Jewish Budapest: Past And Present

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

Jewish people first came to Hungary in large numbers in the 13th century, when they settled in the Castle Hill on the Buda side. Hungarian king, Béla IV, enlisted their financial support to help rebuild the city after the Mongol and Tatar invasions. Like elsewhere in Europe, life for Jews in medieval Hungary alternated between periods of commercial and religious liberties and occasional pogroms. For example, Jews were briefly expelled from Buda in 1348 because the local Christian residents accused them of spreading the plague.

During the Turkish occupation of Hungary, Jews gained considerable autonomy from the Ottomans — they were permitted to trade across the Ottoman Empire and practice their religion. There were both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities in Buda, each with its own synagogue on the "Jewish Street" (today's Táncsics Mihály Street; the small Sephardic prayer room still exists and can be visited). Following the 1686 defeat of the Ottomans, the allied Christian forces ravaged and looted the Jewish Quarter, killing and purging most of its residents.

In more modern times, Jews once again played an important role in Hungary's economic and cultural development, especially from the early 1800s onward. Budapest's relatively welcoming environment — Jews gained civic equality in 1867 — and appeal as a thriving city teeming with business opportunities drew many Jewish people. By 1910, more than 23 percent of Budapest's population was Jewish.

Most of the 200,000 Budapest Jews belonged to the progressive “Neolog” faction (the traditional orthodox Jews mainly lived in the Hungarian countryside). Neologs, while adhering to Jewish religious laws, believed in the evolution of Judaism and a non-literal interpretation of the Torah. They proactively tried to integrate into the local society, for instance by speaking Hungarian rather than Yiddish or German, and forgoing religious clothing.

Orthodox Jews deeply resented the Neolog's assimilation efforts, and following the 1868 Hungarian Jewish Congress, the two factions officially separated (there was a third, smaller group called "Status Quo Ante" that wanted to keep things as they had been). It's because of this split that Budapest's old Jewish Quarter has three synagogues so close to one another, one belonging to each of the three factions.

Neolog Jews quickly became the backbone of Budapest’s middle-class society — besides commerce, where over 60 percent of Budapest’s merchants were Jewish in 1910, Jews were over-represented in medicine (59 percent of doctors) and law (61 percent of lawyers). Also, many Jewish businessmen founded industrial companies that 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 internationally known only after they fled the increasingly anti-Semitic Hungary in the 1930s. They include John von Neumann, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy Nagy, Robert Capa, and Andre Kertész, just to name a few.

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

There are several possible explanations for the drastic rise of anti-Semitism following WWI. Hungary lost two-thirds of its territory after the war, which meant that suddenly it became predominantly Hungarian country (in 1910, only 54 percent of the population was Hungarian, with meaningful Romanian, Slovakian, German, and Serbian minorities). So suddenly the government no longer depended politically on Hungarian Jews to tilt the ethnic scale toward a Hungarian majority.

Furthermore, Hungarians who now fell outside the borders of the mother country began to trickle into Budapest and blamed the Jews for the lack of job opportunities. They claimed 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 Hungarian higher education at five percent. Three additional anti-Semitic laws followed between 1938 and 1941, which ultimately stripped Jews of their most basic human rights: intermarriage, and even sexual intercourse were banned between Jewish men and Christian women.

Events turned truly tragic after March of 1944, when the German army occupied Hungary (Hungary was a German ally, but the Germans worried that Hungary might switch sides). The local Hungarian gendarmerie willingly executed the orders of the pro-German government and deported 437,000 Jews from the Hungarian countryside to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz.

In Budapest, Jews were initially quarantined in “starred houses.” Then, in October of 1944, German and Hungarian Nazis herded them — about 70,000 people — into a makeshift ghetto inside the Jewish Quarter. Thousands died here of hunger and epidemics before the Soviet troops liberated the ghetto on January 18, 1945.

Those with good connections sought refuge in so-called "protected houses" inside the Újlipótváros neighborhood. Foreign diplomats including the Swiss Carl Lutz and the Swedish Raoul Wallenberg placed these buildings under the protectorship of their home countries to keep the Nazis away. Ironically, the protected houses ultimately became more dangerous than the ghetto itself because members of the Hungarian Nazi Arrow Cross Party would regularly raid these buildings and randomly kill people (the shoes monument on river's bank commemorates these victims).

Overall, about 500,000 Hungarian Jews died during the Holocaust, and thousands of survivors left the country immediately after the war and later, during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

The Present

With an estimated population of 80,000, Budapest is still home to by far the largest Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe. Since less than 10 percent of them are practicing, this is only visible during the High Holidays — Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — when the enormous and usually deserted Dohány Street Synagogue fills to capacity. Jewish people live in all parts of the city, but many are still in the former Jewish Quarter and, especially the well-to-do, in Újlipótváros. Most orthodox Jews left Hungary by 1956, but the few remaining members live near their central synagogue on Kazinczy Street. During the Sukkot festival, you can still see their booth (sukkah) set up in the synagogue's courtyard. Few people know that Satmar hasidic Jews, one of the largest orthodox groups in the U.S. today, originate from Hungary (the older members in New York City's Williamsburg neighborhood still speak fluent Hungarian).

Today, 16 synagogues operate across Budapest — 31 in greater Hungary — with a total congregation size of a few thousand members. Most of them still belong to the assimilated Neolog faction (they have the highest number of functional synagogues, 11, led by the one in Dohány Street), 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 curricula 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, Hungarian orthodox Jews attend yeshivas in Vienna or Jerusalem instead.

Currently, there are only four glatt kosher restaurants, three kosher convenience stores, and just a single kosher pastry shop and bakery each. So few because the vast majority of Budapest's Jews don't keep kosher. Several restaurants, however, serve excellent kosher-style food in Budapest.

Interestingly, the streets and dilapidated buildings of the former Jewish Quarter have recently been revitalized, today bristling with art galleries, shops, and cafés. This area has become the epicenter of Budapest's nightlife, known especially for its ruin bars. Perhaps the most symbolic sign of the neighborhood's transformation is that Szimpla Kert, the world-famous ruin bar, abuts Budapest's single remaining Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) on Kazinczy Street.

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