In 1960 a remarkable photograph was taken in Szombathely by a man named Gyula Nagy. There is no way of knowing whether Nagy set out to show the remains of two lost civilizations when he snapped the black and white image, but that is exactly what he ended up doing. Nagy took the photo while standing at the ruins of the Temple of Isis, a religious site from the ancient Roman city of Savaria. In the photo’s foreground are three ruined columns, through these would have passed Roman citizens entering or exiting the temple. In the background and to the right of one of the columns, can be seen the Moorish styled synagogue of Szombathely. Its twin domed shaped towers rising above everything else in the photo. The temple’s ruined columns and the synagogue’s towers provide an intriguing architectural expression of all that remained of the Romans and Jews in Szombathely. The Romans had long since passed into history, but the Jews of Szombathely had only recently vanished by the time this photo was taken. The temple ruins are the immediate point of fascination in Nagy’s photo, causing one to reflect on the greatness of Rome and the legacy it left behind.
Whether or not Nagy was trying to evoke the loss of these peoples is open to conjecture, but the fact remains that his photo did just that. The site of Szombathely’s synagogue looming in the background provides a tragic parallel to the temple ruins. Though the synagogue is still intact, the Jews of Szombathely were nearly extinct by this time. The building was no longer a working synagogue, while the culture it stood for was nearly as remote to Szombathely as the ancient Roman one of Savaria. The fall of Savaria, like Rome itself, had taken centuries. The collapse of Szombathely’s Jewish community took just a few months. Both left traces behind that are worth exploring. Many do just that at the Roman ruins, considerably less at the synagogue and associated Jewish sites in the city. The difference in interest is massive. Discovering ancient Rome in Szombathely is enthralling, while discovering the history of the Jews in the city is tragic
Persecution & Pogroms – A History Of Harassment
It is interesting to note the proximity of the ruined Temple of Isis with Szombathely’s most impressive synagogue. This proximity could be interpreted as a historical metaphor. The first Jews likely arrived in the territory of present day Hungary during the 2nd century AD. Roman legions, who had been sent from the province of Pannonia (which included much of present day western Hungary) to put down a revolt in Judea, brought Jews back as slaves. Many of them settled in Savaria. When the Barbarian invasions overran the city in the 5th century, Jews fled along with the Roman inhabitants. A Jewish presence in the area would not be recorded again in this area until the 17th century. During that period and in the centuries that followed, Jews with very few exceptions were not allowed to settle within the city of Szombathely. Instead, they were relegated to the outskirts and surrounding countryside on land set aside at the Bathhyany estates, one of the most powerful noble families in Hungary.
The local Hungarian population viewed Jews in the area with extreme suspicion. The prejudice towards them would never completely vanished and would come to a head on multiple occasions beginning in the mid-19th century. In 1840 Jews finally secured rights to settle in Szombathely after the Habsburg Empire gave them freedom of settlement. By 1848 three hundred had moved or were planning to move into the city. This stirred up antisemitism among the locals. The Jews were viewed as a threat, an alien race that could not be assimilated with the majority Hungarian culture. The more Jews that moved into the city, the greater the chance of a nasty backlash developing. Less than a month after an independent Hungary was proclaimed in the spring of 1848, locals in the city went on a rampage. They attacked the synagogue, ripped up the Torah Scrolls and looted Jewish property. The local administration did nothing to prevent these attacks and subsequently proclaimed that all Jews were being banned from the city. A forcible expulsion was to take place on April 24th for those who failed to leave the city voluntarily. At this point, officials of the national government intervened. The ban never took effect and peace was soon restored, but trust could not easily be repaired.
The Rise To Power – Freedom From Fear
Most of Szombathely’s citizens continued to view its Jewish populace with skepticism. It would not be until 1867, with the unification of Austria and Hungary in the Dual Monarchy that the Jewish citizens of Szombathely were emancipated and received full civil rights. It was from this point that the city’s Jewish population began a meteoric rise in business and culture, one that would lead directly to the construction of the richly patterned, exotically wondrous edifice of the Neolog (Reformed) Synagogue in 1880. It was built on one side of Bathhyany Square, which only seemed right since that family had afforded invaluable protection and living space for Jews in the area prior to emancipation.
Freed from the shackles of discriminatory legislation the Jews of Szombathely soon came to dominate the business and industrial enterprises in the city. Their wealth, influence and number all grew during the Dual Monarchy era. In 1869 there were 1,154 Jews in Szombathely, by 1900 that figure had grown two and a half-fold to over 2,600. The most common occupation of those with a steady income were merchants. Several major enterprises were owned by Jews, including textile mills and several different industrial concerns. These provided employment for hundreds of non-Jews in Szombathely. Assimilationist tendencies among business minded and progressive Jews, who were a majority of the Jewish population in Szombathely resulted in their widespread acceptance by non-Jews. Their ascent was halted, as with so much else in Hungary, by the First World War.
An Unmitigated Disaster – The Great War Changes Everything
It is no secret that the First World War was an unmitigated disaster for Hungary, the same could also be said for Szombathely’s Jewish inhabitants. This can hardly be disputed, as the post-war Treaty of Trianon resulted in two-thirds of the Kingdom of Hungary’s land area and population being stripped away from it. The scale of this cataclysm serves to obscure the suffering inflicted on Hungarians Jews after the war. Business owners saw their profits plunge as Hungary was cut off from markets in the hinterlands. This was certainly true in Szombathely which lay close to the new border with Austria. Jews were blamed for both the political and economic turmoil that plagued Hungary during this time. Jews were blamed for the Red Revolution which brought a short-lived communist government to power in Hungary. This was followed in turn by a “White Terror” that persecuted anyone suspected of leftist tendencies. Being Jewish was synonymous to many Hungarians with being left wing. Such extremism foreshadowed the rise of fascism and the resulting threat to all Jews in Hungary, including those in Szombathely.