Budapest Jews, A Brief History
It’s not known when Jews first settled in Budapest, but they have been present since at least the 13th century. After the Mongolian invasion, King Béla IV moved the Royal Seat to Buda and invited Jews to settle in his new town, giving them various privileges. They started to appear in Buda around 1250 and according to written documents, Jews have been living in Óbuda since 1349. Like in many other European cities, Jews were struggling against discrimination throughout the Middle Ages. During the Turkish occupation, some Jews were deported to Turkey, and the Habsburg era once again meant the return of pogroms and deportations. When Budapest was formed in 1873, there were about 45,000 Jews living in the city. By 1930 this number had grown to 200,000, representing 5% of the population. The Jewish minority was prominent in areas of trade, science, art and business. More than half of the businesses were owned or operated by Jewish families. Jews also represented one-fourth of all university students and in the interwar period a large number of Hungarian doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists, and musicians identified themselves as Jews by religion.
Their success was intolerable for certain Hungarian leaders and their followers. As Hungary suffered great territorial losses after World War I with the Trianon Treaty and lost a large number of its ethnic population, Jews remained the most visible minority and the Jewish population was made a scapegoat for all that had happened. Anti-Jewish policies were fast-tracked and fascist groups like the Arrow Cross Party started to attract more followers. As Hungary's leaders were committed to regain the lost territories, they sided with Germany and Italy who would stand behind Hungary's claims. During the war, Jews were sent to labor camps and the front lines to clean up minefields without protection. More than 15,000 Jews from Budapest were killed in labor camps. In spite of that, Hungary resisted German pressure and refused to allow the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz until March 1944, when German troops occupied Hungary.
In the days following the occupation, SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann arrived to oversee the deportation of Jews from Hungary. The first transports to Auschwitz left on May 15, 1944. It was already towards the end of World War II, and even though Eichmann and his aides knew that Germany had lost the war, trains continued to roll to Auschwitz-Birkenau. By July 9, within only 56 days, 437,000 Jews were deported from Hungary, according to German records. The 1944 murder of the Hungarian Jews was code named as Operation Hoess after Rudolf Hoess, creator of Auschwitz, who personally supervised the exterminations. Between 1940 and 1945, 1 million Jews and 100,000 non-Jews were murdered in Auschwitz. Every third victim was a Hungarian citizen. In addition, back home, Arrow Cross militiamen shot 10,000 to 15,000 Jews. By the time the Budapest ghetto was liberated on January 16, 1945, nearly 50% of the city's Jewish population died during the Holocaust.
Under Communist rule, Jewish observance was curtailed. The reality, however, is more complex. The forthcoming Communist governments included a large number of Jews in prominent and influential positions. Certain Hungarian Communists who had a Jewish background like Mátyás Rákosi, Prime Minister and head of state in 1956, totally rejected Judaism per pure Communist doctrine, which was strictly atheistic.
Since the fall of Communism in 1989, there has been a modest spiritual revival. In 2003, the first Orthodox Rabbi was ordained since the Holocaust. In 2004, a Holocaust Memorial Center was established that pays tribute to the victims of the Hungarian Holocaust. Hungary also has a number of synagogues, including the Dohány Street Synagogue, the largest synagogue in Europe. Jewish education is well organized: there are three Jewish high schools in Budapest and Hungary is also home to the Jewish Theological Seminary, University of Jewish Studies.
Budapest's Jewish Heritage
The Jewish Quarter in Budapest is located in the City Center, roughly between Király utca - Károly körút - Dohány utca - and Erzsébet körút. Much of this compact neighborhood is rapidly changing, but there are still some wonderful sights to see that hint to Pest's once prosperous Jewish life. Look for faded remains of the names of former Jewish stores, Jewish symbols and menorah decorations on balconies in Kazinczy utca, Holló utca, Dob utca, Nagy Diófa utca, Wesselényi utca and Klauzál tér.
Budapest's and Europe's largest synagogue, the Dohány Street Synagogue, is also located within the Jewish Quarter. The buildings and the courtyards of the Synagogue include the Jewish Museum, the Heroes' Temple, the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park and the Jewish Cemetery. Other synagogues to visit in Pest are the Rumbach Street Synagogue, the Kazincy Street Synagogue (both part of the Jewish Quarter Walking Tour) and the Páva Street Synagogue (now part of the Holocaust Memorial Center). The Frankel Leó Street Synagogue (at Frankel Leó út 49) is worth visiting in Buda as is the synagogue in Óbuda.
The recently established Holocaust Memorial Center, dedicated to the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust, houses a synagogue, a museum and an inner courtyard with a glass memorial. Another memorial dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust is Shoes on the Danube along the Pest embankment. Lesser known but just as interesting is Budapest's district 8th, which also has a wealth of Jewish mementos worth discovering.
Insider Tips: Take a self guided walking tour or go beyond the guide books and join UniqueBudapest's Secrets of the Jewish Quarter Tour or budapestUNDERGUIDE's Jewish Budapest Now & Then Tour to discover the hidden treasures of the former Jewish Quarter. If you are interested in the Jewish-Hungarian cuisine, check out our Jewish Cuisine & Culture Walk.
Visit the recently renovated building of Goldmark Hall (at Wesselényi utca 7), home to a permanent exhibition dedicated to the history of Pest's former Jewish Quarter. The exhibit, called 'Rosenthal Lived Here', gives you an insight into everyday life in the Jewish Quarter through photos, personal belongings and various household items. The exhibit is open during the same hours as the Great Synagogue.