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At Home in Hungary

Although there have been Jewish communities in Hungary since the time of the Roman Empire, the most important period of immigration was at the start of the 18th century, following the end of Turkish rule. From 1791 Jews were allowed to settle almost anywhere in the country and their emancipation became an important topic during the early 19th century before finally being embedded in legislation in 1867. By the early years of the 20th century the Hungarian Jewish population numbered almost one million
During the 1940s, Hitler was increasingly aggressive in his demand for Hungary to apply Nazi principles against the Jews. A new anti-Jewish law was introduced on a racial basis, and those who didn't have Hungarian citizenship were given over to the Nazis. In early 1944, as Hungary tried to find a way out of the Nazi alliance, German troops occupied the country. They started to establish ghettos and organised transportations to the death-camps. At that stage the gas chambers were operating non-stop and the rural Jewish communities were destroyed at an alarming rate. However, due to the Soviet occupation of Hungary, Eichmann didn't have enough time to destroy those living in the Budapest ghetto. As a result, after the Holocaust, there were a significant number of survivors in the capital.

Survivors

About 600,000 Jewish people from Hungary were killed during the Shoah and, after the war, the community numbered about 200,000. Of these, 50,000 made Aliyah to Israel before 1955. After that time, the Communist regime persecuted Zionist organisations and blocked the community's contacts with Israel and Jewish groups in the West. Jewish people were involved in opposition movements and published a large quantity of illegal academic papers, periodicals and studies. As a result, many lost their jobs or were not able to find employment after spending time in prison.

The Communist regime declared assimilation as the only solution for the Jewish people. The Communists removed the Jewish people's right to express their national, ethnic or religious identities, so the awful pain of the Holocaust and the tensions that existed between Jews and non-Jews became taboo subjects. The number of Jewish people was still declining, and prejudices and ignorance stayed hidden, and were not addressed. Many well-educated Jewish people became important personalities of the revolution in 1956 and Jewish people were over-represented in Communist concentration camps, prisons and among Hungarian martyrs executed between 1957 and 1960. Of 100,000 Hungarians who left the country in 1956, around 20,000 were Jewish.

Changes came unexpectedly as the new Soviet leadership and many young Hungarian Communist leaders realised that their political system needed to be radically reformed. At the end of the 1980s, opposition groups started to form. Conservative Christian-Democrat intellectuals (some of whom were Jewish!) frequently held strongly nationalistic views but many Jewish (and non-Jewish) leaders of previously illegal groups were committed to liberal ideals. Liberals condemned those on the Right for being nationalistic while the nationalists started to use anti-Semitic terminology against the liberals. After the first elections, during the rule of the conservative Antal government, many extreme nationalists were excluded from the right-wing parties and formed the Hungarian Truth and Life Party (MIEP). These political tensions still have a serious impact on our lives and help to explain many of the events that took place during 2006.

After 1990 new opportunities opened up for Jewish people. They were able to live openly as Jews, diplomatic relationships with Israel were restored and Jewish organisations were able to contact Jewish communities outside the country. Today there are about 100,000 Jewish people living in Hungary, 80% of whom are in Budapest where the old Jewish district is being reclaimed as a centre of Jewish activity.
This article first appeared in the Winter 2007 edition of the Herald

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