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.