The Dueling Jews of Budapest
It is an unfortunate fact that wherever Jews have lived in the world, they have had to deal with varying levels of anti-Semitism. Jewish history is filed with stories and examples of communities fighting against, succumbing to, or otherwise coping with the anti-Jewish attitudes and actions of their neighbors and governments. However, the Jews of Budapest had a particularly unique way of combatting anti-Semitism: dueling.
One of the most famous and dramatic duels took place between Dr. Gyula Rosenberg, a Jewish lawyer, and Count Istvan Batthyany in 1883. The epic saga has all of the elements of a good story: forbidden romance, boorish aristocracy, and (spoiler) a bloody end. It is also a good window into the complicated relationships between Jews and Hungarians and how dueling played into those relationships.
The story begins when Rosenberg and Ilona Schossberger, the daughter of a rich manufacturer, fell in love. Ilona came from a Jewish family; her grandfather, Simon Vilmos Schossberger, had been the president of the Israelite Congregation of Pest. Her father, however, had converted to Catholicism. Though her parents may eventually have been persuaded to allow the marriage, Ilona’s brother in law, a Transylvanian nobleman by the name of Baron Bornemisza, declared that he “would never have a Jew lawyer for a brother-in-law” (which the newspaper Paris Figaro daily commented was “singular disgust on the part of a man who had accepted as father-in-law a Jewish millionaire”). And so, with her parents rejecting the match, the couple eloped to Marienbad (in Bohemia, now in the Czech Republic and known as Mariánské Lázně) where they were married before a rabbi and two witnesses “according to the Jewish rite.” Upon their return, Ilona’s father essentially kidnapped her, taking her to Baden-Baden (Germany) where, because he did not recognize her marriage to Rosenberg, he engaged her to Count Istvan Batthyany, an impoverished Hungarian noble. Rosenberg discovered both Ilona’s location, as well as the fact that she had married another man, when he read the wedding announcement in the newspaper. When Rosenberg caught up with his bride, arguing that Ilona had only agreed to marry Batthyany because of extreme parental pressure, Batthyany flippantly responded “Fiddlesticks! Now she loves me.”
At this point, Rosenberg challenged Batthyany to a duel, which the latter ignored. Indeed, whether or not to respond to a challenge made by a Jewish person was a question for non-Jewish Hungarians. On the one hand, not to respond would mean a loss of honor. But to duel with a Jew would mean acknowledging that the Jewish person had the standing, and the right, to demand satisfaction. In fact, when the Hungarian nobility was later asked whether Batthyany could “with propriety” accept Rosenberg’s challenge: “it replied in the affirmative without hesitation. Dr. Rosenberg was a professional man and a Jew, but his respectability was beyond question.” In spite of Batthyany’s hesitations regarding Rosenberg’s “honorability,” Rosenberg persisted, and after Batthyany returned to Budapest he accepted Rosenberg’s challenge.
The duel took place on October 22, 1883. Rosenberg shot the count in the head, killing him instantly. Rosenberg was sentenced to 9 months in prison, which was commuted to 3 months by royal clemency. Meanwhile, Ilona’s father married her off to Baron Victor Offerman.
The story of Gyula Rosenberg and Istvan Batthyany is a dramatic illustration of the ways in which Jews sought to assert their rights and their honor. Though Rosenberg, as a Jew and as a member of the professional class could not hope to fight back against the injustice done to him by the Hungarian nobility, as a dueler he could attempt to remedy the wrong done to him. Although dueling had gone out of fashion in Western Europe by the end of the 19th century, and although Emperor Franz Josef forbade duels (except in serious cases), the practice was nonetheless prevalent throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire until World War I, and continued throughout the region until World War II. Dueling was a form of settling scores that was particularly popular among the nobility, and so young Jews especially felt that dueling was a way of demonstrating that they were equal to any upper-class Hungarian Christian. Lajos Szabolcsi, the editor in chief of the prominent Jewish newspaper Egyenloseg (Equality), overcame his initial reservations and became a particularly strong advocate of dueling to defend Jewish honor. In response to outbreaks of anti-Semitism in Hungarian universities in 1895 Szabolcsi wrote: “The epidemic of Jew-hatred has to be combated by duels. Today our Jewish youth will convince the Jew-haters of our right only with the sword.” One of the Szabolcsi’s stated goals for the paper was for it to be an instrument that would mold the Jews of Hungary into Hungarian patriots, and to help them achieve emancipation and equal rights. In his advocacy of dueling, Szabolcsi was promoting it as a tool that would help his Jewish readers achieve those goals.
Whether Szabolcsi was reflecting a trend or at the forefront of it, dueling quickly became very popular among the Jews of Budapest. Thirteen percent of those convicted of dueling in 1888 were Jewish; during the interwar period that percentage jumped to 50%. Pal Schlesinger, a part owner of a large Budapest grain firm and a committed Jew who would raise huge sums of money in 1899 for Jewish refugees fleeing persecution in Romania, fought more than 100 duels in the early 1890s; allegedly he was ready to challenge anyone who so much as looked at him the wrong way because he was a Jew. Jewish paramilitaries would challenge their anti-Semitic colleagues to duels after debates; the number of duels that took place between politicians in Hungary prompted Time magazine to write that “Hungarian politicians have worse tempers and more physical courage than any other politicians in Europe.” Dueling may have been responsible for the eventual emergence of one of America’s greatest entertainers; rumor has it that Harry Houdini’s father, Rabbi Mayer Sámuel Weisz, emigrated with his family from Budapest to the US after he killed a Hungarian prince in a duel and life in Hungary became unsafe for him and his family.
As late as 1927 Jewish and Christian students at the university were still dueling. That year, spurred by Prime Minister Istvan Bethlen’s plan to modify the Numerus Clausus Law, which had heretofore limited the number of Jewish students who were able to enroll at the university, Hungarian nationalist Christian students known as “race protectors” carried out attacks against Jewish students across the country. In response, Jewish students “took up the cry of ‘honor and revenge in duels;'” one newspaper reported in November, 1927 that at least 40 duels were scheduled that week alone between Jewish students and anti-Semites. The trend spread, and Jewish students in other Hungarian universities, particularly Debrecen, began challenging their Christian attackers to duels.
In addition to providing the Jews of Budapest with an outlet to simultaneously express their Jewish pride and Hungarian nationalism, the rise of the popularity of dueling had economic and social advantages for Budapest’s Jews. In order to be ready to challenge any opponent to a duel, Jewish students had to learn how to wield a sword. Consequently, dueling proved to have commercial advantages for other Jewish merchants, who took advantage of the trend by opening stores that sold dueling weapons (swords, daggers, pistols), or by establishing fencing clubs to serve the Jewish student population. Some Jews began to truly master the sport of fencing. In 1906 the Zionist leader Lajos Domeny founded the Jewish Fencing and Athletic Club (VAC) in Budapest. Many Jews received their fencing training there, and went on to compete in the Olympics and other international competitions. The Jewish fencer Jeno Fuchs won the gold medal in fencing during the 1908 London Olympics and the 1912 Stockholm Olympics. The great Zionist leader, Theodor Herzl, who was also from Budapest, was an avid fencer during his university years.
The historian Andrew Handler remarked that “to the Hungarian the love of sport is second only to the love of the nation…Traditionally, participation in sports was not only a respected and popular fulfillment of patriotic duty, it was also believed to be as fundamentally Christian as it was unmistakably Hungarian.” Through their participation in duels, and their achievement of excellence in sports such as fencing, Hungarian Jews were able to demand that the Hungarian Christian majority see them as worth of respect. The dueling Jews of Budapest were creating a new kind of “muscular Jew,” while forcing Hungarians to reenvision what it meant to be Hungarian.
by Rachel Druck
Rachel Druck is the editor of the Communities Database at Beit Hatfutsot—The Museum of the Jewish People. You can contact her at [email protected]
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