The roots of the Weisz family can be traced to Zala County in Western Hungary. Houdini’s father, Samuel Weisz, claimed that he was born in Nagykanizsa. At a date which is not known, he moved to Pest, where he married his second wife, Cecila Steiner, in 1863.
Let us pause to explain an important detail here. The city now known as Budapest did not exist before 1873. The geographic locations of Pest, Buda and Old-Buda were united in 1873 to form the metropolis known as Budapest. Therefore, while Houdini was indeed born in Budapest, it is not historically correct to refer to the city of Budapest in connection with his father’s early life.
The Rákos árok (today Csengery) Street is in the 7th district of Budapest. The 7th district itself was founded in 1873 when the area known as Terézváros, which was deemed too large, was divided into two parts. One part retained the name of Terézváros and was designated the 6th district. The other part became the 7th district. In 1882, the 7th district was named Elisabeth-town after Elizabeth (Sissy), the wife of Franz Joseph I, Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary.
The 7th district, where the Weisz family lived, was then and continues to be both the smallest and one of the most densely populated districts of Budapest. The population of the district was 44,000 in 1870 and had reached 150,000 by 1914. Since the beginning of the 19th century this district has been the center of the Orthodox Jewish community.
And now we present some old photographs of places in the 7th district that could have been a part of the everyday lives of the Weisz family and little Erik.
One of our personal favorites is the following photograph by early photographer György Klösz, showing Almássy Square. Csengery Street 1 is the corner house shown at the center of the photograph.
It would be easy to assume that this is the building where Erik Weisz was born in 1874. However, as our last post indicated, this building did not exist on Budapest city maps of 1874, nor on those of 1882!
By zooming on the photo you can read the name „Hruska János”. According to the Budapest city directory of 1894, Mr. Hruska had a grocery store at Csengery Street 1. We conclude therefore that this building was likely built sometime in the early 1890s.
Almássy Square itself, which Rákos árok (today Csengery) Street runs through, may have looked in this photograph very much the way it did in the mid-1870s. It is easy to imagine little Erik playing with his friends the same way that the children do in the Klösz photograph.
The following photograph shows one of the most important streets in the 7th district: Dohány Street. This photograph was taken sometime around 1870.
Dohány Street runs nearly the full length of the 7th district. The corner building on the center of the photograph is Dohány Street 9 (Síp Street 1). This building – due to its essential location – housed various department stores for decades. Today one of the largest bookshops in Budapest is located on this corner. If you look carefully at the photograph, you can see that wagons are still running on the left side of the road!
As we mentioned earlier, the 7th district was historically the center of Orthodox Jewish religious life. An iconic building of the Hungarian Jewish community, the Dohány Street Synagogue, can be found on Dohány Street. Also known as The Great Synagogue or Tabakgasse Synagogue, it is the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the largest in the world, with a capacity of 3,000 people. The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style, with the decoration based chiefly on Islamic models from North Africa and medieval Spain (the Alhambra). Ludwig Förster of Vienna was the architect. The consecration of the synagogue took place on 6 September 1859.
The synagogue symbolizes the Hungarian Jewish community and its religious life.
The last photograph in today’s post is a rarity. It shows István tér, which is Klauzál tér today.
Market on István Square, ca. 1891.
Fortepan / Budapest Főváros Levéltára. Record number: HU.BFL.XV.19.d.1.07.063
Please zoom in on the right side of the photograph where you will read the following sign:
„16 Frank Frigyes 16”
If you happened to read our previous post entitled „Who was Miksa Dick?” then you already know that Houdini’s „godfather”, Miksa Dick, the witness present at Erik Weisz’s circumcision – lived at this exact address: István Square 16.
We can be sure that the Weisz family frequently passed this square where weekend markets were held. One of Budapest’s biggest marketplaces can still be found here today!
Our next walk will lead you to the bigger neighborhood – the 6th district!