Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 1, No 21
15 November 1999

H U N G A R Y:
Revival and Struggle
Differing fates for Hungary's minorities

Greg Nieuwsma

The final installment of a four-part series on minorities in Central Europe. Read part one on the Czech Republic HERE. Read part two on Poland HERE. Read part three on Slovakia HERE

Although Hungary's Jews are enjoying a cultural revival, its Roma haven't found things quite so rosy.

"Everything has changed since 1989, Jewish life has re-awakened, especially among young people. They are going to the synagogue, joining Jewish youth groups, observing festivals, attending cultural events and going to Jewish schools" says Rabbi Baruch Oberlander of Budapest's Jewish community. "They want to learn to understand their religion and their culture, and they are not afraid to be Jewish." Rabbi Oberlander himself is a big reason for the burgeoning revival. Among his major contributions, he has edited the Hungarian-language Jewish New Year prayer book, one of several Jewish prayer books now available in Hungarian, and serves as director of the Budapest Yeshiva, a Jewish school of philosophy and the Talmud, or civic and religious law, which officially reopened last December.

Estimates of the size of Jewish population in Hungary range from between 80,000 to 100,000. In a country of just over 10 million, this may not seem like a sizable number, but given this century's history, not only is it a significant figure, but the recent buzz of activity surrounding the Jewish community in Hungary is undenialbly impressive.

Before World War II, Hungary's Jewish population, at just under a million, was dispersed throughout the country. There used to be Yeshivas in Szombathely, Eger, Paks, Hadhaza and Soltvadkert as well, for example. The last Yeshiva hung on until the 1956 Revolution, after which the Rabbis and students were forced to flee to Austria. The Jews that remained gravitated towards Budapest. Although there are active synagogues in other locations, such as Szeged, the vast majority of Jews remaining in Hungary are in the capital.

The Yeshiva, which holds classes in English and Hebrew, with special evening courses in Hungarian, is evidence that the Jewish minority in Hungary, while not the biggest, is currently the most vibrant. Although it never disappeared completely, the wave of freedoms, both religious and political, following the events of 1989 cleared the way for the present revival that is now blossoming.

In Budapest now there are a handful of active synagogues, several Jewish kindergartens, Jewish newspapers and magazines, and religious study groups and youth organizations are growing. "Now I see many positive things happening in Jewish life here," says 26-year-old television reporter Dora Czuk. "There are many more Jewish weddings for example, it's easy to go to Israel, there are more Jewish restaurants, there is even a program about Jewish cooking on television, which never would have happened under the old system."

There is also a growing international Jewish cultural festival at the end of August and the beginning of September. Although last year its events were exclusively in Budapest, this year it was able to expand to the towns of Szekesfehervar, Veszprem, Szeged and Debrecen as well. Events included music, dancing, theater, film and a book fair. This year performers came from New York, the Netherlands and Israel, as well as Hungary.

Although these are healthy signs of life, there are certain aspects of Jewishness which are harder to recapture. "A lot of information about Judaism is missing here, the sort of basic knowledge Jews usually get from their grandparents, or from attending a Jewish school," said Rabbi Oberlander. This provided one impetus for him to edit the prayer book. "These books can help. Jews are called the people of the book and that is especially important in somewhere like Hungary, where Jewish culture is reviving. Some Jews are still not comfortable coming to synagogue, or openly identifying as Jews. But a book that is on sale everywhere they can take home, and read it in private at their leisure."

Freedom or infringement?

There is a backlash, however. Just as Jewish culture in Hungary never died out, neither has anti-Semitism. An infamous tract forged by the Tsarists' secret police entitled "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," last published in Hungary before World War II, was published again last August, amidst an uproar from the Jewish community. A spokesman for the publisher insists the book is not meant to incite, but to inform, and says that any attempts to ban it would be an infringement of the rights to freedom of speech and information.

But anti-Jewish sentiment extends further. In July, 15 graves at the Jewish Cemetery in Szombathely, Budapest, were spray painted with swastikas, the Star of David hanging from a gallows and Hitler's name. Government reaction, on the other hand, was swift and uncompromising. The act drew official condemnation from President Goncz. Minister of Education Zoltan Pokorni reacted similarly: "We condemn this outrageous deed," he said, "Hungarians must reject every act of discrimination which is based on race or religion."

Hungary's Jewish Community is also active in seeking war reparations. Most cases of litigation are being heard in US courts. Individuals and groups are seeking compensation for forced labor undertaken for such German companies as Siemens, Krupp, AEG, Daimler Benz, and Messerschmidt, the German aviation company involved in producing the fighter and bomber planes of the same name during the war. The fact that Volkswagen became the first company to pay war reparations last fall, by setting up a USD 12 million Private Relief Fund set a precedent that lends their cases a degree of promise.

A different story

Although Hungary's Jews are enjoying the most favorable period in many years, things aren't as good for the country's biggest ethnic group, the Roma. Numbering around 600,000, the Roma represent approximately 6% of Hungary's population. But as in other Central European countries, they are noticeably absent from the political picture.

However, they do have a champion for their rights in the European Union, membership of which Hungary aspires to. In a report issued last month on the prospective new members, the EU criticized Hungary's failure to enact sufficient legislation concerning minorities. "Roma (gypsies) continue to suffer widespread prejudice and discrimination in their daily lives," the report warned. It also demanded that adequate budgetary resources be made available for tackling these problems.

The report concerned four countries, the others being Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, representatives of which all met in Javorina, Slovakia, and agreed on a course of cooperation, part of which would be to organize a secretariat in Bratislava to deal with the problems of Roma.

In August, at a ceremony honoring 3000 Roma martyrs murdered at dawn on August 3, 1944 at Auschwitz, Hungarian President Arpad Goncz noted recent positive changes amongst the Roma, such as the development of Roma intellectuals, cultural organizations and human rights organizations. Since 1989, there has been an explosion in the number of Romany organizations in Hungary, approximately 150 are now being officially registered. The Autonomy Foundation, for example, a Romany Non-Government Organization (NGO) was awarded a USAID grant recently.

Goncz also said that non-Roma need to examine their treatment of the minority, but that in return Roma need to ask themselves whether they are taking full advantage of existing privileges granted to them by the State. One such privilege is the mid-range plan set up by the Orban government this spring to address Roma issues. The plan organised a Gypsy Association, which receives input from all government ministries. The mid-range plan was designed to replace two earlier, ineffectual programs, the Gypsy Coordination Council and the Roma Program Council which had been designed to improve conditions in three areas - education, employment, and social integration, but were deemed successful only in improving education.

Although the living conditions of Roma are considerably better in Hungary than some of its neighbor states, such as the Czech Republic or Slovakia, this is of little consolation to the jobless. Whereas their Roma brethren elsewhere have clear obstacles, such as overt violence and even partitioning walls, to surmount, the issues surrounding Hungarian Roma are associated with taking positive steps forward rather than retracing the negative ones.

Greg Nieuwsma, 15 November 1999

Read part one on the Czech Republic HERE.
Read part two on Poland HERE.
Read part three on Slovakia HERE



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