Writing a New Chapter of Jewish History in Hungary with JDC Ambassadors

photo: Courtesy of Rebecca Neuwirth

We are leaving Budapest, after three enlightening days on a JDC mission led by Rebecca Neuwirth.  The Jewish community here, long one of the largest in Europe, is struggling to find its identity in the face of a rising tide of anti-Semitism following years of Communist rule. The result is difficult to characterize and, sometimes, hard to watch.  This community needs JDC's vigilance and support.

A brief history: Hungary has 10 million people, 2 million living in Budapest, of whom 100,000 are Jewish (one guide quipped there are 250,000 if you use the Nazi race law definition.). Jews once flourished in Budapest; in the late 1800's, an estimated 23 percent of the city's population was Jewish.  The Dohany St. synagogue is the largest in Europe, holding 3,000 people.  Yet as in other parts of Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism began to flourish long before the outbreak of WW II.

Hungary's Admiral Horthy initially allied the country with Germany by declaring war on the Soviet Union (and, oddly enough, upon the U.S.) in 1940.  Ironically, this alliance initially spared most Hungarian Jews from immediate extermination.  Many men were sent to brutal labor camps and to the front as human mine sweepers, as portrayed in Julie Orringer's excellent novel The Invisible Bridge, but the civilian population was largely spared during the next few years. In 1944 Horthy saw the shift in direction of the war and sought secret peace negotiations with the Allies.  When Germany discovered this, it invaded and the German occupation was followed by an extermination of unparalleled speed.  In a campaign personally directed by Adolf Eichmann, nearly 450,000 Hungarian Jews were sent to death camps between May 15 and July 9, 1944.  The total number of Hungarian Jews who died in the Shoah is estimated in excess of 550,000.

After the war, living behind the Iron Curtain where religion was suppressed, Hungarian Jews simply forgot their identity.  Many of the people to whom we spoke, almost all from mixed marriages, recalled learning they were Jewish by chance; via a phone call from a distant relative in Israel seeking lost relatives back home, or by being disciplined by a parent for calling a playmate a dirty Jew only to be told that he himself was Jewish.  Independence in 1989 for the first time opened the door to renewal of the Jewish community, but now, less than 30 years later, overt anti-Semitism has emerged again and the Hungarian government has at best equivocated in response.  A right wing political party, Jobbik, garnered 17 percent of the popular vote and one of its members in Parliament called for compiling a list of all dangerous Jews who are posing a threat to Hungarian national security.  At the same time, the Hungarian economy is dismal.  The official unemployment rate of 12 percent was said to be half of the real rate, and in many small towns we were told there was no work at all.

Despite all of this, we saw signs of renewal.  We visited the city's first thrift shop, recently opened by JDC, and saw the donations pouring in.  This may sound uneventful in the States where the concept of donating and reselling goods is well established. But this is a huge step toward philanthropy in a post-Communist society where there has been no culture of giving at all, and no tax incentive for charity.

On an inspiring home visit, we met a woman living with five of her six children and her two grandchildren in a three-room apartment. Previously living in an apartment half the size and struggling to keep her family afloat, she faced physical abuse from her husband and became desperate upon finding out he was abusing their 17 year old daughter. Only recently aware that her own father was Jewish, she was referred to JDC by a neighbor, a Holocaust survivor. Discovering she was not alone and beginning to find a connection to the larger Jewish community, she told us that the family's greatest joy was a family session at Szarvas, the camp JDC operates two hours outside the city.  Two of her children are returning this summer.  Proud and hopeful despite the palpable challenges ahead, she now volunteers at JDC two afternoons a week, and was plainly touched when we thanked her for giving back to JDC. 

And at Szarvas itself -- a truly magical camp in the countryside -- we saw young people from all over the world connecting with one another and with the Jewish community.  The camp brings together children from the Ukraine and the Upper East Side, from Serbia and Israel.  At a deafening lunch, we saw and joined 400 campers singing Jewish songs and dancing with unmitigated joy. We spoke to young members of the staff about what they saw of their future in Hungary.  Several said their parents urged them to move away, but all of them said they were very much at home and did not wish to leave.  And we had dinner with the director of Budapest's Jewish theater, who learned he was Jewish at 14, made Aliyah, served as an officer in the IDF yet returned home after a decade in Israel.  There was strong sense from many of the pull of Hungary and a desire to write a new chapter in Jewish history there, despite the challenges.

But at Cafe Europa, a JDC social program for Holocaust survivors, the old history resurfaced.  A large and seemingly happy group of survivors ranging in age from 68 to 91 became troubled when asked about the new wave of anti-Semitism in Hungary.  Several said they were afraid and, despite our assurances of support, asked what the United States or JDC could do if things got worse.   We assured them that we would never allow a repetition of history and that both the U.S. and Israel offered a place for them if worst came to worst, but none seemed convinced by our assurances or satisfied by the prospect of leaving Budapest.

Despite wonderful camaraderie with our traveling companions, we left with mixed feelings.  The powerful energy and happiness of Szarvas, its inspired and inspiring campers and staff, were balanced by the uneasiness of the Holocaust survivors and anti-Semitic comments we heard ourselves.  JDC has a large role to play in this community's mixture of renewal, hope and fear.  We can help those most in need and offer our support to those who want a renewed Jewish identity, in a country where challenges abound. 

JDC Board Member and Ambassadors Co-Chair Zachary Fasman wrote this post after traveling to Hungary last month.

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