Budapest is today the capital city of Hungary. In medieval times it was divided into two cities, Buda and Pest, and medieval Buda occupied the area of the modern city which is now called Castle Hill. Whilst there was a Jewish community here between the 7th and 9th centuries, the first major Jewish community was established in 895, one year before the Magyars came to Hungary. The Jews began their time in Hungary as traders. In the year 1000, King Istvan (Steven) converted the Pagan local inhabitants to Christianity. In this case, Hungary was an exception to a rule. Usually, when a population converted to Christianity en masse, the social position of the Jews went into freefall; however this did NOT happen in Hungary. In fact, the relations between the Jewish and non-Jewish communities were so good that the crusaders were kept out of Hungary in 1096, when they had swept through Eastern France, Germany and Northern Italy murdering Jews on their way to Jerusalem.
The pinnacle of the relationship occurred in 1215. In that year, the Vatican Church passed the fourth Lateran Council, which decreed that Jews would have to wear a distinguishing mark. In Prague this was a 'Jew Hat', in other places yellow badges in the shapes of the tablets of The Ten Commandments. This decree was never enforced in Hungary.
In the year 1250, King Bela gave a charter to the Jews allowing freedom of religion, which allowed the Jews to be officially recognised. This meant that the Jews could build stone houses on what was then called Jew Street, but it also meant that the Jews would have to start paying taxes, and these were often much higher than those paid by the non-Jewish inhabitants. By this time, the traditional Jewish occupation had shifted to financial services, as it had over the rest of Europe, due to decrees in other European countries. In fact, Jews ran the mint in Buda!
In 1360, things start to get worse. After pressure from merchants and the Church, King Lajos I expelled the Jews from Hungary. However, within four years, the Hungarian economy had collapsed. So, in 1364, the Jews were allowed back into Hungary, BUT, Jew Street was by now a Christian area. Therefore a new Jew Street, complete with Synagogue, was established one mile down the road in what is now called Tancsics Mihály Street. The Jews lived in relative peace, and in 1477, the King appointed a Prefect of the Jews to provide a direct link between the King and the Jews. There were occasional pogromim, but the King always tried to protect the Jews for the sake of the economy.
A significant change happened in 1526, with the Battle of Mohacs. The Turkish Ottomans had been working their way up through Europe, and the battle resulted in the Hungarian lands being conquered by the Turks. This meant three things for the Jews:
Firstly this meant that the established community which was between 500 and 3,000 people became the only Ashkenazi Jewish community in history to live under Islamic rule. This situation was good for the Jewish community. Secondly, the Jews were given respect by the Turks because they had the status Dhimmi, or people of the book, and thirdly because the Turks brought with them their financiers and financial consultants who were, naturally, Jewish. Therefore there were two Jewish communities, one Ashkenazi and one Sephardi.
The Jewish community flourished, and Buda became the Jewish centre of the Empire. A Yeshiva, or Jewish learning centre was founded, and the Jews had a level of autonomy. However, this unprecedented period only lasted 150 years.
In 1598, in an unprecedented move, the Jewish community stood and fought on the side of the Turks against the invading Austrians. Finally, in 1686, the Austrians broke through. By this point, both Jewish communities had established synagogues on Jew Street, a small Sephardi Synagogue at number 26, and a large Ashkenazi Synagogue at number 23.
The Sephardi Synagogue was discovered in 1964 and was built at the end of the 14th Century by Jews from Istanbul, Celonica and Tzfat. The Sephardi community at this point contained roughly 30 families. The inscriptions on the walls of the Synagogue were written around the time that the Austrians broke through.
The Ashkenazi Synagogue at number 23 was built in 1461 and was known as The Great Synagogue. It was 25 feet high, it had 2 naves (like the Altneu) and a separate women's section with slits in the wall into the men's section.
In 1686, the Jews once again took up arms against the Austrians, and this therefore resulted in mass persecution of the Jews in Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. This was quickly put down by the Emperor who realised the usefulness of the Jews and therefore did not want them to be massacred. However, when the Austrians finally broke through into Hungary there was a Churban, a slaughter of Jews of biblical proportions. The Jews were herded into the Great Synagogue in number 23 and slaughtered.
As the war drew to a close and it began to look like a Churban might happen, a Jew from Prague who was living in Buda at the time, by the name of Sender Tausk, worried for the safety of the Jews. He journeyed to Vienna to find the richest Jew in the Empire, a man by the name of Samuel Oppenhiemer. Oppenhiemer had connections in the Austrian army and, knowing this, Tausk asked him to exploit these connections in order to save the Jews of Buda. Oppenhiemer contacted the Chief of Staff of the Austrian army, who agreed to prevent the Churban. Tausk was sent with the message from the Chief of Staff back to Buda, BUT, in a cruel twist of fate, he arrived the day after the Churban. He used everything he could to save the survivors, which eventually he did by raising an Austrian flag over them to show their allegiance to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
This had limited success, instead of massacring the survivors; the soldiers simply took them hostage and plundered the assets of the community. Tausk then travelled all around Jewish communities attempting to raise the money required to free the remaining Jews of Buda. He was so driven in his quest that when he was arrested and thrown in prison, he was able to convince the authorities to allow his wife and child to take his place in prison so that he could continue travelling and raising money. Finally, in 1687, he raised the remainder of the money, and freed the Jews, performing Pidyan Shevuyim, the act of freeing captives, which is one of the greatest Mitzvot possible.
After the Churban, the remaining community was thrown out of Buda, with the survivors scattering in three directions: Some went to Bohemia and Moravia, particularly Prague, some went with the retreating Turks and some fled south. This was the end of the medieval Jewish community of Buda.