Refugees and citizens in East-Central Europe in the 20th century

Ágnes Kelemen at conference on anti-Jewish quotas

The Unlikely Refuge? team member Ágnes Katalin Kelemen participated at the Online Conference “Anti-Jewish Quotas in Central Europe” organized by the Nationalism Studies Program and Jewish Studies Program at Central European University (Budapest/Vienna) and the Tom Lantos Institute (Budapest) between 23-24 November 2020. She gave a presentation titled “Rebels against the numerus clausus: The emigration of Hungarian Jewish youth.”

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Full abstract by Ágnes Katalin Kelemen

Rebels against the numerus clausus: The emigration of Hungarian Jewish youth

This paper investigates the dynamics between academic antisemitism, Jewish social mobility and Jewish migration through the case study of the numerus clausus exiles as Hungarian Jewish students were called whose emigration was an unintended consequence of the numerus clausus law. Their emigration was unintended by the supporters of the Jewish quota and began as a spontaneous escape of Jewish youth, however, it became a consciously organized movement backed by the Jewish communities. It will be argued that the numerus clausus aimed to restrict Jewish upwards social mobility by restricting Jews’ education, hence the Jewish intelligentsia consciously supported Jewish youth – financially and morally – in studying abroad and education abroad functioned as a means of upwards social mobility for Jewish youth whose parents were not intellectuals and not particularly wealthy, while the children of the Jewish elite filled up the few places allowed for Jews in the age of the numerus clausus (1920-1945).

Based on extensive research on Hungarian Jewish students enrolled abroad and in Hungary in this period, their social background was compared. This paper will present this empirical study which falsifies contemporary assumptions that well-off Jewish families evaded the numerus clausus by emigration and shows that on the contrary, socially more privileged Jews filled up the few places Jews could in Hungarian universities, and the émigrés tended to belong to lower classes.  Yet, the emigration of over 5000 Jewish students could not counterbalance the disastrous impact of the numerus clausus on Jews’ chances for higher education, because even if counting the émigrés, less than half of Jewish secondary school graduates went to university.