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Jews in Hungary notes

Teaching notes on the content and usage of the 'Jews in Hungary' section of the resource, together with advice on the pedagogical challenges and conceptual issues it raises.

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Elie Wiesel postcard

Elie Wiesel was born in 1928 in the town of Sighet, Transylvania, which is today part of Romania.

For over two thousand years Jewish communities have existed in countries across the continent, but despite making profoundly significant contributions to European life, Jews have been subjected to both intolerance and persecution.

Prior to the outbreak of World War Two, the highest concentration of Jews could be found in Eastern Europe; particularly in Poland and those countries within the Soviet Union.

These people were known as Ashkenazi Jews and their ancestors had migrated eastwards from Central Europe during the Middle Ages; usually to try to escape persecution in Western countries.

Jewish life in Eastern Europe was distinctive. In general, Jews were not very assimilated into non-Jewish society and instead they usually lived in shtetls – small towns characterised by large Jewish populations. These communities were commonly very traditional and centred upon long-standing customs and cultural practices. This included observing orthodox religious rituals and laws, spending much time on education and learning, and using Yiddish as a language.

All in all this meant that the Jews of Eastern Europe looked and behaved very differently to Jews living in countries further towards the West. In countries such as France and Germany, the Jewish population was far smaller and tended to be well-integrated. In appearance Western Jews seemed no different to anyone else, and where they practiced their religion and maintained their culture they did so in a cautious manner. This of course did not prevent them being the target of antisemitism, but it did distinguish them from the Ashkenazi Jews living in the East.

Hungary was a European country with a sizeable and historic Jewish community. At the end of World War One the Treaty of Trianon saw chunks of Hungarian land given to Romania; including Transylvania, the region in which Sighet was located. Although these territorial losses reduced the Jewish population in Hungary, throughout the inter-war period Hungarian society became increasingly antisemitic. This began in 1920 with the passing of the Numerus clausus law which restricted the admission of Jews into universities, but a number of laws after 1938 escalated persecution to a new level. These “race laws” were modelled on Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Laws, which had led to Jews losing their citizenship and being banned from marrying non-Jews.

In Germany, the introduction of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935 was a powerful symbol of Nazi antisemitism.

To the Nazis, the world was to be understood in terms of a constant struggle between different “races” distinguished by biology. Germans, like other “Nordic” people, were members of an “Aryan” race which was superior to all others but threatened by “inferior” races. Chief among these supposedly “inferior” races were the Jews, who were regarded to be an inhuman species plotting to take over the world. Such views drew on a long history of religious intolerance throughout Christian Europe, as well as a number of pseudo-scientific theories. Although the Nazis were the most enthusiastic promoters of this brand of antisemitism, others across Europe also shared some of their views.

In the summer of 1940 Hungary was given possession of northern Transylvania (including Sighet) and in October the country formally became part of the Axis alliance. By the spring of 1941 Hungary had acquired even more land, and its Jewish population had swelled to over 725,000. During this time able-bodied Jewish men were forced into hard labour, often carried out in severe conditions, and around 20,000 were deported to their deaths in the Ukraine.

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