Jewish Budapest: Past And 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 the 13th century when king Béla IV enlisted their financial support to help rebuild the country after the Mongol and Tatar attacks. 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 Hungary (1526-1686), Jews had more autonomy — they were permitted to do commerce across the Ottoman Empire and to 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.

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Remains of the medieval Sephardic prayer room in Budapest's Castle Hill.

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)

Hungary then became part of the Habsburg Empire, which ruled much of Central Europe. There were several anti-Jewish laws, for example Hungarian cities banned Jews from entering to avoid competition to local merchants and craftsmen. Also, Empress Maria Theresa introduced a so-called tolerance tax, levied on all Jews in Hungary for the privilege of living there. Despite these challenges, the conditions in other parts of the Empire were even worse.

In fact, thousands of Jewish settlers came to Hungary from the Czech lands (Bohemia and Moravia) in the 18th century, when the Habsburgs restricted the number of Jews there. In Hungary, they were 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.

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 and less well educated than those who immigrated from Moravia-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.

The progressives, 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; 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.

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 were). It's because of this schism that Budapest's old Jewish Quarter has three synagogues near one another — one for each faction.

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Decorations on the rear facade of the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue.

Jews in Hungary gained full equality of rights in 1867, not much later than in Western Europe. At the same time, Budapest became the capital of the Austro Hungarian Empire alongside Vienna and began to develop rapidly. These two events drew even more Jewish people to Budapest, where by the turn of the century more than 23 percent of the residents were Jewish.

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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.

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There's a plaque today on the Budapest building where John von Neumann was born (26 Báthory Street).

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.

Also, Hungarians 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. This resentment led to the Numerus Clausus Law of 1920, which capped the proportion of Jews in higher education at five percent. Four additional anti-Semitic laws followed between 1938 and 1942, which ultimately deprived Jews of their property and most basic human rights.

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 died. 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 jurisdiction 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.

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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 at least 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.

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

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 for the simple reason that the capital city was spared 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.

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.

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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 major motivation of the evictions, it turned out, 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. In fact, a couple of pogroms took place in the late 1940s and there were 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, Budapest is still home to the largest Jewish community in Central 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 who haven't left live near the central synagogue on Kazinczy Street. During Sukkot, one can still see the 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, followed by the increasingly active Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidics, and the Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community.

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.

There are four glatt kosher restaurants, three kosher convenience stores, and a single kosher pastry shop in Budapest. So few because most people don't keep kosher. Several other restaurants, though, serve excellent kosher-style food in Budapest.

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

Interestingly, the neglected streets and dilapidated buildings of the old Jewish Quarter 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.

My content is free and I never accept money in exchange for coverage. But this also means I have to rely on readers to maintain and grow the website. If you're enjoying this article, please consider supporting Offbeat.