Johanna Bischitz, Budapest, ca. 1880s. Bischitz was probably the first Jewish woman ever to receive the Golden Order of Merit with Crown (the medal to the left as seen in the photograph), a medal awarded to her in 1879 by the Austro-Hungarian monarchy for her charitable work with Pesti Izraelita Nőegylet (Pest Israelite Women’s Association). Photograph by Ellinger. (Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives)

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Bischitz, Johanna

(Née Hani Fischer; 1827–1898), philanthropic activist and head of a women’s association. Johanna Bischitz’s father was Moritz (Mór) Fischer (1799–1880), director and owner of the world-famous porcelain factory of Herend and a prominent Orthodox lay leader of Hungarian Jewry (he was the grandfather of Rabbi Stephen Wise). Little is known about her mother, Mária Salzer (1799–1886). Moritz Fischer was ennobled in 1867 and added the Hungarian name Farkasházi to his family name. During the Hungarian Revolution of 1848–1849, his daughter cared for wounded Hungarian soldiers, whom he had accommodated in his house. In October 1852, Johanna married the widower David Bischitz (1811–1897), a merchant and landowner from Sárbogárd (Fejér county), and moved to Pest. She became the stepmother of her husband’s three children and gave birth to another four.

Reacting to the increasing pauperization of a large segment of the Jewish urban population, Bischitz set up a women’s association to provide relief. With the support of Pest’s chief rabbi, Wolf A. Meisel (1816–1867), and 11 other women, she finally succeeded in founding the Pesti Izraelita Nőegylet (Pest Israelite Women’s Association) in the spring of 1866. Mária Gottesmann was elected as president and Bischitz as vice president, but later, from 1873 until her death in 1898, Bischitz presided over the association.

An important accomplishment of Pesti Izraelita Nőegylet was its founding of Hungary’s first Jewish girls’ orphanage, which opened on 6 October 1867. Later, on 1 November 1875, a similar institution was established—a residence for girls who had lost one of their parents. Katalin Gerő (1853–1944) was the director of the girls’ orphanage and residence from 1898. During this period—including two world wars—the orphanage took care of more than 1,300 Jewish girls, giving them a religious and secular education. It ran one of the most progressive teacher-training schools in the country and worked closely with different vocational training programs for women in Budapest.

One particularly successful initiative of Pesti Izraelita Nőegylet was its kosher soup kitchen, launched on 15 November 1869. Not only was it the sole facility of its type open throughout the year, but it also became a model for municipal soup kitchens established after 1873. In the 1870s, more than 65,000 people a year were served a warm meal. At the outbreak of World War I, this number rose to 280,000.

In addition to her highly professional charitable work, Bischitz believed in modern educational programs and solid vocational training for Jewish girls and women. In an effort to improve the situation of women in Budapest, she played an important role in establishing long-lasting cooperation with other women’s associations in the country.

Bischitz was one of the very few women in Hungary to become famous in her own lifetime. In 1871, as a representative of the association, Bischitz was visited by Austro-Hungarian Empress Elisabeth in the Jewish girls’ orphanage. In 1879, Bischitz received the Golden Order of Merit with Crown—probably the first non-noble woman of Hungary to be so decorated. She also gained international recognition, receiving honors from the Serbian and Belgian royal families. In 1895, the Bischitz family was ennobled and added the Hungarian name Hevesi to its family name (later they shortened the entire surname simply to Hevesy). The chemist George de Hevesy (1885–1966; awarded the Nobel Prize in his field in 1943) was a grandson of Johanna Bischitz.

Bischitz’s initiatives and hard-won accomplishments made her the most prominent representative of Jewish charitable work in Hungary in the second half of the nineteenth century. She was charismatic, intelligent, and empathetic, excellent at making social and professional contacts, and highly efficient in implementing her goals. She combined bourgeois charitable work, a modernized form of traditional tsedakah, with a farsighted and progressive awareness of the necessity of providing support—particularly for women and girls.

Suggested Reading

Ignatz Reich, “Johanna Bischitz,” in Beth-El: Ehrentempel verdienter ungarischer Israeliten, vol. 3, pp. 76–93 (Budapest, 1882); Julia Richers, “‘Jótékony rablás’ csupan?: A Pesti Izraelita Nőegylet tevékenységi körei, 1866–1943,” in A zsidó nő, ed. Zsuzsanna Toronyi, pp. 65–75 (Budapest, 2002); Julia Richers, “Der Traum von Budapest: Räumliche Dimensionen jüdischer Lebenswelten in Budapest in der Mitte des 19. Jahrhunderts” (Ph.D. diss., Universität Basel, 2005).