Peter I. Hidas, Ph.D.,
Dawson College

 

 

A Brief Outline of the History of the Jews of Hungary

A speech delivered on 13 December 1992 at the Temple Emanu-El Beth Solom, Westmount, Quebec, Canada

 

 

Ladies and Gentlemen:

I must confess to you that while I am a historian, I am an accidental historian of the Jews of Hungary. Let me explain to you first the adjective "accidental" before I undertake the difficult task of outlining one thousand years of Jewish martyrdom and glory in Hungary.

Almost a decade ago while searching for material in the archives of Hungary about the post-1848 regime, I discovered an interesting demographic phenomenon which I later identified as "hidden urbanisation". With my finding I immediately went to see a friend of mine in the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, a well known historian and a Jew. He advised me not to proceed with my research because the publication of my thesis, the exclusive role of the Jews in the urbanisation of Hungary between 1830 and 1870, would disturb the delicate state of Hungarian-Jewish relations. Dismayed, I consulted the head of the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest but his response was identical to my friend's. Ignoring the views of these Jewish Hungarians, in 1988 I proceeded with my work and presented my final study at a conference of the University of Jerusalem. My two consultants were present. By now they were not Jewish Hungarians but Hungarian Jews. And here lies the dilemma of a community which survived a thousand years in Hungary and has been suffering an identity crises ever since.

In the Roman province of Pannonia, situated in the western part of present day Hungary, there already lived in the last hundred years of the empire a few Jews, mainly Romanized soldiers and tradesmen. We know little about their fate or the presence of other Jews in the next 500 years but, according to an old coffee house joke, there was continuity. One day, the aristocrat Aristid and Cohen the Jew debated whose forefathers were first in the Danubian valley. Aristid said: "My ancestors crossed the Carpathian mountains in the ninth century!" "My dear Aristid," responded Cohen, "don't you know that my ancestors were already waiting for your people at this side of the Verecke Straights offering for sale maces and other weapons for the conquest?" Who was right? The answer is rabbinical. They were both there first.

The Byzantine Emperor Constantine tells us, that some of the tribes of the Khazar nation rebelled against their rulers. The insurgents consisted of three tribes, who were called Kavars or Kabars. The Government prevailed; some of the rebels were slaughtered but some fled the country and settled with the Hungarians who lived at this time in the Ukraine. Amongst the dissident Kabar tribes, who de facto took over the leadership of the Magyar tribes, there were Jews. They together invaded and settled present day Hungary in the 9th century.

John Cinnamus, the Byzantine chronicler, mentions troops observing the Jewish law, fighting with the Hungarian army in Dalmatia in 1154. By that time there was a Jewish community in existence for a hundred and fifty years with its own synagogue and legal court in Esztergom, in the capital and commercial centre of Hungary. Jews at the time worked the land, practised trades and commerce along with other Hungarians. The medieval popes pressured the kings to introduce anti-Jewish laws but for a while without result. The 11th century crusaders murdered Jews on their way to the Holy Land but while King Coloman refused passage to these religious fanatics, he let the Jewish refugees from Austria, Bohemia and Moravia settle in Hungary. For the next two hundred years while in the West Jews were locked into ghettos, branded, isolated and at times burnt at the stake all was quiet in Hungary. In the early 13th century Rome again pressured the king of Hungary to brand the Jews and burn the Talmud in public under threat of excommunication. The promise was made but there is no evidence to its execution. By now many of the Hungarian Jews were in the business of finance and were essential for the good management of the state. In 1251 they were declared servants of the Treasury. They participated in the founding of Buda and settled in all parts of the country unhampered. The good times soon came to an end in the fourteenth century. Religious intolerance combined with commercial jealousy led to over-taxation, persecution, blood libels and expulsions. Take a loan from the Jews than burn the letter of credit, was the new slogan of kings, German city-dwellers and Hungarian lords. In 1421 the magistrate of Buda ordered the Jews to wear red caps, pointy hats and a yellow spot on their outfits. A change on the throne was now a special occasion for robbing the Jews in the towns. The Turkish occupation of Hungary was nothing but a blessing in disguise for the now completely impoverished Jewish community. The Ottoman rulers taxed heavily but evenly. They tolerated all religions. So did the Protestant Hungarians who ruled the Turkish satellite Transylvania. Gábor Bethlen invited Sephardim Jews (1623) to settle in his lands. Meanwhile Buda was flourishing. Then the Habsburgs liberated Hungary. They freed Buda and butchered all the Jews they could find therein.

Eighteenth century Hungary, that semi-independent eastern mark of the Habsburg family, began a slow socioeconomic reconstruction after a devastating re-conquest and an equally painful civil war. Once the Turks were expelled and the anti-Habsburg Magyar rebels suppressed, the government of Vienna could proceed with the domestic aspects of empire building.

According to Bishop Kolonics, following their withdrawal from Hungary the Turks had left behind nobody but the Greeks and the Jews. This, of course, was an exaggeration, but these were the people Kolonics noted and highly disapproved. In fact, Hungary was reduced to less than 2.6 million souls by 1720. In the absence of a domestic bourgeoisie in Hungary, the Viennese Treasury, in order to attract settlers gave special trading privileges to foreign merchants. The Magyars no longer had the skill or the desire to trade. "It is well known" wrote Gyula Szekfü, "that a Hungarian did not stoop to trade in feudal Hungary. He yielded it to the aliens: Jews, Macedonians, Greeks, Armenians, Serbs."

Jewish emigration to Hungary started at the end of the 17th century when refugees from Austria and Germany settled in western Hungary. During the first decade of the 18th century there were still only about 4,000 Jews in the country. When Charles III forbade young Jews to marry in Moravia, a new wave of Jewish immigrants left for Hungary where they were welcomed by the large landowners who needed merchants and tradesmen on their estates. German townsmen resented these non-Christian competitors but for a while they were busy fighting off their main competitors, the Greeks. By the end of the century the Greeks lost their trade privileges. They bought land blending into the gentry class or left for the Balkans. Jewish traders were ready to take over their economic role in Hungary. Meanwhile more refugees arrived from Maria Theresia's newly conquered land, Galicia, increasing the Jewish population to 100,000 by 1800.

The French Enlightenment had its impact on the Habsburg Empire. The Habsburgs fancied themselves enlightened monarchs, the Hungarian nobles became modernising liberal-nationalists and the Jews wished to become Hungarian Jews. In 1783 Joseph II partially emancipated the Jews. He let them pursue all trades and commerce, allowed them to settle in towns but asked them to acquire German names, speak German and go to schools. The Hungarian nobility had few objections. How could they modernise without a modern middle class? The German urban dwellers were guild oriented feudal type traders and merchants who opposed Magyarization. The Jews were modern businessmen able to market Hungarian agricultural products at home and abroad, able to raise capital for the building of railway lines and for the regulations of rivers. And they were ready to become Hungarians. An unwritten contract between the Hungarian nobility and the Jewish elite were established during the first half of the nineteenth century. Of course, there was opposition to the process. Religious Jews feared that emancipation will lead to assimilation. Many class conscious nobles and some bigoted Christians were far from enthusiastic about the presence of so many Jews in their midst and even the liberal-nationalists disliked the settling in the poor and very orthodox Galician Jews. A break was put on the process of emancipation. The German merchants and craftsmen who hated their Jewish competitors rioted and organised pogroms in the midst of the Hungarian War of Independence in 1848-49. Most Hungarians opposed these disturbances. By that time the Jews were intensively Magyarizing themselves. Over 10,000 young Jewish men fought in Louis Kossuth's army. The revolution was put down but the Jews remained loyal Hungarians and the harbingers of the economic modernisation of Hungary. Urbanisation was one of the pre-conditions of rapid economic growth.

Between 1830 and 1870 Hungary entered the path of rapid urbanisation. This process was not restricted to the largest Hungarian town, Pest, but became universal in the major and minor urban centres of the country. Except for Pest, the total population of the towns grew slowly, if at all. Increases were frequently smaller than the growth of the country in general. Nevertheless, urbanisation did take place and since it is not self-evident from general demographic data, it may be labelled "hidden urbanisation".

Hidden urbanisation meant a fundamental change in the social composition of the towns. Certain groups abandoned the towns and were replaced everywhere by prominent Jewish communities. These communities became the yeast for capitalist development because the majority of their breadwinners were free merchants, the rest having mainly other urban-type occupations. The change was a rapid one, taking place in the 1850's and intensifying in the 1860's. There was no other group that participated in this development besides the Jews. The Jewish communities took a fundamental, if not exclusive role, in the general urbanisation of Hungary and, at the same time, provided the economy with the most important source of domestic capital accumulation, commerce. By 1867, when Hungarians began to direct their own political affairs again, they had in their midst a new middle class with whom they had a chance to build a modern economy.

The period from 1867 to the outbreak of the First World War was the golden age of Hungarian Jewry. Hard work in the establishing of the preconditions of industrialisation, experience in business, good international business connections, the proper use of new educational opportunities, assimilation, business alliance of the Jewish elite with the aristocracy as well as the constant and unconditional support of the liberal-nationalist political elite brought great dividends. Complete emancipation in 1968 opened all venues for Jews as long as they accepted the political leadership of the gentry and aided Magyar rule over the non-Magyar nationalities. Experience, education, capital and political protection provided an advantage for the Hungarian Jews that others could not overcome.

By 1896 38 out of the 95 bank directors were Jewish. At the Stock Exchange 33 of the 39 members were Jewish. The Association of Industrialists had 49 members. 44 of them were Jewish. By 1910 In Budapest, Jews constituted 53% of all persons engaged in industry, 65% of those in trade and finance, 59% of all medical personnel and 62% of all individuals practising law. The Magyar nobility accepted the Jewish community massively in terms of intermarriage. A significant number, 346, of the Jewish elite was ennobled. The cultural elite and the scientific community was also heavily laden with Jewish talents and geniuses. They were in the forefront of the industrialisation and modernisation of Hungary. By the turn of the century the Hungarian economy was one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and Budapest became a world city where every fourth person was Jewish.

Not all benefited from the economic boom. Some were left behind. The lower gentry and the country intelligentsia resented capitalism, the loss of their privileges and the advancement of Jews. Many Catholic priests opposed the emancipation of the Jews, Slovak peasants blamed the Hungarian-speaking Jews in their midst for their miseries. Thousands of Jews were left behind, too. So too were many poor Hungarians. Except for the Jews these groups began to look for scapegoats for their lack of success.

In 1875 political anti-Semitism unfolded its flag in the National Assembly. At first it was laughed off by the Liberal-Nationalists but soon Jewish students were beaten up at a university and in 1882 a blood libel was pronounced at the village of Tiszaeszlar. These were no laughing matters. There were attacks on Jews all over the country. In Budapest the army had to be called out to prevent a pogrom. Sixteen candidates with an anti-Semitic programmes were sent to the National Assembly. But the Liberal-Nationalists were still in power. The Bishop of Kalocsa and the hero of 1848, Louis Kossuth, warned the nation against intolerance.Soon aftewards all was well again - until the next crisis. Nevertheless, many Jews felt that the writing was on the wall and, in any case, thousands of them remained poor despite the economic boom. In the four decades following the Ausgleich of 1867 one hundred thousand Jews left Hungary.

One million stayed. Magyarization and assimilation continued. Jews were now active in all walks of life. But this was not what the aristocrats, the gentry and the gentroid middle classes had in mind when they made the deal with the Jewish elite in 1867. Not even the over-representation of Jewish youth in the army and the appointment of a Jewish Minister of War during the First World War moderated their growing antipathy. Some Jewish intellectuals were also disappointed and began opposing the anti-democratic, socially oppressive regime. These Jews joined the left and participated in the revolutions of 1918 and 1919. At the end of the war the Habsburg Empire collapsed and the liberal-nationalist leadership was replaced by the right-wing nationalist wing of the nobility.

The war brutalized people. The defeat led to the truncation of Hungary. The people were angry. The angry and brutalized population rebelled. Then Red Terror was followed by White Terror. There was a need for scapegoats and the fact that the Red Terror was instigated by Béla Kun, a communist of Jewish origin, served as a good excuse for the murder of hundreds of Jews in 1919 and 1920. The old unwritten contract had been torn up. Hungarian Jews were no longer considered Jewish Hungarians. Only the Jewish community insisted on the old fiction.

Years later the new leader of the country, Nicholas Horthy told Hitler, that he was an anti-Semite well before the leader of the German National Socialist movement appeared on the politice scene. In 1920 Horthy introduced the quota system at the universities, restricting Jewish presence to a maximum of six percent of all students enrolled. The pogroms, however, were stopped. The regime needed respectibility to obtain western loans and, after all, the economy was still dominated by Jewish and converted Jewish businessmen. But the refugee civil servants from the lost territories along wih the gentile middle classes were by now determined to carry out a change of the guard in business while the populist writers were resolute to do the same in the field of culture. Anti-Semitic agitation went unabated in the press for the next 25 years.

In 1933 the Prime Minister of Hungary was among the first to greet Hitler on his appointment as chancellor. They were both anti-Semites, revisionists and interested in economic recovery. For a partnership, however, Hitler demanded the subordination of the Hungarian economy to Germany's, the free operation of the extreme right in Hungary and the introduction of anti-Jewish measures. The first two demands were gradually agreed to, albeit reluctantly. The last demand was fulfilled as a kind of a payment for territories returned. The first anti-Jewish law was passed in 1938 with the approval of parliament and the blessing of the churches. The guard was changing, and the payment was made for southern Slovakia. Next year the second anti-Jewish law was introduced, this time in Nurenberg style, based on racial criteria. This law was for Ruthenia and Transylvania, a few more jobs taken from Jews, and possibly to regain the support of the growing number of voters, especially the petty bourgeoisie and the industrial workers, who recently cast their votes for fascist parties. In 1941 the third anti-Jewish law was to be the last payment to Hitler and their domestic friends.

By the middle of 1942 the fortunes of war were not favouring the Axis powers. This was instantly recognized by Horthy's new prime minister, Nicholas Kállay. He was determined to save Hungary from both the Germans and the Russians. Kállay and Horthy refused all demands of the Nazis for the branding, confinement and deportation of the Jews in Hungary. They promised to expel them from Hungary only after Hitler won the war. Hungarian Jews were protected abroad and negotiations started with the Allies. The butchers of Ujvidek, the officers who ordered the murder of Serbs and Jews, were arrested. Foreign Jewish refugees were tolerated. With the start of the Slovakian deportations more and more Jews sought refuge in the relative safety of Hungary. Soon the total number of foreign Jews in Hungary reached 50,000. But well before March 15th, 1944, when Hitler ordered the occupation of Hungary, the Jews were persecuted.

According to the census of 1941 the population of Hungary numbered 9.3 million. There were 825,000 Jews in the country. Following the Nazi occupation of Poland about 100,000 Poles sought and received refuge in Hungary. A significant number of them were Jewish. In 1941 the government decided to reevaluate its refugee policies. About 18,000 Jews who could not prove their Hungarian citizenship were deported to Galicia where 16,000 of them were butchered by the SS Eisatzgruppen and their Ukrainian and Hungarian collaborators. A year later the infamous Ujvidék raid took place. In search of Yugoslav partisans the Hungarian army murdered 4,000 civilians amongst them 1,000 Jews in a southern Hungarian town. Before the German occupation, that is before 19 March 1944, fifty to sixty thousand Jewish men were enrolled in labour battalions. By the said date 15,000 of them were dead and another 10,000 died before the end of the war. Of the 25,000 who were captured by the Russian hardly any survived the war.

The road to Auschwitz was opened in March 1944. The German army occupied Hungary and Horthy was forced to appoint a pro-German government. There was no resistance. Soon Adolf Eichmann appeared with his small team to organize the deportation of all Hungarian Jews to death camps. The Hungarian genocide began in the spring of 1944. According to Veesenmayer, Hitler's plenipotentiary in Budapest, whose data is confirmed by other sources, 437,402 persons were deported from Hungary with the full cooperation of the new government, the civil service, the gendarmerie and the Jewish Council. Horthy and the people looked on passively. A few cheered, even fewer protested. Copies of the Auschwitz Protocol, information about the planned extermination of the Jews of Hungary was passed on to the Allies, to the Hungarian government, the Jewish Council, Horthy and the head of the Catholic Church. Nobody warned the victims. Nobody protested publicly. The British government forbade Palestinian Jewish commandoes to parachute into Hungary and arouse the Jews. The Americans refused to bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz. The Canadian government declined to take in Hungarian Jewish children. The Allies disallowed trading trucks for lives earnestly offered by the SS.

The Pope addressed a personal plea to Horthy on June 25, 1944, which was followed by the warnings of President Roosevelt on June 26, and that of King Gustav of Sweden on June 30. Horthy prohibited further deportations. By now all the Jews from the countryside were gone. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were working day and night. The overload was thrown onto the constantly burning open pits. In Hungary the respite was only temporary. Eichmann, with the help of the Hungarian Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party, who were put into power in October 1944, continued his work. From the Jews of Budapest another 50,000 were handed over to the Germans. The number would have been 15,000 higher without the heroic activities of Raul Wallenberg. During the next six months another 15,000 Jews died within Hungary mainly as a result of the Arrow Cross attrocities. The most Jews of Budapest, however, survived, albeit decimated. But what happened to the 490,000 deportees? 50,000 who survived the Holocaust in Germany decided never to return to Hungary. Between 350,000 and 450,000 fell victim to genocide.

In mid-1945 141,480 Hungarian citizens declared themselves Jews by religion, 1.6% of all Hungarians. Among these survivors women outnumbered men by 37%, in Budapest by 65%. There were few children left, 80% of them perished. The surviving elite left for the USA, Canada, Australia and France. The Jewish middle classes were financially broke. In 1946 the American JOINT stated that 90 to 95% of the Hungarian Jews needed aid. Many of the former craftsmen, merchants and industrial workers went to work in factories. This was a way of blending into the milieu. The youth rushed to the universities. Others joined the army, the police, the political police and the civil service. Most joined the communist party or the social democrats. There they felt safe from nationalism. At first all Jews felt truely liberated. Gentile Hungarians were not so sure. The present government, in any case, has recently eliminated Liberation Day, April 4, from the list of official holidays. But in 1945 the Provisional Government of Hungary tried to make the country safe for Jews. As a result of war crime trials, the leaders of the Arrow Cross Movement were hanged and close to 60,000 others were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Certification Committees swung into action, probing into the past of civil servants. Too many people were compromised and they soon began to blame their problems on the Jews.

The political parties wanted to be popular and soon welcomed the "small Nazis" in their ranks. The government refused to admit national responsibility for the Hungarian Holocaust, even the properties of the survivors were not always returned. The gentile intellectuals again began to talk about the so-called "Jewish Question", that is, that there are too many Jews here and there, in one committee or another, or in one profession or another etc. Peter Veres, in charge of the land reform, was soon accused of introducing an unwritten anti-Jewish law: no land for Jews. In the fight against inflation, some of the papers printed caricatures of blackmarketeers that could have been easily confused with drawing of Jews in the Stürmer during the Nazi era. Following a speech by Cardinal Mindszenty in a Budapest church, a crowd of a few hundred went on the streets to cheer Szalasi and Imredy, Hungary's chief anti-Semites. The head of the Calvinist Church invited the Jews of Hungrary "to clean up their act". As a result of these development and decades of unrestrained anti-Semitic agitation small wonder that soon Jewish blood was flowing again.

In 1946 there were several pogroms. 21 May 1946, Kunmadaras. Peasants murder two Jews, eighteen are wounded. 1 August 1946. Miskolc. Industrial workers stage a progrom. Two Jews are lynched. There were other anti-Semitic disturbances in many villages. The Jewish community now became openly critical of the government. For some of the Jews the hope for a new world in Hungary was finally gone. They no longer wanted to be Jewish Hungarian just Hungarian Jews. In the next two years at least 4,000 of them left for Israel. 1947 turned out to be a quiet year. The communists were organizing their take-over, both political and economic. Jewish businessmen lost their capital again through nationalization, the fascists were demonstrating and killing again in the village of Pocspetri (1948) and at the instigation of the Soviet Union an anti-Zionist campaign was initiated all over Eastern Europe. More Jews now turned their back on Hungary. In 1948 and 1949 10,307 arrived in Israel.

For the next forty years during the communist rule and Soviet occupation the Jews were safe. More or less. Popular anti-Semitism was no longer tolerated, the anti-Semitic popular writers were branded nationalist reactionaries. Only the Bolshevik state was allowed to practice anti-Semitism. During the first show trial, the Rajk trial, the leaders of the communist party made sure that three out of the eight accused were Jews. How else could they, the four top Jewish leaders of the state and the party show the people of Hungary, whom they considered fascist from a to z, their objectivity? More Jews were scared away again. In 1950/51 another 3693 of them managed to leave for Israel. The rest embarked on the old road of assimilation, unconditional support of the regime, or a retreat into private life. When Stalin initiated a vicious anti-Semitic campaign a few months before his death, his self-declared best pupil in Hungary, Matthias Rákosi, began preparing an anti-Semitic show trial. The case fizzled out with Stalin's death but communist Jews were gradually removed from responsible positions and the Jewish head of the secret police was imprisoned. The expulsion of the Jews from public life was completed during the Kádár regime.

In 1956 when the people of Hungary rose up against their domestic and foreign oppressors, Jews fought on both sides of the barricades. Jewish intellectuals again dreamt in that year that the days fo complete assimilation had arrived but the Jewish masses knew better. It was hard to tell that an AVO man was hanged because he was a secret policeman or because he was a Jew. A smattering of anti-Semitic incidents in north-eastern Hungary gave the ultimate incentive for emigration. 5,000 Jews left for Israel, over 20,000 for other countries, including about 8,000 who came to Canada. Then again silence decended on Hungary for the next thirty some years.

The Jews disappeared from public life. The government only left them to concentrate in the cultural life in large number. The leaders of the community kept up their total conformity, concentrated on helping the poor and the rabbis on attending the declining number of bar mitzvas and increasing number of funerals. In the mid-1970s Jewish life began to experience a miracle. The leaders of the Rabbinical Seminary challenged the traditional leadership of the community. Its head, Alexander Scheiber, advocated that the Jews of Hungary must be both Jewish Hungarians and Hungarian Jews at the same time. Assimilated young Jews developed an interest in their past, in their ancestors, that is, in themselves. Some went to see Scheiber, others met socially with fellow alienated Jews to discuss life, Jewish life.

When the communist state disintegrated, popular anti-Semitism surfaced again at football matches, in the high schools, and in the press. The statue of Wallenberg was besmirched.The populist wing of the ruling party today is led by the anti-Semitic poet, Istvan Csurka. A few weeks ago he led 15,000 of his followers in a mass demonstration on the streets of Budapest. On October 23, 1992, on the anniversary of the Revolution of 1956, neo-Nazi thugs wearing SS caps and flying Arrow Cross flags jeered the president of the republic. But there is another side to Hungary.

Forty years of communist rule had some positive sides to it. The nation was educated and Europeanized. The peasants of Hungary became farmers and since the 1960s the middle classes learnt the value of private enterprise. Pope John XXIII changed the attitude of the Catholic Church towards the Jews and this development had its impact on the Hungarian Church. Economic and religious anti-Semitism suffered a major set-back. Some say that part of Hungarian society began to assimilate certain Jewish traditions.

The Jews of Hungary became not only Hungarian Jews but also Jewish Hungarians. Jewish institutions are flourishing again in Hungary. Gentile Hungarians are anxious to prove that their country is a civilized place. The president and the prime minister of Hungary formed an honour guard at the befouled statue of Wallenberg. The parliament apologized to the Jewish community in the name of the nation for the crimes of the past and offered some financial compensation to the survivors of the Holocaust. To counter the Csurka demonstration over 100,000 Hungarians demonstrated silently in Budapest against neo-Nazism and intolerance in general. One can only hope that the 80,000 Jews who live in Hungary today may finally find their peace locally, provided that the anti-Semitic tradition of the past 100 years will be lingering on only on the controllable fringes of society.