Győr and Jewry

Historical review of the co-existence of Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Győr – Part One

Historical model changes in Győr and their relationship with the religious (ethnic) structure and spatial location of the population

Excerpts from a study by Dr Gyula Szakál, Associate Professor in ret., Historian of economic relationships, Széchenyi István University, Győr

Introductory reflections

Győr … in 1743, having bought its way out, was elevated to the rank of free royal city. It could have remained a peaceful patrician town, but two generations later it was already on the path to becoming a grain trading city. Subsequent to the opportunity to trade in agricultural produce closing (1870s), there was a brief period of livestock trade, and then, recognising its limitations, the local elite quickly moved towards the establishment of modern manufacturing industry. …

Coat of arms of the Free Royal City of Győr –

How was this linked to the ethnic and religious structure of the city and its spatial location? The uniqueness of Győr was that within a relatively small radius, four settlements were divided by rivers and legally separated, while these parts were functionally completely united. For a long time, the three rivers were also the boundaries of the municipalities. Győr and the associated Újváros were located in the inner part of the city, bordered by the Danube, the Rába and the Rábca, while Sziget, Révfalu and Pataháza were located in the outer parts as independent villages. This legal status was maintained until 1905. The spatial separation also meant the division of religious groups.

Religious conflicts and the urban space

… the evangelical population, or its elite, was an economically innovative, successful stratum. This group represented 6-7% of the urban population, and among the richest (a group of 250 of the richest taxpayers) their share was around 15-20% until the early 1900s. The proportions are very similar to the performance of Jewish entrepreneurs. …

The movement of the Reformed (Christian) and the Jewish communities in the region of Győr in the 17th and 18th Centuries – Study by Gyula Szakál

Emergence of the Jewish population

The third religion and ethnicity whose increase in numbers was linked to the function of the military town was Judaism. There are no direct archival records until the 1800s, but there are indirect references to their presence. The number of soldiers increased or decreased, but it certainly meant an increase in consumption. In particular, the role of mobile traders grew in the preparation of military campaigns. There are also indications that military commanders did not despise the share of the surplus income of military contractors. In another period – 1720 – there are also indications that under the protection of General Heister, ‘large numbers’ of Jews, Greeks, Serbs and Armenians settled in the city, paying only to him for protection. [1]   It is quite certain that this practice could not have been otherwise in the past. There are also indications that in the town, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1567, there was already a ‘Judengasse’ and a house used as a synagogue close to it. If we look at the geographical location, these were located right on the edge of the most dangerous part of the city wall.

The intolerance of Maria Theresa, German-Roman Empress, Queen of Hungary, towards the Jews (e.g. their extermination in Prague, the introduction of the Jewish tax, ambiguously called “tolerance tax”) had a great impact on the fate of the Jewry in Hungary, including Győr –

The fate and geographic movement of the Jews of Győr took on a particular shape as the role of the military town faded. The settlement became a free royal town from 1743, but a council decision to expel the Jews from the town was taken as early as 11 December 1747. We do not know exactly how many people were affected, but it could not have been more than 300. As in the case of the evangelists, the expulsion was symbolic. They were moved to the village of Sziget, on the other bank of the Rábca River, which was owned by the bishop. The earliest record we have is from 1791, when the catholic church allowed 30 families to settle there for 200 Ft a year. Although it forbids the admission of further families, it also grants the community full autonomy. They can maintain a house of prayer, elect a judge who, in addition to internal affairs, settles disputes even between Jews and Christians. [2]

If you look at the number of families, you can only think of large families. The first accurate data is recorded in the ecclesiastical sematisms (directories; kept by village parish priests, including data on the denominational distribution of the settlement – ed.) from 1804. Only 13 years have passed since the forced emigration, but this census mentions 351 Jews, which was 9.6% of the population. The space cut up by the rivers and the divergence of jurisdictions provided an opportunity to exclude them fully from the city, but in essence it did not happen, having moved only a few hundred metres away from the centre. From then on, however, this area became the centre of their geographical identity, even when most of them no longer lived there.

The case of the construction of the new synagogue is a good example of this. A religious community, when it becomes financially strong enough, wants to visually present its existence. From the Middle Ages to the present day, the most concise form of this has been the building of churches. It was not only a simple place of worship that was needed, but also, depending on financial strength or even political influence, its location was also important.

This was the case in Győr, when the community, which had become financially stronger thanks to the grain trade, wanted to build a representative synagogue instead of a very modest and unimpressive prayer house (one was on Kígyó Street – a very small street – and the other was hidden on the floor of a guest inn). At this time, still the early 1860s, the more affluent sections of Jewry already began to move out of the village of Sziget which had once housed them.

Szarvas utca in Győr-Sziget was a poor neighbourhood even in the 1970s – facebook-régigyőr-photos

The internal tension in the community was palpable. Those pf the Sziget district – the poorer section of the group – felt that the townspeople were ‘trying to force them’ to leave the ancestral soil. Looking back to the late 1920s, József Kemény says there were serious struggles, various alternatives were considered, and finally the assembly of representatives, almost exclusively made up of very wealthy entrepreneurs, made the decision. … József Kemény assessed this decision: ‘The decision shows that the majority finally came to the conclusion that if the Jews were to develop their economic and cultural strength, if the centre of their activities is to be increasingly shifted to the city, their representative temple … must not remain in the former ghetto.’ [3]

It is worth noting that the land purchased was very close to the church of the Evangelical community (separated by a street), the church of the Carmelite Order (bordered by a river) and the bishop’s residence was only a few hundred metres away. The area was large enough for the planned synagogue to serve as a suitable landmark, or even a counterpoint. The city government of the time did not at all hinder this ambition (it should be noted that the representative body at this time was composed almost entirely of Christian citizens).

The Synagogue in the 1910s – Photo by József Glück , Dr Kovács Pál Library

We have already mentioned that the realisation of these dreams was made possible by the intermediary trade in grain. Grain from Bačka-Banát and partly from the lowlands was transported via the Danube and Győr to the markets of Vienna, and from there onwards. This trading role directly provided a livelihood of some kind for 15-20% of the population. But the multiplier effect was greater.

The huge housing and public buildings (schools, law courts, other public buildings) in the city centre were built with the capital generated. And for the top merchants, the profit margins, sometimes in the hundreds of percent range, made it possible to pursue almost ‘American’ careers. For the Jewish population of the settlement, this situation provided an excellent opportunity. All the opportunities were open to them to develop their previously accumulated knowledge, capital and contacts. This two-decade period from the 1850s onwards was exploited most skilfully by Jewish entrepreneurs. The names of families such as Fleischmann, Ehler, Kőnig, Keppich and Schreiber became known and, at the same time, respected.

These wealthy entrepreneurs started a spatial movement towards the most frequented streets of Győr’s city centre. In the absence of research in this direction, we can only deduce from scattered data that the properties they owned were not only of considerable size, but also served as landmarks. The spatial movements of the wealthiest group were later followed by others.

From the processing of the ecclesiastical sematisms, the numerical growth of the Jewish population of Győr can be clearly seen.

Increase in the Jewish population of Győr

YearCapitaProportion of the
population, %
18043519,6Sziget district
180935812,0Sziget district
181935420,5Sziget district
183072017,3Sziget district
184085019,8Sziget district
1851124331,0Sziget district
1861131835,2Sziget district
1872288512,0Győr, entire city
1881382614,6Győr, entire city
1891403617,3Győr, entire city
1901531715,7Győr, entire city
191054189,6Győr, entire city
1917564713,2Győr, entire city
1928602312,3Győr, entire city
194049679,7Győr, entire city
Source: own editing based on data from ecclesiastical sematisms.

Beyond tracing the numerical movement, the more interesting question for us is the relationship between the Christian and Jewish populations. Looking through the most diverse sources of contemporary social publicity – newspapers, publications – and oral recollections, we find only minimal manifestations of anti-Semitism in Győr.

Győr Distillery on a postcard at the beginning of the 20th century. Lederer Ágoston managed and modernised the factory as owner between 1895 and 1936. He also founded the Győr Wagon and Machine Works. – Collection of János Honvári,

The struggle between the entrepreneurial elite groups in Győr was evenly matched and in more than one case it was the Jewish entrepreneurs who had to cling to their Christian counterparts. If you look at the dozen or so bourgeois families that were considered the richest in the eyes of the public (tax lists confirmed this exactly), Christians were certainly predominant. There was no status envy, not even jealousy. In many cases of the change from a merchant town to an industrial model, we found a very high degree of cooperation between elite groups of different religions. The reason for this is to be found not only in the receptiveness, flexibility and Westernised civic values of the bourgeoisie of Győr, but also in the mentality of the local Jewish population. From very early on they lived together with local citizens, and if we look at the geography of immigration, they came from Western countries or from neighbouring settlements. According to the data in the local sematisms – and this was obviously also the case nationally – they very often, but by no means exclusively, performed commercial and other service functions in the surrounding villages.

Book of remembrance of the Jewish inhabitants of Gyömöre, also known as ‘Little Palestine’ – ©

In a nearby settlement, Gyömöre (about 25 km from Győr), a small Jewish colony with a Yeshiva was established by mid-19th century.  … We have scarce data to show that many people came from the surrounding settlements to Győr, which offered greater opportunities. The Jews of Győr belonged almost exclusively to the Neologue movement, in appearance and behaviour not unlike the bourgeoisie or even middle-class groups of the Christian faith as understood locally. According to an oral recollection, it was almost a unique opportunity to see Jews with sideburns and in kaftans in Győr, who did not move much from the Sziget district. Simply put, a Jewish entrepreneur in Győr is first an entrepreneur, then a Győr citizen and only then a Jew. Religiousness, as an identity-forming, group-forming, and thus bonding and excluding aspect in Győr, had been thoroughly weakened by the end of the 19th century. The pragmatic values of the bourgeoisie always overrode religious rifts.

Károly Zechmeister (1852-1910), Győr’s mayor –

The most prominent mayor of the town, Károly Zechmeister (1888-1906), was of Lutheran origin, while the town’s chief medical officer, Fülöp Pfeiffer, and the town’s fire chief, Ernő Erdély, were of Jewish origin.

The Napoleon House, owned by Dr Fülöp Pfeiffer (1845-1930), which he rented in 1892 for a girls’ school –

Estate inventories show that the general practitioners of active Catholic public figures were very often Jewish. It is therefore not surprising that the Masonic lodge(s) of Károly Kisfaludy, which was very strong and active at the turn of the century and had many members of Jewish origin, … included also many Christian members.

Ernő Erdély (1881-1944), Győr fire brigade commander, who was deported to Auschwitz and murdered despite his unheard-of merits

Spatial framework of coexistence

The integration of Jewish entrepreneurs into Christian society can be considered seamless. There was no question of occupational or even territorial segregation. Computer processing of historical housing and address directories and of the census ordered by the second law on Jews (“Law IV, 1939, on the Restriction of the Participation of Jews in Public and Economic Life” – ed.) proves this. The latter list contains 506 items (names, occupations, streets). [4] Of these, 67 were deleted, who had died or moved away, and were included in the processing, since we were carrying out a social history analysis and these citizens had lived and worked in Győr for a long time.

We were mainly interested in occupations and their spatial location. In our case, the names were only important in terms of the proportion of families that were considered to be truly wealthy locally (among the richest). After all, there is always a family behind the names. Our estimate may be subject to subjective errors, but a maximum of 20 families could be considered truly wealthy. The list therefore ranges from the local Jewish upper middle class to the lower middle class. It excludes doctors, lawyers, and business as well as technical intellectuals. In Győr in the 1930s, the latter was a group of considerable size and power. Also missing were the poorer group who worked as workers or employees.

If we take the entrepreneurs in the list as a family of four, this represents 40% of the local Jewish population, but if we think of a family of six, it represents 60%. It is likely that the latter figure is similar to the real proportion. 63% of the entrepreneurs on the list were engaged in trade. We were able to sort the trading occupations (the same occupation was described in more than one way) into 36 major groups. The distribution of occupations shows the trend towards industrialisation and urbanisation. Food, general merchandise, textiles and clothing retailers accounted for nearly 60% of the 235 traders. They were essentially found in all trade sectors. It is rather interesting where they were few in number, even though stereotypes would have led one to expect their presence there. Only 24 entrepreneurs were involved in the second-hand clothing trade, the rawhide trade and the feather trade, which represented 5% of the whole group. Only 15 inn/pubkeepers were recorded (3.3%), although there were many more inns and pubs at the time. As a mere curiosity, 8 pig traders and one loan librarian were also recorded.

Iron Rod House with a seed shop on Széchenyi Square – photo by József Glück around 1910, Dr Kovács Pál Library

We were able to organise the 271 craftsmen into 38 major categories. Almost every profession of the time was represented. Nearly a third of the craftsmen were tailors, hatmakers, embroiderers and other clothing-related businesses. We also found 30 shoemakers (15% of Jewish craftsmen), 12 hairdressers (4.4%), 10 photographers and 6 dental technicians. We can assume that the majority of the photographers and dental technicians of the period were of Jewish origin. It is merely of interest to note that one goldsmith, one shipwright, one thresher, one window dresser and one cleaner were also recorded.

Perhaps more important than the occupational structure is the spatial location of businesses. According to contemporary records, there is at least one Jewish entrepreneur in 121 streets (squares) of Győr. It could be said that by the early 1930s they had already settled in the entire city. Of course, we know that the place of residence and the place of business did not always coincide, but for us it was the presence in the urban space that was important. Their home in the Sziget district of the time almost emptied between the two world wars. We could link at most 13-15% of the businesses recorded in the inventory to this area. In the immediately adjacent Újváros, their share could be a maximum of 10%. Obviously, the poorest layer still remained in their old location, but these are not recorded in the source.

Rozália House on Kazinczy Street, one shop next to the other photo by József Glück around 1910, Dr Kovács Pál Library

Three quarters of businesses are concentrated on city centre streets. It should also be noted that doctors and lawyers of Jewish origin also lived in this area. (The downtown area occupies a circle with a maximum radius of 400 metres, which takes 15-20 minutes to walk around.) We found 53% of entrepreneurs in this area. However, one observation needs to be made. On Baross Street, which was the most representative shopping street in Győr at the time, their presence can be estimated at perhaps 30%. It would be good to know the religious distribution of the traders and craftsmen operating in each street. We can only estimate the 1938 data, as the closest accurate street list of businesses we have is from 1915.

Deák Ferenc Street, the second most important shopping street in Győr between the two World Warsphoto by József Glück around 1910, Dr Kovács Pál Library

It is also likely that the number of businesses could not have increased substantially from 1915 to the 1930s, as the geographical space of the street did not allow for this. We also assessed that in 1904, a business on Baross Street was a mere 5 m away, which had decreased to 4 m by 1915. The space of businesses could not have shrunk any more than this, or more precisely, their number could not have increased any more. The same proportion on the adjacent and equally long Deák Street fell from 9 to 7 m between the dates indicated. Thus, the proportion of Jewish businesses on the most important downtown streets can be put at less than 50%. More importantly, the premises of the leading businesses on Baross Street were quite large. This was the case with Ferenc Sándori’s hardware store, Jenő Kocsis’ department store, Gusztáv Kőnisgberg’s and Géza Alexy’s shops. They were Christian entrepreneurs.

The Kreszta House in Apáca Street photo by József Glück around 1910, Dr Kovács Pál Library

There is a surviving photograph of the Salzer brothers’ shop, which was very modest in size and we know that they had great difficulty in finding a place on Baross Street. The largest merchant’s house in the downtown area, which had two floors, was owned by the Catholic Kreszta family. On Kossuth Street, the longest street in Győr, which separates Sziget from Újváros and connects directly with the city centre, there were 170-180 businesses, of which we can estimate the proportion of Jewish businesses at 20% at most. Only one “Jewish Street” was found, Híd Street, where the proportion of Jewish entrepreneurs can be estimated at 90%. This was both a connecting and a dividing street between the three districts. They catered specifically to the needs of the poorer layers of the urban population, with their very modest-looking shops.


Be sure to read the Second Part to find out how the Győr elite reacted to the political crisis and human tragedy of 1944.

[1] Borovszky 1910: 363.; [2] Quoted by Kemény 1930: 18.; [3] Kemény 1930: 67.; [4] Győr City Archives: separate lists

The list of the literature and sources used is provided in the Second Part.

This study was published in the journal Műhely (Vol. 36, No. 2, 2013). Republishing rights were granted by Dr Gyula Szakál.

The pictures published here are not included in the study, they are for illustration purposes only.

Edited and translated into English by Péter Krausz.