszla dry szamorodni, which ages there for 18 months. I’ve posted recently about this as an interesting wine.