Jewish Budapest

Being entrepreneurial and educated, Jews have played an important role in Budapest’s economic and cultural development over the centuries, particularly starting in the 1800s. They were drawn to Hungary by civil equality (gained in 1867), and Budapest’s appeal as a welcoming metropolis full of opportunities. By 1910, 23.1% of Budapest’s population was Jewish.

Most of the over 200 thousand Budapest Jews belonged to the progressive and assimilated “Neolog” faction (orthodox Jews mainly lived in the Hungarian countryside). They were the backbone of Budapest’s middle class society. Besides commerce, where over 60% of Budapest’s merchants were Jewish in 1910, Jews were overrepresented in medicine (59% of doctors) and law (61% of lawyers). Also, many Jewish businessmen founded industrial companies that laid the foundations of modern capitalist corporate culture, unknown in Hungary before.

Jews were punching above their weight in arts and sciences too. Ironically, many became internationally well-known because they left the increasingly anti-Semitic Hungary in the 1930s. These include John von Neumann, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy Nagy, Robert Capa, and Andre Kertész, just to name a few.

With an estimated population of 80 thousand today, Budapest is still home to by far the largest Jewish community in Central and Eastern Europe. Jews live in all parts of the city, but the former Jewish Quarter in District 7 and Újlipótváros in District 13, the latter for the well-to-do, have the highest Jewish populations.

Today, the streets and dilapidated buildings of the former Jewish Quarter in District 7 are home to revitalized Hungarian culture: bristling with art galleries, shops, and cafés. This area has become an epicenter of nighttime activity, particularly in and around Gozsdu Udvar, a passage teeming with popular bars and restaurants. Perhaps the most bizarre evidence of this transformation is that the city’s only Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) is located immediately next to Szimpla, the world famous ruin bar.

Industrial conglomerates built by Budapest Jews before WWII

Budapest Jews founded many of the largest industrial companies that operated in Hungary before WWII. These firms were among the first to introduce large-scale manufacturing practices. They employed thousands of locals, used state-of-the-art equipment, and developed by capturing export markets outside of Hungary. During the holocaust, most of the founding families were killed or fled the country. Then communists nationalized the companies, which subsequently lost their competitive edges and couldn't survive in a free market environment (except for Zwack, which moved its production to Italy during that time). The enormous production plants and warehouses, however, are still standing in many parts of Budapest today as a painful reminder of their former glory.

Zwack Unicum Plant/Museum (location; 10 AM to 5 PM; closed on Sunday; HUF 2,000 admission): Unicum, a herbal liquor made from a secret formula containing more than forty types of herbs, is a national drink in Hungary. It was initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems. Much has happened between the company’s founding in the 1840s and today, but, against the odds, Zwack today is still a thriving business, ran by the founding Zwack family. To see their production plant, taste their concoctions, and learn about the company’s impossible history, visit the Zwack Unicum Museum just south of the city center. Petrus, an outstanding French-Hungarian restuarant is just a quick walk away from the Zwack plant.

Remains of Goldberger Textile Factory / Goldberger Textile Collection (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 1,400 admission): Founded in 1784 in Óbuda (northern part of today’s Buda) as a blue-dyeing one-man shop, by the 1930s the Goldberger family’s textile manufacturing business became a vertically integrated behemoth employing close to 3,000 people. The company no longer exists today, but its legacy is deeply ingrained in the neighborhood – amid towering socialist-era apartment blocks, the 19th century Goldberger warehouses graciously weave through the streets and facilitate the neighborhood’s revival. The Goldberger Textile Collection, one of best museums in Budapest, traces the company’s and its founding family’s history. Not far from the museum is Kéhly Vendéglő, a well known, traditional Hungarian restaurant.

Remains of Weiss Manfréd Factory in Csepel (location; open every day; free admission): WM Factory, named after founder Manfréd Weiss, was the largest industrial company in Hungary. It employed 30 thousand people at its peak during WWI. They manufactured all sorts of military equipment, even airplanes, on an enormous 10 sqkm (1,000 ha) plant with 216 buildings on Csepel island, just south of Budapest. WM was a pioneer in granting social benefits to employees including pension plans, paid vacation, and on-site kindergarten. The company no longer exists today, but despite its current state of disrepair, it’s a special experience to roam around the sprawl of abandoned warehouses, some of which were taken over by small repair shops, others by graffiti artists. One thing is unchanged - the Danube still provides a beautiful backdrop. (A visit to the socialist-era grungy bar next to the entry gate can make this trip of time travel even more bizarre.)

Key Jewish Religious Sites in Budapest

After 1868 Hungarian Jews split into 3 factions, because they held different views on religious reforms and the desired level of assimilation into local Hungarian society. Most Budapest Jews belonged to "Neolog" progressives, they generally spoke Hungarian, were more secular, and favored integration, but all three communities left beautiful, and often artistically important marks on the city (like the tombstones by Béla Lajta in the Salgótarjani Street Jewish Cemetery.

Today 19 synagogues operate across Budapest (36 in Hungary) with a small, few thousand member congregation in total. In 15 minutes, one can walk the "synagogue triangle" in District 7, that is, visit the three main synagogues of the former Jewish Quarter. Despite a shrinking community, the Neolog Dohány Street Synagogue still gets packed during the main Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur).

Dohány Street “Neolog” Synagogue (location; opening hours vary; closed on Saturday; HUF 4,000 admission): This enormous building, the largest synagogue in Europe today, looks eerily similar to a Christian church because it was commissioned by the assimilated (Neolog) faction of the local Jewish community. Its towers, pulpits, organ, and lack of mechitza (lattice separating women from men) would be non-starters in any orthodox synagogue. The congregation today has about 300 active members. A plaque on the front façade shows where once stood the house where Theodor Herzl, the father of Israel, was born. The colonnade connecting Heroes’ Temple and the Central Synagogue encloses the Garden of Remembrance, now a mass grave for Jews murdered by Hungarians fascists in 1944. In the weeping willow memorial, the names of holocaust victims have been delicately inscribed on every leaf. Behind the willow tree is the symbolic tomb of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the holocaust.

Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue (location; opening hours vary; closed on Saturday; HUF 1,000 admission): The impressive art nouveau synagogue from 1913 dominates the winding Kazinczy Street, which has long been the home to the orthodox Jewish community of Budapest (and more recently to Budapest nightlife). The interior has pale-blue walls, stained glass windows, and benches adorned with Hungarian art nouveau motifs. Enter through 35 Dob or 29-31 Kazinczy Street to see all the facilities attached to the fortress-like edifice, which include a glatt kosher restaurant (Hannah), a prayer room, and an ornate wrought iron canopy (chuppah) under which a Jewish couple stand during their wedding ceremony. Today, the congregation has only about 70 members.

Rumbach Street “Status quo ante” Synagogue (location; closed for renovation works): Don't miss this unobtrusive, yet grand synagogue from 1872 designed by renowned Viennese architect Otto Wagner. Its members consisted of the “status quo ante” faction of Budapest Jews, who favored some religious reforms but were put off by the less traditional design of the Dohány Street Synagogue nearby. Islamic ornaments dominate both the exterior, with minaret-like towers, and the interior, where the dome is held by eight slender Moorish style Alhambra columns. The building is currently shut down for much-needed renovations works. Take a look at the Tablets of Stone at the top of the façade.

Salgótarjani Street Jewish Cemetery (location; 8 AM to 4 PM; closed on Saturday; free admission): Opened in 1874, it’s the oldest existing Jewish cemetery in Budapest (mostly for Neolog Jews, but there’re some orthodox graves as well). This is where many of the Jewish industrial and political elite was buried before WWII, as indicated by the fancy marble and granite mausoleums designed by leading architects at the time, particularly Béla Lajta. Most tombs are partially collapsed, abandoned, and overgrown by ivy and creeper as family members died during the holocaust or fled from Hungary. This state of semi-wilderness is a reminder not only of how transient human life is, but also how the holocaust erased something that had been essential part of Budapest life.

Budapest University of Jewish Studies (location; opening hours vary, call +36 1 318 7049, extension 110 to schedule a visit; €10 admission): In 1877 the assimilated (Neolog) section of Budapest Jews opened a Rabbinical Seminary with the aim to educate a secularly-inclined clergy. The institute was the only rabbinical seminary in communist Europe. Today 180 students are enrolled, with an academic staff of 80. Departments range from rabbinic to Jewish studies, and social work. Besides the charming synagogue inside the building, the university has one of the world's most complete libraries on Jewish topics. Guided tours can be arranged through the university.

Mikveh at Kazinczy Street (location; advance registration necessary to use the bath at +36 20 961 5419): Budapest’s only Jewish ritual bath (mikveh) is located right next to Szimpla, the world famous ruin bar. To meet strict religious requirements, the bath uses only “natural water” from rainwater collected on the roof, and spring water through wells drilled in the garden. The bath, built in 1928, was nicely refurbished in 2004. The renovation work was supervised by a New York-based Hasidic mikveh specialist who commuted every week between New York and Budapest.

Budapest Holocaust Memorials

There’re several possible explanations why anti-Semitism began to rise in Hungary following WWI. Hungary lost two thirds of its territories after the war and became a predominantly Hungarian country, instead of the multiethnic society it previously was (in 1910 only 54% of the population was Hungarian with meaningful German, Romanian, Slovakian, and Romanian minorities). This meant that post-WWI, the government no longer had to rely politically on Hungarian Jews to tilt the ethnic scale towards a Hungarian majority.

Furthermore, the inflow of Hungarians who now fell outside the borders of the mother country increased the competition for jobs, and created enmity towards Jews, who were overrepresented in traditionally middle class positions (law, medicine, etc.). The numerus clausus of 1920, which limited the proportion of Jews in higher education, was followed by three more anti-Semitic laws between 1938 and 1941. These restricted Jewish representation in white collar jobs and ultimately stripped them of basic human rights (banned intermarriages and even sexual intercourse between Jewish men and Christian women).

Events turned truly tragic after March 1944, when the German army occupied Hungary. The local Hungarian gendarmerie willingly executed the orders of the pro-German government and deported 437 thousand Jews from the Hungarian countryside to concentration camps, mostly to Auschwitz.

Jews of Budapest were crowded into “starred houses” and soon after the Hungarian fascist party formed government in October 1944, most were herded into a ghetto set up in the Jewish Quarter of District 7. Raids, mass executions were regular until the Soviet troops liberated the Budapest ghetto in January 1945. Overall, about 500 thousand Jews died during the holocaust in Hungary. Thousands of survivors left the country immediately after the war, or during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

Holocaust Memorial Center (location; 10 AM to 6 PM; closed on Monday; HUF 4,000 admission): A most informative and deeply moving exhibit on the holocaust in Hungary. The venue consists of a beautifully restored synagogue from 1924 (second largest in Budapest), a memorial garden with a wall of victims, and a tower of lost communities that lists all towns where Jews have ceased to exist as a result of the deportations. The museum inside is a distinctively 21st century interactive venue - through newsreels, photos, and objects, visitors can follow the gradual disenfranchisement of Hungarian Jews that culminated in the killing of 500 thousand people.

Shoes on the Danube Bank (location; accessible at all times, no admission fee): The memorial from 2005 consists of 60 pairs of cast iron shoes placed along the bank of the Danube. It’s to the memory of Budapest Jews who were killed here by members of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross Party. They ordered victims to remove their shoes before shooting them dead. Their bodies would fall into the river and drift away. The memorial has shoes of all sizes, including children’s shoes, setting off a cascade of emotions.

Emanuel Tree (location; opening hours vary; closed on Saturday; HUF 4,000 admission): American actor Tony Curtis, whose father, Emanuel, was a Hungarian Jew, funded the weeping willow memorial, located behind the Dohány Street Synagogue. The names of 30 thousand holocaust victims have been delicately inscribed in the tree's leaves. Upside down, it resembles a menorah. Behind the willow tree is the symbolic tombstone of Raul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from concentration camps.

Holocaust Memorial at the Faculty of Arts of the Eötvös Loránd University (location; accessible during the day, no admission fee): The subtle memorial form 2014 consists of a 1 cm (0.4 inches) wide and 280 meters (919 feet) long narrow bronze strip running along the walls of the university, commemorating its students and teachers who died during the holocaust.

Remains of the ghetto walls at 15 Király Street (location; located in the courtyard of a private apartment building, no admission fee): Towards the end of WWII, most Budapest Jews were herded into a ghetto which ran along today’s Király-Kertész-Dohány-Rumbach streets in the Jewish Quarter of District 7. Several thousands of the 70 thousand people crowded into here died before the Soviet army liberated the ghetto (some of the deceased were buried in the garden of the Dohány Street Synagogue). A section of the ghetto’s wall at 15 Király Street was rebuilt to serve as a constant reminder. It's located inside the courtyard of a private apartment building, so it might take a few minutes before a resident comes or goes and opens the door.

Carl Lutz Memorial (location; accessible at all times, no admission fee): Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz saved over 60 thousand Hungarian Jews during the holocaust. From 1942 as vice-consul at the Swiss embassy of Budapest, he issued protective documents, and set up over 70 “protected houses” across the city for which he claimed diplomatic immunity. The bronze memorial honoring Lutz shows an angel descending to help a fallen victim. The caption reads “Whoever saves a life is considered as if he has saved an entire world”.

Budapest Stolpersteine (stumbling blocks) (thousands spread across Budapest): Similar to many other European cities, thousands of Stolpersteine have been placed across Budapest since 2007. These cobblestone-sized cubes show the names of Jews and other victims of the Nazis. They are placed at the entrances of buildings where they lived. The person’s name, date of birth, deportation, and death are engraved into the brass plate.

Jewish Restaurants, Pastry Shop, Butcher Shop

The places below are not considered the best, or trendiest spots in Budapest. What makes them unique is a decades-long history, and a dedication to maintaining Jewish traditions (they're all kosher except for Rosenstein), thereby making the city's food scene a more interesting, colorful one.

Kosher butcher shop and grocery store (location; 8 AM to 4 PM Monday to Thursday, closes at 1PM Friday; closed on weekends): In the building of the orthodox Jewish Congregation lie these two tiny storefronts that sell kosher meat, wine, and various Middle Eastern spices. Attached to the butcher shop is the actual butchery where meat is prepared under a kosher supervisor (mashgiach). Don’t expect supermarket-level assortment, although the spicy salami is exceptional, but it’s worth popping in to these little nooks to appreciate the atmosphere as orthodox Jews pop in and out. Frőhlich Pastry Shop (location; 9 AM to 6 PM Monday to Thursday, closes at 2PM Friday; closed on Saturday): Who would've guessed that Budapest’s only kosher pastry shop is right in the heart of the former Jewish Quarter? Normally flódni is the way to go, which is a classic Hungarian Jewish cake with layers of earthly goods packed onto one other, like walnut, poppy seeds, apple, and plum jam filling. To please all appetities, Frőhlich, which set up shop in 1953, also makes popular Hungarian cakes like Esterházy, Dobos, krémes, and various strudels.