Budapest in the early 20th century is the only European city where we can possibly speak of a specifically Jewish architecture, even though, paradoxically, the prevalent style was claimed, at the same time, to be national Hungarian.
– Fredric Bedoire, author of The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture 1830-1930
While living in Budapest a couple of years ago, one of the things that struck me most profoundly was the city’s great architecture. So grand it was at the turn of the 20th century, people often referred to it as the “Paris of the Danube.” Though carpet bombed in WWII, and neglected during the Communist reign, the city still bears the legacy of this grand era, lasting a mere 51 years, from 1867 to 1918, essentially mirroring the short-but-spectacular lifespan of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy itself. This golden era of architecture is typically described as “Hungarian Secessionist,” but because a majority of the era’s architects just so happened to also be Jewish, it is sometimes called “Jewish-Hungarian architecture,” though by and large the symbology incorporated into the architecture derives not from Jerusalem but from the Magyar homelands of Transylvania and Finland.
To put the Secessionist movement in proper perspective, we must turn to Budapest’s sister city Vienna, where the Austro-Hungarian expression of Art Nouveau first gained recognition. Though Vienna’s major artists and architects — notably Gustav Klimt, Adolf Loos, and Otto Wagner — were not Jewish themselves, the clients who supported their work most definitely were. As historian Steven Beller notes in his 1997 book Vienna and the Jews, 1867-1938, Austrian Jews had no small part in the success of movement:
Whether it was the propaganda in the press, financial support, the provision of contacts with artistic group is other countries, or even the chance, through the salon, to make contact with the rest of Viennese culture, the social support of the Secession appears to have been heavily Jewish.
Traditionally, architectural development had been dictated by the emperor and the nobility. In the newly established Dual-Monarchy, however, where merchants were becoming capitalists, artists and architects were suddenly receiving commissions from the new middle- and wealthy-class. True, the construction of Ringstrasse was the will of Franz Joseph, but it coincided with, and was in part the result of, the rise of this financially affluent new class. As Jews made up a large percentage of this growing class, they naturally became one of the Secessionist Movement’s main participants.
Indeed, as previously noted, few if any of Vienna’s Secessionist architects were Jewish. But that wasn’t the case in nearby Budapest. Of the city’s 110 architects at the turn- of-the-century, 70 were Jewish. Granted, in terms of timing, the city did “lag behind” Vienna and other major European cities; Budapest’s first example of Art Nouveau architecture was not until 1906, with the construction of Gresham Palace on the eastern bank of the Danube, designed by Hungarian-Jewish architect Zsigmond Quittner. Interestingly enough, since the 1870s, Budapest, like Vienna, experienced a construction boom and a rising moneyed class made up largely of Jews. So why were most of Budapest’s architects Jewish, while Vienna had virtually none? A look back to the 1840s may provide some clues.
The Revolution of 1848: The Jewish Perspective
From the very beginning, Hungarian Jews overwhelming supported the nation’s fight for independence from the Habsburg Empire. Why Hungary’s Jewish population felt so patriotic towards the cause is somewhat of a mystery: They had not been treated as equal citizens, and violent anti-Jewish outbreaks in Pest and surrounding areas had been escalating.
In February 1848, for example, a month prior to the Revolution, the Hungarian Diet, which met in Pressburg, had heard several motions to fully or partially emancipate Jews. As reported by Mihaly Horvat, a Hungarian historian of the period, when news of this reached the “prejudiced lower classes of the Pressburg artisans, who had for a long time looked askance at the increase and progress of the capable Israelites, unable to tolerate that the latter should become through this law their equal in rights, attacked the homes of the Jews in enraged bands, destroyed their property, and assaulted their persons with savage violence. Only armed force was able to curb the bloody outbreak of prejudice and hatred born of filthy self-interest.”
Despite the anti-Jewish climate, the Jews in Pest and other Hungarian cities enthusiastically supported the revolution, both military might and financial backing. In his 1996 book The Jews of Hungary, Hungarian historian Raphael Patai writes:
Jews from Pest as well as other cities and towns of the country took part and distinguished themselves in the war of independence in large numbers …. The Jews from Pest even removed the decorations off the Torah scrolls in the synagogues, and offered 856 lat (vs. 33 pounds) of silver …. According to Károly Eötvös, a great storyteller, a horse dealer from Pest, Arnold Brachfeld, acquired horses sufficient for a whole hussar regiment, altogether 900, in four days and delivered them to the courtyard of the Károly Barracks.
Patai goes on to write that “being a Hungarian patriot was part of the essence of the Hungarian Jewish personality,” and suggests that 19th-century Hungarian Jews suffered from a sense of denial not unlike that of an abused child towards its abusive parent:
That they would be ready to fight for Hungary, to risk their lives for the harsh patria, was a psychological inevitability in 1848, and not for the last time.
Indeed, the Hungarian government granted its Jewish citizens the right to vote in March 14, 1848, but did not pass a bill for full emancipation due to potential threats against Jews. A few months later, on July 28, 1849, the government finally awarded Jewish emancipation to “settled” Jews, that is, those who were born in Hungary or had been long established.
But it was short-lived, ending with the Hungarian army’s surrender at Világos two weeks later. The absolutist Austrian rule that ensued singled out the Jewish community for their participation in the failed revolution and fined them with heavy taxes. In addition to paying a tribute, the Jews of Pest and Obuda were also required to furnish tens of thousands of uniforms to the Austrian cavalry and infantry, as well as large numbers of horses, saddles, harnesses, and the like.
And here is where punishment becomes fortuitous. Patai writes that in a series of back-and-forth negotiations between the Austrian government and the Hungarian-Jewish congregations, Vienna agreed to a repeal of the tribute in exchange for 1 million florins to fund a Jewish education system. By 1856, the entire amount had been collected. The Monarchy then issued instructions to:
- build a rabbinical seminary,
- open a Jewish elementary model school in each administrative district, and
- create an institution for poor blind or deaf-mute children.
The government, for its part, established model schools in Pest, Temesvar, Pecs, and Satoraljaujhely. Writes Bedoire:
Thus, it came about that the establishment of the most important Hungarian-Jewish religious educational institutions resulted from the tribute imposed by the Austrians on the Hungarian Jews in 1849, and that they were set up as, and remained throughout their history, governmental institutions.
Boomtown and the Sons of the Emancipated
The dream of Jewish emancipation finally arrived years later with the Habsburg Empire’s losing the Austro-Prussian War in 1866. In the wake of losing its Italian territories and Central European dominance, to say nothing of nationalistic sentiments sweeping the region, the Monarchy sought to redefine itself.
Within five years of the formation of the Dual Monarchy, the townships of Buda, Obuda, and Pest merged to become Buda-Pest. Though Wahrmann actively promoted the interests of all Hungarians, Budapest Jews—who made up a significant portion of the newly affluent—faired exceptionally well during his eight terms in office.
By the 1870s, Pest had become boomtown, experiencing rapid growth in commercial and industrial businesses, which naturally included the construction of new buildings. So predominate was Jewish involvement in these endeavors, Pest essentially became the playground of the Jewish elite. Budapest was also, in an ant-Semitic slur by Vienna’s mayor Karl Lueger, dubbed “Judapest” for its high concentration of Jewish inhabitants. “Practically all of the city’s industrial and mercantile development was ascribed to Jewish entrepreneurs who rose to positions of social eminence,” writes Bedoire. “Most of the wealth, however, ended up in the hands of the Jewish families, while many Hungarian magnates, as well as other Magyars, became indebted to them…. It seemed as though the new century was going to be the century of the Jews.”
From 1870 to 1886, Andrassy utca was built. To the locals, the three-mile boulevard in Pest was considered the Nationsstrasse, a patriotic venture. Naturally, Jewish entrepreneurs keen to be seen in a patriotic light invested heavily. Out of 130 landlords on Andrassy, 90 were Jewish. And unlike the Vienna’s Ringstrasse, Jewish architects played a significant role in its design; four Jewish architects—Vilmos Freund, Mor Kallina, Sandor Fellner, and Zsigmond Quittner — designed no less than 20 of the neo-Renaissance stone mansions and townhouses that line Andrassy. In 1904, just as the Art Nouveau movement was about to explode on the Budapest scene, Jewish architect Imre Steindl (1839–1902), the Westminster-Abbey-inspired, neo-Gothic Parliament Building was completed post-huminously. The Parliament, the largest in Europe, took nearly two decades to complete.
By the early 20th century, Budapest had become one of the most fashionable cities in Europe, incorporating a new form of architecture known variously as Art Nouveau, Secession, and Jugendstil. Common motifs in the Hungarian version included sunflowers, tulips, plants, and bees—all of which inspired by local folklore and decoration. The above-mentioned Zsigmond Quittner (1857-1918) designed the city’s first example of Hungarian-Secessionist architecture in the opulently appointed Gresham Palace in 1906. His instructions were to spare no expense; he therefore partnered with some of the city’s top artisans, including Zsolnay Porcelain Works, who designed the building’s decorative tiles, and Miksa Róth (1865-1944), who executed the stained-glass windows.
Secessionist architecture began to spring up throughout the city, often produced by younger Hungarian-Jewish architects—the sons of the emancipated, who were allowed to attend the same schools and learn the same technical artistic styles as their non-Jewish colleagues. An older example of Hungarian Secessionist architecture exists outside of Budapest, in Kecskemét, designed by Hungarian-Jewish architect Géza Markus (1872-1912). The Cifra Palace, built in 1902, exhibits a curvaceous white façade tiled with colorful Zsolnay ceramics and painted with multi-layered sgraffitos based on Hungarian folk art.
Architect Lipót Baumhorn (1860-1932) is credited for creating “truly Jewish” architecture. Known as the “grandmaster of synagogue design” he designed over 20 synagogues, including the fabulously ornate Art Nouveau Synagogue in Szeged, Hungary (1902-1904), before the First World War. Like Quittner, he incorporated the stained-glass works of Miksa Róth into his Szeged masterpiece.
Indeed, the Hungarian-Jewish contribution to Hungarian architecture cannot be understated. For Simon Hevesi, the chief rabbi of Hungary in 1909, it was a great source of pride, as outlined in a speech he delivered to the the Israelite Hungarian Literary Society. “Jewish abilities today could vie with the Greek and Roman masters of architecture,” he said. “Look around in the capital of your homeland, look at the sequence of developmental milestones.”
And in 1917, the Hungarian poet Endre Ady said quite simply, “The Jews made Budapest for us.”
But as noted in the 1995 collaborative book entitled Jewish Budapest, these contributions were Hungarian, not Jewish. For this reason, the book includes a chapter called “The Invisible Jewish Budapest,” meaning that those who built, shaped, and formed Budapest, did so not as Jews, but as Hungarians.
It is tempting to speculate that the exorbitant tributes paid by the Jewish community following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 may have provided Hungarian-Jews with an education that encouraged creative endeavors. But the seeds of architectural genius within the Jewish community may go back even further. According to the online Jewish Encyclopedia, the local guilds who detested competition, interfered with the development of Jewish artisans. Still, we cannot overlook the fact that the Jewish community of Pest encouraged their young men to learn crafts and trades. Years before the Hungarian Revolution, in 1842, the Jewish community founded the Hungarian Israelite Trades and Economic Association.
“Thus in due time the Jews contributed to the industrial development of the city, as well as to its culture, through the many teachers and university professors, judges, physicians, lawyers, and engineers they furnished to the community,” writes author Alexander Butchler.
The Jewish presence in Hungarian architecture also owes much to the influence of one of, if not the, best-known architect in Hungary: Ödön Lechner.
“In the center of the new architecture stood the non-Jewish architect Ödön Lechner, and many of his helpers and coworkers were Jews or of Jewish descent,” notes the Jewish Virtual Library, an online resource for Jewish history. Indeed, Lechner socialized, trained, and paired up with several Jewish architects, including the aforementioned Géza Markus and Béla Lajta (1873-1920).
Lechner also collaborated on the Hungarian Institute for the Blind, completed in1908, with Lajta, who came from an affluent family. Instead of following his father’s footsteps in construction, Lajta became an architect instead. Like his peers, Lajta derived his decidedly Magyar influences from his travels to Transylvania, where the Huns arrived in the 4th century, and the Magyar tribes settled in the 9th century.
Architects also looked to the Orient for inspiration. Lechner and his protégés, in an attempt to tie in the Magyar’s eastern roots often applied neo-Egyptian and Moorish aesthetics into their designs—a characteristic shared by both Magyars and Israelites.
Interestingly enough, Hungary’s most important Jewish building—the Grand Synagogue on Dohany utca (1859)—decidedly Middle Eastern in its design, was built by neither a Hungarian nor a Jew. The neolog Grand Synagogue was built by Viennese architect Ludwig Förster (1797-1863) to accommodate Budapest’s growing Jewish population. According to Jewish Budapest: “The Jewish bourgeoisie of Pest consciously accepted cultural assimilation as a way of integration into Hungarian society. The congregation felt that the style of Förster’s synagogue in Vienna [the Tempelgasse, built in1857] suited them.”
One wonders, based on the date of construction, if the reason has more to do with the fact that there were no actively employed Jewish architects at the time. Though, this synagogue, like Baumhorn Szeged’s synagogue built decades later, strays from tradition by resembling a three-aisle Catholic church from the inside, replete with an organ.
A Viennese architect also designed the nearby Status Quo synagogue on Rumbach utca (1872). Perhaps it is the fame of Otto Wagner that overshadows the fact that he collaborated on this project with a Hungarian-Jewish architect, one Mór Kollina. Like the Dohany synagogue, the Status Quo synagogue takes inspiration from the Middle East, and is loosely based on the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem. It exhibits a Byzantine-Moorish architectural style, with a yellow and rust brick facade appointed in blue ceramic tiles and crowned with a hard plaster rendition of the Ten Commandments. The interior space offers a dazzling array of colors and textures associated with Islamic art, a popular style for synagogues in the 19th century.
Reflecting on the Budapest’s architecture, the Middle Eastern references of the synagogues; the grandeur of the neo-Gothic, the neo-Renaissance, and the neo-Baroque buildings of the 1870s and 80s; and decadence of the fin-de-seicle Secessionists, there’s nothing subtle about any of them. In many cases, the architecture symbolizes financial power, national pride, and, in some cases, even whimsy. In a word, they reflect success. To me, they represent a celebration of life in a very public manner. Sadly, the successes on which many of Budapest’s most Hungarian buildings were built drew the envy of others. Anti-Semitism began to turn its ugly head again around the turn of the century, and most especially after the First World War. Anti-Semitic laws were introduced in 1939, which eventually led up to the Holocaust and the killing of 90 percent of Hungary’s Jewish population, including those who were Jewish by bloodline only and not actual faith.
In my research for this post, I came across a quote that I felt fitting to end with. It is by a Viennese Rabbi, one Ludwig Philippson. He recognized that Jewish achievement, especially those made public, could spell trouble. Published on New Year’s Day in 1859 in Allgemeine Zeitung des Judenthums, a widely distributed Viennese journal, Phillippson wrote an article entitled “A Warning from History,” in which he draws parallels to the 19th-century Jews of the Monarchy and the luxury, pride, and love of pleasure that had led to expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from medieval Spain:
That which for another person can be both necessary and beneficial is all the more dangerous for the Jew, because by it he incurs envy and hatred. Do not say that times are changing and that everything is allowed which is not against the laws of the country. Ah, prejudice and hatred are demons, which are sometimes incarcerated in dark dungeons, but which a light hand can unbolt the door for, allowing them, unimpeded, to rush forth all the more savagery to vent their pent-up wrath. We have seen signs of this ourselves in the past ten years in Alsace and Hungary. We who are the people of history above all others, our history being the oldest and most consistent, we should learn something from that history and not allow its warnings to fall on deaf ears.
May we all learn something from history. – Jessica Tudzin
- Bedoire, Fredric, The Jewish Contribution to Modern Architecture 1830-1930 (Jersey City, NJ: KTAV Publishing House, 2003) 2nd Edition
- Belle, Steven, Vienna and the Jews 1867-1938. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) 29-30
- Dohany Street Synagogue 150th Anniversary [brochure] (Budapest: Foundation of the Jewish Community of Budapest for the Restoration of the Dohany Street Synagogue), 2009
- Encyclopaedia Judaica, as quoted on the website Jewish Virtual Library, “Architecture and Architects”.http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0002_0_01259.html
- Frojimovics, Kinga, et al, Jewish Budapest (Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999) English translation
- Jewish Encyclopediahttp://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1561&letter=B#ixzz16uAPXRch
- Lukacs, John, Budapest 1900 (New York: Grove Press, 1988)
- Patai, Raphael, The Jews of Hungary (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1996)