Numerous gravestones prove that that Jews were present in the Roman province of Pannonia from the 2nd – 3rd century AD.
The famous letter of Hászdáj ibn Sárput verifies that by the 9th – 10th century we see not only wandering merchants, but settled Jews as well, all over the country.
Jews have been living in the country undisturbed up until 1093. That was when King Kálmán Könyves instituted the first laws limiting mixed marriages and prohibiting work on Sunday strictly. First, Jews were only allowed to settle in towns with Episcopal sees, but later they were given permission to dwell in cities, as well. In spite of all that, Jews still played an important role in the administration of the country’s economy. Soon after, the Golden Bull (1222) prohibited all that. In 1231, the restrictive regulations of the Golden Bull reinforced and the resolutions of the 1215 Lateran Synod were implemented regarding the attire and possession of the Jews.
Jew baiting, typical of Europe, did not prevail here, especially because the kings needed Jewish economic expertise and their taxes, throughout the establishment and later the reconstruction of a new country. Although they were expelled from cities every once in a while- inhabited similarly by settlers- but they were soon allowed to return. Only under the rule of Lajos the Great of the House of Anjou were Jews forced to leave the country for a longer period (1360-1364). When Lajos the Great allowed them to return, he placed them under his own protection, similarly to his predecessors. Numerous Jews migrated here under his rule from the West, where the accusations of well poisoning and blood libel suits were permanent due to the 1381 plague.
Under the rule of King Zsigmond of Luxemburg- although their rights were partially restricted- Jews were allowed the settle on a few manors, besides royal towns.
However, Western persecution was persistent and even Zsigmond, King of Hungary and emperor of the German-Roman Empire, ruling over most of Europe could not make an exemption.
The situation improved under the rule of King Mátyás. He appointed a Jewish prefect instead of the previous institution of the Christian Jew- adjudicator, who was authorized to settle all the issues regarding Jews. We might call this period the golden age of the Hungarian Jewry of the Middle Ages. Its architectural remnants are still visible (although partially buried) in the Buda royal castle area. Following the death of King Mátyás, persecution of Jews flared up again, and based on blood libel suits, Jews were time after time burnt at the stake.
When the Sultan Suleiman the Great occupied Buda, he took part of the city’s Jewish population back with him to Turkey. Hungary was divided into three parts. Jews slowly drifted back to the areas occupied by the Turkish, too. Their situation was still difficult in the region of the so-called royal Hungary, while in Transylvania, due to the Reformation and the reading of the Bible, they experienced tolerant, pro-Jewish manifestation and there were no pogroms, either. When the Turks were driven out, Jews previously living under their rule left with them. The whole country fell under Hapsburg rule. Jewish settlers also came to the unoccupied territories from the neighboring countries who- as indicated by the new laws- were not allowed to settle in towns. Among these new conditions, Jews participated mostly in the management of the nobility’s estates and the trading activities of small villages. Marie Therese levied a high, new tax on the Jews for their sufferance. Joseph the 2nd ordered Jews to take German family names (instead of their Hebrew ones). The so-called “Decree of Tolerance” aiming to ensure civilian right of the Jewish harbored significant advantages and disadvantages at the same time for the Jewish population.
At the beginning of the 19th century, during the Reform Era the enlightened aristocracy aimed at the emancipation of Hungarian Jewry besides numerous other constructive innovations. This question became a recurring topic of the parliamentary session, but the laws were behind. Jews gradually became players of the economic life of the country, thanks to the industrial and commercial prosperity, launched in part by them. However, a few restrictive regulations remained, but they lacked real significance among the new circumstances. In 1840, it was declared that Jews might settle freely anywhere within the country- except in mining towns- established factories and do business. Numerous Jewish immigrants came to Hungary in this period from over provinces of the Hapsburg Empire, where the conditions were much more adverse, thereby establishing one of the largest Jewish communities.
In 1848-49, Jews joined the Hungarian revolution and fight for freedom as a matter of course, way above their numbers. Consequently, the entire Hungarian Jewry was penalized with a special, extremely high war indemnity after the overthrow of the freedom fight. Following the Compromise between the Hapsburg emperor and Hungary, the law on emancipation was declared in 1867 on the integration of the Jews, regarding their civilian and political rights.
In 1868, a Hungarian Jewish Congress was held on organizational issues, concluding in a religious split, dividing Hungarian Jewry into two branches: one accepted the resolution of the Congress (neolog) and the other rejected them (orthodox). Those who did not take sides in the argument adopted the policy of “status quo”.
During the following decades – similarly to other European countries- Hungarian Jewry succeeded in manifesting its so far unfreely withheld and newly liberated creativity to the world. One of its witnesses is the magnificent building located next to our museum, the famous Dohány utca Synagogue. Several Jewish people found a way to self-expression besides making a livelihood within the economic, scientific and artistic areas. They were the ones establishing the characteristic urban and metropolitan Hungarian-Jewish culture in the country and in Budapest- besides the existing traditional rural Jewish existence.
The Hungarian parliamentary declared the Jewish faith a national religion in 1895, making it equal to other denominations. In the same year, a law was made on civil marriages, opening the door to Jewish- Christian mixed marriages.
Among such circumstances was Theodore Herzl, father of political Zionism born. On the contrary, pertaining to the assimilation movement, more and more Jews declared themselves Hungarian. Within minority areas, Jewish inhabitants- lacking any other solution- were registered as Hungarian nationalities. Neither the blood libel suit of Tiszaeszlár, nor the National Anti-Semitic Party of Győző Istóczy could help the process of “Hungarianization”.
Following World War I and the shock of Trianon, anti-Semitism grew drastically stronger in Hungary. In 1920 the first restrictive law was born, the so-called numerous clauses, and from 1938 on, unmistakably racist laws came into effect, outlawing the Jewish population gradually.
During World War II 600 000 Jews were killed, all Hungarian citizens, most of them in Auschwitz and in other death camps. The rural Jewry was almost completely exterminated and many previously flourishing communities hardly had a herald left.
Most of today’s Hungarian Jewry lives in Budapest. Their community institution, temples, schools (the only Rabbinical Seminary in Central-Eastern-Europe among them), cultural and social organizations and club were reborn during the last 20 years, following the decades of anti-Jewish and anti- religious system of fascism and communism.