Hungary’s Famed Tokaji Winery Pays Tribute to Dispossessed Jewish Owners — Finally
More than seven decades after losing their beloved Hungarian winery to the Nazis, the Zimmerman family is celebrating a small, if belated, victory.
On June 24, six descendants of Holocaust survivors Miklos and Blanka Zimmerman unveiled two modest plaques in front of the headquarters of the famed Royal Tokaji wineries in northeastern Hungary recognizing their ties to the place.
“This was the home of Miklos and Blanka Zimmermann and their two children,” states one of the signs in front of the winery headquarters in the town of Mád. The other notes the former home of Lajos and Margit Zimmerman. The signs also go on to note the Zimmerman family’s long history of involvement in “cultivation, production and marketing of Tokaji wines” since 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,” the inscription on one of the plaques reads.
“I honestly hope that this will be one more step toward justice and recognition of the crimes that were committed,” said Gerry Oster, Blanka and Miklos Zimmerman’s grandson, who, alongside his sister, led the drive to pressure Royal Tokaji to acknowledge his family’s roots and the family’s tragic forced departure. “I hope our efforts will motivate children and grandchildren of others to take similar steps to ensure the memory of European Jews is preserved,” Oster said.
The family’s struggle began a year ago, when Beverly Fox, Oster’s sister, came across photos of the Royal Tokaji wineries in Mád. The building housing the company’s offices looked familiar. After checking with her mother, she confirmed it was the house the family had lived in until the Nazis sent them to the death camps in 1944.
The family’s matriarch, Susy Oster, who is 88 and lives in California, grew up in the house and remembered it vividly. In a May 2015 interview with the Forward, Susy Oster recalled the family’s residence, her parents’ and uncle’s winemaking business, and the cellars, in which the Royal Tokaji wine underwent a special aging process that gives it a unique sweet flavor.
After the Holocaust, Susy Oster, who survived, moved to the United States. Her father Miklos passed away before the war.
Meanwhile, the family’s house, vineyards and cellar were nationalized by the postwar communist regime, as was the case with most private businesses in Hungary. After the fall of communism in 1989, the property was sold off and was eventually bought by Royal Tokaji, a leading winemaking company that counts among its owners Jacob Rothschild, a scion of the British Jewish banking family, and Hugh Johnson, an internationally noted wine historian.
After learning that their ancestral property was now owned by one of Hungary’s leading winemakers, the Zimmermann offspring reached out to Royal Tokaji and asked the company to recognize the winery’s previous Jewish owners and their fate during the Holocaust. They stressed that they were not seeking any material reparation for the lost property.
What ensued was a lengthy, and at times testy, exchange between the family members and the corporation. The company insisted that while it was aware of the fact that the Zimmermann family was a large land owner in the region, it did not have evidence showing their previous ownership of the winery in Mád. In June, the yearlong battle reached its conclusion.
Royal Tokaji agreed to revise its website, which did not previously recognize generations of Jewish ownership of the vineyards. It also agreed to place two plaques on the buildings that now house the company’s offices, as they had been the homes of Susy Oster and of her uncle’s family before the family was taken to Auschwitz The June 24 ceremony was attended by Susy Oster’s two children and four grandchildren, as well as by several Royal Tokaji employees, who, according to Gerry Oster, “clearly felt uncomfortable” next to the Zimmermann descendants.
“There is clearly still a lot of unfinished business in that country,” he added.
Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected] or on Twitter, @nathanguttman