Stitchery as “Holy Work” in Hungary

Zsuzsanna Toronyi feels much of her time is busy with “holy work.” As director of the Hungarian Jewish Archives in Budapest, she spends her working life poring over the documents and ephemera attesting to both the vibrant and tragic Jewish experience in Hungary.

Toronyi has ensured that women’s experiences are brought into the public arena. She refers to Johanna Bischitz, the founder of a Jewish Women’s Association, which created a support system for young women and widows facing poverty or trapped in prostitution. From 1873 until her death in 1898, she was chairwoman of the association. In 1879, when Bosnia was occupied by the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, Emperor Franz Joseph awarded her the Golden Cross of Distinction and bestowed noble titles on her and her family. In 1889 she became the first woman in Budapest, other than saints, to have a statue erected in her honor.

In 2009, an exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Dohány Street Synagogue, part of the display included information about Johanna Bischitz’s reserved seat. As Toronyi explained: “The building of the Dohány Street synagogue was a serious financial burden on the Jewish community in Pest, consisting of hardly 20,000 souls at the time. In order to cover the costs, they followed the age-old practice of selling pews. There were 1,464 seats for men and 1480 seats for women in the synagogue under construction….”

Dávid Bischitz bought a first-class seat for his wife. It was on the first floor of the women’s gallery and was the first seat on the left-hand side of the second pew. After several different owners, the seat that originally belonged to Johanna Bischitz was bought in 1935 by the chairman of the Pest Jewish Religious Community, Samu Stern, and his wife Polda Engel (pictured here). She was the chairwoman of the National Hungarian Union of Jewish Women’s Associations (MINOSZ), and she regarded needlework as very important in the education of women. Between 1932 and 1936, she crocheted a set of 32 decorative pieces for the Dohány Street Synagogue. According to press reports at the time, there was a huge celebration when they were consecrated in the presence of over 10,000 people. The collection is still owned by the Dohány Street Synagogue.

Judaica Europeana — — will be acknowledging the tenth anniversary of the original exhibition in 2012 as the Hungarian Jewish Archives launches a new virtual exhibition reflecting more of Toronyi’s holy work.

Johanna Bischitz’s seat record is available online at: