If you’ve only got a few days in Budapest, then one of the neighborhoods I recommend visiting is the Jewish Quarter.
Budapest Jewish Quarter is the district of contradictions. This is the smallest district in Budapest but it has the highest population density. It is home of the Jewish community but also the new party hub with restaurants, ruin pubs, cafés and design shops.
This small, highly populated area is jammed with locals and tourists alike.
During the last couple of years, the quarter became known and famous for its nightlife but actually, it is a fun place to hang out all day round.
The Jewish district is made of narrow streets, passages, hidden courtyards, designer shops and all kinds of bars and restaurants. This unique mix makes this quarter one of the most exciting neighborhoods of Budapest.
The quarter is dominated by the Great Synagogue of Dohány Street and some smaller synagogues and centers of the Jewish community in Pest.
In medieval times, Jews lived in Buda and worked as merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen.
A Jewish community formed in the late 11th-early 12th century and their community gained prominence in the late 14th and early 15th century. In 1446, wealthy Jews participated in the royal ceremonies of King Matthias.
The situation for Jews took a turn for the worse in the 1490’s, when their property was confiscated and loans to Jews were not paid.
The Ottoman victory against the Hungarians in 1526 led to a mass exodus of Jews to Western Hungary while others were deported to different areas in the Ottoman Empire., but later they began to resettle in Buda again.
A period of tranquility for the Jewish community lasted until 1686. Jews were heavily taxed, yet their community continued to grow. Jews were active in commerce, finance and were tax collectors for the Treasury.
In 1660, the Jews population numbered 1,000 and was the largest minority in Hungary.
The Jews sided with the Turks during the Austrian reconquest in 1686, and only 500 of them survived the Austrian siege.
After the Austrian conquest in 1686, Jews were prohibited from living in the city, later in 1783, Joseph II allowed Jews to settle in Pest but anti-Jewish legislation marked the Habsburg’s rule.
At the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, the Jewish community was concentrated in Erzsébetváros, and those who arrived with the great immigration waves from Eastern Europe in the second half of the 1800s typically also settled here.
Jewish commerce and trade grew and Jews began acquiring property and factories.
Jews volunteered for the Hungarian Revolution in 1848 and the military stopped a mob attack against the Jewish quarter in April 1848. Jews also contributed financially to the revolution. As the revolution was suppressed, the Jewish community had to pay a huge fine.
The period of 1873 to World War II was a time of prosperity for the Jewish community of Budapest. The community grew and played a major role in the development of the capital and the industrial boom in the country.
Following World War I, and before World War II, Budapest’s Jewish population reached its peak and there were 125 synagogues in Budapest.
In 1941, about 184,000 Jews lived in Budapest. Another 62,000 were considered Jews according to anti-Jewish laws in effect, so the total Jewish population was 246,000. Many of them were lawyers, doctors, business owners making them the most visible minority of Budapest.
Following the German Occupation in WWII, more than 15,000 Jews from Budapest were killed in labor camps and deportations.
Adolf Eichmann started a Budapest Jewish council and denied freedom of movement within the city for Jews and forced them to wear a yellow badge. Blocks of the Jewish quarter were closed so there was no escape. Half of those who were locked into the ghetto were transported to concentration camps.
Meanwhile, the neutral states planned rescue actions for the Jews of Budapest.
Raoul Wallenberg came to Budapest as secretary of the Swedish Foreign Ministry in July 1944 with instructions to save as many Jews as possible. He issued thousands of Swedish identity documents to Jews to protect them from Nazi deportation and is credited with ultimately saving as many as 100,000 people.
During the German occupation, the Arrow Cross Party came to power and carried out violent attacks against the Jews, who were shot and thrown into the Danube River.
/On April 16, 2005, Holocaust Memorial Day in Hungary, commemorating the date on which the ghettoization of Jews in the countryside began in 1944, a new memorial Holocaust victims in Budapest was inaugurated.
Gyula Pauer’s work consists of 60 pairs of shoes cast in iron, a reference to the shoes of some of the thousands of victims shot into the river by the Arrow Cross./
By the end of December 1944, 70,000 Jews lived in the central ghetto in Budapest and tens of thousands in the international ghetto or protected houses.
The international ghetto was liberated by the Soviets on January 16, 1945, and the central ghetto two days later.
About 94,000 Jews remained in the two ghettos at the time of liberation. Another 20,000 came out of hiding from the city, and another 20,000 returned from labor camps and labor service detachments.
Jewish Quarter in Budapest
The area that was once the ghetto is a vibrant, lively neighborhood today.
The old walls were demolished – there is only a tiny section in one of the courtyards.
At 34 Dohány street there is a memorial wall showing the former range – Király street – Károly Boulevard – Dohány street – Kertész street – of the ghetto.
The Great Synagogue
It is the largest synagogue in Europe, the second largest (after the New York Temple Emanu-El) in the world. It can hold almost 3000 worshipers (1497 men and 1472 women).
It was built according to the design of the Viennese architect, Ludwig Förster between 1854 and 1859. That time the area was already built-up.
The building is covered with red and white bricks and has ceramic decorations, and a rose window between the onion domes is the central decoration of the facade.
Above its main entrance the Hebrew line reads: “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them”.
The red and yellow paving stones in front of the synagogue entrance are put there in the pattern of a menorah.
The interior of the synagogue was designed by Frigyes Feszl, who was the architect of Vigadó Concert Hall (Danube promenade).
Ferenc Liszt played its famous organ several times.
Weeping willow tree
The Holocaust Memorial in the back garden stands directly over the mass graves dug during the 1944-1945 period. There are about 2200 bodies in the 24 mass graves, half of them are still unidentified.
In Raoul Wallenberg Park (named after the Swedish diplomat who helped many Jews to escape deportation in 1944-45) there is a metal weeping willow tree in memory of the Hungarian Jews murdered during the WW2.
It has about 30,000 leaves and the names of the victims are engraved onto these leaves. The tree was donated by the Emanuel Foundation set up by the world-famous actor Tony Curtis, who was a Jewish-Hungarian descent.
The Heroes Temple is connected with an arcade to the synagogue and was built in 1931.
This Bauhaus building was built in memory of the 10,000 Jewish soldiers who died in World War I. It can seat 186 people and is used for weekday worship services.
The Great Synagogue symbolizes the central entrance to the Jewish Quarter.
Other Jewish Tourist Sites in Budapest
The remains of this 15th century synagogue were found in the mid-1960’s. The synagogue was restored in 1966, currently it is part of the Jewish Museum.
This synagogue was built in 1913 and is still in use today.
Its courtyard, one of the best-preserved in Hungary, reveals its once vibrant community life. Next to the building is a kosher restaurant, Hannah.
Buda Castle Synagogue
In September 2018, the synagogue was reopened in Táncsics Street.
The small copper memorial plaques are sunk into the pavement in front of houses where those lived who later became victims.
Carl Lutz Memorial - 10 Dob street
Lutz (1895-1975) was a Swiss diplomat who helped many Jews to flee from the terror. There is a metal plaque next to the statue that quotes from the Talmud: “He who saves but one man is as if he had saved the whole world”.
Kazinczy Street Synagogue
The huge, Art-Nouveau synagogue in the narrow Kazinczy Street is a house of worship and a teaching centre, built by the Orthodox.
The Synagogue houses a ritual bath (mikveh), and there is a kosher restaurant, a matzah bakery and a butcher in its neighborhood.
Rumbach Sebestyén street Synagogue
The synagogue in Rumbach Sebestyén Street – designed by Otto Wagner – was closed for 60 years. The eclectic style of the synagogue was popular at the time.
In 1868 the Hungarian Parliament declared that Jewish faith were fully equal, the undivided Jewish community broke into three: traditional Orthodox, progressive Neologs and a new community that mixed modernization with traditions. This small community built the Rumbach Synagogue that also mix of modern structure and eastern patterns.
Raoul Wallenberg Memorial, Erzsébet Square
The monument is titled: Do not Forget!
It is a bronze briefcase left on a bench reminding us that we don’t know what happened to Wallenberg after he was captured by the Red Army.
Holocaust Memorial Center
The Holocaust Memorial Center – a national institution established by the Government in 1999 – is one of the few institutions in the world, established by the state that focuses entirely on Holocaust research and education.
Holocaust Memorial Center
39 Páva St
Jewish District as a party hub
How could the Jewish District became a cultural party hub from ghetto that was crumbling since WWII?
The switch mostly caused by the born of the ruin pubs.
RUIN BARS IN BUDAPEST - new injection of lifeblood
Budapest is known for many things, from its magnificent architecture, vibrant landscape, hot summers, thermal baths, and tasty cuisine.
During the last 15 years it has become known for its ruin bars, too.
Crumbling houses were turned into bars, changing the quarter considerably.
Szimpla Kert was the first of all ruin bars, starting the trend. What was once an experiment, quickly changed to the city’s nightlife landscape.
Because the new owners of these pubs had no money to spend on new furniture and decoration, they furniture the abandoned residential blocks with long-unwanted pieces that they creatively and colorfully restored.
This is how – for example – along unused car was turned into a sitting.
These new places attracted the young, creative crowds with affordable drinks, quirky design, and laid-back atmosphere. Once considered to be chaotic and invaluable, turned into a magnet for locals and tourists alike.
The movement of opening alternative spaces has begun. Other ruin bars started to open one after another in the neighborhood.
Read more about the best ruin bars in Budapest here.
STREET ART everywhere
We can’t say the all the destruction of WWII has already been cleared. There are still empty lots, ruined buildings dotting the area.
As a new way of beautifying bare firewalls, stunning street murals started to brighten up the quarter. While street art usually illegal in Hungary, these artworks were commissioned by local authorities and have a historical, educational angle.
As colorful and meaningful murals started to pop-up, the once empty firewalls became adorned.
Local artists have an abundance of free place to show their talent on the walls of abandoned buildings. The murals quickly became part of the sight here.
Unfortunately, they disappear as quickly as they come alive.
What is an abandoned field today will be an area under construction tomorrow and new walls and buildings are constantly being built in front of the paintings. So every time you visit the district, there will be something new to discover… and something once loved has already disappeared, waiting for a time in the distant future when they might become unveiled again.
To discover the vibrant murals and street art pieces just walk around the neighborhood with open eyes and don’t forget to constantly look backward, upwards and into the courtyards, because if you don’t, you will miss many of them.