City in Veszprém county, Hungary. In the first half of the nineteenth century, Pápa was home to one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Hungary. Situated favorably at the crossroads between north and south in Transdanubia, Pápa was designated as a “privileged market town” that belonged to a branch of the Esterházy family. Since before 1840 Jews were excluded from most of the “royal free or privileged cities,” it was in noble-owned, large market towns such as Pápa that they flourished. The population was primarily Hungarian with a sizable Calvinist and Lutheran minority alongside the Roman Catholic majority. The Pápa fair attracted merchants from the mercantile centers to the north and west—Pressburg, Györ, and Sopron—who bought up agricultural produce from the southern counties.
The Jewish community was founded formally in 1749 on the basis of privileges issued by the Esterházy counts. The community grew rapidly: by the 1830s it numbered 2,600 Jews, constituting about 20 percent of the town’s population, and was the fifth-largest community in Hungary. The rabbis who served there provide a good indicator of its changing cultural profile. While Bernardus Isaac and Selig Bettelheim were obscure figures, Binyamin Ze’ev Volf Rappaport (1754–1837), who served for 56 years, was a brilliant Talmudic scholar who published several volumes of novellae and responsa during his lifetime and whose stature was commensurate with the growing importance of Pápa. While entirely traditional, his independent, lenient halakhic stance antagonized the leading authorities of the day. He was succeeded by an unusual Orthodox rabbi, Feivel (Pál) Horowitz, who delivered one of the first sermons in the Magyar tongue in Hungary. In August 1844, Horowitz organized a rabbinic conference in nearby Paks in response to both the emancipatory debates taking place in the Hungarian Diet and the Reform rabbinical assemblies in Germany. While the conference proved a fiasco, it did issue a resolution that condemned usurious practices and urged the Jewish populace to observe ethical business practices. However, the sudden death of Horowitz in February 1845 brought his initiative to an end.
With the growth of the community, numbering at that point 600 families, a new synagogue was seen as a desideratum and building had begun in 1844. Much to the consternation of the Orthodox majority, the wealthy elite who controlled the community sought to introduce innovations in the synagogue’s architecture and services. The foremost liberal rabbis in central Europe were queried on the permissibility of such reforms as employing an organ on the Sabbath and shifting the bimah (the platform for the desk at which the Torah is read) away from the center to the front of the synagogue. Their responses were published in Zulässigkeit und Dringlichkeit der Synagogen-Reformen (Validity and Urgency of Synagogue Reforms; 1845), the Hungarian contribution to a series of such collections marking the religious conflict that began to consume Central European Jewry from the end of the 1830s.
With the inauguration of the synagogue in 1846—the bimah was placed up front and although there was no organ, a space was provided for it—and the subsequent election of the leading reform rabbi in Hungary, Leopold Löw, Pápa became the arena of one of the most sensational and prolonged religious clashes between Reform and Orthodoxy in Hungary. Both sides enlisted the local Hungarian press and Jewish journals in Germany, which in turn closely followed every new development and further fueled the conflict. The county and central administrations were drawn into the dispute, bombarded by petitions from both sides. In the aftermath of the 1848–1849 revolution, Löw was denounced as a revolutionary by his Orthodox opponents, was tried, and was imprisoned for several weeks. The conflict died down only when the liberated Löw decided to accept the Szeged community’s invitation and left Pápa in 1850.
Relations between Jews and Christians in Pápa had their ups and downs. In the pre-1848 era, the town with its Calvinist college was a center of liberal Hungarian nationalism and culture attracting students of all confessions, including Jews, from all over the country. Here Löw delivered lectures on Hebrew and the college press printed several of his works, including the first Hungarian-language Jewish periodical, A magyar zsinagóga (1847). Remarkably, the local casino (social club), founded by noblemen in the 1830s, welcomed the Jewish elite; in 1848, Jews constituted about one-fifth of its membership, a fair reflection of their proportion in the town’s population.
However, during the first months of the revolution, anti-Jewish sentiment grew, Jews were excluded from the National Guard in May, and violence broke out. Only with the onset of fighting against the Serbs and Croats in the summer were Jews accepted into the guard and accounted for about a quarter of its volunteers. However, many Jews, especially the Orthodox, took a cautious tack and sat out the revolution on the sidelines.
During the tense years of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel affair, Pápa was once again the scene of antisemitic disturbances. In July 1882, a group of young Jews and Christian journeymen clashed in the streets. For three days and nights, bands armed with clubs attacked Jewish homes and shops. A year later, in August 1883, when rioting broke out throughout Hungary, Pápa once again witnessed anti-Jewish violence. Even when the disturbances subsided, anti-Jewish feelings continued to run high, and elections held in Pápa in the fall of 1883 revealed the depth of the religious antagonisms.
Soon after the crushing of the 1848–1849 revolution, Pápa began to lose its economic importance and many of the wealthy and more educated Jews who had been the force behind the reforms gravitated to Budapest and Vienna. The number of Jews in Pápa peaked around 1880 at 3,500, about 25 percent of the town’s population. Subsequently their numbers declined so that during World War II, the size of the community was just about the same as it had been a century earlier, about 2,500.
The community largely regained its conservative complexion in the second half of the nineteenth century. Shemu’el Sommer, an Orthodox rabbi tending toward modern Orthodoxy, was elected to succeed Löw, but after Sommer’s death in 1859 the post remained vacant. (Shimon Sofer, the son of the Ḥatam Sofer, had been invited, but turned down the offer because the bimah remained in the front of the synagogue.) In the aftermath of the Jewish Congress in 1868–1869, the community elected to remain Orthodox, though for a brief time a secessionist Neolog community was set up with Moritz Klein (1876–1880) serving as its rabbi. The neo-Orthodox Salomon Breuer officiated there during the 1880s, until he was called to Frankfurt am Main to succeed his father-in-law, Samson Raphael Hirsch, in 1889. Later, Aryeh Roth was one of the few Orthodox rabbis in Hungary to embrace Zionism.
Two months after the Germans occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944, the Jews of Pápa were confined in a ghetto. On 4 and 5 July of that year, 2,565 Jews were sent to Auschwitz; only 500 returned. After the 1956 revolution, most of the community left; by 1989, only a handful of Jews remained in the town. The beautiful classic synagogue lies in disrepair.
Jehuda-Gyula Láng, A pápai zsidóság emlékkönyve / Sefer zikaron Papa: Le-Zekher kedoshe ha-kehilah ve-yishuve ha-sevivah (Tel Aviv, 1974), text in Hungarian, introduction also in Hebrew; Robert Nemes, “Hungary’s Anti-Semitic Provinces: Violence and Ritual Murder in the 1880s,” Slavic Review 66.1 (2007): 20–44; Michael K. Silber, “The Entrance of Jews into Hungarian Society in ‘Vormärz’: The Case of the ‘Casinos,’” in Assimilation and Community: The Jews in Nineteenth-Century Europe, ed. Jonathan Frankel and Steven J. Zipperstein, pp. 284–323 (Cambridge, 1992); Antal Szalai, A pápai zsidóság története és a hitközség szerepe a város társadalmi életében, Jókai Füzetek 19 (Pápa, Hun., 1996); Antal Szalai, A pápai zsidóság asszimilációs törekvései és polgárosodása, 1600–1944, Jókai Füzetek 37 (Pápa, Hun., 2003).