"Be sure not to wear a kippa on the street," a veteran Hungarian-Israeli businessman cautioned as we deplaned at Budapest's Ferihegy Airport. I took warnings to be Jewishly discreet to heart throughout our visit to the Hungarian capital. In fact, the only time I was made to feel out-and-out uncomfortable was at the airport on our way back to Israel when two uniformed officials, one staffing the screening machine and the other a customs desk, separately, went out of their way to be antagonistic to me and another El Al passenger.
Even as they confirmed that anti-Jewish sentiment was spiking, Israeli medical students, longtime Israeli ex-pats as well as members of the local community seemed inured. Security is tight at all Jewish institutions though apparently the threat stems less from Islamists than from locals. In fact, Muslim visitors have not been immune to attacks from local thugs and I saw few women in traditional Muslim dress. Some Roma (Gypsy) feel under siege. And, strikingly, unlike other European capitals there are no African street vendors.
From a tourist's vantage point, Budapest appears clean, orderly and safe. Away from the pedestrianized streets, upscale malls, tourist restaurants and pubs catering to the soccer-obsessed, however, these are hard times in Hungary. The country is part of the EU though not the euro zone. A copy of the weekly English-language Budapest Times, for example, costs an inflated 750 forints (about NIS 13 or $3.25). Unemployment stands at over 11 percent, though considerably higher among young people. One in four Hungarians has had problems paying their utility bills, the newspaper reported.
The populist-oriented government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban finds it politick to kowtow to Gabor Vona's ultra right-wing Jobbik Party which holds 46 out of 386 parliamentary seats. There are credible rumors afloat that Jobbik has received financial backing from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Embarrassingly, a regional Jobbik leader, Csanad Szegedi, recently learned that he had Jewish ancestry. With one genetic firm offering dubious tests to establish racial purity, Jobbik leaders now allow that, perhaps, what really matters is to behave like a Hungarian.
While I was in Budapest, Elie Wiesel repudiated a Hungarian state award he had received in 2004 because government officials recently attended a ceremony for World War II-era Nazi sympathizer Jozsef Nyiro. For the same reason, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin disinvited his Hungarian counterpart, László Kövér, from a Jerusalem ceremony honoring Raoul Wallenberg. Instead, President Janos Ader will represent Hungary.
Dominated by the Danube, Budapest is a charming river city incorporated only in 1873 with the integration of Buda, Pest and Obuda. Today's Hungarians are the progeny of the Magyars who invaded from central Asia in the 9th century. Their dogged paganism was bloodily overcome by Christianity, circa 1000. As for the Jewish presence, there have been Jews in Buda on and off since the 11th century; in Pest and Obuda since the 1400s. Jewish fortunes were always subject to the capricious whims of Christian authorities. Not surprisingly, Jews preferred the comparatively broadminded Ottoman rulers to Christian overlords. The 150 years of Islamic administration ended by the late 1600s. Only in 1840 were Jews no longer officially restricted from settling in Pest.
The "golden era" of Hungary Jewry, upheavals such as the Blood Libel of 1882-1883 notwithstanding, mostly coincided with the height of the Austria-Hungary Empire (1867-1919) as emancipated, mostly German-speaking Jews pursued acculturation, assimilation, and economic and cultural advancement. This was the Budapest milieu into which Theodor Herzl and Max Nordau (and also Joseph Pulitzer) were born.
The Jewish community built synagogues, schools, mikvaot and colleges (since Jews could not routinely attend Hungarian ones). The stunning Moorish-style Dohany Street Synagogue, affiliated with the once dominant Neolog stream was built in 1859 (well before the nearby Basilica) using a state-of-the-art cast-iron foundation. The structure is able to accommodate 3,000 worshippers and was testimony to the confidence Hungarians of the Jewish persuasion had about their prospects given that it was completed before they were granted their right to citizenship in 1867.
Even today it is one of the biggest synagogues in the world. The edifice was refurbished after decades of Communist-era neglect with the help of Bronx-born Hungarian Jewish actor Tony Curtis and the Lauder foundation.
On a recent Shabbat morning fewer than 100 locals and tourists gathered for services. The organ, actually played by a non-Jewish woman, remains integral to the liturgy. Egalitarianism, however, is not embraced. Men and women sit separately in the sanctuary and women play no role in the services.
The synagogue's interior courtyard is a graveyard and memorial to the city's Jews murdered during the Holocaust.
The compound is also home to the Jewish museum and impressive archives, described by senior historian Gabor Kadar as the one of the few continuous surviving community archives of the continent.
Herzl lived in a building that once stood in what is today the Dohany compound. The small square in front of the shul is named after him though in its prime the Dohany elders were anything but Zionists.
Nearby are some other architecturally interesting synagogues: the "status quo" traditionalist Rombach (1872) and the Orthodox Kazinczy (1913). The dilapidated Rombach is open to tourists but does not hold services. Further afield, I attended an inspiring Friday night service at the (traditionalist conservative) Frankel Leo Street Synagogue which has been rejuvenated by Tamas Vero, its dynamic rabbi and his wife, children's book author, Linda Vero-Ban. There was a parallel children's service; a dozen young women lit Shabbat candles, and part of the service was beautifully chanted by a cantor who also happens to be an opera singer. Again, women play no role in the service and sit separately in the sanctuary, but there was a genuine sense of community.
We ate Shabbat lunch with Chabad -- across the street from the Dohany -- which caters mainly to Israelis living in Budapest. While waiting for davening to end, I met a Holocaust survivor visiting from Australia. Accompanied by his son and grandsons he was visiting the concentration camps he had survived to memorialize members of their family who had perished. Though he did not hold the right papers, he had somehow managed to find refuge in the protected "International Ghetto" for Jews who carried life-saving passports from neutral countries.
As a Jew, you simply can't visit Budapest without encountering the Holocaust and what preceded it. The interwar years were punishing as Jews were made to pay the price for having been in the vanguard of two leftists revolutions that convulsed Hungary after the First World War. By 1938, discriminatory laws were well codified.
Under Miklós Horthy, Hungary sided with Nazi Germany and thousands of Jews were conscripted into dreadful labor battalions. Polish Jews living in Hungary were summarily expelled only to be murdered by the Nazis. A rescue committee headed by the controversial Rudolf Kastner was later established to assist Slovakian Jews who sought refuge in Hungary. Whatever outsiders may think, Kastner is remembered fondly in the Dohany compound.
Germany entered Hungary only in March 1944. By July, close to 450,000 Jews from the countryside were deported by the Hungarian authorities to Nazi concentration camps under Adolf Eichmann’s personal supervision. Budapest is also where Switzerland's Charles Lutz and Sweden's Raoul Wallenberg heroically used their diplomatic offices to save as many Jews as possible. (Lutz was punished by the Swiss government for exceeding his authority; Wallenberg disappeared into the Soviet Gulag).
In October 1944, as Horthy wavered in his fidelity to Berlin, the fascist Arrow Cross took direct control of the country. Death marches, pogroms and extermination followed. In November-December tens of thousands of Budapest's Jews were herded into a ghetto in a compact area bordered roughly by the Rombach, Kazinczy and Dohany synagogues.
Many other thousands remained confined to the “International Ghetto.” But in early January 1945 the fascists stopped honoring its neutrality. By the time the Red Army conquered Budapest on January 16, half of Hungary's Jewish population – some 564,000 souls -- had been wiped out.
Then, as was the case elsewhere in eastern Europe, there were pogroms carried out by the locals against Jews who had survived the war.
When the communists took over in 1948-1949, Hungary still boasted one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe. (There were many more Jews in the Soviet Union.) Thousands would flee in the wake of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets. Yet relative to the Soviet Union, Hungary's Communist rulers allowed a semblance of organized Jewish life.
Which brings me to today. The community numbers somewhere between 80,000 to 120,000, many of whom are unaffiliated and Jewishly illiterate. Some discovered only recently from elderly or dying relatives that they are Jewish.
With all that historical baggage, and without minimizing the difficulties, Hungarian Jewish life appears resurgent stoked financially from abroad by family foundations such as the Rothschild, Balint and Lauders and by Jewish Federations from the US, the JDC and the Dutch JHF. The real burden on the ground falls to the locals who patronize and maintain the JCC, kosher bakery, grocery, restaurants, café, shops, mikva and chevra kadesha.
It would be easier to be optimistic about Hungary's Jewish future were its political elites actively promoting the kind of tolerance that needs to go hand-in-hand with Western-style democracy and if public opinion surveys did not show it to be among the most anti-Semitic country in Europe.
Want to read more about this topic?
Jewish Budapest Michael K. Silber, YIVO Encyclopedia.
At the turn of the 20th century, Jews comprised twenty-five percent of the Hungarian population.
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Hungary, population 10 million people, could turn out to be a test case of the E.U.’s imperiled sway in these days of debt and austerity.
Wither Hungary? Kester Eddy, BNE.
A new book suggests that the Budapest government is leaning away from democracy toward authoritarianism.
New Wave of Hate Erich Follath, Der Spiegel.
Hungary has failed to come to terms with its anti-Jewish legacy.
Misunderstood Hungary Herb Keinon, Jerusalem Post.
The fractious Hungarian Jewish community is not of one mind about the prevalence of anti-Semitism.