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Historiography in Hungary

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The rabbi and historian Leopold Löw published the first substantive article on Hungarian Jewish history: “Geschichte der Juden in Ungarn” (History of the Jews of Hungary; in Kalendar und Jahrbuch für Israeliten 5 [1846/47]). He was soon joined by Ignác Einhorn, who devoted articles to such subjects as the medieval blood libel and social and political analyses of the “Jewish question” in that country. Einhorn also wrote the first monograph on Hungarian Jewish history, Die Revolution und die Juden in Ungarn (The Revolution and the Jews in Hungary; 1851), an analysis of recent events prefaced by ruminations on Jewish political culture.

Löw’s periodical Ben Chananja (1858–1867) devoted a separate section to history, in which he published a number of studies, among them histories of Sabbatianism and Hasidism in Hungary, as well as a book-length biography of the reform pioneer rabbi, Aharon Chorin (1863). Löw also wrote the first book-length history of Hungarian Jewry in modern times, Der jüdische Kongress in Ungarn (The Jewish Congress in Hungary; 1871), reissued in 1874 as Zur neueren Geschichte der Juden in Ungarn (To the Modern History of Jews in Hungary). Primarily a monograph on the history of emancipation and communal organization, it cited valuable, unpublished archival documents.

Ignatz Reich, a teacher, published Beth-El (1860–1867), short studies on eminent Hungarian Jews that often cited important historical texts in full. To compensate for the lacuna in Heinrich Graetz’s monumental History of the Jews, József Bergel (1802–1885), a physician and Hebrew poet, published a brief history of Hungarian Jews (1879) that did have the merit of being written in Hungarian (a German version was also published).

These early studies written between the 1840s and 1870s were mobilized in both the struggle for legal emancipation (attained in 1867) and the culture wars between Orthodox and reformers that coincided with it. Political–legal and religious–cultural themes dominated their narratives. Many of that generation had studied at yeshivas as well as universities but were not trained specifically as historians. Nevertheless, their work is often peppered with valuable critical insights.

The period of the Dual Monarchy (1867–1918) saw the rise of a generation of university-trained historians in Hungary, among whom not an insignificant number were Jews. The most notable were the social and economic historian Ignác Acsády (1845–1906) and the university professor Henrik Marczali (1856–1940), who wrote occasional studies on Hungarian Jewry, as did two important Jewish historians who had taken up posts in the capital in the 1870s, Meir Kayserling (1829–1905) and David Kaufmann (1852–1899). A decade before Dubnow made a similar call in Russia, Kaufmann urged communities to collect and preserve artifacts and documents of historical significance (Otsar ha-sifrut 2 [1888]: 91–92).

The first serious scholar dedicated to Hungarian Jewish history was their colleague Sámuel Kohn (1841–1920), the Hungarian preacher in Pest whose attempts at comprehensive historical surveys of Hungarian Jewry marked him as a pioneer. His Héber kútforrások és adatok magyarország történelméhez (Hebrew Sources toward the History of Hungary; 1881) sought to gather Hebrew sources, primarily from responsa on Hungarian Jewish history (an expanded version by Shlomo J. Spitzer and Geza Komoroczy covering the period up until 1686 appeared in 2003), whereas his A zsidók története Magyarországon (History of the Jews in Hungary; 1884) is a historical narrative based on archival sources treating the medieval period until the battle of Mohács (1526). Kohn’s assimilatory tendencies directed him to find a shared past between Jews and Magyars, hence his monograph on the Transylvanian Sabbatarians (1889) and his skeptically received theory that Jews as Khazar converts accompanied the invading Magyar tribes in the ninth century.

The rise of modern antisemitism in the wake of the Tiszaeszlár blood libel (1882–1883), and later, the millennium celebrations in Hungary (1896), prompted the emergence of the two main periodicals that would devote some space to Jewish history in Hungary: Magyar Zsidó Szemle (Hungarian Jewish Review; 1884–1948) and IMIT Évkönyv, the annual published by the Izraelita Magyar Irodalmi Társulat (Hungarian Israelite Literary Society). IMIT also undertook to publish the series Monumenta Hungariae Judaica or Magyar Zsidó Oklevéltár (1903–1980), a documentary collection based on state, county, and municipal archival sources relating to pre-1780 Hungary, of which four volumes were published prior to 1938. After 1959, another 14 volumes were issued, edited by Sándor Scheiber.

With his history of the Jews of Szeged (1885), Immánuel Löw (1854–1944) inaugurated the genre of communal monographs that would be undertaken mainly by rabbis of varying talents. Related was the two-volume collection on communal Jewish schools (1896), edited by Jónás Barna and Fülöp Csukási, which included a monograph on the Pest community school written by its principal Bernát Mandl (1852–1940). Löw also wrote studies on the history of Jewish education in Hungary and later worked to build up the archives of the Hungarian Jewish museum that began to function from 1912.

Toward the turn of the twentieth century, three monographs by young rabbis, based on thorough archival research, were published by IMIT, marking the high point of Jewish historical writing in Hungary in the pre-Holocaust era: Miksa Pollak (1868–1944) wrote A zsidók törtenete Sopronban (History of the Jews in Sopron; 1896); Béla Bernstein (1868–1944) wrote Az 1848/1849-iki magyar szabadságharcz és a zsidók (The Hungarian War of Independence of 1848/1849 and the Jews; 1898); and Alexander Büchler (1870–1944) composed A zsidók története Budapesten (History of the Jews in Budapest; 1901). Büchler passed material he had gathered from the archives of the Rosenthal family (prominent community leaders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), reflecting the inner life of Jewish society in the pre-1848 era, onto Yekuti’el Yehudah Greenwald (1889–1955), who published some of the more important letters in Mishpaḥat Rosental (The Rosenthal Family; 1920). Greenwald was a prolific Orthodox historian whose publications, both before and after his immigration to the United States, on the nineteenth-century culture wars provided an important alternative narrative of Jewish history in Hungary. Mózes Richtmann (1880–1972), the rare Zionist historian at the Teachers Seminary, and Zsigmond Groszmann (1880–1943) both produced valuable studies.

The harsh criticism that came to be leveled on the historical record of assimilationist Hungarian Jewry by both Oszkár Jászi on the left and Gyula Szekfü on the right during and after World War I prompted A magyar zsidóság története (History of the Hungarian Jews; 1922), the apologetic survey by Lajos Venetianer that paid particular attention to economic and cultural history up until the outbreak of the war, providing detailed bibliographies and statistics that testified to the considerable contributions of Jews to Hungary.

After World War I, the turn from positivist histories to an emphasis on the development of the Hungarian “spirit” inspired several literary and cultural historical monographs and surveys. Miksa Grünwald (Me’ir Gilon) wrote Zsidó Biedermeier (Jewish Biedermeir; 1937); Aladár Komlós (1892–1980) wrote Magyar zsidó szellemtörténet a reformkorszaktól a Holocaustig (Hungarian Jewish Intellectual History from the Hungarian Reform Era to the Holocaust; posthumous publication, 1997); and Jenő Zsoldos (1886–1972) compiled the useful anthology Magyar irodalom és a zsidóság (Hungarian Literature and the Jews; 1943). By 1948, Zsoldos bitterly rejected Jewish assimilation as illusory in his introduction to 1848–49 a magyar zsidóság életében (1848–49 in the Life of Hungarian Jewry).

The influence of ideologies such as Zionism and communism, and the growing trend for university-based academics to replace communal rabbis, characterized Hungarian Jewish historiography in the postwar years. And for the first time, Hungarian Jewish history was investigated outside the borders of Hungary.

In Israel, the Zionist perspective led to studies on the neglected themes of antisemitism and Orthodoxy. Yosef Ben-David (1920–1986) wrote a sophisticated historical sociological study, “The Beginnings of Modern Jewish Society in Hungary in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century” (1952; English, 1997) and integrated the Orthodox sector into his narrative. The crowning achievement of this school is by Jacob Katz (1904–1998), whose A House Divided (1995; English trans., 1998) is a tight “political” history of Orthodoxy and the religious schism—a seminal event in Hungarian Jewish history. Through the medium of Orthodoxy, Katz, and Israeli historiography in general, sought to bring Hungarian Jewish history out of its splendid isolation and integrate it into the general Jewish historical narrative.

The outstanding historian of Hungarian Jewry in Israel was Nathanel Katzburg (1921–2006), who wrote extensively on Orthodoxy, as well as two other themes that characterized Israeli historiography: the history of Hungarian antisemitism (1963, 1968, 1992) and the Holocaust (1993). Katzburg also wrote a survey of Hungarian Jewish history as an introduction to Yad Vashem’s Pinkas Yahadut Hungaryah (Community Register of Hungarian Jewry; 1975 [in Hungarian, 1999]), a history of Jews in interwar Hungary (1981), and a history of the Holocaust in Hungary (1993).

The Holocaust and antisemitism also became the primary focus of American historiography. Randolph Braham energetically published documentary collections and bibliographies, edited conference volumes, and wrote numerous studies culminating in his magisterial two-volume study, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary (1981).

A number of generalist historians contributed to the Jewish history of Hungary. George Barany dedicated a long article to nineteenth-century Hungarian nationalism and the Jews (1981). In his prosopographic monograph Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary (1972), William McCagg Jr. (1931–1993) presented a pioneering, though idiosyncratic, study of the Jewish economic and intellectual elite. Andrew Janos, in The Politics of Backwardness in Hungary, 1825–1945 (1982), wrote the first and to date the only general history of Hungary that integrates Jews organically into the historical narrative, while Ezra Mendelsohn integrated a fine synthesis on Hungary in his survey The Jews of East Central Europe between the World Wars (1983).

Four decades under Communist rule had a devastating effect on Jewish historiography in Hungary. Sándor Scheiber, the rector of the diminished Rabbinical Seminary, initiated a communal monograph series where (among others) József Schweitzer, his successor as rector, published histories of Jews in Pécs and Tolna county. Elek Karsai published several important documentary collections on the Holocaust and the compulsory labor service, as well as studies on the post–World War I counterrevolution era.

The presence of Jews in the historical discipline in Hungary was most striking, as a glance at the contributors to the monumental 10-volume synthesis Magyarország története (History of Hungary; 1978– ) confirms. Although Jews are noticeably absent from the central narrative, separate subchapters are devoted to Jewish subjects.

The fortieth anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust in 1984 marked a turning point toward a more explicit Jewish history. A team of researchers on Hungarian Jewish history was established at the Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy by its director György Ránki; and a Center for Judaic Studies was established at the University of Budapest, headed by Géza Komoroczy. The center put out a series of publications—the memoirs of Lajos Szabolcsi; a two-volume archival repertorium by György Haraszti (1993); a guide to the Hungarian Jewish press by Sándor Scheiber—as well as a collaborative lexicon called Zsidó Budapest (Jewish Budapest; 1995 [English trans., 1999]). Understandably, it was economic history that had flourished during the Communist decades, and several studies and collections appeared on the role of Jews in the Hungarian economy. Yehuda Don’s collected essays (2006) explored the demographic and economic history of Hungarian Jewry and its nexus with antisemitism.

The fall of communism saw a renewed interest in Jewish history. Studies of the bourgeoisie and urban history led to exploration of themes relevant to Budapest Jewry. Peter Hanák wrote cultural histories of that city’s bourgeoisie in his The Garden and the Workshop (1988; English trans., 1998). A younger generation has contributed studies on the culture and mentalities of turn-of-the-century Jewry. Many of these first appeared in Múlt és Jövő (1988– ). Several valuable social histories on provincial Jewries based on quantitative materials have also appeared.

Victor Karády’s prolific body of work on Jewish social history has made use of the wealth of quantitative data generated by the state and municipal statistical offices since 1870. Trained by Pierre Bourdieu, Karády developed sophisticated methods by which he addressed a variety of problems dealing with the “cultural capital” of Jews. András Kovács, also a sociologist by training, has turned to the sensitive history of Jews in Hungarian politics, especially under communism. György Haraszti has written a valuable collection of studies ranging in topics from medieval times to World War I. Both writers have dealt extensively with assimilation and antisemitism. Since Judit Kubinszky’s 1976 monograph on political antisemitism and Hanák’s anthology Zsidókérdés asszimiláció antiszemitizmus (Jewish Question, Assimilation, Antisemitism; 1984), studies on the “Jewish Question” have been written by Miklós Lackó, Tamás Ungvári (1999), and János Gyurgyák (2001). Szabolcs Szita and László Karsai have devoted numerous studies to the Holocaust.

Mainstream historical journals in Hungary now regularly publish studies on Hungarian Jewry; some have even devoted special issues to the subject. Recent years have witnessed several attempts of varying success at producing overarching histories of Hungarian Jewry primarily by amateur historians living outside Hungary, but a synthesis based on primary sources and employing a sophisticated historical methodology remains a desideratum.

Suggested Reading

Fülöp Grünwald, “A magyar zsidó múlt historikusai,” IMIT: Evkönyvéből (1934): 208–225; György Haraszti, “Methodological Approaches and Sources in the New Hungarian-Jewish Historiography,” Studia Judaica (Cluj) 7 (1998): 181–196; György Haraszti, “A zsidó történetírás nehézsége, avagy egy illúzió fogságában,” in Két világ határán (Budapest, 1999); Nathanel Katzburg, A magyar-zsidó történetírás problémája: Miért nem volt magyar Dubnov, zsidó Szekfű?, Értesítő: Magyar Tudományos Akadémia; Judaisztikai Kutatócsoport 12 (Budapest, 1995).