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.

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