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Danube Blues

"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.

Relevant Links
Jewish Budapest  Michael K. Silber, YIVO Encyclopedia. By the time Hungary became Christian in the 10th century, Jews had already been there for 600 years.  
Heroizing Horthy  Zoltan Simon, Bloomberg. For Hungary’s Jews, Miklos Horthy was the tyrant who delivered them to the Nazis. But for the Hungarian townsfolk now erecting statues of him across the country, he is a hero.
Whither Hungary?  Kester Eddy, BNE. “Hungary is no longer a Western-style democracy. It is an illiberal or managed democracy, in the sense that all important decisions are made by Orban.”
Elie Wiesel’s Protest  Reuters. “It has become increasingly clear that Hungarian authorities are encouraging the whitewashing of tragic and criminal episodes in Hungary’s past.”

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.

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. 

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Andres Lacko on July 12, 2012 at 6:29 am (Reply)
And what about your kippah ? We know the story, no need to tell it once again, and we know the situation. If anything is interesting, it is your personal experience. Your article is very correct. But tell us something about you, how did you experience Budapest.
jankel on July 12, 2012 at 8:02 am (Reply)
Just dress like a Catholic priest with a Kippa...
Like Archbishop and Pope do...
Hungarian idiots will turn crazy!
jacob arnon on July 12, 2012 at 11:19 am (Reply)
"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 spite of the community’s traumatic history, Jewish life in Budapest appears resurgent."

I find this problematic. Not giving in to antisemitism is one thing, ignoring it is something else since it makes the phenomenon appear normal. What kind of message are they sending to their children?
Robert E. White on July 12, 2012 at 11:29 am (Reply)
I recently returned from a trip to Croatia and recounted my experiences in the following blog post: At least there is a resurgence of Jewish life in Hungary and some vitality, even in the face of anti Semitism; in Croatia Judaism is, tragically, dead and buried and there is not even a hint of national self-consciousness regarding the issue.
Snag on July 12, 2012 at 3:59 pm (Reply)
One sided article, a lots of pointing finger at others, whitewashing Jews and portraying them as a victims without one word about Jewish back-stabbing conduct - they welcomed every enemy that showed up at the borders, they manned the communist leadership that so badly treated the nation that gave them safe haven and a roof over their heads - Bela Kun, Bohm, Pogany, Varga, Juhasz, Peczkal, to name few of them - rings any bells?
Paul Marks on July 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm (Reply)
There is a mistake here. Horthy and co were not really "monarchists", indeed they used armed violence to prevent Charles becomming King of Hungary.

Indeed Horthy was mocked as "an Admiral in charge of a landlocked country" and "a Regent who is the enemy of the King".

The Hapsburgs of the period were certainly not perfect - but they were not in favour of attacks upon Jews, or of regulations to persecute Jews.
jankel on July 13, 2012 at 3:33 pm (Reply)
I agree with you 100% about jewish crazy fools and criminals who were Bolcheviks and traitors but some Màgyàrs were also in the same bunch! Weren't they? And I and many other Jews were on the opposite to Bolcheviks and ended up in Siberia or very quickly like our ancestors in Katyn with a bullet in the neck...
I would add something you don't seem to realize: Jews weren't ever accepted as citizens until recently and even considered as Dhimmis (Untermenschen) like under the Otttoman Empire and Muslim law; and they were constantly under a different leadership - they had to manage and bargain to survive: a guy who was born a Pole, served in the Austrian army, lived and married in Hungary, and died in Romania, was killed by Russian Stalinists, without moving from his village.....!
    Snag on July 16, 2012 at 12:01 pm (Reply)

    Prior to WWII there were 3.5 million Jews in Poland around 3.3 million of them are Orthodox. After 800 years of coexistence 3/4 couldn't communicate in native language and 9 of 10 could not read/write in Polish. They locked themselves in ghettos and shtetls and created a country within country didn't contribute just like today in Jerusalem, Boro Park, Monsey, New Square, Kiryas Joel, in US or Outremont in Canada to name few of them. The Israelis are getting tired of them too. To be accepted you must blend in or face rejection.
Snag on July 13, 2012 at 4:34 pm (Reply)
There's more - To have a control over post WWII Hungary Stalin installed a regime runned almost entirely by Jews. At the top of Communist terror machinery Matyas Rakosi, Ernest Gero, Michael Farkas and Joseph Revai. The AVH, a Hungarian equivalent of the NKVD, was headed by Gabor Peter also a Jew. Their departments were staffed by their fellow trusted Jews creating a situation that eventually have lead to an uprising and national tragedy in '56 ,...

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