The deep nostalgic vision of Empire was dented in 1947. The King ceased to be Emperor. The jewel in the imperial crown, India, was moving towards independence long before the war. Gandhi’s brilliant insight that through non-violence the British could be embarrassed out of India more effectively than they could be shot out, had paid off handsomely during the war years.
London was dragged to the negotiating table despite the attempts by Churchill and others to scupper every deal from the thirties to the late forties. The war delayed independence but showed how much goodwill there was on the subcontinent, if Britain was wise enough to withdraw gracefully. During the conflict some two million Indians fought on Britain’s side or served in her forces directly, their contributions being particularly strong in the campaigns in North Africa, against the Italians and the Germans. Gandhi himself was sentimentally fond of Britain and kept a photo of his old school, Harrow, in his cell.
As soon as Attlee’s government took power, it organised talks on British withdrawal from India. Anti-imperialism had been a genuine strand in Labour thinking since the party’s formation, but there were now other motives behind the determination to pull out of the sub-continent. There was gratitude for Indian support throughout the war, especially in North Africa and in Iraq. Attlee thought that a rapid handover to ensure a united, independent India with both Muslims and Hindus sharing power in one vast state connected by trade and military alliance with Britain. This would also act as a major anti-Communist bulwark in Asia, to stem both Russian and Chinese expansionism. He passed the job of overseeing the transition to Lord Louis Mountbatten, who had been supreme commander in south-east Asia, and as such had organised the reconquest of Burma.
The partitioning of the sub-continent had become almost inevitable by 1947. Muslims would not accept overall Hindu domination, and yet across most of India the Hindus or Sikhs were in the majority. British India was duly split into Muslim-dominated Pakistan and Hindu India. The border line was drawn up by a British lawyer, Sir Cyril Radcliffe, and kept secret until after the handover of power. Mountbatten then announced, to widespread shock, that independence would take place ten months earlier than planned, on 15 August 1947. Churchill was so appalled by this that his former Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, had to keep him away from the chamber of the Commons. While the speed of the British was a political necessity, the consequences were appalling. According to some counts, a million people died as Muslims and Hindus caught on the wrong side of the border fled their homes. Sikhs rose up against Muslims in the Punjab, Muslims drove out Hindus, as it became apparent that central authority had simply held older religious and ethnic rivalries at bay. Some 55,000 British civilians returned home, as their political masters’ scheme to hand over to a united state as a strong military ally, fell apart in chaos and killing.
The demarcation between India and Pakistan continued to be deeply unsatisfactory, as it could not have been otherwise after two centuries during which the ‘natural’ divisions between India’s peoples had been obscured and cushioned and allowed in some places to run into each other under the vast, protective and essentially artificial blanket of the old raj. For months after the devolution of power there were massive, panic-stricken and bloody adjustments to the new gravity: wholesale exchanges of population east and west between the borders of the new states, running into millions, rioting in Delhi and elsewhere which killed more than half a million; almost immediately a war broke out between India and Pakistan which the United Nations had to step in and settle; and running disputes over contentious territories to the present day. Pakistan in the awkward bisected shape which 1947 had put it in survived for only twenty-five years. It was all something of a shambles.
Labour ministers were far less enthusiastic about dismantling the Empire in Africa. Herbert Morrison, deputy leader, agreed: He said that to give the African colonies their freedom would be like giving a child of ten a latch-key, a bank-account and a shotgun. Attlee himself speculated about creating a British African army, and the Colonial Office described Africa as the core of Britain’s new world position, from where she could draw economic and military strength. For a while it seemed like the Raj would be transplanted, in fragmented form, in Africa.
Back in the mother country, in the summer of 1947 work began in deepest secret of to build a plutonium-producing plant at Windscale, a little on the coast of Cumbria. At the same time, the government sought to rescue Britain’s position as a major world power by having a nuclear bomb designed under the guidance of one of the British scientists who had been at Los Alamos, William Penney.
In the years immediately after the war Britain contained about ten million fewer inhabitants than it has today. The thirties had seen a fall in the birthrate and there was much official worry about another natural shrinkage. In William Beveridge’s war-time report launching the modern welfare state, he had suggested that a bit of fast breeding was needed, or with its present rate of reproduction, the British race cannot continue. To his generation, the British race meant the white natives of the British Isles. Before the war, 95 per cent of the population had been born in Britain, and the other five per cent was made up of the white British whose parents had been serving in the Empire in India, Africa or the Middle East when they were born. There were black and Asian people in Britain, but very few. In the thirties the Indian community numbered about eight thousand, and there were a few Indian restaurants and grocery stores in the biggest cities.
During the war, Irish people came over to Britain to fill the labour shortage left by mobilization. Immigration continued at a rate of thirty to sixty thousand per year through the forties. The cabinet committees excluded them from debates about immigration as they were considered to be effectively indigenous. There were more ‘exotic’ groups by the end of the war, like the 120,000 Poles who had fled both the Soviets and the Nazis, many of them serving in the British forces, most famously as pilots. Most chose to stay and 65,000 found work in coal-mining and factory work.
It would be wrong to portray Britain in the forties as relaxed about race. Despite the refugees who had come to Britain in large numbers since 1938 and the widespread revelation of the horrors of the concentration camps, anti-Semitism was still evident throughout British society. It was no longer the ‘property’ of the aristocratic establishment of the 1930s who had promoted the policy of appeasement, or of Mosley’s Blackshirts who had eventually been disbanded and interred by the wartime government. in the five years before the war, sixty thousand Jews from Germany and central-eastern Europe arrived in Britain, many of them highly qualified, helping to transform the scientific, musical and intellectual life of forties Britain. In their invasion plans for 1940, the German SS reckoned the Jewish population to be above 300,000, and hugely influential. After the war, the assumption that ‘they’ dodged queues or somehow got the best of scarce and rationed goods, erupts from diaries and letters as well as anecdotes from the time. After Jewish attacks on British servicemen in Palestine in 1947, there were anti-Jewish demonstrations in several British cities, including attacks on shops and even the burning of a synagogue, mimicking the actions of the Nazis in the late 1930s. More widely, trade unions were quick to express hostility to outsiders coming to take British jobs – whether European Jews or Gentiles; Poles, Czechs, Irish or Maltese. Belief that people belonged to different genetic ‘races’ was underpinned by the government continually referring to the central importance of the British race and, by implication, to a largely unquestioned belief in its superiority to all other ‘races’. Today’s post-modern multicultural Britain would leave a visitor from immediate post-war, post-medieval Britain totally bewildered.
Yet in the 1930s some parts of England, especially its cities and industrial conurbations, had already become quite mixed in terms of their white populations. In Coventry, for example, the proportion of migrants rose to 40% of the local population in 1935, the majority of newcomers coming from other UK regions than the Midlands. This continued during and after the war, so that immigrants from outside the UK made up just under two per cent of the local population. Of these, 1,046 were Poles, 953 were Ukrainian, and the third significant workers were the 1,100 unskilled textile workers recruited during the war who had stayed on and settled.
The small wartime Indian community expanded to an estimated four thousand by 1954. They soon ‘colonised’ some of the more rundown housing stock in the Foleshill Road area to the north of the city. Like other migrants in Coventry the Indians were anxious to protect their own identity and cultures. However, the ‘coloured’ minority represented less than 1.5 per cent of the city’s population and coloured workers were never a threat to the jobs of those employed in local engineering factories. Nevertheless, by the late 1940s Coventry had become predominantly a city of newcomers. Estimates were given that only thirty to thirty-five per cent of the city’s population of 258,000 had been born in the city, though it needs to be borne in mind that some ‘new’ areas like Walsgrave-on-Sowe were, in fact, as in Oxford, which had been incorporated from rural areas, still retaining something of their village characteristics. Nevertheless, they were incorporated because they had also outgrown their status as villages, also having their share of British ‘foreigners’. The birthplace information for the 1951 Census reveals that over 97,000 of the population were born outside the West Midlands and that, of these, 32,000 were from the industrial areas of south Wales, the North West of England and Northern England.
These ‘newcomers’ were divided roughly equally between the three ‘depressed districts’, each one contributing more than the 10,034 from London and the South East and the 9,993 from Ireland. There had been only 2,057 Irish in Coventry in 1931, but this number expanded rapidly during the building boom of the 1930s and the post-war reconstruction of the blitzed city centre. The streets surrounding St Osburg’s and St Mary’s churches had a distinctively Irish atmosphere. These two inner-city areas were well supplied with lodging houses and multi-tenanted buildings, whilst their proximity to Roman Catholic churches, increasing to six in number by 1939, made them an ideal port of call for itinerant building workers or those ‘after a start’ in local factories. The Irish also began to settle more permanently in the post-war period, forming a more permanent community. The expansion of Catholicism illustrates both the Irish determination to retain their religious identity and the establishment of Ukrainian and Polish congregations at separate churches. Three already large chapels in the city centre developed a distinctive Welsh identity, attracting large numbers of migrants who first arrived in the city during and following the miners’ lock-out of 1926, now forming the largest ethnic minority.
Although the Ministry of Labour insurance book exchanges highlighted a dearth of migrants from the coalfields to Coventry other than from Wales before 1940, the war had apparently increased the Geordie’s willingness to move while Coventry’s high engineering wages helped to keep him in the city once he had arrived. Early studies also suggest that, in this period, almost as many people were leaving the city as were moving in. Reports suggest that this was not simply due to failures to find suitable accommodation or work, but due to a more general failure of integration. Besides overt racial prejudice, Coventrians were reputed to be anything but welcoming to newcomers generally. Friendship and social networks typically followed regional and ethnic lines. Clubs, pubs and religious institutions often catered for particular migrant groups. The reputation of Coventry as an immigrant city since the early twentieth century mitigated against some of the standoffishness of the indigenous population. New immigrants therefore felt encouraged to socialize inside their own regional or ethnic networks, rather than establishing neighbourhood friendships.
At the same time, there were many among the migrants became overtly involved in public life. It is apparent that the political attitudes of those living in Coventry’s new housing estates were conditioned, in part at least, by their mythologized memories of the depression years elsewhere, especially as they were predominantly from older industrial areas such as the coalfields, iron and steel-producing areas, or desolate shipbuilding towns of south Wales and the north-east of England, being joined now by tens of thousands more relocating from Lancashire’s declining textile towns. It is therefore not insignificant that when the government’s housing policy came under attack in 1947, Tredegar-born Aneurin Bevan should choose to defend it in Coventry. He issued a challenge to Anthony Eden to debate the issue and was given a great reception from the people of Coventry, in particular from members of the Welsh Community, many of whom knew him in their native valleys. The growth of Coventry’s own distinct brand of municipal socialism from 1937 onwards can be seen, like Bevan’s own work, as a practical expression of an ideological impetus to reform, progress and planning which arose out of the determination of both leaders and led to obtain better living conditions to those which many had been forced to endure for much of the inter-war period.
Above: On the line in Cowley, in 1946
Coventry was not the only new industry town where immigrants from the south Wales valleys made a political impact and rose to positions of public prominence as councillors through their determination to improve conditions for their fellow workers in their new environments. A string of former Welsh miners turned car-workers, militants who became moderates, won seats on councils in Oxford, for the Cowley and Headington wards in the east of the city. Frank Pakenham, Patrick Gordon-Walker, Philip Noel-Baker, Richard Crossman and Maurice Edelman were among those of this first generation of Labour leaders to come to power as a result of rubbing shoulders with those whom one Coventry Conservative councillor had referred to, in 1938, as the sweepings of Great Britain. In Birmingham, William Tegfryn Bowen, born in the Rhondda in 1902, became a real ‘Dick Whittington’ in the making. After working as a collier from the age of fourteen until the General Strike of 1926, he moved to Birmingham and studied economics, social services and philosophy for a year before entering employment with the Austin Motor Company. In 1929 he became a trade union official and led a strike against the introduction of the Bedaux system in defiance of more senior officials. He was victimized for doing so and endured various spells of unemployment and odd jobs. He became a city councilor in 1941, an alderman in 1945 and in 1946 became both the Chairman of the Health Committee, Bevan’s right hand man in the second city. Later, on becoming Lord Mayor of Birmingham in 1952, Bowen was asked to account for the Labour hold on city which, under the Chamberlain dynasty, had been considered a conservative ‘fiefdom’. His answer referred to the large influx from other areas, with a different political outlook.
One of the former Welsh miners who became a car worker and foreman at the Pressed Steel Works in Cowley also claimed, we changed their attitude. This role in municipal affairs in England attracted the early attention of leading politicians in London too. As early as November 1935 Herbert Morrison, then Chairman of London County Council, spoke at a meeting in support of Labour’s successful parliamentary candidate for Coventry, Philip Noel-Baker. In his speech, he contrasted the failures of government ministers with the successes of a new breed of working class politicians, remarking that the Chairman of the London Public Assistance Committee was a common workman, formerly a South Wales miner, yet… better than all the Oliver Stanleys in the Tory Party.
Interviewed for a post-war social survey, Coventrian women often repeated a stereotype of Welsh women, as well as Scots and ‘Geordie’ women, that they were unemancipated compared with themselves. The related charge that Welsh women were ‘highly sexed’ was one which was first made in a 1942 book by an American writer, Eli Ginzberg. Statistical studies found no correlation between migrant women and rates of fertility, though there is some anecdotal evidence relating to the ‘moral’ consequences of overcrowding among immigrants in Coventry. The Employment Exchange officer, Philip Handley, gave anecdotes to the Civic Aid Society in 1937 of three recent cases in which the husband had gone on night shifts and the lodger had run away with his wife. Social Service agencies in both Oxford and Coventry were continuously sensitive to charges that migration led to greater immorality.
In Coventry, the marked tendency of Welsh women to select their own countrywomen as friends rather than their immediate neighbours was noted in the University of Birmingham’s Survey conducted at this time. So, too, were the continuing stereotypical ‘mirror’ attitudes towards the immigrants. Interestingly, as well as being accused of being ‘clannish’, ‘all out for themselves’ and ‘rootless’, they were also said to be ‘thrusting’, trying always to get on committees and councils and to ‘run the town’, thereby showing a lack of respect for the true Coventrians. By this time, however, it was very difficult to tell who the latter were anyway. In Oxford, more so than in Coventry, the paradoxes of the stereotyping led to the Welsh becoming even more ‘clannish’ in their attempts to re-establish themselves in a hostile environment; the more they relied upon familial and institutional networks as a means of mutual support and encouragement, the greater the was their contribution to the social and cultural life of the cities and the greater their integration into full citizenship. In finding their inner strengths in collective action and solidarity, they found the means to overcome a plethora of prejudice. They were able to define, develop, articulate and promote a self-image of ‘respectability’ which could counter the one of ‘rawness’ which was so often reflected on them. For example, a Coventry Welsh Rugby Club, originally founded in May 1939, became the cradle for the City of Coventry Rugby Club after the war, with many of the latter’s post-war players being nurtured by the Welsh Club. In Oxford, Cowley FC nurtured various Welsh players who went on to play for Oxford City and then West Bromwich Albion. One of them was Eddie Wilcox, the youngest son of the Wilcox family who had moved, like many other families, to Oxford from the Garw Valley. He became ‘wing half’ for ‘the Baggies’ at the age of twenty-one. J M Mogey’s post-war study of Oxford reveals that the tendency for the immigrants to be more actively involved in autonomous and collective forms of working class culture than their Oxford fellows was a major feature of the social and institutional life of the city in this era. The origins of the active leaders in the establishment of the community centre were in Scotland, Wales, or London, rather than in Oxford itself or its surrounding villages. Whilst Oxford people might continue to resent this domination by ‘foreigners’, they themselves did little to redress the imbalance. In both cities, Welsh Male Voice Choirs had been established early in the interwar period and, alongside the chapels, continued to maintain a distinctive contribution to cultural life in the post-war years. I have written more extensively about these in other articles.
Over the previous century, India had been regarded as the keystone of the British empire; the raison d’être of much of the rest of it, including Egypt, east Africa and the Transvaal, which were supposed to secure Britain’s sea-lanes to the sub-continent. With India gone the rationale for the rest of the Empire might seem to have gone: but some did not see it that way. Traumatic though it may have been, the transfer of power to India and Pakistan was not necessarily the beginning of the end, for the empire’s rationale in recent decades had changed quite considerably from what it had been in the nineteenth century, and could now accommodate what earlier might have seemed like the removal of its heart. In addition, the ‘inevitability’ of general decolonisation did not seem as inevitable then as it seems in retrospect. Of course, in 1947 the imperialists saw the ‘danger signs’, but not necessarily the death-knell of Empire.
The Bevin Boys leaving St Pancras in 1944 for training as miners – mixed messages?
At ‘home’, patriotic pride cemented a sense of being one people, one race, with one common history and fate. But, besides the divisions between ‘natives’, immigrants and internal, long-distance migrants, there were also profound barriers between classes. Estimates suggest that about sixty per cent of the nation was composed of the traditional working class – factory workers, agricultural labourers, navvies, riveters, miners, fishermen, servants and laundry workers. War aside, most would spend all their lives in their home cities, towns or villages, unless they were long-distance migrants from industrial Wales, Scotland, and the north and north-west of England to the Midlands and Home Counties of England. The war had softened class distinctions a little and produced the first rumblings of a coming cultural revolution, as men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds found themselves jumbled together in the services, and lower middle-class or even upper working-class officers found themselves ordering well-spoken ‘toffs’ around. The ‘Blimps’ – the older, more pompous upper-class senior officers of World War One ‘infamy’ became the butt of popular humour in the forces, a symbol of a Britain which was dying, if not already dead. On the ‘Home Front’, middle-class women worked in factories, public schoolboys went down the mines as ‘Bevin boys’ (supervised in Coventry by my collier-grandfather), and many working-class women had their first experiences of life away from the sink and the street.
With severe skill shortages and a national drive for exports, wages rose after the war, especially in the engineering factories in and around Coventry. The trades unions became powerful and self-confident, organising production in gangs almost independently from management. In other European countries, however, trade unions became fiercely political, but not so in Britain, where they remained more focused on the immediate cash-and-hours agenda of its members. This didn’t mean they were quiet, however, as many younger shop stewards had taken control from the older organisers who had crossed the line into management, especially in the newly nationalised coal industry, which came into being on 1 January 1947.
For Labour MPs, nationalising the coal industry was what they were in parliament for, as well as sweet revenge for 1926 and all that. The job was given to one of the government’s older and more ideological members: Manny Shinwell had been a tailor’s boy in London’s East End before moving to Glasgow and emerging as a moving force on ‘Red Clydeside’.He was a stirring speaker and veteran MP but when handed the task of nationalising coal and electricity, he found there were almost no plans or blueprint to help him, except for a single Labour pamphlet written in Welsh. Shinwell managed the job by the day, but this timing was catastrophic, since the freezing weather stopped the coal being moved and the power stations began to fail. Added to this, many mines operated under Victorian conditions by families which had owned them for decades, simply needed to be closed. In other parts of the coalfields, new mines needed to be sunk for, by 1947, Britain was producing a lot less coal than before the war. Modern cutting and winding gear was desperately needed everywhere. So was a better relationship between managers and miners to end the history of strikes and lock-outs, bred of mistrust. The miners got new contracts and a five-day week but the first major strikes spread within months of nationalisation. Over time, however, relations between the miners and the managers improved as former colliers became overseers and inspectors, and investment did occur. But the naive idea that simply taking an industry into public ownership would improve it was punctured early. Yet there was still a broad assumption by government and workers alike that the future of industry in general would be like the past, only more so – more cars and ships, more coal, more foundries and factories.
The classes which would do better were the middle classes, a fast growing minority. Government bureaucracy had grown rapidly during the war, and was continuing to do so. Labour’s Welfare State required, in addition to more professionals, hundreds of thousands of new white-collar jobs administering national insurance, teaching, and running the new National Health Service, about to be born.
The problem for the old ruling classes was whether the arrival of a socialist government was a brief and unwelcome interruption, which could be st out, or whether it was the beginning of a calm but implacable revolution. The immediate post-war period with its high taxation was a final blow for many landowners. Great country houses had to be passed over to the National Trust. It was hardly a revolutionary seizure of estates, yet to some it felt that way. Tradition was being nationalised. In 1947 the magazine Country Life protested bitterly that the aristocratic families had been responsible for civilisation in Britain:
It has been one of the services of those currently termed the privileged class, to whom, with strange absence of elementary good manners, it is the fashion not to say so much as a thank you when appropriating that which they have contributed to England.
Evelyn Waugh, an arriviste rather than a proper toff, sitting in his fine house in the Gloucestershire village of Stinchcombe, considered fleeing to Ireland:
The certainty that England as a great power is done for, that the loss of possessions, the claim of the English proletariat to be a privileged race, sloth and envy, must produce increasing poverty… this time the cutting down will start at the top until only a proletariat and a bureaucracy survive.
A day later, however, he was having second thoughts:
What is there to worry me here in Stinchcombe? I have a beautiful house furnished exactly to my taste; servants enough, wine in the cellar. The villagers are friendly and respectful; neighbours leave me alone. I send my children to the schools I please. Apart from taxation and rationing, government interference is negligible.
Yet he smelt the reek of the Displaced Persons’ Camp in the English air, and he was not alone in this. Noel Coward said that, immediately after Labour’s 1945 victory, I always felt that England would be bloody uncomfortable in the immediate post-war period, and it is now almost a certainty. These fears had some substance in reality, but the changes in atmosphere had very little to do with Attlee and Bevan.The old British class system, though it still retained a feudal air, much exploited by novelists and screen-writers, depended in practice on the Empire and a global authority that Britain was about to forfeit. Nevertheless, there was a sense of grievance and abandonment which hung about the political Right in Britain for decades.
Initially, it was unclear how well the monarchy would fare in postwar Britain. The leading members of the family were popular and Labour ministers were careful never to express any republicanism in public, and there is little sign of it in their private diaries either, though there were many Labour MPs pressing for a less expensive, stripped-down, more contemporary monarchy, along Scandinavian lines. Difficult negotiations took place over the amounts of money provided by cash-strapped taxpayers. Yet the Windsors triumphed again, with an exuberant display which cheered up many of their tired, drab subjects. The wedding of the future Queen Elizabeth II and the then Lieutenant Philip Mountbatten in 1947 was planned as a public spectacle. Royal weddings had not been so well organised in the past, and this was an explosion of colour and pageantry in a Britain that had seen little of either for ten years, a nostalgic return to luxury: Presents ranging from racehorses were publicly displayed, grand cakes made and a wedding dress of ivory clinging silk by Norman Hartnell.
There had been interesting arguments before the wedding about patriotism and Philip’s essential Britishness. The nephew of Lord Mountbatten was sold to the public as thoroughly English by upbringing despite his being an exiled Greek prince, a member of the Greek Orthodox Church, and having many German relatives. In the event, Philip’s three surviving sisters were not invited to the wedding, all of them being married to Germans. The wedding was a radio event, still, rather than a television one, though the newsreel film of it packed out cinemas throughout the world, including in devastated Berlin. In lavishness and optimism, it was an act of British propaganda and celebration for bleak times, sending out the message that despite everything Britain was back. The wedding reminded the club of European royalty how few of them had survived as rulers into the postwar world. Dusty uniforms and slightly dirty tiaras worn by exiles were much in evidence: the Queen’s younger sister, Princess Margaret remarked that people who had been starving in little garrets all over Europe suddenly reappeared.
(to be continued)
A Survivor’s Tale:
Tom Leimdorfer was born in Budapest in 1942. Unlike sixteen members of his extended family, he survived the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944-45, both the deportations to the extermination camp of Auschwitz in the spring and summer of 1944, and the forced marches, starvation and shootings which happened throughout Hungary and in Budapest in particular in the winter of 1944-5. I have edited and published Tom’s account of this ‘survival’ already, and have also made use of his family’s recollections of the events and aftermath of the 1956 Uprising in an attempt to present a variety of perspectives of them.
In the following two ‘posts’ I aim to join these two narratives together by publishing the family’s recollections of childhood after the war in Budapest. For many historians, these years take up no more than a few pages, a few paragraphs even, in the post- world war two History of Hungary, between Soviet ‘liberation’ and invasion. Yet to those growing up in Budapest during these years, they were just as important in terms of their own formative experiences, as Tom’s accounts demonstrate. In any case, the effects of the Holocaust were still a daily presence in his consciousness, and the causes of the Uprising were also present, though less conscious.
The wreck of an engine:
The old steam engine stood there on the siding, a crumpled wreck of rusting metal, but still clearly recognisable as a steam engine. I clambered up the railway embankment through the mass of red poppies just ahead of Mami (my mother), who was anxiously telling me to stop and wait. It must have been a weekend afternoon as my mother worked on other days and I was looked after by my grandmother (Sári mama) or by my nanny Bözsi, who lived with us midweek. It was the summer of 1946 and I was nearing my fourth birthday. The time when children start to be insistent with questions. This occasion has stood out in my memory as the day when I started to open the door to some awful mysteries around my young life.
‘Why is that engine broken?’ The questions was simple enough. Perhaps I had already asked many other questions about ruined houses, holes in walls. Perhaps this happened to be the moment when my mother decided the time has come to tell. She took my hand and crouched down beside me as I kept staring at the engine. ‘There was a war – many things were broken. Houses, bridges, trains, lorries and many people died’. Her eyes filled with tears, but she did not try to hide them this time. The wreck of the engine remained fixed in my mind, the details of the conversation have faded, but gradually I started making links. The gaps between houses still littered with great heaps of fallen masonry, the bullet holes in walls, the wrecked bridgeheads on the Danube bank, the ruins of the Buda Castle. Then, one by one, the ghosts of missing family members started to emerge in my consciousness.
While time spent with Sári mama and Bözsi was mainly carefree play, my precious time with Mami was often overshadowed by her anxiety and tears. It took time for me to connect the tears with the loss of her parents and the (presumed, but still unconfirmed) loss of her husband. My little friend Éva, and my slightly older second cousin (also called Éva) did not have fathers either, so this did not seem unusual even though my other playmate András did have a dad. My father figure was Dádi (my paternal grandfather, whose real name was Ármin Leimdörfer) and there was a close-knit family of my aunt Juci, uncle Gyuri and great-aunts and uncles who all surrounded me with attention. So it took time for the ‘gaps’ to emerge as family members lost to the war and to the greatest mass murder of all times. Much of my memories of childhood is full of special early friendships, enjoyable holidays, adventures of schooldays and young boy gangs, sport and hobbies, family days and national festivals. These interact with awareness of hardship and my mother’s struggle to keep me safe and to give me the best she could, awareness of new clouds of political persecution and the dangers of living in a dictatorship. It would be easy to paint the picture in very dark colours. Holocaust survival as a toddler, followed by school days in the darkest years of Stalinist communism. Yet there was much fun and laughter and enjoyment and learning. Enduring friendships were formed and I had the precious gift of love in a very special family. It was a priceless childhood, for all the pain and the sombre background.
The story of the tears in my mother’s eyes on that summer’s day in 1946 must be told, but this is pieced together from her words, from my aunt Juci’s book (‘By Grace Alone’) and from history. The memories of the little boy who asked about the broken engine need this backdrop. A good starting point is my old family album.
My cousins: Juli, Andi and Jani
In my early conscious memory of family days, I also see the baby newcomers in the immediate post-war years, my cousins Jani (1946) and Andi (1947), Juci and Gyuri’s two boys, who were joined by my cousin Juli, born in in 1949. We were all treasured as precious signs of a future for the family as well as for ourselves.
Contemplative by the garden fence
Our flat and our garden were very special places for me. While I have no memories of it before we had to flee on my fateful second birthday, I feel sure that returning to a known home must have been part of the healing. Not many flats in Budapest have secluded private gardens and we were very fortunate.
That small garden was a wondrous place for me. Once I graduated from the sandpit, a section of the rough grassy patch (not even pretending to be a lawn) was gradually transformed by me to be a network of roads, bridges and tunnels. I created a small imaginary town and played with my cars and bricks and small figures for hours on end when the weather was fine. We had a hammock, which could be strung across near the patio end and where I could doze in the sunshine. As it was the front garden, I could also watch people passing by (through the Russian vine) without them seeing me. The houses opposite were flattened by an air raid or shelling. For a while it was a mysterious forbidden site of weeds and rubble till a new health centre was built there. The mystery was lost, but at least I did not have far to go for my X-rays.
My early recollections are of playing a good deal by myself, under the watchful eye of Bözsi who was calmness and gentleness personified. My mother went to work as secretary in my grandfather’s timber yard. I have no idea how she found Bözsi to look after me, but she was the perfect choice. She was a highly intelligent peasant woman of limited learning, but great wisdom and practical sense. She lived in our small room during the week and went home at the weekends. It never occurred to me at the time that she could be a mother and have children of her own, but she was. She left us when I started nursery school at the age of five in 1947 and I missed her terribly. Some years later, when I was nine, I spent a week with her family in the country in their typical peasant household. That was when I got to know her two children (a few years older than me), learnt to relate to geese and cows and oxen and sleep in one room with the whole family. Bözsi was the brains and the soul of the household and gently directed her husband and all her family. It was probably hard times after the war that made her seek midweek employment as a nanny and it must have been hard for her children, but I am eternally grateful.
The other dominant figure in my early life was Sári mama, my grandmother. She looked after me regularly while Bözsi did the shopping, which was a long complicated matter of queuing in several different shops. Bözsi also had a regular day for going home to her family midweek, when my grandmother took over. Sári mama was much more proactive in her approach to childcare. She had an endless repertoire of games to play indoors or out. She taught me songs to sing and rhymes to recite. We listened to music and she tried to get me to dance. She taught me the basics of draughts and chess and other board games from a very early age. She read stories, patiently answered my endless questions and opened doors to many of the mysteries of life.
Sundays were special times with Mami. She could be distant and preoccupied, anxious and angry, but I always knew that I was her treasure. She was obsessional about hygiene and nutrition. She had the highest expectations for the son for whom she tried to play the role of two parents. Apart from working in the timber yard, she sold English fashion magazines (such as Vogue) sent by her brother Bandi. This became risky, then impossible during the fifties. Most Sundays, except the monthly Family Days, we went to the Reformed (Calvinist) Church. On the whole, I found it boring, but usually came away with a question to ask Mami. We often went to a little restaurant in Buda called Zöld Fa (Green Tree) where my favourite food was Wiener Schnitzel (escalope of veal). I was her little gentleman escort from a very early age.
Occasionally, Mami took me with her to the timber yard, perhaps because neither Bözsi, nor Sári mama were free to look after me. My grandfather (Dádi) worked hard to restore the business, but on a much smaller scale than the pre-war firm. Part of the yard was bombed, the office was a small shed. I loved to play hide and seek amidst the piles of wood and enjoyed the scent of fresh shavings in the sawing shed. I now wonder about the health and safety aspect of a four year old running about in a timber yard, but all those working there were looking out for me. I loved watching the goods trains in the railway siding, where the timber was loaded. I was particularly friendly with one of the older workers (Béni bácsi) who occasionally lifted me onto a goods wagon or on a lorry and let me pretend to be in charge of operations.
An uncle returns from overseas:
There were two related events in my mother’s life in 1947. The first was the expected, but still devastating, confirmation that my father had died in 1943. Prisoners of war gradually returned from the Russian camps in small numbers over the post-war years. There was an article about one man who did not return till the 1990s as an elderly man with little memory left. For some families the uncertainty remained for a lifetime. The doctor friend of my father’s who returned in 1947 was there when he died, but could not get news to the family till he was freed in 1947. So my grandparents lost both their sons since young Sanyi died of Spanish flu in childhood. Juci was the one remaining child. By 1947, they had three grandsons and then a granddaughter in 1949. They made our future welfare their main purpose in life.
It may have been confirmation of my father’s death that prompted my uncle Bandi to visit us from London. There were no direct flights, he came by train. He had to leave the combatant units in the army quite early in the war, when they discovered he was colour blind. As an economics graduate, he was given a teaching job within the forces. After the war, he got a job with the Milk Marketing Board in the accounts department and this is where he met his future wife Lilian. He always called her ‘Compie’ (short for ‘companion’). Lilian was a widow with a young son, Roy. Bandi was becoming rapidly anglicised. He also nurtured a deep hatred of Germans (until the 1970s, when he went to work in Germany for while), but his resentment of Hungarians was even deeper and longer lasting. He could not forgive the people of Szécsény who watched his parents (and all their Jewish neighbours) being taken from their homes to Auschwitz and did not raise a murmur of protest. He blamed Hungarians as much as Germans for their death.
He visited my mother to see what support he could give. He also helped her to finalise the handover of my grandparents’ house to the state. A small sum was paid in compensation (houses in Nógrád County were not very valuable) and Bandi insisted that it should all go to my mother. This was generous as he was far from well off at the time. England was still a land of post-war austerity and rationing, while food was still relatively plentiful in Hungary with no rationing. However, Bandi had received help from the family when he left Hungary, so he was repaying a debt. I remember little of his visit as I was feeling very ill with jaundice (hepatitis A). The little model open top red Jaguar car he brought for me was, however, amazingly memorable and a source of pleasure for years. It had a clockwork motor, steering and forward and reverse gears. He must have taken to me, because he told my mother that if she ever decided that I should go to live in England, he would look after me. This tentative agreement that ‘someday’ I might go to England was something I learnt much later, but it was somehow in the background of our lives. He vowed never to return to Hungary.
Bandi remained a very keen and active tennis player for all but the last four years of his very long life. He won many minor tournaments, became a Wimbledon umpire and as a ‘veteran’ became a legend on the international over 60s circuit. It was a veteran’s tennis tournament in the late 1980s that (when he was well over 70) that made him break his vow of never returning to Budapest. He rather enjoyed it and met up with three cousins he had not seen for forty years.
My very first ‘girlfriend’ was Éva Fischer, who was just a few months older than me. Her mother (Irén néni) had been a close friend of my mother for many years. Her father also died in a forced labour unit. The two widows met as often as they could and Éva and I played for hours on end. We made up imaginary places and adventures, acted out stories we were told, made secret dens in corners of their flat or ours. In the autumn of 1947, I started going to nursery in the mornings. Mami normally took me and Sári mama collected me at lunchtime. It was a tram ride along the Buda side of the Danube and then a short walk up some steps as the nursery was in a street on the lower slopes of the Castle Hill. The main reason I loved to go was that Éva attended the same nursery. In fact the only thing I remember doing there all year was playing with Éva. The deep snow of that harsh winter is linked with memories of struggling up the icy steps to the nursery.
Our friendship was destined to be cut short by further events of history. The post-war democratic government of Hungary (dominated first by the Smallholder’s Party and then by a Socialist-Communist coalition) presided over a period of hyperinflation followed by a period of gradual reconstruction and land reform. Gradually, with the country under occupation by the Red Army and becoming increasingly linked economically to the Soviet Union, the Communist Party became the dominant force. During the course of 1948 they forced members of the Socialist Party to amalgamate. Those opposed to the process left the country or eventually ended up in prison on trumped up charges as the country moved towards one-party dictatorship by February 1949. Éva’s mother, Irén néni, saw it all coming and was determined not to live under another dictatorship. She was a jeweller by trade and worked hard in the post war years to rebuild her shop, which had been confiscated as part of the anti-Jewish legislation. She was not prepared to lose it again to the Communists. She had an acquaintance in Paris, a middle-aged widower, who was also a jeweller. He came to visit and marry her so she could get to Paris, with most of her merchandise. It was supposed to be a marriage of convenience, but it lasted till the day he died. They had separate shops and mainly separate lives, but seemed to love each other dearly.
I recall one evening in the autumn of 1948 when my mother and I were at the flat of Imre Budai, a colleague who was clearly smitten by her. By that time, Mami had left employment with my grandfather (who was negotiating the handover his timber yard to the state). As an attractive young widow, she was not short of admirers, but generally kept them at a distance. Budai was a kind balding and portly man, whom I found very boring. On this particular evening, he tried to distract me by allowing me to use his typewriter. I had just started school and Mami encouraged me to write a ‘letter’. So I did and it went like this: ‘Mami I am bored let us go to Éva’. This caused some amusement and Mami kept the missive to show Irén. We did go to see them that night and I was shocked to see Éva amidst trunks and packing cases. She was in tears as all her toys were being packed away. The next time I saw her was in Paris in the summer of 1959. She was seventeen and engaged to be married. She and her husband went to live Geneva for some years and then emigrated to Israel. Irén néni kept in touch with me till she died in her seventies, but I lost touch with Éva. Imre Budai had little success with my mother, though he courted her for months. One day, he produced an expensive Swiss Doxa watch as a gift for Mami, which must have cost him nearly a month’s salary. She refused to accept, he refused to take it back. So they agreed that I should have it and I have got it to this day (although I was not allowed to wear it till I was ten). I always thought of it as a gift from my mother.
My other little friend was András. His mother (Eszti) and and my mother met on the platform at the railway station saying goodbye to their husbands going to the Russian front. They were both pregnant, Eszti was just about to give birth, while my mother was four months pregnant. They became very close friends and shared news from the front, where the two men served in the same unit. Unlike my father, Jenő manage to escape both death and capture and made it back home after months of hiding and unspeakable deprivation. He did not stay with his unit and was officially missing. So he had to stay in hiding for eighteen months, till the end of the war. He could not even go down to cellars during bombing raids for fear of being seen and recognised.
András with Tom in his garden, and skiing in the Mátra Mountains
After the war, Eszti and Jenő helped my mother by including her and me in their outings and holidays. Jenő was a keen photographer and there are photos and films capturing happy moments by the Lake Balaton in the summer or skiing in the Buda Hills or the Mátra Mountains in winter. Skiing was not a luxury sport for us. If there was snow on a winter weekend, we just took our skis on the trams or buses to the cog-wheel railway, which ascends the Buda Hills. There we would have our sandwiches and flasks of hot drinks while the wooden skis were waxed with a hot iron (there was a small fee to be paid for this). Then we were off to the slopes. Often we also had András’ other little friend (also called Tamás) with us. The three little boys practised together and raced each other on the safe and gentle nursery slopes, but we often watched the experts on the steep slopes and the ski jumps. Eventually, we ventured further as Jenő felt we were ready. Most memorable was the ‘round trip’, when we would go right down to Hűvös Völgy (Cool Valley) for a meal in a tavern and then take the tram home before dark.
András was a good friend throughout our childhood and we often played in each other’s homes. Their fourth floor flat had a fantastic view over the Danube, across to the Castle and the hills. We always watched the firework displays on the 20 August (Constitution Day) from their balcony. We went to different schools except for the brief seven weeks in the autumn of 1956 before the Revolution and our flight to the west. It was always strange and comforting to be back where I had my childhood ‘sleepovers’ with András, still surrounded by some of the old furniture and looking out over the lit panorama of bridges over the Danube.
Another little friend, a year younger then me was Gyuri Sarkadi, son of my mother’s cousin Kornélia (Kori néni to me). His father also died in the war and he was also an only child. Their flat opened to a large overgrown garden with some statues and exciting hiding places where we played for hours. Later we also played button football (of which more later) and board games while our mothers caught up with each other’s news. It was always an enjoyable visit as Kori néni was always very kind and Gyuri’s nanny, Baja néni, always had some special treat for me. Gyuri became an electronic engineer and married a lovely paediatrician, Kati.
Early school days:
Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948
I am in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background
Class teacher Sára Németh
On a hot weekend during the summer of 1948, I was just waking up from my afternoon siesta. The sun’s rays were streaming through the gaps in the heavy wooden roller blind. I became aware of Mami sitting by my bed. She started to talk about the end of the summer. What did I think about starting proper school? This was her style; she always consulted me about decisions which affected me even at that early age. I remember asking some questions. I would have to see the school and they might not take me because I was not six till October and school (even now) only starts at the age of six. Also, the school she had in mind was on the other side of the river (Pest side) and we would need to take the tram. But it was where she went as a young girl. I said I would go on the visit, but I was a bit scared about it.
All I remember of the interview was the beautiful young teacher who showed us round, asked me a few questions and set me down to play a game of dice with pieces going round a board. I tried to concentrate because I knew I just had to be in her class. At the end she asked me which was my right hand. That was alright, but then she asked me which was her left hand. I just looked at her in total confusion and was mortified that I failed. They offered me a place all the same. It was a new ‘experimental’ primary unit attached to the famous city centre Veres Pálné gimnázium (grammar school), which my grandmother and aunt had attended. The ‘experimental’ aspect included the fact that it was a mixed class and they taught French right from the start. I learnt very little French in the year, but I remember gazing through the window at the large tree outside, knowing it was ‘fenêtre’ and ‘arbre’.
I made friends easily with some girls and the parents of one of them (also called Éva) took me with group of her friends skating a few times to the outdoor ice rink. It was great fun, though not on a par with skiing. The large artificial lake at Városliget (City park) would be drained each winter down to a few centimetres and artificially frozen. The replica castle on the far bank made a magic backdrop. There were special areas for children, for adults, for expert dancers and also for ice hockey. It made a great outing and I enjoyed being the only boy amongst a group of girls.
The boys in the class were more of a problem. I was the youngest and also one of the smallest. It soon became clear that playtimes were dominated by two big boys who were quite physical and each had their ‘group’. These were games I generally did not wish to take part in. One of the ‘big boys’ was far from bright and quite early on I made a point of quietly helping him whenever he got stuck with schoolwork. This strategy succeeded as he always leapt to my defence in the playground without me even asking him.
Travelling to school is worth a moment of reflection. It meant walking a few steps from our road to the main road, crossing over to the raised platform in the centre, which was the tram stop, five stops by tram (going over the river), crossing the main road again (now there is an underpass), walking five minutes to the school buildings. For the first couple of weeks, Mami took me before going off to her work, but this probably made her late. After that, she saw me onto the tram before catching her bus and I did the trip alone. There was not much traffic and I was taught to cross roads carefully. It would not have occurred to anyone that a six year old was at risk from strangers. Most days, my grandmother (Sári mama) met me coming out of school and took me to her home for lunch and helped me with any problems I might have had at school. In reality, I learnt more from her than from anyone else. On Wednesdays, my great-aunt Manci took me to her home and I was spoilt with her kindness and home-made teacakes.
One day my teacher, Sarolta, was very cross with me. I absolutely cannot recall why. She was beautiful and charming, but quite firm. She insisted that I must write right-handed, which was a struggle and would tap my hand with a ruler if I tried to use my left hand. None of this reduced my ‘crush’ on her which started when I first saw her at interview. Solemnly she declared that day, that I must stay behind until my mother came from work to fetch me. On the one hand, this was sweet punishment as I had her all to myself when the rest of the class went home, but the worry of my mother’s anger spoilt it. Like most young children, I remember the punishment, but not the supposed misdemeanour.
The ‘experimental’ primary school was closed after a year. By September 1949, communism was in full swing and Stalinist centralised standardisation became the educational climate. In fact, it was a return to the Prussian model of very formal pedagogy which was favoured by the old Austro-Hungarian empire, only with communist propaganda colouring the content. Anything ‘experimental’ (favoured in Russia in the early years of the Revolution under Lenin) went out of the window, together with attempts to teach French at an early age. Russian became compulsory from the age of 10 and thousands of language teachers (mainly of English, French and German) had to become teachers of Russian within weeks. Forty year later, the process was repeated in reverse as teachers of Russian became a dying breed.
Dancing with the Devil Himself:
Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.
Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.
Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue
As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:
From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann.
Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.
On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.
On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.
On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would 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 local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He 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
This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.
Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.
The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.
The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.
A significant birthday:
While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.
Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.
There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.
By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.
Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.
On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews. The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…
…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..
But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:
The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.
Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957
Tom continues the family’s story:
By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives
Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.
My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.
One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.
My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.
For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence. Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.
Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’
Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.
Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.
By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:
Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.
Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).
Every Picture Tells a Story:
Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942. In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.
A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels. Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.
On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.
The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.
My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.
So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.
The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.
One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.
One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.
The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:
To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.
By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.
In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.
By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.
Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?
The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.
In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.
By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.
Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.
In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:
Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.
She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:
The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.
Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.
The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.
Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.
Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.
Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.
Links and Exchanges
In the late autumn/ fall of 1991, with the Cold War coming to an end, Americans, Hungarians and other Europeans became urgently and actively engaged in redefining their relationships in this new era. As a British teacher from Coventry living and working in its twin town of Kecskemét in Hungary, married to its citizens, I continued to re-establish links which had lain dormant since the Hungary’s involvement in the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, especially through educational exchanges, organised through the Hungarian Ministry of Education and the (then) European Community ‘s Tempus Programme. Besides the Peace Corps volunteers who continued to arrive to all parts of the country, the United States and Hungary had established a joint commission for educational exchange, which included a Hungarian-American Fulbright Commission. Again, Fulbright scholars began arriving in a variety of Hungarian towns that autumn, placed in schools and colleges, and Hungarian teachers were able to travel to the USA in exchange.
In October 1991, Hungarian Prime Minister József Antall made a ‘private’ visit to Washington. Just over a year earlier, Antall had been sworn in as PM of the first freely elected Hungarian Parliament since that of 1945. In his first address, he had pointed out that…
… the new government will be a European government, and not only in the geographical sense of the word. We stand for the tradition of democracy, pluralism and openness. We want to return to the European heritage but, at the same time , also to those values that Europe has created in the course of the past forty years, in the wake of the terrible lessons and experience of World War II.
At the Washington ‘summit’, President George Bush reiterated the US commitment to the economic and political transformation of Hungary, particularly in view of the impending dissolution of the Soviet Union. Antall also expressed concern about the civil war in Yugoslavia which was just beginning at that time. At their meeting in Krakow on 6 October, the Foreign Ministers of Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia, issued a joint statement on their wish to become involved in NATO activities. On 1 July, the Warsaw Pact had been disbanded by the Protocol of Prague, which had annulled the 1955 Treaty (Hungary’s Parliament passed the Act ratifying this on 18 July) and the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary had been completed in June. COMECON, the economic organisation of what was now a collapsing empire was also being disbanded. Parallel to that, Hungary had started the process of catching up with the community of developed Western democracies. Already, by the end of 1991, the country had concluded an Association Agreement with the European Community.
Along with the Czech Republic and Poland, Hungary was among the first countries of Central and Eastern Europe invited to start talks on NATO accession. The invitation showed that Hungary was taking full advantage of the opportunities offered by the social and political changes of 1989-91 and that, having regained the sovereignty it had last lost in November 1956, it had made the right decision on its security policy goals and how to achieve them. Neutrality was no longer an option. A consensus was emerging among the parties represented in the new Parliament on the well-known triple set of goals… Euro-Atlantic integration, development of good-neighbourly relations and support for the interests of Hungarian communities living abroad. These remained valid throughout the following decade and into the twenty-first century.
In another sign of its growing international integration, on 20-21 October, at the plenary meeting of North Atlantic Assembly in Madrid, Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Wörner announced that it would hold its 1995 session in Budapest. Hungary was represented by Foreign Minister, Géza Jeszenszky and Tamás Wachsler, a FIDESZ Member of Parliament, both of whom gave presentations. The Madrid summit constituted a historic moment in the redefinition of the security roles of European institutions at a time when global and regional changes, and the democratic developments in the central-eastern European states reached a point which coincided with the interests of both the major Western powers and the southern European states. Through its (then) comparatively advanced democratic development and previous historical experience, Hungary was seen as well-suited to figure among the states to be included in the first wave of NATO enlargement. Such experience stemmed, most importantly, from the Revolution of 1956 and its struggle for sovereignty and neutrality, as well as from the initiatives it had taken from within the Warsaw Pact and the UN in the 1980s. A week after Madrid (see picture above), PM Antall visited NATO Headquarters in Brussels, where he addressed the North Atlantic Council, expressing the wish of the Hungarian Government to establish closer cooperation with NATO, including the creation of an institutionalised consultation and information system.
On 30 October, at the invitation of the Minister of Defence, Lajos Für, Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, General John Galvin, visited Hungary and met József Antall. A week later (7-8 November), a summit meeting of the North Atlantic Council was held in Rome at which the Heads of State/ Government approved the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept which supported the efforts of the central-eastern European countries towards reforms and offered participation in the relevant forums of the Alliance. On this, they issued the Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation:
We have consistently encouraged the development of democracy in the Soviet Union and the other countries of Central and Eastern Europe. We therefore applaud the commitment of these countries to political and economic reform following the rejection of totalitarian communist rule by their peoples. We salute the newly recovered independence of the Baltic States. We will support all steps in the countries of Central and Eastern Europe towards reform and will give practical assistance to help them succeed in this difficult transition. This is based on our own conviction that our own security is inseparably linked to that of all other states in Europe…
Wishing to enhance its contribution to the emergence of a Europe whole and free, our Alliance at its London summit extended to the Central and Eastern European countries the hand of friendship and established regular diplomatic liaison. Together we signed the Paris Joint Declaration… Our extensive programme of high level visits, exchanges of views on security and other related issues, intensified military contacts, and exchanges of expertise in various fields has demonstrated its value and contributed greatly towards building a new relationship between NATO and these countries. This is a dynamic process: the growth of democratic institutions throughout central and eastern Europe and encouraging cooperative experiences, as well as the desire of these countries for closer ties, now call for our relations to be broadened, intensified and raised to a qualitatively new level…
Therefore, as the next step, we intend to develop a more institutional relationship of consultation and cooperation on political and security issues.
The NATO summit in Rome was one of the most significant international consultations to take place as to how to deal with these new security threats. The heads of state identified the goals and tasks to be achieved and to be realistically achievable by the Western European organisations over the following four to five years, as well as the mechanisms which would be required to fulfill them.
Hungary & The End of a Bipolar World
While this summit meeting was taking place, the de facto collapse of the so-called socialist word order was proceeding apace. These new processes within NATO were manifested mainly by the young democracies of central-eastern Europe that had just regained their independence from the USSR and its now defunct Warsaw Pact. However, they were also informed by global developments, such as the impact of the Gulf War and its lessons and conclusions. The dissolution of the bipolar world order was not simply related to the collapse of the USSR, but to threats to security originating in ethnicity-based conflicts in the Middle East and the Balkans.
The renewed Republic of Hungary found itself in a unique situation, since with the disintegration of the Soviet Union to the east of it, and the break-up of both the Yugoslav Socialist Republic and Czechoslovakia on its southern and northern borders, it suddenly found itself with seven neighbours rather than five. From the spring of 1991, along a borderline of 600 kilometres, the crisis in the former Yugoslavia had a considerable impact on Hungary’s legislators and executive authorities at a time when it had just embarked on the path of civilian democratic development. The armed clashes, which became more violent and intense from July onwards, were taking place were predominantly along the Hungarian border and there were incidents across the border of lesser or greater scale, the most serious of which was the bomb which fell (accidentally and without exploding) on the large village of Barcs on Hungarian territory. Trade also became affected by border closures which were necessary to prevent gun-running to the militias, and thousands of refugees escaped the violence into Hungary. There was an emerging consensus among the Hungarian political élite that the only possibility of breaking away from the nightmare scenario of a disintegrating central-eastern European region was through accession to the integrating West. The reunification of Germany, although it could not serve as a model, proved that the institutional anchoring of a former COMECON and Warsaw Pact country was possible.
The Republic of Hungary concluded that its geopolitical situation had changed completely, and a process took place within NATO to realise Euro-Atlantic integration in the region through NATO enlargement. In this process, the Hungarian defence forces earned worldwide recognition and the government of the Republic succeeded in fulfilling its strategic foreign policy objectives while in domestic policy, it established the conditions for stable and democratic development. Naturally, this took a full term of government to achieve, but the fact that the process began in the crucible which was the end of the Cold War, when states were collapsing on almost every border, is a truly remarkable tribute to the transition government in Hungary.
Demise of Gorbachev & the Soviet Union
In the aftermath of the failed coup in August, the Soviet republics voted to reject Gorbachev’s Union Treaty; the new state would be a confederation. On 30 November, Yeltsin’s Russia, the leading power in the new association, took control of the Soviet Foreign Ministry and of all its embassies abroad. In Minsk on 8 December, Yeltsin for Russia, Leonid Kravchuk for Ukraine, and Stanislaw Shushkevich for Belarus, the three Slav states, without bothering to take the other republics with them, signed a pact ending the USSR and creating instead the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). By telephone they told first George Bush, then Mikhail Gorbachev, what they had done. Gorbachev, humiliated, next day denied their right to have done it; but the Russian parliament ratified the commonwealth agreement, and within days all but one of the other republics joined.
In Moscow a week later, James Baker saw both Yeltsin and Gorbachev, and had it brought to his attention that the Soviet military was now backing Yeltsin and the CIS. Gorbachev accepted this as a fait accompli, announcing that all central structures of the Soviet Union would cease to exist at the end of the year. The four republics in possession of nuclear weapons – Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan – announced that they would abide by and implement the cuts in arms and nuclear weapons agreed to by Bush and Gorbachev.
Meanwhile, both the CIS and the Russian government proved incapable of coping with the crisis in southern Russia. The United Nations, the European Community, the Council for Security and Cooperation in Europe were, to begin with, equally ineffective in dealing with the conflicts in the Balkans, the Middle East and North Africa. In particular, it became obvious that the UN was unable to create the mechanisms needed to handle these conflicts and to bring the political and military conflicts to a solution. This led on to the question as to what NATO’s responsibilities could be in response to the new risk factors of regional character that were emerging in the early 1990s.
On 19 December, the Foreign Ministers of the newly independent Central and Eastern European states met in Brussels, together with those of the full member states of NATO. Foreign Minister Géza Jeszenszky again represented Hungary. The Soviet Union was also invited, and its name appears on the final communiqué issued by the North Atlantic Council. The purpose of the meeting, as decided at the Rome summit, was to issue a joint political declaration to launch this new era of partnership and to define further the modalities and content of this process. The following day, 20 December, the inaugural meeting of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) was attended by representatives of the sixteen full NATO members and the nine central-eastern European nations. It was established to integrate them into the Alliance:
Our consultations and cooperation will focus on security and related issues where Allies can offer their experience and expertise. They are designed to aid in fostering a sense of security and confidence among these countries and to help them transform their societies and economies, making democratic change irreversible.
… We welcome the continuing progress towards democratic pluralism, respect for human rights and market economies. We encourage these nations to continue their reforms and contribute to… arms control agreements.
Just five days later, On 25 December 1991, Christmas Day in central-western Europe, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics ceased to exist. The Red Flag, with its golden hammer and sickle, prophesying a worldwide workers’ revolution that never came, was lowered over the Kremlin for the last time. For Gorbachev this was an unintended consequence of the reform process, perestroika, that he had started. He retired from public life, since he no longer had an office from which to resign. He telephoned his farewells to Bush at Camp David. He wished George and Barbara Bush a merry Christmas. He was, he said, still convinced that keeping the independent republics within the Soviet Union would have been the better way forward, but hoped that the US would co-operate instead with the CIS and would help Russia economically. The “little suitcase” carrying the nuclear button had been transferred, constitutionally, to the Russian president. He concluded by saying, you may therefore feel at ease as you celebrate Christmas, and sleep quietly tonight. How long the West could sleep easily with Boris Yeltsin in charge of the red button turned out to be a moot point, of course.
Two hours later Gorbachev delivered a long, self-justifying television address to the citizens of the fifteen former Soviet republics. He insisted that the USSR could not have gone on as it was when he took office in 1985. We had to change everything, he said. Bush left Camp David for Washington to make his Christmas broadcast. He praised Gorbachev, announced formal diplomatic recognition of the new republics, and called on God to bless their peoples. For over forty years, he said, the United States had led the West…
… in the struggle against communism and the threat it posed to our most precious values. That confrontation is over.
The Fate of the Unions
On 28 January 1992, in his State of the Union address for what was to be an election year (above), George Bush proclaimed that the United States had won the Cold War. Other contemporaries have now been joined by some historians in claiming the same. Speaking the same month, Gorbachev preferred to hail it in the following terms:
I do not regard the end of the Cold War as a victory for one side… The end of the Cold War is our common victory.
Certainly, at the end of this forty-five-year period of East-West tensions that we continue to refer to as The Cold War, the United States remained the one great power and the Soviet Union had ceased to exist. Reagan, and then Bush, had cautiously and skilfully avoided giving the reactionaries in Moscow a good reason to reverse perestroika, but it was Gorbachev who made the more dramatic moves to end the arms race and the Soviet control of its satellite states in central-Eastern Europe. He surrendered Communist rule in those states and introduced a multi-party system in the USSR itself. He failed to achieve significant economic reform and could not prevent the breakup of the Union, but he played a major role in the manner of the ending of the great power conflict. As the former State Department analyst commented,
He may not have done so alone, but what happened would not have happened without him; that cannot be said of anyone else.
The Cost of the Conflict
At the end of 1991, The United States stood alone as the only remaining superpower, with a booming economy. The poor of the US, however, could certainly have used some of the resources committed to armaments over the previous forty years. Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment that Lyndon Johnson’s promise of a Great Society was lost on the battlefield of Vietnam was not short of the mark, and might well be extended to explain the overall failure of successive US administrations to redirect resources to dispossessed and alienated Americans in the decades that have followed President Bush’s triumphalist declaration. Perestroika never made it to the USA, where Eisenhower’s military-industrial complex remained more firmly entrenched at the end of the Cold War than it had been during his presidency.
Above all, the cost of the Cold War must be measured in human lives, however. Though a nuclear catastrophe was averted by a combination of MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) and the watchfulness of those operating surveillance systems on both sides, the ‘proxy’ wars and conflicts did take their toll in military and ‘collateral’ civilian casualties: millions in Korea and Vietnam; hundreds of thousands in Angola, Mozambique and Namibia; tens of thousands in Nicaragua and El Salvador; thousands in Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Europe. Some of the post-colonial regional conflicts might well have happened anyway, but superpower involvement, direct or indirect, made each conflict more deadly. We also need to add to the victims of open hostilities the numbers and names of those who fell foul of the state security and intelligence forces. As well as those, the cost to their home countries of those forced to flee in terror for their lives can never be outweighed by the significant contributions they made their host countries as refugees.
The Cold War also stifled thought: for decades the peoples of Eastern Europe, living under tyranny, were effectively “buried alive” – cut off from and abandoned by the West. Given the choice and the chance, Germans, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Bulgarians, Slovenes, Croatians, Albanians and Serbs all rejected the various forms of communism which had been imposed on them. After the fall of Allende in Chile, only Fidel Castro in Cuba, until today (26 November 2016) the great Cold warrior and survivor, kept the Red flag flying and the cause of the socialist revolution alive with some remaining semblance of popular support. I heard of his death, aged ninety, after I began to write this piece, so I’ll just make this one comment, in this context, on our right to make judgements on him, based on the text of one of his earliest speeches after coming to power in the popular Marxist revolution forty-seven years ago: History and historians may absolve him: His subsequent victims surely will not. Surely, however, his passing will mark the end of communism in the western hemisphere, and especially in ‘Latin’ America.
Legacies, leaders and losers
Then there is the great question mark left hanging over the twenty-first century: China? The world’s most populous nation is still ruled over by a Communist autocracy, and one which has often played a key behind-the-scenes role in the Cold War, not least in Hungary, where it helped to change Khrushchev’s mind as to what to do about the October 1956 Uprising and then insisted on severe retribution against Imre Nagy and his ministers following the Kádár ‘coup’. It may no longer follow the classical Marxist-Leninist lines of Mao’s Little Red Book, now more revered on the opposition front benches in the UK Parliament than it is in the corridors of power in Beijing, but it may yet succeed in reconciling Communist Party dictatorship with free market economics. Or will the party’s monopoly of power ultimately be broken by the logic of a free market in ideas and communication? That would leave a dangerously isolated North Korea as the only remaining communist dictatorship with nuclear weapons, surely a ‘leftover’ issue on the Cold War plate which the global community will have to attend to at some point soon.
It is hard now to realize or even to recall it, but whole generations in the last century lived with the fear that one crisis or another – Korea, Vietnam, Berlin, Cuba, Suez, Hungary – might trigger a nuclear apocalypse, as the two superpowers were too often prepared to go to the brink. There was also, more omnipresent than we ever realized, the chance of a Dr Strangelove scenario, a nuclear accident, which we now know had much to do with the shift in President Reagan’s policy at the beginning of his second administration in 1984. Fear was endemic, routine, affecting every aspect of every human relationship on much of the globe. The advice to every household in the UK government’s 1970s Protect and Survive was famously lampooned as finally, put your head between your legs and kiss your arse goodbye! Sex was about making love while you still could, and with whoever you could. It wasn’t about bringing more children into the world to live with the fear of fear itself. Parents in many countries remember looking at their children when the world news grew grimmer, hoping that they would all live to see another day, let alone another generation growing up. As teachers, it became our duty to terrify our teenagers into understanding the reality of nuclear war by ‘reeling’ into schools The War Game. The happiest people on the planet were the poorest, those who lived without newspapers, radios, televisions and satellite dishes, blissful in their ignorance and therefore fearless of the world outside their villages and neighbourhoods. Except in some corners of the globe, that fear has been lifted from us, essentially because the world’s leaders recognised and responded to these basic human instincts and emotions, not for any grand ideological, geopolitical goals and policies. But the ignorance, or innocence, had gone too, so the potential for fear of global events to return was only a turn or a click away.
In the end, those in command, on both sides, put humanity’s interests higher than short-term national advantages. Watching The War Game had also worked for Ronald Reagan. Teachers could now stop showing scenes of terrible mutual destruction and start to build bridges, to bring together speakers from Peace through NATO with those from CND, to forge links, to educate and empower across continents. Even then, during the more hopeful final five years of 1986-91, we had to trust our ‘leaders’ in crisis after crisis. Even after glasnost, we could not be sure what exactly they were doing, why and how they were doing it, and what the outcomes would be.
and survived… so wrote Jeremy Isaacs for his ground-breaking television series on The Cold War. As we celebrate twenty-five years since its ending, still lurching from one regional and international crisis to another, are we in danger of celebrating prematurely? Do we need a more serious commemoration of all those who were sacrificed for our collective security, to help us remember our sense of foreboding and genuine fear? With a seemingly less skilful generation of evermore populist, nationalist and autocratic leaders in ‘charge’ across the continents, are we about to re-enter a new age of fear, if not another period of ‘cold war’? How will the seek to protect us from this? How will they ensure our survival? After all, there’s only one race, the human race, and we all have to win it, otherwise we will all be losers, and our oikoumene, the entire created order, will be lost for eternity.
Rudolf Joó (ed), (1999), Hungary: A Member of NATO. Budapest: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Hungary.
Jeremy Isaacs & Taylor Downing (1998), Cold War. London: Transworld Publishers/ Bantam Press
Marc J Susser (2007), The United States & Hungary: Paths of Diplomacy. Washington: US Department of State.