Hungary

The Hungarian Jewish community, estimated at between 75,000 and 100,000, is the largest in East Central Europe. Most Hungarian Jews live in the capital, Budapest, which has some 20 working synagogues and a plethora of other Jewish institutions, both religious and cultural. There are also a number of smaller Jewish communities in provincial cities, including Debrecen, Miskolc and Szeged, with an active religious and cultural life. Despite occasional anti-Semitic incidents and a neo-Nazi party, Jobbik, Hungarian Jews have every facility to express their Jewish heritage and religious life. The representative body of Hungarian Jewry is the Federation of the Hungarian Jewish Communities (MAZSIHISZ) – an affiliate of the World Jewish Congress.

WJC Affiliate
András Heisler, Mazsihisz President
& WJC Vice President

Mazsihisz

Phone: +36 1 413 55 00
Email: info@mazsihisz.com
Website: www.mazsihisz.hu


President: András Heisler, also a WJC Vice President

History

The first Jews living in what is today Hungarian territory were inhabitants of the Roman province Pannonia and settled there in the 2nd century of the Common Era. Three legions were sent to Judea from Pannonia to beat the Jewish revolt (132–135) led by Bar Kochba. The victorious troops brought Jewish slaves to Aquincum (today the northwestern part of Budapest) and Savaria (Szombathely). Apart from the slaves, Jewish merchants from Rome are also assumed to have travelled to Pannonia.

Written documents from the time of the formation of the Hungarian state prove the existence of Jewish communities. In 1251, Béla IV published the Jewish charter, which was later confirmed by all medieval kings of Hungary. Despite the royal protection enjoyed by the Jews of Hungary, they were subjected to numerous hostile decrees from the Church and nobility. In 1349, Jews were expelled from Hungary as a consequence of the Black Death, but they were able to return in 1364.

Large numbers of Jews moved to the growing Hungarian cities in the 15th century. The first "historical communities" there were formed at that time in Buda, Esztergom, Sopron, Tata, and Óbuda.
After the annexation of Hungary by the Ottoman Turks in 1541, Jews in that country were able to practice their religion and participated actively in commerce. With an influx of Jewish immigration of Sephardim from Asia Minor, Buda became one of the major Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire. Jews also settled in the city of Kecskemet in central Hungary.

After the Hungary became part of the Habsburg empire in the late 17th century, Jews were subjected to anti-Semitic persecution and were prohibited from living in the major cities. Nevertheless, there was an influx of Jews from Poland and Moravia, and the Hungarian Jewish population grew from 11,600 in 1735 to 20,000 in 1769. The reign of Joseph II as Holy Roman Emperor (1740-1790) and ruler of the Habsburg domains (1780-1790) saw a dramatic improvement in conditions for Hungarian Jews, capped by the Emperor’s issuance of his Edict of Toleration in 1782, that provided greater religious freedom to Jews and members of other minority religions. By 1787, the Jewish population of Hungary had increased to around 81,000.

The 19th century was a time of assimilation and emancipation for many Hungarian Jews who were granted increased civil rights. A small number of wealthy, urban families were the main representatives of Hungarian Jewry during that period. However, from the 1830s, poorer eastern European Jews began moving to the country in greater numbers. Many Hungarian Jews took part in the 1848/49 revolution, and their social and economic standing rose.

In 1867, Hungarian Jews were fully emancipated, and were granted the same political and civil rights as their Christians compatriots. During that time, Jews were active in Hungarian commercial, financial and cultural life. Religiously, this same period saw the birth of Reform Judaism in Hungary, with Hungarian used as the primary language for religious services in In Reform synagogues.

The liberal atmosphere of the late 19th century led to assimilation and, at the turn of the century, many Jews chose Hungarian or German spouses or had their children baptized as Christians. In successive years, Jews made enormous contributions to the development of Hungarian culture, science and industry, and played a particularly outstanding role in Hungarian sports. For example, in the first five Olympic Games, Jews accounted for 5 out of the 9 gold medals awarded to Hungarian athletes. As late as the period of 1960–1972, though the Jewish population had been greatly depleted by the Shoah and the emigration of survivors, Jews still accounted for nearly 20% of Hungarian gold medals.

In terms of economic development, the Manfred Weiss Works, named for its Jewish founder, became the largest machine and munitions factory in Hungary. The company eventually employed tens of thousands of workers at its vast plant in Csepel, Budapest and exported its products all over the world.

After the defeat and dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, Hungarian Jewry—including many members of the Orthodox and Chassidic communities—suddenly found themselves living within the borders of Czechoslovakia, Romania, or Yugoslavia. In 1919, when the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic (in which Hungarian Communists of Jewish origin were depicted as a foreign menace) collapsed, a period of "White Terror" ensued, during which some 3,000 Jews were murdered.

In the 1920s, the situation became more stable, but by the late 1930s, the first of a series of anti-Semitic laws was enacted, restricting socioeconomic activities of Jews in Hungary.

According to a 1941 census, 6.2 percent of the Hungarian population of 13,644,000, i.e., 846,000, were considered Jewish according to the racial laws in place at that time. 725,000 of them were identified as Jewish by religion: 184,000 in Budapest, 217,000 in the pre-1938 provinces, and a total of 324,000 in Northern Transylvania, Carpatho-Ruthenia, southern Slovakia and Bácska—territories seized from neighboring countries.

Large-scale deportation to the Nazi death camps began after German troops occupied Hungary in March 1944, but even though deportations began so late in the war, they were carried out with frightening speed. Up to 600,000 Jews from "Greater Hungary" perished in the Shoah.

After the war, some 200 Jewish communities were reconstituted, but most dwindled rapidly due to migration to Budapest and emigration from the country. In 1946, anti-Jewish sentiment led to the pogroms in Kunmadaras, Miskolc and elsewhere. Communist rule resulted in the closure of many Jewish institutions and the arrest of Jewish activists. Many Jews were expelled from Budapest, but later allowed to return.
During the 1956 uprising against Communist rule, 20,000 Jews opted to leave the country. However, the situation of Hungarian Jewry began to improve in the late 1950s. The community was allowed to reestablish links with the Jewish world, and with the collapse of Communism, all restrictions on ties with Israel were also lifted.

Since the fall of Communism, the Hungarian Jewish community has been active and committed religiously and culturally. Budapest has a Jewish Museum as well as a Jewish community center, theaters, bands, choirs, and a dance ensemble.

The Years of the Holocaust

Following the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the short-lived 1919 Socialist-Communist regime in Hungary under the leadership of the Communist Bela Kun, Hungary was led for 24 years by a conservative authoritarian government under Admiral Miklos Horthy. Horthy himself considered himself an anti-Semite, and was quoted as saying, “I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad.” Still, Hungarian Jewry lived in relative security through the 1920’s and most of the 1930’s. Between 1938 and 1941, Hungary’s Jewish population grew to an estimated 825,000, including some 100,000 converts to Christianity, as the result of Hungary’s annexation, with German and Italian support, of southern Slovakia and Subcarpathian Rus from Czechoslovakia in, respectively, 1938 and 1939l northern Transylvania from Romania in 1940, and the Backa region from what had been Yugoslavia in 1941. Between 1938 and 1941, the Horthy regime also enacted racial laws modelled on Germany’s Nuremberg Laws that reversed the emancipated status Hungarian Jewry had enjoyed since 1867.

At the beginning of World War II, Jews were barred from serving in the Hungarian military, but male Jews were conscripted into forced labor battalions where they were subjected to such harsh treatment and conditions that 27,000 are estimated to have died prior to the German occupation of Hungary in March of 1944.

In 1941 the Hungarian government deported 20,000 non-Hungarian Jews to German-occupied Ukraine in 1941 where they were shot by the para-military SS Einsatzgruppen. The following year, Hungarian soldiers murdered some 3,000 Jews and Serbs in the formerly Yugoslav city of Novy Sad. However, the Horthy regime refused to hand Hungarian Jews over to the Nazis until March of 1944 when Germany took over control of Hungary.

In April of 1944, the approximately 500,000 Jews living outside of Budapest were forced to live in designated cities. Then, in less than two months beginning in mid-May of 1944, around 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary to Auschwitz-Birkenau on more than 145 trains in what was the most effective and most efficient such operation of the Holocaust. The vast majority of these Jews, around 320,000, were murdered immediately upon arrival at the death camp. In Budapest, meanwhile, the capitals Jewish population was herded into a ghetto and terrorized by Hungarian Arrow Cross gangs that murdered Jewish men, women and children indiscriminately. Many Budapest Jews were taken to Germany on death marches on which large numbers of them perished.

In the late spring and early summer of 1944, Gilel (or Hilel) Storch, the head of the Swedish Section of the World Jewish Congress, devised and financed a plan for a Swedish diplomat to undertake a rescue mission. With the support of the Swedish government and the US War Refugees Board, Raoul Wallenberg was recruited to travel to Budapest where he provided certificates of protection and forged documents that saved the lives of thousands of Jews. Similar rescue operations were undertaken in Budapest by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz and the Italian Giorgio Perlasca who posed as a Spanish diplomat.
Only around 255,000 Jews, less than one-third of the 825,000 who had lived within enlarged Hungary in March of 1944, survived the Holocaust.

Demography

The Hungarian Jewish community, estimated at around between 75,000 and 100,000. Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola estimated the Hungarian Jewish population to number between 47,600 and 100,000 as of 2011. The great majority of Jews in Hungary are unaffiliated. Some 80 percent of Hungarian Jews live in Budapest. There are also smaller communities in Debrecen, Miskolc, Szeged, and Nyíregyháza, among other cities. The community has a high proportion of Holocaust survivors. By most estimates, about half the Jewish population is over the age of 65. Intermarriage is widespread. Hungarian Jews are especially well represented in the free professions, science and academia and in business. In recent years, in response to the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Hungary, several hundred Hungarian Jews have left the country, many of whom have settled in nearby Vienna.

Communal and Cultural Life

Budapest boasts a wide variety of Jewish institutions catering to nearly every brand of Jewish expression. The modern Bálint Ház Community Center (Bálint Közösségi Ház ), established in 1995, is the venue of a wide variety of Jewish cultural and educational activities.It aims to foster dialogue not only among community members but also with anyone seeking to know more about Judaism.

Beginning in 1998, an annual Jewish Summer Festival has been held in Budapest featuring exhibitions, concerts, dance performances, and film. The festival draws participants and performers from Hungary and abroad. Significantly, such cultural activity draws large numbers of unaffiliated Jews. The majority of the affiliated Jews are connected with the Neolog community; smaller numbers belong to the Orthodox and Liberal communities.

Also, every summer, around 1500 Jewish campers from over 20 countries attend Camp Szarvas, which is sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. The camp is located on the banks of the Körös River in the resort town of Szarvas, Hungary.

Since the collapse of Communism, a number of Jewish organizations, including youth groups, have been reactivated. Among the largest Jewish organizations are the Zionist Federation, the March of the Living, Limmud Hungary, B'nai Brith, and WIZO. The Maccabi sports club continues the tradition of Hungarian Jewish sportsmanship.

Hungarian Jews also have at their disposal the Charity Jewish Hospital and Nursing Facility, and there are two homes for the aged, one of which is Orthodox.

Following negotiations with the Hungarian government in 1997, a law was passed establishing a restitution fund to compensate Hungarian Jews for a part of the value of assets seized from them during the Holocaust.

In May 2013, Budapest hosted the Plenary Assembly of the World Jewish Congress. On that occasion, Jewish leaders from around the world expressed their solidarity with the local Jewish community and pledged to struggle against anti-Semitism, which has become especially prevalent in recent years. In particular, attention was drawn to the activities of the extreme right-wing Jobbik Party, which is represented in the Hungarian Parliament and espouses an unabashed anti-Semitic platform.

Religious Life

Budapest has more than 20 synagogues in which prayers are conducted in a variety of styles, including Neolog, Orthodox, Reform, Liberal and Chabad. There is also a congregation that worships according to the "status quo" liturgy. The Neolog Dohány Street Synagogue in Budapest is the second largest synagogue in the world, and its size bears witness to the importance and cultural ambitions of the Jews of the capital during the 19th century. Though men and women are seated separately, services are conducted with an organ (played by a non-Jew) and a choir. There are also functioning synagogues in a number of provincial cities as well, including Miskolc and Debrecen.

Kosher food is readily available in Budapest, which has several kosher restaurants, kosher butchers, and a kosher bakery.

Jewish Education

Budapest has several Jewish kindergartens as well as Jewish primary and high schools. The non-denominational Lauder Javne Community School, with its 5-acre ultra-modern campus, is sponsored by the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation and was opened in 1990. Today it has some 600 pupils from kindergarten through high school. The Sandor Scheiber School and High School continues the tradition of Budapest's pre-war Jewish high school.

The Budapest University of Jewish Studies was originally established in 1877 as a Neolog rabbinical seminary. It continues to train rabbis and cantors but has broadened its reach. A center for Jewish studies is attached to Eötvös Loránd University, the largest school of higher education in Hungary, and students can also pursue higher Jewish studies at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The English-language Central European University, established by the Hungarian-born financier George Soros, offers a Jewish studies major focusing on Jewish culture, society and history.

youth

The numerous active Jewish youth organizations in Hungary include the Youth Group of the MAZSIHISZ, Hashomer Hatzair, Kidma (Jewish Zionist student organization), Marom (Conservative religious Zionist student organization), Habonim Dror, Bnei Akiva, Hanoar Hatzioni, and Maccabi (sports club).

jewish media

The weekly Új Élet (New Life), founded in 1945, is the official journal of MAZSIHISZ. There is also a monthly called Szombat (Saturday), devoted to Israel, international Jewish issues and Jewish life in Hungary. In 1988, the pre-war intellectual and cultural journal Múlt és Jövő (Past and Future) was reestablished and is published as a quarterly. A large number of Jewish books are published in Hungary, including many translations of Hebrew and foreign language Jewish literature. There are a variety of online magazines, including akibic.hu. National Public media also offers dedicated TV and Radio programs.

Information for Visitors

Budapest contains numerous sites of interest for Jewish visitors.

The 19th-century Dohány Synagogue in Budapest is the largest in Europe (second largest in the world) and was recently renovated. It is usually the first stop on most visits to "Jewish Budapest."  Designed by German architect Ludwig Förster and built in only four years, the synagogue was consecrated in 1859 and has since been the most iconic symbol of Hungarian Jewry. Composer Franz Liszt and Camille Saint-Saens have played on the synagogue’s organ. Adjacent to the synagogue is the Hungarian Jewish Museum, which houses an impressive collection of Judaica and other original artifacts. Its exhibition was recently refurbished.

The Emanuel Holocaust Memorial, in the courtyard of the Dohány Synagogue, is called the Tree of Life. On this modern sculpture, each leaf symbolizes a victim of the Shoah. A statue in Budapest honors Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who rescued several thousand Jews in Budapest from deportation to the Nazi death camps.

Along the banks of the Danube, on the Pest side of the city, is an evocative monument to the Jews who were murdered by the Arrow Cross along the banks of that river in January 1945. The monument consists solely of shoes made of bronze, recalling the fact that the victims were made to leave their shoes along the shore.

The Budapest Holocaust Memorial Center is a situated outside the traditional Jewish quarter. Designed by Frank Gehry, it is linked to the former Páva Street Synagogue, one of the largest Jewish houses of worship in Budapest. The Glass House (Üvegház) in which Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz saved thousands of Budapest Jews is now a museum devoted to the story of rescue. The House of Terror Museum (Terror Háza), located in the Andrássy Avenue building once occupied by the Arrow Cross and later the Communist secret policy, is devoted to the victims of both Fascists and Communists. However, many will be troubled by the way in which Hungarian culpability for the fate of Hungarian Jews is minimized and the deliberate emphasis on the Jewish roots of many of the Hungarian Communists responsible for atrocities committed in the post-war years.

Outside of Budapest, nearly every city has at least one synagogue. Many of these are monumental edifices that bear witness to the wealth and self-confidence of Hungarian Jewry in the late 19th century. That of Szeged, constructed in a late eclectic style, was designed by Lipot Baumhorn, who was responsible for many of the most beautiful such buildings in East central Europe. Today, after painstaking restoration, the Szeged synagogue serves as a museum.

Szentendre, a city known for its artist colony and one of the most popular stops on every tourist's itinerary, contains an especially noteworthy Jewish site. The Szanto Memorial House and Temple in Szentendre was officially opened in 1998. It is the first new synagogue to have been built in Hungary since the end of World War II. It contains a simple memorial to the Jews of the city who perished in the Holocaust and boasts of being the smallest synagogue anywhere in the world.

Israel

Israel and Hungary maintain warm diplomatic relations.

Israeli Embassy
Fullánk Street 8
1026 Budapest

Tel: +36 1 392 6200
Email: info@budapest.mfa.gov.il
Website: http://embassies.gov.il/Budapest/Pages/default.aspx

The first Israeli Cultural Institute was established in Hungary with the help of the Jewish Agency and private donors, offering educational and language programs.
Website:  http://izraelikultura.hu/

 

updated

 

April 2018

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