Town in Hungary, home to one of Hungary’s largest Jewish communities. Jews began settling legally in Debrecen, “the Calvinist Rome of Hungary,” after the Diet adopted Act Thirty-Nine of 1840, permitting Jews to settle in cities under royal authority. While only 118 Jews were living in Debrecen in 1848, in 1869 this number had grown to 1,920 and in 1900 it had reached 6,192.
By 1920, the Jewish community of Debrecen had grown to be the second-largest provincial Jewish community in interwar Hungary after Miskolc—10,170 Jews lived there, constituting 9.8 percent of the total population. However, from 1920 their numbers began to decrease—to 10,044 in 1930 and 9,142 in 1941 (forming 8.4% and 7.2% of the total population respectively). The Jewish quarter was situated in the western part of the town, bordered by Hatvan, Széchenyi, and Miklós streets.
The Jewish community was founded in 1852 and its first rabbi, Ede Erlich, was elected four years later. In 1870, in the wake of the General Jewish Congress of Hungary of 1868–1869 that resulted in the split of Neolog and Orthodox factions, the community joined neither of them, opting instead to be Status Quo Ante, and becoming the largest community to follow this trend. Herman Lipschütz (1869–1871), Jónás Bernfeld (1872–1890), Vilmos Krausz (1890–1921), Sámuel Schlesinger (1922–1937), and Pál Weisz (1937–1944) served as the city’s rabbis.
For a short time (1870–1886) there was also a Neolog community in Debrecen; an Orthodox community was formed in 1886, which also included some Hasidic groups. Chief Rabbi Salamon Strasser stood at the head of the community between 1902 and 1944. Despite the split, the Status Quo and Orthodox communities coexisted peacefully. The Orthodox synagogue was built in 1893 in Pásti Street. The Status Quo community’s great synagogue was opened in 1897 on Deák Ferenc Street, and in 1910 a smaller synagogue was built on Kápolnás Street. The two communities shared one burial society (established in 1856), a women’s association that was active in providing aid to the poor (established in 1875), as well as the Zion Health Insurance Scheme Society (founded in 1888).
Boys’ and girls’ elementary schools of the Status Quo community were established in 1886, the girls’ higher elementary school in 1906, and an Orthodox elementary school in 1901. In 1920 the Status Quo community had about 8,000 members, while the Orthodox had more than 2,000. The only Jewish high school outside of Budapest functioned in Debrecen between 1921 and 1944.
In 1910, Jews made up 38 percent of all owners and employees in trade and banking, 56 percent of the town’s entrepreneurs, 15.7 percent of self-employed tradesmen, 48 percent of lawyers, 38 percent of physicians, and 42 percent of editors and journalists. A total of 20.4 percent of Jews belonged to the working class, and 3.7 percent worked in agriculture. Records show that in 1929, 32 percent of the highest taxpayers and 46.6 percent of all self-employed entrepreneurs were Jews. The most prominent wholesale firms included Bernfeld (textiles) and Ullmann (groceries). While most Jewish estate owners held medium or small areas of land, the Lichtschein and Hartstein families owned vast estates.
Jews were integrated into the society of Debrecen on many levels. The Jewish intellectual elite of Debrecen—notably the physician Alajos Popper and the high school director Albert Kardos—promoted Magyarization. Politically, the Jewish middle class followed liberal traditions, while the wealthier stratum supported the conservative policies of the government. After World War I, the Jewish elite collaborated with the Calvinist liberal elite against right-wing and ultra right-wing political groups. After the passing of anti-Jewish legislation in 1938, thousands of Jews lost their livelihoods.
In June 1944, 7,411 Jews were deported from Debrecen. Half of the Jewish community died either in Auschwitz or during forced labor service; the other half survived in Austrian forced labor camps as a result of the rescue operation of Rezső Kasztner. About half of those who survived returned to Debrecen and revived the Jewish community; beside Nyíregyháza, the city remained the only Jewish community in the Tiszántúl (Transtisza) region during the postwar decades. Today the Jewish community of Debrecen is the second largest in Hungary, with about 1,500 members.
László Gonda, “Debretsen/Debrecen,” in Pinkas ha-kehilot: Hungaryah, pp. 245–251 (Jerusalem, 1975); Moshe Elijahu Gonda, A debreceni zsidóság száz éve (Tel Aviv, 1966); Béla Síró, “A debreceni zsidóság a vészkorszak idején,” Történeti Tanulmányok 4 (1996): 147–182, with an English summary; Lajos Timár, “A zsidóság társadalma,” in Vidéki városlakók: Debrecen társadalma, 1920–1944, pp. 173–203, (Budapest, 1993); István Végházi, Adatok a debreceni zsidóság történetéhez (Buenos Aires, 1967).
Translated from Hungarian by Veronika Szabó