Hungarian Jews

Figure 1.--Here is a German postcard, probably from the early 1930s. We see Jewish children in the Carpathen region of Hungary before World War II. Carpathian Jews traced their ancestry to the Jews that settled in Roman outposts in the 3rd century AD. Hungarian Jews were largely urbanized and assimilated, but Jews also lived in small towns and villages throughout the country. Many of these Jews were not assimilated and mostly Orthodox.

Hungary had a larger Jewish population than either Germany or Austria. At the time of World War II, Hungary is believed to have had a Jewish population of approximately 825,000, although the Jewish population in the early 1930s was only about 450,000 people. After Poland and the Soviet Union, Hungary had the largest Hungarian community in Europe. Hungarian Jews like German Jews were some of the most assimilated Jews in Europe. Jews within the Austro-Hungarian Empire were emancipated in 1867 when the Empire was created. Jews within the Empire, unlike many ethnic groups, were laregly supportive of the imperial structure. Jews in the Hungarian area of the Empire became Hungarians in all respect, including language, customs, and clothing. This was especially the case of urban Jews. Most identified themselves as Hungarians more than Jews. Over 10,000 Jews were killed during military service in World War I. Many Hungarian Jews did not actively practice Judiasm. Nor was there much interest in Zionism after World War I in the realtively open society under Admiral Horthy. Theodor Herzl described the Hungarian Jews as a"dry bough" of Zionism.

Roman Empire

The first Jews are believed to have reached what is mow Hungary during the Roman Empire. This is the same pattern as observed in other European countries. The Jews were dispersed with the supression od the Jewish Revolt. During the resultng Diaspora, small numbers of Jews dispersed throughout the empire. The first record of Jews in Hungary date to the 3rd century AD in what was then the Roman province of Pannonia. Jews were associated with Roman military camps and settlements. The best known artifact is a memorial stone erected by "Cosimus, the leader of the custom station, the prefect of the Jewish synagogue". A unique Jewish community originating during the Roman era lived in the Carpathian Basin for 18 centuries. [Patai]

Medieval Era

There is also evidence of Jewish life in medieval Europe, including Hungary. The medieval ear is a long historical period, lastung about a millenium. After Christianity emerged as the state religion of the Empire, other religions were supressed. This is why Christianity was the only other religion in most of medeval Europe. Few written records exist to document Jewish life in early medieval Europe. More is known about conditions by the mid-medieval era, roughly the time of the Crusades. The Jews of central Europe shared many different experiences. All of the central European people lived and interacted with German and Jewish minorities. By far the most important minority was the Germans with their larger numbers and cinnections with German states to the west. The Jews while smaller in number also played a role during the medieval period. The Jews were destinct in that unlike the Germans they did not operaste entirely within the existing society. They were separated by religion, language, and custom. The Jews in the region steadily increased after Western Europe became increasingly hostile to Jews at the time of the Crusades and plagues. Most of the Jews were Ashkenazi (western or German Jews). The greatest number of Jews migrated to Poland, but others settled in what is now Hungary and Czechoslovakia. And while conditions varied, Eastern Europe proved much more hospitable that Western Europe. [Wandycz, pp. 9-10.]

Hungarian Kingdom

There are some documents attesting to Jewish life from the 11th century. Jews tended to grvitate toward towns. Importan Jewish communities developed in Buda, Esztergom, Sopron, Tata and Old Buda. Jews were tolerated by the Hungarian Árpádian Dynasty. There were restrictions, but notably less honorous than in Western Europe. Hungarian Jews were in fact safer than Jews in other areas of Europe, especially Western Europe. The terrible ttacks on Jews associated with the crusades did not occur in Hungary. King Béla IV issued a charter of privileges (1251) which was generally confirmed his successors. The charter made Hungarian Jews "servants of the Chamber" to the king (servi camerae. They paid their taxes directly into the Royal Treasury. In exchange they were accorded royal protection. Hungarian Jews were prominently involved with commerce and finance. Hungarian rulers and nobels commonly turned to them for funds. Other Jews were royal advisers. Nobels were only able to have 'their' own Jews in the late medieval era. [Wandycz, p. 25.] The influx of Jews east is strong evidence that the living conditions and opportunities for Jews were in Hungary as well as Poland, Bohemia and iother areas of Central Europe were far better than in Western Europe.

Ottomon Empire (16th-17th centuries)

Hungary's king was defeated and killed by an invading Ottoman army. The Hungarian disaster at at Mohács (1526) eventually led to the fall of Buda (1541) and the Ottoman acquistion of mosdt of Hungary. The Ottomans also made Transylvania a tributary principality, long with Walachia and Moldavia. These provinces would become modern Romania, but territorial disputes would develop. Central Hungary was an Ottomon province ruled by appointed pashas located in in Buda. The Ottomon's were intially concerned in securing their possession of a new province. The Hungarian Chritian aristocracy was sispossessed. The Sublime Porte essentially owned the land in the name of the Sultan. He managed about 20 percent of the land for his personal benefit. The rest of the land was divided among Otooman soldiers and civil administrators. Their motivation was essentially financial and attempted to extract as much wealth as possible frim the peasantry. Abusive taxes, endemic military clashes, and even slave taking depopulated large areas of Hungary. In sharp contradt, the Ottomans permitted a substantial degree of religious freedom, in sharp contrast to Christian rulers at the time. Christians and Jews were permitted a substantial level of autonomy in domestic affairs. A middle-class persuing artisan trades and trade expanded significantly during the Ottoman era. Hungary's Jews prospered under Ottomon rule.


The Hapburgs drove the Turks out of Hungary and the country became a province in the vast Haosburg empire. Considerable damage occurred in Hungary during the fighting which expelled the Turks. The Hapsburgs encourasged settlement of their newly acquired territory. Germans and Slovaks moved into Hungry as well as other etnivc groups in smaller numbers. Among these were Jews. Many of the Jews were were from Bohemia and Moravia. After the Hapburgs acquired Galicia in the Polish Partitions, Jews from Galacia also arrived in Hungary. The number of Hungarian Jews was still very small before the Polish Partitions, about 20,000 in 1769. The number swelled to an estimated 80,000 by 1787. Most Hungarian Jews were ivolved in marketing. Because Hungary was primarily an agricultural country, for the most part Jews were engaged in marketing agricultural products such as wine, grain, leather, and other commodities. This the Jewish populations was centered in the villages and towns and eventually cities where farmers sold thdir produce. Emperor Joseph II issued The Toleration Decree (1781) permitting Jews to move into free royal towns. Jews were allowed to open their own schools, participate in trade and commerce, and to purchase land. Hungarian Jews were involved in the 1848 Revolution attempting to establish a liberal democratic regime.

Austro-Hungariam Empire (1867-1918)

Austria and Prussia contested dominance within the German Confederation. Prussia quickly defeated Austria in the Austro Prussian War (1866) and essentially expelled Austria from Germany. Austria responded with the Austro-Hugarian Empire or Dual Monarchy by which Hungary was made a full partner with Austria. The creation of the Empire is known as the Compromise of 1867. At this time Jews within the Empire were fully emancipated. Jews within the Empire, unlike many ethnic groups, were laregly supportive of the imperial structure. Jews in the Hungarian area of the Empire became Hungarians in all respect, including language, customs, and clothing. This was especially the case of urban Jews. Budapest had one of the most dynamic Jewish populations in Europe with a particularly notable intelligentsia. [Wandycz, p. 10.] Most Hungarian Jews, especially in urban arews identified themselves as Hungarians more than Jews. Over 10,000 Jews were killed during military service in World War I. Many Hungarian Jews did not actively practice Judiasm. Most Hungarian Jews saw themselves principally as Hungarians, differing from other Hungarians in only denominational terms. [Patai] Until the Holocaust most Hungarian Jews wee unaware of the racial concept of Jewery as promoted by the NAZIs. Jews prospered materially in the Empire. As the universities and public servive ere opened to Jews, they emerged from commerce and finance into many professions, including learned professions such as academia, medicine, and the law. Jews also became prominent in the arts. The Jews played a critical role in Hungarian politics, finance, industry, science, medicine, arts, and literature as well as making an important contributions to Jewish scholarship. [Patai]

World War I (1914-18)

Hungary during World War I was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and thus a member of Central Powers. As was the case of Germany and Austria, Hungarians were surprised at the outcome of the War. The defeat of Russia and signinging of the Brest-Litovsk Peace Treary (1918) had convinced most Hungarians that their sacrifices in the War had brought victory. The collapse of the German Army on the Western Front came as a great shock. Hungarians after the War were demoralized. There were huge causialties, destruction, and economic dislocation. Few jobs were available for the surviving soldiers and hunger was widespread. Political Chaos (1918-20)

Post-War Chaos (1918-20)

The country with the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell into chaos. Several weak Governments fell. Bela Kun, a Communist, following the example in Russia proclaimed a Soviet Hungarian Republic an instituted what became known as the "Red Terror". Bela Kun (real name Aaron Cohen) and most of his cronies who terrorized Hungary during the so-called Soviet Hungarian Republic, were Jews which fueled anti-semitism in Hungary. Vice-Admiral Miklos Horthy, the last Commander-in-Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy, raised an army and managed to overthrow Kun and the Communist Republic. The experience generated considerable support for right-wing elements in Hungary. There was a short-lived attemp to install Emperor Karl who had been deposed in Austria. Treaty of Trianon (1920)

Treaty of Trianon (1920)

The Hungarian Government in 1920 signed the Treaty of Trianon. (Each of the members of the Central Powers signed a separte peace treaty with the Allies. The best known is the Versailles Treaty that the Germans signed.) The treaty brought the cherished goal of indeopendence to which many Hungarians aspired. The new Hungarian governmrnt was the first independent Hungarian state since the Muddle Ages. Hungary under the Treaty, however, lost considerable territoiry to neoghboring countries that many Hungarians thought that they were entitled which further fuled right-wing political sentiment. Romania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia all obtained territory that many Hungarians believed was rightfully theirs. This treaty also limited the size of the Hungarian Army and prohibited tanks, artillery and an air force. Hungarian foreign policy during the 1920s and 30s was aimed at recovering territory and undoing these military restrictions resulting from the Treaty of Trianon

Independent Hungary

The Government of Admiral Horthy sought to find alliances that would help Hungary regaining its territory. The Allies (England and France) and no interest in renegotaiting the Treaty of Trianon and redrawing the map of Eastern Europe. Hungary in 1927 signed a treaty with Italy. The Italians had fought with the Allies in World War I, but the democratic regime had been replaced by Europe's first Fascist dictatorshio under Benito Mussolini. This was the beginning of Hungary's relationship with Fascicm. After the rise of the NAZIs in Germany, Hungarian Prime Minister Gyula Gombos signed a trade agreement with Germany. The agreement helped Hungary economically as it improved access to the huge German market which despite the War was still the most important ecinomy in Europe. Admiral Horthy ran a realtively open government in which a broad expanse of the political spectrum, both left and right, could organize and participate in political affairs. There was individual anti-semitism, but Jews enjoyed full political and civil rights. With the frowth of Fascism in Italy and Germany and with still simmering national humiliation over the loss of territory, right wing political parties grew in strength and began demanding that Hungary adopt policies being pursued in Germany.

Religious Communities

Hungarian Jews had three religious Jewish communities. The Neologs, similar to reform Judiasm in America, were most prominant in Budapest and other cities. Orthodox Judiaism dominated in the small towns outside Budapest. There was also a smaller movement referred to as ‘Status Quo Ante Jewish Communities' which were a kind of compromise between Neologs and Orthadox Judiaism. There was considerable inter-marriage and conversion to Christiasnity. This increased as the Government began instituting abti-Semetic laws in the late 1930s. Many Hungarian Jews did not actively practice Judiasm. Nor was there much interest in Zionism after World War I in the realtively open society under Admiral Horthy. Theodor Herzl described the Hungarian Jews as a"dry bough" of Zionism. The lack of interest in Zionism is a reflection of the prosperity of Hungarian Jews and the high degreee of asssimilation.

Hungarian Jewish Populations

The number of Jews in Hungary at the time of World War II is somewhat complicated. We have seen estimated ranging from 750,000-850,000. A Hungarian census reported a Jewish population of 445,000 in 1930. This constituted about 5 percent of the population, a much higher percentage than in Germany. About half of Hungary's Jews lived in Budapest and two other cities meaning that the Jewish percentage there was much higher than in the country as a whole--about 20 percent of the city's population. The remainder of Hungary's Jews lived in small communities scattered throughout the country. The Hungarian Jewish popupaltion appears to have declined to about 400,000 by 1939 as a result of conversions, emigration, and low birth rates. The NAZI enspired anti-Semetic laws were a factor here. There were another 100,000 Christians Jews, meany people of Jewish heritage whose families had converted to Christianity for various reasons. Hungary was dominated by a small landed aristocracy and a substantial rural peasantry. Jews made up a substantial portion og Hungary's urban middle class. Most urban Jews were highly aculturated, many not practing Jews. Jews in the small towns were more religious and less acculturated. Here many were Orthodox. With the rise of the NAZIs in Germany, Hungary's Jewish population swelled as German Jews tried to escape the NAZIs. This escalated after the Anchscluss when the full orce of NAZI anti-Semitism was unleashed on Austrian Jews. After Munich Jews from Czechoslovakia tried to enter Hungary, especially after Hitler seized the rest of the country (March 1939). Hitler awarded a section of Slovakia to Hungary. The NAZI invasion of Poland created more refugees (September 1939). Hungary and Romania also went to war in 1940 over conflicting territoial claims. Hitler who had begun to plan for Barbarossa wanted no disruptions and called a conference in Vienna. It was not a conferene, but a German dictated peace in which Hungary was awarded most of Translvania. Hungar acquired more territory with the NAZI invasion of Yugoslavia (April 1941). These territorial awards added about 250,000 to Hungary's pre-War Jewish population. This included Jews from Slovakia (75,000), Yugoslavia--Backa basin (25,000), and Romania--Transylvania (150,000). As part of the NAZI inspired changes in Hungarian law during 1941, Jews wre classified on a racial as well as religious basis. As a result of this law, about 100,000 Christians were reclassified as Jews.

The Holocaust

The story of the Hungarian Jews is one of the most tragic in the sad history of the Holocaust because they almost survived. The Hungarian Governent, allied with the NAZIs, introduced anti-semitic measures (April 1939). The Government cancelled the benefits awarded the veterans and widows and orphans of Jewish World War I veteransho had fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army. Prohibitions were enacted on Jewish employment. They were barred from the civil service, newspapers, movies and theater. Nor could Jewish laborers participate in working associations. Liberals in Parliament attempted to descredit Prime Minister Bela Imredy. When it was found that he had Jewish ancestors, he resigned. The new Prime Minister Count Paul Teleki oversaw the enactment of these laws, but did not go further. Hungarian Jews were not forced into ghettos. The pro-NAZI Arrow Cross demanded futher measures, but were in a minotity in Parliament. Hungarian Jews despite the ecoonomic privations, until 1944 they were relatively untouched by the NAZI violence and there had been no transports to the death camps. The Hungarian Jews were the last to be killed at Auschwitz before it was demolished and evacuated as the Red army approached. SS commander Adolf Eichman went to Hungary in 1944 to personally oversee the liquidation of the Hungarian Jews. Eichmann supervised the collection and transport, rushing to accomplish his mission before the Germans were expelled by the Red Army. Despite the pressing war time needs. Priority was given to the transports of the Hungarian Jews to Auchwitz.


The Jews surviving the Holocaust were devestated. There were two basic reactions. Some Jews embraced their Judiasm and turned to Zionism. Thy did their best to get to Israel. Others were so traumatized by the Holocaust and stigma of Judiasm that they attempted to forget or even disguise their heritage.


Patai, Raphael. The Jews of Hungary History, Culture, Psychology.

Wandycz, Piotr S. The Price of Freedom: A History of East Central Europefrom the Middle Ages to the Present (Routledge: New York, 1993), 330p.


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Created: 12:48 AM 6/7/2006
Last updated: 7:31 PM 12/23/2010