1. Who are the Jews in the national community? Where did they come from? How many are there? What is their geographical distribution inside the country?
The question of identifying the Jews in a country such as Hungary is much more complex than it sounds. Estimates of their numbers vary between 50,000 and 200,000. The question revolves around the familiar issue of who may be considered a Jew. The general membership in Jewish community institutions of any kind is somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000; but if one counts all those who either consider themselves as Jews or whose neighbors do, we reach the highest number mentioned previously. Only about 40% of these have at least one Jewish parent, but it is increasingly common for people with only one or two Jewish grandparents to identify themselves as Jews.
Jews have lived in Hungary since the early Middle Ages and have had a very mixed history. On the whole, they should be considered part of the Ashkenazi world that spread east from the Germanic lands; nonetheless, the Hungarian community also has Sephardi members, dating from the days when the country was mainly ruled by the Ottoman Empire.
The Jewish population in Hungary was large and flourishing prior to World War II. By the end of the eighteenth century, some 80,000 Jews lived there; by the late 1860s, their numbers had swelled to around 540,000 and, only forty years later, to some 900,000. Numbers decreased in the inter-war period, as sections of Hungary were allotted to other countries such as Rumania, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia. Some of these regions passed back to Hungarian control through annexation in the early war period and, by 1941, the Jewish population stood at around 800,000.
The Holocaust decimated the population, with almost all the Jews outside the capital city of Budapest being murdered. The killings had begun in the capital as well, but the Russians entered Budapest in time to stop the final annihilation of tens of thousands of Jews. At the end of 1945, around 150,000 Jews remained in Hungary, many of whom immigrated to Israel.
However, when Hungary went over to Communist rule in 1949, the Jewish population was still very large. Under the systematic suppression of much of Jewish life under the Communists, the numbers of active Jews dwindled; many tried to erase their Jewishness and pass for ‘ordinary’ Hungarians. This was not so difficult as all the traditional centers of Jewish life had been destroyed during the Holocaust and the vast majority of those who had survived came from the highly-assimilated population in Budapest.
After Communism fell in Hungary at the end of the eighties, and the country became a full democracy, Jewish life started to revive. Many began once again to identify themselves as Jews. Such is the situation today.
Around 90% of Hungarian Jews live in Budapest; the rest are scattered in small communities, in a number of locations in the provinces.
2. How can they be defined economically? What are their professions and occupations?
Jews in Hungary have always played a very prominent role as traders in the country’s commercial life. After Hungarian Jewry was emancipated in 1867, Jewish participation in a number of fields such as communications, agriculture, transport and the arts supplemented the more traditional fields of business and finance. Most of these sectors have remained central to Jewish life until today, augmented by academia and the liberal professions.
Generally speaking, most of the Jews tend to be well-educated and financially comfortable. A recent survey suggests that over half of them have a university degree, placing them well above the national average.
3. What is the religious orientation of the Jewish community?
Since the late-nineteenth century, the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community has been in the hands of the group called the Neolog Jews (traditionally somewhere between Conservative and Reform Judaism). After emancipation, the community split into three distinct groups of which the Neologs and the Orthodox were the most important. Most of the main institutions were Neolog, including the monumental Doheny synagogue.- the second largest synagogue in the world - and the enormous Kozma St. cemetery, where the bourgeois leaders of Neolog Jewry were buried in extremely impressive (and not at all typically Jewish) burial structures. Orthodox Jewry (including some prominent Hassidic groups) was basically killed off in the Holocaust, situated as it was in the provinces where Jewish life was all but totally annihilated.
As Jewish life reemerged after World War II, almost all of those who wished to continue to identify themselves as Jews in any religious sense affiliated with the Neolog stream. Nowadays, only a small minority of identifying Jews attend synagogue, although the number is not negligible. There are approximately twenty operating synagogues in Budapest; some of them are very small, but others are capable of attracting over a hundred to a service on Friday night.
There is a small, but visible, Orthodox community in Budapest with its own institutions, and Habad is also active there. In 1996, Habad published the first Hebrew Hungarian prayer book to be issued since World War II, with an initial printing of 10,000 copies.
There is also a small Reform congregation of about fifty active families. Led by a woman rabbi, it was established in the early 1990s. However, it must be emphasized, the most of those who identify themselves as Jews do not seek out the synagogue as an institution in which to express their Jewishness.
4. What Jewish educational and cultural life is there in the community?
Educational and cultural life is developing fast under the post-Communist regime. There are now three full-time day schools in the community: one is Orthodox; another is secular (the Lauder Yavneh school, which moved to a new and very impressive campus in 1996), and the third is the Anne Frank community school (Neolog), which operated under the Communist regime.[editor’s note to author: did I understand this last part of the sentence correctly?]
There are also a few kindergartens, which several hundreds of children attend. In addition there is a rabbinical training college (Neolog) and a training college for teachers, the Pedagogium, which recently became affiliated with the University of Budapest. In total, there are some 1800 students in all of these institutions, all of which are located in Budapest. In the provinces, there have been some rudimentary attempts at part-time education for the small communities.
An annual camp for Jewish youngsters has been operating for a number of years at Szarvas, in Southern Hungary. It hosts around 2,000 young people from the former Communist countries It also hosts a number of activities throughout the year.
A vibrant Jewish community center, the Balint club, was opened in 1994, the first in East Central Europe since World War II. It has full-time staff and runs or hosts several programs daily. Large numbers of younger Jews - up to their thirties and forties - attend the club, not for specifically Jewish programs, but to participate in general programs with other Jews of their age.
A wide variety of forums in Budapest are offering an increasing number of Jewish activities, although the numbers of younger people - in particular - tends to be low. Worthy of special mention are the Federation for the Maintenance of Jewish Culture in Hungary, which had some 2,000 listed members in the late 1990s; Bnai Brith; the Hungarian Union of Jewish Students and a variety of Zionist Youth Movements. There are Jewish cultural and arts festivals every year, some of which are connected with Israel.
Most of the Jewish organizations and initiatives are products of the post-Communist years. There is also an independent Jewish monthly newspaper that is critical of the community leadership.
5. What is the situation of assimilation and intermarriage in the community?
The Jewish community of Hungary - and especially that of Budapest - began assimilating strongly in the last years of the nineteenth century. Emancipation had brought the community close to the non-Jewish society, and this became a model for imitation for many of the middle-class Jews in the community. In the years immediately before World War II, as the Hungarian government brought in increasingly anti-Semitic legislation against the Jews, many responded by converting to Christianity. This situation was stopped when a 1941 law changed the definition of a Jew from a religious one to a racial one, preventing intermarriage (and actually increasing the number of Jews considerably by considering as Jews many who now considered themselves Christians).
Much Jewish activity was suppressed under the Communists, and the practice of ‘passing oneself off’ in Christian society (i.e. pretending to be Christian or at least non-Jewish) became very common. Many did not tell their children that they were Jews; many others who kept their religion a family secret and instructed their children not to admit their Jewishness in general society. For numerous Jews, their religion became a badge of shame. The majority of those who identified themselves as Jews were in the older age-groups. The Jewish organizations that were allowed to function dwindled.
Since the fall of Communism at the end of the 1980s, the situation has changed markedly. Like tortoises poking their heads out of their shells, many young people have slowly and carefully come to identify or re-identify themselves as Jews.
Thus the case in Hungary is that the number of people who now identify themselves as Jews is actually increasing. The main manner of identification is clearly subjective - admitting to a feeling of being Jewish - rather than an objective act such as joining a Jewish community organization. It seems, however, that more people are slowly being drawn into some kind of Jewish activity, be it social, cultural or even religious. We must stress, however, that many still refuse to identify themselves in this manner, either because the link to a subjective feeling is simply too weak or because they are still afraid of the price of identification, particularly, in a situation where (as we shall see) anti-Jewish feeling is far from dead.
We should mention once again that most of the Jews of Hungary (in the widest sense) are products of intermarriage or are themselves intermarried. It is hard to see that anything else might have been expected in the post-war situation. There is reason to believe, however, that the future will be different from the past in this respect.
6. Are there any major historical circumstances that affected the inflow or outflow of Jews to and from the community?
If we were to examine the long history of the Hungarian community, we would see much migration both into and out of the Jewish community, as a result of various circumstances. To a large extent we would see patterns of migration not unlike many other European communities: there were times when the Jews were expelled, and times when they were let back in again because of the economic needs of the society. There were times of terrible persecution and others of comparative liberalism. All of these things affected these migrations patterns.
If we restrict ourselves to the modern community, however, we can see three things that have affected the outflow of Jews, while there has been very little pull in the other direction. In the wake of the Holocaust and the pogroms that followed it in some locations, once the war was finished, large numbers of Jews decided to leave Hungary; they migrated to Palestine or the lands of the West.
In 1956, there was a famous abortive revolution that attempted to oust the Communists. The Russians crushed the revolt brutally, and thousands of Hungarians - many of them Jews - fled out of disappointment or of fear of reprisals. Finally, Israel attracted numbers of Jews although, under Communism, both Zionist activities inside Hungary and immigration to Israel were banned or curtailed.
The only thing that actually brought more Jews into the community in recent generations were the annexations of former Hungarian territories in the years preceding or at the start of World War II.
7. Are there welfare problems within the Jewish community? Are there welfare organizations within the community?
As mentioned previously, the majority of Hungarian Jews are economically secure in local terms, enjoying a reasonable-to-good standard of living. As always, however, there are pockets of poverty and hardship in the community, especially among the elderly and the sick. The most prominent organization directly involved in welfare work among the poorer and more vulnerable elements of the community is the American Joint Distribution Committee. This body has been working in Hungary since World War II, sometimes openly and sometimes clandestinely.
Reparation payments that have been made in recent years to Holocaust survivors and their families have helped somewhat to improve the situation of some of the elderly. Many feel, however, that these are insultingly low and numerous potential recipients in fact rejected them.
8. What is the feeling of physical security of the Jewish community? Has there been, and is there today, a problem of anti-Semitism?
It is possible to see that, from the earliest periods of their history, Hungarian Jews were plagued by problems of anti-Semitism from different sections of society. A mixture of theological and economic resentment caused periodic outbreaks of violence against the Jews and almost constant pressure on their communities. They suffered from all the ills of Jewish communities throughout Europe: pogroms, blood libel accusations and expulsions.
Let us consider just the last few generations. After World War I, a socialist republic led by a Jew, Bela Kun, was established in Hungary. When the government was brought down, a strong reaction against leftists and socialists led to a witch hunt against Jews and the deaths of thousands. The situation then stabilized, but anti-Semitism was ever-present in the inter-war period. This occasionally translated into anti-Jewish laws that caused immense hardship.
In the period leading up to World War II, the laws against the Jews and general anti-Jewish sentiment became much stronger. Fascist parties came to power and finally the government, an official ally of the Nazis, moved directly against the Jews, marginalizing them in Hungarian society and paving the way for the murder of tens of thousands. As mentioned, the Nazi holocaust itself decimated the Jews of Hungary, hundreds of thousands dying by their hands.
In the years immediately following the war, a number of pogroms broke out against the Jews. This was despite the fact that the new government had officially banned anti-Semitism and had tried and imprisoned many who had been involved in the deportation and killings of Jews during the war.
When Communism came to power in 1949, many aspects of Jewish life were forcibly suppressed and, in the early fifties, tens of thousands of Jews were forced to leave the cities. Legislation restricted the activities of Jews who openly identified themselves as such. Despite the comparatively low levels of physical abuse during this period, Jews had anything but an easy time under the Communists.
When Hungary became a democracy in 1989, the restrictions were once again officially lifted from Jewish community life and from the Jews themselves. Nevertheless, social resentment remained among the county’s right wing groups and has tended to become stronger at times of social and economic discontent. There has been some vandalism in recent years, and the Jewish community is feeling increasingly vulnerable to what it feels to be a rising tide of anti-Semitic activity.
9. What are the main problems on the agenda of the Jewish community?
There is no question that many Hungarian Jews - both affiliated and unaffiliated members - are likely to mention anti-Semitism as a crucial problem. There is great awareness of the issue and an almost tangible feeling of vulnerability pervades current discussion within the local community. Much of this fear is shaped by the echoes of their previous history, which still overshadows so much of community life, although this does not diminish the problem.
However, the key issue is unquestionably the ability of the old-new community to revive community institutions to a high level and provide a meaningful Jewish life and identity. This could bring many more ‘hidden’ or marginal Jews into the orbit of the community institutions. According to recent surveys, the main components of Hungarian Jewish identity remain the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Given the community’s history, this is neither surprising nor unnatural.
In order for a healthy and ‘more normal’ Jewish identity to emerge, these factors need to be supplemented and ultimately supplanted - among the young at least - by other more positive elements. This will need not only time but also inspired community leadership. There are serious questions as to the capacity of the current layer of older leadership that currently controls the community to lead it in these new directions. It may be that only a younger and fresher leadership will be able to provide the necessary direction. This remains to be seen.
10. What are the demographic trends within the community? Can anything be said about the future of the community?
Discussing the concept of ‘community’ in a country like Hungary is misleading because the demographic trends of this Jewish population are particularly complicated. In most countries, the basis for deciding who belongs to the community is determined according to certain objective factors: community membership plus Jewish birth according to matrilineal or, in certain cases, patrilineal descent are the clearest examples. In Hungary, however, as mentioned above, these two criteria are unreliable, and it remains unclear who should be considered part of the Jewish community.
Official membership in Jewish institutions applies to only a minority of people who consider themselves Jews. Moreover, as said, many consider themselves Jews who have only one or two Jewish grandparents. It is clear that, for better or worse, subjective identity remains the main indicator of identification with the Hungarian Jewish community in the widest, non-official, sense.
This being the case, it is difficult to talk about demographic trends in absolute terms. What may make more sense is to discuss the possibility of bringing more marginalized and uninvolved Jews into the orbit of the organized Jewish community. Here, the prognosis seems to be optimistic. The education system is playing a key role in this process - particularly the three day-schools that, between them, educate over fifteen hundred pupils - and the youth organizations and movements. Only the single community school existed - in a poor state - under Communism, but all of these institutions are now developing and expanding in terms of numbers and the quality of their Jewish programming.
The vibrant community center in Budapest hosts numerous activities which are succeeding in pulling in considerable numbers. The camp at Szarvas is a very meaningful fixture in the life of the community, and the teacher and rabbinical training programs are beginning to attract young people. The monthly training program for Jews from communities outside Budapest is also worth noting in this regard. On the assumption that these trends continue, there is reason for optimism regarding the demographic future of Hungarian Jewry, at least in the next generation.