Budapest's rich Jewish heritage

Stroll around Pest and sooner or later you'll wander into district VII, just off the main drag of Karoly ker but a world away from the thriving commercial and tourist meccas that characterise modern-day Budapest. District VII was the Jewish area where before the war many of the city's 250,000 Jews lived, worked and worshiped and where the great synagogues of the 19th century were erected in opulent Byzantine and Moorish styles. And in the dying days of WWII it became the focus of a more chilling construction when the Nazis ordered the city's remaining Jews to seal themselves into their neighbourhood by erecting the ghetto walls that effectively entombed them.

A walk around the circuit where the walls once stood shouldn't take you much more than 45 minutes - humbling when you stop to think that 100,000 people were once herded inside. Roughly they bounded the area east of Karoly ker, north of Dohany utca, west of Erzsebet korut and south of Kirely utca.

The Great Synagogue

The area's symbolic gateway is the Donhany utca (street) synagogue, the second largest in Europe, built between 1854 and 1859 and designed by the Austrian architect Ludwig Forster. At its peak, between the late 19th century and the 1930's, up to 1,500 male Jews would jostle along the synagogue's pews, with as many of their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters perched in the balconies above so as not to distract their menfolk from worship.

The Origins of Jewish Budapest

Jewish history in the city stretches back to the third century but modern Jewish life and culture really has its origins in the 17th century and the expulsion of the invading Ottoman Emperors from the city. Jews had all but vanished from the city under their 150-year reign and medieval Jewish towns had been torn down and erased. As Hungary's citizens sought to re-group after giving the Turks the big heave-ho, German, Slovak and Jewish settlers headed in to re-populate the state. On getting themselves shooed back in as top dogs the Hapsburg rulers then set about expelling the Jews from Buda and enforcing anti-semitic laws that corralled them into living in the city's Obuda district.

By the time of the unification of Buda, Pest and Obuda in 1873, there were 125 synagogues providing spiritual nutrition to a community that had swelled to 200,000. Among the synagogues still standing are the Rumbach Sebestyen Synagogue at utca 11. Designed by Otto Wagner it was built in a less formal style to the Dohany utca synagogue. It's currently closed and is being renovated, although you can visit it on some private tours.

The 'Golden' Era

The period between unification to the outbreak of WWI was really the golden age of Jewish life in Budapest. Jews achieved full emancipation in 1867 and from then on Jewish professionals, merchants, intellectuals and artists were an integral and rich blend of the city's life. One of the most prominent of these was Manfred Weiss who established the largest engineering industry plant in the country. For the most part, Hungarian Jews were able as well to reconcile their dual heritages, so that Jewish life didn't operate in a kind of parallel but separate universe as in some other Eastern European states, but was a living, breathing part of society and the lines between gentiles and Jews were often healthily blurred. Wandering around district VII you can see the names of some of the industrialists who left their mark on the area; Hauser and Frhlich were two Jewish business families whose names are still chiseled into the brickwork of buildings.

The Inter-War Years

The post WWI backlash against Jews came about partly due to a surge in communist activity as Jews were viewed with the same suspicion as revolutionaries and also because Hungary's only other minorities, Romas and Slovaks, had been lost when the areas they inhabited were annexed from Hungary. Now Jews became the scapegoats for the country's ills, and anti-semitic laws curtailing their rights were rushed through legislative bodies. The culmination of these were the 1938 Nuremberg Laws which overturned the 1867 Jewish emancipation and, mirroring Nazi ideology, defined Jews as a distinct, separate sub-group.

WWII

Hungary's entry into WWII on the side of Germany, ironically, at first protected Jews from the atrocities inflicted on thousands of others in neighbouring countries. The government refused to deport Jews to Germany and Jewish life continued on - albeit with restrictions. However, forced labour camps for young Jewish men saw 27,000 perish before 1944.

The tragedy is that the majority survived the war relatively unscathed until so near to the end. Spring 1944 changed everything. Adolf Eichmann was dispatched by Hitler from Germany to 'solve' the issue of Hungary's Jews. Thousands from the rest of the country were marched into the city, so Budapest became a kind of 'holding station'. Eichmann's 'solution' lay in mass deportations to concentration camps and in less than three months nearly half a million people had been sent on trains to Auschwitz. Added to this were 50,000 Jewish men 'despatched' to labour camps in the east - and certain death.

In the meantime, the Nazis had installed the fascist Hungarian Red Arrow Party as the country's national government. Herds of Red Arrow members, mostly teenage boys, would rampage the streets of Budapest firing at will at Jews. The most notorious massacres were when mobs of supporters would round up groups of Jews and march them to the banks of the Danube. Here, after being made to take off their shoes, they would be blasted into the icy waters. Around 10,000 to 15,000 were killed in this way. Today a moving monument of dozens of bronze shoes lie seemingly abandoned at the edge of the Danube, near the Parliament Building. Those that were left were herded into the ghetto in the autumn of 1944. Inside, conditions were appalling for the 100,000 people there and the winter of 1944-45 claimed so many lives that they were forced to bury the dead in a cemetery in the Donhany utca synagogue - a practice that goes against Jewish burial practices.By the end of WWII, 600,000 Hungarian Jews of the pre-war population of 900,000 had perished - the vast majority having been murdered between spring 1944 and spring 1945.

District VII Today

A walk around district VII will reveal telltale signs of the world that once existed, from the granite Jewish names engraved into buildings to the stars of David set into the ironwork of archways - but the area is far from being a ghost town. Budapest has a thriving community of 10,000 Jews (although most don't live in district VII) and has a rich scattering of Jewish artisan businesses and eateries.

Today previously derelict courtyards and townhouses are being reclaimed and turned into bars and cafes - known affectionately as 'ruin cafes' such as Szimpla. This area is attracting a boho crowd, similar to Kazimierz in Krakow, Poland, a decade ago. As well, Hungarians with Jewish heritage are seeking out their religious roots and two Jewish festivals in late summer attract headline acts from Israel, the United States and other parts of Europe - a testament to a community that has endured throughout the ages ... and continues to thrive.

Jewish life in district VII

Synagogues

The Great Synagogue
Dohany Street
Tel: 003670-5335696 from abroad
Tel: 0670-5335696 in Hungary
Email: visit@greatsynagogue.hu
Web: www.greatsynagogue.hu
Built between 1854 and 1859 and designed by Ludwig Foster. The inside is based on Solomon's Temple, which appears in the Bible as the first Jewish temple. A moving monument in the synagogue's Raoul Wallenburg Memorial Park is a wrought silver tree with some of the holocaust victims names inscribed on its branches. The Jewish cemetery is also within the synagogues grounds.

Rumbach Sebestyen Synagogue
Rumbach Sebestyen 11
Tel, Email and Website same as above for the Great Synagogue
Designed by Otto Wagner the synagogue is closed, but can be visited by appointment and on private tours.

Other synagogues

Heroes Memorial Temple
Dohny utca 2

Kazinczy street Orthodox Synagogue
Kazinczy utca 29-31

Museums, monuments and cultural centres

Jewish Museum
Dohany Street
Tel, Email and Website same as above for the Great Synagogue
Connected to the synagogue, the Jewish Museum houses permanent exhibitions charting the story of Hungarian Jews during WWII as well as displays of Jewish religious artifacts and furniture.

Holocaust Memorial Centre
Pava Str. 39
Tel: + 36 1 455 3333
Email: info@hdke.hu
Web: www.hdke.hu
Well-worth visiting to get a real understanding of the Hungarian Holocaust, the Memorial Centre has a permanent exhibition, featuring photos, maps and personal accounts. The centre incorporates the Lipot Baumhorn Synagogue which lies within the exhibition area. Closed on Mondays.

The Swooping Angel
Across from Dov utca 11
This memorial of an angel swooping down to help a fallen victim, honours the Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, who saved hundreds of Hungarian Jews by issuing them with passports during WWII.

Shoes on the Danube
Pesti also rakpart, near the Parliament Building
Dozens of pairs of shoes lie abandoned by the side of the Danube in tribute to the thousands of Jews murdered here by the Fascist Red Arrow brigades.

Jewish restaurants, cafes and shops

Carmal Celler
Kazincy utca 28
Tel: + 36 1 342 4585
Web: www.carmel.hu/angol/nyito.htm
Upmarket kosher restaurant which throws Klezmer concerts on a Thursday evening. Closed Saturdays.

Hanna's Kosher Kitchen
Dob utca 35.
Tel: + 36 1 342 1072
No web or email
Run by two elderly ladies is this popular Jewish eatery which will cook up a special Sabbath meal. It's popular, but service is slow so don't turn up feeling too peckish.

Cafe Noe Cukraszda
Wesselenyi str. 13
Tel: + 36 1 787 3842
Web: www.torta.hu
Serves up frothy mugs of cappuccino and traditional Jewish teatime treats including big slabs of delicious flodnu cake and marzipan Rabbis.

Biblical World Judaica Gallery and Shop
Wesselenyi str. 13
Tel: + 36 1 787 3842
Web: www.judacia.hu
Next door to Cafe Noe Cukraszda, this little curiosity shop is a treasure trove for anyone on the lookout for Jewish memorabilia. Has an excellent collection of books.

Jewish Festivals

Jewish Summer in Budapest
A week long celebration in the first week of September of Klezmer acts, music and exhibitions. Many events take place in the Great Synagogue - an enriching setting to enjoy some of the finest music of the festival. Cultural events, film screenings and talks are part of the seven-day fest too.
Contact: Budapester Jewish Community Turism and Cultural Center
Tel: + 36 1 413 5531
Fax:+ 36 1 462 0478
Email: zsikk@aviv.hu
Web: www.zsidonyarifesztival.hu

Judafest
The last two weeks in August sees the Judafest festival in and around district VII. A festival for all the family with fun, games, crafts, activities and loads more. Watch out for the funky clown patrol somersaulting around town.
Web: www.judafest.org

 

Comments

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Marcel from United Kingdom Reply Sep 6th, 2011

To those who have been to Krakow for their festival in late June should also attend a similar festival at the back end of August www.jewishheritagetours.co.uk will be organising a trip to 2012 BUDAPEST Jewish Festival that follows the London Olympics

Martin Lentz from Australia Reply Jun 26th, 2011

We have been looking for ancestors who lived in Tokol (near Budapest) and who very likely got married etc in Budapest. We have not been able to find ANY ancestors or descendants and after reading your excellent article, we do now think we know what happened! Will have to go to the records we hoped never to see.

Michael from United Kingdom Jun 19th, 2017

do you mean from Tokaj in northern Hungary? I just came back from there.my family are from there. would be nice to talk to you.

Symona Gropper from Brazil Reply May 27th, 2011

Very interesting information! Will visit Budapest and Jewish district, of course, next September.

Simon Abrahams from United Kingdom Reply Mar 4th, 2010

Fantastic peice of jewish history very informative--hope it is in many different languages-- great page. lest we forget.

Eva Brent from United Kingdom Reply Jan 23rd, 2010

In the list of countries the USA is missing! If there is anyone out there in the land of Hungary that had personal experience with Raoul Wallenberg during WWII--Jew, I mean--please contact me! I need detailed info about the Prince!

Marianne from United States Reply Oct 7th, 2009

I know that this is not maybe the correct page to ask but I have a jewish relative who was in a camp in Hunary in 1944 and I wonder is there a list somewhere of Hungarian prisoners - I have been looking for this gentleman for many years and I know the Germans kept lists of many of their prisoners and so I hope I may be able to find the appropriate list. If anyone can help me in the Uk I would be really grateful. God Bless of the souls of the departed. Marianne

brien from United States Reply Aug 26th, 2009

Excellent!