Central-Eastern Europe’s biggest Jewish diaspore can be found in Budapest, which has active religious, cultural and historical heritage. Through centuries Hungarian and Hungarian Jewish history unfolded parallel with each other. Jewry always had and has important role in the country’s economical, cultural, and political life.
Merchants and slaves in the Roman Age
On the territory now known as Hungary, there lived Jewish communities even before the Hungarian Conquest (895). They settled down around 200-300 A.D., when the later founders of Jewish communities emigrated to the territory that was to be modern day Hungary as a merchant from Rome, or as slaves from what is now Israel.
Jewish communities, flourishing cultural life
Saint Stephen, Hungary’s first Christian king, despite his efforts to spread the religion, practiced fairly liberal politics and ensured equal rights before the law to people of all religions, therefore also for the Jews. During the reign of Stephen I., Jews could were able to move to the developing towns, and during this process, the „historical religious communities” could evolve: Buda, Esztergom, Tata and Óbuda. The medieval Jewry’s heyday cocured with the zenith of the country’s political-economical development, during the age of King Matthias. However, after the death of King Matthias (1490) – as a result of the approaching Turkish threat – antisemitism reared its head up for a while. In the middle of the 17th century however, Buda, being home to famous scholars, rabbis, kabbalists, writers, and poets speaking the Hebrew and jiddis language, developed into the most important European Jewish community and had a flourishing cultural life. After Buda’s recapture (1686), Jews arrived to the country’s deserted Western and Eastern border-land with German, Slovakian settlers: from Czech-Moravia, later from Poland, and from Galicia, which had fallen into the controll of the Monarchy. In 1769 20.000, in 1787 80.000 people belonged to the population of Hungarian Jewry. Jews made their living in agricultural trade, selling wine, corn, leather and other products of villages and large estates.
Industrial and commercial prosperity
In the early 19th century, in the reform ages the progressive nobility set many useful goals of inovation, like the emancipation of the Hungarian Jewry. Step by step Jews were able to play a part in the economical life of the country by playing an important role in industrial and trading development. For example, Isac Lőwy (1793-1847) founded his leather factory on a previously purchased piece of land in 1835, and created a new, modern town, based on independent authority, religious equality and industrial freedom, which was independent from the guilds. The town, which was given the name Újpest (New Pest) by Lőwy, soon became a very important settlement (and Jewish community), its first synagogue was built in 1839. (Újpest, the current capital’s 4th district is in the northern part of Budapest. During the time of the Holocaust 20.000 Jews were deported from here.) Mór Fischer Farkasházi (1800-1880) founded his world-famous porcelain factory in Herend in 1839, its artistic porcelains decorated, among others, Queen Victoria’s table.
In 1868/69 three major Jewish organizations were founded: the largest group were the more modern congressional or neolog Jewry, the very traditonal people joined the orthodox movement, and the conservatives formed the status quo organization. The neolog Grand Synagogue had been built earlier, in 1859, in the Dohány Street, it is famous for its organ, on which even Ferenc Liszt played on one occasion. The main status quo temple, the nearby Rumbach Street Synagogue was constructed in 1872: it is the only certified work of Otto Wagner, pioneer of the Viennese Art-Nouveau. The Budapest orthodox synagogue is located in Kazinczy Street, along with the orthodox community’s headquarters, creations of the Löffler brothers, that were built only in 1913.
Civil development until the end of the World War I, helped the assimilation and strengthened the Jewish community. A large numbered, educated, cultured, intellectual, entreprenurial and economic class was developing, who felt at home in this country, and didn’t feel conflicted in Hungarian and Jewish identity. Due to their activity factories and plants were founded (Wolfner-leather factory, Pick and Herz salami factories), mines and banks as well, the railway system was built, and they organized the modern export of Hungarian agriculture, fruit- and wine-production. In addition, the Hungarian Jewry had a significant role also in the reform of the Hungarian culture. The most important literary journal at the end of the century A hét (The Week) was edited by a poet, József Kiss (1843-1921). The chief editor of Pesther Lloyd was Miksa Falk (1828-1908). He was publisher of the „greatest Hungarian”, István Széchenyi’s writings, the „country’s wiseman”, Ferenc Deák’s secretary and Queen Elizabeth’s language teacher, too. Among the representatives of modern arts’, in all areas (in architecture, in sculpture and in painting) we can find many Jews. Lipót Baumhorn (1860-1932), Ödön Lechner’s student planned 24 beautiful Art Nouveau synagogues in the country, like the famous synagogue in Szeged (1903). The first Hungarian Olympic Champion was an engineer, as well: Alfréd Hajós (1878-1955) won many Olympic swimming events.
Jewish laws and the Holocaust
Due to shock of WWI and the Trianon Agreement (4th June, 1920), antisemitism was gaining strength in Hungary. In 1920, the first limiting law, the so-called numerus clausus was born. The consolidation, connected to Prime Minister, Lord István Bethlen, did not mean improvement neither for the country nor for the Jewry living here. In the Christian, feudal Hungary, that had been instated by the governor, Miklos Horthy, who aspired to gain the favor of the Germans, the desire for revision of the Trianon Agreement and the global recession in 1929/1930 plunged the country into fascism. At the end of 30’s the economy improved, but the Jewish laws deprived the Hungarian Jewry of their rights even more. (From 1938 the Hungarian Parliament had passed four Jewish laws, which became increasingly stricter.). Hungary entered WWII in the summer of 1941 by pdeclaring war on the Soviet Union, and due to German pressure, even though Hungary had a non-aggression treaty, attacked Yugoslavia, and invaded the Southland. Even before the beginning of the battles, Jewish men were obligated to wear a distinctive sign and instead of armed military service they were sent to unarmed forced labour.
On 9th March, 1944, German troops occupied the country, Eichmann and his notorious commando arrived to Hungary to carry out the „Jewish question’s” „final solution”. Hungarian intellectuals and neutral countries’ embassies participated in the rescue of the eprsecuted people. In this respect, Raoul Wallenberg, secretary of teh Swedish Embassy, was the most effective. The Swiss Carl Lutz made also significant efforts to save people, similarly to the Italian Giorgio Perlasca, who posed as a Spanish minister in front of the Germans.
The Pest ghetto was liberated on 18th January, 1945. On the territory of Hungary at that age, two-thirds of the one million Hungarian Jews were killed during the Holocaust, more than 600.000 people, and on the current territory of Hungary, 400.000.
Communist domination and fall of the regime
After the liberation, a controvercial process had begun: Jews, released from death camps, forced labour, and the ghetto, turned to Zionist movements, others wanted to forget their faith and origin a result of their suffering.
In the changing political system, Hungarian Jewry’s liberal and democratic views had an important role. In Eastern Europe the first alternative Jewish organization was established in Budapest, the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Fellowship in 1988. After the fall of the regime as an effect of the general religious and social recovery, Hungarian Jewry could experience a renaissance, counting 80 – 100.000 people. Zionist organizations strengthened, civil and youth unions, cultural, educational and sports life, Jewish educational and organizational networks has been set up, and the international relationships grew stronger, too.
Nowadays, four Jewish schools, four kindergartens and a Jewish university function in Budapest.