The “holy” sword of the Hungarian Jews
 The “holy” sword of the Hungarian Jews
An evidence for the long Jewish military history in Europe
While I was documenting Jewish military history in Europe and Hungary, I have come across a “lost” treasure that has not received a huge public attention yet. But what treasure is it? It is a 17th century cavalry sabre that almost certainly belonged to a Jew. And that has a huge impact on Jewish history, more concretely can rewrite parts of the Jewish military history in Europe.

This sabre can be found at the Hungarian Jewish Archives and Museum in Budapest and can tell a lot about the 15th and 17th century Jewish history in Europe/Hungary.
The sabre was examined by 19th century Rabbi Leopold Low who was a 48’er himself and supported the Hungarian Revolution. He claimed that it’s a proof that Hungarian Jews had the right to carry weapons and he was a true advocate of the Hungarian independence cause. The sabre was a holy relic to the Jewish population. Low and Jewish leaders urged the Jews of the historical Hungary to fight for the Hungarian independence against Austria and for the Jewish emancipation. While Low’s words are romantic exaggeration there were indeed at least two periods in the European Jewish history before the 19th century, when Jews were wearing swords. And both happened in Hungary.

Jews and their leader Jakab Mendel with Torah scrolls greeting the Hungarian king (on the left)

According to a medieval German knight’s report that can be found in the Scriptores Rerum Hungaric the Jews and their leader Jakab Mendel welcomed King Matthias of Hungary carrying a sword. Mendel’s son and 24 other Jewish horsemen were also wearing swords when they came to welcome the new Hungarian King in the mid-15th century. It’s also interesting to see Jews riding horses in this age.

Some Jewish scholars thought the above sword to be Mendel’s but historians and a testing in Switzerland suggest 17th century origin.
Parts of Psalm 113 in Hebrew can be identified on the sabre.
Theory one: Having shown this sword to various experts it most likely was a sword for display/decoration. This makes me think it was gifted to a prominent
Jew who rendered valuable service to a very high official or to a noble. The proud owner must have tried his gift as I discovered a few notches on the sabre’s blade. Most Hungarian rabbis dismiss the idea
that the sword could have belonged to a Protestant noble. Protestant nobles in Hungary preferred the use of Hungarian language and not Hebrew, and the 17th century saw a reduction in the formerly growing protestant communities as a result of Peter Pazmany’s counter reformation movement.
However, the story does not end here, the sabre in the Jewish museum might be an ornamental sword, but another sword with the same Hebrew script on it was found in Israel. The owner did not publish photographs of the sword but contacted Rabbi Tamas Raj for further information.
The great rabbi and historian checked the second sword and found the engraved scripts to be identical with the first. Unlike the first, this sword was battle ready. Its age was confirmed to be from the 17th century, just like the previous one. The owner claims this sabre belonged to a Hungarian Jewish 48’er. He inherited it from his Hungarian Jewish roots.
Theory two:
The battle-ready sabre could have belonged to a Jewish leader who led his fellow Jews to combat against the Austrian Christian forces that recaptured Buda (the former Hungarian
capital) from the Ottoman Turks in 1686. There are records describing Jews defending Buda alongside the Turks till the end.
The Ottomans were much more tolerant with the Jews than the 17th century Christians, and Jewish life was cherishing in Buda prior to the Christian forces’ arrival. 1 synagogue was Sephardic, 1 Ashkenazi, 1 Syriac.

It’s well known between Jewish historians that the Jews of Buda vehemently fought against the Austrians and caused them huge casualties. The sabre’s appearance is like Turkish/Iranian but also similar to Hungarian sabres. It’s possible it could have belonged to a Jewish defender of Buda.
Rabbi Samuel Kohn, 19th century scholar and historian writes that once a Jewish woman forced the Austrian troops to retreat by rushing to a cannon and firing it at point black range at the advancing Austrian soldiers.

Jewish military experience is no surprise. Later, in the Hungarian revolution of 1848 Rabbi Bela Bernstein mentions 1008 Jews who fought as officers/commanders. A paper from the American Jewish Archives suggest 50 000 Jews took part in the Hungarian Revolution, while Hungarian sources mention 20 000 and even 35 000 Jewish soldiers. The last two estimations came from Lajos Kossuth governor president of Hungary.
However, the number of Jewish officers could have been a lot higher. Many senior commanders preferred to choose non-Jewish officers and discrimination was still widely common in the 19th century of Europe.
One thing is sure: the Hungarian Jews have long military traditions and no coincidence they gave remarkable fighters to the modern Israel such as Dov Gruner and others. Our work is now to unveil and publish our heroes’ stories to keep Jewish heritage alive.

Peter Kovacs Rosenbluth
Next: Jews in the abolitionist movement


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