Jews have a long history in the country now known as Hungary, with some records even predating the 895 AD Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin by over 600 years. Yet, during the time of the Black Death (1349), Jews were expelled from the country. When they were allowed to return, King Ladislaus II (1490–1516) burned Jews at the stake, many being executed at Nagyszombat (Trnava) in 1494, on suspicion of ritual murder.
Budapest, Hungary’s capital since 1873, united the towns of Buda—Obuda and Pest—each with its own Jewish community and history. Today, Budapest has one of Eastern Europe’s largest Jewish communities with a population of close to 48,000.
Until the second half of the 19th century, Budapest was a divided city with some Jews living in Obuda or “Old Buda” since the 15th century and others living in Pest throughout the 16th century. Jewish merchants and craftsmen, particularly linen weavers and silversmiths, were well-known in Obuda—in fact, it was the only city in the Hapsburg Empire where Jews were free to carry out certain trades.
Although Jews were initially expelled from Pest after the Austrian conquest in 1686, by 1783, Emperor Joseph II allowed Jews to settle in Pest, as long as they paid a “tolerance tax” to the town. Still, it wasn’t until 1840 that limitations of Jewish settlement were totally repealed. Pest’s first synagogue and burial plot was inaugurated in 1787; its first Jewish school in 1814, and its first teacher’s college in 1859. Jewish commerce and trade grew and Jews began acquiring property and factories.
With the unification of Budapest in 1873, the Jewish community grew and prospered, playing a major role in Hungary’s industrial boom. The Hapsburgs recognized their achievements and 350 Jewish families were given noble titles as a result. Jews in Budapest also became active in the arts, and were commissioned to make both statues and monuments. Before World War II, Budapest’s population exceeded 200,000 and the city boasted 125 synagogues.
During the Nazi Occupation, the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross Party came to power and carried out violent attacks again the Jews, many of whom were shot and thrown into the Danube River. Tens of thousands of Jews died on the death marches from Budapest to Austria. By the end of December 1944, 70,000 Jews lived in the central ghetto of Budapest, and tens of thousands in the international ghetto or protected houses.
The Soviets liberated the international ghetto on January 16, 1945 and the central ghetto two days later—releasing a total of 94,000 Jews. Another 20,000 came out of hiding, and another 20,000 returned from labor camps. Nearly 50 percent of Budapest’s Jewish population died during the Holocaust.
Today, Budapest’s Jewish population is about 80 % Reform and Conservative, and the remainder are Orthodox. Budapest has the largest synagogue in Europe on Dohany Street, but it is only one of 26 temples in the city. Three new Jewish schools, of varying religious bent, as well as two small yeshivas, have also opened. The Rabbinical Seminary of Budapest has been expanded into a Jewish university, training both teachers and social workers. Budapest’s Jewish community has its own bi-weekly publication, Ul Elet, and hosts a Jewish summer cultural festival.
On April 16, 2005, Holocaust Memorial Day in Hungary, Prime Minister Ferenc Gyursany, inaugurated a memorial to the Holocaust victims of Budapest. Current Jewish life centers around the old Jewish community in the Pest section of Budapest. Here you will find the major Hungarian and international communal organizations; several synagogues, the Jewish Museum, kosher restaurants, a kosher wine merchant and three Jewish schools, as well as an Orthodox mikvah.
Jewish Budapest: Half-day and Full-day Tours
European Jewish Heritage Tours arranges private tours with an expert local guide that start with a visit to the famous Dohány Street Synagogue with the Emmanuel Memorial in the Raul Wallenberg Garden and the Jewish Museum. You will then walk around the former Jewish Ghetto, where you will see the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue, and the Memorial to Carl Lutz, a “righteous Gentile” who saved 62,000 Hungarian Jews from death between 1942 and 1945. You will also discover abandoned temples, kosher butchers, restaurants, a bakery, a salami maker, a wine shop. You can have coffee and cake in a kosher patisserie, if you wish.
Outside the Jewish district there is still a lot to see: a unique Holocaust Memorial on the river bank in the Buda Castle district, a Medieval Synagogue; the House of Terror, an unforgettable exhibition on Fascism and Nazism; a new Holocaust Memorial Center; as well as several Jewish cemeteries and little museums which are in connection with celebrated Hungarian Jews. You will also visit the memorial The Shoes on the Danube conceived the by film director Can Togay and sculptor Gyula Pauer on the east side of the Danube to honor the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.
In the afternoon, we suggest a visit to Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts which has one of the finest collections of Old Masters in the world, including one of the 12 extant paintings by Leonardo da Vinci.
Best of Budapest with Driver-Guide
European Jewish Heritage Tours has created with our local partner a city highlights tour as follows: First you will drive up to the top of the Gellért Hill to discover the most beautiful panorama of the city. Then you will walk to the Statue of Liberty and around the Citadel. Still on Buda-side of the city, you will stop at the Cave Church and the Gellért Bath. Here you will explore the beautiful Art Nouveau villas and the Turkish Rudas Bath on the Gellért Hill.
Then you will drive across the Elisabeth Bridge to the Pest side of the capital to discover elegant boulevards and avenues, as well as the remarkable buildings from the 19th century, including Andrássy Avenue, where you will see the Opera House, the House of Terror, Octogon Square, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Gallery.
You will then walk around Heroes’ Square to greet the Hungarian chieftains and kings. We continue our walk in the City Park, visiting the courtyard of the Vajdahunyad Castle, stopping at the Széchenyi Bath and the Zoo Gardens. Coming back to the city, you will see and visit St. Stephen’s Basilica. The next stop is the Parliament, there is a short walk here too, around the monuments in front of the building and on Liberty Square. We will then cross the Chain Bridge back to the Buda side of the city and up to the Castle district. You will discover the exterior of the Royal Palace and we visit the Matthias Church and the Fishermen’s Bastion. From there, you will be able take pictures of the Danube and the Chain Bridge.
Hidden Treasures and Museums in and around Budapest
In downtown Pest, European Jewish Heritage Tours’ local partner will accompany you along the Danube river bank, showing how the different sights reveal the history of Budapest. You will see the beautifully restored concert hall where Liszt, Wagner, and Bartok gave many concerts. You will discover the castle district, including the area with the Alexander Palace, the Royal courtyards, gardens and medieval houses. While the Museum of Fine Arts and the Art Nouveau Museum are especially noteworthy, your guide will be more than happy to show you the area’s hidden, non-touristy treasures as well.
For those of you who wish to discover the Hungarian countryside and the Danube region, we invite you to take our local partner’s tour of the Danube Bend to visit the unique towns of Szentendre and Visegrad.
Come discover Szentendre, this beautiful artists’ village just 20 kilometers north of Budapest! You will drive north along the river, passing ancient Roman ruins. This charming town on the Danube Bend is surrounded by stunning nature, as well as lovely shops and art galleries. Its colorful Baroque buildings, cobblestone streets and narrow alleyways leading to hilltop churches delight visitors from all over the world. During the visit, you will discover the Marzipan Museum, where ‘statues’ of Hungary’s former rulers greet you with a sweet smile, as well as the Hungarian National Wine Museum, located in an ancient wine cellar.
Szentendre is also the center of the Serb community in Hungary. Other sites to visit include the Szanto Jewish Memorial House, as well as the Margit Kovacs Museum, whose extensive collection of ceramic works features a unique synthesis of folk and Byzantine motifs.
In Visegrad, you will visit the charming tiny medieval town, the famous excavated Renaissance Palace of King Matthias and drive up to the most beautiful panorama of the Danube Bend from high point of the Visegrad Castle. For a novel experience, you can take a leisurely cruise on the Danube back to Budapest—if you visit between May and September.