In the centre of Debrecen, west of Kossuth Square and to the south from Hatvan Street to Széchenyi Street and beyond all the way down to Miklos Street, is what is referred to as the Jewish Quarter, an area where the Jewish settlement began and grew over the years.
While the Jewish community was officially founded in 1852 and then later, in 1856 the first rabbi Ede Erlich was elected, a Jewish community existed long before, but was not officially acknowledged as such. After the split of Jewish factions that occurred after the General Jewish Congress of Hungary of 1868–1869, the Neolog group faded away, leaving only Orthodox and Status Quo Ante, the latter being the largest group by far. The two groups, living in parallel, co-existed peacefully.
Each group built its own Synagogue, the Orthodox synagogue was built in 1893 in Pásti Street while the Status Quo community’s great synagogue was opened in 1897 on Deák Ferenc Street. In 1910 a smaller Status Quo community synagogue was also built on Kápolnás Street, and so life revolved around these locations, both North of and South of Széchenyi Street (see map below). The synagogue on Petőfi Square, located in front of the Grand Railway Station was demolished because of war damage, the site today is being renovated into a beautiful public space.
A thematic tour of the Key locations of the Jewish Quarter is available, details here.
Gender-specific elementary schools of the Status Quo community were established, first a boy’s school in 1886, and then a girl’s higher school in 1906. In addition, an Orthodox elementary school was opened in 1901. In all, including both communities, the Jewish population was around 10,000 people by the 1920s, of which 80% were from the Status Quo community.
A snapshot of the Jewish community in 1910:-
- 38 percent of all owners and employees in trade and banking,
- 56 percent of the town’s entrepreneurs,
- 15.7 percent of self-employed tradesmen,
- 48 percent of lawyers, 38 percent of physicians, and
- 42 percent of editors and journalists.
Records show that in 1929, 32 percent of the highest taxpayers and 46.6 percent of all self-employed entrepreneurs were Jews. The most prominent wholesale firms included Bernfeld (textiles) and Ullmann (groceries).
While most Jewish estate owners held medium or small areas of land, the Lichtschein and Hartstein families owned vast estates.
The above figures demonstrate the contribution the Jewish community made to the City of Debrecen.
In 1938, thousands of Jews lost their livelihoods thanks to anti-Jewish legislation preceding the second world war.
World War II
During the war a ghetto was formed by fencing off around Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street, Kápolnási Street, and Pásti Street, and then most of the Jewish people were taken to the old brick factory, from where they were transported to labor camps and another smaller group was taken to Auschwitz.
In June 1944, the vast majority of Jews were deported from Debrecen and subsequently half of the Jewish community died either in Auschwitz or during forced labor service; from the rest, half survived in Austrian forced labor camps as a result of the rescue operation of Rezső Kasztner.
Today the Jewish community of Debrecen is the second-largest in Hungary, with a much smaller 1,500 members.
While visiting be sure to visit the memorial in the courtyard of the Pásti Street Synagogue today, paying homage to the six thousand Jews of Debrecen who never returned.