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15 March 2019

How It Happened – Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry – Excerpt from Chapter II


Dr Ernő Munkácsi, Secretary of the Hungarian Central Jewish Council, left for posterity his first-hand account of the German occupation of 1944, describing the Hungarian Jewish community’s struggle for survival, the efforts of Jewish leaders in Budapest and Hungarian officials to ultimately thwart the deportation of Budapest Jews – while the deportation to Auschwitz of more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews took place in the countryside. Originally published in Hungary in 1947, the English critical edition has now been published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. We are re-printing here Chapter Two and its Notes in a slightly abridged form, with kind permission from the publisher. The book was translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel and edited by Nina Munk. The Notes for this edition were compiled by László Csősz and Ferenc Laczó.

Hungarian Review

 

 

Exerpt from Chapter Two

 

THE ENTRAPMENT OF HUNGARIAN JEWRY

 

History rarely produces accidents; events usually occur in a concatenation of cause and effect. Whenever the random does seem to play a role, in reality its influence tends to be illusory or insignificant, leaving little doubt that the event in question would have transpired no matter what, at best with some delay or inconsequential variation.

Those familiar with the woes and problems of Hungarian Jewry should have been able to realise decades earlier that the tragedy would inevitably happen, and not just due to the pressure of external causes. The peril from the world outside could have been fended off, at least to some extent, by thorough internal organisation and other purposeful measures. The ruin of Hungarian Jewry was for the most part rooted in a sense of inertia that prevailed despite the minority’s considerable size, moral values and economic achievements. In turn, this inertia came about as a direct consequence of organisational divisions1 and the aloofness of leaders from the Jewish masses, whose problems and ideas they hardly knew – or, if they did, hardly shared or represented. This gulf prevented the leadership in the most critical hours from being able to exercise control over large masses of Jews, let alone influence their actions in any meaningful way. The absence of democratic voting rights and community institutions thwarted all talent, good intentions and salutary initiatives. This ineptitude, indeed these blunders one might say, led to serious moral consequences. On the one hand, the well-heeled groups of the Jewish community failed, in the years of deepest crisis, to produce the means to provide adequate support for the impoverished Jewish masses, including clothing for the scores of thousands in labour service2 who froze to the bone in the snowfields of Ukraine. On the other hand, many urban-dwelling Jews, the wealthy and the intellectuals chief among them, decided to get baptised en masse, denying their Jewish spiritual heritage. The resulting moral crisis made itself felt constantly not only among the Jews but within the fold of the Christian churches as well.

In February and March 1944, on the eve of the great tragedy, the creative energies of Hungarian Jews in high office were consumed by futile bickering. Specifically, the OMZSA3 competed with the Veterans’ Committee4 for influence and assets to fund their activities.

The groups of progressive [neologue] Jews simply lived their red-tape-ridden lives from day to day – if you could call it a “life”. They had been waiting 75 years for a renewal, but the miracle had always capsized on internal strife. The Pest Israelite Congregation5 stood virtually alone as the only organisation with a large constituency that undeniably managed, not without its own imperfections, to perform significant worship and cultural functions capable of reaching the entire Jewish population of the country. As destiny would have it, the overture to the cataclysm coincided with the session of the general assembly of the Pest Congregation, which in 1944 happened to fall on 19 March, that fateful date.

Although the principals of Hungarian Jewry were caught off guard by the German invasion of Hungary on that day, it was hardly the kind of incident that could have escaped their attention as a looming threat. The fate of Germany’s Jews had been more or less known, as had the Nazi practice of deporting Jews from any country they occupied. Most of this knowledge, however, was a matter of vague rumour rather than actual fact.

Just as the Regent,6 his entourage, and Kállay7 all hoped that the country would be spared the role of a theatre of military operations, the Jewish community elders, never averse to emulating the methods of national politics, entertained the illusion that Hungary would be the exception, a tiny foothold of an island in a sea of Jewish devastation.

It can be stated with objective certainty that the presidency of the National Office of Hungarian Israelites followed the Kállay cabinet’s shift to the left8 with keen interest, making a concerted effort to aid and take advantage of the thawing around the so-called Jewish issue, which set in at the end of 1943 and continued into the first few months of 1944. The National Office managed to bring home a few thousand labour servicemen from Ukraine.9 Upon the request of the Foreign Ministry, they authored a memorandum,10 to be disseminated in neutral territories abroad, which exposed the vicissitudes and sufferings of Hungarian Jews honestly, without any sentimental varnish. They maintained continuous contact with the Social Democratic and Smallholders’ parties;11 and, at Síp Street,12 they passed from hand to hand a message to the regent from the Smallholders’ Party calling for an immediate end to the war and revisions to the anti-Jewish laws.13 Lawyers assigned by the Social Democratic and Smallholders’ parties were met at Síp Street to discuss legislation drafted by the Jewish community designed to pave the way toward the systematic abolition of anti-Jewish provisions.

Meanwhile, the general climate remained tense, and the more reflective minds continued to suffer from gloomy premonitions. Everybody was aware that, due to pressure from Germany – and not least because of its own reluctance to deal with the Jewish question once and for all – the Kállay cabinet’s position had been undermined. When on the afternoon of Saturday, 18 March, word got around that the regent had been summoned by Hitler,14 everybody felt we were on the brink of a cataclysm. The next day, on 19 March, there was early morning news of expedited German troops having crossed the border with Austria and blazing their way toward Budapest.

It was in this mood that elected representatives of the Pest Congregation began to gather at the Síp Street headquarters to hold their regular annual meeting. Even though these meetings had for quite some time been routinely orchestrated down to the minutest detail, they retained some of their importance as the only forum for many years – in the absence of any appreciable freedom of assembly and the press – where Jews could debate their issues, deliver speeches of nationwide import, and adopt resolutions that pointed the way forward for the community. Before the passage of the anti-Jewish laws, these general meetings had been rife with clamorous episodes, courtesy of individuals often less than well-versed in public affairs but with a habit of stopping the words in the throats of certain opposition or Zionist speakers. In 1944, however, a pact was made with the Zionists15 for the general congregation elections. Some of them were given a seat in the body of representatives, and even the leadership of the Pest Congregation now had a Zionist among its members. Since these concessions had been made, the Zionist speakers had reliably voted confidence in the incumbent Jewish leadership, albeit they never failed to emphasise their minority opinion in principle. This was, then, the atmosphere engulfing Europe’s largest Jewish community as it opened its general meeting on the day of the German invasion. [...]

Amid rumours that the Regent had been detained,16 the assembly adopted all the proposed resolutions in great haste, in a feverish few minutes, and approved the budget for 1944. The president17 was about to adjourn when a Zionist rose to speak,18 declared non-confidence on behalf of his party, and announced their refusal to authorise the budget. Surely this was a sign of the times. The first to realise the sheer magnitude of the historic juncture around the corner, the Zionists began to pursue what was essentially realpolitik. Barely two weeks later, the Zionist vanguard of the day – who, hot on the heels of a pact with the Gestapo, would set out for Palestine on 30 June but make it only to Bergen-Belsen and then to Switzerland, although most reside in Palestine today19 – made themselves at home in the premises of the Jewish Council, particularly in the Information Office and the Provincial Division.20 At about the same time, they began to nurture close ties with the Council, mainly through the activities of Dr Rezső Kasztner,21 a former journalist from Kolozsvár, whose role I will discuss later. To some degree, though, the Zionists continued to go their own way. The fact that contact with the ghettos around the provinces never completely broke off was due to the intrepid Zionist lads who travelled the country with forged papers, often wearing fake military uniforms, gathering news and delivering help where it was needed.

Following the meeting, the participants rushed home – not a minute too soon. Outside, the rumble of German tanks and vehicles advancing down the boulevards could barely drown cries of “Heil Hitler” from the scum of the city.

As soon as I got back to my office, I received a phone call from someone in the secret police telling me their offices had been occupied and that there were rumours that the Gestapo would be looking for prominent Jews. Shortly afterward, Dr M. B., then a senior congregation official, now a representative of the National Assembly, availed himself of the phone in my office to call his family in the city of Győr; his wife told him about the occupation there. This same colleague of mine was arrested by the Gestapo the next day. Having survived Auschwitz, he returned to Hungary only recently after being away for a year and a half.

The headquarters at Síp Street suddenly abandoned, the always-noisy halls succumbed to a frightening, silent emptiness. By the afternoon, only a handful of clerks, paid by the hour, remained in the building, working in the tax office on the first floor.

Around half past four that day, the phone in my apartment rang again. It was the anxious voice of the supervisor of hourly paid scribes. She said she needed to come to my place immediately because of events she did not want to discuss over the phone. She showed up on my doorstep in fifteen minutes. She told me about cream-coloured German cars pulling up in front of the headquarters. Two officers seemingly of high rank disembarked and entered the premises,22 demanding to know where the prefecture was. She explained to them there were no office hours on Sunday afternoons and that no senior officials were around. “Don’t be scared”, said the officers, who must have seen how frightened she was. “I am not scared”, the head clerk answered with a smile. Wir sind Kameraden [we are comrades]”, she added quickly, as befits the wife of a decorated lieutenant. (This single sentence condensed the infinite naiveté and ruinous, unfounded optimism of the Jews of Budapest, and perhaps of the whole country.) Finally, the Gestapo officers ordered the clerk to make sure that all the senior officials and the entire college of rabbis were present at the headquarters at half past nine the following morning, including Liberalen und Orthodoxen [Reformed and Orthodox]”, and that an envoy would be waiting at the door to lead the officers upstairs. “We want everybody to come”, they added. “We are not going to detain anyone.” These words already reflected the devilish cunning and unscrupulous hypocrisy of the Gestapo. The idea was to lure the Jews into a trap slowly, step by step, treating them kindly at first, then stepping up the cruelty until they reached the gas chambers of Auschwitz. One of the “affable” Gestapo officers was none other than Baron von Wisliceny, Himmler’s brother- in-law, who would make a name for himself as the hangman responsible for deporting the Hungarian Jews.

No sooner had I finished my conversation with the lady clerk than I received another call, this time from Hugó Csergő,23 who told me that László Bánóczi, then director of the Omike Theatre,24 had just had a similar exchange with Gestapo officers. We agreed to meet at six in the evening in Csergő’s apartment and ask the presidents of the Pest Congregation to join us. When I got there, I found vice presidents Dr Ernő Boda and Dr Ernő Pető,25 along with Béla Fábián26 and two clerks, already waiting. The clerks had been put in charge of the logistics of gathering the participants on such short notice.

As we began to talk, what occurred to me instinctively was something that I would come to consciously recognise a few days later as the only way to save Hungarian Jewry – an assumption that the ensuing events would bear out to a tee. This was the recognition that, in their menacing isolation, Hungarian Jews had no one to look to for help but the Hungarians themselves. It was inconceivable that the Hungarian state would betray its loyal citizens who had resided here for a thousand years; that it would settle for aiding and abetting Hitlerian barbarism by watching idly as the Jews fought for sheer survival. I thus proposed that we turn to the Hungarian authorities before entering into any talks with the Germans: After all, we represent Hungarian citizens!” Those present having conceded my argument, we began to make calls. First we dialled the Ministry of Culture,27 where the drowsy voice of the secretary on duty informed us: “The minister is out”. At the Ministry of the Interior we were told: “The Minister is in a council session at Sándor Palace”.28 (As it turned out, this claim was patently false. Now we know that the Gestapo had arrested Minister Keresztes-Fischer29 on the afternoon of 19 March.) “Try the Prime Minister’s Office”, the secretary said. Then we called and were finally able to contact Undersecretary Thuránszky,30 who asked us to call back in half an hour. When we did, we only reached a deputy. To our question as to whether we should sit down and talk with the Germans, the undersecretary’s message was that the answer would be given by the police chief the following morning. This was a bad omen. We had to hurry to send out the telegrams convening the participants.

When we turned to the office of the police chief on Monday morning, we got a peremptory answer: “Whatever the Germans want must be given to them.”

This reply decided the policy of the Jewish Council for months to come and, to all intents and purposes, settled the fate of Hungarian Jewry. The Hungarian government of the day let go of the hands of its Jewish citizens, leaving them at the mercy of their enemies. Yet even if the official ranks of Hungary defaulted on their duty, we should not have despaired of shaking up the entire administrative and social machinery from their torpor, resorting to underground propaganda if necessary, to explain to people that the German occupation would lead to the ruin not only of the Jews but of everyone else as well. But the Jewish branch was disorganised, with many of the younger generations toiling away in forced labour, and most of the elderly and others who stayed at home reluctant in their inert optimism to diverge from the “path of law”. Under the circumstances, an underground ploy seemed out of the question.

When members of the prefecture began to gather on the morning of 20 March, several of them – apparently fearing the worst – brought their wives with them and carried small handbags containing bare necessities. “What if the Germans go back on their word and we are taken straight to the internment camp from Síp Street?” Everyone from the Pest prefecture and the rabbinical body was there without exception, although the Orthodox side was only represented by Fülöp Freudiger,31 president of the congregation.

Minutes passed amid anxious expectation. At quarter past nine I asked congregation lawyer Dr János Gábor to walk down to the entrance door and wait there for the Germans. When they arrived he duly ushered them to the prefecture room on the third floor. Introductions were made, and talks between Gábor and the Gestapo commanders began. With his candid style of negotiation, Gábor immediately gained the trust of the Gestapo and quickly became one of the most influential Jews of the country as the “head of the government contact group”. A good-hearted man, Gábor went on to help a great many people.

We stood in the corridor, basking in the light of the March sun; the rabbis and the leaders awaited the fatal visit in the council chamber. At exactly nine thirty- two in the morning, Gestapo officers in leather coats showed up, carrying sub- machine guns, followed by a civilian with a bad leg and a repulsive face, wearing a black bowler hat – obviously a professional informant or spy.32 Gut’ Morgen”, the Germans said, raising their hands to their caps, the Jewish leaders saluting them by rising from their seats.

When everyone sat down, Hitler’s hatchet men asked for a German stenographer and set about “organising things” with their proverbial German thoroughness. In essence, this consisted of dictating commands. They started by stating for the record that, from that moment onward, all Jewish affairs in Hungary belonged to their discretionary powers and competence. Nobody was allowed to leave his city of residence; those attempting to do so would be detained. A National Jewish Council (Judenrat) was to be set up by noon the next day as the sole organ through which the SS would communicate with the Jews. All individuals qualifying as Jews were subject to the authority of the Jewish Council, to which they owed unconditional obedience. The Jewish newspaper,33 and in general any publication of Jewish origin, had to go through censorship by the Gestapo before being published. The Jewish Council, as soon as it had been formed, was to immediately establish its administrative organisation, for which they expected to receive a proposal. They stressed that no harm would be done to anyone on account of his Jewish origin. They would be issuing identity documents so that the Council and its administrators could do their jobs. (These were the infamous Gestapo identity cards.) Finally, they ordered the leaders of all Jewish institutions in the city to be convened by five the following afternoon; as well, a comprehensive register was to be made, by the same deadline, of Jewish institutions, associations and the like, indicating the names of their leaders. They emphatically warned against any attempt to mislead them, saying they were deeply familiar with Jewish affairs and had been the ones to deal with them” all over Europe.

When they left the building within an hour, a handful of SS privates armed with machine guns were waiting for them at the gate.

One of the congregation elders came into my room and called his wife on the phone. “Everything is all right here”, he said. “The Germans still want to help us.” This turn of mind was only too typical. The chairman of the National Office [Samu Stern] left the chamber with a finished plan for the composition of the Jewish Council. [...] The next day, the Germans approved this list without any changes, so it was in this form that the first Jewish Council convened.34

In most cases, it takes a certain distance of time to gain the perspective from which one can recognise and properly assess the significance of historical events. If your angle of vision is too narrow, you will get a false picture. If you live in the moment, it is like standing directly in front of the façade of a building; you will not be able to take in the whole.

This is precisely what happened in the hours and days directly following the German occupation. Amid the rampant uncertainty, nobody could be sure about the true nature and breadth of the occupation and, most importantly, whether the Germans had gained comprehensive and permanent discretion over the fate of Hungarian Jewry. Information gleaned from the political trials that have been completed to date lend credence to assumptions at the time that certain German groups had planned the occupation to last for a limited period only, and made it contingent upon the formation of a government to their liking. Today, we are aware of the rather limited number of Gestapo stationed in the country, how frequently they had to resort to bluffing, and that they could not initially have foretold what degree of resistance they would encounter.

These circumstances go a long way toward explaining why Eichmann’s chiefs of staff35 set about “working” the Jewry with kid gloves. After all, they were dealing with a mass of nearly a million people36 scattered across hundreds of settlements throughout the country. It was not an easy task to stigmatise, arraign, mobilise, enslave and destroy so many people, especially as they wanted to accomplish all this while shrouding the ultimate objective in secrecy in an attempt to prevent humane sentiment from welling up in the Hungarians who, for all intents and purposes, had thrown in their lot with their Jewish neighbours despite all the anti- Semitic propaganda. Yet the Jews of Hungary, lacking foresight and especially organisation in their blind torpor, obeyed without any resistance the commands of their executioners, who, unlike their victims, paved the way toward their envisioned future with cold calculation. They had experience and knew how to spare their work energies. They went by the maxim favoured by all dictators through the ages: divide et impera”. As they used Jews in most camps to beat other Jews and even to carry the corpses of their brethren to the crematorium, they enlisted the same tried-and-true method in the service of exterminating Hungarian Jewry. They had Jews organise the ranks of the Jewry, vesting the leaders with apparently broad powers and, just to be on the safe side, set up an extensive network of informants. This enabled them to minimise the use of German resources in their march toward their final goal: the wholesale extermination of Hungarian Jews. Later on, I will address the question of whether the Gestapo was certain from the outset that in Hungary it would follow the model that had worked so well in Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, etc., or whether it had better act as it had in Romania.37

The Gestapo forces dispatched to Budapest were divided into several Kommandos. Today we know that one group was dedicated to the task of dealing with left- wing politicians, while other units were in charge of keeping suspicious Hungarian military officers under surveillance. The “liquidation” of Jews was assigned to a third Kommando under the simple soldierly cover name of “Einsatzkommando der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD”.38

The commander of this last unit was none other than Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, who claimed to have been born in Palestine, to speak Hebrew, and to be well versed in Jewish studies. These claims were hardly substantiated when Eichmann, bent on showing off his Hebrew, did not use the living Hebrew tongue but quoted the first few words of the Holy Scripture, which any non-Jewish novice of theology will know by heart. It is more likely that he simply picked up a few words from a German–Hebrew language book.

On his single appearance at Síp Street, one early afternoon, Eichmann burst out in a Hitlerian fit of rage upon finding a few offices from the old Pest Congregation remaining where he expected everyone in the newly established bureaucratic mechanism to work. “Sie wissen noch nicht, wer ich bin. Ich bin der Bluthund. Hinaus mit der Kultusgemeinde [You don’t yet know who I am. I am the bloodhound. Out with the Jewish community]”, he roared, beside himself with fury.

Following Eichmann in rank was Obersturmbannführer Krumey, who was – as he himself revealed once – a merchant from Berlin. He had a kind of demeanour in which it was not impossible to detect signs of humanity every once in a while. Of all the officers, he was the most amenable to being influenced by János Gábor. He did not take part in the deportations from the provinces, and disappeared just before the deportations from Budapest began – either recalled, as rumours had it, or simply departed. Later, he returned to the scene with a mission to clear up the situation of the Bergen-Belsen group.39 In December 1944 he accompanied the 1,300 people40 from the camp in Hanover to the Swiss border, delivering the group to Dr Rezső Kasztner. Uncommonly among the senior SS officers, he was always known as a soft-spoken but deliberate man of few words.

The biggest con man of all was “the honourable” Baron von Wisliceny, whose plump, Göringesque, almost jovial figure concealed a mass murderer responsible for the death of Hungarian Jewry in the provinces. He was “The Orator” often seen around the nightclubs, who loved women, booze and money. Before his “venture” in Hungary, he had been a regular patron of the Carlton Hotel in Bratislava, where he earned a reputation of being an “approachable man” among the Jews of that city, who hastened to alert their Orthodox brethren in Budapest to this. (Indeed, this became the starting point of the special action orchestrated by Fülöp Freudiger, who with 70 compatriots managed in early August to steal their way through the Nazi ring via the village of Kelebia, equipped with Romanian passports.)

Of this illustrious company, only Krumey and Wisliceny were present at the “meeting” of 20 March in the principal hall of the Pest Congregation, duly attended by the leaders of Jewish institutions in Budapest as ordered on the first day. The room was crammed full, and I felt a flush of excitement. The podium – where the proposed resolution for the reception of Hungarian Jewry41 had once been announced and which had been graced by so many distinguished statesmen, priests, writers and poets for half a century – was now expansively occupied by these two notables of the Gestapo. (To me, the scene emblematised the tragedy of Hungarian Jewry, reminiscent as it was of the destruction of Jerusalem, the echo of Jeremiah.) The meeting itself was conducted with due deference to form, with Samu Stern, president of the National Office, seated next to the officers. He was addressed as “Herr Hofrat [Mr Court Councillor]” with great refinement and decorum. Wisliceny spoke, presenting the most egregious lies nonchalantly, with cigarette in hand. “Make no mistake, there is no occupation here”, he said. “The Germans expect calm discipline from the local Jewry … Do your best to prevent panic … Do not rush to the banks to withdraw your deposits … Nobody will be harmed just because he happens to be Jewish.” Yet the Germans must have felt the need to come up with some explanation for the arrests already in progress, for they added that some individuals had indeed been detained on charges of violating regulations or because of their former political activities. In any event, “One needs hostages in times of war”.

No sooner had the Hauptsturmbannführer finished his talk than the podium was surrounded by the attendees, who began to shower question after question upon the Germans as if they were invited speakers at a conference hosted by an open university.

This miserable spectacle was repeated a week later, on 28 March, at an event intended to “wisen up” Jews from the provinces. The telegram and invitation sent out by the National Office read as follows:
 

This telegram is to notify you of a nationwide meeting of the utmost importance, to be held at eleven o’clock on Tuesday, the 28 of this month, at No. 12 Síp Street, where your attendance is most emphatically expected. Your travel permit will be mailed to you. Should you be unable to attend, you will need to report to us by telegram, naming your proxy … As background to the invitation, we inform you that, since the 20 of this month, we have been in constant negotiations with the authorities of the German military, who set great store on ensuring that the Israelite population of the country may continue to pursue their private lives, religious engagements as well as social and cultural activities undisturbed, in a panic-free mood. To this end, we have formed and vested with nationwide authority the Central Council of Hungarian Jews, which will proceed to establish a National Committee as the administrative organisation next in rank below it. This is why the meeting noted above is necessary. We kindly ask you to honour the event with your presence by all means. In these days of hardship, appropriate organisation and the maintenance of a panic-free atmosphere form the crucial interest of the entire Jewish community. Attached please find a travel document made out by the German authorities strictly in your name only; this document is not transferable. In the event of your incapacitation, no deputy will be allowed to travel and attend on your behalf; the text of our telegram is thus modified accordingly. It goes without saying that resolutions adopted by those present will be binding for absentees. Dated Budapest, 24 March 1944. With brotherly regards, the President of the Central Council of Hungarian Jews.

 

Although the Germans did issue special one-time travel permits for the occasion, only a few Jews undertook the trip to Budapest from around the country. [...] Did any of them have an inkling that, barring a handful of exceptions, they were headed toward annihilation and martyrdom?

On behalf of the occupiers, the meeting was attended by Krumey, who spoke little, as was his wont, waiting instead for the others to ask questions. The “gentlemen of the country” rose to speak in broken German in great humility. This was the last nationwide meeting of a Jewry with a long historical tradition. Dr Imre Reiner,42 legal counsel for the Orthodox Central Office, protested against the detentions the Germans carried out on the first day of the occupation at railway stations, customs borders and other checkpoints in Budapest. He argued that the three thousand Jews interned at Kistarcsa43 during the first few days had not been aware of the travel ban and were therefore innocent of any disobedience. These people had been arrested on their way home to or from Budapest. Reiner emphatically called for their immediate release.

Krumey, in his hallmark soft voice, muttered something that could have been assent, sounding almost apologetic as he mentioned that he had already addressed the issue, aber ich bin noch nicht durchgekommen [but I haven’t yet succeeded]”. Guesswork continued for days as to what he really meant by that. Those privy to the intricacies of the German language favoured the interpretation that he had been trying his best, but to no avail so far. This smooth-talking executioner was the most consummate master of mystification.

Incidentally, what talks there were to mention were soon derailed when the Budapest Kommando44 pledged to vest the Central Jewish Council in Budapest with discretion over all Jewish affairs around the country. Contrary to these promises, local Jewish councils with autonomous powers were soon set up in certain cities.45 With the concurrence of Krumey, the meeting resolved to have a single nationwide organisation. I am not sure if Krumey’s passivity was not the result of his knowing full well that any and all actions taken would merely have served to camouflage the inevitable; that for Hungarian Jews, the only path ahead led to Auschwitz.


Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel

 

 

Notes:


1 The author is referring to the schism of the Jewish religious branches in Hungary in 1869–71, which led to the creation of three separate nationwide organisations or communities: Neologue, Orthodox, and Status Quo Ante.

2 In fact, the Jewish community made a considerable effort to improve the generally miserable conditions endured by those forced to serve in the labour service (munkaszolgálat, or musz) required of “political unreliables” and Jews after 1941. However, most of the goods sent to the front for (or taken along with) labour servicemen were confiscated by members of the German and Hungarian armies. It should also be noted that unarmed labour servicemen were officially members of the Hungarian Army; it would therefore have been the task of the state to provide them with clothing, food and other necessities.

3 National Hungarian Association to Assist Jews (Országos Magyar Zsidó Segítő Akció, or OMZSA): aid agency founded in 1939 to support Jews drafted for labour service and their families.

4 Established as a department of the Pest Israelite Congregation in November 1939, the Veterans’ Committee was soon turned into a joint body of the Neologue and Orthodox national offices (Országos Izraelita Irodák Hadviseltek Bizottsága). Its main task was to represent the Jewish veterans of the First World War and support the labour servicemen during the Second World War.

5 The largest congregation or community of Jews in Hungary at that time, the Pest Israelite Congregation (Pesti Izraelita Hitközség), for which Ernő Munkácsi served as chief secretary, represented the approximately 200,000 Neologue Jews of Budapest. As established in the late 18th century, the Pest Israelite Congregation had represented all members of the Jewish community residing in what was then the city of Pest. However, after the 1869–71 schism in Hungarian Jewry, the Pest Israelite Congregation represented only the (dominant) Neologue Jews of Pest. Referred to variously in English as the Israelite Congregation of Pest, the Pest Jewish Congregation, and the Pest Jewish Community.

6 Regent Miklós Horthy (1868–1957), head of state of the Hungarian Kingdom between 1 March 1920 and 16 October 1944.

7 Miklós Kállay (1887–1967), landowner, politician, Prime Minister of Hungary between March 1942 and March 1944. After the German invasion of March 1944, he took refuge in the Turkish Embassy in Budapest until November 1944, when Arrow Cross authorities demanded that the embassy extradite him and he turned himself in. He was arrested and deported to Mauthausen, and later taken to Dachau. After the war, he lived in Italy before settling in the United States in 1951.

8 One of the principal aims of Kállay’s cabinet was to cautiously distance Hungary from the Nazi orbit and re-establish relations with the Western Powers. This political ambition was reflected in internal policies: while continuing with crude anti-Semitic rhetoric and adopting another two anti- Jewish laws in 1942 (Laws XV and XVII), the Kállay government also made mitigating gestures toward the Jewish community of Hungary.

9 As a result of the relatively moderate anti-Jewish policies of the Kállay government, several labour servicemen who were aged, sick, or had served longer than the required six months were relieved from duty in late 1942 and early 1943. At the same time, the government, wanting to appear a vocal ally of the Axis, offered dozens of new, additional labour service units to the Germans. While it is true that the Jewish leadership made considerable efforts to ease the situation of the labour servicemen, it would be an exaggeration to attribute the positive developments exclusively to the activities of the National Office of Hungarian Israelites.

10 It is unclear which memorandum the author is referring to here.

11 Founded in 1930, the Party of Independent Smallholders, Agricultural Labourers and Citizens (Független Kisgazda-, Földmunkás és Polgári Párt), or Smallholders’ Party, was an agrarian party of the centre-right with representation in parliament. It was abolished by a decree of the Minister of the Interior on 28 March 1944. Some of its former members subsequently played a role in resistance activities.

12 The headquarters of the Pest Israelite Congregation was located at 12 Síp Street in Budapest’s 7th District.

13 The First, Second, and Third “Jewish Laws” (actually anti-Jewish laws) were passed in 1938, 1939 and 1941, respectively.

14 The author is referring to the second meeting of Hitler and Horthy at Klessheim Castle in today’s Austria on 18 March 1944, which was the last diplomatic step before the German military action against Hungary.

15 It is unclear what pact the author is referring to here; however, the general reference is to the emergence of the Zionists as important partners of the dominant Neologues.

16 Such rumours drew on the fact that Horthy was Hitler’s “guest” at Klessheim Castle right before the German invasion and returned to Budapest only after the invasion had begun.

17 Samu Stern (1874–1947), businessman, president of the Pest Israelite Congregation (as of 1929) and of the National Office of Hungarian Israelites (as of 1932). Served as president of the Central Jewish Council (Központi Zsidó Tanács, Judenrat) from 21 March 1944 to the end of October 1944, when he went into hiding. Stern survived the Holocaust, returning to Budapest, where he died two years later.

18 Historically a small and stigmatised minority in Hungary, the Zionists became significantly more influential during the war thanks to their dedicated activism and international contacts.

19 A reference to the Kasztner Train, the result of secret negotiations between the Zionists’ Relief and Rescue Committee of Budapest (known by its Hebrew name, Va’ada) and Adolf Eichmann, which carried a select group of 1,686 Jews out of Hungary on 30 June 1944 to eventual safety in Switzerland (after unexpectedly being detained at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp). Passengers included a motley crew of Zionists (including Niszon Kahán, one of the leaders of the Hungarian Zionist Alliance), rabbis, artists, farmers, refugees, children, industrialists, Kasztner’s own family and friends, and prominent community members, among them members of Ernő Munkácsi’s extended family.

20 The Relief and Rescue Committee and other Zionist activists operated in secret from the ground floor of 12 Síp Street, headquarters of the Pest Israelite Congregation and later also of the Central Jewish Council.

21 Rezső Kasztner (1906–1957), lawyer, journalist, Zionist leader. Born and raised in Kolozsvár (today Cluj, Romania), he served as secretary-general of the parliamentary group of the Jewish Party in Romania and on the executive of the Palestine Office of the Jewish Agency. After the re- annexation of Transylvania in 1940, he moved to Budapest. As one of the leaders of the Relief and Rescue Committee (Va’ada), Kasztner played a central role in providing aid to Jewish refugees in Hungary and led the clandestine negotiations that resulted in the so-called Kasztner Train. After the war, Kasztner moved to Israel, where, in an infamous libel suit of 1955, he was found guilty of collaboration – a charge overturned by the Supreme Court of Israel in 1958, but not before Kasztner had been shot dead in the street by a Jewish nationalist. Known in the West and in Israel as Rudolf (Israel) Kastner, he is referred to throughout this book as Rezső, the name he used in Hungary.

22 The two officials who appeared at Síp Street that day were Hermann Krumey and Dieter Wisliceny. Hermann Alois Krumey (1905–1981), SS-Obersturmbannführer, deputy head of Adolf Eichmann’s special operations unit (Sondereinsatzkommando Eichmann). In July 1944, he was appointed head of the Vienna branch of the SiPo, where he was given responsibility for the supervision of Hungarian Jewish slave labourers in Austria and the Kasztner operation. Arrested but then released by the Allies right after the war, it was not until the arrest of his former boss Adolf Eichmann in 1960 that Krumey, along with his former colleague Otto Hunsche, was put on trial in Germany and, in 1969, eventually sentenced to life imprisonment, a sentence upheld on appeal in 1973. Dieter Wisliceny (1911–1948), SS-Hauptsturmführer. As a member of Sondereinsatzkommando Eichmann, he was responsible for the deportation and murder of Jews in Greece, Slovakia and Hungary. After the war, he was tried as a war criminal in Czechoslovakia, sentenced to death and executed. Despite Munkácsi’s reference to him as “Baron von Wisliceny” further down the page, there is no available evidence that he was a baron or that he was related to Heinrich Himmler.

23 Hugó Csergő (1877–1944/45), journalist, writer, leading official of the Pest Israelite Congregation and personal secretary of its President Samu Stern. After March 1944, Csergő served as adviser to the Jewish Council. Arrested by the Arrow Cross in October 1944, he was deported to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, where he perished.

24 László Bánóczi (1884–1945), theatre director and dramaturge. Between 1940 and 1944, he headed the National Hungarian Israelite Public Education Association (Országos Magyar Izraelita Közművelődési Egyesület, OMIKE), which provided aid to Jewish artists who lost their jobs due to the anti-Jewish laws. [OMIKE was originally established in 1909 to promote Jewish culture.]

25 Ernő Pető (1882–196?), lawyer, deputy president of the Pest Jewish Congregation, and a member of the Central Jewish Council in 1944. After the war he emigrated to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

26 Béla Fábián (1889–1966), lawyer, publicist, liberal party MP between 1922 and 1939, and president of the Jewish Veterans’ Committee during the war. Deported to concentration camp, he survived and, in 1948, emigrated to the United States.

27 Officially the Ministry of Religion and Education, headed by Jenő Szinyei Merse (1888–1957) from July 1942 to March 1944. Szinyei Merse was ousted from his post right after the German occupation.

28 The official residence of the Prime Minister during the Horthy era. (Today the official residence of the President of Hungary.)

29 Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer (1881–1948), lawyer, conservative politician, minister of the interior from 1931 to 1935 and 1938 to 1944. Arrested by the Gestapo right after the German invasion on 19 March 1944, Keresztes-Fischer was deported to Mauthausen and then to the Flossenburg concentration camp. Liberated by US troops, he died in Austria three years later.

30 László Thuránszky (1892–1955), undersecretary in the Prime Minister’s Office from 1939 to 8 April 1944, when he was dismissed from his post.

31 Fülöp Freudiger (1900–1976), businessman, factory owner, president of the Orthodox Israelite Congregation in Budapest between 1939 and 1944, and a member of a prominent family of Orthodox leaders. One of the founders in 1943 of the Relief and Rescue Committee (Va’ada). He was also known as Philipp von Freudiger, and Pinhas or Pinchas Freudiger.

32 It is unclear whom Munkácsi is referring to here. Other contemporary sources do not mention the presence of an informant or spy at the meeting.

33 After the occupation, the Germans shut down all but one Jewish newspaper, Magyar Zsidók Lapja (Journal of Hungarian Jews), which became the official journal of the Jewish Council. As of 27 April 1944, its name was changed to Magyarországi Zsidók Lapja (Journal of Jews in Hungary).

34 Scholars typically distinguish four phases of the Hungarian Central Jewish Council. The first begins with its formation in March 1944. The second begins toward the end of April when the Council comes under the purview of Hungarian authorities. Mid-July 1944 marks the third phase, when representatives of converts to Christianity are added to the Council. The fourth and final Council begins with the Arrow Cross Party’s rise to power in mid-October 1944.

35 Krumey and Wisliceny.

36 In fact, the number of people considered Jewish in Greater Hungary on the eve of the occupation was somewhere between 760,000 and 780,000, including converts and recent refugees.

37 It is not clear what Munkácsi is alluding to here. He might be referring to the activities of Eichmann aide and “adviser on Jewish affairs” Gustav Richter (1913–1982) in Romania, who closely cooperated with pro-Nazi local authorities in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Richter also reached an agreement with Romanian leader Ion Antonescu to organise the deportation of the remaining Jews of Romania to Nazi camps (an agreement which fell through).

38 A paramilitary force under the command of the Nazi’s security police and security service, the Einsatzkommando der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD was responsible for rounding up and exterminating Jews and other “undesirables” in captured territories.

39 A reference to the Kasztner Train passengers detained in Bergen-Belsen. Krumey at various points acted as a liaison with the group.

40 The Kasztner Train’s 1,686 passengers were divided into two groups for the final leg of the journey from Bergen-Belsen to Switzerland. The first 318 passengers arrived in Switzerland in August 1944, with the balance arriving in December 1944.

41 A reference to Hungary’s Law of Emancipation (Act XVII of 1867), which made Jews equal as individual citizens. It was followed by the Law of Reception (XLII of 1895), which made Judaism a state-endorsed religion in Hungary, formally equal to Christianity.

42 Imre Reiner (1885–1963), rabbi and lawyer, legal adviser of the Autonomous Orthodoxm Congregation in Budapest.

43 The Kistarcsa internment camp, because of its proximity to Budapest, served as a detention centre for many thousands of Jews arrested immediately after the German invasion.

44 Munkácsi seems to be referring here to the Sondereinsatzkommando Eichmann.

45 In addition to the Budapest-based Central Jewish Council, a nominally nationwide body whose sphere of authority was in practice largely restricted to the capital city, another approximately 150 local Jewish councils were established in other parts of Hungary by the Nazis and their Hungarian allies. However, as a result of the swift deportation of Hungary’s Jews, including members of the councils, the councils outside Budapest typically ceased functioning within weeks. By contrast, the Central Jewish Council was active from 20 March 1944 until the liberation of the remaining Jews of Budapest in January 1945.




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