'We were like any Hungarian Jewish family -- we had no idea'

Hungary’s ‘missing’ Jews come out of hibernation to take community’s helm

As past trauma and current census policy make calculating the number of Hungarian Jews impossible, young leaders engage uncounted Jews like themselves, and welcome them home

Yaakov Schwartz is The Times of Israel's deputy Jewish World editor.

  • Zsuzsa Fritz, director of the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    Zsuzsa Fritz, director of the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
  • Peter Berenyi, assistant director of the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    Peter Berenyi, assistant director of the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
  • A small cafe in the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    A small cafe in the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
  • An adult education class for the elderly at the Balint JCC. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)
    An adult education class for the elderly at the Balint JCC. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

BUDAPEST – Peter Berenyi found out he was Jewish when he was 8 years old, over a bowl of matzah ball soup.

“At the time, we were just like kids in any regular Jewish Hungarian family,” Berenyi says. “That is, we had no idea we were Jewish. And then my parents gave us this soup, and my brothers and I asked what it was. They told us it was a Jewish soup, and that they grew up with it as a tradition in their homes.”

Though Berenyi’s parents let the children in on the family secret, they cautioned them not to speak about it in public. It was the mid-1980s, and then, as today, Hungarian Jews were anxious about displaying any outward signs of their heritage. Many didn’t even speak of it among themselves.

The trauma of the Holocaust, in which around 560,000 of Hungary’s 800,000 Jews were exterminated by the Nazis, and the subsequent communist rule from shortly after World War II until 1989, had sent what was one of the most robust Jewish communities in Europe into hibernation. As a result, much of Hungary’s current Jewish leadership grew up either completely unaware of their Judaism, or were discouraged from speaking about it until later in life.

Berenyi’s parents made the uncommon decision of emigrating to Israel when he was 11 in order to foster a sense of Jewish identity in the boys. Though financial difficulties caused the family to move back to Hungary three years later, the time in Israel was largely successful in strengthening Berenyi’s Jewish ties.

Berenyi is the deputy director of the Balint House JCC in Budapest, which was founded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) in 1994. Berenyi has worked at the Balint House since 2005, and is in charge of programs such as the popular Judafest summer street festival and the Budapest Jewish Film Festival.

Peter Berenyi, assistant director of the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

“What’s important to realize is that there are many people today who find out that they’re Jewish, but don’t develop any connection to or feeling of Judaism,” he says.

Berenyi’s boss, Balint House JCC director Zsuzsa Fritz, agrees.

Like Berenyi, Fritz, who was born in 1966, spent her childhood not knowing she was Jewish. Though her maternal grandparents lived with the family, it was not until she arrived at her own father’s funeral at a Jewish cemetery and saw a rabbi that she learned about her roots. She was 16.

“It was just something that nobody talked about in my family. I don’t know if it was conscious or not. And after I figured it out, I still didn’t know what to ask, so I didn’t,” says Fritz.

Fritz says that a few months after her father’s death, her mother encouraged her to attend Friday night events at Budapest’s rabbinical seminary in the hopes that she would meet a Jewish boy. The gatherings, led by the seminary’s head, Rabbi Alexander Scheiber, were one of the only officially sanctioned Jewish youth activities available at the time.

A small cafe in the Balint JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

It was among the 30 to 40 teenagers who would attend these events that Fritz found a peer group and sense of belonging that she says was crucial to her as a young adult.

“We all came from a similar situation,” she says. “I think, until today, for many of the Jews this is the single most important thing. They don’t care about their children not knowing much about Jewish tradition, but they want them to marry within the community, because they feel that will assure a mutual value system.”

A perfect storm of past trauma and the current census policy has made calculating even a ballpark number of Hungarian Jews a demographer’s nightmare. The Holocaust succeeded in almost completely obliterating Hungary’s largely Hasidic ultra-Orthodox population, who lived in smaller towns throughout the country and then-Hungarian Transylvania.

The mostly secular Jews of Budapest fared slightly better, with a survival rate of around 50 percent. But in the years following the Holocaust, most strongly-identifying Hungarian Jews fled to Israel or the United States. The rise of communism following the Holocaust succeeded in driving what was left of Hungarian Jewish identity underground.

Tens of thousands ‘missing’

Dr. Andras Kovacs, a professor of sociology at Central European University in Budapest and the author of a seminal survey on Hungary’s postwar Jewish population, maintains that it’s hard to say how many Jews are still living in Hungary, and that estimates vary further based on the definition of a “Jew.”

Exterior of the Balint House JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

In the first such extensive research since the Holocaust, Kovacs conducted nearly 2,000 interviews with people from a variety of Jewish subgroups, from religious to completely unaffiliated. (Kovacs’ original survey was compiled in 1999 and 2000. He will be releasing an updated study with an additional 2,000 interviews in the coming weeks.)

“If we calculate the number of Jews based on the definition outlined in the Law of Return, that is, having at least one Jewish grandparent, minus any non-Jewish family members, then there must be between 150,000 to 200,000 Jews in Hungary today,” says Kovacs.

Kovacs says that the calculations are based on the latest postwar numbers, which date back to the 1950s, and take into account factors such as intermarriage, migration, and population growth. Still, he cautions that the numbers are only an estimate and that it’s impossible to gauge with any degree of real accuracy how many Jews are living in Hungary today.

Pressed to estimate how many halachically Jewish people there are in Hungary – that is, according to Jewish law, which follows matrilineal descent – Kovacs guessed that there might be anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 halachic Jews.

According to current census numbers, there are roughly 12,000 self-identifying Jews living in Hungary today. This leaves a potential discrepancy of anywhere from 38,000 to 188,000 Jews still unaccounted for.

Many of these Jews are either completely unaware of their heritage, or are apathetic to it, and will likely disappear in a number of generations. But not all of the missing Jews are necessarily devoid of any Jewish identity whatsoever.

Exterior of the Balint House JCC in Budapest. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

“The Hungarian census has an optional question on religious and ethnic belonging,” says Kovacs. “But this is an optional question, and the definition – belonging to a religious denomination or to an ethnic group – limits the numbers, because the majority of the Jews in Hungary are not religious and don’t define themselves as a minority.”

Scouring the margins

It is the fringe Jews who are hesitant to join the community but are still somewhat aware of their identity that Fritz and Berenyi seek to bring into the fold.

“The majority of potentially active Jews are not really engaged,” says Fritz. “So one of our priorities is to create entry points. And since it’s a very traumatized community with a lot of issues with Jewish identity due to their history, these entry points need to be as varied and as open as they can be.”

Under Fritz, the Balint House JCC offers adult learning courses, family programming, and also provides a physical space for Jewish innovation and initiatives from the community.

Fritz puts an emphasis on creating Jewish learning opportunities, she says, because Jewish literacy is lacking.

“The more people know about their roots and about Jewish identity and about Judaism, the stronger they will feel that they belong,” says Fritz.

An adult education class for the elderly at the Balint House JCC. (Yaakov Schwartz/ Times of Israel)

She also says that it’s important to leave the physical confines of the building and take those educational opportunities outside to meet people who might not otherwise attend JCC events. To that end, the JCC hosts the Judafest street festival, another flagship JDC program in Hungary and Berenyi’s pet project, which he first helped put together in 2008.

The JDC has long been involved with the local Jewish community, supporting the rescue of Jews during the Holocaust and then working to rebuild Hungarian Jewry in its wake — at times clandestinely, after being expelled by the communist regime in 1953. The organization officially returned to Hungary in 1980.

Berenyi says that in Judafest’s inaugural year, Hungarians were hesitant about street festivals of any type – let alone obviously Jewish ones. In all, there were seven partners that first year, and, unexpectedly, the daylong festival was a huge success, drawing 2,500 people.

In recent years, Judafest has grown considerably, attracting over 50 partners and drawing 12,000 attendees. Partner organizations span the entire spectrum of Hungarian Jewish life, from the ultra-Orthodox to the completely secular. This year the festival falls out on June 10.

Six years ago also saw the introduction of the Budapest Jewish Film Festival, which takes place in November. It’s the largest event of its kind in Central and Eastern Europe.

Berenyi says that it’s important to him to keep local organizations working together and pooling resources, and that he is constantly coming up with new ways to engage young adults. The stress on inclusivity is shared by Fritz, who wants everyone to feel that they have a share in the community.

“My idea, along with the JCC, was to create a very open institution, very pluralistic, and also very inclusive,” says Fritz. “Because I do believe that this is the only way to create a strong community where people feel welcome, safe, and part of a community that accepts them.”

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