The presence of Jews in the Hungarian Duna basin coincides with the appearance of Roman legionnaires and can be traced back to the second or third century AD. Evidence from recently uncovered Roman ruins in Hungary suggests that after crushing the Bar Kochba revolt in Israel in 132–135 AD, the evacuating legionnaires were shifted to Hungary and brought with them captured Hebrew slaves to serve them. Recently discovered ancient cemeteries with graves facing east, a decidedly Jewish custom, along with Bar Kochba-era coins that were found among the ruins, seem to indicate that the Jewish presence in the region predates even the presence of the Magyars who conquered the Carpathian-Duna basin around 895 AD. [A Magyar zsidosag tortenete, Zsido.hu]
The history of the Jews and the Hungarians who eventually settled the area, however, has never been an easy one. Jewish history in Hungary cannot boast of any lengthy periods of time when peace and prosperity between the Jews and the Magyars was the rule. Life among the Magyars consisted of periods of persecution and discrimination intermixed with short and episodic periods of tranquility and tolerance. One may describe the Jewish experience in Hungary as marked by expulsion, recall, oppression, and newer expulsion—sort of a “love-hate” relationship. Or perhaps even more accurately: hate-resentment-tolerance-renewed hatred.
As the Magyars were establishing their kingdom, periods of economic uncertainty forced rulers to invite Jews from outside the country to help develop a stronger commercial-based economy. But there is no evidence that although they were needed, they were ever embraced or liked. They were merely tolerated for their commercial know-how, and for the ever-increasing taxes they were assessed, based on their growing incomes. Rather than appreciate the positive contributions to economic stability and prosperity, Hungarian resentment, jealousy, and hatred was fueled by the Jews’ presence.
Around 1000, Saint Stephen I unified the local gentry and consolidated his rule over Hungary. Born a pagan, Stephen outwardly became a devout Christian and established Roman Catholicism as the official religion. Wanting no conflict with the Holy Roman Empire, he forced all his vassals to adopt Christianity as the official, national religion of Hungary.
King Saint Stephen, however, had a vision of multiculturalism, and he established laws mandating tolerance for all religions, including the Jewish faith. In a letter of instruction to his son and heir, he urged him to preserve his vision in the future:
“…As settlers come from various countries and provinces, they bring with them various languages and customs, various instructive concepts and weapons which decorate and glorify the royal court but intimidate foreign powers. A country which has only one language and one kind of custom is weak and fragile. Therefore, my son, I instruct you to face the settlers and treat them decently so they prefer to stay with you rather than elsewhere, because if you were to destroy all that I have built and squander what I have collected, then your empire would doubtless suffer considerable loss.” [The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat by Paul Lendvai, Princeton University Press 2003, p.3]
Unlike in the previous centuries, Jews now began to settle in larger numbers as their presence was increasingly necessary for economic growth and development. Not wandering merchants anymore, Jewish settlement became a more permanent factor among the Hungarians as their numbers and influence grew. [The Illustrated History of Hungary, Csaba Csorba, Janos Estok, Ilona Karadi, Konrad Salamon, Magyar Konyvklub, Budapest 1999 and The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat By Paul Lendvai Princeton University Press 2003 p.37]
In 1093, however, less than 100 years after the end of the benign rule of Saint Stephen, Konyves Kalman, the new ruler, enacted several anti-Jewish laws, starting a precedent in Hungary. Despite having a reputation for learning and book-reading (“konyves” means “book lover”), his anti-Jewish pronouncements were anything but enlightened. In an attempt to supervise and contain the expansion of Jewish influence, Kalman limited Jewish settlement to large cities with an established Catholic archdiocese. In this way he attempted to curb the growth of the foreigners while keeping an eye on their enterprise. He outlawed mixed marriages between Jews and Christians and prohibited any work or conducting any business on Sundays.
Naturally, as Jews could not work on Saturdays, their Sabbath, this rule effectively limited their economic prospects and reduced their ability to significantly gain a market share in whatever area they chose to work in. Jews were also ordered to wear a distinct badge identifying them as Jews.
As the influence of Christianity increased, distrust and suspicion toward the non-Christian Jew increased as well.
This ebb and flow in the Jewish–Hungarian relationship continued for several centuries, reaching a zenith of tolerance in the Middle Ages, under the benign rule of Matyas Kiraly (King Mathias). [A Magyar zsidosag tortenete, Zsido.hu), The Illustrated History of Hungary, p. 23]
Matyas Kiraly was the most beloved and tolerant king in Hungarian history. He was beloved by all, Jew, gentile, nobleman, and serf. In 1476, during his marriage ceremony to Queen Beatrix, King Matyas invited Jews to participate in the wedding procession. A parade of Jewish “knights” rode on horseback with drawn swords sporting their flag, emblazoned with the Star of David. The leader of the Jewish community was honored with the rank of “Prefect of Hungary.” Such treatment was unprecedented anywhere else in Christian Europe. This “golden age of tolerance,” however, would be short-lived.
The death of Matyas in 1490 ushered in a period of political and economic instability in Hungary and was coupled with unrest throughout the continent. Invasion of Europe by the expansionist Ottoman Empire seemed imminent.
With this, the situation of Hungarian Jews became uncertain again. [The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat By Paul Lendvai Princeton University Press 2003 p.85 and The Illustrated History of Hungary Csorba, Estok, et al Magyar Konyvklub, Budapest 1999, p.26]
When the Turks finally invaded Hungary in 1526, Jews again found themselves in the crosshairs. As before, their treatment was dependent on the whims of the rulers of the areas they inhabited. They were persecuted and expelled from some regions, while protected and prosperous in others. This situation fueled physical and emotional insecurity. Adding to the uncertainty was the large German merchant class doing business in Hungary. The German merchants considered the Jews a business foe and a potentially dangerous competitor. Using their influence with their gentile neighbors, they urged the enactment of regulations aimed at limiting the access of Jews to the marketplaces.
The Turkish occupation caused Hungary to be split into three sectors. This political arrangement proved to be untenable in the long run due to a lack of any centralized government. Anarchy ruled. Buda was evacuated and its Jews lived under the protection of isolated nobility in small villages in outlying provinces. Although some Jews were subjected to pogroms in the Upper Provinces (present-day Slovakia), conditions actually improved for those living in the other provinces.
In Transylvania, for instance, Pechi Simon, the local chancellor, introduced Sabbath observance on Saturdays for the entire population, both Jewish and gentile. He also translated Hebrew prayer books as well as the entire Psalms into Hungarian and disseminated these items to the local population. Later on, followers of his “Saturday Observers” movement converted en masse to Judaism and maintained their loyalty to the Jewish people for centuries. Many joined their Jewish neighbors during the Holocaust as inmates in concentration camps and became victims of the gas chambers.
By the 17th century, Buda, the capital of Hungary and the seat of the monarchy, also emerged as one of the premier centers of Jewish life and culture in Europe. Famous rabbis, educators, and Kabbalists, Hebrew and Yiddish-language authors and poets, flocked to set up a presence. Yeshivas, as well as newspapers in both Hebrew and Yiddish, were established and flourished.
But an army led by Turks attacked Buda again, and when in 1686 the city was captured, the Jews were robbed of their possessions and almost entirely slaughtered.
In the late 18th century, after the liberation from Turkish influence, the nobility reemerged as rulers of Hungary under the domination of the Hapsburg Empire.
Settlement by Jews was once again curtailed and allowed only in the developing, newer cities that were ruled by the local landed nobility.
These rulers, earls and barons, had a wide range of tolerance for Jewish presence, which was reflected in the conditions they imposed on their Jews. In some areas, cultural life flourished and with it economic opportunities. Seeing such growth, Jews from the northern borders of Czechoslovakia, Moravia, and Poland, the so-called “Galicianer Jews,” began to pour into Hungary to take advantage of these new opportunities.
Jewish conditions were, therefore, dominated by geography. The largest areas settled were the eastern and western regions. The western region (near Austria and Slovenia) was populated by the “oberlanders” (highlanders) who spoke primarily German and Yiddish. They were more acculturated into the German culture and were more worldly and modern. The eastern region, however, was mainly the center of the simpler and traditionally religious Jews. These eastern unterlanders spoke Hungarian as well as Yiddish and clung to their ancient traditions and customs. Their occupation was primarily in agricultural commerce, dealing in farm and small community-produced commodities such as wheat, wine, and leather. They made their mark in the local regions.
By the late 18th century (1787), records reveal a Jewish population reaching over 80,000 people that tripled to 238,000 by 1840. A large percentage of this fast-growing population increasingly identified as “Magyar or Hungarian of Mosaic background.” [Lendvai, The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, 330]
Adding to this cultural mix was the development of the Chassidic movement in neighboring Poland and Russia. Chassidism spread to Hungary as well, with the formation of some large dynasties. (Satmar, Puppa, Kerestirer, Liske, etc.)
During the reign of Maria Theresa (1740–1780) a notorious Jew-hater, a special “tolerance” tax was enacted upon the Jews in the realm. This tax, well-known in previous Hungarian Jewish history, was simply a method to extort large sums whenever the rulers were in financial need. Maria Theresa’s tolerance tax began with 20,000 gold forints annually, ostensibly to finance her many wars, but continued to rise and ultimately reached 160,000 gold forints. This incredible sum was demanded annually, even after the end of hostilities.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz – My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He teaches 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.