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Exploring Jewish Budapest

In the first of a two-part look at Jewish Budapest, David Holzer looks at the Jewish Hungarian mentality and some of the contributions its people have made to life here.

At left, poet, writer and translator György Faludy (1910-2006), one of the most notable Hungarian Jews of the 20th century. 

My brother and his wife were over from England this weekend. It was their first visit to Budapest. We decided to take them to Spinoza on Dob utca, a Jewish restaurant not far from the synagogue. I have to admit that when I told my brother he had to try the flodni because it was the best in Budapest I was showing off a little. 

If you don’t already know, flodni is a traditional Jewish-Hungarian apple, walnut and poppy seed pastry. You can find it all over Hungary and it’s delicious.

I wasn’t prepared for what the waiter, who had overheard, said next.

‘No, it isn’t,’ he insisted. ‘And the strudel is much better.’

Brutally honest to the point of bloodymindedness, the waiter’s answer somehow contained the essence of Jewish Budapest for me.

A brief history of the Jews in Hungary

According to some accounts, there were Jews in what became Hungary even before the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian basin in 895 AD. The persecution of Hungarian Jews dates back to at least the 13th century and the reign of King Ladislaus IV of Hungary, who decreed that they should wear a piece of red cloth.

Centuries of oppression followed, including the expulsion of the Jews from Buda in 1746. However, in the late 18th century, Joseph II removed all the decrees that had oppressed the Jews. A national assembly emancipated the Jews in 1849.

By the time of World War I, the Jewish community made up 5% of Hungary’s total population, with 23% in Budapest. Jews rose to prominence in science, business and the arts. Famous Hungarian Jews include Harry Houdini, the painter Imre Ámos, the great photographer Robert Capa and, admittedly much later, Tommy Ramone of The Ramones – born Tamás Erdélyi in Budapest in 1949.

After the Trianon treaty in 1920, when the boundaries of Hungary were redrawn and the country lost much of its land and population, its leaders cautiously aligned themselves with the fascist governments of Germany and Italy. This led, in 1938, to a series of anti-Jewish measures, deportation and, throughout World War II, massacre on a large scale.

Today, most of Hungary’s Jewish population of around 50,000 people lives in Budapest. Fewer and fewer people identify as religious Jews, and the intermarriage rate is around 60%. But there are still plenty of active synagogues in Hungary, including, of course, the Dohány utca Synagogue, just around the corner from Spinoza. Dohány is the largest synagogue in Europe and, depending on who you believe, the second largest in the world after the Temple Emanu-El in New York. Consecrated in 1859, it was the first synagogue to be built with the onion shaped domes in the oriental, Moorish style that influenced the look of many other such places of worship.

Jewish Hungarian patriotism

As an Englishman living in Hungary, one of the things that strikes me as most remarkable about this country’s people is their fierce patriotism. What is even more surprising to me is the fact that this extends to Hungarian Jews, who have historically had less reason to love their country. The story of the poet, writer and translator György Faludy (1910-2006) is an excellent example.

Faludy studied at the Fasori Evangélikus in Budapest, a Lutheran school, and then at the universities of Vienna, Berlin and Graz. In 1938, he published a collection of poetry called A pompeji strázsán (On a Pompei Watch) that contained anti-Nazi sentiments, and which caught the attention of the authorities. Faludy fled Hungary for Paris.

When the Germans occupied Paris in 1940, Faludy escaped to Morocco with his first wife. In 1941 he left for the United States, where he joined the Movement of Free Hungarians and, in 1943, enlisted with the U.S. army.

After the war, Faludy returned to Hungary. In 1950, he was charged with being an American agent. Displaying the savage black humor and contempt for stupidity that characterizes his work, Faludy named long-dead writers William Blake and Edgar Allen Poe as his CIA contacts. In the hope that he would survive Stalin, Faludy acknowledged the ludicrous accusations and spent three years in the terrible Recsk labor camp.

In the camp, Faludy wrote some of his best poems. Actually, “wrote” is a misnomer as Faludy couldn’t risk putting them to paper. Instead, Faludy memorized poems like his superb Western Australia, which contained the lines “I will fight this tyranny, give it no peace from my rhymes, not even when dead.”

When Stalin died in 1953, Faludy was given an amnesty. But, after the suppression of the 1956 revolution, he fled to London. While there, Faludy wrote what, for me, is his masterpiece, the 1962 memoir My Happy Days in Hell. Apart from anything else, the book – if it’s true, of course – offers an intriguing insight into early 20th century Hungary.

In 1988, as communism crumbled and after years in exile, Faludy, who had been diagnosed with cancer, returned to Hungary “just to die in my native land”. Back home, Faludy was adored by the Hungarian people and made an honorary citizen of Budapest. A confirmed bisexual, he married the 27-year-old poet Fanny Kovács. Faludy was 91. When Faludy posed with Kovács for Hungarian Penthouse magazine, the two wearing little more than their wedding rings, the Hungarian public was outraged and titillated in equal measure. Over 70,000 copies of the magazine were sold in a country of no more than ten million people.

How could you not admire a man who poses in Penthouse in his early 90s, with a woman almost 70 years younger than him? It’s hilarious, defiant and absolutely crazy, all at the same time.

Apart from everything else, I’m fascinated by the fact that, despite all he suffered as a result of being born Jewish, Faludy chose to return not once, but twice to Hungary. His sheer bloodymindedness, accompanied by black humor, is quintessentially Jewish and Hungarian.

Spiritual heir

When the waiter in Spinoza rubbished his restaurant’s own flodni, it somehow felt to me like I was listening to a spiritual heir of Faludy. The waiter couldn’t help but speak the truth, even if it meant we didn’t invest in the flodni. He gambled that we’d go for the strudel. We did, and it was delicious even if it wasn’t as good as the flodni.

It’s perhaps difficult for natives of Budapest to appreciate the luxury of having a Jewish quarter, if you can call it that, in the heart of their city. London’s Jewish areas are on the outskirts and, in any case, the number of traditional Jewish restaurants has shrunk to less than a handful. Whiling away the afternoon in Spinoza is a treat.

After three hours in the restaurant, we buttoned our coats and stepped out into Dob utca. It was now dusk and lights twinkled all over the city. At the top of the street, we turned and looked in the direction of the synagogue. It was illuminated and absolutely beautiful.

In part two, I’ll take a look at modern Jewish life in Budapest. I’ll attempt to find out what means to be Jewish

and Hungarian in the city today. This will also involve introducing you to some Jewish restaurants, bars and cafes which are rather more off the beaten track.