Jewish Budapest: The Past And The Present

Here's what you need to know about Jewish life and culture in Budapest.

Under Medieval Hungary & the Ottoman Empire

In large numbers, Jewish people first settled in Hungary in the 13th century when king Béla IV enlisted their financial support to help rebuild the country after the Mongol and Tatar attacks left the country in ruins. The biggest medieval Jewish community was in Buda (back then, Budapest was two separate cities: Buda and Pest).

As elsewhere in Europe, life for Jews alternated between periods of economic and religious liberties and brutal persecutions. For example, Jews were briefly expelled from Hungary in 1348 because the local Christians accused them of spreading the plague.

During the Ottoman occupation of central Hungary (1526-1686), Jews had more autonomy – they were permitted to ply their trade across the Ottoman Empire and freely practice their religion. There were both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in Budapest, each with its own synagogue located on the "Jewish Street," today's Táncsics Mihály Street on the Castle Hill.

Remains of the medieval Sephardic prayer room in Budapest's Castle Hill. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Remains of the medieval Sephardic prayer room in Budapest's Castle Hill. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

While the small Sephardic prayer room still exists, the much-bigger Ashkenazi temple across the street from it was destroyed in 1686 when the allied Christian forces defeated the Ottomans in a bloody siege. During the battle, soldiers looted the Jewish Quarter and killed most of its residents.

The Habsburg Period (1686-1918)

All of Hungary then became part of the Habsburg Empire, which ruled much of Central Europe at the time. Many Habsburg leaders were notoriously pro-Catholic and anti-Semitic; Empress Maria Theresa (1740-80) introduced a so-called tolerance tax, levied on all Jews in Hungary for the privilege of living there. Hungarian cities banned Jews from entering in order to avoid competition to the local merchants and craftsmen. Despite these challenges, the conditions in other parts of the Habsburg Empire were even worse.

In fact, thousands of Jewish settlers came to Hungary from Austria and the Czech lands (Bohemia, Moravia, Silesia) in the 18th century, when the Habsburgs passed a marriage law that forbade all but the first-born son in a Jewish family to get married. In Hungary, this wasn't the case and they were also permitted to settle on the properties of the aristocracy and work as stewards of their estates. One of the biggest Jewish communities emerged in Óbuda, today part of Budapest, on the dominions of the Zichy family. Over time, the more enlightened landlord welcomed Jewish settlers when they saw how much profit they generated for them and in return allowed them to build houses, schools, and synagogues.

Many Polish Jews migrated to eastern Hungary after the 1772 partition of Poland when Galicia – a region just northeast of Hungary – became part of the Habsburg territories. This area was the hotbed of the Hasidic Jewish movements and several well-known Hasidic dynasties, like the Satmars, originated in eastern Hungary. Polish Jews, in general, were poorer, more religious, and less educated than those who immigrated from Austria, Moravia, and Bohemia.

By the mid-19th century, there was a sharp divide between progressive Jews, most of whom lived in Budapest and other big cities, and orthodox Jews, who were mainly in the countryside and were mocked as "Ostjuden" (Eastern Jews) by both fellow Jews and Christians.

The progressives in Hungary, also known as Neologs, believed in the evolution of Judaism and a non-literal interpretation of the Torah. They took steps to assimilate into the local society: spoke Hungarian rather than Yiddish or German; gave up religious clothing; adjusted the Jewish liturgy to resemble a Christian worship. They also fought alongside Hungarian soldiers in the 1848 War of Independence against the Habsburgs. In return, the Hungarian political establishment was strongly pro-Jewish.

Jews in Hungary gained full equality of rights in 1867, around the same time as in Western Europe and sooner than elsewhere in the region. This was a big deal, because Hungary had a much bigger Jewish population than any place in the West. By the turn of the century, nearly a quarter of Budapest's residents were Jewish, more than 200,000 people (the country had nearly a million in total).

Hungary also introduced mandatory civil marriages in 1895, in part so that Jews marrying Christians could avoid dealing with the not always accommodating Catholic Church. In this respect, the Hungarian side of Austria-Hungary was more advanced than Austria, where political anti-Semitism under Viennese mayor Karl Lueger was widespread by the turn of the century. (You can read more about this in my interview with Habsburg expert, Steven Beller.)

Orthodox Jews resented these assimilation efforts and after the 1869 Hungarian Jewish Congress the two factions officially split (there was a third, smaller group called "Status Quo Ante" that wanted to keep things as they had been). It's because of this schism that Budapest's old Jewish Quarter has three synagogues near one another – one for each faction.

Decorations on the rear facade of the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue in Budapest. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Decorations on the rear facade of the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue in Budapest. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Jews quickly became the backbone of Budapest’s middle-class society – besides commerce, where more than 60 percent of merchants were Jewish in 1910, there were many Jewish doctors (59 percent) and lawyers (61 percent). Some of the industrial conglomerates owned by Jewish businessmen, most notably Manfréd Weiss, Sándor Hatvany-Deutsch, and Leó Goldberger, laid the foundations of modern capitalist corporate culture, for example by offering generous social benefits.

Jews were punching above their weight in arts and sciences, too. Ironically, many of them became famous only after they fled the increasingly anti-Semitic Hungary after World War I. These include John von Neumann, Leo Szilard, Dennis Gabor, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, Michael Polanyi, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy Nagy, Robert Capa, and Andre Kertész.

A plaque shown on the Budapest building where the famous Hungarian-Jewish mathematician, John von Neumann, was born (26 Báthory Street). Some consider him the smartest person who has ever lived. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
A plaque shown on the Budapest building where the famous Hungarian-Jewish mathematician, John von Neumann, was born (26 Báthory Street). Some consider him the smartest person who has ever lived. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

This period, between 1867 and World War I, is considered by historians as the golden era for Jews in Hungary, when a unique symbiosis formed between the liberal political elites (notably Ferenc Deák, Gyula Andrássy, and József Eötvös) and the Jewish community. Hungarian society had consisted of a large aristocracy and peasantry, but with hardly a middle clas. Politicians relied on Jews to transform this still-feudal country into a modern industrial and urbanized society; in exchange, they crushed all political anti-Semitism and ensured that Jews had the same civil rights as the Christians.

World War II and the Holocaust

There are several possible explanations for the drastic rise of anti-Semitism following WWI. Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory after the war in 1920, which meant that suddenly it became a predominantly ethnic Hungarian country – previously, only about half of the population was Hungarian, with meaningful Romanian, Slovakian, German, and Serbian minorities. The government no longer depended politically on Jews to tilt the ethnic scale toward a Hungarian majority.

Low and mid-level Hungarian civil servants, who were nearly all Christian and who now fell outside the borders of the mother country, flooded impoverished Budapest and blamed Jews for the lack of jobs, claiming that Jews held too many middle-class positions. The fact that much of the leadership of Hungary's short-lived Soviet-style republic in 1919 consisted of Jews just worsened things (it didn't matter that the well-off "capitalist" Jews were also persecuted by that regime). This resentment led to the Numerus Clausus Law of 1920, which capped the proportion of Jews in universities across Hungary at six percent.

The 1930s saw a political shift to the right, although these governments weren't yet as extreme as under Chancellor Dollfus and Schuschnigg in neighboring Austria. It is generally accepted among historians today that regent Miklós Horthy, Hungary's leader between WWI and WWII, was an incompetent and gullible politician, but not a rabid anti-Semite. Like others, he hoped that with Hitler's support, Hungary would be able to regain its territories, the loss of which was, and still is today, viewed as a national tragedy.

Four anti-Semitic laws were introduced between 1938 and 1942, which ultimately deprived Jews of their property and most basic human rights. At the same time, despite constant pressure from Nazi Germany, Horthy refused to go further. Events turned truly tragic after March 1944, when the German army occupied Hungary (Hungary was a German ally, but the Germans worried that it might switch sides as they were losing the war).

In less than two months, 437,000 Jews were deported from the Hungarian countryside to the concentration camp in Auschwitz where most of them were killed. The deportations were willingly executed by the local Hungarian gendarmerie under the orders of the government, which was being pressured by the Nazi leadership in Germany.

In Budapest, Jews were initially quarantined in so-called starred houses and then, in November of 1944, herded into a makeshift ghetto inside the Jewish Quarter. The ghetto's walls ran along Dohány Street, Károly körút, Király Street, and Kertész Street. Thousands died there of hunger and epidemics before the Soviet troops liberated the ghetto in January, 1945.

Those with connections sought refuge in "protected houses" inside the Újlipótváros neighborhood. Embassies of neutral countries like Switzerland and Sweden placed dozens of buildings under their jurisdictions to keep the Nazis away. The heroic activism of the Swiss Vice-Consul Carl Lutz and the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg saved tens of thousands of lives. But the protected houses ultimately became more dangerous than the ghetto itself as members of the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross Party regularly raided these buildings and shot its residents. The shoes monument on the Danube's bank commemorates these victims.

The Shoes Memorial along on the Danube's bank (behind the Parliament) commemorates Budapest Jews who were shot into the river by local Nazis in 1944. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The Shoes Memorial along on the Danube's bank (behind the Parliament) commemorates Budapest Jews who were shot into the river by local Nazis in 1944. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

During World War II, Jewish men were prohibited from serving in the regular Hungarian army; instead, they were part of so-called labor service units (munkaszolgálat) that were responsible for digging trenches, building roads, and carrying equipment. The commanders of these units were often known anti-Semites who made a habit of torturing and killing people. Members of the labor service were malnourished and without proper clothing – they weren't entitled to a military uniform – and thousands of them died in service, especially those deployed on the Eastern Front. Brutal as it was, being in the labor service offered a protection from the deportations.

Estimates on the total number of Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust vary because of changes in Hungary’s borders before, during and after World War II, and because many survivors remained abroad. There were 825,000 Jews in so-called Greater Hungary at the time of the German occupation in March 1944 and the consensus is that more than 500,000 died in the Holocaust.

A Budapest street named after Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish people in 1944. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
A Budapest street named after Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved the lives of thousands of Jewish people in 1944. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Post-WWII and the Communist Era (1947-1989)

After World War II and the Holocaust, approximately 150,000 Jewish people were left in Hungary. Most of them lived in Budapest because the capital city escaped the deportations. Also, some survivors from the countryside preferred not to move back there because their houses had been looted by neighbors while they were away (the poignant movie, 1945, deals with the return of survivors).

International Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee provided vital support – money, food, clothing, medicine – to help survivors get back on their feet. Understandably, many of them wanted to immigrate to Israel (aliyah) and there were various Zionist groups that facilitated and financed these trips. As a result, tens of thousands of Jewish people left the country immediately after the war and also after the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, moving to Israel but also to the United States and Western Europe.

The Communist regime was openly against religion. They mainly targeted the Roman Catholic Church, which had the most followers in Hungary, but they also reined in Jewish congregations. To make monitoring easier, in 1950 they forced the three opposing factions into a single organization and kept it under constant surveillance through secret agents. Also, they pressured the Jewish leadership to sell dozens of synagogues across the country that had lost its members and become abandoned as a result of the Holocaust. These buildings were then knocked down or unrecognizably transformed, often leaving no trace of their past.

A sweeping nationalization program in 1949 meant that small retail and wholesale businesses were confiscated by the state. Among these were tens of thousands of Jewish-owned stores whose owners often ended up as employees in their companies, now working for the state.

In 1950-51, the Communists Party deemed thousands of families class enemies and evicted them from their Budapest homes. They were sent to small eastern Hungarian villages where they lived in abject poverty, doing agricultural work. The evicted consisted mainly of former aristocrats, army officers, and well-off businesspeople. It's estimated that 15-20 percent of the families were Jewish. Bizarrely, some of them had been taken to concentration camps just a few years before. (The main motivation of the evictions was to provide upscale accommodation for members of the Communist Party.)

Despite the fact that many in the Communist elite and administration were Jewish, especially up to the late 1950s, the system was far from favorable to Jews as the examples above show. The main enemy of the Communist regime was the vaguely defined capitalist class – everyone from skilled artisans to shopkeepers, teachers, merchants, lawyers, doctors, and industrialists – into which most Jewish people fell. There were several Jewish pogroms in the late 1940s and anti-Semitic flare-ups throughout Communism. Publicly confronting the events of the Holocaust was out of the question.

The Present Day

With an estimated population of 80,000 to 120,000, Budapest is still home to the largest Ashkenazi community in continental Europe. The vast majority of the people aren't religious, although the usually deserted Dohány Street Synagogue fills up during the High Holiday services. Orthodox Jews have almost totally disappeared from Hungary as a result of the Holocaust and the post-war emigration to Israel and the United States, both of which impacted them disproportionately. The few of them who haven't left live near the central synagogue on Kazinczy Street. During Sukkot, one can still see their booths (sukkah) set up in the courtyard.

Few people know that Satmar and Pupa Jews, the two biggest Hasidic sects in the United States today, both originate from Hungary. In fact, the older members in New York's Williamsburg neighborhood still speak fluent Hungarian.

There are 16 functional synagogues in Budapest – 31 in greater Hungary – with a total congregation size of only a few thousand members. Most of them belong to the Neolog faction under the umbrella organization of Mazsihisz, followed by the increasingly active Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidics, and the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community. Oddly, the Chabad-Lubavitch group, with no historical ties to Hungary, has won the favors of the current government and receives outsize state support, taking over valuable real estate and synagogues.

A total of five elementary, middle and high schools provide Jewish education alongside the Hungarian curriculum in Budapest. The city is also home to Central Europe's only university of Jewish studies, but since the university has historically belonged to the Neologs, orthodox Jews attend yeshivas in Vienna or Jerusalem instead.

The legendary Auguszt pastry shop in Budapest has been serving flódni at least since the 1970s. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
The legendary Auguszt pastry shop in Budapest has been serving flódni at least since the 1970s. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

There are few glatt kosher restaurants and convenience stores, because most people don't keep kosher (these places mainly cater to kosher tourists). Instead of the traditional symbols of Judaism, Jewish life in Budapest today lives on in more subtle ways. For example, flódni, a rich layered cake traditionally made for the Jewish holiday of Purim, has recently spread into the Budapest mainstream thanks to young Jewish-Hungarian pastry makers. There are also several restaurants which serve excellent kosher-style food.

Mazel Tov is a popular bar and restaurant inside Budapest's old Jewish Quarter. Photo: Tas Tóbiás
Mazel Tov is a popular bar and restaurant inside Budapest's old Jewish Quarter. Photo: Tas Tóbiás

Interestingly, the neglected streets and dilapidated buildings of the old Jewish Quarter (District 7) have recently been revitalized. The neighborhood today is bristling with coffee shops, art galleries, and designer shops. This area has also become the epicenter of Budapest's nightlife, known especially for its ruin bars. A symbolic sign of the neighborhood's transformation: Szimpla Kert, the world-famous ruin bar, abuts Budapest's one remaining Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) on Kazinczy Street.

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