Archive for March 2016

The Birth of a Terrible Beauty: The Easter Rising, Dublin 1916   Leave a comment

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Posted March 28, 2016 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

A New World Dawning: Easter Sunday   Leave a comment

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The name Easter derives from Eostre or Eastre, the pagan Goddess of Spring. Her month was April and this became the Paschal month of the Christian Church. This was grafted on the celebration of the Greco-Roman celebration of the dead and risen God of Spring, Adonis, and it is interesting that the New Testament refers to Jesus as ‘Adonai’, the supreme being. For Christians, ‘Pasg’ in Welsh or ‘Pasque’ in French, begins with the Feast of the Resurrection on the Day of Jesus’ rising from the tomb, and its timing is directly related to the Jewish Feast of Passover, or ‘Pesach’ in Hebrew. It is by far the oldest of the Christian festivals, dating from the time of Cedd in the Celtic Church in Britain, before the Anglo-Saxon invasions and the missions of Cuthbert and Augustine to them, hence the different name in Welsh. The monks arriving after the…

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Posted March 27, 2016 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

RIP Imre Pozsgay: Driving Force of the Hungarian Revolution of 1989   Leave a comment

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In April 1990, the BBC’s international correspondent, John Simpson, wrote an introduction to his ‘eye-witness accounts of the Revolutions that shook the world’ over the previous twelve months, from Peking to ‘Eastern’ Europe as it was known then. In it, he published the photograph and caption below from June 1989:

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Although Miklós Neméth and Gyula Horn are perhaps more familiar names as Prime Ministers during this period and through to the later 1990s in Horn’s case, Pozsgay was undoubtedly the leading architect of the Reform movement within the leadership in the Spring and Summer of 1989, securing both the bloodless removal of János Kádár from power and the opening of the border to Austria to the East German refugees, which led to the fall of the Berlin Wall later that Autumn. By the time President Bush visited in July 1989, just before I arrived for my second visit (my first had been in October 1988 with a group of Quakers from Britain led by a 1956 exile), Hungary had effectively ceased to be either a Communist country or a Soviet ‘satellite state’. Senior citizens, including Pozsgay, had been talking seriously of joining the European Community and NATO. During my third visit, in October 1989, the country had indeed changed both its name and its constitution. By the time I came to Hungary for the fourth time, this time to marry and live here, in the early Spring of 1990, the country was getting ready for its first free elections since November 1945. Here, Simpson takes up the story:

When the final round of elections came, in April 1990, the reformed Communists won only 8 per cent of the seats, and Pozsgay and his colleagues were out of office.  A centre-right government came to power. As in 1918, Hungary had emerged from an empire and found itself on its own; though this time, unlike the violence and destruction which followed the abortive Communist Republic of Béla Kun in 1919, the transition was peaceable and relaxed. Hungary’s economy and environment had been horribly damaged by thirty-three years of Marxism-Leninism; but now, at least, it had shown the way to the rest of Central and Eastern Europe. There are dozens of men and women, maybe more, who had a part in encouraging the revolutions that will be described in this book. But the stout figure who stays at home and cooks for his family while he tries to work out what to do next, is one of the more important of them. 

I left Hungary that Easter to travel to Dublin for my second IATEFL (International Teachers of English as a Foreign Language) Conference. The tricoleur flags and bunting were out on the streets and fine buildings of the Irish capital for the 74th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising. My only previous visit there had been in the summer of 1966 shortly after the (then) Official IRA had blown up Nelson’s Column as an act of confirmation of Ireland’s breaking free of the British Empire. This weekend in 2016 marks the hundredth anniversary of the Rising, and major acts of commemoration and celebration are planned. Those who struck a blow for freedom during a time when the British Empire was at war – Pearse, Connolly among them – are not remembered by all Irish people as heroes and, at least until their ‘martyrdom’ at the hands of the British state, they were not celebrated as by many of their contemporary compatriots. In Hungary, those who led a non-violent revolution, perhaps therefore more worthy of commemoration, could never give their contemporary compatriots enough to make them forget that they were Communists. However, without their contribution, the events of 1989-90 might not have provided so peaceful a transition and, as the wars in the Balkans and the Ukraine have demonstrated, the anti-heroes of violent nationalism might have, instead, caused the civil strife we now see across the Middle East, five years after the Arab Spring. Hungary’s softer nationalists may never give Imre Pozsgay a statue in Kossúth tér, outside Parliament, like the 1956 rebel Communist leader, Imre Nagy, but he should be remembered by internationalists across the continent as one of a small group of leaders who helped to reunite the continent in peace, freely giving up power in order to do so. In keeping with the Easter theme, their role was, though not as sacrificial as that of the 1916 ‘rebels’, certainly a bravely vicarious and patriotic one.

RIP, Imre.

Source: John Simpson (1990), Dispatches from the Barricades. London: Hutchinson.

The Nazi Occupation of Hungary, March 1944   Leave a comment

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Four years ago, the 19th March was officially designated as Hungary’s day for remembering the victims of the German occupation of Hungary which began on that day in 1944, following an agreement between its then Regent, Admiral Horthy, and the ‘Führer’ of the Third Reich, Adolf Hitler, two days earlier. The first implication of the current Hungarian government’s decision to commemorate the Holocaust on a different day from the rest of the world (which does so on Holocaust Memorial Day in January) was that the whole Hungarian people were just as much victims of this ‘invasion’ and the atrocities which followed, as the Jews and Roma who were murdered under the authority of the Nazi régime, or who somehow survived them in the last year of the war. The second was that the ‘Hungarian Holocaust’, to give it the title widely used by historians, had little to do with the anti-Jewish motivations and actions of the Hungarian governments of 1944-5, and those which had led up to them in the previous six to eight years, and that those actions in which they participated, were only undertaken by them under the extreme duress applied by the SS. Statues have recently been erected in Budapest and elsewhere which seek to symbolise this lie. The fact that, this year, there have been no published statements by or on behalf of the current state ministers or President, only goes to confirm that they have no wish to court controversy by repeating the lie, though they continue to seek to rehabilitate proven active collaborators by initiating, sponsoring and supporting the erection of statues of these public officials who took part in the deportations and murders of more than six hundred thousand Hungarian citizens and refugees from other countries who sought asylum in Hungary from 1936 onwards.

I have, for my part, continued to educate myself about these sufferings by reading Anna Porter’s book on (probably) the most famous of these refugees, the Transylvanian Jewish journalist, Rezső Kasztner. If there were any doubt about the guilt of the Hungarian state in 1944, the quotation she makes at the end of her chapter on Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann should answer this unequivocally. Although it took nearly three weeks for the ‘orders’ to be transmitted from State Secretary László Baky to the local authorities, marked “secret”, they clearly bore his signature and declared:

The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age. 

In making so clear an anti-Jewish statement, Baky was clearly not acting under orders he disagreed with. In her previous chapters, Porter points out that Baky had served in both the Hungarian military and gendarmerie, from which he had retired with the rank of major, in order to devote himself to politics. He had joined the fascist Arrow Cross Party in 1938, then switched to the Hungarian National Socialist Party in which he had used the Party’s newspaper, Magyarság, for his tirades against the Jews. He had been an informant for the SS before Hungary’s entry into the war and, in 1940, had once more joined the Arrow Cross, under the leadership of Ferenc Szálasi, to whom he was reported to remark:

We are going to have some hangings, aren’t we, Ferenc? 

When Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest in late March 1944, he had been expecting some resistance to his plans for The Final Solution from the new Hungarian government and authorities. Instead he was offered immediate, enthusiastic assistance. A week after he arrived, he had asked for a meeting with Baky and the other newly-appointed state secretary, László Endre. It was held over bottles of wine and pretzels in the garden of the Majestic Hotel in the Swabian Hill District, where Eichmann had taken over a villa owned by a recently-interned Jewish businessman. Eichmann informed the two secretaries that he had orders directly from Himmler himself for the ghettoisation and deportation of all Hungarian Jews. They greeted this statement with wholehearted support, eager to begin the task of concentrating the Jews the very next day, starting with the hundred thousand plus refugees without Hungarian citizenship, most of whom had already been ’rounded up’. Eichmann himself had to restrain them on practical grounds, because he needed time to organise the transportation system which would be used to deport the Jews to Auschwitz. This could only handle twelve thousand Jews a day, he told them, and added that the gas chambers and crematoria in the camp could not handle the numbers they were proposing, either.

They therefore accepted Eichmann’s more gradual plan, offering that the Hungarian state would provide the gendarmerie and pay for the fees of the transports and guards to the border, just as the Slovak government had done. Eichmann agreed with them that Budapest’s large, wealthy Jewish community would be the last to be deported, but that they too would be gone by the end of June. Since most of the young Jewish men were already serving at the eastern front, in labour battalions, the state secretaries could assure Eichmann that there would be little resistance and, if any did materialise, it would be firmly dealt with by the gendarmes, who would be faced with unarmed older civilian men  and women with children. Eichmann asked that a member of the Hungarian government should submit to him a request for the evacuation in order to maintain the thin veneer of independence. Baky then left, elated, to meet with Lieutenant Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie, who would need to execute the order. Ferenczy claimed that the five thousand men under his command would only be too willing as well as able, to carry out the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews. Many of them were of Swabian origin and viewed the Jews as enemy aliens. Many years later, Eichmann gave an interview to a Dutch journalist in Argentina in which he recalled his meeting with Baky and Endre.  He was reported as saying:

On that evening, the fate of Jews of Hungary was sealed.

The country was divided into six ghettoisation and deportation zones, each of which would be handled separately and in strict order, in agreed turns, beginning with Carpathian Ruthenia and Transylvania. All communication between the zones would be cut off. On 22 March, Prime Minister Döme Stojay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer, the Reich plenipotentiary, had insisted that Jews throughout the country should wear a yellow star. Regent Horthy ‘washed his hands’ of responsibility for this, stating that, in future, such “requests” regarding the Jews should not be presented to him. He later told Samuel Stern, with whom he had regularly and recently played cards in the Buda castle, that his hands were tied in the matter, under threat of total exclusion from power. He had, he said, held out for as long as he could on “The Jewish Question”. The order went into effect on 5 April, with only Stern and his newly Nazi-appointed ‘Jewish Council’ exempted.

On 31 March Eichmann summoned the Jewish Council to his offices on Swabian Hill. Eichmann’s men had surrounded the buildings around the Majestic Hotel with three rings of barbed wire. Eichmann’s office was on the second floor, while Baky had installed himself in an office on the third so that he and his staff could plan mass murder without interruption from other pressing matters, such as the conduct of the war on the eastern front. Eichmann sat in the only chair in the meeting room and told the Council members that he was not in favour of executions, except of those Jews linked with resistance movements. His job was to raise the output of the war industries, he lied, and the Jews, except of course for the Council members, would have to work in them. He shouted at them:

I am a bloodhound! All opposition will be broken. If you think of joining the partisans, I will have you slaughtered. I know you Jews. I know all about you. I have been dealing with Jewish affairs since 1934. If you behave quietly and work, you’ll be able to keep your community and your institutions. But… where Jews opposed us, there were executions… I will make no distinction between religious Jews and converts. As far as I’m concerned, a Jew is a Jew, whatever he calls himself.

Later the same day, the Hungarian government issued several new decrees regarding the Jews: they were prohibited from employing non-Jews; they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own or even drive motor vehicles, including motor-bikes. They were even banned from riding bicycles. They had to hand in their radios and telephones to the authorities in charge of Jewish affairs. Above all, they all had to wear the yellow star of David, marking them out clearly for purposes of differentiation.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American planes bombed Budapest for the first time. Whole buildings collapsed along the main routes into the city centre and in the Castle District. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for the displaced ‘Christians’. Peter Hain, the chief of Hungarian Intelligence, decided to relocate influential Jews near to industrial and military installations, believing that they would somehow be able to warn the British and Americans not to bomb these targets. The Jewish Council was expected to provide five hundred of these hostages. Samuel Stern gave Hain a list which contained only eight names, all of whom, including himself, were members of the Jewish Council. The Germans told Hain to drop this ‘crazy plan’, realizing that they still needed the Council’s cooperation.

On 4 April, László Baky met with Lieutenant-Colonel Ferenczy and members of the Sonderkommando and Weirmacht, to firm up the plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of all the Jews of Hungary. All Jews were, irrespective of age, sex, or illness, were to be concentrated in ghettos and schedules would be set for their deportation to Auschwitz. Only the few still employed in mines or factories were to be temporarily spared until they could be replaced. Each regional office was to be responsible for its own actions. The directive read:

The rounding up of the Jews is to be carried out by the local police or by the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units… If necessary, the police will assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.

It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to the mayors and prefects in the provincial towns and villages, but the ghettoisation was already underway on 7 April. In under three weeks, the Hungarian holocaust had been set in motion, and its success, at least in the rural areas, depended almost exclusively on the enthusiastic collaboration of the Hungarian authorities. In that respect, it was unique among the deportations of The Final Solution.

Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable & Robinson.

St Patrick’s Breastplate; Celtic Christianity   Leave a comment

Edited, reblogged and posted for St Patrick’s Day (17 March), 2016.

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Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Pa... Slemish, mountain in County Antrim where St Patrick is reputed to have shepherded as a slave (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland.  He lived in ‘the dark ages’ of the fourth century, so there are conflicting accounts of his life and a great number of legends about him. It is claimed that he wrote two documents, The Confession and The Letter to Coroticus. The first gives an account of his life, and the other tells us something of his style, personality and methods in urging Christian subjects to stand up against pagan leaders. In today’s increasingly secular society, the latter takes on fresh meaning.

He was born about 389 A.D., the son of a small landowner from Banwen in post-Roman Glamorgan (Morgannwg in Welsh), who brought him up as a Christian. When he was sixteen he was captured by ‘pirates’, who took…

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Posted March 16, 2016 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

Britain’s Refugee Record: Myth or Reality?   Leave a comment

Over the past year, as the tide of inter-continental migration has battered onto Europe’s eastern shores and frontiers, not least at Hungary’s new steel curtain, government and opposition spokesmen in Britain have made much of Britain’s proud record of coming to the aid of refugees, largely as means of defending the country over its failure to rescue those in the Eastern Mediterranean who would rather risk their lives crossing from Turkey than go without hope for themselves and their families in the overcrowded, makeshift camps on the borders of Iraq and Syria. Today, 15 March, marks the fifth anniversary of the beginning of the civil war in Syria, so that the refugee problem in the region has now lasted almost as long as that experienced in Eastern Europe in the Second World War.

Of course, Europe’s refugee problems of the inter-war period did not begin in 1939. Already in 1936 there were large numbers of refugees from fascism leaving both Spain and Germany. The capacity of the British people to welcome children, in particular, from the Basque country and Nazi Germany, in the wake of the bombing of Guernica and Kiristallnacht in 1938, has become legendary, the efforts of the Quakers and individuals like Nicholas Winton in the transport and settlement of the young ones especially so. This was at a time when Britain was experiencing its own internal migration crisis, with millions of miners and shipyard workers moving south and east from valleys and estuaries where traditional industries had suddenly come to a halt. Only from 1938, with rearmament, did the human exodus, bringing half a million workers and their families from south Wales alone since 1920, begin to slow. Government support for the distressed areas, which it renamed ‘Special Areas’ in 1936, had been grudging, and it was only at that time that they began to support the migration of whole families and communities which had been underway for more than a decade, organised by the migrants themselves.

Then when we look at what the British governments themselves did to help the Jewish populations to reach safety in Palestine, a very different story emerges, and one which present-day ministers would do well to remember. I’ve been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which gives a quite comprehensive survey of the organised attempts at exodus by those trying to escape from the holocaust which began engulfing them as soon as the Nazis invaded Poland. Their determination to reach their ancient homeland had been articulated by the Budapest-born founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, six-score years ago, when he wrote in The Jewish State in 1896:

Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvelous potency… We should there form a portion of a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism. We should as a neutral state remain in contact with all Europe, which would have to guarantee our existence… We should form a guard of honor about these sanctuaries, answering for the fulfillment of this duty with our existence. This guard of honor would be the great symbol of the solution of the Jewish question after eighteen centuries of Jewish suffering.  

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Above: Hungary and Central-Eastern Europe in the Second World War

Rezső Kasztner was born a decade later (1906), in Kolozsvár, then in Hungary, now Cluj in Romania, as it was after its annexation after the Paris Peace Treaties of 1918-21 until its re-awarding to Hungary by Hitler in 1938. The idea that the Jews one day return to Palestine attracted Kasztner to Zionism as a young teenager, even before he had read Herzel’s writing. When he did, he could accept Herzel’s foretelling of the disasters of National Socialism under Hitler because he had also read Mein Kampf, in its first German edition. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency Executive in Palestine, Kasztner realised that if Hitler came to power, the Jewish people would bear the brunt of the war which would follow.

Map of the Sykes–Picot agreement, which was signed by Mark Sykes and François Georges-Picot on May 8, 1916.

Above: The Division of The Middle East by the Sykes-Picot Agreement.

Palestine had been the one sure destination for Jews fleeing from Europe, but, as German enthusiasm for Jewish emigration grew in the early years of the Reich, so did Arab resistance to Jewish immigration. The sporadic riots that began in 1936 soon culminated in a full-scale Arab rebellion against British rule over Jewish immigration. About six hundred Jews and some British soldiers were killed, with thousands more wounded. The British government’s priority was to protect the Suez Canal, the jugular vein of the Empire, as it was described by contemporaries, was determined to appease the Islamic in its north African colonies, and so commissioned a  White Paper on a new policy for Palestine to replace that determined by the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the infamous Sykes-Picot agreement. Its effect was to limit Jewish immigration to twelve thousand people per year. Peace with the Arabs was to be of greater strategic importance as world war threatened than peace with the small number of Jewish settlers in Palestine and the powerless, if still wealthy, Jewish population of Europe. The British authorities soon amended the numbers to a maximum of a hundred thousand immigrants over five years, to include ‘refugees’ who arrived without proper entry certificates, but after 1941 the Palestinian Arabs would have the right to veto any further Jewish immigration.

Compared with the numbers under threat from the tidal waves of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, in Hungary from the enacting of a stronger version of its first Anti-Jewish Law in 1938, the numbers to be admitted to Palestine by the British were pitifully small. In the pages of Új Kelét (New East), Kasztner’s Hungarian-Jewish newspaper in Kolozsvár, he thundered out the headline Perfidious Albion. In exchange for political expediency, Britain had shut the gate to the only land still open to the Jews. Winston Churchill, still in the ‘wilderness’, accused the British government of setting aside solid engagements for the sake of a quiet life. He charged it with giving in to threats from an Arab population that had been increasing at a rate faster than Jewish immigration:

We are now asked to submit to an agitation which is fed with foreign money and ceaselessly inflamed by Nazi and fascist propaganda.

Refugees from Poland, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany itself poured over the borders of both Hungary and Transylvania, with only the clothes they were wearing. There were no rules to control the fleeing Jews, though some of the border guards made it difficult even for ethnic Hungarian Jews, insisting that they should recite to prove that they were ‘genuine’ Christian refugees, and not ‘just Jews’. Despite specific prohibitions from the Budapest government on the provision of aid to the refugees, Kasztner set up an information centre in Kolozsvár. He elicited help from local charitable organisations, providing temporary accommodation, food and clothing, but his main concern was to provide the Jewish refugees with safe destinations. He sent telegrams to the Jewish Agency in Tel Aviv, asking for help and funds to buy passages on ships and to pay bribes to local officials. The Agency’s staff were restricted by the British administration as to how far they could assist, especially in respect of how many visas they could issue according to the imposed limits. These were never enough, so they secretly began encouraging illegal immigration. The Agency had already set up an office in Geneva to monitor the situation in Europe, and it soon began to help with both legal and illegal migrants. Following the British White Paper, all Yishuv leaders had been supporting illegal immigration to Palestine, or aliya bet, as it was known.

To help Jews escape from the increasingly dangerous situation in Europe, the Jewish Agency paid the going rate for the passage of forty-five ships between 1937 and 1939. In 1939 alone, thirty ships, legal and illegal, sailed through the Black Sea ports through the Bosphorus and on to Palestine. Kastner obtained exit visas from the Romanian government, despite the efforts of the British to persuade Romanian  officials not to allow the departure of the overcrowded boats. He was certain that the British would have to allow the refugees to land once they arrived at the harbour in Haifa. Of course, both officials and shipowners were willing to take part in this lucrative trade in ‘people smuggling’, selling passages from the Romanian port of Constanta to Istanbul and then on to Palestine. Refugees set out down the Danube, from ports on the Black Sea, Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey.

Once the immigration quota for 1941 was filled, the British began their blockade of Palestine, fearing an all-out Arab revolt in the Middle East and North Africa. Several ships carrying illegal immigrants were apprehended by the Royal Navy. Conditions on these ships were so squalid that some people who had escaped from Nazi persecution at home now opted for suicide by water. The refugees who managed to reach Palestine were herded into detention camps. Those with valid passports were sent back to their countries of origin, where many were later murdered by the Nazis, or deported to concentration camps. A few thousand had been sent to Mauritius in late October 1940, and several thousand had ended up in Shanghai, where no-one had even thought of setting immigration limits, and where full-scale war did not break out until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

On one ship, the Atlantic, a group of Jewish saboteurs, members of the Haganah (the Jewish ‘underground’ whose members undertook illegal operations, including immigration), decided to disable the vessel so that the British could not force it to leave Palestinian waters. Inadvertently, they  caused an explosion which killed 260 people on board, many of them women and children. To make sure that would-be immigrants were aware of the dangers facing them on a sea crossing, the BBC reported the casualties, the deaths, and the redirecting of ships. Not wishing to incite the sympathy of the British people for the plight of the refugees, however, the officials made sure that the details were only included in broadcasts to the Balkans and eastern Europe.

Kasztner arrived in Budapest in the Spring of 1941. He continued to focus on his political contacts, working to gain sympathy for renewed emigration to Palestine even though Britain kept the borders and ports closed. Jewish emigration was not expressly forbidden by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler until late October 1941. The Palestine Office was on Erzsébet Boulevard, near the National Theatre. When Kasztner first went there, he met a group of young Zionist pioneers, or halutzim, from Slovakia, who wanted everyone to hear about the brutal deportations they had witnessed. Only a few young people tried to escape: they had heard stories from the Polish refugees, and they suspected a fate that their parents refused to believe. They hid in closets, cellars, and lofts, or in bushes along the riverbanks. They found the Hungarian border during the night.

In the Palestine Office, desperate people waited to hear if they were on the lists of those who had been chosen for the few Palestine entry tickets that were still available. Kasztner wondered if there would be more certificates, now that most of the offices in other countries had closed, or, as was the case in Warsaw, been closed by the Germans. Surely the British would open the borders to Palestine now that Europe was in flames? 

Not until the case of the ss Struma, however, did British policy toward Jewish refugees receive worldwide attention. An old, marginally refurnished, British-built yacht, the Struma had set out from Constanta in Romania in December 1941 with 769 Jewish refugees on board. The Greek shipowner had sold tickets for the voyage at exorbitant prices, aware that few ships would risk the voyage and that, for most of the passengers, the Struma offered their last, best chance to survive. The vessel arrived at Istanbul with a broken engine, the passengers crowded together with barely enough room to sit and no fresh water, food, sanitation, or medicine for the ailing children or those suffering from dysentery.

The ship remained in Istanbul for two months, during which time no-one was allowed to disembark or board, though the Jewish Agency succeeded in distributing food and water. The British government had put pressure on the Turks to block the ship’s entry and to prevent it leaving for Palestine. There was some discussion about lifting the women and children off the ship, followed by an exchange of cables involving the Foreign Office, the Turks, the Jewish Agency and the governments of the USA, Romania and the Reich. Eventually, the ship was towed out of the harbour. An explosion ripped open the hull, and the ship sank. There was a solitary survivor. Whether the explosion was the result of a bomb on board or a Soviet torpedo, all those familiar with the story at the time blamed Britain’s intransigence. On the walls of the Jewish areas of Palestine, posters appeared bearing the photograph of Sir Harold MacMichael and the words:

Known as High Commissioner for Palestine, WANTED FOR THE MURDER of 800 refugees.

Great Britain had declared war on Hungary on 7 December 1941, the same day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Tied to Japan by the Tri-Power Act, Hitler had declared war on the United States on 11 December. The next day, the American ambassador departed from Budapest, as the US no longer regarded Hungary as an independent nation, though it did not formally declare war until June 1942. The fate of Hungary’s Jews, and those of the rest of Europe, was then effectively in the hands of the Third Reich, as was the fate of Hungary itself. Nevertheless, by February 1942, an anti-Fascist front in the guise of the the Hungarian Historical Memorial Committee had come into being. It first step was a mass rally on 15 March, the anniversary of the outbreak of the 1848-9 Revolutionary War, at the Petöfi monument in Budapest, demanding independence and a democratic Hungary.

In January 1942, Hungarian military units had executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied parts of Yugoslavia, the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to those territories which had been awarded to Yugoslavia by the Treaty of Trianon. Those ‘executed’ included 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, “could grow up to be enemies”. A third of the victims, it was estimated, were ethnic Hungarian Jews, who it was claimed had joined the Serbian partisans. A military tribunal was held to decide who was to blame for this atrocity, but not before the guilty commanders were able to find refuge in Germany. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, who arrived with terrible tales of mass executions: people had been thrown into the icy waters of the Danube , those in charge continuing the killings even after receiving orders to stop.

However, even amidst harsh discriminatory laws, which made mixed-marriages illegal and denounced ‘inter-racial’ sexual relations as a crime of defamation of race, the lives of most Jews in Hungary were not in immediate danger until 1944. As a result of this, about a hundred thousand Jews sought and found refuge in Hungary from Slovakia, Romania and Croatia, where they had been exposed to pogroms and deportation to death camps from early 1942 onwards. They joined the Polish Jews who had taken refuge in the capital at the beginning of the war.

In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not anticipated in Budapest and elsewhere. As early as July 1941, Göring had issued a directive for the implementation of the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference had also taken place in January 1942, at which ‘Hangman Heydrich’ had boasted openly that that Solution involved eleven million Jews, all of whom would be selected for hard labour, most of whom would die through natural dimunition, the rest of them being killed. The President of the Jewish Council in Budapest, Samuel Stern, an anti-Zionist, remained confident that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. Scientifically regulated extermination facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner:

In the months to come, we may be left without money and comforts, but we shall survive.

Why, after all, would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means of defending themselves? Nevertheless, The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp. In the House of Commons, Churchill gave a scathing address, broadcast by the BBC, and heard throughout Budapest:

The most senseless of their offences… is the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. This tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme.

At the end of 1942, there was still hope that refugees could slip through the German dragnet in exchange for bribes and, if the Hungarians allowed free passage for boats down the Danube, they could find a passage to Palestine from one of the Black Sea ports. The Jewish Agency in Palestine issued a statement condemning Britain’s breach of faith with the Jewish people:

It is in the darkest hour of Jewish history that the British government proposes to deprive Jews of their last hope and close the road back to their Homeland.

The British government refused to budge. In fact, as some Zionist leaders continued to support illegal immigration, it tightened the conditions for emigration to Palestine, declaring that from that point onwards, all illegal immigrants would be carefully deducted from the overall ‘legal’ quota totals. At the same time, the UK demanded that neutral nations, such as Portugal and Turkey, deny Jews transit to Palestine, and that their ships should stop delivering them to any port close to Palestine. The Foreign Office began to seek other settlement opportunities for the refugees in Australasia, Africa and South America, but without success. Ottó Komoly told Kasztner that there was…

…strong evidence to suggest that the British would rather see us all perish than grant one more visa for that benighted land. It’s a protectorate only because they want to protect it from us.

Despite mounting evidence of the persecution of Jews under the Third Reich, the British government adhered to its established limits on Jewish immigration throughout 1943. Neutral nations, such as Switzerland and Portugal did not want more Jews crossing their borders. Both the US and Britain tried to persuade Portugal to accept a sizable Jewish settlement in Angola, and they agreed to bribe the Dominican Republic with three thousand dollars per head, but neither of these measures could help alleviate the magnitude of the problem.

It was only in January 1944 that the United States created the War Refugee Board, charged with taking all measures within its power to rescue victims of enemy oppression who are in imminent danger of death and otherwise to afford such victims all possible relief and assistance consistent with the successful prosecution of the war. Even then, visas were often denied on the basis that the applicants had relatives in enemy countries, though most of them were, if still alive, on their way to the gas chambers by this time. Two affidavits of support and sponsorship were also required from “reputable American citizens”, attached to each application. It would have been difficult to invent a more restrictive set of rules. A joke was making the rounds in Budapest at the time:

A Jew goes into the US Consulate to ask for a visa. He is told to come back in 2003. “In the morning,” he asks, “or in the afternoon?”

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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In any case, the setting up by the US of its War Refugee Board was too little, too late. On 19 March 1944, the Reich occupied Hungary, and Adolf Eichmann was put in charge of its primary objective – the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and its surrounding territories. Within three months, the entire Jewish population from the rural areas, some 440,000 souls, had been deported, mainly to Auschwitz.

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The fate of the Budapest Jews, another 250,000, swelled by the refugees from other countries of central-eastern Europe, hung in the balance. Samuel Stern accepted, reluctantly, that the Zionists and Kasztner were right and he was wrong. Their only guarantee of survival was to buy their way out of the city and onto trains which would begin their journey to Palestine, whatever the British may say or do. Of course, we shall never know what would have happened had the Allies acted sooner to set up a proper system to enable the refugees to find asylum and eventually resettlement, most – though perhaps not all – of them in Palestine or the USA. However, whatever the generosity shown by ordinary people towards refugees, it is clear that governments have a responsibility to act on behalf of the victims of war and persecution. Now we have supra-national governments and international organisations, can we apply these lessons?

Sources:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train. London: Constable.

László Kontler (2009), A History of Hungary. Budapest: Atlantisz Publishing.

 

First published Review of Escaping Hitler in Let’s Talk Magazine   Leave a comment

Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy's Quest for Freedom and his Future

To my delight, on pages 40-41 of the April edition of Archant’s Let’s Talk Magazine published today, I found a wonderful two page review of Escaping Hitler.  Leading journalist Derek James has written an excellent summary of Joe’s remarkable story, leaving the reader wanting more….  hopefully this will prompt some to buy their own copy!  Today is a good day…..

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Posted March 10, 2016 by TeamBritanniaHu in Uncategorized

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