An Overview Of Hungarian Jewish History, Part Two
During the reign of Joseph II (1780–1790), the son of Maria Theresa, a radical new regulation was enacted. Joseph demanded that all Jews adopt German surnames and send their children to German-language schools. His Edict of Tolerance sought to integrate Jews into daily life—not so much to improve the plight of Jews but to make Jews more useful for the state. Jews were discouraged from speaking Yiddish and Hebrew except in prayer, and were encouraged to settle freely throughout the realm. In the guise of “enlightenment,” they could also send their children to Christian schools and universities. In addition, they could enter the professions and trades and open factories and even own land.
His regulations paved the way for the development of the “Enlightenment” or “Haskalah” movement that sought the easing of Jewish religious laws and practices and hastened the assimilation process of both German and Hungarian Jewry. For many years, Christian and some Jewish thinkers were of the opinion that anti-Semitism would abate if only the Jews were not seen as so “foreign.” They were “too Jewish,” was the complaint. It was thought that the adoption of German or Hungarian names and speaking German or Hungarian would ease the isolation and thus the discrimination against the Jew. [David B. Green, This Day In Jewish History: 1782. Hapsburg Emperor Announces Tolerance For Jews, Haaretz.com, January 2, 2015]
These insidious changes influenced the formation of the reform-minded “Neolog” branch of Judaism in Hungary. Offering a clear alternative in liturgy and observance to the traditional Orthodox, the Neolog movement sought to reinforce the march toward a lessening of traditional orthodoxy in favor of a liberal and more assimilationist Judaism. These changes sought to wean Jews away from a dependency on the Hebrew language and Jewish education. The formation of this “watered down” or Hungarianized religious practice inspired numerous conflicts with the Orthodox community and rabbinate.
By the beginning of the 19th century, nothing less than complete equality for Jews in every sector of political and communal life became the avowed goal of many Jews. Prayer books and sermons were available in Hungarian, followed by the printing of the first-ever annual Jewish calendar in the Hungarian language. The opportunity to integrate and melt into Hungarian culture was intoxicating for many, and the Neolog movement grew rapidly.
The March 15, 1848 Hungarian War of Liberation from Germany saw thousands of Jews flock to enlist into the ranks of the Hungarian army. Jewish enlistment was considered a patriotic duty and exceeded, by far, their percentage of the population. According to Louis Kossuth, the leader of the revolution, there were over 20,000 Jews aiding the Hungarian war effort. Jews certainly could feel that their loyalty or Hungarianization would now never be questioned. But Hungary lost the war and Germany sought to punish the Jews for their enthusiastic support of the revolution. [Moshe Herczl, Christianity and the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry, New York University Press, 1993, 7]
The Golden Age For Hungarian Jewish Emancipation
The formation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in 1867, for the first time, gave birth to the emancipation of Hungarian Jews, assuring full political and civil rights. In 1895, the Hungarian national congress voted to accept Judaism as a full-fledged religion in Hungary, on par in all aspects with all other existing religions.
Additional laws permitting the intermarriage of Hungarians with Jews followed this. With increased emancipation, the advocates of assimilation were unleashed. Increasingly, Jews identified as Hungarians, turning their backs on centuries of tradition. Conversion became acceptable and commonplace.
It was hoped by the assimilationists both in the Christian camp as well as the Jewish one, that with Jews adopting Hungarian culture, especially converting to Christianity, they would finally be accepted as Hungarians by their Christian neighbors.
Jews living in Hungary have always wanted to assimilate into their adopted land and their culture. The primary difference of opinion among various Jewish groups was only how much to assimilate. Some wanted to become completely Hungarian and convert to Christianity in order to shake off all vestiges of their alien Jewishness (big assimilationists), while others simply wanted to learn Hungarian and function among the gentiles as “Hungarian Jews.” These “smaller” assimilationists naturally expected to retain their Jewish heritage, religion, and practices but be accepted as Hungarians. Between these two poles were the rest of the Jews in varying forms of philosophies.
The crucial misunderstanding of all assimilationists was the way Hungarians defined “Hungarian.”
Even a cursory glance at Hungarian history reveals that St. Stephen, the first Hungarian monarch, established a Christian nation as he converted the pagan Magyars. All subsequent history, all the wars and skirmishes, the very oath of coronation, all revolved around the “Christian-ness” of Hungarians. How then could any foreign immigrant ever be considered “Hungarian” if he did not adopt the Christian faith? While at times Hungarian economic need dictated a more benevolent attitude toward the Jewish intruders, the anti-Semitic hatred nurtured by the priests always demanded that such feelings be temporary. Hungarian Jews, on the other hand, naively and even stubbornly overlooked the obvious and wanted to believe that their final acceptance by the majority of Christian Hungarians was only a matter of time.
Not even the Tiszaeszlár blood libel and its unleashing of the virulent latent Hungarian anti-Semitism following it, nor the formation of the National anti-Semitic party of Gyozo Istoczy, could shake the assimilationist Jews of this mistaken notion.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor. Read more of Dr. Sternberg’s articles at 5TJT.com.