After 1873, the capital of Hungary. Before they were united in 1873, the city’s sections of Buda, Pest, and Óbuda were independent towns.
Jewish presence in the territory of Buda (Budun, Ofen, Oven) can be traced back to the third- and fourth-century Roman Aquincum, the flourishing provincial capital of Lower Pannonia, built on the thermal springs of what is present-day Óbuda. Because of recurring invasions from the fifth century onward, Aquincum declined and lost its urban character. Jews resettled in Buda probably in the second half of the eleventh century in wake of the conquest of the country by Magyar tribes. By the thirteenth century during the reign of Béla IV, a Jewish quarter was located in the southwest of Buda Castle Hill; the Fehérvári gate was referred to as the “Jewish gate.” It was around this time that the Viennese rabbi, Yitsḥak ben Mosheh
(known as Or Zaru‘a), permitted the use of the thermal springs of “Budn” (the first time the city’s Hebrew name appeared) as a ritual bath. The oldest surviving tombstone from this period is that of Pesaḥ ben Peter dating to 1278, and a synagogue is mentioned in a 1307 chronicle. In the middle of the fourteenth century, during the reign of Louis Anjou, Jews were expelled from Hungary. When they returned to Buda in 1364, a new “Jewish street” came into being in the northeastern part of the Castle Hill, near the Viennese Gate, at present-day Táncsics Street. From the reign of Zsigmond (1387–1437), Buda served as the seat of royal residence and began to attract Jews from Western and Central Europe, many recently expelled from France. In 1436 the first known rabbi of Buda was noted, a sign that there now was a fully functioning community. He was called “der Jude Joseph Rabbi zu Ofen,” for, as a contemporary authority noted, “the city has two names—Oven [pronounced Ofen] in German, and Budun in Magyar.”
Illustration depicting Jews and Ottomans defending the city of Buda together against Christian attackers shortly after the Ottomans’ recapture of the city in 1541. One of the banners held by the Jews bears the Judenhut, the conical hat imposed on them by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. (Beth Hatefutsoth, Photo Archive, Tel Aviv)
A Jewish prefect was appointed during the reign of Mátyás Corvinus (1458–1490) with authority over Jews of the entire country. A family of Mendel, apparently originating from Nürnberg, filled this office and served as heads of the Buda community until the Ottoman conquest of Buda in 1541. A chronicle describes the festive reception, with a Jewish delegation headed by Mendel on horseback and bearing a banner with the inscription “Shema‘ Yisra’el,” accorded to Matthias and his bride Beatrix in 1476 upon their entrance into Buda. From the end of the fifteenth century, the Jews of Buda suffered from recurring mob violence. The most prominent target of this rioting during the decades immediate preceding the decisive Battle of Mohács (1526) was the court banker Imre Szerencsés (Fortunatus).
Although Sultan Suleiman marched into Buda in 1526, it was only in 1541 that Turkish forces came to occupy the city that was to serve as the capital of the northernmost province of the Ottoman Empire. In the Jewish mahalle, one of eight such districts in the city, 50 taxpayers were recorded in the 1546 defter (tax registers), rising to 104 households in 1590. Jews arrived from different parts of the Ottoman Empire, and conversely Jews from Buda settled, or were resettled, following the Turkish practice of surgun, in key communities—Istanbul, Salonica, Sofia (where they came to constitute the majority), and Safed—where often they continued to maintain their separate identity as Buda Jews. In the second half of the seventeenth century, close to 1,000 Jews lived in Buda, mostly Ashkenazic, but also some 30 Sephardic families. Jews who were expelled from Vienna in 1670 joined refugees fleeing from the Cossack uprising and the Swedish invasion in Poland–Lithuania. The community prospered and maintained flourishing religious institutions, reaching its apex under the stewardship of the renowned rabbi Efrayim ha-Kohen (1616–1678) from Vilna, author of the responsa Sha‘ar Efrayim, who was elected in 1666. News of Shabetai Tsevi, who claimed to be the Messiah, was greeted with great excitement in Buda in 1666; the rabbi’s son-in-law and successor, Ya‘akov Zak, was one of the fervent followers swept up in the community’s enthusiasm for this movement, known as Sabbatianism. (Ironically, or perhaps understandably, his son, the Ḥakham Tsevi Ashkenazi, who lived through the siege of Buda in 1686, and his grandson, Ya‘akov Emden, became implacable enemies of the Sabbatian heresy.)
In 1686, the Jews of Buda took part in the defense of the city against the Habsburg forces and suffered severely during its bombardment. In a daring rescue by Sender Tausk aided by the court Jew Samuel Oppenheimer, about a quarter of Buda’s roughly 1,000 Jews were ransomed and managed to escape the city. Another quarter were killed during the shelling and the subsequent sack of the city, while some 500 were taken captive and, often after long tribulations, were ransomed by the Jewish communities. Megilat Oven (The Scroll of Buda), composed by Yitsḥak Schulhof (ca. 1645–1733), a son-in-law of Efrayim ha-Kohen, vividly chronicles the fate of the Jewish community during the siege.
Jewish residence under Habsburg rule was precarious, especially after Buda was elevated to the status of a royal free city in 1703 and insisted on its privilege not to tolerate Jews within its limits. Because of ongoing warfare against the Turks, the military command and the royal treasury protected a few privileged Jewish families engaged as army purveyors against repeated attempts by newly settled German burghers to expel Jews. Finally, in 1746, barely a year after Empress Maria Theresa had ordered the expulsion of the Jews from Prague, she decided on a similar fate for those of Buda.
Only in 1783, in the wake of the Edict of Toleration issued by Joseph II for the Jews of Hungary, was settlement in Buda renewed. In 1804, a total of 46 Jewish families were recorded in the national census; by 1811 there were 105. The municipality’s traditional opposition to Jewish settlement was softened somewhat by the economic devastation caused by the flood of 1838, but it was only after 1840, when the Diet passed legislature that permitted Jews to settle in cities throughout Hungary, that many of the residential and occupational constraints were removed. Communal institutions had already been established in the 1820s; its first rabbi was Mosheh Kunitz (1774–1837), a maskil and pioneer of Jewish studies. By the 1840s, more than 1,000 Jews were recorded in the city; however, the Jewish community in Buda never recovered the pride of place it once possessed and henceforth lived in the shadow of its two sister communities, first neighboring Óbuda, then Pest across the river.
Unlike Buda and Pest, which were made autonomous royal free cities in 1703 and restricted or banned Jewish residence, Óbuda (Alt-Ofen; Heb., Oven Yashan) was a private market town that at the time belonged to the Zichy family, and the Counts Zichy invited Jews to settle in their domains. Óbuda’s proximity to Pest and Buda, its port on the Danube and favorable geographical location at the intersection of major crossroads, as well as the generous provisions of the privileges accorded by the Zichys in 1746 and 1765, and then by the Royal Chamber when it took possession of the town in 1766, were all factors that made the market town attractive to Jews and transformed it into the largest Jewish community in Hungary by the end of the eighteenth century. The numbers of Jews rose: from 115 in 1727, to 455 in 1767, to 1,649 in 1784. Around 1820, when its magnificent neoclassical synagogue was inaugurated (considered by contemporaries the most beautiful in Europe, rivaled only by the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam), it reached the height of its influence with 3,500 Jewish residents, close to half of the town’s population. The community enjoyed extensive self-government; its communal institutions, privileges and statutes (a 1787 Josephinian regulation) were models emulated by other Jewish communities. With the election of Mosheh Münz
(ca. 1750–1831) of Brody
to the rabbinate in 1789, the community acquired a powerful rabbinic personality of the first rank appropriate to its preeminent position. Its proximity to the centers of government also made Óbuda the natural spokesman and intercessor for Hungary’s Jewry, as attested by the extensive correspondence that has survived in the community’s archives (housed today in the Budapest Jewish Museum). The Koppel, Boscowitz, and Österreicher families, involved in large-scale, long-distance trade
importing textiles and exporting agricultural produce to the west, dominated communal affairs. While most Jews earned their livelihood as peddlers, day laborers, and craftsmen, there were also Jewish workers in the important industries established by the Goldberger and Kanitz families, who dyed calico and linen textiles with indigo.
On 2 May 1784, the community opened the first Jewish Normalschule mandated by Joseph II in Hungary. After initial vicissitudes, it was placed on solid footing with 300 boys and girls attending in 1822. In what was a development typical in many Hungarian communities, the school that had hitherto taught only secular subjects was united with the TalmudTorah in 1836.
The year 1838 proved a turning point in the history of the community. A flood in the spring of that year swept away buildings, including that of the school, and brought ruin to many. When two years later the last impediment to settling in the cities was removed by Law 29 of 1840, it only affirmed the resolve of Óbuda’s wealthier families to move to Pest. From that point on, the number of Jews in the community began to plummet in sharp contrast to the spiraling population of Pest, and its institutions fell into decline. By the last third of the century, the community could no longer maintain its Jewish school.
The 1784 census ordered by Emperor Joseph II (r. 1780–1790) recorded a total of close to 24,000 inhabitants in Buda, the seat of the royal residence, while Pest trailed behind with a population of 20,700. In the decades to come, Pest would be transformed dramatically into a boomtown, emerging as the undisputed commercial, political, and cultural heart of the country. At the time of its unification with Buda and Óbuda (legislated in 1872 and realized in 1873), the inhabitants of Pest constituted more than 70 percent of the new capital, Budapest, with a population of 280,000. In 1900, Budapest was ranked in eighth place among the cities of Europe and was the fastest growing city in Europe during the nineteenth century.
Dohány Street Synagogue in Pest, built in 1854–1859 by the Neolog Jewish community, Budapest, Hungary, ca. 1870. One of the largest synagogues in the world, today it serves as the main synagogue of Budapest. (YIVO)
By the first half of the nineteenth century, Pest came to occupy the paramount position among the Jewish communities in Hungary. While legally no Jews had been permitted to reside in Pest before 1783, by 1850 the official census registered 12,642 (according to other sources, 15,700) Jews in the city. It had become the largest Jewish community in the country, three times the size of Pressburg (Hun., Pozsony; mod. Bratislava), its closest rival.
The ascent of Budapest Jewry to preeminence among the world’s Jewish communities in the second half of the nineteenth century was even more spectacular. In 1869, the Jewish population of Pest was 39,384; combined with Buda, it totaled 44,890, constituting 16 percent of the total population. It was then the fourth-largest urban Jewry in the world, yielding to the undisputed leader Warsaw, but closely contesting Istanbul, Vienna, and Odessa for next place. By 1900, Budapest had displaced the others and firmly ranked second among urban European Jewries for the next three decades until bypassed by Moscow, Kiev, and Leningrad in 1930.
In the immediate aftermath of World War I, Budapest Jewry reached its historical peak with 215,512 Jews in 1920, constituting 23.2 percent in a city of about 930,000. From then on, a steady decline took place in absolute numbers and in the relative share in the population of Budapest. The 1941 census registered only 184,453 Jews by religion, dropping to 15.8 percent of the populace. However, the same census also recorded 37,931 Christians who were declared Jewish by race, divided between 22,122 defined Jewish by Law IV of 1939 and another 15,809 “non-Jews of Jewish descent.” (See Table 1: Percentage of Hungarian Jews in Budapest, 1869-1930.)
The Jewish population increased primarily as a result of migration from the nearby countryside. There was no great influx of East European Jews from Galicia or, for that matter, even from the northeastern region of Hungary. In 1869, it can be estimated that about 5 percent of Pest Jewry were Galicians. Only during World War I was there a significant influx of several thousand Galician refugees into Budapest.
The relative share of Budapest in Hungarian Jewry grew in dramatic spurts. In 1869, only 8 percent of Hungarian Jewry lived in Budapest, but thereafter concentration in the capital increased dramatically. The year 1900 marked the high water of Jewish share in the Budapest population, reaching 25 percent; a decline in the share of the metropolis set in during the next 40 years, in part due to the irreversible demographic decline that the capital spearheaded, in part because of the large number of conversions. Yet because of the dramatic reduction in Hungary’s territory and population after World War I, the interwar period witnessed a quantum leap in Budapest’s share from 22.4 percent in 1910 to 45.5 percent in 1920. This ratio was maintained until the (re)annexation of territories during World War II, resulting in a drop to 25.4 percent in 1941. The Holocaust, in which provincial Jewry was nearly completely annihilated, the migration of survivors to the capital, and once again the territorial losses of Hungary, resulted in an ever-higher concentration of Hungarian Jewry in Budapest in the postwar era. In the 1949 census, a much-reduced metropolitan Jewry numbering 101,259 (representing 6.4% of the population) constituted more than 75 percent of the country’s 133,862 Jews; at the end of the millenium, an estimated 90 percent lived in Budapest.
Settlement and Residential Clustering
Until the Jews of Hungary were emancipated in 1867, they had to submit to legal constraints on residence and occupations. Jews were forbidden to reside in Pest in the eighteenth century. They were permitted to attend the four annual fairs, and for the duration could rent an inn and a kosher restaurant, but were prohibited from residing at length in the city. The Edict of Toleration for the Jews of Hungary, Sistematica gentis Judaicae regulatio, issued by Joseph II on 31 March 1783, opened the royal free cities to Jewish settlement. While Jews were now permitted to reside in Pest, restrictions were nevertheless not entirely lifted. The envisaged model was akin to that of Vienna, where wealthy Jewish wholesale merchants or factory owners could purchase the right of “toleration.” Others could obtain only “commoration,” or temporary sojourner status. The city council, with its protectionist guild-oriented policies, felt threatened by the emergence of a new merchant class that would compete with the patriciate.
Although there were continuing tensions over the Jews’ legal rights to reside in Pest, the Jewish population continued to grow. By the end of the eighteenth century there were 310 tolerated and 765 temporary Jewish residents arriving from all parts of the empire and even from the Balkans. Of the 159 families listed in 1797, slightly more than half came from Hungary, the rest mainly from other Habsburg lands. Surprisingly, only 29 families (18 percent) came from Óbuda. In 1804, when there were 1,464 Jews in the city, the Royal Lieutenancy rather surprisingly approved the municipality’s demand to concentrate Jewish residence exclusively in the Terézváros (Theresienstadt) district. Jews objected to this undeserved measure, pointing out that “in no other trading city in Europe is commerce so promoted by Jewish merchants as in Pest.” Cracks began to show in the united front against Jews as the merit of this argument was recognized even by some of the Christian citizenry. Nothing came of this proposed ghetto, but Jewish residential segregation remained an ever-present, if not constant, feature of the city.
Largely excluded from the inner city, Jews settled in the new districts that formed a ring about it. The first area of Jewish settlement was the Orczy House, one of the largest building complexes in the city owned by the eponymous aristocratic family. It was situated on what came to be the inner ring of the city, the Landstrasse (Országút), and faced a large plaza, the Kohlplatz or Kohlmarkt (cabbage market), dubbed at times the “Jewish market.” The apartments of the Orczy House or Judenhof (“Jewish courtyard”) lodged hundreds of Jews and many of the communal institutions. It was also a bustling bazaar, a center of the leather trade, as well as a labor exchange, where even private tutors could be hired. Billiards, cards, and later, Jewish newspapers, were available at the popular Orczy Café.
Jewish settlement expanded from the Orczy House along Király Street, then throughout the rest of Terézváros. This was by far the city’s most populous district until split in the 1880s from the southern (more Jewish) half, designated Erzsébetváros. It was a lower middle-class to middle-class neighborhood shared in the first half of the century mainly with Magyar inhabitants, unusual for the largely German Pest. While never constituting its majority, Jews did largely populate certain streets of Terézváros, justifying its identification as the city’s Jewish quarter. (See Table 2: Percentage of Population that Was Jewish by District: Pest, 1820-1857 and Table 3: Distribution of Jews by District: Pest, 1820-1857.)
Already at the end of the eighteenth century, the wealthier elements moved to Lipótváros, an elegant quarter that in time also came to serve as the home of the main financial and commercial institutions of the city. From the turn of the century until the census of 1857, about 95 percent of Pest’s Jews lived in these two districts. Later, a working-class neighborhood developed in the Józsefváros district around Vásártér adjacent to Erzsébetváros, while the upper classes lined the mansions along the Sugárút (Andrássy Avenue), the Budapest equivalent of New York’s Park Avenue, toward the end of the nineteenth century. Finally, after World War I, New Lipótváros became a favored neighborhood of Jewish professionals, a sort of New York Upper West Side. From the time of its unification with Buda, Pest was the residence of roughly 90 percent of the Jewish population of the capital. (See Tables 4: Percentage of Population that Was Jewish by District: Budapest, 1869-1930 and Table 5: Distribution of Jews by District: Budapest, 1869-1930.)
One can compare the degree of urban residential segregation in Pest and later Budapest with other cities by using the index of dissimilarity, a standard measurement relating to the percentage of the total Jewish and non-Jewish population in each administrative unit. The number of units affects the outcome, which might explain the sudden rise in 1930. (See Table 6: Index of Dissimilarity: Pest, 1820-1857, and Budapest, 1869-1930.)
Tomb of the Újhely family, designed by Lipót Baumhorn, in the Rákoskeresztúr (or Kozma utca) Jewish cemetery, Budapest, 2006. Photo © Ruth Ellen Gruber. (Courtesy of the photographer)
The predominant source of livelihood of Pest Jews was trade. The quarter of a century of French Wars (1792–1815) provided entrepreneurs with unusual economic opportunities, and many supplied the army in one form or another. By the end of the 1820s a substantial layer of prosperous merchants had come into existence. By 1833, when 716 traders were listed, Jews had achieved a dominant position in the overall economy of Pest. While the crafts and retail trade remained largely in Christian hands (only 12 of the 276 shopkeepers were Jewish), most of the wholesale merchants in 1833—64 of 94—were Jewish, as were the overwhelming majority of street peddlers. Sizable fortunes were made in the grain, wool, and tobacco trade by Moritz Ullmann and Sámuel Wodianer (both later converted) who went on to play major economic roles in the history of Pest. Their large apartment houses were landmarks in the city. By the 1830s, businessmen such as Joseph L. Boskowitz, M. L. Kanitz, Jacob Kern, and Jonas Kunewalder had solidly established themselves and went on to play leading roles in the Pest economy and the Jewish community.
During the 1850s, members of the Pest community led by Jacob Kern, the founder of the Pester Lloyd newspaper, set up a typical productivization society, the Magyar Izraelita Kézmu- és Földmuvelési Egyesület (Magyar Israelite Handicraft and Agricultural Society; MIKÉFE) with the aim of transforming Jews into agricultural peasants and guild craftsmen, as well as of promoting the Magyar language. Christian masters were in general unwilling to take on Jewish apprentices; the society sought their cooperation with financial inducements. There were, of course, already a significant number of Jewish craftsmen working outside the system who were the repeated target of bitter petitions submitted by various guilds throughout the 1840s. The conflict generated by Jews entering the occupational (and geographic) turf of these embattled guildsmen culminated in anti-Jewish riots during the revolution of 1848, when journeymen and apprentices took a leading role in the agitation and the violence. During the following decades, hundreds of young men, especially the needy, received training in various industrial branches, as well as financial aid to establish themselves. MIKÉFE enjoyed relatively broad support; it had more than 1,000 members in Budapest in 1894 and a respectable budget.
Although Budapest was also the center of Hungarian industry and had a large working class, Jews were concentrated in commerce. Especially important were the increasingly important white-collar employees such as salesmen, clerks, shippers, agents, jobbers, accountants, and tellers. Interestingly, the basic occupational structure does not seem to have been altered significantly by the substantial waves of migrants to the city. (See Table 7: Jews in Main Occupational Groups, Budapest, 1869-1890.)
The first decade of the twentieth century marked the high point of Jewish presence in the Budapest economy. It is noteworthy that there was even a modest gain in the civil service and public justice system where Jews, if not entirely excluded, nevertheless were subjected to an unstated numerus clausus and kept roughly at 5 percent, their proportion in the general population of Hungary. Significantly, their share in the municipal administration was somewhat higher than in the state and the county. The teaching profession was more open to Jews, but still their participation fell below 20 percent, their share in the population of Budapest. This was more than offset by their disproportionate presence in commerce, whether as employees or self-employed, and the free professions.
Workers in Leó Goldberger’s textile factory, Budapest, 1920. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Pick)
Most striking was the rapid entrance of Jews into new professions such as veterinary medicine and engineering, as well as pharmacy and law, where Jews had been legally all but excluded before their emancipation in 1867. There is a clear decline in the Jewish share in almost every one of the professions after World War I, a trend that can be explained partly by non-Jewish latecomers entering these fields and, in the case of the public sector, by discriminatory practices. Competition with the Christian middle class was fierce in the post-Trianon period. The increasing involvement of a hostile state in regulating the economy, beginning with the Numerus Clausus Law in 1920 and culminating in a series of increasingly harsh Jewish Laws beginning in 1938, wreaked havoc even on the private sector, as did anti-Jewish measures adopted by sectors of the civil society such as the professional associations of the engineers and medical doctors. (See Table 8: Share of Jews in Select Occupations, Budapest, 1890-1935.)
Community and Religious Life
Strictly speaking, one could not speak of a “Jewish community” before 1833. As in Vienna, Jews were tolerated as a cluster of individuals, but were not recognized collectively as a community, nor allowed a public synagogue or a rabbi. Formally, they were called “Pest Jews” or “Jewry.” Wolf Boskowitz, a distinguished scholar with important family ties in Óbuda and Pest, served briefly as rabbi in 1796, over the strenuous objections of Rabbi Mosheh Münz, who sought to subordinate Pest to the Óbuda rabbinate. Pest succeeded in asserting its independence with the appointment of Yisra’el Wahrmann (1756–1826) in 1799. Although not an especially learned rabbi, he worked energetically to solidify many of Pest Jewry’s initial institutions. The semiautonomous burial society that had been functioning since 1788 opened a Jewish hospital in 1802. It was directed for many decades by one of the most active and influential men in the community, Dr. Philip Jacobovits (b. 1780). Several other societies were set up alongside it. Wahrmann also set about formulating statutes and regulations in the face of recurring conflicts over communal administration and was instrumental in founding a Jewish school in 1814 in the spirit of the German Haskalah. He was not alone in leaning toward the Haskalah: two noteworthy maskilim in Pest were the wealthy Orthodox patrician Solomon Rosenthal, with his extensive connections and impressive private library, and the erudite scholar Mosheh Kunitz, who served as religious judge in Pest and rabbi of Buda.
Prosperous Viennese Jews were an important reference group for the bourgeois elements of Pest Jewry. In 1827, a year after Wahrmann’s death, the Ḥesed Ne‘urim Society, composed of younger men, instituted services along the lines established by Isaac Noah Mannheimer in Vienna. Although Aharon Chorin of Arad had pioneered religious reform in Hungary, it was the more moderate variant adopted in Pest that became the prototype for other communities in the 1840s and 1860s. Upon Mannheimer’s recommendation, Dr. Joseph Bach was hired as a German preacher and Karl Eduard Denhoff, a student of Salomon Sulzer, as cantor of the new Chorschule, or choral temple. It found a powerful patron in Gabriel Ullmann (b. 1792), who was elected in 1830 to head the Jewish Wholesale Merchants Association as well as to preside over what was now finally recognized as a Juden Gemeinde—a Jewish community. He introduced regulations in 1833 that centralized and rationalized the communal administration, reinforcing its strong oligarchic character. Ullmann abolished the numerous private chapels and elevated the choral temple to a communal institution, moving it into the Orczy House alongside the older synagogue. Traditional religious observance noticeably began to decline around this time. One of the communal religious judges complained in 1831 that stores remained open on the Sabbath; a decade later, a visitor to Pest noted that a third of the community adhered to the choral temple and was not especially particular in observing the Sabbath and dietary laws.
Studio portrait of a Jewish family (Adolf Neu with two of his grandchildren), Budapest, ca. 1880s. Photograph by Herz Henrik. (Centropa)
It was but a matter of time before Pest would make a bid to take command of the affairs of Hungarian Jewry. Pressburg and to a lesser extent Óbuda had represented the national interests of the Jewish communities in the past. In the winter of 1832–1833, Ullmann clashed with the elders of Pressburg over the strategy the Jewish deputation to the new Diet was to adopt. Modernizing Pest shunted aside Orthodox Pressburg, decisively assuming the leading role in Hungarian Jewry. Although these two communities were the largest in Hungary and roughly the same size, they derived their standing from different sources. Unlike Pressburg, Pest did not have a great yeshiva or a Talmudic scholar of the first rank, but what it lacked in traditional cultural and symbolic capital it made up in the economic and social capital of its wealthy modern bourgeoisie. Only decades later would Pest also enjoy prestige as the cultural and intellectual center of a much-transformed Hungarian Jewry.
Although the community favored innovations, it sought to walk a fine line between tradition and modernity. The election of Löw Schwab to the rabbinate in 1836 reflected the desire to bridge both worlds and reconcile as much as possible the various religious camps. Schwab, a moderate reformer who had been the first rabbi to preach in German in Moravia, was an ideal choice. He preached both modern German sermons at the choral temple alongside Bach and also delivered traditional Yiddish homilies at the main synagogue. He accommodated moderate aesthetic reforms but drew the line at the more radical innovations advocated by German reformers.
In the summer of the revolutionary year of 1848, however, the Pest Reformgenossenschaft (Reform Association) was established. Such innovations as shifting prayers from Sabbath to Sunday, and abolishing both kashrut and the prohibition of mixed marriages were advocated; the congregation even succeeded over communal opposition in gaining the revolutionary government’s recognition as an independent community. At one point it included about a tenth of Pest Jewry, catering to wealthy merchants, professionals and white-collar clerks, many of whom had long been religiously indifferent. The community’s lay leaders resented the loss in revenues, especially since the construction of the Dohány Temple would involve considerable expense. Rabbi Schwab was far more principled in his opposition and denounced the Pest Reformgenossenschaft as sectarian and atheistic, having sold Judaism in exchange for emancipation. Later in 1852, he claimed that the separatist services were superfluous, considering that an organ and German hymns had already been introduced in one of the community’s synagogues. He might have been referring to the exclusively women and girls’ Sabbath service, a Frauen-Gottesdienst, that had been inaugurated in the fall of 1851. Although the Reformgenossenschaft was dissolved by government fiat on 20 October 1852, it succeeded in prodding the moderate community to introduce reforms it had long resisted.
Schwab died in 1857 and did not live to see the inauguration of the Dohány Street Temple in 1859. Designed in the Moorish style by architect Ludwig Förster, who had completed the Templegasse synagogue in Vienna in a similar style a year earlier, it was the largest synagogue in Europe. Occupying a significant public space near the inner ring boulevard, it immediately became one of the landmarks of the city. In contrast to the Viennese community, long the trendsetter of religious reforms in the Habsburg Empire, Pest now surpassed it by incorporating an organ in the services. To the bitter disappointment of Leopold Löw, the militant reform rabbi of Szeged, the post of his father-in-law, Schwab, was awarded in 1859 to Wolf Meisel (1815–1867), who had previously served in Stettin. Meisel was soon caught up in the fierce religious Kulturkampf waged between Orthodox and Neolog in Hungary in the 1860s; Löw’s relentless sniping proved an additional headache.
Meisel also sought to tackle social problems caused by widespread poverty, and in particular the plight of young single women in the city. The Pest Woman’s Society, Pesti Izraelita Noegylet, was formed at his initiative and under the community’s auspices in 1866, its committee constituted by wives of some of the foremost figures in the community. Maria Gottesman (née Breisach) was elected as the society’s first president, but the moving spirit was Johanna Bischitz (1827–1898, daughter of Moritz Fischer de Herend, the porcelain manufacturer and grandfather of Stephen Wise), who served first as vice president and from 1873, as president of the society until her death. The society had 900 members in 1874 and grew to almost 2,500 two decades later. It then had an impressive annual budget of about 340,000 Gulden. Under Bischitz’s leadership, the Pesti Izraelita Noegylet created a common space for Jews and non-Jews in its soup kitchens, open to all, regardless of confession. The widespread appreciation for her philanthropic activities was expressed by her being honored with the largest funeral in Pest since statesman Lajos Kossuth. In 1867, the society established an orphanage for girls; in 1910, the Alice Weiss Maternity Home of Csepel, and in 1923 a home for single young women.
Meisel died suddenly in 1867 during a sermon calling for reconciliation among the warring religious camps. A few months later, Jews were emancipated by the new government. The minister of education and cults, liberal Baron Joseph Eötvös, summoned a congress of elected representatives of Hungarian Jews to Pest to set their house in order. The 1868–1869 congress exacerbated the differences between the camps; Hungarian Jewry was now split in three. The Pest community joined the congress (Neolog) organization, as did Buda, which, however, maintained its autonomous status even after Budapest came into existence. The Óbuda community, led by Rabbi Markus Hirsch, who was seen as the advocate of what came to be known as the Status Quo, eventually also joined the Neolog. A small Orthodox community embracing both Pest and Buda was set up and led by the distinguished scholar and staunch militant Ḥayim Sofer. During the tenure of his successor, Koppel Reich, the Orthodox community grew substantially and expanded its activities under the leadership of the Freudiger and Frankl families. Later in 1913, the Orthodox community’s synagogue and administration moved into the Kazinczy Street complex, completed in 1913. Yet one more variant was added to this mosaic: the octagonal Rumbach Street synagogue, designed by the young Otto Wagner and completed in 1872. This unique synagogue, whose closest equivalent was the Gemeindeorthodoxie (“community Orthodox”) in Germany, catered to traditional members who were reluctant to abandon the Pest Neolog mother community.
The standing national organizations of the Neologs, and later of the Orthodox, were both located in Pest. This was a hard pill to swallow especially for the Orthodox, whose spiritual center of gravity was certainly not the capital. Nevertheless, all the major cultural and religious institutions of Hungarian Jewry (with the exception of the Orthodox yeshivas and Hasidic courts) were henceforth situated in Budapest. The degree of centralization in Hungary was unmatched anywhere in Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, some of these institutions, such as the teachers’ seminary (Izraelita Tanitóképzo Intézet) inaugurated in 1857, and the national rabbinical seminary (Ferencz József Országos Rabbiképzo Intézet), in 1877, were mandated by the state (unlike the privately funded Breslau Rabbinical Seminary) and received state subsidies from the Jewish educational fund established by the emperor in 1850. Several societies and institutions were created to further Jewish culture. IMIT (Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Társulat; Israelite Magyar Literary Society; 1894) was similar to Jewish publication societies in Germany and elsewhere, and, following the example of Vienna, it also sponsored the Magyar Zsidó Museum, a Jewish museum founded in 1909, that first opened in 1916. The Pest rabbi, Simon Hevesi, established OMIKE (Országos Magyar Izraelita Közmuvelodési Egyesület; National Cultural Association) in 1910, to present an appealing vision of Judaism to an increasingly alienated young generation. OMIKE later provided a cultural framework for writers, actors and artists dismissed in the wake of the Jewish Laws at the end of the 1930s under the inspired leadership of Géza Ribáry. Hard on the heels of Hevesi’s activities, József Patai began publishing his Múlt és Jövo in 1911 in an effort to create a cultural periodical sympathetic to Zionism and Palestine. As was Egyenloség and most of the significant Jewish newspapers, it was based in Budapest.
What was not found in Budapest were the type of large national and international philanthropic or self-defense organizations outside the religious communal framework that thrived in other countries, although the Alliance Israélite Universelle initially did maintain quite a large branch in Budapest in the 1870s and 1880s. Later, the Zionists, and in their wake, the Pro-Palestine Alliance of Hungarian Jews, a strictly philanthropic association set up in 1926, created the few Jewish organizations to be active outside the religious community’s framework.
It seemed as if the Pest community, which repeatedly claimed to be the largest Jewish communal organization in the world, was monopolizing almost all Jewish activity. Indeed, it had an enviable record, boasting a hospital, a children’s hospital, an institute for the deaf, an orphanage, an extensive administrative staff, a large dues-paying membership, and a 200-member representative body numbering the most notable figures in Hungarian Jewry.
Despite this, the limitations of the largest Jewish community in the world were glaring. A Jewish gymnasium had been proposed in 1866, and the funds were donated in the 1890s; nevertheless, there would be no Jewish secondary school until 1919, when separate gymnasia for boys and girls first opened, and that apparently with great reluctance. It provided a safe haven during the years of numerus clausus and in the postwar era. The cream of Jewish youth, however, attended the Lutheran gymnasium. Moreover, the elementary schools run by the community could educate only a small fraction of Budapest’s Jewish schoolchildren. By 1908, for example, less than 6 percent of Budapest Jewish students—about 1,280 of the 22,200—were enrolled in Jewish schools at the elementary level, the rest attending for the most part the municipality’s schools.
Studio portrait of a middle-class Jewish family from Budapest, ca. 1902. From right to left: Eva Kohn, her son Imre, and her sister, Lina. (Centropa)
While the metropolis may have provided unprecedented concentration of Jews and Jewish organizational life, it cannot be denied that it also acted as a powerful dissolvent of traditional solidarities. The pace of assimilation in Budapest accelerated in the twentieth century. Whether one looked at such indicators as linguistic acculturation or Magyarization of last names, or phenomena like intermarriage and conversion, rates were far higher in Budapest than in the provinces.
Intermarriage was a major issue. Between 1896 and 1941, nationwide some 38,500 marriages were performed in which only one of the partners was Jewish; of these, close to 24,000 (62%) took place in Budapest. While the intermarriage rate in the provinces was about 5 percent throughout this period, in Budapest it averaged 13.3 percent of all marriages involving Jews.
Conversion levels were significant as well. Between 1919 and 1942, the share of Budapest in the annual conversions averaged two-thirds of the Hungarian total. The cumulative effect of these annual conversions can be gauged by the 1941 census that defined by law anyone with even one Jewish grandparent as Jewish by race. Figures on Christians of Jewish origin provide a glimpse into the cumulative effect of conversions on the Jewish population in Hungary and Budapest. The total number recorded was 61,548, constituting 7.8 percent of those defined as racially Jewish in Hungary. Of these, 37,931, or 61.6 percent, resided in Budapest, constituting about 17.1 percent of the capital’s Jewish population.
Beginning particularly in the decade of the 1840s, liberalism, nationalism, and social and economic reforms were the catchwords of the day. Political agitation mounted for a liberal constitutional monarch, and the recognition of nationalist demands, in which the Magyar language occupied a central place. Magyar speakers were a minority in most cities, including Pest. In 1850, when the official census queried “what is your nationality,” only 44.9 percent of Pest declared Magyar, while 45.9 percent cited German (the remaining 5.9% were Slovak). In Buda, where the 19.6 percent Magyars were a clear minority along with 3.4 percent Slovaks, the predominant majority, 72.7 percent, was German. Only in 1880 did the balance among the residents of unified Budapest tilt in favor of declaring Magyar as their mother tongue: 56.7 percent (German: 34.4%; Slovak: 6.1%). The massive migration in coming decades from the countryside helped transform Budapest paradoxically into a more linguistically homogeneous city. By 1910, a total of 85.9 percent indicated Magyar as their mother tongue, with only 9 percent stating German and 2.3 percent Slovak.
The main currents of Hungarian nationalism in the pre-1848 era embraced a relatively open, civic version of nationality, where the ethnic dimension of collective identity was played down and membership was based upon an acquired, subjective identification with the national collective, best demonstrated by an embracing of the Magyar language. In the 1840s, Jews, too, were invited to join the Magyar nation. The abandonment of Yiddish and linguistic acculturation of a large segment of Hungarian Jewry was already an accepted fact by the 1830s as even conservative Orthodox rabbis such as Mosheh Sofer of Pressburg came to recognize. Yiddish still prevailed up until the 1820s though it was heavily Germanized. If from hereon Yiddish underwent decline, Hebrew characters as the preferred script of correspondence in German—the so-called Jüdisch-Deutsch (in Magyar it would have been considered hilarious)—persevered. Sectors of Pest Jewry, and not only the Orthodox, continued to consume such Jüdisch-Deutsch newspapers as the Allgemeine jüdische Zeitung that appeared in Budapest up until 1908; even the Pest community would issue occasional proclamations during World War I in Jüdisch-Deutsch.
The 1869 census provides information on the state of literacy only for that year, but the breakdown into five-year age-cohorts over seven decades suggests a reliable surrogate to attempt a chronological reconstruction. Since the census explicitly disregarded literacy in Hebrew characters (which perhaps can be assumed to have been quite high), literacy is gauged only in non-Hebraic characters, Gothic and probably Latin as well. Hence, we have here a good indicator of linguistic acculturation, of the transition to reading European languages, most likely German.
Comparing similar data on Berlin Jews indicates that a substantial time lag existed in the pace of acculturation between the two urban Jewries (actually between the two national Jewries, since the majority in both cities were migrants from the provinces), though the gap narrowed toward mid-century. Particularly noticeable is the disparity between men and women in Pest, which accounts for most of the differences between the two cities. (See Table 9: Percentage of Jews Who Were Literate, By Age Cohort: Pest, 1869, and Berlin, 1871.)
On the fate of Yiddish in Budapest, there is only one set of official data, the national census of 1941 that uniquely considered Yiddish as a legitimate mother tongue. The results were stark. On the eve of the Holocaust, only 408 out of 184,453 Budapest Jews, that is, 0.3 percent, recorded Yiddish as their mother tongue. Of course, many more who listed other languages as their mother tongue may have also have had a command of the language.
In the process of abandoning Yiddish, Magyar had not even been considered as a possible alternative to German before 1840, as it was perceived as economically impractical in the predominantly German cities, as well as culturally underdeveloped and distinctly inferior. The 1839/40 Diet stimulated a reassessment. Rabbi Schwab and the promising young intellectual Moritz Bloch (Ballagi) pleaded for emancipation and urged Jews to embrace Hungarian nationalism and language in Magyar-language pamphlets. Magyar translations of the Pentateuch and several biblical books and prayer books by Bloch and Moritz Rosenthal appeared soon thereafter. In May 1844, in response to the Diet’s legislation elevating the status of the Magyar language and a key editorial on Jewish emancipation and assimilation by Kossuth earlier that month, the Pest Society for the Spreading of the Hungarian Language among Israelites in the Country (A Honi Izraeliták Között Magyar Nyelvet Terjeszto Pesti Egylet) was established by Philip Jacobovits and Joseph Rosenfeld (later Rózsay), physicians at the Pest Jewish hospital, and medical students from the university. Noting that few Jews—one contemporary noted in 1848 that only one in 100—had a firm grasp of Magyar, the society aimed at disseminating the Hungarian language and literature.
The actual impact of the short-lived society (it was abolished in 1849) upon the linguistic profile of Pest Jewry was probably negligible; it did, however, reflect the rising importance of nationalist feeling among Hungarian Jewry. Most Jews in Pest came to recognize the importance of Magyar and embraced it as part of a more or less bilingual vision. In November 1860, the Izraelita Magyar Egylet (Israelite Magyar Society) was founded at the height of renewed nationalist agitation after a decade of political inactivity in Hungary. The first Hungarian-language Jewish weeklies came into existence in the 1860s. The Magyar Izraelita and later the Izraelita Közlöny advocated religious reforms and Magyar nationalism, while toward the end of the decade even the Magyar Zsidó, sponsored by the Orthodox Shomrey ha-Das, promoted the dissemination of the Magyar language. As a sign of the times, the Pest community finally hired in 1866 its first Hungarian preacher, Sámuel Kohn (1841–1920), a graduate of the Breslau Seminary, to serve alongside Chief Rabbi Wolf Meisel. Yet when Meisel died in 1867, the community nevertheless felt the need for a German preacher, and it elected Meir Kayserling (1829–1905) in 1870. By that time, the Magyar-language Jewish newspapers had folded, and only in the wake of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel did the long-lasting Hungarian Jewish weekly Egyenloség make its appearance.
The most important factor in the long-term linguistic transformation of Pest Jewry was the overnight shift in the language of instruction of schoolchildren in the immediate aftermath of the 1867 Compromise from German to Hungarian. That most Jewish youngsters now mixed with non-Jewish classmates no doubt accelerated the process of linguistic assimilation. What had been a largely German-speaking population increasingly became Magyarized. (See Table 10: Linguistic Profile of Budapest Jews, 1880-1910.)
Between 1880 and 1910, the percentage of Jews who declared their mother tongue Magyar in Budapest rose from 59 to 90 (about 5% above the non-Jewish average), while German plummeted from 35 to 8.6 percent. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that about two-thirds of Budapest Jews remained bilingual. In 1900, two-thirds of the Magyar speakers and half of the German also spoke the other language. Consequently, despite rapid and almost complete Magyarization, Budapest was still the largest German-speaking urban Jewry in Europe after Vienna, easily surpassing Berlin. The culture of Budapest Jews, certainly its intellectual and propertied middle-classes, retained its cosmopolitan complexion, even while opening up to the local vernacular. Jews continued to consume German literature and newspapers such as that pacesetter of modern Hungarian journalism, the Pester Lloyd, even as the first generation of significant Jewish writers in Hungarian made its appearance. From the 1880s on, Jewish culture in Budapest took on a Magyar inflection. The major Jewish publications appeared in Magyar, though the audience for these Jewish periodicals remained relatively modest in comparison to the circulation of the great Yiddish dailies appearing in Warsaw at the time.
Jewish cultural consumption in the capital was of course not limited to what can be seen as an effort to create a Magyar Jewish culture. By the beginning of the century, Jews were an integral part of the Budapest literary scene. While few of them were found among the first rank of Hungarian authors, they excelled as publishers, editors, journalists and critics. Many clustered about the Nyugat (West) and Huszadik Század (Twentieth Century), outstanding periodicals advocating radical critique and avant-garde culture. During the interwar period, a sharp debate erupted between partisans of what came to be known as the népies (populist) and urbanus (urbanist) camps, with the former accusing urbanist intellectuals of being alienated from their nationalist roots and distorting Hungarian culture. Influential writers of that period, including Dezso Szabó, Gyula Szekfu, and László Németh, viewed Budapest as a liberal, cosmopolitan, alien implant in Hungary, largely due to its overwhelming Jewish presence. Already at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the writer Miklós Révai had complained that Pest was a city of Jewish, Armenian, Serb, and German moneygrubbing “bloodsuckers.” Judapest! was the appelation that antisemitic wits, among them the popular mayor of Vienna, Karl Lueger, coined for the city. In previous generations, Szekfu cautioned, Jews had set out to conquer the economy in a naive, misled, and foolishly hospitable nation; now their ambition embraced first the cultural and then even the political sphere.
Politics, Power, Antisemitism
Jews in Budapest could not partake in municipal politics before they were emancipated in 1867. When the revolution broke out in March 1848, it seemed as if political equality was imminent, but euphoria quickly gave way to bitter disappointment as the liberals made repeated concessions to the rioting mob. Jews who had flocked to join the National Guard were dismissed, disarmed, and subjected to a humiliating census to determine whether they were legal residents. Pest Jews could only look on with envy at neighboring Vienna, where Jews enjoyed the franchise and where two Hungarian Jewish doctors, Adolf Fischof and Joseph Goldmark, had assumed leading political roles in the revolution.
During the Dualist Era, however, the tables were turned. In contrast to Vienna, where Mayor Lueger had been enthusiastically voted in on an antisemitic platform, in Budapest, the liberal István Bárczy reigned, and for a brief few months in 1913, a Jew, Ferenc Heltai (1861–1913), had served as lord mayor. Heltai’s career is instructive: he was elected MP from 1896 to 1913, serving concurrently on the municipal council, specializing in transportation and later the gas utility.
Jews had played an important role in the history of Budapest. Sámuel Wodianer, a convert, had financed the Chain Bridge (Lánchíd) that linked Buda with Pest in 1849; Moritz Wahrmann, elected MP for Lipótváros, and later the head of the Pest community, had cosponsored the bill to unite Buda and Pest in 1870; József Hüvös (1838–1914) was credited with the fact that Budapest introduced the world’s first subway, during the millennium celebrations in 1896. The banker Miksa Kramer, vice president of the Pest Jewish Burial Society, and another banker, Simon Krausz, president of MIKÉFE, are good examples of key politicians on the municipal council who were also deeply involved in Jewish affairs.
The lively participation of Jews in Budapest municipal politics is in no small part due to the curial system, with its limited franchise, that lasted until after the interwar period. This system disproportionately empowered the Jewish propertied and educated middle class. A total of 1,200 “virilists,” Budapest’s highest taxpayers, elected half of the 400 seats on the municipal council. The other half was elected by a narrow electorate comprising about 5.5 percent in 1873 and 8.7 percent by 1910 of the Budapest population. According to one (not so reliable) source, Jews (probably including converts) constituted about 11 percent of the councilmen in 1873, a number that rose to 29 percent in 1900 and to 55 percent in 1910. This spectacular growth was due to the increasing presence of Jews not only among the virilist representatives (in 1873, 13%; in 1900, 35%; and in 1910, 65%), but also those elected by the general enfranchised public (in 1873, 9%; in 1900, 23%; and in 1910, 45%). During the Károlyi government, and later, even more spectacularly, during the Communist regime under Béla Kun, Jews in nothing but name briefly occupied center stage of Hungarian and Budapest politics. After World War I, the franchise was considerably broadened under the Horthy regime, depriving the Social Democrats and Vilmos Vázsonyi’s Democrat Party of their prewar clout. Nevertheless, Jews continued to serve on the municipal council in the opposition up until 1942, when in consequence of the third racially inflected Jewish law (Act 19; 1941), 24 of the 108 elected aldermen were deprived of their mandates. The Holocaust and the rise of the Communist regime after World War II would bring about dramatic swings in the political fortunes of Hungarian Jews.
The War Years
A series of Jewish laws were passed after Hungary entered the war in the summer of 1941 that increasingly curtailed the civil rights and economic activities of Budapest’s Jewish population, which by 1941 included 37,931 Christians defined as racially Jewish besides the 184,453 persons professing Judaism. Yet in spite of the deportations of “alien” Jews to Kamenets Podol’skii in the summer of 1941, the massacres in the Délvidék region early in 1942 and the forced labor battalions instituted in the fall of 1941, Hungary, up until the spring of 1944, was a safe haven compared to neighboring Poland and Slovakia. Thousands of Jews did indeed find their way to Hungary and Budapest, some with the aid of the Va‘adat ha-‘Ezrah veha-Hatsalah, the Relief and Rescue Committee established in 1942 by the controversial Rezso Kasztner and other Zionist activists. Among these was the rabbi of Piestany, Slovakia, Yisakhar Shelomoh Teichthal (1885–1945), who wrote and published in Budapest Em ha-banim semeḥah (1943), a work that signaled a remarkable ideological turnaround for this once fervent anti-Zionist. The Belzer rebbe, Aharon Rokeaḥ (1880–1957), who had been spirited out of Poland, also lived in Budapest until his departure early in 1944 for Palestine. Before he left, the frail rebbe addressed an anxious crowd desperate to hear reassuring words of hope and guidance. The feeble words that wafted down from a second floor balcony to the throng milling about in the courtyard below sounded like “Stay still!”—perhaps urging quiet, perhaps urging Jews to stay put.
By the end of 1943, Hungary began to negotiate with the Allies to extricate itself from the war. With the advance of the Red Army, it seemed as if the war was imminently drawing to a close and Hungarian Jewry would emerge relatively unscathed from the horrors that had engulfed the rest of Europe. All this changed when the Germans occupied the country on 19 March 1944, Gestapo chief Adolf Eichmann set up his SS command in Budapest, and the Budapest Jewish Council was established. What had been an extended process of stigmatization, ghettoization, deportation, and murder elsewhere was greatly concentrated and executed with great efficiency and speed in Hungary. The deportation and gassing of almost 440,000 provincial Jews at Auschwitz-Birkenau began in mid-May and was swiftly accomplished by July as a result of full cooperation of the Hungarian authorities. Only intense diplomatic pressure threatening harsh postwar retribution caused Regent Horthy to call a halt to the deportations on 6 July, giving Budapest Jewry a temporary reprieve.
In Budapest, a series of measures increasingly placed limitations on Jews who remained in the capital. Restrictions were placed on using the public transport; later telephones, bicycles, and cars were confiscated, and an evening curfew was imposed. From 3 April, all persons defined as Jews were obligated to wear a yellow star on their outer clothing; those who professed Christianity could add a small white cross under the star. The perception that conversion might still offer an advantage induced thousands of Jews to seek the baptismal font in the summer months. Although there were Jews hiding under false papers throughout the city receiving aid from Christians, by and large the populace was indifferent, if not hostile. If national legislation set the pace of anti-Jewish regulations and laws, there were also initiatives by the municipality and the Budapest populace to institute even tougher measures, as in the case of the law limiting Jewish shopping to two hours daily. At the end of June, the ghettoization of Budapest Jews was carried out in just over a week. All of Budapest Jewry was moved into the 1,840 buildings designated as “Jewish houses” or “yellow star houses,” so marked with a shield over the entrance. The Hungarian regime, fearing that concentrating the city’s Jews in one sector would expose the rest of the city to Allied bombings, opted instead to designate Jewish houses next to strategic targets. (In fact, the bombs fell indiscriminately.)
The so-called Auschwitz protocols were known to the city’s leadership by the end of April and various rescue efforts were initiated by the Relief and Rescue Committee, the most famous (or infamous) being the so-called Kasztner train that left Budapest on 30 June carrying 1,684 Jewish notables and their families to Switzerland. The reverses suffered by the Germans emboldened Horthy to announce in mid-October his intention to withdraw Hungary from the war. With German backing, Ferenc Szálasi and his Arrow Cross Party seized power on 15 October. Budapest’s Jews were now threatened by a far more vicious regime whose radical antisemitic ideology was wholly in tune with Hitler’s apocalyptic vision. Forced death marches began on 20 October and along with German deportations, affected some 75,000 Budapest Jews. The city rapidly descended into chaos as roving Arrow Cross bands combed the streets rounding up Jews. The first murders in the streets began on 12 November; the first executions took place by the riverbank on 23 November. Diplomats like Raoul Wallenberg, Charles Lutz, the Vatican nuncio Angelo Rotta, and others issued protests and began rescue activities. Some 15,000 safe-conduct passes were issued by the neutral Swiss, Swedish, Portuguese, and Spanish embassies; soon copies were forged in the tens of thousands by the Zionist organizations.
From the end of November, Jews were concentrated in two large ghettos instead of the “yellow star houses”: the main ghet- to in the seventh district held 60,000–70,000 Jews, while more than 30,000 with safe conduct papers crowded into the safe houses in the “International Ghetto.” From the end of December until well into January, as the Red Army laid a bloody three-month siege on Budapest, the Arrow Cross committed mass murders daily and planned to destroy the Jewish ghetto. About 40,000 civilians died during the siege, one-third of them Jewish. Only about half of Budapest’s Jewish population emerged alive at the conclusion of the war. Another 20,000 Jews returned from the concentration camps and labor battalions, and over time from POW camps in the Soviet Union.
Postwar and Contemporary Jewry
Only a fraction of prewar Hungarian Jewry survived the Holocaust; many left the country in the immediate years after the war and once again in 1956. Now more than ever, Hungarian Jews were concentrated in the capital: in 1949, 75.6 percent of the country’s Jews resided in in Budapest; the proportions would only continue to rise in the years to come. Through a process of selectivity it was the most assimilated who remained in Budapest in the postwar period. They were well educated, highly qualified, middle-class people well poised to take advantage of the opportunities that now presented themselves.
Although Jews accounted for only 6 percent of Budapest’s population in 1949, their prominence in the city remained considerable, although in an altered mode. After the Communist Party’s seizure of power in 1948, much as in interwar USSR, unprecedented opportunities opened for individual Jews, while Jewish collective life suffered. In fact, collective life was confined to the religious sphere and strictly supervised by the Department of Religious Affairs in the Ministry of the Interior. The state now accomplished what had been previously considered beyond the realm of the possible: it unified the three religious streams in Judaism into one communal organization. Budapest being the largest Jewish community in the Communist bloc outside of the USSR had some advantages. The Rabbinical Seminary was the sole institution that ordained rabbis in Eastern Europe; its graduates went on to serve throughout the Communist bloc. The rector, Alexander (Sándor) Scheiber, also served as a focus for Jewish youth in the capital. The community and its institutions—the rabbinate, the synagogues, the welfare and educational activities, the Jewish Museum—continued to function, though in a much reduced format.
During this period, it was taboo to conduct open discussions of the Holocaust, of the fate of Hungary’s Jews, or any Jewish-related topic, as were open displays of antisemitism. True, the 1967 Arab-Israeli War elicited briefly expressions of Jewish pride, and antisemitism continued to manifest itself even during the Kadar era. For example, certain departments in universities and hospitals were clearly split between Jews and non-Jews. In the mid-1970s, the publication of György Száraz’s Egy eloitélet nyomában (Tracing a Prejudice; 1976) brought about considerable public discussion, but it was during the fortieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust that the conspiracy of silence was shattered for good. Conferences were organized on the Holocaust in Israel and Hungary; historian Péter Hanák published a volume of classical essays on the “Jewish question”; a university publication, Medvetánc (Bear Dance), published an issue devoted to Jewish life in Hungary; and a reader on antisemitism appeared (these last two were quickly confiscated).
In the following years, a team of researchers on Hungarian Jewish history was set up by Gyögy Ránki in the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences; a Center for Judaic Studies headed by the energetic Géza Komoróczy, cosponsored by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and Harvard University, was established in 1987 at Eötvös Loránt University in Budapest. Dissident intellectuals such as György Konrád, György Bencze, and András Kovács began to seriously address Jewish issues. Two important publications first made their appearance: the literary quarterly Múlt és Jövo in 1988 and the monthly of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association (Magyar Zsidó Kulturális Egyesület), Szombat (Saturday), in November 1989. They have appeared continuously since then, with Múlt és Jövo expanding into a publication house that along with a number of others have published an impressive array of books on Jewish themes.
Opening day of high-school classes, Lauder Javne Jewish Community School, established by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, Budapest, 2006. (Lauder Javne, Budapest)
The collapse of the Communist regime once again brought about sharp changes. Antisemitism was now in the open: István Csurka’s far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP); the FIDESZ party’s coy dalliance with Csurka; a vice president of Parliament’s snide reference to “Manó Roth” (Mátyás Rákosi) in 1997; and the ever-present antisemitic chants at matches involving the “Jewish” soccer team MTK are all symptoms of a new antisemitism fed by publications and the Internet. A 1995 survey revealed that the proportion of antisemites in Budapest was particularly high, 45 percent compared to the national average of 29 percent. Moreover, a substantial percentage of university students harbored anti-Jewish prejudices. There have been no lack of flashpoints of controversy generated by Jewish issues, among them the poet Sándor Csóori’s essay “The Moon at Noon” on the divergence of Jewish and non-Jewish narratives in the post-Holocaust era and the attempts of liberal Jews to assimilate non-Jewish Hungarians in style and thought (1990); legislation defining Jews as a national minority (1990 and 2005); the demeaning restitutions ($150) offered to Holocaust survivors by the Orbán government in 1998; István Szabó’s film Sunshine (1999); billionaire Gábor Várszegi’s purchase of the traditional rival soccer teams the “Jewish” MTK and the working-class (Ferencváros) Fradi (2001); the bewilderment over Imre Kertész receiving the Noble Prize in Literature in 2002; the Terror House and its director Mária Schmidt (2002); and the planned demolition of buildings in the traditional Jewish Quarter in 2004.
Jewish life in Budapest in the postcommunist era is not all gloomy, however. Since 1989, there has been a revival of educational activity, with three schools currently functioning: the Sándor Scheiber (previously Anna Frank) Primary and Secondary School, the Lauder Javne Jewish Community School, and the Reichmann family–sponsored American Foundation School, as well as several kindergartens including one sponsored by the Lubavitch Hasidim. Jewish studies are now taught at three universities: ELTE, Central European University, and the Rabbinical Seminary–Jewish University. The impressive Jewish Museum and Jewish archives are housed in the Dohány Street Synagogue, and the Bálint Community House presents lectures and other events and is a focus of Jewish cultural life. The Holocaust Memorial Center in the Páva Street Synagogue was opened to the public in 2004, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the tragedy. A year later, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany inaugurated a memorial to those who were killed at the river, 60 pairs of shoes cast in iron and placed on the banks of the Danube.
Nevertheless, only a fraction of Budapest’s shrinking and aging Jewish population is tied in any way to the communal life. With the rising tide of intermarriage and indifference to religion and Zionism, Budapest Jewry faces an uncertain future.