1,500 cemeteries, three-quarters of the population destroyed, barely 30 functioning communities – a stark contrast to the history of rural Jewry today. Viktor Cseh’s writing also sheds light on what treasures await to be discovered.
There are about 1,500 Jewish cemeteries in today’s Hungary – the larger ones have more than a thousand graves, but there are some that do not contain any stones. The missing ones were either stolen or, at best, just crumbled, or they sank into the ground. The existence of these cemeteries also proves that Jews were present in most Hungarian settlements, and their lives were closely intertwined with their non-religious neighbors, in short, with the life and development of the settlements.
Jews lived in the country even before the conquest, as evidenced by the menorah-engraved tombstones in the Hungarian National Museum or the Jewish Museum and Archives.
And although we know the names of specific Jewish people from the Middle Ages — from places like Buda, Sopron or Székesfehérvár — we cannot speak of a continuous stay for the last thousand years, mainly due to the regulations restricting their housing.
The modern history of the Jews of Hungary began in the early and mid-1700s, but this was still not a national phenomenon. It was more characteristic of the north-eastern half of our country.
However, in addition to documented sources, one or two oral traditions have preserved memories of Jews, such as the region of Tokaj-Hegyalja, a century earlier. Either way, these early settlements were possible only on aristocratic or ecclesiastical estates, because the landlords would not mind having the Jews in exchange for various and high taxes…
A real breakthrough was the 1840 law on free movement, which not only created new communities of faith, but completely rearranged the map of countryside Jews. Some old communities began to become depopulated, while newer, more spectacular and prosperous communities had emerged.
These Jewish communities were led by people belonging to the most prestigious circle of the city in which they lived. These learders regardless of the branch (orthodox, neolog, status quo ante) they represented served their communities by being members of certain religious committees.
Hevra Kadisa, Women’s Association, and other organizations operating under the auspices of faith communities have always been at the forefront of charity, distributing school supplies, shoes, and warm clothing regardless of denomination during the school season, or supporting the poor in other ways during the rest of the year.
In World War I, Jewish youth marched to fight for their homeland — just as did their grandfathers in the War of Independence of 1848/49. — from different ranks of communities of faith, often overrepresented in proportion to population ratios.
In the meantime women who remained at home, for example, assisted in occasional military hospitals. After the war, the names of the Christian and Jewish heroic dead were inscribed on the same World War II memorials.
There was no difference between Jews and non-Jews in the sadness over the losses of the 1920s. Trianon Mourning Worship became a sad element of the synagogue’s annual worship. However, the same year became even more tragic for the Jews (but indeed the entire nation). With the numerus clausus law, state power began to crush two centuries of historical and cultural intertwining and a fundamentally peaceful coexistence, which was then completely shattered in 1944.
We do not know the exact number of Holocaust victims, the number of Jewish deaths in Trianon Hungary is about three hundred thousand, it is about half of the six hundred thousand Hungarian martyrs in total;
73.6% of rural Jews and 36.8% of Budapest Jews were destroyed.
After the Holocaust, survivors tried to reorganize their communities, but most proved to be short-lived and were only a shadow of their pre-war selves. According to the survey of the Joint (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee),
at the beginning of 1947 there were 261 faith communities in Hungary
, according to the branches: 145 orthodox (of which one was a Sephardic in Sátoraljaújhely), 101 neologs and 15 status quo ante. In 1949, 257 communities were still listed, but in more than half of them the number of members did not reach 100, but rather approached 50 – but there was a place where he stayed under 10, so they could not pray, that is, they could no longer pray. they only existed on paper.
In the post-Holocaust years, communities with a population of at least 1,000, which remained mainly in the cities from which at least some of the deportees went to labor camps in Austria, remained in only the following four localities: Debrecen 4500 (2500 status quo and 2000 orthodox), Miskolc 2357 people (orthodox, together with the Sephardic prayer association), Nyíregyháza 1000 people (675 status quo and 325 orthodox), Pécs 928 people (neolog) and Szeged 1800 people.
Most of the community buildings left behind after the deportations, such as synagogues, houses of worship, schools, headquarters, and ritual baths, were desecrated and looted.
The condition of the buildings had deteriorated radically, and the few survivors, most of whom had lost their former homes, were able to carry out conservation in only a few places. Roughly a decade later, much of the depopulated arenas of the faith communities were sold or simply nationalized, and then several of them were demolished or radically transformed, while usually endowed with some humiliating new function; synagogues became crop warehouses, furniture stores, and even pubs. And after many unworthy changes, the transformation of a former synagogue into a library or house of culture has caused at least some reliefe in many. Unfortunately, today only a few buildings remain in their original splendor and function. However
in some settlements, despite the lack of Jewish community, the synagogue was preserved, such as in Apostag or Mád, and this kind of preservation seems to have gained new momentum, think of the positive examples of Balatonfüred, Berettyóújfalu or Mezőcsát cities.
The change of regime in 1989 brought the much-quoted Jewish Renaissance primarily to the capital. Although some Jewish-rooted families inherited their heritage in the countryside, the continuity of Jewish traditions, which varied from settlement to settlement, had already been broken.
Today, on paper, there are just over 30 rural Jewish communities. Many of these no longer have regular religious activities, but exist on a cultural basis or for the purpose of cultivating a common memory.
It’s painful to say, but due to a lack of new and engaged generations, most of these are likely to cease to exist. Unfortunately, we remember rural Jews mainly from the side of destruction, less attention has been paid to the lives of martyrs and their ancestors, to the stories of rabbis, to the unique customs of communities, and it is worth changing in the future. That is what our community is committed to do.
Written by Viktor Cseh