16 June 2001

‘An Irishman’s Diary’:
the Jews of Hungary

The Great Synagogue in Dohany utca in Budapest is the largest in Europe

Patrick Comerford

Throughout Hungary, the name Virag is splashed across the shop-fronts of flower sellers. I wondered whether Leopold Bloom had a long-tailed family that survived in Hungary generations after his father had moved from the banks of the Danube in 1852 to the banks of the Grand Canal in Dublin, and changed his name from Rudolph Virag to Rudolph Bloom.

In Ulysses, Bloom’s father is Rudolph Virag, who was born in Szombathely in western Hungary in 1815, and moved on to Szesfehervar and Budapest before leaving Hungary in 1852. He arrived in Dublin in 1865, and was quickly baptised into the Church of Ireland as Rudolph Bloom before marrying Ellen Higgins, the descendant of Hungarian Jews named Karoly. Soon after, Leopold Bloom was born in 1866 in Clanbrassil Street, close to Dublin’s ‘Little Jerusalem’.

Hungarian links

The romantic lure of Hungary has proved attractive for many Irish writers. Bram Stoker originally planned to locate Dracula in Styria, but moved the location east to Transylvania, then a part of Hungary, after hearing about Elizabeth Bathori, a Hungarian countess.

In the 20th century, the romance of Gypsy music attracted two Irish violinists of note to Hungary. Walter Starkie, first professor of Spanish at Trinity College Dublin, tramped through Hungary and Romania in the inter-war years in search of Gypsy music and left an account of his adventures in a book appropriately titled Raggle Taggle (1933). Peter O’Connor followed Starkie in search of Gypsy music and was the author of Travels to Music in Hungary and Romania (1971).

But why was Joyce tempted to play on the words Virag and Bloom? According to Patrick Leigh-Fermor, who travelled through Hungary in the 1930s, Joyce picked up some Hungarian while he was teaching at the Berlitz school in Trieste, which was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the outbreak of the first World War. Some believe Joyce may even have taught Admiral Miklos Horthy some English.

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and brief experiments with communism and democracy, Horthy came to power in 1919 and ruled Hungary as regent until 1944, taking the country in the second World War on the side of Nazi Germany. In 1941, a series of anti-Semitic laws were passed and the wearing of the Star of David was made compulsory. Thousands of Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz, and in all 600,000 Hungarian Jews were victims of the Holocaust.

It was a sad blight on Hungary’s reputation for tolerance and pluralism. There have been Jews in Hungary since the 3rd century AD, 600 years before the arrival of the Magyars. Hungary's Jewish community was well integrated since the 13th century, when King Bela IV extended a number of privileges to the Jews of Hungary in 1251, including freedom of religion.

Among Hungary’s leading Jews in the 19th century was Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, who was born and taught on the site of the present Jewish Museum in Budapest. Close by is the mass grave of 2,281 Jews, who died together in the winter of 1944.

No survivors

Had there been a real Leopold and Molly Bloom, their children would have no surviving cousins in Hungary. All that remains of the Jewish presence in Rudolph Bloom's birthplace, Szombathely, is a plaque recording: “4,228 of our Jewish brothers and sisters were deported from this place to Auschwitz on 4 June 1994”.

Szombathely – its name means “Saturday Market” – was once the capital of the Roman province of Pannonia. The town’s former synagogue, built in 1881, is a fine piece of neo-Byzantine architecture, but today is home to the Bartok Concert Hall and music college.

In Budapest, it is estimated that 50 per cent of the city’s Jews survived the Holocaust. The Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who saved 20,000 Jews from the concentration camps, disappeared after the Soviet army liberated Budapest, but is commemorated by a memorial by the sculptor Imre Varga on the western, wooded slopes of Budapest.

The capital’s 19th century synagogues signalled the community’s confidence of its place in Hungarian society. With seating for up to 3,000 worshippers on a Saturday, the Great Synagogue in Dohany utca is the largest in Europe – and the second largest in the world after the Temple Emmanuel in New York. Built by the Viennese architect Ludwig Foster in a mixed Byzantine-Moorish style between 1854 and 1859, its exterior is dominated by two richly-decorated Moorish-style minarets or towers, each topped by a distinctive onion-shaped dome.

Moorish ideas were also incorporated in the Orthodox Synagogue on Rumbach utca, built in 1872 by the important Secession architect, Otto Wagner.

Most Jews perished

In provincial Hungary, it is estimated, 90 per cent of the Jews perished. Unlike the Jews of Budapest, who were urbane and integrated, most of the Jews in the provincial towns and villages of eastern Hungary were distinctively-dressed, Yiddish-speaking members of Hasidic communities. They were visible and easy targets for the Fascists, and most fell victim to the Holocaust. Synagogues and cemeteries were vandalised, and a whole way of life was lost to the region.

The Holocaust makes any flights of genealogical fantasy about Hungarian Virags and Irish Blooms pointless. Curiously, Virag is simply the Magyar word for “Bloom” or flower, and most flower-sellers in Hungary in the mid-19th century were likely to be Gypsies rather than Jews. But then, Hungary’s Gypsies suffered grievously during the Holocaust too. Another sad tale for another day.

The Great Synagogue in Budapest was built by the Viennese architect Ludwig Foster in a mixed Byzantine-Moorish style in 1854-1859

This ‘Irishman’s Diary’ was first published in ‘The Irish Times on Saturday 16 June 2001

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