Remembering the tragic past of Budapest’s Jewish quarter

For a fun night out in Budapest, you could do worse than head to the city’s Jewish quarter. In crumbling old buildings and hidden courtyards, you find the famous ruin bars. These lively drinking spots started out as temporary, pop-up venues in abandoned apartment blocks and other structures, but many have now been in the same place for years.

Inside the ruin bar Szimplakert

Budapest’s ruin bars may today have a more permanent existence than in the past, but they haven’t lost their bohemian charm – with exposed brickwork, graffiti strewn across the walls and a colourful mix of unmatched furniture. They are popular with stag dos who stop off at as many they can on a night out. There are, however, enough venues that you can still find some less busy ones for a (slightly) quieter night out.

The story of Budapest’s ruin bars – and the fact that there were abandoned buildings for enterprising operators to move in on in the first place – is, however, tied up with this area’s tragic and unfortunate past. Prior to the Second World War some 200,000 Jews lived in the quarter, which was lined with Jewish businesses and centred on Kiraly Utca street. But then the Hungarian government collaborated with the Nazis to destroy this community.

Jewish immigration

In the late 18th century an enlightened Hapsburg emperor, Josef, II introduced reforms which allowed citizenship to Jews for the first time since the defeat of the Ottomans. It is from this time that the Jewish quarter developed east of Karoly Korut. Across Hungary there was rapid growth in the Jewish population in the 19th century, which the number of Jews in the country growing from 50,000 to one million.

Among the buildings constructed in the Jewish quarter were of course synagogues, two of which are active today. The Great Synagogue is Europe’s largest, with space for some 5,000 worshippers (including 3,600 seated), and many have compared its beautiful interiors to that of a cathedral. Restored in the 1990s, it is owned by the Neolog community – made up of the Reform and Orthodox branches of the Jewish community. Outside, the memorial garden contains some 300,000 Jewish burials, but there is an appeal in place to find funds to restore it. “If we do not act now, this soon will be lost,” reads the banner on its perimeter fence.

The other place of Jewish worship that is still used is the Orthodox synagogue, which was completed in 1913. Built by Sandor Loffler in the Art Noveau style, it could easily be missed as you walk down the street.

When I visited the Jewish district, I saw a third synagogue from the outside, which hasn’t been active since 1959. The beautiful Rumbach Sebestyen Utca synagogue was been completed in 1872 for the middling Conservative Jews and in recent years has had a number of uses, including that of concert venue. When the Moorish-looking building re-opens to the public (it has been under renovation since 2016) it will be a museum.

Rumbach Sebestyen Utca synagogue

Budapest’s Jewish community was destroyed by the Second World War, with many residents killed or forced to move elsewhere. Special plaques, that can be seen on the pavements of the Jewish quarter detailing who used to live at different locations, are telling – you’ll see time and time again departures dating from the devastating 1940s.

Nazi collaborators

Hungary officially entered the Second World War in 1941 on the side of the Nazis and hoped to be able to re-take the lands it had lost in the First World War (it was forced to surrender two thirds of its historic territory at the Paris Conference of 1920). But as it became clearer that its allies were heading for defeat, the Hungarian government looked to switch allegiances and in 1943 held secret talks with the UK. The Nazis found out about this possible deflection, so in March 1944 its army crossed over Hungary’s border and Budapest was occupied.

Events moved quickly that year. Hungary’s government – led by Admiral Miklos Horthy since 1920 – cooperated with the Nazis to round-up and deport tens of thousands of Jews even before the fascists launched a coup in October 1944 which put the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) into power. And from 10th December 1944 to 18th January 1945 – recorded on a plaque by the Great Synagogue – the Jewish District became a ghetto of some 70,000 Jewish women, children and the elderly (men had already been taken to labour camps) brought from all over the country and crammed 16 souls to a room. Disease was rife and food scarce, so by the time it was liberated some 20,000 people had died.

The effects of the Hungarian Nazis in power was felt across the city. On the banks of the Danube, near to where cruise ships dock today, there’s a memorial to hundreds Jews that were gunned down by the Arrow Cross. The cast iron shoes scattered along the quayside symbolise the fact that victims were made to remove their footwear and shoes before they were killed. The dead bodies were then thrown into the river and the discarded garments would be given to Nazi supporters.

Some Jews living in Hungarians had their lives spared and for that many have Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat to thank. In the Jewish quarter there’s a monument – a gilded angel swooping down to rescue a victim – to this amazing man who created refuges in neutral territories in Budapest, including one known today as the Glass House, where some 3,000 Jews found safety during the conflict.

Remembering Carl Lutz,

Destroyed district

When the Soviets launched on 26th December 1944 the 50-day-long Siege of Budapest, the Nazis blew up Danube bridges and abandoned Pest, in favour of retreating to hilly Buda across the river. During the bloody battle, which lasted until the city surrendered on 13th February 1945, some 38,000 civilians died as a result of military action or starvation.

In the aftermath of the conflict, and with the communists in charge of Hungary, the Jewish district – the former ghetto – became run-down. Many large homes and other buildings were abandoned for decades. But following the restoration of democracy and the growth of tourism, this has become Budapest’s party district, centred-on these so called ruin pubs. Szimplakert, a former stove factory, is one of the original ones and, as well as being a popular place to go in the evening, it also hosts a Sunday farmers’ market.

Jews continue to live in Budapest, but most have their homes outside the historic Jewish quarter. In Hungary there are today some 100,000 Jewish people living in the country (80,000 of whom live in the capital) – a far cry from the one million in the 19th century. And an increasing number of Hungarian Jews say they want to leave the country and nine out of ten say anti-Semitism is strong, according to recently published studies.

Critics say that Hungary’s right-wing prime minister Viktor Orban, who has been highly vocal in stopping Muslim “hordes” from entering the country during the recent refugee crisis, isn’t helping the situation. In fact, he has described the aforementioned Admiral Horthy – the country’s leader from 1920 to 1944 and who collaborated with the Nazis to aid the deportation of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps – as an “exceptional” statesman.

To the families of Hungarian victims of the Holocaust, the prime minister’s comments expose a much bigger issue. In Budapest there’s the German occupation monument – close to a statue of Admiral Horthy and depicting the archangel Gabriel being menaced by the Germanic eagle – which the government says remembers all victims of the Nazis, following its occupation of the country in 1944. But Jewish groups are critical of the fact that it ignores the crucial role of the Hungarian authorities in the Holocaust.

Back in the Budapest’s Jewish quarter, it may be the ruin bars, galleries and trendy espresso joints that bring in the crowds. But if you look carefully, beyond the surviving synagogues, there are still several Jewish restaurants and other businesses, which continue to attract visitors and locals alike. Sadly this area also has a tragic past.


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