As The Land Remembers Them:
& The Hungarian Holocaust
Andrew James Chandler
In July 1989, Dr Bill Campbell and myself, from the Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, joined an exchange programme between the twinned municipalities of Coventry and Kecskemét, to establish an exchange between Westhill and Newman Colleges of Education and the Kecskemét College of Education. The following February, I took up a post as Associate Tutor for the Colleges, based in Kecskemét, at the invitation of the Principal of Westhill College, Rev Gordon Benfield and Dr Márta Dovala, of the Kecskemét College, under the guidance of József Vida, the Head of Modern Languages. The Hungarian Ministry of Education agreed to sponsor the appointment, and Gordon Benfield visited Kecskemét in March to formally establish the exchange programme. The benefit of a visit to the UK the following January for the Hungarian students in their four-year English Studies programme was fairly obvious. What was not, at first, as clear was the English Studies Programme the benefit that the student teachers from Birmingham would gain from a visit to Hungary the next spring, as part of their four-year B. Ed. Programme.
As both Westhill and Newman were built on strong Church foundations, both Free Church and Catholic, specialising in Religious Education, it was felt that it would be useful for them to engage with studies of the roles played by the churches in the various towns and villages throughout Bács-Kiskun County. Of course, they also visited primary schools and helped with English lessons, but, in 1990-91, and for some years following, there was no Religious Education provision in Hungarian schools. So, the key question which was under investigation during their visit was, ‘what are the values of the people and communities following the establishment of the Republic of Hungary and after forty years of the Hungarian People’s Republic?’ Coming from a multi-cultural society in the West Midlands, we wanted to know, in particular, why the town’s synagogue no longer had a worshipping Jewish community, and how the churches worked together to promote their beliefs and values in a more mono-cultural ‘Magyar’ society.
Coalescing with these developments, the Colleges established a Joint European Programme under EC TEMPUS funding, and Dr Éva Kruppa was appointed to the International Office in Kecskemét College of Education, to co-ordinate this. In planning the student exchange, she suggested a visit to Apostag, since she was aware of the work being done there to both restore the synagogue for community use, largely completed by 1987, and to commemorate the village’s victims of the Holocaust of 1944-5. So it was that in the autumn of 1990 that Bill Campbell (RE) and John Gosling (English), visiting Kecskemét, came with Éva, József and myself to visit the village, see its synagogue and meet its residents, some of who had known the victims well as children and young people. What follows here is the result of their testimony, given at that initial meeting and during the visit of the students from Birmingham, Michael and Ruth, who spent a week in the villages of the territory in April 1991. None of their testimony could have been recorded without the painstaking translation provided by Hajnalka Szigeti (pictured below in 1991), an excellent student from Kiskunfélegyháza at the College of Education in Kecskemét, and now a teacher near Hastings. The original intention was to transcribe the testimonies together the following autumn, but that summer my recall to Westhill and Newman Colleges, as a Teacher/Fellow, prevented this.
AJC, 27/1/2013: Anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz/ Holocaust Memorial Day
The Lord’s Answer;
Hungarian Jewry – A Doomed People?
Chapter One: A Timeline of the Hungarian ‘Shoah’
Anti-Jewish Laws, 1938-41
The Census of 1941
Occupation and Deportation
Chapter Two: Apostag – The Village in View
The Village Chronicle to 1918
The Synagogue & the Jewish Community
Village Relationships Between the Wars
Chapter Three: Fifty Years of Division & Sorrow
Anti-Semitic Laws & Outbreak of War
Deportation, May 1944
Continuation & Conclusion of War
The Village in the Nineties
References & Bibliography
© 2013 Andrew James Chandler/ Team Britannia, Hungary
Nothing is known about the prophet Habakkuk apart from what is in his book. Because he mentions Babylon (1:6) it is assumed that he lived at the end of the seventh century B.C., when the Nebuchadnezzar’s forces ‘ended’ Israel and Judah was exiled. The prophet questions God about his justice: why does he turn a blind eye to Babylon’s cruelty and deportations? How can he use wicked people to punish people who are better than them? These are questions that many Jews must have echoed on their way to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and other death camps, as well as inside them, centuries later:
‘How long, O Lord, must I call for help,
But you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, “Violence!”
But you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
Why do you tolerate wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
There is strife and conflict abounds.
Therefore the law is paralysed,
And justice never prevails.
The wicked hem in the righteous,
So that justice is perverted.’
The Lord’s Answer:
God gives no direct answer, but promises that one day he will punish all oppression and injustice:
‘Woe to him who builds his city with bloodshed,
And establishes a town by crime!
Has not the Lord almighty determined
That the people’s labour is only fuel for the fire,
That nations exhaust themselves for nothing?
For the earth will be filled with the knowledge
Of the glory of the Lord,
As the waters cover the sea.’
The book concludes with a statement by the prophet that he will trust God, no matter what happens:
‘I heard and my heart pounded,
My lips quivered at the sound;
Decay crept into my bones,
And my legs trembled.
Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity
To come on the nation invading us.
Though the fig tree does not bud
And there are no grapes on the vines,
Though the olive crop fails
And the fields produce no food,
Though there are no sheep in the pen
And no cattle in the stalls,
Yet I will rejoice in the Lord,
I will be joyful in my saviour.
The Sovereign Lord is my strength;
He makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
He enables me to go on the heights.
Hungarian Jewry: A People Doomed?
I’d gladly resign my claim to the Hungarian Jews if only I were certain that their patriotism would save them from the misery of antisemitism…But the Jews of Hungary will also be overtaken by their doom, which will be all the more brutal and merciless as time passes, and wilder too, the stronger they get in the meantime. There is no escaping it.
Theodor Herzl, 1903
‘Tivadar’ (his given name in Hungarian) Herzl was born in Budapest in 1860 at a time when Hungarian Jews were so well-integrated into national life that their Chief Rabbi sat in the Upper House of Parliament. This integration had taken place over the two previous centuries, so that at the beginning of the twentieth century they had become part of the Hungarian nation legally, socially and culturally. All that really marked them out as different were their synagogues and religious practices, though even here, the laws relating to food were being abandoned by the 1920s, as the testimony below shows.
After the sudden wave of anti-Semitic horror which engulfed Hungary for the last two years of the war had passed, the Communists made any mention of the Jews as a people a taboo topic, except in the context of a ‘scientific’ study of it as a religion. This was applied to Jews and non-Jews alike. Such studies were restricted to the confines of Marxist academia. Any form of Religious Education in schools was strictly prohibited and church activities were severely restricted. Any discussion of the events as genocide was frowned upon, if not punished. The victims of the Holocaust were called those persecuted by the Nazis. So it was only after the forty years from 1948 to 1988 that the unresolved anti-Semitic laws of the Hungarian Horthy Government, the actions of the Hungarian Fascists and the Nazi deportations could be examined in the clear light of day, and spoken about in public. Of course, this, in itself, remained a difficult process, since many of the small number of those who participated in these actions were still alive and identifiable as neighbours in the village.
More recently, the task has been made still more difficult, though even more important, by the re-emergence of anti-Semitism in Hungary, even within the very same Parliament building where the Chief Rabbi sat (quite comfortably) a hundred years ago. An MP belonging to the anti-Semitic ‘Jobbik’ Party recently suggested that a new national register of Jews be kept, provoking huge controversy and protest both within the country and internationally, reminding everyone of the 1941 Census, used by the Nazis in 1944 to rapidly deport most of the Jewish population. Even among my own Hungarian friends and family, partly Jewish itself, I have heard more anecdotal anti-Semitic remarks in the past two years since returning to Hungary, than I ever heard in the two years of 1989-91, when this project was conducted. In fact, from 1991 to 2011, I encountered more anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim attitudes in the Churches I attended in Britain, than in Hungary. Recently, however, in Budapest and elsewhere in Hungary, Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated, memorials have been defaced and damaged, and, perhaps most sinisterly, rabbis have suffered abuse in the streets.
More positively, however, there has also been a new emphasis on Jewish identity in the last fifteen years, most noticeably in music and culture, which previously was considered a thing confined to the distant past, as if it belonged to a different country. Perhaps this is due to an increasing recognition that post-war politics has not allowed for the social resolution of this trauma. Hungary never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for any of the events of 1938-88. After the Holocaust, Hungary was the only country in Central Europe to retain a significant Jewish population, so this remains a practical issue for both Jews, Gypsies and Magyars alike. Until the country comes to terms with its twentieth-century past, at least in regard to current attitudes, it will remain stuck there, paralysed and unable to move on to become the twenty-first century democratic nation it longs to be. It’s in this spirit of reconciliation that I decided to share these testimonies for Holocaust Memorial Day, 2013.
Chapter One: A Timeline of the Hungarian ‘Shoah’
Anti-Jewish Laws, 1938-1941:
Starting in 1938, the Horthy Government in Hungary passed a series of anti-Jewish laws based on Germany’s Nürnberg Laws. The first, passed on May 29th, 1938, restricted the number of Jews in each commercial enterprise, in the press, among physicians, engineers and lawyers to twenty percent. The second anti-Jewish law (May 5th, 1939), defined Jews as a racial group for the first time. People with two or more Jewish-born grandparents were declared Jewish. Private companies were forbidden to employ more than 12% Jews. 250,000 Hungarian Jews lost their income. Most of them lost their right to vote as well.
In the elections of May 28th–29th, Nazi and Arrow Cross parties received one-quarter of the votes and 52 out of 262 seats. Their support was even larger, usually between a third and a half of the votes, where they were on the ballot at all, since they were not listed in large parts of the country. The ‘Third Jewish Law’ (August 8th, 1941) prohibited intermarriage and penalized sexual intercourse between Jews and non-Jews.
The Census of 1941:
The census of January 31st, 1941 found that 6.2% of the population of 13,643,620, i.e. 846,000 people, were considered Jewish according to the racial laws of that time. In addition, in April 1941, Hungary annexed the regions of Yugoslavia it had occupied, adding over a million people to its population, including a further 15,000 Jews. This means that inside the May 1941 borders of Hungary, there were 861,000 people who were considered to be Jewish. From this number, 725,000, nearly 5% of the total population were Jewish by religion.
When the Nazis invaded in March 1944 they used the lists of members of the Jewish community to organise one of the swiftest and most efficient episodes of the Holocaust. With the ready assistance of Hungarian officials and the Gendarmerie 440,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz within a few weeks, most to their deaths. On some days the gas chambers and crematoria processed more than a thousand people an hour.
Occupation and Deportation:
A Jew living in the Hungarian countryside in March 1944 had a chance of less than one in ten of surviving the following twelve months.In Budapest, a Jew’s chance of survival of the same twelve months was fifty/fifty.
On March 18th, 1944, Hitler summoned Horthy to a conference in Austria, where he demanded greater collaboration from the Hungarian state in his ‘final solution’ of his Jewish problem. Horthy resisted, but while he was still at the conference, German tanks rolled into Budapest. On March 23rd, 1944, the government of Döme Sztójay was installed. Among his other first moves, Sztójay legalized the overtly Fascist Arrow Cross Party, which quickly began organizing throughout the country. During the four-day interregnum following the German occupation, the Ministry of the Interior was put in the hands of right-wing politicians well-known for their hostility to Jews. On April 9th, Prime Minister Sztójay agreed to place at the disposal of the Reich 300,000 Jewish labourers. Five days later, on April 14th, Adolf Eichmann decided to deport all the Jews of Hungary.
From his SS headquarters in Budapest’s Majestic Hotel, Eichmann proceeded rapidly in rounding up Jews from the Hungarian provinces outside Budapest and its suburbs. The Yellow Star and Ghettoization laws, and the deportation, were accomplished in less than 8 weeks with the enthusiastic help of the Hungarian authorities, particularly the Gendarmerie. The plan was to use forty-five cattle cars per train, four trains a day, to deport 12,000 Jews to Auschwitz every day from the countryside, starting in mid-May; this was to be followed by the deportation of Jews of Budapest from about July 15th.
At the end of April,the Jewish leaders of Hungary, together with the Hungarian leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, in addition to Horthy, received a detailed report about the deportation to Auschwitz, but kept their silence, thus keeping the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and their Christian neighbours in ignorance, and enabling the success of Eichmann’s timetable. The reality that no one in the villages knew anything about the plan in advance of it being carried out is borne out by the testimony of the Apostag villagers below.
The first transports to Auschwitz began in early May 1944 and continued even as Soviet troops approached. The Hungarian government was solely in charge of the Jews’ transportation up to the northern border. The Hungarian commander of the Kassa railroad station meticulously recorded the trains heading to Auschwitz with their place of departure and the number of people inside them. The first train went through Kassa on May 14th. On a typical day, there were three or four trains, with ten to fourteen thousand people on each. There were 109 trains during these 33 days through to June 16th, as many as six trains each day. Between June 25th and 29th, there were a further 10 trains, then an additional 18 trains between July 5th and 9th. By then, nearly 440,000 victims had been deported from the Hungarian towns and countryside, according to official German reports. Another 10 trains were sent to Auschwitz via other routes from Budapest, while seven trains containing over twenty thousand people went to Strasshof at the end of June, including two from Baja, which may well have picked up the Jews from Apostag at Kalocsa.
In total, one hundred and forty-seven trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Because the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were simply burned. It has been estimated that one-third of the murdered victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian.For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to Auschwitz in a typical day. Photographs taken at Auschwitz were found after the war showing the arrival of Jews from Hungary at the camp.
The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc. Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár on May 18. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews.
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated July 11, 1944, wrote:
“There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….”
Admiral Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6. Nonetheless, another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. The Sztójay government then rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. But the Romanians switched sides on August 23, 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and Himmler ordered the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary on August 25th. Horthy finally dismissed Prime Minister Sztójay on August 29th.
However, in spite of the change of government, Hungarian troops occupied parts of Southern Transylvania, Romania, and massacred hundreds of Jews, starting on September 4th.
After the Arrow Cross coup d’état on October 15th, tens of thousands of Jews of Budapest were sent on foot to the Austrian border in death marches, and most forced labourers under Hungarian Army command were deported to Bergen-Belsen. Two ghettos were set up in Budapest. The big Budapest ghetto was set up and walled in the Erzsébetváros part of Budapest on November 29th. Arrow Cross raids and mass executions occurred in both ghettos regularly. In addition, in the two months between November 1944 and February 1945, the Arrow Cross shot between ten and fifteen thousand Jews on the banks of the Danube. Soviet troops liberated the big Budapest ghetto on January 18th, 1945. On the Buda side of the town, the encircled Arrow Cross continued their murders until the Soviets took Buda on February 13th.
The names of some diplomats, Raoul Wallenberg, Ángel Sanz Briz, Carl Lutz, Giorgio Perlasca, Carlos de Sampayo Garrido and Alberto Teixeira Branquinho deserve mentioning, as well as some members of the army and police who saved people (Pál Szalai, Károly Szabó, and other officers who took Jews out from camps with fake papers) and some church institutions and personalities. Rudolph Kastner deserves special attention because of his enduring negotiations with Eichmann to prevent deportations to Auschwitz, succeeding only minimally, by sending Jews to still horrific labour battalions in Austria and ultimately saving 1,680 Jews in Kastner’s train.
An estimated 119,000 Jewish people were liberated in Budapest (25,000 in the small, ‘international’ ghetto, 69,000 in the big ghetto and 25,000 hiding with false papers) and 20,000 forced labourers in the countryside. Almost all of the surviving deportees returned between May and December 1945, at least to check out the fate of their families. Their number was 116,000.
It is estimated that from an original population of 861,000 people considered Jewish inside the borders of 1941–44, about 255,000 survived. This gives a 30% survival rate overall under Hungarian rule, but only because the projected deportations from Budapest did not take place. As has already been stated, the survival rates for Jews from the Hungarian countryside were far lower. This number was even worse in Slovakia. On the other hand, the Hungarian-speaking Jewish population fared much better in the Romanian-controlled Southern Transylvania, since Romania did not deport Jews to Auschwitz. According to another calculation, Hungary’s pre-war Jewish population was 800,000, of which 180,000 survived.
Chapter Two: Apostag – The Village in View
The village is in the County of Bács-Kiskun, occupying an area of thirty-two square kilometres, and with a population of just over 2,100. It’s located close to the eastern bank of the River Danube, to the south of Budapest on Hungary’s Southern Great Plain region. It is both a village and a municipality.
When we visited Apostag for the first time, in the autumn of 1990, we were met by a group of villagers at the Village House, the former Synagogue. There were no surviving Jewish residents or relatives of residents from the earlier period, so we realised very quickly that our project would depend entirely on the testimony of the Christian inhabitants who had contact with, and remembered, the families, together with the Church leaders, charged with the responsibility of commemorating these people and events.
The witnesses initially told their stories uninterrupted by ourselves. I remember that the testimony of one elderly woman was particularly moving, and she sobbed as she gave it. Similar accounts were recorded in the later visit to the village, which took place in the spring of 1991, in notes and on magnetic tape.
Several interviews were conducted over the course of the week, involving people altogether, at least six of who were eyewitnesses. Their testimonies have been merged to some extent, where common observations or experiences were described. Individual stories are reported using Christian names only. Full names are only used in connection with the Jewish victims, when given to us. The text follows closely the original words, in translation, used by the witnesses, and contains very few interpretations and additions by me.
The Village Chronicle to 1918:
The Catholic Priest told us that before the Hungarian tribes settled in the Carpathian Basin, there were some ‘Bulgár’ people living on this territory and they built their ancient Christian Church here. They called it ‘the Church of the Twelve Apostles’ which is where the name ‘Apostag’ comes from. It was a twelve-cornered rotund building, almost round, and couldn’t have been built in this form by the Magyars, who built in a totally different style. It is thought that the name ‘Hungary’ may originate from these Bulgar people and not, as is commonly but erroneously supposed, from the Huns, the nomadic people who had built up a powerful Eurasian empire in the fifth century, under their leader Attila (406-453). In the seventh century, the Magyars settled in the former lands of a Bulgar-Turkish trading alliance along the Danube. These people were called ‘On-Ungour’, which meant ‘Ten Arrows’, or ‘Ten Tribes’ in Turkish, mutating to ‘Ungar’ in German and ‘Hongrois’ in French, no doubt passing from there into ‘Hungary’ in English, hence the confusion with the Huns.
For these early Christian traders up the Danube from the Black Sea ports, Apostag was no doubt an important port, as well as a centre of their faith, to which the stones of this ancient church on the site of the present-day Reformed Church, bear witness. So when the Hungarian people settled in this territory, they found this church, which remained here until the beginning of the eighteenth century, when the Calvinists were growing in numbers following the end of the Ottoman occupation and needed a bigger place of worship. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the settlement was a very important centre of Roman Catholicism, because the priests from all over Hungary gathered here, before going to meet the King. There are records of these meetings in the Vatican archives. The Ottoman troops destroyed this early settlement on the way to Buda. A settlement named ‘Apostag’ then grew up on the other side of the Danube during the Turkish occupation. The lands on this western, or left bank remained under Hapsburg control for most of the period.
Although still quite a small village by Hungarian standards, its central location and role in the territory meant that there were strong congregations for all the main Christian churches, Catholic, Evangelical (Lutheran) and Reformed (Calvinist). The Evangelical congregation was the oldest and richest congregation in the village. They escaped from persecution in the Hapsburg territories to this territory, because it was under Turkish occupation. They were able to save some money here, and they soon became rich. However, it was only when the occupation ended at the end of the seventeenth century that the settlement on the right bank was fully restored by the Reformed Church, who became owners of the site of the ancient church.
The Calvinists were soon followed by Evangelical and Catholic people who settled down in what began to look like the large, traditional Magyar village of today. By the middle of the eighteenth century there were about 150 Catholic families in the village and in 1991, there were a total of about 1,200 Catholics living in the village. There are two other villages belonging to the Church territory today, Dunaegyháza and Dunavecse.
There were also a lot of mixed marriages. Pál, a retired teacher in 1991, had a mother who was Lutheran and his father was Catholic. His wife was Lutheran and her father was Calvinist. So, there was a real mixture of ‘religions’. However, he stressed that they could all live together without many problems.
The Synagogue and the Jewish Community:
There has been a Synagogue in Apostag since 1768, the Jewish population having developed into a sizeable, settled community, worthy of its own place of worship, by the 1760s. The earliest place of worship was completed by the end of the eighteenth century. The Jews had settled in this part of Hungary at the beginning of the Turkish occupation, following the Battle of Mohács in 1526. It was at the beginning of the eighteenth century that they came to the village selling small goods like needles, and at first they were very poor. They saved a lot of money and by the second half of that century they had become rich enough to think about building a synagogue. The proximity of the settlement to Buda/ Pest along the Danube meant that the richer Jews living in the cities were in a position to help the Jews of Apostag with both money and materials. They not only helped each other, but earned a reputation for honesty in their trading relations with others as well.
In 1820, the Synagogue, together with a large part of the village, was destroyed by fire. The new building had to be larger, since the congregation numbered more than six hundred by this time. It had a plain, simple appearance from the outside, as the Jews did not want it to stand out too much. However, inside it was very ornate in parts, decorated in a baroque style, with a magnificent four-pillared ‘bimah’ as its central feature and a beautifully crafted ‘Aaron-cabin’ housing the Torah on the eastern wall. These can be seen in their restored form in the synagogue today. The interior bears a striking similarity to the Protestant churches of the Great Plain. The men in the congregation worshipped in the main hall of the synagogue, with the women and young children occupying the galleries, according to Judaic custom.
The village was an important centre of trade, because it was a central crossing place over the Danube and the place where cereals, wood and building materials were traded. The Jews became rich mainly because of the trade in wood, since the merchants brought wood along the Danube from the Upper Austro-Hungarian territories, which later became part of the new state of Czechoslovakia in 1918-20. The Jewish traders bought and sold the wood in Apostag, making a lot of money, which they then used to buy most of the land in the territory (around Apostag). This territory was very famous for its agriculture and the Jewish families were dealing with the growing of all kinds of vegetables and maize.
The Catholic Church has some documents dating back to the nineteenth century. According to these, in 1863, there were as many as 900 Jewish inhabitants, and among them were the richest people in the village.
Village Relationships Between the Wars:
By the end of the Great War and the beginning of the living memory of those giving oral evidence, there were some 2,300 inhabitants of the village and 104 Jewish families. Some of them owned land and some rented it, so not all the Jewish families were rich, and some remained quite poor. There were between one and three children in the families (smaller than the average ‘Magyar’ family). Twenty-four councillors were elected for the Village Council, one for each group of ten families. These representatives needed to be fairly wealthy landowners to qualify for election, and the fact that twelve of these councillors were Jewish also shows how integral a part of the leadership of the village they had become.
When the Jewish people bought most of the land and began to deal with the trade in cereals, they then began to buy shops. Most of the shops belonged to these families, and, for example, the Chemist’s now (in 1991) was a butcher’s shop at that time (1918-38). All the houses on the same corner of the main street were Jewish, and there were a lot of Jewish homes in that one street. The head of one of the families was a tanner, making and selling leather, and others in the street were leather-workers.
For the most part, there weren’t any problems between the Jews. They really helped each other. It was interesting that when new Jewish people arrived in the village there was a house, a room just for this purpose of providing accommodation until the family could find their own flat or house, and work, in the village. They didn’t want to keep their money for themselves. On the whole, there were very good relationships between the Jewish people and the other Hungarians. The Jewish people were so kind to the Hungarian people that they lent, or gave money to the poor. They weren’t really rich families, but had enough money to live on. Some of these Jewish tradesmen lent them some cereals if the poor peasants didn’t have any, although they had to pay it back with interest. The Hungarian people didn’t keep it for a long time, but only for a year or two. Most Magyars liked the Jewish people, but some didn’t, because those who were merchants, dealing in cereals, bought them at a very cheap price in the village and sold it at a very expensive price in Budapest, so high that nowadays (1991) the price is almost the same as it was then.
The Jewish families not only bought land, but they rented it as well, and they had very modern equipment and machines. They had a lot of animals and they had land of a very good quality.
Pál, a retired teacher (in 1991), was born in Apostag of peasant parents. He remembers that in his childhood there was a disabled Jewish boy in this street who was very ill with and he died before the Jews were taken away. He used to go to that house because they were quite rich and he was given a lot of sweets and he read books out loud to the boy because he couldn’t read because of his illness.
There was a Chemist in the village, and they had a daughter, who was one year younger than Pál, and sometimes he met her on the street when she was out walking with her French au pair. They liked each other, and the girl asked her mother to ‘buy this boy for me, if you can!’ So she thought that her parents could buy anything!
This girl now lives in Israel, and she came home to the village, but they weren’t able to meet. Her name was Klára Hetényi.
Pál could remember well that from around 1934, Lajos Nagy, the writer, was collecting topics for writing a book and in his most famous book he wrote about these Jewish families. Lajos Nagy’s wife was Jewish and they visited Apostag several times. He was able to meet up with his wife here and they were able to escape deportation by going from here to Budapest. He was said to be a Communist writer, but he wasn’t really, he was just interested in these socialist topics and sociology. In his books he doesn’t really speak in a very kind way about Jewish people.
In a Jewish family, they had several servants to do the housework, even if they weren’t so rich. The richest one, by giving her a job as a washing lady, helped the poor Jew.
In a Hungarian family, even if they were rich, they just did it themselves. So, the wife had to do the housework. They didn’t spend their money on this.
There were some women who weren’t very kind to their servants, but it happened not only with Jewish women, but with others as well. Small Hungarian peasant families originally owned the Jewish houses and it was claimed that they had collapsed because of fires. The poor Hungarian peasants couldn’t repair these houses, so the Jewish people bought them. There was gossip that these weren’t accidents, but someone set fire to them. Most of the houses in the main street belonged to Jewish families. We don’t know if these story is true or not, but people thought there must be some truth in them. Perhaps this was evidence of anti-Semitism.
However, an example of the good relations between the Jews and the Hungarians was that in 1937 there was a really big storm and lightning destroyed the house of a Jewish woman. A lot of people, not only Jewish people, but also Hungarians, tried to save the house, but it was ruined.
Anna was born in Apostag in 1919, and spent all her life in the village. So, she remembers her childhood and the Jewish families, because they often asked her mother to help them cook something, and she used to help her mum. Instead of going home, she would always spend the afternoons in the Jewish houses. She can remember all the families living in the main street and she can tell all the names and stories. They had a very good relationship with them.
To help her mother, Anna had to learn the Jewish food customs. They were not supposed to eat from Friday evening until Sunday. They were fasting, and the Saturday was their Sabbath, ‘Shabbat’, so they didn’t work on that day. If they ate bread, it had to be special, unleavened bread. They also ate this special ‘matzo’ bread on New Year’s Eve. Anna remembered her mum helping a young servant prepare the Passover meal, according to the Judaic food laws, washing the meat together and taking it to the Cantor.
The Jews ate only meat which was ‘kosher’, from their own butcher’s shop, chopped with a special knife, and they had to kill the animal with only one blow of the knife, without breaking its bones. The blood was unclean, and they had the special unleavened bread, matzoh. Only the elderly people were eating this meat and bread; the younger people ate pork as well, so they departed from these rules. However, some of older people continued to keep the food laws.
Anna remembers from when she was a young girl that her sister asked her to go to a shop to get some bicarbonate of soda and the shopkeeper asked ‘what shall I give you? Soda as well as an ox?’ (a play on words in Hungarian). The Chemist was Jewish, and the doctor as well. She remembers seven shops, two of which belonged to Magyars, and five to Jewish families. She remembers a greengrocer’s shop, which was also a butcher’s shop and she remembers that family. They didn’t have any land to grow vegetables, so (during the war) they had only the butcher’s shop but it was interesting that they could make a living out of it alone.
Pál didn’t spend all his life in this village; he spent some years in a town. He thought that ‘nowadays’ it wasn’t better to live in a village than it was then. It was better in ‘the old days’. There were eight shops in the village, and now there are only two ‘ABC’ shops, small supermarkets, where you can buy everything. Then there were eight of these, so the standard of living was better and the inhabitants, though not rich, had everything they needed, even from foreign countries. For example, they could buy needles and thread from England. He only just found the thread, which reminded him of this. The streets weren’t covered with concrete. It was muddy, so they didn’t walk through it after rain. There were no streetlights at all, but the water pipe was very good, because there weren’t any wells in the neighbourhood, so the pipe had to be very good.
In their free time, they couldn’t really use the Danube banks to swim, because it was quite dirty and polluted. A lot of people had ‘hobby gardens’ or allotments, in which they tried to grow things.
There was also a Jewish doctor in the street and just opposite there was a famous house, or mansion, which belonged to Ákos Hetényi, and this is now called ‘Ákos Garden’. Three families were living in that mansion, and Pál used to go there to collect tennis balls, because they had a tennis court. It was a real experience to visit that garden because they had many bushes, trees and flowers there. He had several fellow students who were Jewish.
János, born 1918, attended a Lutheran (Evangelical) School, famous for its strong teachers. Most of the Jewish children studied there, so he remembers them well. In particular, three children in the same class as him, though they were younger, the youngest being the doctor’s son, whose family lived in the house next to the school. They were all very good friends with him. The parents of the other two children were ‘bailiffs’, who gave orders to the peasants about where and how to work, and what to do.
The doctor’s son was a bit lazy. He was clever, but he didn’t do anything in school time, or in the holiday, nothing. He preferred talking and just staying in bed and on Monday mornings he usually asked his friend to do his Maths homework and paid him for it. János could buy a lot of chocolate and sweets for this! Later on they left that school and went to a Grammar School, so they didn’t meet up as often.
Chapter Three: Fifty Years of Division & Sorrow
Anti-Semitic Laws and the Outbreak of War:
Pál’s father was the Justice of the Peace in the village law court when the anti-Semitic laws began to be introduced. His father was always very humane towards the Jewish people in the village: He gave several certificates to them to pass on to the German or Russian leaders. Some of the children moved to Budapest at this time, so they met only rarely.
János’ parents rented some of the land of the Jewish families who moved to Budapest, just as the war began. Before the laws restricting Jews from owning shops were introduced, János worked together with these Jewish families, and he was apprenticed to one Jewish family, training to be a butcher, working with two Jewish butchers in their shop. He went to a school in Budapest to train there, but he had to return to Apostag, because the Jewish butchers weren’t allowed to work in their own shop, because of the anti-Jewish laws. So they sold the shop to him, and he became the butcher.
János’ father was a ‘hussar’, a light cavalry soldier, who was in the Hungarian Army for seven years, fighting alongside the Jewish soldiers. The Jewish people living in Apostag were not just Jewish in culture, but also Hungarian. Some part of their hearts was Hungarian.
At the outbreak of the war, Pál had just enrolled as a student teacher at the Training College in Budapest. When they began the course there were fifty students, of whom only fifteen graduated when the war ended, not just because they became soldiers, but because some left Hungary to live in other parts of the world rather than join up. It wasn’t compulsory for them to join up, but they were put under a lot of pressure to do so. They hated this recruitment campaign.
Pál stated that there were no real arguments between the two ethnic groups until Hitler’s troops came into Hungary. This, he said, was the story of Hungary, because we are at the gate of the west and the east, and everybody runs through this gate, and we don’t know what to do. We can’t help this. First the Mongols, then the Tartars, then the Turks, then the Russians, then the Germans and every one of them ruined this country.
However, János said that it was the 1941 Census that marked the real beginning of the legal discrimination against the Jewish people. Everyone had to show their grandparents’ birth certificates, or Christening certificates. János remembers that, as a soldier, he had to show this certificate as well. He didn’t know why at the time, but now he does.
For example, he remembers a town clerk from before the war who belonged to the Fascist Party (the Arrow Cross) and the Jewish people first suffered because of him and his party. It wasn’t a very happy life, even for János, because he needed to get a license to slaughter the animals, so he wasn’t able to do as much for the Jews as he wanted. He couldn’t give them as much meat as he wanted to, because of the new laws.
It only became worse only in 1943/4. So, the Nazis only came in March 1944, but by that time the Horthy Government had a lot of people in place in key positions in the towns and villages of Hungary who had wanted to become the leaders in these places for some time, and that was a sad time for everybody.It was a very moving moment when, in March 1944, Anna saw her Jewish neighbours wearing the yellow star for the first time. She met a woman wearing the star, and nodded her head because she couldn’t look at the star, and the woman was really upset about it. The woman told her that they would have revenge on someone for this, that they would do something in the years to come.
Another woman spoke to us on our first visit to the synagogue, of a close Jewish friend who, although not related, looked almost like her identical twin sister, so much so that, before the war, they would try to fool the villagers by exchanging clothes and pretending to be each other. On the ‘Shabbat’, Saturdays, she would occasionally take her friend’s place with the other children and their mothers on the balcony of the synagogue during worship. Her head was covered, and no one looked at her too closely while the service was taking place. Meanwhile, her Jewish friend was playing outside. In return, the Jewish Girl would sneak into the back of the Church her friend attended the next morning.
When the Hungarian Fascists, the ‘Arrow Cross’ Guards came to the village in March 1944, the two friends put their similarity to more serious use. From this time onwards, the Jews were forced to wear yellow stars on the streets and in the fields. If they were found outside without them they were routinely beaten up, there and then, by the Fascists, who would also take pleasure in abusing the Jewish girls in particular, without any reason to do so other than their ethnicity, when they saw them coming. One day, the young Christian girl suggested to her friend that they should swap coats, and she would wear the coat with the star. That day, she took the beating and the abuse.
The Deportation; May, 1944:
János had joined the army in 1940 and was a soldier until 1948. He was only given leave once during this time, and this, crucially and perhaps poignantly, happened to be in May 1944. While he was at home, the Jewish families were taken away from the village. There is no evidence that anyone in the village, even soldiers like János, had any prior knowledge of the Nazi deportation plan. Even if they had heard something, there were only two cars in the village in 1944, so there was no real possibility of escaping abroad in the days and nights before it was so rapidly and ruthlessly enacted.
As it happened, János was surprised by the speed with which the Hungarian soldiers came in and took the Jewish people to Kalocsa. No one knew where they were being taken, or how long they would stay there, or what would happen to them. They were told to gather what they needed and they had to leave this village. Two little girls, aged 9 and 11, were somehow left behind, and they were able to stay on for a while, but one day the soldiers came and took them to Kalocsa as well. He was able to talk with the Hungarian soldiers who said that they weren’t very happy to take the girls away, but they had to do this. He went to Kalocsa to see the parents of these two girls and was able to talk with them. Then he returned to army. When he finally arrived home in 1948, he met some of the relatives of the family, who then owned the house where they had lived. He bought the house from them and was still living in it in 1991.
Some of the Jewish people tried to escape persecution by changing their faith, becoming Calvinist or Catholic. But this didn’t help, since the 1941 Census formed the basis for the rapid deportations, and they were taken away as well. However, they went to work in several Christian houses before being deported. There was a Jewish man who lived and slept in Anna’s house, and many years after one of his relatives came back and asked whether they could visit the house and remember ‘the old things that happened here’ because he got food and shelter there, and was sleeping there. But they didn’t come back. We don’t know what happened to them.
On the other hand, a lot of Hungarian men were told they would get the land or houses or shops of the Jewish people if they helped them to rid the village of them, and many wanted to do this. It is unlikely that they were from the same village, or that this was done more than a few hours beforehand, however, since rumours would have forewarned the intended victims. Hungarian forces, including the Arrow Cross, carried out the ‘evictions’. The witnesses all reported that, at this stage, the Germans didn’t really come into the village, but those people who became Communists after the Russians came in had supported the Fascists before. They were the same people, but they changed their minds!
When the Jews had to leave this village, Anna saw a little girl in someone’s lap, crying, ‘don’t let me go away, I want to stay here’, but she had to go as well. Everybody had to leave this village. When the Jews had to leave the village, they didn’t want to leave their houses and were wailing at the walls. They were kissing the walls with their lips and caressing them with their hands. The children were crying. It was really terrible. Some of the Christian families who lived close to the Jews went to the Jewish houses to say goodbye, and it was a very sad event, such a sad thing that they cannot forget it.
All the witnesses agreed in their evidence that the village people who weren’t Jewish couldn’t do anything to save their Jewish neighbours. The villagers also told us how they had watched from the nearby woods, in secret disbelief, as the soldiers took the Jews away in May 1944. They went on carts from the village to Kalocsa, which although further south of Budapest along the Danube, was apparently used as an assembly point for the Hungarian Jews being sent to the concentration camps. The villagers all stated that they did not know this at the time.
So, when the Jewish people were taken away from the village, nobody knew anything about where they would go. When the Jewish people had to leave the village, they went by horse and cart to Kalocsa, some with their non-Jewish servants driving, so unaware were they of the ghastly reality which awaited them. All anyone knew was that they would stay for a while in Kalocsa, but nothing else.
Explaining their apparent ‘naivety’ at the time of the deportations, the witnesses referred to the apolitical nature of Hungarian country people. The people of Apostag were no exception to this. We were told that they ‘preferred not to deal with political matters’ and ‘preferred to work rather than talking about politics’. They were simple, unsophisticated, agricultural workers, unlike the residents of Budapest, but they remember very clearly what happened to the Jewish people. It all happened very quickly, because the German troops came in on 19th March 1944, and they were taken away in May.
On his return to working as a soldier, János became a courier – his task was to carry letters from one town to another. He became more aware of what was happening in all the parts then controlled by the Hungarian Army. He met some Hungarian Jews in Yugoslavia and shared some pálinka (brandy) with them. They were very grateful, because they couldn’t get anything like that usually. They were rich, well-educated, but they had to remain and work in Yugoslavia.
After the war, very few Jewish people were able to return to this village. Only the Cantor and six of the six hundred deported Jews returned to live in the village, according to the synagogue’s records. These included two young women and a two couples, on of which were known to be living in Budapest in 1991. The other husband and wife had both died in the village by that time, as had the two young women. In addition some of their relatives came to settle the families’ affairs. They could find only some of their houses, however, and they sold these houses to other people. The land that belonged to the Jewish people had already been taken over by the co-operatives, so they could only sell their houses. Nothing could be seen of them in 1991, and nothing was written down. Only a very few houses could be seen in their original state, because many had become ruined, but there were some which could be viewed. There was one which was a kindergarten to which Pál went there as a child in 1921-23. A Jewish man gave this land and the building. His name was Lajos Hetényi, and for many years there was a marble plaque on the kindergarten, a memorial to him. The building can still be seen, but not the memorial.
Anna remembers that from one of the families which was taken away, only the daughter could return. When Anna heard that the daughter had returned to their house, she went there to meet her, but she was very bitter. When Anna asked her how she was and what had happened to her, the daughter told her that it had been really terrible for her. They had had to do the most menial, basic hard labour, carrying bricks and doing everything that is not good for a woman.
Another couple came back after the war. One day, they asked to borrow a hoe to repair the hedges around the garden gate, and they did this, but couldn’t go on living in the building, because it was too full of people they didn’t know. So they moved to another house in the village. She came to Anna’s house one day, to get some milk. This couple had converted to Catholicism by then, but the woman told Anna that she found it difficult to worship in Hungarian, that she could only worship in the Hebrew. The couple died here in Apostag.
Otherwise, it was mainly the relatives of the Jewish people who returned to sell the houses, not those who had lived in them themselves.
The witnesses all said that they felt sorry for the Jews, as did 99% of the population of the village. There were those who were still jealous of them because of their prosperity, but most people liked them and couldn’t imagine how it could have happened.
The Continuation and Conclusion of the War, 1944-5:
During the war, there wasn’t any fighting in the village itself, but in the neighbourhood there was a lot. Only a few people died due to bombing, and only one bomb fell on the village itself. There was a woman who had just given birth and she died, but the child survived.
In the village, there were some German soldiers towards the end of the war. There was one in his parents’ house and he asked him whether the Germans would win the war and he replied, ‘naturliche, yah!’, (‘of course’), but only he was sure of it, nobody else. There wasn’t really any fighting in the village. The Russian troops did run through the village, but they couldn’t go to the other side of the Danube because the bridge had been bombed, so they stayed outside the village.
Anna remembered that on 3 November 1944 a lot of Russian soldiers came into this village, and her father told them that no matter what happened, they always had to give food to the soldiers, whether they are German, Russian or Hungarian, and then they wouldn’t do any harm. She remembers that one day soldiers came and knocked at the door and she wanted to give them some bread and bacon. Next day they came back and she gave them some pork and from that day on they came back every day to have breakfast, lunch and supper, and she always had to give them some food. One day they didn’t appear any more, and they didn’t know what happened to them. A lot of people stayed in their living room, Russian soldiers, and they were even sleeping on the table, because there were no more bed-spaces for them on the floor. So it was really terrible, but it was the war, so no one could help this.
The first Russian troops were very kind, only looking for German soldiers in the sewers, and they collected only small amounts of food from the villagers. But those who came later were terrible. They collected everything they could find. His family had a small pig they had somehow saved, and they kept it in the house, out of sight. To keep him quiet they gave him corn all the time. He became so fat that he couldn’t even stand, just sit, and in the end they gave him to an abattoir in Budapest to get some money.
The Russian soldiers collected some goods in another village and gave them to this village as a present. They had a pair of oxen, each ox with only one eye, so it was difficult to arrange them so that they could see to do their work! There were some Russian soldiers who didn’t want to return with the army, and they tried to help with the housework around the village houses and they were told to go to the edge of the village, because there were cereals there and they wanted to use the oxen to bring them into the village. So, one Russian soldier went in front of the oxen and one went behind, and on the other side of the Danube there were Fascistic Hungarian soldiers and they began shooting because they thought the cart was carrying military equipment. So it was dangerous for the oxen as well as the Russians!
Later, a lot of Hungarian people were deported to the Soviet Union for hard labour. Pál was one of them, but he managed to escape. He was allowed to stay in Hungary, but under forced labour, and he helped to build a wooden bridge near the Danube which was bombed and a lot of people were killed there. In 1944, on Christmas Night, more than a hundred people of the village were sent to build the bridge at the Danube. There was an aeroplane, they still don’t know to today whether it was German or Russian, they just thought that it must be German, and it dropped a bomb, and 43 people died. Pál wasn’t working there at the time it actually happened, but he had the memorial plaque placed on the Town Hall, because he could so easily have been killed there. There were some other deaths after that, but not many.
The Synagogue was ruined only by the passing of time. After the war it was in a very good state, and in the winter of 1944/45 soldiers were camped there and the people brought them food and blankets. There was a sign on the side of the synagogue written in Hebrew, but it’s not there nowadays, so nobody knows what it said. Later it became a cereal storehouse. The roof became ruined, but it had been restored by 1987, though there are some differences. For example, the gate is on the other side from where it was. Anna remembered this from playing there. When they were restoring the Synagogue and building the library, they found many broken glasses under the bimah. After the priest blessed the newly married couple, they broke a glass under their feet, the idea being that they were allowed to divorce only when this glass became a whole glass again. So when they were rebuilding the synagogue they found a lot of broken glasses. They also built a passage on one side of the (reconstructed) synagogue, but Anna remembered that she was playing there one day and she cut the cat’s whiskers, so she remembered that there wasn’t (originally) a passage there!
It was only in the 1950s that the people in the village found out what had happened to the Jews. János first heard something in 1946, because he was in the army. The Hungarian people couldn’t do anything to stop this, though they felt sorry for them; they were frightened for their own lives. Ordinary people couldn’t imagine that this could happen. Not only the Jewish people, but also a lot of Hungarian people were told to leave their towns and villages, and they had to go to the Soviet Union and work there. It was not only what happened to the Jewish people that was so tragic, but also what happened to the Hungarian soldiers who were put into forced labour in the Soviet Union (János was there for three years). Those who were taken prisoner by the Soviet troops could only return home years after, maybe even fifty years later. There were some who could come home only last year (1990). One old man spent five years in the Soviet Union. This could happen to everybody and anybody, though only the Jewish people died in gas chambers, or were starved to death.
In the 1956 Revolution there was no fighting in the village, but there were a number of ‘interesting events’. The soldiers beat some of the teachers through the streets because they were thought to have encouraged the young to rebel. At the end of October, one man was caught climbing over a gate into a wine cellar owned by a company of merchants, because he wanted to get his money out of the safe that was kept inside.
The Village in the Nineties:
In 1991 the Evangelical congregation hadn’t got a priest, they had only the church, which is the largest church in the village. They didn’t know what the future of the congregation would be, because they couldn’t really do what they wanted. It was also seen as a sad fact that the younger people had ‘escaped’ from the village because they didn’t want to work in the co-operatives, day and night, without earning money, so they had ‘escaped’ to other parts.
The village had changed a lot since Anna was a child, she felt. They were all together before the war, and it was only one community, but in 1991 it was split.
After the war János became a tradesman, dealing in animal husbandry, especially in beef cattle. He came home from Russia in 1948 and he didn’t think we could imagine how very difficult that time was for them. Not only the Jewish families suffered from the war, but everyone who lived here, either as a citizen or as a soldier. When he came back, as regards the ‘faith’, that time was a turning point in Hungarian life, because the churches and their social services were nearly destroyed by the Soviets, and there were also so many other problems. It was a great shame, but there were so many other problems at that time, both historically and in private lives.
The sorrow felt about the deportations lessened a little when the Hungarian people had their own troubles after the war and during the forty years following the communist takeover, when they had to deal with their own problems and didn’t have time to think about the Jewish people. Nowadays, it’s becoming easier to think about these problems again, and they feel solidarity for those families. They try to remember and to commemorate the families. If they were not thinking about these people with joy and love in their hearts, and if they didn’t love them, then they wouldn’t have kept them in our memories. We wouldn’t even be able to use their names to talk about them. The Primary School is named after the Hetényi family, and the garden is called the Ákos garden, and many of the shops have kept the names of the Jewish people. The Jewish names live in the language of the people, because they are still used to refer to fields and parcels of land after the Jewish people who owned them before, in spite of the fact that they have changed hands more than once. That’s because the names are written in the hearts of the people.
The Church leaders felt that God had helped them during this difficult period, these forty years, and that they had to believe that he would help them in the future. In 1989-91, these forty years were usually mentioned as the reason for everything that was really bad then, and it’s the same with the churches, so people often said that they were in a bad state because of these forty years. But most of the children could be members of the different churches and the parents of these children, who weren’t allowed to go to churches previously, could take their children there. They hoped that these children would remain as members when they became adults. For their parents, there was no Religious Education in schools either, so people under the age of forty have no experience of such classes.
References & Bibliography:
Bart, István (1999), Hungary & The Hungarians. Budapest: Corvina Books.
History of the Jews in Hungary: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hungarian_Jews
- Don’t fear Hungary’s radical anti-Semitic party, Jewish MP urges (timesofisrael.com)
- New synagogue planned for Budapest (jta.org)
- Hungarian Parliamentarian Wants Government to Draw up List of Dangerous Jews (reason.com)
- Hungarian Jews ask Russia to return looted scrolls (news.terra.com)
- Anger as Hungary far-right leader demands lists of Jews (news.yahoo.com)
- Hungarian rightwinger denounced after calling for survey of Jews (guardian.co.uk)