Emigration from Paradise: Home, Fate, and Nation in Post-World War I Jewish Hungary

Research project by Dr. Ilse Josepha Lazaroms

In the history of East Central Europe, few peoples have declared themselves as much at home within their homeland as the Jews of Hungary. A large and thriving community during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Hungarian Jews have often been described as fervent patriots. Seemingly, none of the upheavals that occurred during their modern history could sway their loyalty. Even after the Holocaust, which led to an abrupt and gruesome turnaround in the fate of this community and the deaths of more than 565,000 people, for many Hungarian Jews the sense of being rooted in the Hungarian national culture remained.

This book is born out of a desire to better understand the strong sense of belonging of this particular group of East Central European Jews. It understands Jewish ties to Hungary in terms of divergent configurations of loyalty, as well as expressions of private and communal identity. Through an analysis of the concepts of home (an identification with the traditions, history, and culture of a country, leading to a deep sense of belonging), fate (the idea that Jewish belonging had an almost natural, historical quality to it), and nation (the postwar nation state built on ethnic delineations), it asks how Jews continued to claim loyalty to a nation state that was increasingly set on excluding them. While the focal point of this book is the immediate postwar period (1918–1923), one of its premises is that without including the prewar decades (1880s until 1918), this story cannot be told. Arguing for a long duration perspective on postwar Jewish Hungary, it takes an intersectional, cross-generational and biographical approach to source materials ranging from ego-documents (letters, testimonies, memoirs), discursive sources (the press), and institutional records.

Emigration from Paradise addresses vital questions about the nature of the categories of home, belonging, fate, identity, emigration, nation, and nationalism, and the meanings that these categories had not just for Hungarian Jews or the Jews of Europe, but for East Central Europe and for modern European history in general. It paves the way for a more integral and comparative view on modern Hungarian history and the region; it takes an original approach to a much-debated historical moment (1918); and opens up an entire array of historical actors, whose voices have not yet been adequately understood. In all these cases, it brings the domain of the private into the world of politics, migrations, and nation states. Last but not least, its story is set at the point at which European civilization plunged into the depths of darkness, from which it has, even in the most optimistic assessment, not yet recovered.