BEFORE THE DELUGE: THE JEWS OF HUNGARY

As a result of the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary lost a portion of its provinces: Slovakia, Sub-Carpathia, the Maramos-Sziget district, Transylvania, the Banat, Croatia, Slovenia, and the so-called mountain lands which today belong to Czechoslovakia, Romania, Yugoslavia, and Austria.

The migrations of the Middle Ages moved in from two directions, from the east and the west, or north-west. In the wake of the Magyar conquest or perhaps even earlier, Khazar tribes, which in large part had converted to Judaism, pushed their way in. After the fall of the Kingdom of the Khazars (970), they originally settled in north Hungary, and thereafter gradually spread outward. Villages today with names such as Kozar, Kozardie, Kiskozard demonstrate to various researchers representative place-names of the Khazar invasion.

After King Stephen the Pious (995-1038) converted to Catholicism, the Kingdom of Hungary formed a bond of friendship with Germany, causing a migration of Jews from Germany; later came also Jews from Bohemia [Translator’s Note: more or less today’s Czech Republic]. The wanderers from the east settled in rural regions, while the western wanderers settled in cities, in Gran, Stuhlweissenburg, Ödenburg, and the capital Buda-Ofen.

The expulsion of 1360 bore a special character. The expelled Jews migrated mainly to the Balkans and partially were able to return. At the beginning of the 1500s one estimates the total number of Jews at 4,000 – spread out among 13 communities and other smaller settlements. Buda-Ofen, Ödenburg, and Pressburg housed the most important communities.

The economic history of the Jews of Hungary in the Middle Ages can be divided into two periods. Until the middle of the 13th century we encounter many Jews as landlords who, as did other land barons at that time, produced agricultural and wine goods by means of slave labor. We see Jews in trade and banking, and even in public service. Jewish wine merchants traded as far away as the Rhein region and competed against French wineries.

In the latter half of the 13th century Jews were banned from land-based activity (and transferred into) trade and gold-dealing. The wine merchants struggled for new markets in Poland. Jewish traders journeyed through passes of the western Carpathian Mountains to Sandez and Kraków. They founded the import of fabrics from Bohemia at the beginning of the 16th century. They also established an import of fabric from Bohemia at the beginning of the 16th century.

The business of credit extended itself to the trade of goods, or, more likely, the trading of goods help establish the business of credit, which by the way also functioned when, for example, someone had to be held to account for bad loans, which could often be the case with wine-handling.

Larger credit houses came in from Vienna to Hungary, for example the Banking House Steuss in 1421. The business of credit was tied to ownership of property, which Jews acquired as a means of security. However, the right to own property was revoked in 1475.

Early in the 16th century the Turks pushed in, and though at the beginning they regarded the Jews as allies of the Hungarians, they later developed a friendly exchange. The remaining Hungarians under independent Christian control began killing off the Jews around the year 1530, so the remaining Jews fled under the banner of the crescent moon [a primary symbol of Islam], mainly to Ofen, the capital of the Turkish pasha.

With the rise of trade with the Orient, a lively spiritual and cultural boom set in. In the 17th century Ofen became known as “the great city of wisdom and book-learning,” whose reputation spread widely across the borders of nations.

Ofen fell in 1686. [In 1683, the Turks besieged Vienna and were soundly defeated there by an army led by the Polish King Jan Sobieski; the fall of Ofen was a part of the subsequent Christian Hapsburg drive against the remaining Turkish armies.] The expulsion of the Turks from Hungary was a heavy blow against the Jews, who for the next century and a half were the objects of a petty and mean-spirited public policy by (the Empress) Maria Therese. Under (Kaiser) Joseph II [Maria Therese’s son and heir)], who wanted to make Jews “useful citizens of the land,” a turn for the better set in. The body tax was lifted, and the “tolerance tax” was renamed the “community tax,” thereby removing its odious connotation.

The gates of the royal cities were opened, naturally with the exception of the mountain cities, and the right to establish schools everywhere was protected; however, after the death of the kaiser [at the end of the 18th century], the old anti-Jewish tendencies gained the upper hand, and so began the banishment from the cities. Always however the Jews fulfilled a definite function in the economic life of the land. The nobility provided protection and freedom of movement on their own lands, consisting of market places and cities. The Jews provided the middle class of the growing city communities. They were pioneers in trade and transport, founders of industrial enterprises.