Budapest Bridges Jewish Past and Future

Budapest. A city that evokes nostalgia in anyone of Hungarian descent. We might be the third or fourth generation living in another country, and yet the sentiment of an “Ungarisher Yid” still binds us there. I grew up physically and emotionally connected to this city. My father would share stories of his childhood in Budapest, only a 2½-hour ride from my hometown of Vienna.

It is the first day of Selichos, Elul 5779. I am sitting on the train to attend an unforgettable occasion in Budapest. On this day, two new shuls will be inaugurated, each one celebrating with a hachnasas sefer Torah. What adds significance to this momentous day is the location of the siyum sifrei Torah: the Holocaust memorial called the “Shoes on the Danube Promenade” on the banks of the Danube river.

The Holocaust memorial is intended as a place of reflection and contemplation, where those who have no grave to visit can mourn and pray for loved ones lost. Helpless Jews were led to the river’s bank, told to remove their shoes and, in gruesome, unimaginable horror, were shot into the flowing waters below. So much anguish in these waters, and yet silently they continue to flow.

On this Sunday, a large crowd has gathered — not to mourn, but to celebrate. The completion of two sifrei Torah written l’iluy the neshamos of those kedoshim symbolizes Budapest’s Jewish revival. “Seventy-five years ago, the poor people standing here on the banks thought they were the last,” said Rav Eliezer Simcha Weiss, representing the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, “but no one could destroy their neshamos. You can kill us! But we shall live on!”

Though one short article cannot do justice, this is but a small attempt to tell the story of Budapest’s Jewish community’s destruction, rebirth, growth and splendor.

A Millennium-Old Community

The Hungarian Parliament in Budapest on the banks of the Danube river next to the “Shoes on the Danube Promenade” memorial.

Hungary’s Jews date back over a millennium, some claim to the era of Churban Bayis Sheini. “People base this on the fact that Roman coins depicting a menorah were discovered in western Hungary,” says history Professor Shlomo Spitzer of Bar Ilan University. Professor Spitzer is the author of Kehillos Hungaria, a comprehensive encyclopedia of Hungary’s Jewish communities through the ages. “We assume these coins were in the possession of members of the Roman Tenth Legion, who destroyed the Beis Hamikdash and later moved to that part of Europe.

“The oldest documents proving Jewish presence date back to the ninth and tenth century,” he continues. “The first groups migrated from Italy, later Jews fleeing the Crusades in Germany. They settled along the Danube River, including Buda — today part of Budapest.”

Budapest, the city as we know it today, is comprised of three formerly separate towns — Buda, Obuda and Pest. Buda, historically also known as Ofen, was the first to boast a Jewish community.

The Obuda synagogue in Budapest.

From the early sixteenth century, for 150 years, the Ottoman Empire ruled over a large part of Hungary, including Buda. “On the whole, Jews had it easier under Turkish rule than under Christian regimes,” Professor Spitzer says, “which made Buda a desirable place for both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews.”

Fleeing the Chmielnicki uprising in 1648-49 (Gezeiros Tach V’tat), Harav Efraim ben Yaakov Hakohen of Vilna, known for his magnum opus Shaar Efraim, founded a yeshivah in Buda. He was joined by his family, including a daughter and son-in-law, Rav Yaakov Sack, the parents of the Chacham Tzvi. As a young man, he was sent by his grandfather to study under Sephardic Gedolim in Turkey, who bestowed upon him the title of “Chacham.”

When the army of the Austrian Habsburg empire recaptured Buda in 1686, the Jews did not fare well. Many were murdered; others were taken captive and later freed for high ransoms. These difficulties continued into the next century, when empress Maria Theresa expelled all the Jews of Buda in 1746. Only decades later were Jews permitted to return.

Obuda, or Altofen, developed a Jewish community in the latter part of the 17th and early 18th centuries. Upon the urging of the Noda BiYehudah to take on the position as Rav, Harav Moshe Mintz, mechaber of Sefer Maharam Mintz, moved to Obuda.

The matzeivah of Harav Shimon Oppenheimer in Budapest.

The youngest among the three towns is Pest — a kehillah existed there since the end of the 18th century. One of the early Rabbanim in Pest was Harav Shimon Oppenheimer, a talmid of Harav Yonasan Eibschütz. Harav Oppenheimer lived to the age of 100. Before his passing, he promised to be poel yeshuos for those who visit his kever.

In 1873, the three towns were united as one city — Budapest, the capital of Hungary. Concurrent with the city’s unification, a different historical division developed. Although Hungary’s Jews had been predominantly frum up to that point, a small but influential community of Neologen developed, mainly in Budapest. “The Neologen were influenced by the Haskalah,” Professor Spitzer explains. “They were neither Orthodox nor Reform. Though they were small in number, they managed to convince the government to hand them jurisdiction of Jewish matters in Hungary.”

This shift led to a major campaign from the frum Jews, who eventually broke off and formed the Orthodox community. The famous “Teilung” (Partition) was spearheaded by the Ksav Sofer, who was joined by the Maharam Schick. Those who chose not to get politically involved formed their own community — the “Status Quo.” All three groups were recognized and sanctioned by the government as independent religious communities.

Destruction and Decimation

Rav Yonasan Steif
Rav Yaakov Koppel Reich, chief Orthodox Rabbi of Budapest, at the exit from the Csörsz Street Jewish cemetery.

In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Budapest’s Jewish community flourished. The Orthodox community was led by Gedolim such as Harav Yaakov Koppel Reich, zt”l, who not only led the kehillah but became a member in the upper house of the Hungarian parliament. Harav Yonasan Steif, zt”l, who later became the Rav of the Viener Kehillah in New York, served as the Dayan and was renowned all over Hungary.

In the 1930s, Budapest had over 200,000 Jewish residents, making it one of the largest Jewish communities worldwide. With the Nazis’ rise to power in Germany and Austria and the outbreak of World War II, countless refugees from German-occupied territories like Poland flooded Budapest, warning the Jews of the killings in Poland and elsewhere. Most did not want to or simply could not believe. They could not fathom that such things were possible — surely not in their beloved Hungary.

Though the memories of prewar Jewish Budapest paint a picture of an idyllic life, there was a storm brewing. While the Nazis were pillaging Jewish communities in neighboring countries, their ally Hungary was left to do the anti-Jewish work themselves. By 1938, discriminatory laws were enforced and Jews were pressed into forced labor. In some parts of the country, attacks were perpetrated against Jews.

In March 1944, German tanks rolled into Hungary and the deportations of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews began with the eager assistance of the Hungarian gendarmes. By July, almost half a million Jews had been deported to Auschwitz. In Budapest Jews were herded into the main ghetto in November 1944 by the Szalasi regime. The sheer numbers and brutality of the annihilation within such a short time is unfathomable.

In October of that year, the notorious Nyilaskeresztes Párt (Arrow Cross Party), under the leadership of Ferenc Szálasi, took control of the country. Hand in hand, the Hungarians and Germans worked to continue the merciless killings. In those months leading up to the liberation in January 1945, uncounted Jews were ruthlessly shot into the Danube River.

Courageous men such as diplomat Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, Carl Lutz of Switzerland, and others provided “Schutzpässe” (passes of protection), saving thousands of Jews in Budapest and giving them shelter in buildings carrying their country’s flag.

One such house was on Domonkos Street. Right under the noses of the Nyilas, Reb Kalman Knopfler, together with Reb Wolf Frey, son of the Suranyi Rav, were able to provide a warm and secure home for hundreds of Jewish orphans. Reb Wolf asked Suranyi landsman Rozi Steiner to help care for these children. Rozi had been engaged, but tragically her chassan had been killed by the Nyilas. Rozi Neni (Aunt Rozi), as she was lovingly called by the children, now dedicated herself to bringing these broken souls back to life and Yiddishkeit. When the war was over, she continued raising some of those girls. Rozi herself never married; she settled in Vienna, where she devoted her life as a kindergarten teacher to three generations of Yiddishe kinder. The children of the Domonkos home forever remained her family.

After the liberation in 1945, survivors started flooding Budapest, desperate for healing. Homes were bombed out and food was scarce, but even gloomier were the emotional circumstances. The beis din was tasked with paskening complex and tragic cases of agunos. Refugees roamed aimlessly, not sure where their future lay. In this turmoil, Budapest was their place to gather strength.

However, with the onset of a communist regime, many Jews felt unwelcome and tens of thousands left the country. By 1947, the Iron Curtain was shut tight. Those who remained were faced with the harsh reality of a Russian-imposed communist rule that permeated their lives. Desperate to leave, thousands fled during the Hungarian Revolution in October 1956.

Jewish Hungary Rebuilt

“In 1951, the communist regime forced the three former kehillos to merge into one,” Rabbi Shlomo Köves, Executive Rabbi of EMIH (Hungarian Jewish Alliance), says. “The power was handed to the Neolog community leaders, but unfortunately many of them were communist collaborators. Their aim was to erode Yiddishkeit from the inside.” Sadly, they succeeded to a great extent.

Yet all through those years, the Orthodox community continued to function on some level, with a nursing home, butcher stores and the famed Hanna restaurant. In the early 1980s, Reb Hershel Kestenbaum began commuting from Vienna to serve as their shochet.

The Orthodox synagogue on Kazinczy utca.

The Kazinczy Shul was never without a Rav. The first to lead the community under communism was Harav Yehoshua Citron, a renowned Rav even before the war. The kehillah was led successively by Harav Moshe Weisz and Harav Aharon Gedalya Hoffman, who, even in those difficult years, managed to supervise the production of kosher food. Most recently, Harav Yaakov Yosef Singer and Harav Moshe Toivye Weissberger served as Rabbanim of the kehillah.

Professor Spitzer shares an interesting anecdote highlighting the importance of mesorah. “One of the rules established during the Teilung was that drashos were to be delivered in Lashon Kodesh and Yiddish only,” he explains, “since the Neologen introduced the idea of speaking in the local language in shul. But in the post-communist era, there wasn’t anyone who would understand a drashah in Yiddish.

One of the Rabbanim of the Kazinsczy shul approached Harav Wosner, zt”l, with the she’eilah — would he be permitted to break from the mesorah and speak in a language they would understand? Harav Wosner, recognizing the dilemma, paskened that in the large shul he should deliver a short drashah in Yiddish, then take the mispallelim to another room and deliver a drashah in Hungarian. We do not break from mesorah.”

Despite the communists sanctioning some freedoms, there was little infrastructure for a frum life. But with the collapse of communism in the late 1980s came great potential for Budapest’s Jewish revival.

Always with a fire to bring Yiddishkeit to lost communities, the Skulener Rebbe, zy”a, dispatched Reb Toivye Steiner of Bnei Brak to strengthen Budapest’s Jews. A tremendous talmid chacham, he used his charisma, warmth and fluency in Hungarian to bring many Jews close to Torah and mitzvos. When the urgency for a Jewish school became apparent, the Reichmann brothers, famed philanthropists from Toronto, stepped in to fulfill the Rebbe’s wish. They founded and funded the Moreshes Avos school, which was run by Reb Dovid Moskowitz from New York.

Yet much work was still necessary. So many were lost, with a lot of them afraid to come out of the woodwork and acknowledge their heritage.

Siyum sifrei Torah at the Holocaust memorial. R-L: Rabbi Simcha Weiss, Rabbi Shlomo Köves, Rabbi Boruch Oberlander.

Rabbi Shlomo Köves grew up in such a home. “My great-grandfather, whom I am named after, was Harav Shlomo Silberstein, the mechaber of the Ohel Shlomo and Rav of Sarkad,” he relates. “He was the uncle of the Weitzener Rav, Harav Yeshaya Silberstein. Growing up, I didn’t know any of this. I had no association with Yiddishkeit. My parents themselves only discovered their roots as teenagers.” All this changed the year before his bar mitzvah, when he met Rav Baruch Oberlander.

Rav Baruch Oberlander, today founder of Chabad in Hungary and Av Beis Din, descends from a family with deep Hungarian roots. His father grew up in Budapest, one of 10 siblings.

“My father survived the war with false papers right here in Budapest,” Rav Oberlander says. “Miraculously, all 10 [siblings] survived the war. Another rarity is that my grandmother, although she had ID papers of a non-Jew, during the entire war never removed her kisuy rosh!”

It was during those terrible times that his father, Reb Mordche Aron Oberlander, disguised as a non-Jew, watched with horror as his Hungarian “friends” shot Jews into the Danube. “All his life my father would repeat this story,” Rav Oberlander recalls. “‘My son, [he would say,] I saw it with my very own eyes and could not protest for fear of blowing my cover.’”

It is no wonder then that when Rav Oberlander was sent on shlichus to Hungary his father had a strange feeling about this move. “My wife’s grandmother as well used to say, ‘Vi azoi kenst di gein in aza roshe platz.’ It was incomprehensible to them that, after all they suffered, we would go back.”

Only years later, when his father visited and witnessed his son serving as Rav of a kehillah that was growing in Yiddishkeit, did he understand the importance of this work.

“During his first visit after we moved back, after having left Budapest decades earlier,” Rav Oberlander remembers, “when my father walked into the big shul on Shabbos, he automatically went to his childhood seat towards the back of the shul.” You can leave your hometown, but your hometown will never leave you.

It was in 1989, when the cracks in the Iron Curtain widened, that the newly married Oberlanders from New York seized the moment to help reawaken Yiddishkeit in Hungary.

Rav Oberlander was a 23-year-old chassan when Rav Yaakov Biderman of Vienna, Austria, asked him to join him on a visit to Hungary see for himself what work could be done. The Lubavitcher Rebbe gave the go-ahead on the condition that there was a kosher mikveh there, which was confirmed by notable mikvaos expert Harav Meir Posen. After that trip, less than half a year after their wedding, the young couple arrived in Budapest.

“Some people still remembered my grandparents and were very excited,” Rav Oberlander recalls. Despite their weak Hungarian and the difficult living conditions there, the newcomers launched into building Yiddishkeit.

They began with delivering shiurim and printing magazines and various sifrei kodesh with up-to-date Hungarian translation. With time, a kindergarten and school were established. But it took a while.

“Back then, being Jewish was taboo,” says Rav Köves. “The first Chanukah, when we put up a public menorah in the city center, many people were scared it would raise anti-Semitism. In the end, it turned out to be a major success.”

Boys from Maimonidesz High School.

Today, the changes to Budapest’s Jewish community over the past 30 years are evident. Rabbi Köves shares a survey conducted of 2,000 Hungarian Jews. “Twenty years ago, 70 percent of active community members were of the older generation. Today, it is the opposite — 70 percent of the young generation are the ones active, while their parents are in the minority. This is a community of baalei teshuvah. Back then,” he explains, “most Jews were survivors who still clung to something, but their children were already growing up in communism. Now those children are the older generation, and the young crowd already grew up in freedom and want to come back.”

It was during the difficult years for the Oberlander family when their young son Mendel was battling an aggressive cancer in New York that Rav Shlomo Köves took the reins.

During a remission, when the cancer was gone, the Oberlanders went back to Budapest. Right upon arrival, they launched into building a new mikveh, which they had been planning for a while. “For two years we built, and for two years Mendel was clear of the tumor. As we completed construction, the cancer returned,” Rav Oberlander says. “Hashem gave us this time to build the mikveh.”

Sadly, after more than 10 years, Mendel passed away at the young age of 20. Yet the Oberlanders didn’t let this tragic loss slow their work.

Budapest’s Jewish streets have by now undergone a tremendous change and are filled with scores of young Jewish families, Israeli businessmen and tourists. There are shuls and schools, restaurants and bakeries, a framework for Jewish life that keeps on growing.

“Budapest boasts all vital Jewish institutions and infrastructure,” says Rav Köves. “When I became frum more than 25 years ago, if I wanted kosher bread, most of the time we had to bake it ourselves; if we wanted milk, we had to get it freshly milked and boil it at home.”

Rav Köves sees his story as the symbol of Hungarian Jews who remained in Hungary during communism. “Back then, it seemed Yiddishkeit was gone for good,” he says. “To be part of its rebirth is a tremendous zechus.” He credits much of the growth and continued potential to what he sees as a unique relationship between the Hungarian government and the Jewish community.

Dancing with the sifrei Torah from the Danube.

“The picture that people who are overseas have does not mirror the reality,” says Rav Köves. “The security and assistance they provide is unprecedented. At the inauguration of the Szentendre Shul, Hungary’s deputy prime minister confirmed this when he spoke of Hungary’s continued commitment to its Jewish citizens and intolerance for any form of anti-Semitism.

• • •

Standing at the Danube memorial at the hachnasas sifrei Torah, Rav Oberlander spoke of bridges as symbols of culture. “There are bridges made of iron and those made of paper,” he stated. “And while iron may seem stronger, it is our paper bridge — our Torah pages — that has been sturdier and held stronger than any other. Today, we are witnesses — our paper bridge is nitzchi, it will hold forever!”

In this city, with its majestic bridges of steel, paper bridges continue to be built, linking old Hungarian mesorah with our current destiny.

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Childhood Memories of Budapest

Mrs. G.

My memories of Budapest before the war are a collection of beautiful fragments. We lived in the heimishe area near the Orthodox shul and school. My father, Harav Chananya Dov Kohen, was a Dayan and shochet in the community.

Budapest’s frum kehillah comprised very ehrliche Oberlander Yidden. It was a modern city, so the women wore sheitlech, unlike in other places where tichlech were the norm.

On Erev Shabbos, we used to take our raw challah and kokosh to be baked in the bakery. The cholent was also cooked there. Since there was no eruv, we were unable to carry it home Shabbos morning. Some would send their maids, while others would ask passersby in the street to pick them up, rewarding them with money left on the counter before Shabbos. We didn’t go to shul on Shabbos but often spent the afternoons with friends.

When the problems in other countries began, our home was turned into an open house for refugees. I remember a Yid who managed to flee Poland and sat shivah for his wife and children in our house. People kept on coming and sharing the horrific details, but Hungarian Jews didn’t, couldn’t, believe. My parents were different; they knew they had to be ready for any eventuality. Somehow, they managed to obtain false papers for us.

I was 9 years old when the Nazis arrived in 1944. We lived in an apartment building with Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors. One [non-Jewish] neighbor hid my father’s shechitah knives, while our next-door neighbor provided their names for our false ID-papers.

We were split up into several groups. I will never forget that Motzoei Shabbos. My father came home from shul and made Havdalah. A non-Jewish woman was waiting to take my sister and me into hiding. Our bags were packed and we had to say our goodbyes. I cannot describe the koiles that went on; we didn’t know if we would ever see our parents and siblings again. Part of the time we were in the countryside; later on, we stayed in a Red Cross house.

My uncle took two of my sisters into hiding. When my sister realized that he wanted to place her in a monastery, she was adamant. “If you put us there, I will kill myself.” He had no choice but to send them back to Budapest. And so, two girls aged 11 and 8 had to trek 30 kilometers back to the city on foot.

We survived with so many miracles. My mother moved with the younger siblings to a fourth-floor apartment. When the bombs started falling, they took refuge in the cellar. One day, my mother insisted she had to go upstairs to fetch food for the little ones. As she was climbing the flights of stairs, she suddenly changed her mind and started back down. At that moment, their apartment took a direct hit.

When the Russians liberated our part of the city, my father, who had been hiding in the famous “Glass House” [provided by Carl Lutz], came to pick us up. “Kinderlech, mir zenen befreit, mir geyen aheim (Children, we are free, we are going home),” he said. But which home? Our original apartment within the ghetto was in ruins. My parents found a ground-floor flat in the same building where we first settled. Later on, we went to stay in Békéscsaba until our apartment was ready for us to return.

B’chasdei Hashem, all of us children, including the twins my mother carried during those terrible months, survived. But many other family members didn’t make it. My uncle, who had helped us get the false papers, perished in Auschwitz. My mother lost 83 immediate family members, including her parents, siblings, nieces, and nephews.

After the war, my father continued in his position as Dayan until we left in 1948. We attended school in the morning hours and in the afternoon we went to “pirchot” programs organized by the Agudah.

When the communists wanted to enforce school attendance on Shabbos, my father said it was time to get out. We left Budapest on Chanukah, spending two days on the train, where my father managed to light the menorah. We arrived in Paris and from there we eventually made our way to New York.

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Childhood Memories of Budapest

Mrs. Treitel

My parents came from different parts of Hungary and settled in Budapest. My father was a mohel and owned a factory in a different city.

I was only 7 in 1944 when it all came to a head. School had just about commenced when we were sent home.

My parents managed to hide me with a non-Jewish family on a farm. Those who were confined in the ghetto lived in dire conditions, without food. A day before liberation, while they were shooting in the streets, my mother gave birth in the ghetto. We were 11 siblings; miraculously, all of us survived.

When the war was over, we remained in Budapest for three years. We had a minyan in our home. Our house was open; people came from all over. My mother took care of all their needs, nursing many of them back to health. We gave them our beds and slept on the floor.

My mother never set the table for fewer than 20-25 people. She and her friends cooked the meals for numerous weddings, which were celebrated in our home. There was a frum school for the older girls, but I was too young, so I spent those two years in the Neolog school that was near our house.

With the Nazis gone, the communists came; we went from one set of tzaros to the next. When my father’s factory was nationalized and the situation got worse, my parents realized we had to escape. Leaving wasn’t simple. My parents procured false passports, and my father left first. My mother realized that the train station in Budapest was unsafe and took us by taxi to a different town. In 1948, we reached safety via Belgium and Germany.

Budapest has changed — the streets have different names; our old house no longer stands. It is not the Budapest of my childhood.