Political anti-semitism in Hungary


1. Anti-Semitism in Hungary in the ‘Golden Era’

While political and public discourse in the Reform Era was far from devoid of anti-Jewish arguments and pronouncements, anti-Semitism as an ideology in its modern organised form appeared in Hungary only in the second half of the 19th century. This phenomenon was not unique to Hungary, however.

At the time, anti-Semitic politicians, movements and publications sprang up across Europe and developed close co-operation. Speeches and tracts published by Győző Istóczy, a Member of Parliament from Rum, signalled the birth of organised anti-Semitism in Hungary. In 1883 Istóczy established the National Anti-Semitic Party, which in the next elections sent seventeen representatives to Parliament. However, the party failed to attract substantial political support and speeches by party members were often the subject of ridicule. Although the National Anti-Semitic Party soon split in two and disappeared from the political scene, the spirit of anti-Semitism had been released. At its core, the ideology maintained that immigrant Jews consciously undermined traditional Christian Hungary and, having occupied all key positions, worked for the destruction and ruin of Magyardom. The ideas of Istóczy and his followers fell on fertile ground among Christians opposing industrial development, losers of modernisation and those locked in existential rivalry with the Jews, as well as those who feared a new wave of migration by eastern Jews fleeing resurgent pogroms in Russia. (Pogroms in Russia did indeed generate a wave of migration, but the refugees in most cases simply passed through Hungary on their way to Western Europe and North America.)

 

2. Tiszaeszlár Blood Libel

This chain of events is best illustrated by the anti-Semitic riots occasioned by a murder trial in Tiszaeszlár.  In April 1882 a young Christian girl called Eszter Solymosi disappeared in the north-eastern village of Tiszaeszlár. Local authorities accused Orthodox Jews with having murdered the girl, claiming that Jewish religious rituals require the blood of Christian virgins. The show trial was based on testimony acquired through physical and psychological torture. A prominent member of the Istóczy Party, Géza Ónody, Member of Parliament and landowner in the region, played a major role in exacerbating the situation.


The charge of blood libel, that accompanied Jews in Europe and beyond throughout the centuries, managed to permanently divide the country’s population, inflamed anti-Semitic passions and drew international attention to Hungary. No amount of protestation (by exiled Lajos Kossuth, numerous German bishops and Pope Leo XIII) against the absurdity of blood libel coming from within and outside the country could sway anti-Semites in their conviction.


The court eventually acquitted the defendants, but only after the popular writer, politician and lawyer Károly Eötvös established the inadmissibility of testimony obtained under duress and destroyed the prosecution’s trumped-up charges one after the other. The government and the political elite led by Prime Minister Kálmán Tisza (1875–1890) reacted firmly against all anti-Semitic incitement occasioned by the case and stamped out riots.


3. Racial Hatred

Clearly, Istóczy’s party and the Tiszaeszlár blood libel did not create, only brought to the surface the spirit of anti-Semitic sentiments and thinking already current in Hungary, which even the closing of the ‘big trial’ and the dissolution of the National Anti-Semitic Party failed to push back into the bottle.  In the 1890s a so-called “neo-conservative” intellectual movement came to the fore attacking civil rights, and thus the foundations of economic and political liberalism. (It differed from ‘old conservatism’ which, instead of questioning the aims of democratic development and liberalisation, simply criticised the excessively ‘fast pace’.) Neo-conservative ideology was widely adopted by landed nobility (the ‘gentry’) that was either unable to join economic modernisation, often lost its ancient property and was gradually forced to make a living as civil servants or public officials. For their existential problems many among them blamed the liberal system and economically successful Jews. In the early nineteen hundreds, anti-Semitic dogma gained wide currency among the Hungarian political elite and state functionaries. In the early 1910s “modern” anti-Semitism based on racist ideology was born. Groups that later in 1919-1920 represented the main force behind waves of anti-Semitic campaigns during the counter-revolution, had gathered momentum in the closing years of World War I.

 

4. World War I

 

Joining the public mood, the majority of Jews welcomed the outbreak of World War I. During and following the war, anti-Semites never ceased to claim that Jews shirked from serving the homeland. They used statistical figures showing that Jewish losses were lower than their numerical proportion compared to the country’s total population. However, their accusation had nothing to do with Jewish lack of patriotic feelings; the fact was that the greatest losses were suffered by the agrarian population (that gave the majority of infantrymen most exposed to danger), a social strata where Jews had been traditionally highly underrepresented. Otherwise, Jewish soldiers fought the same battles and tried to survive the horrors of trench-warfare as did non-Jews. Along with the many Jewish dead, several thousand Jews received high military honours, which came as a real blessing at the time of Anti-Jewish Laws; those with medals for distinguished service were exempted from the effects of discriminative legislation.

 

Another charge levelled against the Jews involved the issue of war materials.

 

According to anti-Semitic claims, taking advantage of the war economy, Jewish businessmen delivered shoddy war materials and equipment (e.g., boots with paper-soles) to front-line soldiers, sending them to their deaths only to make a higher profit. Undoubtedly, the delivery of war materials was fraught with racketeering. However, its beneficiaries included Jews and non-Jews alike, and the phenomenon had little to do with religious affiliation or ‘racial identity’. It must also be noted that war contractors and the economy in general suffered from serious raw material shortages.

 

According to a third argument advanced by anti-Semites, Hungary’s World War I defeat was arranged by the Jews in advance; the heroic Hungarian army was ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jews. (Nazi propaganda in Germany used the same ‘stab-in-the-back’ theory.) Clearly, the defeat of the Axis powers had nothing to do with the alleged back-stabbing by German and Hungarian Jews, but rather was the result of the superior military might of Antante forces.


5. Communists and Jews

 

The war defeat and the independence struggle of ethnic minorities led to the implosion of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. In October 1918 a democratic revolution broke out and the republic was proclaimed. The new government was led by the head of the Függetlenségi Párt (Independence Party), Count Mihály Károlyi.  Károlyi and his party envisioned a modern democratic society, able to resolve the many pressing ethnic and social issues. As these ideas were highly popular among the Jewish urban middle-class and social-democratic intellectuals, Jews were heavily represented in the revolutionary vanguard. However, in the given historic context, the realisation of these noble ideas proved to be illusory. The historic experiment was looked at with suspicion by both the victorious Antante powers, as well as Károlyi’s opposition, both right and left. In addition, Rumanian and Czech troops invaded Hungarian territory. Leaders of the revolution were unable to unite the country in disarray and organise effective military resistance to stop the intruders. As control slipped from the hands of Károlyi, power was gradually taken over by the Social Democratic Party, which was closely tied to the Communist movement newly organised by prisoners of war returning from Russia. Once Károlyi, faced with the collapse of his policies, resigned, the social democrats and the Communists joined forces and seized power. The two parties merged and a Soviet-Communist (Bolshevik) state was proclaimed. While the Communists were also unable to bring relief to the country suffering from economic, social and military collapse, with a reorganised army they achieved some temporary military gains against the Czechoslovakian invaders. The Soviet Republic of Hungary exerted increasing pressure on society; its aggressive methods used in expropriating private property, reorganising public administration and cultural institutions gradually drained grass roots support, which was never substantial in the first place. Renewed Romanian attacks and the ensuing military debacle led, in the summer of 1919, to the resignation and hasty flight of the Communist government.

Many politicians of Jewish descent were members of the inner circle of the Communist leadership. Along with the top leader of the Soviet, foreign affairs commissar (minister) Béla Kun, some 60 percent of top and mid-level positions were filled by communists of Jewish origin. They included commissars Vilmos Böhm (social welfare, later defence), Jenő Landler (interior) György Lukács (public education) Jenő Hamburger (agriculture) Mátyás Rákosi (social production) and József Pogány (defence). Of the three top leaders of the ‘Red Terror’ two (Ottó Korvin and Tibor Szamuely) were Jewish.

 

Under the ideological spell of Communist internationalism, Jewish leaders of the Soviet Republic repudiated their Jewish ancestry; instead of religious-ethnic affinities, they claimed to be guided by class-consciousness. According to Communist dogma, they believed that under the new proletarian system their Jewish background would lose all significance. In fact, Communism gave them the opportunity to cast away their Jewish identity that, in their judgement, was fraught with the legacy of persecution. They considered adherents to the ‘ancien regime’ as their implacable enemies, including the aristocracy, landed nobility, as well as plutocrats, and members of the lower- and upper-middle classes. The latter category counted a significant number of Jews. The ‘Red Terror’ came down hard on Hungarian Jews and Gentiles alike. While the victims of revolutionary terror claimed lives from all segments of society including Jews, many Jews were imprisoned and expropriation of property ruined a number of Jewish businesses.

 

In vain did Jews refer to these events, in vain did some Jewish businessmen provide financial support to imperial and royal admiral Miklós Horthy, who organised his ‘white’ forces to counter the ‘Red Terror’, guilt for the evil consequences of the Communist dictatorship fell on the heads of Jews. Anti-Semitic passions ran rampant, many not only identified the Soviet Republic with the Jews, but the military defeat in World War I, as well as the subsequent unprecedentedly harsh peace terms.

 

6. Trianon

 

On June 4, 1920, at the Trianon Castle near Paris, the peace treaty concerning Hungary was signed. Hungary’s pre-war area of 282 thousand km2 (excepting Croatia) was cut to 93 thousand km2, its population of 18.2 million reduced to 7.9 million. New state borders dictated by the treaty divided ethnically homogeneous blocks and economically integrated regions, cutting off Hungary from major economic resources and its cultural centres. As a result, Hungary became the biggest loser of post-war settlements. Under terms of the Trianon Treaty, Jews living in Carpatho-Ruthenia, the Upper Province, Transylvania and the Southern Region became citizens of successor states in significant numbers, although the majority of them considered themselves Hungarians in language and cultural identity.

 

The treaty also separated from Hungary masses of mostly non-integrated Orthodox Jews living in Carpatho-Ruthenia and thereby, from a sociological point, left the Jewish community remaining in post-Trianon Hungary more homogeneous. Naturally, these peace terms were experienced by the entire country, including its Jewish citizens, as a national tragedy. However, many continued to charge that these onerous terms forced on the country by Antante powers were the result of Jewish machinations.

 

7. ‘Counterrevolution’ and the “Numerus Clausus”

 

The so-called ‘counterrevolution’ was ushered in by a wave of anti-Semitic campaigns. Following the fall of the Kun-regime, the ‘White Terror’ spreading across the land often turned into pogroms, and so-called officers’ commandos hunted specifically for Jews. These were military units closely allied to Horthy, committing reprisals against Communists and Jews, who more often than not were considered to be the same. Especially feared were troops led by Pál Prónay and Iván Héjjas. Paramilitary, extreme right and anti-Semitic organisations like the Alliance of Awakening Hungarians (Ébredő Magyarok Egyesülete) or the Hungarian National Defence League (Magyar Országos Véderő Egylet) gained considerable influence.

 

After some time Miklós Horthy, the head of the new government (the Regent of the Hungarian Kingdom after 1920) made attempts to end the violence disturbing public order, as well as Jew-baiting at universities and the looting of Jewish-owned businesses.

 

Act XXV passed in 1920 and called “Regulating Registration at the University of Liberal Arts and Technology, the Budapest University of Economics and the Academy of Law” served to assuage anti-Semitic agitation and widen the popular base of the new regime. In time, it became popularly known as “numerus clausus” (Latin for closed number’). The first anti-Jewish legislation in Europe following World War I, it limited the rate of admissions to institutions of higher learning of ‘members of ethnic groups and nationalities’ to their percentage of the total population, and made ‘loyalty to the nation’ a prerequisite for admission.

In the legal sense Jews were considered Hungarians of Jewish faith since 1867, thus in theory the Act did not affect them. However, the executive order attached to the Act redefined Jews as a nationality and, as a result, the number of Jews admitted to Hungarian universities was limited to six percent and determining ‘loyalty to the nation’ was left to university leaders, often under strong far-right pressure.

 

With this, at the expense of the Jews, the government intended to bring Christian professionals streaming into the country from lost territories of Greater Hungary into position and, at the same time, to demonstrate its own anti-Semitism. Despite the fact that many universities were ruled by Jew-bating far-right student organisations and their teacher leaders, the number of Jewish students did not fall below eight percent.

 

While international Jewish organisations attacked the Act by pointing to minority–protection rights stipulated in the peace treaty, leaders of Hungarian Jewish organisations rejected any help as outside interference, claiming that no rights may be derived from the unjust Trianon Treaty. Still, international objections did bring some results: during the consolidation under the Bethlen government, the Act was amended in 1928 by lifting the section stipulating admission by nationality. However, the criteria of “national loyalty and moral rectitude” was left in place; the implementation of the original spirit of the law, i.e. the partial banishment of Jews from Hungarian universities, was never in danger. After a temporary increase, in 1936-1937 the number of Jewish university students fell to an all-time low.

 

The significance of the “numerus clausus” lay in the fact that it was the first legislation to violate the basic principles of hard-won civil rights. With this, the Act had prepared the intellectual and political groundwork for the increasingly brutal disfranchisement measures of the following decades.

 

8. The 1920s and early 1930s

 

In the 1920s Hungary recovered from the shock of defeat and the consequences of the Trianon Treaty. During the government led by István Bethlen, the right-conservative Horthy system made an attempt to break out of its economic and political isolation. As part of the Bethlen consolidation, the counterrevolutionary state tried to normalise relationships with integrated, assimilated Jewry. However, led by the Regent himself, the political elite continued to look at the majority of orthodox Jews (especially the poorest and most religious Jews living in eastern Hungary) with aversion. At the same time, political circles maintained remarkably good relations with leading business interests who, for the most part, were urban, of Jewish background or converted Jews. Indeed, close friendship were not uncommon. Some form of the system of mutual interests first established in the Monarchy was rebuilt. The political leadership was in great need of Jewish capital, business know-how and international connections offered by prominent families (i.e., Weiss, Chorin, Kornfeld, Hatvany-Deutsch, Fellner, Goldberger, etc.), without whom the country’s economic revival would not have been possible. In 1928, improving conditions eventually led to the amendment of the “Numerus Clausus” Act. Despite the compromise between aristocratic circles and the Jewish business elite, part of the news media and public discourse were often defined by explicitly anti-Semitic overtones. Right-wing opposition attacked the Bethlen government’s policy precisely for its compromise, and considered assimilated Jews as posing the biggest threat to the interests of the Gentile middle class.

 

These voices became louder following the crash of 1929. The economic collapse ended Bethlen’s consolidation, and the far right with its old racist ideology and national-socialist movements gained renewed strength. Lasting until the mid-thirties, domestic political life was reshaped by a generation change. During this process, aristocrats socialised in the Age of Monarchy were gradually forced from power positions to the sideline, to be replaced by gentry and lower-middle class politicians attuned to far-right anti-Semitic ideology spreading throughout Europe at the time. In 1932 one of their most prominent representatives, Gyula Gömbös was appointed as Prime Minister. To everyone’s surprise, Gömbös, a virulent anti-Semite in the nineteen-twenties and founder of a racist party, made an announcement at the start of his term: he had changed his mind about the Jewish question; he did not want to undermine the stability of his government by upsetting the compromise established by his predecessor. And indeed, during his tenure no Anti-Jewish Laws were passed, and the economic and professional interests of Jews were left intact. However, he did not prevent the civil service, the legislature and the general staff from being infiltrated by anti-Semites of the ‘new generation’. This became crucial in the second half of the decade, when Hungary increasingly drifted in the direction of the radical right.

 

9. Racial Suprematists and National-Socialists

 

Racist anti-Semitic ideology was born in the 19th century Europe. It was based on the idea that, instead of forming one race, mankind consisted of racially separate groups of people. Races are not equal: there are creative, superior and uncreative and downright destructive races. The notion that Jewry constitutes a separate race whose aim and existential purpose is the destruction of the Hungarian nation has been formulated as early as the turn of the century. In the early twenties, racist theories had appeared in institutional form in the Hungarian House of Parliament. In 1924 Gyula Gömbös and his partners (e.g., Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky and Tibor Eckhardt) founded the Hungarian National Independence Party, popularly known as the Race Protectionist (Fajvédő) Party. While the party vanished from the political arena, its racist ideology survived in public discourse and the printed media. These ideas were spread the most effectively by István Milotay in far-right publications such as the Új Nemzedék (New Generation), Magyarság (The Hungarian Nation) and Új Magyarság (The New Hungarian Nation). Public opinion was greatly influenced by such highly educated and widely respected professionals as the statistician Alajos Kovács, the economist Mátyás Matolcsy and the biologist Lajos Méhely. Deprivation brought on by the economic crisis and injustices resulting from the neo-feudal social order established in Horthy’s Hungary made a large part of the population receptive to racist and far-right ideology. Presenting the Jews as the main source of all afflictions, the ideology offered easy explanations for real problems that were primarily social in nature.

The tenets of national-socialist propaganda gaining ground in Germany and leading to Hitler’s rise to power and ideas from Fascist Italy under Mussolini had their effects in Hungary as well. In the early thirties a number of newly established far-right parties appealed to the agrarian population, the workers and the lower middle class left in an increasingly untenable situation by the economic meltdown. When the dust settled after constant power struggles, shifting alliances and regroupings, Ferenc Szálasi’s ‘Hungarist’, Arrow Cross (Nyilaskeresztes) party was the one left standing.

 

10. The First Anti-Jewish Law

 

Following Gyula Gömbös’ death in October 1936, Kálmán Darányi took over as the head of the new government. Pulling the strings in the background, Bethlen appointed the unremarkable Darányi as Prime Minister to avert the onslaught of the far right. However, Darányi proved to be a disappointment: after some initial attempts (e.g., dissolution of the Szálasi party and the imprisonment of the Arrow Cross strongman), influenced by German advances, the Prime Minister drifted to the right as well. In his March 1938 speech delivered in Győr, Darányi announced that Hungary would embark on a large-scale rearmament program and would “solve the Jewish question”. It soon came to light that the government and the far right had a plan to resolve the issue by a “changing of the guard” (i.e., legislation forcing Jews to relinquish economic and social positions, and replacing them with Gentiles). More moderate members of the government believed that by taking the initiative from the far right and diluting the “changing of the guard” program, they would “take the wind from the sails of the far right”.

 

Act XV of 1938 was entitled “Creating more effective guarantees for social and economic equality”, but it became known as the first Anti-Jewish Law. Enacted on May 29, 1938, it set a ceiling on the number of Jews in intellectual free-lance professions at twenty percent. The execution of the law was to be supervised by professional bodies set up on the model of the bar and medical associations. The law also limited the number of Jewish employees to twenty percent at commercial, financial and industrial enterprises employing over ten professionals. A five-year grace period was given for execution of the law.

 

Decorated World War I veterans and Jews with distinction for services in the counterrevolution, war widows and their children, those converted before August 1919 and their children, provided they did not return to the Jewish faith, were exempted from provisions of the law. Whereas the law defined Jews primarily on religious grounds, it considered Christians converted after August 1, 1919 as Jews. Thereby the seeds of racial definition had already been planted by the first Anti-Jewish Law.

The law was a clear violation of the democratic principle of equality before the law. Realising the danger, fifty-nine Hungarian Gentile intellectuals protested in writing, among them such distinguished persons as Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály, Zsigmond Móricz, Lajos Zilahy and István Csók. Their voice went unheeded and their action had no effect.

 

11. The Second Anti-Jewish Law

 

Soon after the passage of the first law it became evident that attempts “to take the wind from the sail of the far right” failed. At that time the government was already led by Béla Imrédy, known as an excellent business professional and a politician favouring pro-British policies opposing German aspirations. He was given the same task as Darányi: to stop the country’s slide to the right and reduce the rapid expansion of German influence. His was an all but impossible task when Hungary was beholden to Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy for having fulfilled everyone’s revisionist dreams by redressing the injustices of the Trianon Treaty.

 

In late September 1938, leaders of Great Britain, France, Italy and Germany convened in Munich in an attempt to find a peaceful settlement to Hitler’s territorial claims against Czechoslovakia. The conference ended with Germany winning its case: Sudetenland lost after the World War I was ceded to Germany. The treaty also stated that Poland’s and Hungary‘s claims against Czechoslovakia must be addressed as well. As France and Great Britain showed no further interest in the matter, the settlement of disputed issues were left to Germany and Italy. Pursuant to the so called First Vienna Award, Hungary reacquired from Czechoslovakia part of the Upper Province ceded under the Trianon Treaty, some 11 927 km² with a population of over one million, among them some seventy thousand Jews. The country (Jews included) broke out in celebration; Horthy rode into the city of Komárom on a white horse and support for the Nazi cause was bolstered among parts of the political elite and the military.

 

Imrédy’s slide to the right was just as inevitable as that of Darányi. The Imrédy government promptly submitted a second bill to Parliament, more radical than the first Anti-Jewish Law. In a twist of fate, Imrédy was forced to resign in early 1939 after his political foes presented evidence that one of the Prime Minister’s ancestors was a Jew. As a result, the second Anti-Jewish Law was passed by Parliament under the tenure of Pál Teleki, Imrédy’s successor as the head of government. Even before the enactment of the new law, the Horthy’s regime fulfilled yet another revisionist aspiration. With Hitler’s tacit agreement, in March 1939 Hungary reoccupied from Czechoslovakia, collapsing under the onslaught of German military might, Carpatho-Ruthenia, which did not have a Hungarian majority population (an area of 12 thousand km², a population of some 700 thousand, including around 80 thousand Jews).

 

Act IV of 1939 on “the limitation of Jewish expansion in public and economic spheres” (the second Anti-Jewish Law) was proclaimed on May 5 of the same year. The legal definition of what constitutes a Jew was based primarily on racial arguments, although, having no other criteria to work with, it did so using religious concepts. Anyone belonging to the Israelite faith, or with at least one parent or two grandparents belonging to the Israelite faith at the time of the enactment of the law, was defined as a Jew. In theory at least, the law did not affect Jewish families that converted three generations earlier (very few such families existed, of course), and it did not extend to groups identified by highly complicated definitions, including other converts and/or descendants of mixed marriages. Therefore, the racial definition was not full-proof, but in their justification of the law legislators left little doubt they saw Jewry as forming a single, indivisible racial entity.

 

The law placed extreme restrictions on Jewish economic activities as well. It limited the number of Jews to six percent in the professions, banned them from public and legal administration and secondary-school teaching positions. The law further restricted the number of Jews that could be employed in certain enterprises, many Jewish business licenses were revoked and Jews’ right to purchase agricultural property was strictly limited.

 

The first two Anti-Jewish Laws caused considerable hardship to the Jewish population, particularly to members of the lower- and the upper-middle classes. Nation-wide, over 90 thousand people lost their jobs and, counting family members, the living conditions of approximately 220 thousand persons declined significantly. However, none of the laws were fully executed. The “secondary market” flourished, illegal enterprises and the institution of the ‘Strohmann’ was developed, so many who lost their jobs were more of less able to maintain their living standards. (The ‘Strohmann’ strawman’ or ‘Aladár’ were either Gentile family members, friends or acquaintances who formally took over the family business or enterprise, so the company survived unaffected by anti-Jewish legislation. The strawman was handsomely compensated, while the Jewish owner continued to manage the business and support his family.) Often, this went on with the tacit agreement of the authorities; in the booming war economy the state became the primary customer and, as such, it could not afford to do without Jewish corporations and know-how in manufacturing and commerce.

 

12. The Third Anti-Jewish Law

 

The overall tenor of Hungarian political life did not change after the passage of the second Anti-Jewish Law. The time was characterised by an inexorable drift to the right, the Arrow Cross Party’s stunning results in the 1939 elections, and radical demands for solving the ‘Jewish question’. World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, when Hitler attacked Poland. In a few weeks, Hitler’s army destroyed Polish forces. Belief in the invincibility of the German military was shared and widely disseminated by many. As a result of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s policies, under the ‘Second Vienna Award’ additional lost territories were returned to Hungary. Northern Transylvania and the Székely lands, covering an area over 43 thousand km2, had an estimated population of two and a half million, including 165 thousand Jews. Budapest became fully indebted to Germany; and her economic, political and military influence in Hungary grew at a steady rate. Still, the Horthy regime simultaneously tried to appease its German ally and stay clear of the war, an obviously untenable position. Prime Minister Pál Teleki made attempts to steer the country out of the impasse. However, when he realised that the majority of his government, fearing imminent German occupation in April 1941, favoured military involvement in the planned dismemberment of Yugoslavia, he committed suicide. He was followed by László Bárdossy and Hungary was let to swallow its fourth revisionist reward: in April 1941 it annexed the Southern Region, an area of 11.5 thousand km2, with a population of over 1 million, including more than 14 thousand Jews.

 

Act XV of 1941 (the third Anti-Jewish Law) on “The amendment and modification of marriage law XXXI of 1894, and the related necessary racial provisions” went into effect on August 8, 1941. Using Nazi terminology in its preamble, the law applied Germany’s Nuremberg laws: everyone with at least two grandparents born into the Israelite faith was defined as a Jew. The law also forbade marriage, and legally sanctioned extramarital sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews, provided the male was defined a Jew and the female was not. While the first two anti-Jewish pieces of legislation were accepted by Upper Chamber members representing Christian churches (Jusztinián Serédi, Catholic cardinal-primate, Sándor Raffay, Lutheran and László Ravasz Protestant bishops, as well as other church dignitaries), they strongly opposed the third law, as it drastically interfered with the marital status of converted Jews, thereby violating ecclesiastic jurisdiction.

 

13. The Bárdossy Era

 

During the tenure of László Bárdossy as Prime Minister of Hungary between April 1941 and March 1942, the country entered World War II. In April 1941 Hungarian armies invaded the remnants of Yugoslavia and, following an incident that has not been fully explained to this day, in late June 1941 Hungary found itself at war with the Soviet Union, invaded a few days earlier by Nazi Germany. (On June 26, 1941, unmarked aircraft bombed the city of Kassa. The Hungarian government considered the incident as a Soviet provocation and declared Hungary to be in a state of war with the Soviet Union. The Soviets had nothing to benefit from the incident, while the Germans and the Hungarian government looking to justify the imminent invasion of the Soviet Union clearly did. The exact circumstances are not fully known: some believe the bombing was carried out by Slovak or Rumanian aircraft to make sure that Hungary would be drawn into the war against the Soviets, others suspect the Germans, while yet others surmise the attack was launched by the Soviets by mistake). Bárdossy’s government submitted and enacted the third Anti-Jewish Law. Under his tenure the Holocaust in Hungary opened with two mass murders and the destruction of thousands of labour servicemen.

 

14. Deportation to Kamenets-Podolsk

 

Between 1939 and 1941 many Jews fled to Hungary from the Czech Republic, Poland, Austria, Germany and Slovakia, i.e., from neighbouring territories occupied by Nazi Germany. The number of refugees varied between 10 and 20 thousand. Some were in hiding using false papers, others were registered by the National Central Alien Control Office (KEOKH) under the supervision of the Ministry of Interior and were held in internment camps or arranged accommodations on their own. In the spring of 1941 large masses of the Serb population, considered to be hostile, were expelled from their homeland in the newly annexed Southern Province. Following the Soviet invasion, it was possibly this operation that planted the idea in the minds of some members of the military, public administrators in Carpatho-Ruthenia and KEOKH staff to relocate ‘stateless’ Jews and those with ‘unconfirmed nationality’ to Hungarian-occupied Ukranian territories. The plan received the support of Miklós Kozma, the appointed commissioner of Carpatho-Ruthenia, and he secured the approval of Regent Horthy and Prime Minister Bárdossy. In July, the round-up of ‘stateless’ Jews (i.e., foreign nationals) got under way. The authorities carried out raids primarily in Budapest and Carpatho-Ruthenia. On many occasions Hungarian Jews with valid documents were also swept up in these operations. In a preview of what was to come in 1944, these Jews were crammed into cattle cars and shipped to Kőrösmező under appalling conditions. From there, they were moved in several transports to the Ukraine, to an area under Hungarian and later German control. In all, some 18 thousand people shared that fate.

 

In the second part of August, the deportees were transported to Kamenets-Podolsk. Here, together with the local Jewish population, the majority were machine-gunned on August 27-28 by troops under the command of SS general Fridrich Jeckeln. In the history of the Holocaust, this was the first mass murder where the number of victims reached a five-digit figure. The government learned of the massacre and a number of public figures protested (e.g., Károly Rassay, Margit Slachta, etc.). The operation was halted when the German army taking over control of the area refused to accept more transports. Of the deportees, some 2 to 3 thousand managed to find their way back to Hungary, while 15-16 thousand were buried in mass graves.

 

15. Massacres in the Southern Region

 

In early 1942, Yugoslav partisan activity flared up in the Southern Region seized by Hungary the year before. In the so-called Sajkásvidék, joint Hungarian gendarmerie and army corps liquidated a partisan unit. In retribution for its own limited losses, the Hungarians extended their campaign to the civilian population in several villages in the area and, in the second half of January, to the city ofÚjvidék as well. Between January 20 and 23, under the command of lieutenant-general Ferenc Feketehalmy-Czeydner, staff-colonel József Grassy, colonel László Deák and gendarmerie captain Márton Zöldy, units killed and shot several hundred innocent civilians (including women, children and elderly people). The ‘clean-up operation’ carried out by the Hungarian army and gendarmerie claimed the lives of over 3300 people, 700 local Jews among them.

 

The events at Újvidék provoked strong reaction in Hungarian political circles. Among others, the former racist Smallholders Party politician Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky demanded the punishment of those responsible for the atrocities. Under pressure, the government launched an investigation that established the culpability of Grassay and his partners, but Regent Horthy ordered the case closed. In October 1943, when Horthy and his advisors tried to gain the sympathy of the Allies, the case, incidentally kept alive by Bajcsy-Zsilinszky’s constant agitation, was reopened. The perpetrators were returned to court, but the four key defendants (Feketehalmy-Czeydner, Deák, Grassay and Zöldy) escaped punishment by fleeing to Germany in early 1944. Other defendants received harsh sentences of 10 to 15 years. Following the German occupation, the four escapees returned to Hungary. As the highest-ranking foreigner serving in the SS, Feketehalmy-Czeydner became an SS general, Grassy received the rank of SS lieutenant-general and served in the Hunyadi SS-division as a top commander, while Zöldy joined the Gestapo. Under German occupation the case was reopened and the court dropped all charges. After the end of the war, the perpetrators were tried again, sentenced and extradited to Yugoslavia where, following judicial proceedings, they were executed.

 

It has to be noted that not only the killing of innocent civilians was a novelty in Hungary and in the Hungarian army: it was unprecedented in Europe during the war that their own state brought charges against high-ranking military officers for mass-murder.  

 

 

16. The Kállay Era and the Fourth Ant-Jewish Law

 

As the German embrace became increasingly burdensome for the Horthy regime, the position of Prime Minister Bárdossy, leading proponent of Nazi orientation, became more and more untenable. In addition to his handling of the Újvidék massacre, domestically his position was also undermined by his decision at the end of 1941 to lead the country into war against the Allied Forces without hesitation. His fall was sealed when he failed to support the election of Horthy’s son, István Horthy as vice-Regent, and attempted to limit the Regent’s authority by sidelining his close advisors. In March 1942 he was replaced as Prime Minister by the moderate Miklós Kállay.

Kállay found himself in an extremely difficult position. He was expected to extricate the country from a war, the final outcome of which gradually became clear and establish contact with the declared enemy, the Western allies. A rejection of the Nazi’s Jewish policy was a cornerstone of Kállay’s attempted break with Germany. Fully supported by Horthy, Kállay consistently resisted German demands for the surrender and deportation of Hungary’s Jewish population. As a result, the Jews of Hungary found themselves in a unique position: while throughout occupied Europe hundreds of thousand, later millions of Jews were killed by firing squads and the gas chambers of extermination camps, Hungarian Jews lived in relative security, albeit under increasingly dire circumstances. (With the obvious exception of some units of labour servicemen.) Horthy and Kállay were encouraged by the facts that Mussolini refused to allow the deportation of Jews from Italy and the territories occupied by Italian forces, and that in the fall of 1942 Rumanian strongman Antonescu stopped preparation for the deportation of Rumanian Jews. Even the French government under Marshal Pétain refused to hand over its Jewish citizens (instead, they deported primarily alien Jewish refugees). The policy came with a price, however: for the benefit of Germany and her Hungarian allies, Kállay had to maintain the appearance that the government’s and the country’s anti-Semitic fervour had not diminished in the least. Consequently, Kállay’s official propaganda was loud with anti-Semitic overtones and Parliament passed additional anti-Jewish legislation.

 

Act VII of 1942 on “the legal status of the Israelite faith” annulled the legal status of the Jewish denomination enacted in 1895 by redefining it as a ‘recognised’, instead of previous ‘established’ religion.

 

Act XV of 1942 on “Jewish ownership of land and forestry property” forbade Jews to purchase farm property and ordered them to relinquish any such holdings against state-financed compensation. (This piece of legislation was enforced with the same inconsistency as the first and second Anti-Jewish Laws.) All directives hitherto issued to regulate labour-service duty were codified by law as well.

 

Following German military defeat at Stalingrad, Horthy’s and Kállay’s feelers for a separate peace gained more urgency. During 1943, unofficial negotiations held in neutral Switzerland, Sweden and Turkey between Hungary and the Allied powers became frequent and the chances of an agreement looked increasingly promising. However, the Kállay government could not brook the idea of making contact with the “eternal enemy”, the Soviet Union. In their estimation, a separate peace signed with the Western powers would have spared the country from both German and Soviet occupation. As the advance of allied forces bogged down in Italy, the Hungarian strategy had little basis in reality, however. While in October 1943 Horthy secretly accepted allied terms for a cease-fire, this only carried theoretical significance: developments of the subsequent months prevented the execution of any of the terms of the agreement.

 

Through his intelligence services Hitler was familiar with almost the full details of Hungary’s poorly concealed attempts at negotiations. He decided to make a pre-emptive strike.

 

17. March 19, 1944

 

1943 represents a turning point in the course of World War II. Following military defeat at Stalingrad and the Kursk region and the debacle in North Africa, Germany’s allies realised that the odds of winning the war on Hitler’s side had all but evaporated. After the Western Allies landed on the beaches of Sicily in the summer of 1943, Italy was the first to jump ship.

 

Mussolini was deposed and, after some hesitation, the new government turned against the Germans. Hitler took advantage of this gap in resolve and quickly occupied the country. An SS unit managed to free Mussolini and Hitler appointed him head of the Fascist puppet-state based in Salo; the Wehrmacht shored up its defensive lines in Southern Italy with wide-ranging consequences across the continent.

 

Once Hitler learned of the Kállay government’s attempts at suing for a separate peace, he ordered the German high command to develop plans for the occupation of Hungary. The first version of the Margarethe-plan was submitted in September 1943, envisioning a joint campaign with Rumania and Slovakia, eager to settle their territorial dispute with Hungary. That autumn the Red Army continued to push westward and started to threaten the Hungarian border along the Carpathian Mountains. Under pressure, the Germans made several modifications in the Margarethe-plan and eventually decided to act on their own. At the end of February, occupation forces started to amass around Vienna.

 

The Hungarian government was aware of the troop concentration along its borders, but at each query the German embassy explained events as simple training exercises. On March 15, 1944, Horthy received Hitler’s invitation to a conference in Klessheim Castle for March 18.

 

While Horthy and his government were well aware of the danger of occupation, the invitation was accepted. Home-based divisions were deployed primarily along the eastern and the northern borders. Horthy and his circle did not want to provoke the Germans by concentrating troops in a defensive position around the capital. They were confident that Horthy’s concessions to Hitler at the talks would avert the crisis. Arriving in Klessheim, Hitler declared that Germany interpreted Prime Minister Kállay’s negotiations with the Western Allies as treason, and therefore he was forced to issue orders for the occupation of Hungary. This was followed by heated discussions; Horthy balked at signing a joint communiqué legitimising the action, while Hitler refused to call back his troops. Eventually, a verbal compromise was reached: Horthy would not give orders to resist (something the Regent isolated in German custody could hardly have done anyway), he would dismiss Kállay, and he would stay on and appoint a new government to suit German demands. In return, Hitler offered to shelve plans for Rumanian and Slovak involvement (a draft plan abandoned by the Germans long before) and promised that the occupation would be only temporary.

 

In the early hours of March 19, 1944, German troops crossed the Hungarian border at several border crossings. At the orders of the chief of staff, Hungarian troops, superior in numbers but scattered across the country and poorly equipped, offered no resistance. In a few hours, the Germans took control of strategically important towns, airfields and bridges, and surrounded army barracks. On Sunday morning, the residents of Budapest woke to the noise of rumbling engines of German armoured carriers.

 

18. Consequences of the Occupation

 

A special unit (Einsatzgruppe), made up of 5-600 members of various German police organisations, arrived in Budapest with the occupying forces. Besides men of the Secret State Police (Gestapo), its ranks included experts of the security service (SD - Sicherheitsdienst). The unit was under the command of SS-colonel Hans Geschke, who divided his forces into eight squads. With his force of 32 men, the commander of the Budapest Gestapo unit, Alfred Trenker immediately arrested persons thought to pose a political threat. Through its well-organised network of agents, the Gestapo worked with precise lists of names and home addresses. Along with the Minister of Interior, Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, scores of social-democratic MPs, journalists, Jewish industrialists, police and army officers, aristocrats and others were rounded up. Within a few days hundreds of leftist, loyalist or simply anti-German, anti-Nazi politicians and public figures, as well as many Jews were thrown into jails. Former Prime Minister István Bethlen was forced into hiding, and Kállay and his entire government resigned. The Prime Minister found refuge at the Turkish Embassy. Those most active in undermining German influence and potential leaders of organised resistance were locked up in Hotel Astoria and a network of Gestapo detention centres set up in the hills of Buda. Following a few days of interrogations accompanied by beatings and torture, the detainees were taken to German prisons and concentration camps (primarily to Dachau and Mauthausen).

 

In contrast to other occupied countries, German rule in Hungary was characterised by a wide autonomy granted to the Sztójay government. Thanks to sweeping personal changes in public administration, the government and the armed forces, the Germans found themselves in a comfortable position: manipulating groups loyal to them but fighting each other for power, the Germans controlled the Hungarian state apparatus to serve their purposes and, with a token military presence, managed to hold sway over the country without much difficulty.

 

In most cases, the Germans had little more to do than issue a wish-list, which was eagerly implemented by Hungarian collaborators. The Sztójay government stood in the service of the Third Reich. The government promptly eliminated still existing political opposition and its press organs. Parties opposing German policies (Social Democrats, Smallholders and Liberals) were banned, scores of moderate newspapers and periodicals (e.g., Népszava and Magyar Nemzet, among others) were closed down, and hundreds of civic organisations were dissolved. A comprehensive ‘clean-up’ of the state administration and public life got under way: two thirds of city mayors, including the mayor of Budapest, were forced to resign. By early May, 29 of 41 prefects were replaced by loyal public officials representing the radical right. Members of the general staff, many generals and police commanders, directors of theatres, the National Bank of Hungary, the State Opera and Hungarian Radio were relieved of their duties. These positions were filled with advocates of far right ideology. Plans to withdraw Hungarian troops from occupied foreign lands were shelved, and soon additional hundreds of thousands were ordered to the eastern front to face the relentlessly advancing Red Army. The German minority living in Hungary was delivered into the hands of Nazi Volksbund leaders, who pressed men between 18 and 65 into military service in the Waffen SS (armed SS fighting units).

 

Following the occupation, the systematic plundering of the country got under way. Shipments to Germany of oil, coal, wheat, raw materials and foodstuff jumped dramatically which, of course, were never paid for. Compared to January 1944, by October of the same year, German debt to Hungary tripled and reached into the billions. At the same time, inflation skyrocketed and supplies available for the general population shrank. Under terms of an economic treaty signed in June, Hungary agreed to order its military industry to serve Germany’ war efforts. The Sztójay government also agreed that Hungary would bear the costs of the occupation and the supply of German troops stationed in the country to the tune of 200 million pengő per month.

 

19. Hungarian Collaboration

 

The conclusive “resolution of the Jewish question” required the co-operation of Hungarian central state administration, members of local administrative apparatuses and law enforcement bodies (the gendarmerie in the countryside and the police in cities). As the latter three organisations were supervised by the Ministry of Interior, administrative appointments following the occupation were of crucial importance. Following consultations over the formation of a new government between German plenipotentiary Veesenmayer and Horthy, Andor Jaross, deputy party leader of former Prime Minister Imrédy (1938–1939), a most willing servant of German policies, was appointed Minister of Interior. Prior to the 1938 First Vienna Award, for years Jaross led a party representing Hungarian interests in the Upper Province under difficult circumstances. Following the return of Slovak territories, he acted as minister responsible for Upper Province affairs and in 1940 left the governing coalition with Imrédy to form the far-right Hungarian Renewal Party.

 

On the side of Jaross, with the reputation of a good orator and career opportunist, László Baky joined the government as political state-secretary. In 1919-1920, Baky was active during the White Terror. In 1938 he retired from the gendarmerie and entered politics. Next year, with the support of the Arrow Cross Party, he became a Member of Parliament. Later he broke with Szálasi and with some of his friends established the Hungarian National-Socialist Party, a party that became the chief advocate of German interests, demanding increased support for German military objectives and a radical resolution of the Jewish question. Since Baky and his associates worked as informants for the German secret service, not surprisingly the SD lobbied hard for including his party in the new government and his appointment in the Ministry of Interior. As political state-secretary, he exercised the ministry’s administrative control over the police and the gendarmerie.

 

While Baky entered the government under German pressure, Jaross had the opportunity to appoint his own administrative state-secretary. He invited Dr. László Endre for the position, known for his anti-Semitism across the country. Endre, a lawyer by training, fought in World War I and, in 1919, at the age of 24, was elected constable and later chief constable of Gödöllő. He kept his position until 1937 and became known for his discriminatory policies aimed primarily against the Jewish population, the organisation of the paramilitary Levente youth organisation and the establishment of model health services in Gödöllő County.

 

He gained additional leverage by virtue of his personal acquaintance with the Regent. Horthy used Gödöllő Castle as his summer residence, providing Endre the opportunity of frequent contact. He filled top positions in a number of racist organisations (the Society of Awakening Hungarians among them). An avid reader of international anti-Semitic literature and writer of numerous anti-Semitic tracks, he soon became a respected national authority on the subject. In 1937 he retired and established a racist party that shortly afterward merged with Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party. In January 1938, as an independent running against the government-supported candidate, he was elected sub-prefect of Pest–Pilis–Solt–Kiskun County. He filled this position until the German occupation. As sub-prefect, he was the first in the entire country to ban Jewish merchants from daily- and weekly-markets, bathhouses and swimming pools, and also denied them cooking-lard coupons. Many towns and counties followed his example and introduced anti-Jewish measures initiated by Endre, despite the fact that the Ministry of Interior launched investigations and condemned them as illegal. Already in 1942, Endre demanded that Jews be required to travel in segregated train compartments and, claiming aerial defence concerns, planned the prohibition of lighting candles in Jewish cemeteries. In 1943, he demanded the total segregation and resettlement of Jews. None of these measures were introduced during the term of the moderate Kállay government, but these plans re-emerged from Endre’s filing cabinet in 1944 and soon became government policy. In March 1944 Endre accepted Jaross’ offer and started to work out the details of anti-Jewish decrees weeks before his official appointment as state-secretary in April. Eichmann and Endre soon developed a friendly relationship and the state-secretary responsible for Jewish affairs became a dominant figure at the Ministry of Interior.

Beside the two state-secretaries, gendarmerie lieutenant-colonel László Ferenczy received an important role as well. He was appointed by Baky as liaison officer to Eichmann’s Special Commando. At the orders of Baky, as the commander of the national gendarmerie force, Ferenczy implemented a program of ghettoisation and deportation developed jointly by Eichmann and Endre at their regular meetings. In short, Eichmann’s plans were carried out along the Endre–Baky–Ferenczy line known as the Interior Ministry’s ‘deportation trio’ or the ‘three Lászlós’ (‘Lacis’). For the most part, the Minister of Interior gave free rein to these three to “solve the Jewish question”.

 

20. Anti-Jewish Decrees

 

The first wave of anti-Jewish decrees was approved at the Council of Ministers meeting on March 29. A decree was issued ordering the registration and confiscation of Jewish-owned automobiles. By a similar decree, Jewish homes and businesses were stripped of telephone sets. Jews working in public administration were dismissed, their membership in the film and theatre actors’ guild was revoked, and they were expelled from the Press Association. Jews were disbarred from the legal profession. These measures resulted in the loss of thousands of jobs and the livelihoods of as many families. At the same time, several thousand young Christian women usually from the countryside lost their jobs as maids in Jewish households; claiming a need to protect the maids’ moral virtues, women under 45 were forbidden to work for Jewish families.

 

This, however, was only the beginning. In the next few months more and more decrees were issued intended to gradually exclude Jews from all spheres of social life. Jews and Christians were forbidden to attend film and theatre performances together. Realising one of Endre’s old wishes, Jews were banned from beaches and bathhouses. Food rations were reduced: Jews were issued special food coupons and shopping was limited to one or two hours a day.  New travel restrictions further increased the isolation of Jews: even on streetcars, they had to travel in marked carriages. Hungarian Gestapo units organised by the Germans carried out regular roundups at railway stations, arresting hundreds of Jews in these operations. Following the German occupation, allied bombing raids started. Bombing victims were moved into confiscated Jewish homes, and Jews were also made to care for these Christian families.

 

A well-organised anti-Jewish propaganda was co-ordinated by the Hungarian Institute for the Research of the Jewish Question, set up on a German model. The institute was headed by and old friend of Endre, the teacher Zoltán Bosnyák. Bosnyák launched a low-priced anti-Semitic weekly, Harc (Battle), with a huge press run. The far-right press received these measures with exuberance and advocated further restrictions. The print media, taking Göbbels’ propaganda machinery as its model, supported these measures with misinformation and outright lies, adding fuel to the fire of hatred. For instance, commenting on the bombings, they maintained that Jewish and Black American pilots fly bombing raids using information provided by Hungarian Jews. Inspired by the propaganda campaign, Hungarian and German police authorities received thousands of denunciations.

 

The authorities ruthlessly enforced these decrees; as a minimum punishment, anyone found in violation was fined huge sums equalling the person’s salary of several months or years, while many were sent straight to internment camps.

 

One of the most damaging decrees was approved at the same March 29 meeting of the Council of Ministers. In his proposal, Interior Minister Jaross claimed that the yellow star essentially served the cause of national defence as it allowed the identification of unreliable Jews. The decree went into effect on April 5, ordering each ‘Jewish person’ over the age of 6 to wear, in and outside the home, a 10x10-cm canary yellow six-pointed star over the left side of his/her outer garment.

 

With the introduction of this decree Hungary returned to the Middle Ages; it gravely violated the human dignity of all Hungarian Jews. Some attempted to hide the badge with briefcases, umbrellas or newspapers, others, trying to make a virtue of necessity, wore it with pride. The former risked becoming the subject of police retaliation (receiving fines or being sent to internment camps), the latter were viciously mocked by the press.

 

However, the decree had more serious consequences than the simple humiliation of the Jews. Once a person started to wear the yellow star, he/she sealed her own fate by having to comply with all discriminative laws. The mandatory display of the Star of David led directly to ghettoisation and deportation, and the road to annihilation. Any Jew who refused to comply placed himself outside the law and lived in constant dread of the consequences. Eichmann went by his experience learned in other countries: as traditionally law-abiding citizens, the majority of Jews decided on wearing the star.

 

Making the yellow star compulsory proved to be decisive for other reasons as well. Overnight, a sharp line had been drawn between the Jewish minority and the Gentile majority. Any non-Jew found to show himself in public or just exchanging a few words with a Jew could count on being derided, insulted and even ostracised or denounced to the authorities. Out of fear or indifference, the majority ignored Jews walking on the streets, while many took the opportunity to threaten, humiliate and mock them in public. Still, there were some, who expressed their contempt for the government by walking down the promenade with their Jewish friends arm in arm.

 

21. Ghettoisation

 

On April 7, 1944 Eichmann held a meeting in the Ministry of Interior with state secretaries, as well as representatives of the gendarmerie, the police and the armed forces. At the meeting, the ghettoisation of Jews was discussed. Planned measures were spelled out in a secret decree the same day, communicated to appropriate local gendarmerie and police commanders by telephone or messengers. The decree was drafted by Endre, but as he was officially appointed state secretary only the following day, it was signed by Baky.

 

The order of ghettoisation was carried out with no regard to gender or age. The operation was entrusted to specially appointed gendarmerie units, which, in contrast to past practices, were allowed to enter cities and join forces with local police. Officially, members of the Eichmann-commando were identified as advisors. However, through the program’s Hungarian commander Ferenczy, the Germans controlled events from the background.

 

In the countryside, ghettoisation usually meant that the population of small towns and villages were concentrated in a nearby city.  Urban Jews were crowded into a few blocks of buildings, in most cases separated from the rest of the city by fences. The ghettos were usually set up in Jewish neighbourhoods or the most dilapidated parts of town. Although the decree was published in official bulletins only on April 28, 1944, following orders distributed secretly on April 7, ghettoisation in Carpatho-Ruthenia started in the early morning of April 16, 1944.

 

The nation-wide operation was carried out in a few weeks.  Ghettoisation was completed by the beginning of June in the entire country with the exception of Budapest, where the Jews were massed into so-called “yellow star houses” – scattered around the city – at the end of June. Between the middle of April and early June, 437 thousand Jews had been crammed into more hundreds of ghettos and collecting camps.

 

22. Life in the Ghettos 

 

In most places ghettoisation followed a similar pattern. Jewish Councils, made up of the community’s most prominent members, were forced to prepare lists with the names and addresses of all local Jews. The need to secure food supplies for the Jewish population was given as rational for the operation. As a next step, the town’s public administrators defined the boundaries of ghettos or the area to serve as collection points.

 

The strictness of the deadline of moving into the ghetto greatly varied nationwide. In Carpatho-Ruthenia only minutes were given for getting dressed and packing some belongings. On other parts of the country, Jews had a few days to prepare. By regulation, Jews were allowed to take 50 kg/person and provisions for maximum two weeks. Other valuables, cash, jewellery and all else had to be left behind. Many were driven from their homes in such haste that they had no time to pack. Jews were then herded to designated points, and families from small villages were taken to collection sites at the edge of towns. Many times they were beaten and cursed as they trailed along deserted streets.

 

The attitude of local authorities made a big difference: while in Hódmezővásárhely deputy-mayor Pál Beretzk successfully sabotaged the organisation of the ghetto, in Nyíregyháza 10,759 Jews were crammed into 123 homes with a total floor area of 9665 m2 (less than 1 m2 per person). In most places there was no hint of compassion and officials participating in the ‘dejewification’ drive did all they could to make conditions unbearable.

 

Jews sent to brickyards fared the worst. These sites at the edge of towns selected as collection centres were completely unsuitable for housing large groups of human beings: brick-drying sheds only had roofs without walls and, due to overcrowding, many were left with no shelter at all; there was no water or sewage. Thousands used holes in the ground, hidden by a few sheets as latrines and personal hygiene was out of the question. Although Jewish Councils had the responsibility to feed people in camps and the ghettos, those without their own supplies were soon starving. In Munkács soup was cooked for 14 thousand people in bathtubs and no one received more than a spoonful of thin gruel. In Nyíregyháza, daily ration consisted of 10 dkg of potatoes, the same weight of bread and 1 dkg of flour.

 

In most places ghettos were surrounded by plank walls, patrolled by out-of-town gendarmes and local police. Policemen were often more lenient, allowing Gentile merchants or friends to pass food through the walls, and in some cases even agreed to deliver personal letters. Gendarmes from other parts of the country often behaved with gratuitous brutality. One Saturday a group of Orthodox Jews were driven from the brickyard to the main square of Munkács. On the way, they were beaten with clubs and gun-stock, and in front of the synagogue they were shot at. Driven by the blows of their torturers, survivors were forced to destroy the interior of their own house of prayer. Treatment was especially vicious in Carpatho-Ruthenia and Northern Transylvania. In many places, gendarme detective units set up so-called  ‘mints’, where Jews believed to be prosperous were tortured to cough up their treasures. During these ‘interrogation’ sessions, the head of the family was beaten by truncheons, gun-stock or rubber hose, or his wife was undressed and beaten on the breast and, in some cases, raped. In the ‘mint’ of Nagyvárda, gendarmes became notorious for whipping naked men and women and applying electric shocks. As a result many died of their injuries already in the ghettos, while others committed suicide or lost their mind. Atrocities claimed hundreds of lives still on Hungarian soil.

 

Eichmann himself was delighted by the level of organisation deemed excellent even by German standards; operations were carried out with dispatch and without fail. The disciplined and enthusiastic participation of the majority of some 200 thousand Hungarian gendarmes, police and civil servants exceeded Eichmann’s wildest dreams. While German advisors attended conferences preparing the ghettoisation, presented their demands and on some occasions even assisted in guarding some camps and ghettos, they left everything to Hungarian administrative organs. On many occasions, the actions of the Hungarian authorities surprised even experienced members of the Eichmann-commando.

 

Hunger, overcrowding, lack of personal hygiene and medicine made ghettos and collecting camps the hotbed of all kinds of disorders. Soon, infectious diseases such as typhoid fever, dysentery and pneumonia broke out. Authorities started to worry about the spread of diseases to the Gentile community and the situation soon became untenable. Local public administrators turned to their superiors for urgent help.

 

23. Deportation

 

The first transport of 3800 Jews, mostly from internment camps and arrested by German and Hungarian Gestapo, left for Auschwitz at the end of April. In early May, members of the Hungarian gendarmerie and Eichmann’s representatives met with German railway officials to work out transportation routes and schedules. They decided to dispatch four trains a day to Auschwitz along the Miskolc-Kassa-Eperjes line. The departure date of the first transport was set for May 15.

It was decided to implement the operation quickly but gradually in all gendarmerie districts in the following order: 1. Kassa (gendarmerie district VIII.), 2. Kolozsvár (gendarmerie district IX.), Marosvásárhely (gendarmerie district X.) 3. Székesfehérvár (gendarmerie district II.), Miskolc (gendarmerie district VII.) 4. Szeged (gendarmerie district V.), Debrecen (gendarmerie district VI.), 5. Szombathely (gendarmerie district III.), Pécs (gendarmerie district IV.) and finally, 6. Budapest (gendarmerie district I.) Accompanied by a representative of the Eichmann-commando, Endre and/or Baky and also gendarme lieutenant-colonel László Ferenczy, who was responsible for the communication between the German and Hungarian authorities and the controlling of the local action, visited selected districts where local officials were briefed on their responsibilities. Subsequently, joint gendarmerie and police units started liquidating the ghettos and herding the Jews into collecting camps. These camps were usually set up in huge warehouses, brick factories, industrial or agricultural groups of buildings. Once the operation was accomplished, trains were ordered and the assembled Jews were shipped out. Then the entire gendarmerie force moved to the next district, where the process was repeated.

 

Details were worked out by Endre: each transport was to consist of 45 cars, 70 Jews had to be crammed into each wagon, each wagon was to be supplied with two buckets, one filled with drinking water, one for excrement; each passenger was given provisions for two days, i.e. 80 grams of bread, and wagon doors had to be padlocked. Local public administrators was ordered to procure provisions, buckets and chains. With the few exemptions granted under anti-Jewish legislation, the deportation order applied not only to those of working age, but to all Jews in hospitals, prisons and mental institutions, regardless of gender or age.

 

Mass deportations started on May 15. Empty cars were directed to train stations in the vicinity of the collecting camps. In most cases, Jews were subjected to body searches before leaving the ghettos and the collecting camps. Midwives (in their absence gendarmes) were ordered to search women’s vaginas looking for hidden valuables. Luggage was searched as well. After that, Jews were marched by gendarmes to the station along closed streets and under tight security. On the way, many people were beaten. Intersections were secured by the local police, the streets were empty and the non-Jewish population often watched the spectacle behind closed shutters. At the station the crowd was herded into cattle cars. In cars with a capacity of 40, on average they crowded between 60 to 80 people and their belongings. In some cases a last search was conducted before entrainment, and people were often forced to board trains in their underwear. At the slightest sign of resistance the gendarmes used their weapons. Beatings and taunting were common practice. Despite Eichmann’s and Ferenczy’s objections, the military continued to deliver call-up notices in ghettos and under regulations in force at the time labour servicemen could not be deported. In violation of these regulations, servicemen on leave were often detained, notices were not delivered and, at the instigation of higher authorities, in many cases persons entitled to exemption were also deported.

 

At Nagyvárad, the Germans documented on film as Hungarian gendarmes beat the Jews before entrainment. Later the film was shown at the embassies of neutral countries trying to prove that the Hungarians were the only ones responsible for such brutality. Eichmann’s men were present everywhere, but they never had to intervene. Deportations from Hungary took place with unprecedented speed. In 24 days between May 15 and June 7, 289 thousand Hungarian Jews were deported from Carpatho-Ruthenia and Transylvania. By the middle of June the number had reached 340 thousand, and by the end of the same month it exceeded 400 thousand. With the assistance of willing Hungarian authorities, the Germans surpassed all past “achievements”: by July 9, 1944, in 147 transports they managed to deport over 437 thousand Jews. With the exception of Budapest, Jews and those serving in labour companies, the country was cleared of its entire Jewish population. With few exceptions, the trains had the same final destination: Auschwitz-Birkenau.

 

24. The Road to Auschwitz

 

According to official explanation, Jews were taken to Germany to work. The designation of transports, ’Resettlement for work in Germany’, referred to that as well. However, all evidence pointed to the contrary. Along with able-bodied adults, the handicapped, the insane, war veterans, the terminally ill, the invalid, the elderly and the new-born were all put on trains. If outraged Christians, concerned foreign diplomats or desperate members of Jewish Councils demanded explanation, they were offered the same line: the Germans determined that family-loving Jews make much better workers if their loved ones are around. Those who saw Jews being driven to train stations, who witnessed the brutality of gendarmes and heard the cries of people locked in cattle cars had every reason to believe that these arguments were nothing but bold lies. All over the country, there were ear- and eye-witnesses by the hundreds of thousands.

 

Once the wagon doors were shut, pushing and shoving, and the battle for space began. Since there was barely enough air to breath in the middle of the car, everyone tried to get close to the windows protected by barbed wire. Often, trains stood idle at stations for hours. In most cases the bucket of water was emptied before departure. In the heat of the summer, people often removed almost all their clothing. Departure brought relief and some fresh air through the openings. With 60 to 80 people crammed into each wagon, there was no room for everyone to sit. People stacked up their luggage and rested on the floor in shifts. Stretching out to sleep was out of the question. Soon hungry and thirsty children started to cry, the ill became sick, and the elderly and the weak fainted.

 

Trains were escorted to Kassa by Hungarian gendarmes. Transports from Hungary travelled on the average 400 to 500 km before reaching Auschwitz. But trains from Southern Transylvania, Szeged or Pécs had to cover 700 km. The journey usually took two to three days; trains were sidelined for hours to give way to military transports enjoying right of way. At these stops the unfortunate offered their last valuables begging for drinking water. For a bottle of water gendarmes demanded hundreds of pengős, often taking the money without bringing water. There were cases when gendarmes robbed Jews at gun-point while trains waited at stations.

 

At Kassa German police or SS units took control of the transports. First the Germans opened the cars. Some were allowed to run for water and the dead were unloaded. According to German records, in an average transport of 3000 to 3500 between 40 to 60 people died during the journey. For close to 150 transports, this comes to 6000 to 9000 dead before reaching Auschwitz.

 

Similar to Hungarian gendarmes, the Germans often robbed the deportees. To prevent escapes, guards threatened to execute the entire transport; anyone contemplating an attempt had to face resistance from his travel companions as well. Still, when the train slowed down some managed to drop to the ground by prying open floor-boards or cutting through barbed wire over the windows. However, guards stationed at the end of the train fired on anyone seen between the tracks.

 

Hungarian authorities were responsible for the fact that Jews arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau at the end of a journey lasting several days were in such poor condition. Many thousands arrived dehydrated and sick, many others died or went insane; they were unfit for work, in short. At the end of the road hundreds of people tumbling from cattle cars in a deplorable state were met by Dr. Mengele and his colleagues to be selected.

 

25. Plundering and Expropriation of Jewish Property

 

Due to the specific development of Hungarian modernisation and embourgeoisment, the country’s Jewish population came to play an important economic role in the spheres of industry, commerce and finances. The total wealth of thousands of Jewish families falling under the provisions of successive Anti-Jewish Laws could be estimated at representing 20-25% of the Hungarian national wealth. This considerable economic potential whetted the appetite of profit-oriented anti-Semites; the opportunity to lay hands on Jewish assets accumulated over generations drove many to the ranks of anti-Semitism. Anti-Jewish legislation aimed to satisfy these expectations and primarily served economic objectives. The ’Numerus Clausus’ act attempted to create favourable conditions for the masses of unemployed Gentile public servants and intellectuals pouring into the country following the loss of Hungarian territories under terms of the Trianon Treaty. The first and second Anti-Jewish Laws intended to thoroughly cleanse a traditionally Gentile public reserve (civil administration) of the Jews and also tried, at the expense of the Jews, to open the doors before Christians to traditionally ignored and despised positions. Act XV of 1942 proclaimed the mandatory acquisition of Jewish land holdings by the state; the act passed the cost of reducing social tensions in the countryside on the Jews. There were plans for the total expropriation and state-controlled redistribution of Jewish property. The far-right ideologist Zoltán Bosnyák and his circle, and the anti-Semite economist Mátyás Matolcsy were just as excited about the prospects of redistributing Jewish assets as were Finance Minister Lajos Remenyi-Schneller and Prime Minister Béla Imrédy (1938-1939).

With the German occupation of the country and the total disfranchisement of the Jews, the opportunity long hoped for by anti-Semites inside and out of government had finally arrived: Jewish property was up for grabs.

 

26. The End of Deportations

 

By early June 1944, the scale of the tragedy of Hungarian Jews became more and more evident. Regent Horthy received a growing number of reports concerning living conditions in ghettos, the brutality of the gendarmerie and details of the deportations. The Regent realised that by consenting to the deportations he had committed a serious mistake. In a letter addressed to Prime Minister Sztójay, the Regent declined all responsibility for anti-Jewish measures. At the Council of Ministers meeting deputy Foreign Minister Mihály Jungerth-Arnóthy reported on the negative domestic and international opinions regarding the deportations. In the second part of June, Horthy came under intense domestic and foreign pressure. The Christian churches tried to intervene on behalf of Jewish converts. Both his inner circle (his son, and István Bethlen, his confidant) and international leaders tried to convince him to break with his Jewish policy. On June 25th, Pope Pius XII, on the 26th American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and on the 30th the King Of Sweden, Gustav V all sent notes of protest to Horthy.

Published excerpts of the Auschwitz Protocol were picked up by international media, and Jewish leaders sent copies of the document to Hungarian clerical and political leaders. Everyone was aware of the fate awaiting Hungary’s Jews. Horthy was also strongly influenced by the deteriorating military situation: on June 6, allied forces had successfully landed in Normandy, broke through German lines and advanced towards the inside of France; in the wake of a Soviet counter-offensive more and more occupied territories were liberated. The Red Army was already deep inside Poland and stood at the borders of Hungary, while the American fleet dealt a major blow on Japanese forces at the Mariana Islands.

 

At a Council of Ministers meeting on June 21, state secretaries Endre and Baky painted an almost idyllic picture of the operation: the population welcomed the ghettoisation of the Jews; with their removal, the black market had been eliminated, ghettos and collection centres received sufficient supplies and, while authorities enforced regulations strictly, yet they were guided by principles of Christian charity. By that time no one believed these cynical lies. Eventually, Horthy called for a meeting of the Crown Council. (In contrast to the Council of Ministers, the Regent appeared in person at this meeting). The Council recommended the removal of Endre and Baky, and the halting of deportations. The government adopted a memorandum that in principle gave its approval to the migration of a limited number of Jews to Sweden and Palestine. However, the deportations were not stopped and Endre and Baky were in fact left to manage Jewish affairs. Enjoying German support, Prime Minster Sztójay and Interior Minister Andor Jaross successfully sabotaged Horthy’s intentions. In fact, Baky, the commander of gendarmerie forces, planned to deploy several thousand gendarmes in early July in Budapest and, going against the orders of the Regent, deport the Jews of Budapest. The appearance of large numbers of gendarmes caused panic among the Jews of the capital and stimulated the normally rather hesitant Regent to take immediate action. Backed by loyal troops stationed in Budapest and armoured units ordered to the capital, Horthy forced the gendarmes to leave the capital.

 

On July 6, 1944, the Regent eventually announced what he had already determined at the end of June: the deportations were to be stopped. In a characteristic move, despite the explicit orders to halt operations, the leadership of the Ministry of Interior continued to deport Jews from communities just outside Budapest for two more days on July 8 and 9. However, the last phase of the deportation plan, the Budapest operation was averted. Over 200 thousand Budapest Jews were saved, at least for the time being.

 

The Germans protested against Horthy’s decision through both formal and informal channels. Lacking sufficient forces on the ground however, for the moment they were unable to bring military pressure to effect resumption of deportations. At the same time, they were averse to risk an open break with Horthy; they were reluctant to endanger the uninterrupted exploitation of Hungary’s military and economic potential by forcing the deportation of the Jews of Budapest.

 

By that time, the majority of Budapest Jews lived in so-called ‘yellow-star buildings’. To prepare their deportation, at the order of the Ministry of Interior, the leadership of the Budapest Council designated 2600 buildings across the city where all the Jews in the capital had to move before June 24. Gentile families forced from ‘yellow-star buildings’ were given vacated Jewish properties.  

 

27. After WWII

 

The prosecution of Hungarian war criminals was wide-ranging and effective enough, although it never achieved the rigour that characterised the same process in Bulgaria. In that country, the Communist forces used the court cases for eliminating their potential political opponents, and every fifth sentence was capital punishment. More than 2000 people, deemed as supporters of the Tzar, were executed, the majority based on false accusations. Hungarian practice was, however, more meticulous than in Germany or Austria, where ‘de-nazification’ often came to a halt due to current political considerations: had they prosecuted all judges, policemen, officials and propagandists who compromised themselves under Hitler’s regime, the new state administration would have collapsed. Neither did Hungary experience the reckoning or mass verdicts by left-wing armed resistance with war criminals or collaborators similar to what took place in France, Italy and Yugoslavia, where the partisans executed tens of thousands (among them Mussolini and his lover). However, applying the morally and legally unjustified principle of collective culpability, 200,000 ethnic Germans were expelled from Hungary. In conclusion, in Hungary the magnitude of the retribution and prosecution of those guilty was comparable to that seen in Norway, Denmark or Holland.

 

About 27,000 (or 45 per cent) were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity and up till 1948, 146 persons had been executed. Among them were Döme Sztójay, Ferenc Szálasi, a number of their cabinet members, as well as two other previous Prime Ministers, Béla Imrédy and László Bárdossy. The ‘deportation trio’, László Endre, László Baky and László Ferenczy, who played key roles in the destruction of Hungarian Jews, were also executed.