(ca. 1460–ca. 1526), adventurer, financial adviser to the royal court, and well-known apostate in Hungary. Imre Fortunatas (also Szerencsés) had the original family name of Seneor (or Sneor; Sneur), a corrupted version of Latin Senior; his personal name was Shelomoh (Zalman) ben Efrayim. Some claim he was of Spanish origin and that he was the brother or nephew of Avraham Seneor, the leader of Spanish Jewry before 1492. Autographs of Hebrew codices in Fortunatus’s library indicate that he must have been a learned man; he wrote his confidential memoranda in cursive Hebrew.
Fortunatus most likely arrived in Hungary from Portugal, Italy, or ultimately from both of these countries. From the first decade of the sixteenth century, he distinguished himself as a merchant and moneylender in Buda. Though married, he had an affair with a Christian woman, and sometime between 1505 and 1510 converted to Christianity in order to avoid the death penalty for this act and perhaps also to ensure his success in business. His godfather, the palatine Imre Perényi, provided him with his Hungarian first name; Perényi also gave him his Latin and Hungarian surnames—Fortunatus and Szerencsés, both meaning fortunate. Fortunatus left his wife and children—who did not renounce their Jewish faith—and remarried. The general view, however, was that he secretly remained a Jew who (according to some sources) openly expressed regret and returned to Judaism on his deathbed.
Despite his conversion, Fortunatus used his influence on behalf of the Jews of Buda, Prague, and Vienna on several occasions in connection with blood libels, expulsions, and charitable acts. His deeds led rabbis in Buda, Padua, and Constantinople to issue a famous ruling that Fortunatus’s sons from his first marriage, Avraham and Efrayim, were to be called up to the Torah by their father’s name and not their grandfather’s, as was the custom for the sons of apostates.
Fortunatus achieved great prestige because of his loans and financial acumen. He served the party of the royal court, where he was the favorite of László Szalkai, chancellor and later the archbishop of Hungary. Fortunatus leased mines in upper Hungary, took charge of the customs duty of Buda Castle, supervised frontier assets, and counseled the royal couple. He was appointed vice treasurer in about 1520.
Followers of the “national party” of János (John) Szapolyai and István (Stephen) Werbőczi increasingly launched attacks on Fortunatus on account of his wealth and increasing influence, accusing him of corruption, irresponsibility, and neglect of financial responsibilities—“sins” he shared with prominent aristocrats of the royal court party. After the fall of Nándorfehérvár (Belgrade) in 1521, he was accused of delaying the cash supplies and ammunition necessary for defense, as well as of advising the king to devalue currency by half in order to finance the war against the Turks. An attempt was made to remove the “half-Jew” from his job as a vice treasurer, and at the Diet of May 1525 it was urged that Fortunatus be burned at the stake because of the debased currency and a nationwide famine.
In vain, Fortunatus tried to redirect this hatred toward the Fuggers (a German banking and merchant family). In order to appease the angry gentry, the king imprisoned him on 20 May 1525, for the sake of appearances. Two weeks later, however, he freed Fortunatus upon Palatine István Báthory’s intervention and considerable monetary sacrifice. But in June 1525, an urban mob, with rage fueled by constant accusations against Jews, together with the armed servants of noblemen who participated in the dissolved Diet, ransacked the Buda ghetto and robbed Fortunatus’s palace. He escaped by lowering himself from the wall of Buda Castle.
Realizing that the royal court party was helpless, Fortunatus, as well as the queen and Archbishop László Szalkai, switched sides and approached Szapolyai in his fight against Báthory. Fortunatus presented a financial plan to fill the empty treasury by seizing the copper mines that the Fuggers owned in Hungary. At the Diet held early in July 1525 in Hatvan, followers of Szapolyai no longer spoke against him. On the contrary, Werbőczi suggested—and Szalkai supported—the idea that Fortunatus handle the copper mines appropriated from the Fuggers. On 20 July 1526, his last known financial transaction had him lend the king 10,000 gold coins to fight against the Turks now threatening Hungary. Fortunatus died in Buda a few weeks later, at about the time of the Battle of Mohács that led to the downfall of the medieval Hungarian state and a century and a half of Ottoman occupation. Fortunatus’s sons emigrated, and their offspring took on the family name Zaks (Sachs), explaining the name as an acronym of the Hebrew term Zera‘ kadosh Seneor, meaning “holy seed of Seneor.”
György Haraszti, “Az ‘igazi’ Fortunatus,” in A hitehagyott, by Molnár Ákos, pp. 289–307 (Budapest, 2005); Shlomo J. Spitzer and Géza Komoróczy, Héber Kútforrások Magyarország és a magyarországi zsidóság történetéhez a kezdetektől 1686-ig (Budapest, 2003), pp. 311–314.
Translated from Hungarian by Veronika Szabó