Approximately 565,000 Jews were victims of the Holocaust in Hungary. Jews who had lived in the provinces were almost entirely annihilated; the majority of survivors—approximately 144,000 people—were located in Budapest.
In 1949, a total of 96,537 Jews lived in Budapest, representing approximately 9 percent of the city’s population. According to some estimates, one-third of this group was not of the Jewish faith, but were of Jewish descent. In the decade following World War II, the size of the Jewish population continued to shrink due to emigration, marriage to non-Jews, and a low birthrate. With two major waves of emigration—between 1945 and 1948 and then again in 1956 and 1957—some 60,000–75,000 Jews left Hungary. According to demographic estimates, in 2000 persons of Jewish descent numbered between 80,000 and 150,000. This estimate is supported by research studies from 2003 indicating that 2 percent of the adult population of Hungary (8 million people) had Jewish parents or grandparents.
The average age of Hungarian Jews—compared to rates of the total population—is relatively high (48% of the Jewish population is older than 55; while the figure for the general population is only 30%). As a consequence of age composition and the general Hungarian trend toward a low birthrate, the size of the Hungarian Jewish population is expected to decrease in the future as well. Today the majority of Hungarian Jews—approximately 90 percent—live in Budapest. This group constitutes approximately 5 percent of the city’s total population, about 80,000–90,000 persons.
The social structure of Jews who survived the Holocaust changed radically after World War II. Traditionalist, religious Jewry, who had formed a major segment of Hungarian Jews before the war, was almost completely annihilated, and those who did survive gradually left the country. However, those who remained in Budapest encountered new opportunities for social mobility. Most of the remaining Jews came from assimilated, middle-class families; they found opportunities to advance as they were highly educated, possessed professional qualifications and—since they were victims of the previous regime—were considered to be politically trustworthy. After the war, many Jews obtained university diplomas or started new careers in public administration, as civil servants, in politics, or in state security organizations. At the same time, however, a large segment of survivors lost their previous livelihood when the Communists rose to power. Personal property was nationalized, but living as independent intellectuals became impossible as well.
Contemporary Hungarian Jews are part of Hungarian society’s highly educated, upper strata: 46 percent hold university diplomas (20% more than the percentage of university graduates in Budapest’s general population). The highest percentage of college graduates (72%) among Jews in 2000 was in the group ranging in age between 35 and 54.
In the years following World War II, a considerable number of Hungarian Jews supported the antifascist left-wing and social democratic parties. Support for Zionist organizations grew greatly, too—an immense change in comparison to the prewar years. In 1948, more than 10 percent of all Jews were members of Zionist organizations. In March 1949, however, the Hungarian Zionist Alliance was forced to dissolve after the Communist Party seized power.
At the entrance to a kosher butcher shop, Miskolc, Hungary, ca. 1985. Photograph © Yale Strom. (Courtesy of the photographer)
Many Jews joined the Communist Party, and a high number attained leading positions. During the first half of the 1950s, however, a considerable portion of the Jewish middle class and petty bourgeoisie fell victim to the antireligious and anticapitalist policies of the Communist government. Consequently, in 1951 members of the “former ruling classes” were resettled by the Hungarian government, among them some 2,000 to 3,000 Jews who had been entrepreneurs, merchants, and higher-ranking clerks. They were deprived of their apartments and private property and forcibly moved to the countryside.
Between 1949 and 1954, a series of political trials charged Jews with taking part in Zionist activity. Among the victims—whose fate was imprisonment or internment—were not only former Zionists but also Orthodox Jews who were targets of the anti-Zionist wave of purges within the Communist party. This Hungarian echo of the 1952–1953 Soviet anti-Zionist campaign affected not only former high-ranking officials of the Communist secret police (many of whom were of Jewish origin) but also figures who had always stood for anti-Zionist, Communist policies within the Jewish community.
Although leaders of the Jewish community officially cooperated with the regime, they also issued a statement supporting the uprising of 1956. Despite the Jewish community’s general cooperation, the Communist leadership remained suspicious of any Jewish communal activity other than religious practice proper. Relations with Israel were strictly controlled. However, unlike Poland and the Soviet Union, there were no openly anti-Zionist campaigns in Hungary after 1956. Nevertheless, after the Six-Day War of 1967, János Kádár, leader of the Communist party at the time, issued an order to purge the party apparatus of “unreliable” Jewish elements.
The first attempts to formulate autonomous Jewish politics in Hungary were made in the mid-1980s: a Jewish group called Shalom published a political program in an illegal publication of democratic dissidents who openly voiced opposition to the Communist state. Laying out the possible principles of such politics, Shalom came up with the first such type of program in 35 years.
Religious Life and Jewish Institutions
Immediately after World War II, 258 Jewish communities were reestablished in Hungary, most of them associating with the Neolog movement. By the early 1950s, however, only about one-quarter were still functioning. In 1957, appointments of Jewish community leaders and rabbis needed the approval of state officials.
Early in 1956, the Budapest Jewish community numbered nearly 15,000 members. After 1956 this number radically decreased, even though according to estimates there were at least 115,000 Jews still living in Hungary in 1960. During the Communist regime some Jewish communal institutions still functioned, including a Jewish hospital, an orphanage, and a home for the elderly. Kosher production was permitted as well.
As a result of the antireligious measures of the dictatorship, the Jewish educational system disintegrated. Though 17 Jewish elementary schools, 7 high schools, and a teachers’ training college reopened after the war, they were soon nationalized. Officials allowed one high school and the Hungarian Rabbinical Seminary to function, but these institutions were under strict state surveillance. The number of students at the Jewish high school of Budapest dropped radically, especially after 1956. In the 1959–1960 academic year 75 students graduated, with this number steadily decreasing after 1967. In 1977, the high school had only 7 students. By 1986, though, the number of students once again exceeded 30.
After 1948, autonomous Jewish cultural institutions were also prohibited. The Jewish community was allowed to publish just one newspaper, Új Élet (New Life), and its contents were restricted to religious topics; the paper was also forced to promote the official state political position. Circumstances improved slightly after 1956 with the publication of books on the history of provincial Jewish communities. Sándor (Alexander) Scheiber, director of the Rabbinical Seminary, was able to issue Monumenta Hungariae Judaica, a collection of Hungarian Jewish historical sources.
The Jewish Community after the Fall of Communism
Approximately 75 percent of the Jewish population in 2000 had Jewish grandparents. However, while more than 84 percent of those born after 1948 were born in this form of a homogeneous family, the rate had dropped to 40 percent among those born after 1970. This trend can be explained by the rapid growth of the number of exogamous marriages after World War II. Beginning two decades after the war, the ratio of intermarriages settled at about 50 percent.
Opening day of high-school classes, Lauder Javne Jewish Community School, established by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, Budapest, 2006. (Lauder Javne, Budapest)
After 1990, the Hungarian Parliament passed a number of acts regulating individual and collective reparations for persecutions. Of those who had been persecuted after 1939, approximately 30,000 Jews and their immediate relatives received reparations. Another law guaranteeing reparations to all religious communities for previously confiscated property regulated collective reparation to the Jewish community. According to this law, religious communities—including the Jewish community—could reclaim previously confiscated real estate if they wished to use them again. In return for property that they did not reclaim, the Alliance of Hungarian Jewish Communities received an annuity.
The Hungarian state took responsibility for maintaining the more than 1,000 Jewish cemeteries that were not maintained by a community. The Hungarian Jewish Heritage Foundation was founded in 2003 to deal with legal issues about collective reparation. This foundation receives state funding equivalent to approximately one-thousandth of the value of formerly Jewish wealth that remained unclaimed after the Holocaust. It also provides an annuity to Jews living in Hungary (approximately 22,000 individuals) if they were born before the end of World War II.
Contemporary Hungarian Jewry is strongly secularized. Approximately 8 percent of all Jews can be considered traditional and approximately 25 percent maintain some contact with Jewish religious institutions. Despite these low numbers, there is a clearly visible tendency among those under 35 years of age to return to Jewish traditions and religious life. The central element of Jewish identity in Hungary is historical memory: recalling persecution and the memory of ancestors.
After the fall of the Communist regime in 1989, several Jewish religious, educational, cultural, and political organizations were revived or newly founded. In 2000, Jewish communities in 26 settlements were organized. The first Reform community—Sim Shalom—was founded in Budapest in 1992. The Lubavitch movement has created its institutions, too, operating a synagogue, a kindergarten, and a school in Budapest. In addition to the high school of the Neolog Community named after Sándor Scheiber, there is also the Orthodox American Foundation School in Budapest as well as the largest Jewish school, the liberal-secular Lauder Javne elementary school and high school, which also has a kindergarten. More than 1,000 students were attending these Jewish schools in 2003.
L. Randolph Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary (New York, 1994); Kinga Frojimovics, Géza Komoróczy, Viktória Pusztai, and Andrea Strbik, eds., Jewish Budapest (Budapest, 1999); Victor Karady, “Post-Holocaust Hungarian Jewry, 1945–48: Class Structure, Re-stratification and Potential for Social Mobility, in Jews and Other Ethnic Groups in a Multi-ethnic World, Studies in Contemporary Jewry 3, ed. Ezra Mendelsohn (New York and Oxford, 1987); András Kovács, “Changes in Jewish Identity in Modern Hungary,” in Jewish Identities in the New Europe, ed. Jonathan Webber (London and Washington, 1994); András Kovács, “Jewish Groups and Identity Strategies in Post-Communist Hungary,” in New Jewish Identities, ed. Zvi Gitelman, Barry Kosmin, and András Kovács (Budapest and New York, 2003); András Kovács, ed., Jews and Jewry in Contemporary Hungary: Results of a Sociological Survey, Institute for Jewish Policy Research, report no. 1 (London, 2004); András Kovács, “Hungarian Jewish Politics from the End of the Second World War until the Collapse of Communism,” in Jews and the State: Dangerous Alliances and the Perils of Privilege, Studies in Contemporary Jewry 19, ed. Ezra Mendelsohn (New York and Oxford, 2004); Tamás Stark, Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust and after the Second World War, 1939–1949: A Statistical Review (New York, 2000).
RG 105, Films, Collection, 1930s-1950s; RG 109, Maps, Collection, 20th century; RG 120, Territorial Photographic Collection, , 1860s-1970s; RG 245.4.12, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society—HIAS—Europe, Records, 1917-1951; RG 245,5, HICEM Main Office in Europe, Records, 1935-1953; RG 248, National Refugee Service, Records, 1938-1946; RG 335,9, AJDC Photographs, Records, post-1945; RG 380, American ORT Federation, Records, 1922-1960; RG 391, Paul Garvin, Collection, 1958; RG 495, Samuel Ephraim Tiktin, Papers, 1930s-1940s.
Translated from Hungarian by Veronika Szabó