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Jews lived in Hungary as far back as Roman times, when the area was part of the Roman province of Dacia. Conquest of the land by invading Magyars in 897 meant for Jews continuous plunder and persecution at the hands of Catholic kings. Under Turkish rule from 1526 to 1686, the situation of the Jewish populace greatly improved. Austrian domination, however, again changed their circumstances for the worse. France Joseph II (1741-1790) emancipated the Jews, but his decree was carried out only partially. A number of Jews fought on the side of Hungary against Austria in the revolution of 1848.

At that time there was a severe struggle between the Orthodox and Reform elements of Hungarian Jewry, which led to a split in 1871. Three congregational groupings emerged: Orthodox, Reform, and “status quo.” Modern Hungarian Jewry has been characterized by sharp contrasts: on the one hand, extreme piety; on the other, extreme assimilation, even to the point of conversion to Christianity.

By the beginning of the 20th century, Hungarian Jews were occupying important positions in the economic and cultural life of the country, in the arts, the press, and the sciences. However, the interval between the two World Wars was marked by the growth of antisemitism.

Before World War II ended, the Germans had occupied Hungary. In the summer of 1944 they transported 400,000 local Jews to Auschwitz.

The end of the war found some 120,000 Jewish survivors in Hungary, of whom about 80,000 lived in Budapest. The Jewish community, like the rest of the population, was in dire economic straits. In addition, antisemitism was no less virulent than at the height of the Nazi terror. When Hungary came under Soviet domination in 1948, Jews suffered especially from directives aimed at eliminating middle-class elements from the nation’s economy. Although official Communist doctrine forbade antisemitism, an unusually high percentage of Jews were included in the mass deportations of “undesirables” from the larger cities begun in 1951 and continued into 1952. The Hungarian Zionist movement was outlawed. All contact with Western Jewry and Israel was severed. Emigration was barred. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, responsible until 1953 for most welfare and economic aid to the Jewish community, was forced to leave. The Hungarian uprising of October-November 1956 was accompanied by some anti-Jewish acts, and 18,000 to 20,000 Jews fled the country, streaming mainly into Austria. The Jewish population today numbers 50,000. Eighty percent of the Hungarian Jews live in the capital, Budapest. There are also small communities in Debrecen, Miklosc, and Szeged. The community has a high proportion of Holocaust survivors.

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