Danube Blues: A Taste of Jewish Life, and Anti-Semitism on a Trip to Hungary

This is a guest post by Elliot Jager.  This article was first published on July 12, 2012 by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.
“Be sure not to wear a kippah on the street,” a veteran Hungarian-Israeli businessman cautioned as we disembarked at Budapest’s Ferihegy Airport.  With public opinion surveys showing it to be among the most anti-Semitic countries in Europe, I took warnings to be Jewishly discreet to heart throughout our visit to the Hungarian capital.
From a tourist’s vantage point, Budapest is a charming river city, which appears clean, orderly, and safe. Dubbed “the Paris of the East,” Budapest boasts tree-lined boulevards, lush parks, and a host of palaces, museums, and churches, mostly arrayed along the River Danube, which bisects the city.
But away from the pedestrianized streets, upscale malls, tourist restaurants, and pubs catering to the soccer-obsessed, these are hard times in Hungary. 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.  And in the midst of this hardship, support for the far Right—along with anti-Semitism—is growing.
Even as they confirmed that anti-Jewish sentiment was spiking, Israeli medical students, longtime Israeli expats, as well as members of the local community seemed inured.  Yet security is tight at all Jewish institutions. Unlike in Western Europe, the threat stems less from Islamists than from locals. In fact, Muslim visitors have not been immune to attacks from local thugs while the Roma (Gypsy), the perennial bête noire of South-Eastern Europe, again find themselves under attack from the far Right.  Indeed, the populist-oriented government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban finds it politic to kowtow to Gabor Vona’s ultra right-wing  Jobbik Party, which holds 46 out of 386 parliamentary seats.
While I was in Budapest last month, 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.

Frankel Leo Street Synagogue

Jews have had problems in Hungary for as long as the country has been Christian.
By the late 13th century, Jews had to wear a piece of red cloth when they appeared in public.  During the 14th century, the Jews were twice expelled and twice readmitted, although persecuted upon their return. Respite for some of Hungary’s Jews came soon after in the form of Ottoman rule, which lasted some 150 years.  But the Hapsburgs’ reconquest at the end of the 17th century brought massacres of Jews along with new restrictions and taxes due to the crown, as mandated by the Diet of Pressburg.
The “golden era” of Hungarian Jewry, upheavals such as the blood libel of 1882-1883 notwithstanding, mostly coincided with the height of the Austro-Hungarian 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, mikvehs, and colleges—since Jews could not routinely attend Hungarian ones.  As Jewish life became easier, Hungarian Jews joined their German counterparts in reforming their services to emulate Christian worship, with an emphasis on decorum and the addition of organ accompaniment.  This took the form of the Neolog movement—a mild version of Reform specific to Hungary—whose flagship institution was the stunning Moorish-style Dohany Street Synagogue.  Still the largest synagogue in Europe, the structure is able to accommodate 3,000 worshippers and testifies to the confidence that the Jews had about their prospects in Hungary.
But Jewish prosperity was short-lived.  After her defeat in the First World War, the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved into its constituent provinces.  Hungary degenerated into an internecine struggle between Communists and monarchists, enduring first the Red Terror as the Communists took power and then the White Terror as the monarchists wrested it back—victimizing Jews in the process.
The hostility toward Jews continued under the Regency of Miklós Horthy.  Hungary sided with the axis powers and by 1938, discriminatory laws were well codified.  After war broke out, thousands of Jews were conscripted into dreadful labor battalions.  Polish Jews living in Hungary were summarily expelled only to be murdered by the Nazis.
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.  Then, as was the case elsewhere in eastern Europe, there were pogroms carried out by the locals against Jews who had survived the war.  By the time the Red Army conquered Budapest on January 16, half of Hungary’s Jewish population—some 564,000 souls—had been murdered.
Yet when the Communists again took over in 1948-1949, Hungary still boasted one of the largest Jewish communities in Eastern Europe.  Thousands would flee in the wake of the 1956 uprising against the Soviets.  But relative to the Soviet Union, Hungary’s Communist rulers allowed a semblance of organized Jewish life.
Today, the community numbers somewhere between 80,000 to 120,000, many of whom are unaffiliated and Jewishly illiterate.  
On a recent Shabbat morning, fewer than 100 locals and tourists gathered for services at the Dohany, which still follows the Neolog tradition.  The organ, played by a non-Jewish woman, remains integral to the liturgy.  Women sit separately and play no role in the service.
Although the Dohany’s active congregation is small, the enormous edifice was refurbished after decades of Communist-era neglect with the help of Bronx-born Hungarian Jewish actor Tony Curtis and the Lauder Foundation. 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.
I attended an inspiring Friday night service at the (traditionalist) Frankel Leo Street Synagogue, which has been rejuvenated by the dynamic rabbi, Tamas Vero, 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.
In spite of the community’s traumatic history, Jewish life in Budapest appears resurgent.  While stoked financially by Jewish foundations from the U.S. and Europe, the real burden on the ground falls to the locals who patronize and maintain the JCC, kosher bakery, grocery, restaurants, café, shops, mikveh, and hevra kadisha. Still, it would be easier to be optimistic about Hungary’s Jewish future were its political elites committed to promoting the kind of tolerance that needs to go hand-in-hand with Western-style democracy.
(Photo: Laszio Padar)