WHO LIVED, WHO BUILT HERE?
Jewish contribution to the development of Budapest as a metropolis
The Jewish citizenry that gained strength during the nineteenth century played a remarkable role in the intellectual, cultural, economic and architectural development of the metropolis of Budapest.
„Is it not true that a million Jews have mingled among us; us who are nobodies, who are manifold even in our uniformity? That these Jews built for us Budapest and everything that perhaps – perhaps? certainly! – is non-existent but is European and grandiose in a bird’s eye perspective? They, who are not any longer a people, came to our help who are no longer.” Thus wrote Endre Ady in Korrobori, an unpublished article of his, which was found in 1924 in the manuscript folder of the 1914 edition of the Nyugat (“West”) literary journal, which had decided – with Ady’s consent - to wait for a time without censorship for the publication of the article. http://epa.oszk.hu/00000/00022/00350/10556.htm
The role that Jews played in the development of the capital, the Jewish contribution, has been extensively discussed by various authors; there is substantial literature on this topic.. The novelty of the program that we have launched under the title „Who lived, who built here?” consists in our presentation – through the visual exhibition on a website of buildings, the entrepreneurs and architects who built them and the residents who lived in them – the degree to which the Jewish population of the capital contributed to the latter’s urban landscape. This contribution was especially noticeable on the Pest side of the Danube but it is also perceptible in Buda and Óbuda. However, it is most prominent in Elisabethstadt (7th District), Theresientstadt (6th District) and Leopoldstadt (5th District), and is even more concentrated in Neu-Leopoldtstadt (13th District).
The only buildings considered are the ones that were built from 1840 until 1945 and in whose shadows we walk even today. Normally, it is impossible to follow the story of the buildings that were demolished since 1840, but there are some exceptions and, most notably, certain so-called symbolic buildings or spots (Orczy House, the residences of Tivadar Herzl or Max Nordau etc.)
In the case of Elisabethstadt and Theresienstadt, about half of the buildings – although in some places even more – that form the cityscape were built by Jewish contractors, planned by Jewish architects. This ratio is even higher if we leave out the government buildings, the churches, empty grounds and the buildings that were built after 1945. The situation is similar in Leopoldstadt. In Neu-Leopoldstadt this ratio may reach even 80-90 percent. These are the quarters where Jewish presence was the most important before World War II.
This sort of Jewish contribution is unknown and invisible for the most part. Mostly those significant synagogues and those Jewish institutions are known, which could escape the post-war nationalisation and, as such, could maintain their original function. Passers-by do not know anything about the past of the apartment buildings that determine the character of the streets and roads, nor of former Jewish institutions, former Jewish association headquarters, or of the smaller synagogues. Their history is preserved solely in the memories of the residents.
Géza Komoróczi in The Jewish Budapest, citing Chief Rabbi Simon Hevesi, dubs the Jewish contribution “the invisible Jewish Budapest”. It is this “invisible Jewish Budapest”, so-called, which we present on our website.
First and foremost we are focussing on the presentation of the former, today truly “invisible”, small synagogues, prayer houses (for example Jósika Street 4, Vörösmarty Street 55, Dessewfy Street 23), former Jewish community and association buildings (for example Erzsébet Boulevard 26, Dessewfy Street 41, Akácfa Street 22, 32 etc.), the apartment buildings that determine the character of the streets (among them those that bear Jewish symbols), their builders and architects. Moreover we are selecting those buildings, where famous, at times world renowned, Jewish personalities lived, where, for a Jewish reference frame, an important event took place, or in which operated a significant café, cinema, cabaret, shop that had been established by Jews. Besides presenting the chosen buildings, we will also display the scale of this contribution on a coloured map.
Jewish participation was not yet significant in the beginning of the nineteenth century, since Jews were only allowed to build and have property in Pest from 1840 onwards. Apart from one exception, they were not even allowed to contract or design buildings. The situation changed with the 1867 Law of Emancipation. From the second half of the nineteenth century a significant amount of the living and apartment buildings were built by Jews (see: timeline). Most of the owners and tenants of shops, workshops, cafés, restaurants and cinemas in the aforementioned districts, especially in the vicinity of synagogues, were Jews. From the beginning of the twentieth century a substantial proportion of architects were from a Jewish background, among them were the greatest Hungarian masters of Art Nouveau, following in Ödön Lechner’s footsteps, and of Modernism, grouping around Farkas Molnár.
The Jewish contribution was not only significant (definitive for the urban landscape both as regards buildings and public statues), but also variegated. For example, it is different in the case of the elegant mansions of Andrássy Avenue or in the case of the villas of Városligeti Allée, different within and outside the Grand Boulevard, in elegant Leopoldstadt, or in the newest district that counts as modern, Neu-Leopoldstadt.
Nevertheless, there are some things that can be generally said. Apart from one or two exceptions (synagogues, uses of Jewish symbols) the buildings contracted or built by Jews fit in with the architecture of their times. Almost all those among the creators, designers, famous residents presented at our website who had lived through the revolution of 1848 as young adults also participated in the independence war of 1848-49. The Jewish citizenry was the initiator of and the moving force behind the initial industrialization after the Compromise with Austria in 1867 and the accelerated urbanization and modernization following the unification of Buda and Pest as well as the thriving cultural life at the dawn of the new century. They wanted to become integrated and assimilated, they identified with the Hungarian nation: from speaking German they switched to Hungarian, in many cases they even changed their names. What is more, they even converted to Christianity. Their outstanding performance has earned for them decorations, nobility and, eventually, some of them got the rank of barons. Yet, their destiny took a tragic turn after 1939. They suffered discrimination, persecution, they had to flee, to hide and, eventually, most of them faced forced labour, deportation and extermination.
WHOM DO WE CONSIDER AS JEWISH?
The Jewish origin of renowned entrepreneurs, architects and significant individuals is generally well known, reference to it can be found in their public records, in various books and writings (see: Sources). Religion is occasionally indicated in the legal records kept in the files of the Budapest City Archives. Jewish cemeteries are a sure basis for assumption, in case an individual's final resting place is known. Records of forced labour, deportation and extermination form a sad certainty for the establishment of one's Jewish identity. Some ambiguities may arise around lesser known entrepreneurs and, so, mistakes are possible. For this reason, we did not consider names that were uncertain. At the same time we did consider all those who counted as Jewish after 1939, those who had to hide, were taken into forced labour, were confined to ghettos, were taken to extermination camps, were killed, terminated and so we consider as Jewish even those who had converted to Christianity.
As in all similar cases, in addition to field work and photography, our work was and is aided by archival research, consultation of the secondary literature, professional advice and the internet.
Since 2006 we have at our disposition the architectural topography of Theresienstadt – Erzsébetváros, compiled by Attila Déry and, since 2005, that of Leopoldstadt. Certainly, these topographical volumes are not perfect. The data referring to the entrepreneur or designer of many a building is missing or incomplete, yet they do form a basis for the research.
Another fundamental source for our research is the topography of monuments in the 6th and 7th districts, compiled and put at our disposal by the (now closed) Authority for the Protection of the Cultural Patrimony (Kulturális Örökségvédelmi Hivatal) still functioning in 2015. In this topography, too, the data about the buildings are available, although in an incomplete form.
For acquiring the missing fundamental data there is no other means than the time-consuming archival research.
SUPPLEMENTARY STUDIES, DOCUMENTARY
In Hungary, in a most painful manner, historical continuity was interrupted several times in regard to several communities. This is particularly true for the Hungarian Jewry, whose major part was either annihilated during the Second World War, or emigrated before or after the war. For this reason there is great need for a systematic reconstruction, based on archival material, of the social history of the quarters, streets, houses, eventually apartments and their inhabitants under scrutiny.
This is why, beyond studies of architectural history and prosopography, our research is supported by a sociological-statistical procession of the data, which will permit us to obtain a reliable picture on the extant of Jewish contribution, the proportion of Jewish entrepreneurs and architects in spite of the fact that we are not able to obtain all the data for a part of the buildings, that is, from the sociological point of view the data collection is not exhaustive. Our investigation fills this gap through taking representative samples, which gives a reliable method for extrapolating from the existing data.
Besides this, we are in the process of interviewing ten subjects. With these personal stories we aim to present how the spaces were used in the past and evoke the memories connected to the metropolitan lifestyle and Jewish religious traditions. The interviewees are linked to the houses on the website through their past or current residences. Through these reports we aim to find what constitutes continuity through the past to the present. These interviews will be uploaded to the webpage, completed with photographic documentation.
We will share our findings with the Zachor Foundation, with the intention that they may use these for educational purposes. An exhibition and roundtable discussion will mark the completion of our research.
The interviews are supplemented by a documentary series. Each 15 minute episode introduces a house in Budapest. The main determining factors in choosing these houses were that they had either a Jewish designer or a Jewish builder (so that it is featured on the website) and, simultaneously, that we were able to find a past or present inhabitant, whose story is accessible, knowable or awaits to be known. Here as elsewhere, our aim is to show what the participation of the erstwhile Jewish community meant for the development of the current urban landscape of Budapest and to find out whether, even today, their mentality and talent is able to appeal to the inhabitants and visitors of our city.
HOW TO USE THE WEBSITE?
Of course, anybody can surf on the website according to their wishes. Yet, perhaps some help for starting is welcome. We have planned three types of systematic approaches:
1. On the basis of the map. If you look for a building according to its situation on the map, closing up on the address selected, the icon of the building with the acronym of the address appears (for example, Ki35 meaning 35 Király Street), clicking on which you get to the data sheet of the given building. On the data sheet the names of persons of Jewish origin are highlighted in blue. Clicking on those you get further information, clicking on the photos you see them in full size.
2. On the basis of the data uploaded. In this case you choose the type of data in which you are interested in the upper menu, that is,buildings (ÉPÜLET), architects (ÉPITÉSZ), entrepreneurs (ÉPITTETŐ), renowned people who lived in the buildings (JELENTŐS SZEMÉLYISÉG). By clicking on the title, you get the relevant data in alphabetical order.
3. On the basis of the timeline (IDŐVONAL in the upper right corner) – if you click here you get the time of building for each house, from where you get to the data sheet of the given building.
Under the heading “Writings” (ÍRÁSOK) one finds a list of the sources used for the website (FORRÁSOK), a general introduction to the website and the studies from which the material of the website is partly derived. These will be updated continuously.
[Translated by Jakab Perczel]
 The Nyugat (“West”: 1908-1941) was a liberal literary journal, which gathered the best poets and writers of the time. Endre Ady (1877-1919), who was the greatest Hungarian poet of the times, was not only the main inspirer of, but also a regular contributor to the journal, until his death.
 K. Frojimovics, G. Komoróczy, V. Pusztai, A. Strbik (eds), A zsidó Budapest vol. I-II (The Jewish Budapest in 2 vols) (Budapest: Városháza and MTA Judaisztikai Kutatócsoport, 1995).
 Budapest was created in 1873, from the unification of three cities: Buda and Óbuda, on the right side of the Danube, and Pest, on the left.