Before 1918, the eastern territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – those that were after 1945 to be situated behind the Iron Curtain – contained some of the largest concentrations of Jews in the world outside the Pale of Settlement in Russia. The Jewish communities of the Dual Monarchy, spread across the present-day states of Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Romania, were far more diverse than those of the German Empire discussed in last month’s issue of the Journal.
No area of what was once Austria-Hungary is more redolent of Eastern Europe’s vanished Jewish past than Galicia (Austrian Poland). Part of the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy, Galicia came under Habsburg rule in 1772 and took its nineteenth-century form under the settlement reached at the Congress of Vienna in 1815. It was a crescent-shaped territory stretching from Cracow in the west to the Romanian border in the south-east; the western part, around Cracow, now forms part of Poland, while the eastern part, around Lviv (Lemberg), is in Ukraine. At its western extremity was the small town of Auschwitz (Oświęcim), which became part of Poland in 1918 and was annexed to the Third Reich in 1939. In its far south-east were towns like Tarnopol, Buczacz, Kolomea and Stryj, with a mixed population of Poles, Ukrainians and Jews.
Lemberg, perhaps more than any other Habsburg city, was associated with the rapidly expanding urban communities of eastern Jews, hard-working and aspirational, eager for cultural and educational self-improvement, but also conscious of the values, traditions and religious practices of their birthplaces. The arrival of the German-speaking bureaucracy of the Habsburg state gave the city a German-Austrian character and appearance in its orderliness and in the popularity of its coffee-houses. By 1910, 28 per cent of the city’s population was Jewish. Among its celebrated residents was Martin Buber, born in Vienna in 1878 but raised from the age of three by his grandfather in Lemberg. The second largest city in eastern Galicia was Brody, a major commercial centre that became known as ‘Trieste on the continent’, offering an opening to Russia just as Trieste gave Austria-Hungary an outlet to the Mediterranean. Brody was also known as the ‘Galician Jerusalem’ since Jews formed over 80 per cent of its population and it was an important centre of enlightened culture and of Judaism; for a time the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov, had lived there.
The principal city of Polish-dominated western Galicia was Cracow, capital of Poland until the early seventeenth century. Following the foundation of Kazimierz in 1335 by King Casimir the Great as an outlying settlement for Jews, Cracow became a major centre of Jewish life and culture though its Jewish residents also suffered periodic bouts of persecution. Much of the cultural and intellectual elite of other towns in western Galicia, such as Tarnow or Rzeszów, was Jewish. Around Przemyśl the Austrians constructed one of the largest defensive fortresses in Europe but in 1914 it failed to stem the advancing Russian armies. The atrocities of the Holocaust have, perhaps understandably, obscured historical memories of the brutal treatment meted out by the Russian armies to the Jewish communities in the Austrian territories occupied in 1914-15.
The Austrian crown lands of Bohemia and Moravia were under Habsburg rule for considerably longer than Galicia and were correspondingly closer culturally to Austria. This was reflected in the fact that their Jewish population was largely German-speaking. The jewel in the crown of Bohemian Jewry was Prague, whose Jewish community has acquired almost mythical status. Prague was home to Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, creator of the legendary figure of the Golem, to the thirteenth-century Old New Synagogue and to the celebrated Old Jewish Cemetery. Franz Kafka, probably the most influential Jewish writer of modern times, was born in Prague in 1883; the city can be sensed in seminal works like The Trial and Metamorphosis.
Brno (Brünn), the capital of Moravia, also has a long association with the Jews. The city’s most famous sight is the Villa Tugendhat, constructed in 1929-30 for a Jewish couple of that name by the modernist architect Mies van der Rohe. Moravia contributed notably to the high culture of the Habsburg Empire: Sigmund Freud was born in Příbor (Freiberg) and Gustav Mahler was brought up in Jihlava (Iglau) on the border between Moravia and Bohemia. A Torah scroll from Moravská Ostrava (Mährisch-Ostrau) is on permanent loan to Kingston upon Thames synagogue, a memorial to the region’s lost Jewish past.
At the eastern end of the Austrian half of the Dual Monarchy lay Bukovina, where the original Romanian majority was increasingly diluted by Ukrainians, Poles, Hungarians, Germans and Jews. Under Habsburg rule from 1775, Bukovina passed to Romania in 1918. Its northern part, annexed by the Soviet Union in 1940 and re-occupied by Romania between 1941 and 1944, now forms part of Ukraine. Though it was the capital of a small, remote province, Czernowitz (now Chernivtsi) occupied a special position in the artistic and intellectual world of the Habsburg Empire, a ‘little Vienna’ on the River Prut where a prodigious appetite for culture led to a remarkable flourishing of German-language literary and intellectual life. The Jews, who came to form one third of the city’s population and spoke a Viennese German spiced with Yiddish and Ukrainian words, dominated the city’s cultural institutions. Czernowitz was the birthplace of the celebrated poets Paul Celan and Rose Ausländer and the novelist Aharon Appelfeld, Holocaust survivors who continued the city’s tradition of Jewish high culture into the post-war era.
The Jews in the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy were a case apart, insofar as they tended to speak Hungarian in preference to German. In those parts of the pre-1918 Kingdom of Hungary where Hungarian was spoken, the Jewish population tended to assimilate into Hungarian society, since the Magyars were the ruling ethnic group. Despite a long history of discrimination and persecution, the Jews of Hungary repeatedly displayed their patriotic allegiance to the country in which they lived. In the revolution of 1848-49, Jews joined with the insurgent Hungarian forces fighting for liberation from the Habsburg yoke. The revolutionaries promised equal rights and freedom from discrimination for all; Jews were granted full civic rights by the National Assembly in July 1849. But the revolution was also a national uprising; the upsurge of inflamed nationalism that it provoked led to an outburst of anti-Semitic feeling and to ugly atrocities against Jews. The crushing of the revolution in 1849 (two weeks after the legislation granting citizenship to Jews) halted the democratic movement for a decade, but the reforms of the 1860s culminated in the lasting emancipation of Hungary’s Jews. They proceeded to establish a prominent, sometimes a dominating, position in commerce, the professions and the country’s cultural and intellectual life.
Though Hungary was largely ruled by its landowning elites, Jews were mostly protected, at least until 1918. This allowed the Jews of Budapest, the largest by far of Hungary’s Jewish communities, to flourish. The city was the birthplace of many eminent Jews, including Theodor Herzl, founder of Zionism, and it boasted the monumental Dohány Street Synagogue. Other cities such as Miskolc, Debrecen, Györ and Szombathely also contained sizable Jewish communities. Seven of the ten Nobel Prize winners born in Hungary were Jewish. The Jewish proportion of the capital’s population reached 23 per cent, earning it the back-handed compliment of being renamed ‘Judapest’ by Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna. Before the First World War, Hungary had no anti-Semitic political party to compare with Lueger’s Christian Socials in Austria; only after the defeat of Austria-Hungary in 1918, and Hungary’s loss of some two thirds of its territory under the Treaty of Trianon, did anti-Semitic resentments come to the fore.
The Jewish communities in the other regions of pre-1918 Hungary fared poorly, as minorities amidst ethnic groups that were themselves subject nationalities under Magyar domination. The large Jewish community in Slovakia, Hungarian until 1918, included a cultured, German-speaking middle class in western cities like Bratislava (Pozsony in Hungarian, Pressburg in German), but tended to be poorer, more traditional and Yiddish-speaking in eastern cities like Košice (Kassa, Kaschau), with Nitra and Banská Bystrica in between.
In distant, impoverished Transylvania, which passed to and fro between Hungary and Romania in the period of the World Wars, the presence of a German community, the Siebenbürger Sachsen, complicated the ethnic situation further. Most of the region’s principal centres of population, such as Brasov (Brasso in Hungarian, Kronstadt in German), Cluj (Kolozsvár, Klausenburg), Sibiu (Nagyszeben, Hermannstadt) and Oradea (Nagyvárad, Großwardein), had substantial Jewish communities, which suffered from the ethnic rivalry between Romanians, Hungarians and Germans, as did that in Timişoara (Temesvár) in the neighbouring Banat region. In Ruthenia (also known as Subcarpathia), one of the Empire’s most remote and backward areas, Jews were largely concentrated in the main towns, Mukachevo (Munkács) and Uzhhorod, centres of Hungarian-speaking culture surrounded by a rural population of Ruthenians (Ukrainians). The region became part of Czechoslovakia in 1918 and is now part of Ukraine.