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The Halt in the Holocaust in Hungary & The Second Stage of the ‘Shoah’, August – November 1944: Part II.   Leave a comment

Raoul Wallenberg’s Protective Passports:

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After a month in the Hungarian capital, the Secretary of the Swedish Embassy there, Raoul Wallenberg, had to decide quickly on the form of Schutz Pass, or ‘protective passport’ (‘SP’) he would use in his humanitarian relief work with the Jews of Budapest. He attached a specimen to his report to Stockholm of 16 August. It was an important part of his assignment to provide 1,500 Hungarians with temporary passports as protective documents. These could be persons with very close family links with Sweden, or who had been for a long time closely connected to Swedish commercial life, a number that rose later to 4,500. The issue of the new Swedish protective document came with a structure:  a long-term Swedish connection had to be proved documentarily, while the Schutzbrief issued by Langlet had no such condition attached. Wallenberg quickly perceived the scope of humanitarian action. He was a good organiser and had numerous Hungarian colleagues in the accomplishment of tasks. He soon appreciated the unreliability of the Hungarian political élite and its tendency to vacillate, experiencing the many ways in which responsibility could be evaded. Most of his Hungarian acquaintances were ashamed of what was happening to the Jews but insisted that the brutality was exclusively the work of the Germans. Unlike them, he saw clearly what could be described as the Hungarian hara-kiri, and stressed the responsibility of Hungarians, making it clear that anti-Semitism is deeply rooted in Hungary. He pointed out that Jews on forced labour were not allowed to take shelter during air-raids, leading him to the conclusion that the Christian population evinced only a very luke-warm sympathy, and that it would be very difficult for the Jews to avoid their doom by flight.

The Swedish protective passport in Hungarian and German, with the holder’s photograph, was not acknowledged in international law and had no force. Nonetheless, its influence could not be underestimated. In the summer of 1944, it commanded a certain respect and carried a message. In the presence of immediate lethal danger, many saw in it the chance of escape, of organised defence and the embodiment of their hopes of survival. In August more and more groups of Jews in fear of deportation came to him. The news of his protective passport spread like wildfire and long queues waited on Gellérthegy outside the Humanitarian Section of the Swedish Embassy. From 16 August, a further building was rented and applicants were received from 4 p.m., with questionnaires filled in and six photographs. These were the conditions imposed by the Hungarian government for asylum documents. On the 22nd, the Ministry produced an order on the subject of the exemption of individuals from the regulations relating to Jews. By mid-September, the strength of Wallenberg’s Hungarian apparatus was approaching a hundred. He provided extra accommodation for them at Gellérthegy and also on Naphegy, where ten rooms and a cellar were rented, and round-the-clock shift-work was instituted.

The taking on of colleagues, the formation of an effective organisation and the thorough checking of the data submitted in applications for the Swedish document all took time. The apparatus required for this grew constantly. On 29 September, he reported to the Swedish Foreign Ministry that the entire staff including families number about three hundred persons and are exempt from wearing stars and forced labour. By that time 2,700 letters of protection had been issued and the numbers of those who had gained exemptions from wearing stars exceeded the original 4,500 by a further 1,100. For the first four months of the humanitarian action, it would have been impossible for the Swedish passport of protection to be handed out as a gift to those who did not have clear Swedish connections. That came later when the Arrow Cross reign of terror meant that people were in fear for their lives in an imminent sense. Then, resourceful Jews would copy names (similar to their own) and addresses from the Swedish telephone directories held in the Budapest head post office and send a ‘reply paid’ telegram. Kind-hearted Swedes, realising that the sender was pleading for his or her life, would then confirm the ‘relationship’ by return telegram. Wallenberg’s biographer, Jenő Lévai, has concluded that very many obtained protective passports and escaped through letters or reply telegrams from complete strangers.

The embassy’s work offered reasonable security against the constant threat of deportation. Those employed on humanitarian work received a legitimising card from the Embassy of the Kingdom of Sweden in Budapest and a special personal card from the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior. This exempted them from wearing the yellow Star of David and from the ever-more widespread duties of forced labour within the army. Wallenberg had essentially established a system of dual nationality, and this repeatedly aroused the suspicion of both the SS and the Hungarian authorities. According to a German Embassy note of 29 September, the director of the Budapest political section of the Hungarian Foreign Ministry was thinking that the Swedish Embassy should be called to order in a responsible, clear and sharp tone.

By mid-October, Vilmos Langfelder’s family had come under the protection of the Swedish Embassy and he moved to the central office of the Humanitarian Section at Űllői út on the Pest side of the city. Langfelder probably came into contact with Wallenberg because of his knowledge of German and his ability to drive. Within a short time, he had become the Swedish diplomat’s close associate as his chauffeur. His SP had been issued on 20 August, when he had belonged to a forced labour unit under Swedish protection. Langfelder took charge of Elek Kelecsényi’s Steyr car for the purpose of life-saving work. According to Lévai, Wallenberg sent out an Instruction which set out what had to be done to save holders of Swedish protective documents from the clutches of armed bandits, potentially a lethal undertaking. This summed up the dramatic essence of the immediate life-saving work:

Members of this section must be on constant duty day and night. There are no days off. If anyone is arrested, let them hope for much help, and if they do good work let them not expect thanks.

Langfelder frequently found himself driving Wallenberg, at night, to someplace where people needed his protection. Among the couriers and agents, disappearances were frequent, especially when they went into one of the Arrow Cross houses to inquire about a missing person, exposing themselves to a world of pain and indescribable horrors. Increasingly, abductions and murders were carried out in broad daylight. László Hollós and Ödön Ullman were on their way to inform Wallenberg of an Arrow Cross assault on a hospital when they were arrested and murdered.  In the countryside, the role of the Hungarian actress Vali Rácz has also been recognised by Israel. She hid many families from Budapest in her home in the countryside after the initial deportations but was denounced to the invading Red Army for fraternising with German soldiers (in order to protect her ‘guests’) and almost shot as a collaborator. A Red Army Colonel intervened to stop this and she was exonerated. There were also some members of the army and police who saved people (Pál Szalai, Károly Szabó, and other officers who took Jews out from camps with fake papers) as well as some local church institutions and personalities.

Rudolph Kasztner also deserves special attention because of his enduring negotiations with Eichmann to prevent deportations to Auschwitz, succeeding only minimally, by sending Jews to still horrific labour battalions in Austria and ultimately saving 1,680 Jews on what became known as ‘Kastner’s train’, which by the beginning of August had left Bergen-Belsen with its human ‘cargo’ bound for Palestine.

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Those left in the ‘Jewish houses’ and the ghettoes were increasingly targeted for forced labour gangs. They were lined up in the streets, marched off, ceaselessly shouted at, trudging off to Óbuda in broad daylight. Klára Tüdős’ recollection draws a concise picture for posterity:

Dreadful rumours circulated about Jews interned at brick-works and cattle-trucks with barbed wire on them, and as dawn broke processions of people wearing stars would set off in the streets of Pest. These things are mixed up inside me together with the wailing of sirens, like a delirious dream.

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The Extreme Right’s Reign of Terror begins:

The coming to power of Ferenc Szálasi and his followers on 15 October through the armed intervention of the SS was the nadir of the Horthy régime, its bloodstained final act. Under the Arrow Cross Party, terror became the tool of the totalitarianism of the extreme Right. Its ranks were swelled in particular by the lumpen elements of the underworld and misguided youth that could recognise the chance for unrestrained robbery and violence. On 15 October, Daisy Lászlo’s father, the tallest man in the apartment block, removed the yellow star from the front door. By the afternoon, however, he realised that with this act he had risked his life again. Since he was aware of the politics of the janitor’s wife, he secretly left the house in the dark, but before the doors would have been locked. She must have said something to the Arrow Cross thugs, however, because the following evening a heavily intoxicated young man, wearing the party uniform, kept banging on the Lászlo family’s door, looking for Mr Lászlo. The story continues below, in Daisy’s own words:

He searched every room, causing terrible alarm among the families placed there because he pushed and shoved everybody, shouted and took whatever he laid his eyes on. He was brandishing his revolver, and we were scared that he would start shooting. There was a large table in the entrance hall of the apartment, around which we took our meals, mostly together. He dragged off the tablecloth and packed in it the stuff he had collected from the various rooms. It seemed that he had forgotten why he had come and we were hoping that he would take the bundle and leave. He was proceeding toward the front door when he changed his mind, returned and demanded a drink. Jews were not permitted to purchase alcohol, but somebody must have had something stashed away, because after a short discussion, a bottle appeared on the table. While he was sipping from the bottle, he … informed us that he was an actor. He jumped on the dining room table, and began reciting Petőfi’s poem, ‘The Lunatic’. 

He got totally carried away, stomping with his feet, his face distorted; he seemed in a trance. I do not know how much of the poem he had recited, whether he knew it by heart, or made mistakes, but when he finished there was a thunderous applause and … bows on the table, surrounded by his terrified public. … He told us that he would go home … but would return the following day and continue the recital. He threw the bundle over his shoulder and staggered out the front door. … stumbling toward the street corner. He did not return, neither the following day, nor ever. We did not know what had happened to him, but for days we feared that he would reappear. 

After Szálasi and his men took over the government a rapid series of changes of personnel took place in the organisations providing the protection of the regime. New organisations were formed including, on 17 October, the State Security Police, the Hungarian Gestapo, was re-formed. Its activity extended to all opponents of the Germans and the Arrow Cross, irrespective of rank or status. On the 26th, the ‘National Unit for Accountability’ came into being, responsible for extinguishing the lives of many civilians. In the implementation of its laws, decrees and orders, the régime could rely on the gendarmerie, the police and the armed formations of the Arrow Cross Party. In what followed, those that belonged to the service slaughtered a large number of army deserters, Jewish forced labourers and people arrested during raids, increasingly and frequently on the spot. Apart from the scale of the violence, the deluge of accompanying decrees, renewed orders and contradictory instructions increased the turmoil. A wholesale breakdown occurred in the army, the police and public administration. From 28 October, Arrow Cross members received regular payments from the state to carry out robbery and murder on a grand scale. They not only had the right to bear arms but also formed the local detective, investigative, interrogation and enquiry squads. They could act on their own authority to create the ever more tragic and corrupt conditions which they considered ‘order’. In the practice of totalitarian dictatorship, the paramilitary members of the Party knew no bounds.

A typical element of the Hungarista programme was the widespread persecution and terrorising of the Jews. Following the assumption of power, party terrorists attacked starred houses in Budapest and Jewish forced labour barracks. For example, one of Daisy’s schoolfriends, Marika, lived with her mother in what became a ‘Jewish house’ after 19 March. Marika’s biological father was not Jewish but he refused to marry Marika’s Jewish mother because he was a close crony of Miklós Horthy, entitled as vitéz (‘man of valour’), a title he would have lost if he had been known to have married a ‘Jewess’. In June, Marika had been sent to a summer camp in Balatonboglár, run by Sisters in the Catholic Church. She was given a fictitious name and false papers, along with two other girls. One night they were awakened by gendarmes and pulled out of bed. She was so traumatised by this that thereafter she frequently peed herself. She ‘escaped’ and left for Budapest on foot, where she eventually returned to her house where she fell into the arms of her mother, kissed and cried, and ate sausage in the pantry. Her return lasted until 15 October, when her mother greeted Horthy’s abortive proclamation by opening a bottle of champagne. Happiness lasted a very short time. Marika’s mother helped to forge documents, while her mother was placed in one of the ‘protected houses’. Once, when Marika was visiting her with her aunt Duncy, Arrow Cross soldiers raided the area. Her aunt yelled at one of them, outraged that he had dared to ask for her papers.

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Meanwhile, Marika’s mother became seriously ill with meningitis, and her sister arranged for her to be taken (with false papers) to the Szent István Kórház. Marika could still visit her there, where she eventually died. One night her uncle urged them to leave their new house in Benczúr utca, and they found refuge in the cellar of a nearby pharmacy owned by a relative. Next day the Arrow Cross raided the house, ordered everyone in it down to the courtyard and shot them all dead. When the siege of Budapest began, Marika, her aunt and her grandmother did not dare go down to the air-raid shelter. By that time, they were living in hiding alongside Polish and Czech refugees. One day the Arrow Cross soldiers marched the refugees down to the bank of the Danube and shot them into the river. Daisy herself narrowly escaped a similar fate during that autumn, when she spent several days wandering alone, stealing her food from outside grocery stores. She found herself in Szent István Park and was thrown into a column of thirty people being marched towards the lower embankment of the Danube under the guns of two young Arrow Cross hoodlums. She recalled:

We progressed silently, adults and children, without anyone protesting or crying. But when we reached the small underpass, and I was hit by the familiar stench of urine, without thinking about the consequences, I simply turned right and left the group.

Nothing happened and no one called out. I turned around the corner … Only after the Liberation did I hear that Jews had been shot into the Danube from the lower embankment of the Pest side … I never mentioned this episode to anyone fearing that people would think I had made it up out of a need to create a heroic story; that I was ashamed that while so many from our family had been murdered, I had not come close enough to death.    

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Another of Daisy’s friends, Vera S, had already lost her relatives in the countryside to Auschwitz in the summer, but she still lived in Budapest with her parents and grandparents, where their apartment building had become a ‘Jewish house’ and their apartment filled up with strangers. The residents were ordered down into the courtyard several times and were threatened with deportation. On one such occasion, when they were permitted to return to their apartment, they found the rooms ransacked and most of their belongings missing, even Vera’s dolls were gone. Then, shortly after 15 October, the men in the house were rounded up. Running to the balcony, Vera and her mother tried to see where the group was being taken, but Vera’s father, looking up and fearing for their safety, motioned with his hand, urging them to go back inside. That was the last time they saw him. A postcard arrived from Valkó, where they had been taken on foot. From there, Vera’s father was deported to a concentration camp. They knew nothing more of his fate.

Shortly after that, Vera’s mother had to report to the Óbuda brick factory and the children were placed in a Jewish orphanage. Vera escaped and rejoined her brother when their grandparents found shelter in a Swedish ‘protected house’. Their mother escaped from the brick factory, bought false papers from their former janitor, and went into hiding. The following day, the Arrow Cross took the orphans from the ghetto and shot them all into the Danube. Thereafter, Vera and her brother stayed with their grandparents where they lived with twenty other surviving children, in one room. These children knew nothing of their parents and were starving. One day, Vera’s mother arrived at the ‘protected house’ but Vera couldn’t recognise her because she had dyed her hair to fit her false papers. Vera later recalled:

She said that when the Russians fully surround the city, and we will have to die, she will return that we should die together. She did come back, but fortunately we did not die.

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On 30 October, German soldiers arrived in the house on the Pest side of the Danube where Iván lived with his family. They entered their apartment in the company of Miki, the janitor’s son who was wearing his Arrow Cross uniform. Although Miki had been Iván’s friend and playmate for the past decade, that did not prevent him from handing him over to the Nazis. Requiring additional labourers, the Germans had the help of the Arrow Cross in collecting men over sixty and boys under sixteen from the surrounding ‘starred houses’. By then Iván’s father had been away for years in a forced labour camp, and after their paint shop had been closed under anti-Jewish legislation, his mother had supported their two boys, her mother and herself by making artificial flower arrangements. Iván and his group of conscripted labourers were taken to Lepsény in western Hungary where they were made by the Wehrmacht to organise a military depot next to the local railroad station. They worked there throughout November, emptying trains that carried military supplies and filling military trucks with winter clothing for soldiers. Iván later learned that his brother Ervin, who had a weaker constitution, had also been sent to Transdanubia and had died while digging ditches. He was buried in a mass grave near Győr. Iván was the only survivor from those who were taken from his apartment house.

Ágnes B, another of Daisy’s friends was just ten years old when her father was drafted as a forced labourer. Soon after 15 October, Arrow Cross soldiers came to their apartment house, where they lived with her mother’s sister’s family. They rounded up all the women under forty, including her mother, who did not resist, despite being only weeks away from her fortieth birthday. Ági recalled her leaving:

My mother put on a fur-lined coat because it had been very cold. I followed her across the yard until the gate and I watched as she joined the group of Jewish women. She wrote one card from the road to Austria, telling me that they had been placed in a pigsty overnight. I never saw her again…

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Life for all the remaining Jews in Budapest became increasingly difficult, but the access to Swiss and Swedish protection documents could provide some amelioration. Daisy’s friend’s mother was able to procure copies of the ‘protection documents’ Wallenberg had been handing out, but it was too late to use them because the Germans occupied their house and transported both sets of grandparents to the ghetto. Kati was sent to live with distant relatives, where she got false papers and a new name to learn, along with the names of her seven new ‘sisters and brothers’. She was with relatives, but still felt ‘terribly alone’. Although she looked ‘Aryan’ (see the picture below), she was not allowed out on the street. Another friend, Tomi, was twelve in 1944, by which time his entirely assimilated family had decided to convert to Catholicism, mainly to avoid the increasing restrictions placed upon Jews. In June, they had been forced to leave their apartment on the first floor of a Rózsadomb villa and moved to a ‘Jewish house’. By this time, Tomi’s father was in a forced labour camp and after 15 October, all three had to report to the brick family of Óbuda, from where they were supposed to be deported. Tomi’s father was able to provide them with Swiss protection documents and, therefore, three days later, they were moved to the overcrowded ghetto.

Wallenberg’s Responses and Reports:

The sudden turn of events took the Swedish embassy organisation by surprise, as it did the humanitarian activists too. Wallenberg himself had been expecting Hungary to pull out of the war, which had been much talked about in Budapest social circles as the government’s intention. He was also calculating when the Red Army would reach Budapest, and was thinking of going back to Stockholm a few days before it happened. Up to 15 October, the Swedish Embassy had received eight thousand applications and 3,500 had been granted the SP. A week after Szálasi’s rise to power Wallenberg reported that armed bandits have attacked those in possession of protective passports and torn them up. The Hungarian staff had reacted to this unexpected turn of events by going into hiding, as he noted:

The events have had a catastrophic effect on the section, the entire staff has absented itself, and a car which was placed at our disposal free of charge, together with the keys of various locked places and cupboards etc., have vanished.

In order to put some spirit and courage back into his dismayed colleagues, Wallenberg cycled through the bandit-infested streets in order to pick up the threads of his work again, a procedure which was fraught with risks. Instead of the peace that many had yearned and hoped for a fresh wave of destruction began. On 16 October the head of the Arrow Cross Party staff decreed that Jews were not to leave their homes until further notice. Buildings designated by stars of David were to be kept shut day and night. Until further notice, only non-Jews might go in and out. Non-Jews were not allowed to visit Jews. On 18 October, one of his Swedish officers reported that the new government had introduced strict anti-Jewish regulations and that the entire Jewish staff of the Embassy was in mortal danger. A crowd of Jews seeking revenge was besieging the embassy, which was incapable of accommodating them.

In the course of renewed the renewed persecutions, the previous forms of protection lost their usefulness. Beginning on 20 October, armed Arrow Cross men lined up tens of thousands of men aged between sixteen and sixty, on two trotting-tracks, dividing them into labour-companies and took them off. The one suburban sports ground, in Zugló, became the mustering place for Jewish women, as directed on posters. The assigned Jews of the city were made to work on fortifications, digging defensive ditches. Renewed talks with the black-uniformed, green-shirted Arrow Cross leaders were required, as were new methods of saving people. Wallenberg quickly made contact with Szálasi’s Foreign Minister, Baron Gábor Kemény. In matters of the “Jewish Question” and other ‘Jew-related’ topics he later had to deal with the Foreign Ministry. On 21st, he reached an agreement with Kemény that the Hungarian authorities would give the staff of the Royal Swedish Embassy and members of their families exceptional treatment. They were exempted from wearing the yellow star; from all kinds of forced labour; they were not obliged to live in starred houses, and allowed to go out onto the streets without curfew. This rapid agreement gave hope to several hundred people by officially extending the scope of Swedish protection. It also gave Wallenberg the room to prevent the complete destruction of the Budapest Jews.

This became known, along with the change of régime in Budapest, on 24 October in Bern, Washington and New York (World Jewish Congress), at the Red Cross International Council centre in Geneva and elsewhere. However, the Szálasi government quickly realised its mistake, and drastically reduced the scope of the exemption by the end of October. On 29th, it restricted the circle of those exempted by a ‘variation of decree’. For his part, Wallenberg worked at adding to the exemption that had been obtained and at retaining the greater and lesser fruits of the talks. Protection from the embassy was, in reality, frequently nothing more than a thread of hope. The ‘protected’ houses offered an unstable, relative refuge. Security and day-to-day survival were unpredictable and depended on luck and the movements and whims of the armed Arrow Cross men. Exactly a year later, on 24 October 1945, Béla Zsedenyi, President of the Provisional National Assembly, meeting in Debrecen, thanked King Gustav V of Sweden, the Swedish people and the Swedish diplomatic mission in the name of the Hungarian nation for their help in the humanitarian activity in 1944. He described the defensive stand taken by embassy secretary Wallenberg as “invaluable service”, emphasising that…

… he had taken a selfless and heroic part of decisive significance in warding off the acts of mass muder planned against innocent and defenceless citizens, and by his resolve had succeeded in saving the good name of the Hungarian people from further stain.

By that time, Wallenberg had disappeared at the end of a bitter winter during which he and his staff at the Swedish Embassy Annex had succeeded in saving the lives of thousands more, enabling them to survive the war and the terror in Budapest.

Return to Auschwitz:

Those already deported from the Hungarian countryside to Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau had no means of protection, of course, and continued to face ‘extermination’ in the camps. Daisy Lászlo’s Uncle Samu and his family had been deported to Auschwitz from Dunaszerdahely in the summer. His wife, Aunt Berta was his second cousin, a fact which was constantly mentioned on the fringes of family visits and gatherings because both of their boys had disabilities. The older son, Nándi, had a speech impediment, and the younger one, Ármin, was almost totally deaf. All that was learnt of the family in 1945 was that they were among the hundreds of thousands of victims, but neither the place nor the time of their deaths was known. In 2010, an Israeli relative found the story of Ármin’s last months among the files of the International Tracing Service in Germany. This showed that on 25 October, he was transferred from Dachau back to Auschwitz.

During the last months of the war, thousands of Jews were returned to Auschwitz for extermination because they were considered too weak to work. As is shown below, Ármin’s physical description (including height, eye colour, the shape of mouth and ears) accompanied the transfer. His mother’s maiden name, his permanent domicile were also recorded. His signature at the bottom of this document led Daisy to believe that Ármin’s had been a special case, perhaps because of his deafness. However, she then found out that during the autumn of 1944, over five hundred inmates were returned to Auschwitz within a few weeks, accompanied by the exact same documents. Clearly, the Nazi coup in Budapest had had indirect effects in quickening the death machine of Auschwitz.

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Sources:

Andrew J Chandler (2012), As the Land Remembers Them. Kecskemét: self-published, http://www.chandlerozconsultants.wordpress.com.

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).

Nóra Szekér, Domokos Szent-Iványi and His Book, Part I, in Hungarian Review, Volume IV, No. 6. Budapest, November 2013

Domokos Szent-Iványi, The Hungarian Independence Movement, Excerpts, Descent into the Maelstrom, Hungarian Review, loc.cit.

Gyula Kodolányi & Nóra Szekér (2013), Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement, 1939-1946. Budapest: Hungarian Review Books.

James C Bennett & Michael J Lotus, America, England, Europe – Why do we differ? Hungarian Review, loc.cit.

Marc J Susser (ed.) (2007), The United States & Hungary; Paths of Diplomacy, 1848-2006. Washington: US Department of State.

István Lázár, (1989), The History of Hungary. Budapest: Corvina.

Szabolcs Szita (2012), The Power of Humanity. Budapest: Corvina.

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Marianna D. Birnbaum & Judith Flesch Rose (ed.)(2016), 1944: A Year Without Goodbyes. Budapest: Corvina.

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hmd_2013_-_vali_racz_case_study

Posted August 30, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Communist, anti-Semitism, Arab-Israeli Conflict, Axis Powers, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Civil Rights, Commemoration, Communism, Deportation, Education, Elementary School, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Family, Genocide, Gentiles, Germany, History, Holocaust, Humanism, Humanitarianism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Immigration, Integration, Israel, Jews, liberal democracy, liberalism, Memorial, Monuments, morality, Narrative, nationalism, Palestine, Poverty, Racism, Refugees, Remembrance, Second World War, Security, Social Service, Statehood, terror, terrorism, Transference, tyranny, Uncategorized, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, World War Two, Yugoslavia, Zionism

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Budapest between the Holocaust and the Uprising, 1946-56: Part Two, 1948-53; Descent into Dictatorship.   Leave a comment

1948-49: The Turning Point

In February 1992, Tom Leimdorfer, my former colleague at the Society of Friends (Quakers), was running a week’s residential course for teachers and teacher trainers in Szolnok in eastern Hungary, in the middle of the great plain (Alföld). After the first session, a Physical Education lecturer from a teacher training college called Katalin asked him if by any chance he was the same Leimdörfer Tamás who once attended the Veres Pálné experimental primary school in 1948-49. She remembered being amongst his group little lady friends!

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Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948

Tom in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background

Class teacher Sára Németh

As that academic year got underway, Hungary was effectively becoming a one-party state. It was, and is still often assumed in the west that the communist era in Hungary started at the end of the war. This is far from the case. The Soviet Red Army drove out the previous occupying German troops and the fascist arrow-cross regime of Szálasi was thankfully brought to an end in April 1945. Democracy was restored with free elections, and in fact a more genuinely democratic government came to power than Hungary had known for decades. However, within a year the pressures from Stalin’s Soviet Union ensured that Hungary would be firmly within its economic sphere and the government had few choices. By 1947 the right of centre prime minister from the Smallholders’ party was ousted. The most dramatic political change came early in 1948. The election gave the Communist Party 22.3% of the vote, but their strategy of salami slicing the ‘opposition’ parties came to a successful conclusion with the absorption of the left-wing of the Social Democratic Party into the Communist Party. Those who opposed the move had either been exiled, or, like Anna Kéthly, together with tens of thousands of ordinary members, were expelled. On 12 June 1948 the first congress of the now 1.1 million-strong Hungarian Workers’ Party had begun. Rákósi became General Secretary, with another former Muscovite exile, Mihály Farkas, the left-wing Social Democrat György Marosán and János Kádár serving as his deputies. In its programme, the Party committed itself to Marxist-Leninism, to the building of socialism through the ‘struggle’ against ‘reactionaries’, friendship and co-operation with the Soviet Union and the other people’s democracies, combined with a domestic policy of further nationalisation and comprehensive economic planning. The year 1948 soon became known as the year of the turning point. By this time, as László Kontler has written,

… major battles had been won by the Communists in the war for minds, that is, the struggle for dominance over the network of education and cultural life in general, by transforming their structure and content. As in the political and economic spheres, here, too, the destruction caused by the war, the desire to create something out of nothing and the vacuum which could be penetrated, favoured the most tightly organised force on the scene. The damage caused in school buildings, in educational and research equipment, library holdings and public collections by the warfare or by German and Soviet pillage was matched by the number of casualties of war among teachers and intellectuals, especially writers, who fell victim… by the dozens.

Those who resisted either fled the country or were arrested. By the end of the year other political parties had been banned and wholesale nationalisation was in full swing. Yet the Communists were careful to maintain a the post-war ‘coalition’ of an education system based on liberal democratic and national values without imposing Marxist-Leninist ones. The first National Council for Public Education, created in April 1945 and chaired by Albert Szent-György, the Nobel Prize winning scientist, included such diverse members as the composer Zoltán Kodály. Its main initiative was the transition to the eight-year elementary system which Tom Leimdorfer was now entering, originally proposed in 1940 which, besides skills in literacy and arithmetic, also made the acquisition of fundamental knowledge in the social and natural sciences possible. In the new curriculum, the conservative nationalist traditions were being replaced by more progressive ones. The transition to the new system was completed by the end of the 1940s, despite 70% of teachers not having the qualification to teach special subjects in the upper elementary section. At higher levels of education, the opening of the gates to free university places resulted in a doubling of students, though at the cost of a decline in overall standards. Nevertheless, this and other measures meant that several thousand young people from more humble origins were able to gain access to higher education.

However, the debates over aesthetic and ideological issues related to literature and culture, invariably initiated by the Marxist circle of Lukács, gradually metamorphosed into a witch-hunt against the apolitical or decadent representatives of the western-oriented populist writers. The Hungarian Academy of Sciences was also denounced by Lukács at the party congress in 1946 as a stronghold of reaction, and the removal and destruction of several thousand volumes of fascist, anti-Soviet and chauvinist literature from its library by the political police a few months later bode ill for the future. As in politics, 1948 became the year of the turning point in the cultural status quo, when the winding up of the non-communist press started and the Communists scored their most important success in their Kulturkampf against its most formidable rival, the Catholic Church, with the establishment of state control over ecclesiastical schools. The introduction of the eight-year elementary school system and the nationalisation of textbook publishing had already incited violent protests, especially among the organised clergy. Pastoral letters, sermons and demonstrations denouncing the proposed nationalisation of schools were all in vain: parliament enacted the measure on June 16. About 6,500 schools were involved, about half of them being Catholic-controlled.

Dark years again, 1949-53:

The New Year of 1949 saw the establishment of one party dictatorship under Party Secretary Mátyás Rákosi, whose salami tactics had got rid of all opposition and whose establishment of the feared secret police (ÁVH, commonly referred to as the Ávó) heralded an era of full-blown Stalinist repression. It lasted just over four years, but was all-pervasive. The first victims were some of Rákosi’s former political allies and hence rivals. The most prominent was Foreign Minister László Rajk who was accused of siding with Tito, who had led his  communist Yugoslavia out of the Soviet Block towards neutrality. The perceived threat posed to Soviet hegemony led Rákosi to opt for an astonishment effect to convince people of the need for an ‘iron fist’. The fact that Rajk had worked in the western communist movement before the war lent some plausibility to the fantastic allegations that he was an imperialist agent collaborating with the excommunicated Yugoslavs. Convinced by Kádár that the class enemy must be intimidated and that he therefore needed to accept his role as a ‘scapegoat’, though he would ultimately be spared, Rajk signed the expected confession. The charges against him were made public in June 1949. In October he was executed together with two of his associates paid with their lives for just keeping lines of communication open with Tito. Many others accused in the case were also put to death, jailed or interned later on, in the party terror which lasted until 1953. The proclamation of innocence, exhumation and ceremonial reburial of László Rajk in 1956 was one of the key events leading up to the Revolution. A new constitution, modelled on the Soviet one of 1936, made Hungary a People’s Republic. The role of the state organs at all levels was confined to practical management of issues, while strategic policy and control remained in the hands of the party élite.

Tom’s second school year started in September 1949  in a school nearer home, Bocskai primary school (named after one of the Transylvanian princes who successfully resisted both Habsburg and full Turkish rule). Although it was only 15 minutes walk from home, there were several roads to cross, so in some ways it was a more hazardous journey. It was a dull building, which would have been recognised as a suburban primary anywhere and it had a small dusty playground. Tom was a stranger in a year two class of all boys who were all pleased to see their friends and ignored me. Then, on the second day, a boy with a nice smile and very big ears started to talk to him. They soon discovered that they both only had Mums, but Dani was the middle one of three brothers, while Tom was an only child. They both listened to classical music and Dani had recently started to play the violin, while Tom was in his second year of making very slow progress on the piano. They had both recently learnt to play chess and were both keen on football. Within days they were firm friends, a friendship which was to last a lifetime in spite of distance. Dani’s mother (‘Gitta’) wasted no time in inviting him and his mother to her flat. He remembers that…

She was one of the kindest, most patient and loving people I ever met. She had lost her husband in the final days of the siege of Budapest. Gitta and my mother Edit, having met through their sons, became the closest of friends. Living close to each other, Dani and I were in and out of each other’s homes, played football in the street outside our house (which was safe, unlike the main road outside their large block of flats).  To a large extent our friendship must have been rather exclusive as I have no memory of any of my other classmates till we moved to the middle school in year five and became part of a wider group or little gang of 10/11 year olds.

The school day in Hungary started at eight in the morning and finished before one. They took sandwiches for break time (elevenses). Outdoor playtime during break was carefully structured with organised games or walking quietly in pairs. Tom’s class had the same teacher throughout the three years he was at the Bocskai school. She was an efficient and motherly woman. It was the ‘dark years’ of 1949-52, but school was a quiet haven, if rather dull. At the beginning of each year, they all had to buy the grey textbooks stacked in piles for each year and each subject in the bookshop. These were standard texts for all schools and only cost a few forints. Each year they contained more and more propaganda mixed in with what would be recognised as standard subject matter, especially in history.

By 1954, the number of secondary school pupils was 130,000, nearly double that of the highest pre-war figures, and three times as many students (33,000) went to universities, including several newly established ones. The proportion of young people attending from peasant and working-class origins, formerly barred from higher education, rose to over fifty per cent. The inculcation of Marxism-Leninism through the school system was emphasised at all levels within the new curricula. To satisfy this requirement, the whole gamut of text-books was changed, as Tom mentions above, new ones being commissioned and completed under careful supervision by the relevant party organs. Teaching of foreign languages was confined to Russian which became compulsory from the fifth year of elementary school in spite of the lack of qualified teachers.

For Tom, there was some homework even in the early years of elementary school, but afternoons were mainly free for play. When not playing with Dani, Tom spent much of his time with his grandmother, ‘Sári mama’:

We read books together, played endless board games (including chess and draughts), listened to music on the radio and talked about different performers, went for walks in good weather. Sometimes my cousin Éva came over too and we would play together. Occasionally, Sári mama sang songs from Lehár and Kálmán operettas, read me poems translated from world literature and told me stories of plays. From time to time (with the odd tear in her eye), she talked about my father when he was young, telling me which poems and what music he liked. School gave the basic numeracy and literacy skills, but my education during those year came mainly from my grandmother. With Mami working all day and often tired and stressed in the evening, ‘quality time’ with her had to wait till the weekend.

Among the most immediate and direct effects of the events of 1949-52 on Tom’s family was the loss of property, and for the second time within a few years. Tom’s grandfather’s timber yard had been confiscated under the Jewish Laws during the war. He had re-built the business from scratch as soon as the war was over. However, in 1948, he could see the signs ahead. The nationalisation of the large banks and the companies controlled by them, which was the ultimate test of the Smallholder Party, had been enacted on 29 September 1947. The bauxite and aluminium followed two months later. Then, on 25 March, 1948, all industrial firms employing more than a hundred workers were taken into state property by a decree prepared in great secrecy and taking even the newly appointed ‘worker directors’ by surprise. Ármin Leimdörfer (whose business only employed six or seven) generously offered it to a newly formed large state-owned building co-operative.  He was employed in the new firm and they valued his expertise. A few months later, all small businesses were also nationalised and their owners deported to remote villages. This also nearly happened to Tom’s grandparents twice during 1950-52. On both occasions, the senior management appealed to the political authorities to rescind the order as Tom’s grandfather was deemed essential to the firm and had several inventions to his name. On the second of these occasions, all their furniture was already piled on the lorry before they were allowed to return to their flat. Tom’s great-uncle Feri also lost the garage he owned, but kept his job as a much valued architect.

Just five years after surviving the Holocaust, many Hungarian Jewish people, in some cases entire families, were deported from the cities to distant farms in the country together with so-called class aliens, aristocrats, Horthyites and bourgeois elements, ordered to leave behind their apartments and personal belongings and to perform forced labour. It was no longer the upper and middle classes who were the objects of the communists’ ire, but any person belonging to any class who could be branded as an enemy in Rákosi’s system. During the eight years of this reign of Stalinist terror, mostly between the period 1948 to 1953, 600,000 Hungarians were made subject to legal charges taking away their rights, many of them being placed in detention by the police and juridical authorities. By adding family members to this number, the number of citizens affected increases to more than two million, out of a total population of less than ten million.  

The deportations also had the effect of freeing up accommodation in Budapest for workers the government wished to bring in from the provinces. There was also housing shortage as the result of war damage. Without legal proceedings, 13,000 ‘class enemies’ (aristocrats, former officials, factory owners, etc.) were evicted from Budapest, together with a further three thousand from provincial towns, to small villages where they were compelled to do agricultural labour under strict supervision. The official justification was their unreliability during a time of imperialist incitement and sharpening of class struggle, but the reality was their removal to satisfy the need for city housing for the newly privileged bureaucratic class. As living space became rationed, Tom’s small family flat was deemed too large for just his mother and himself:

She acted quickly to offer one room (my room) to a friend of hers whom we always called by her familiar name of ‘Csöpi’. If Mami thought that she had prevented a forced flat share with strangers, she was to be disappointed. We still had the small room next to the kitchen, the one designed for domestic staff, which Bözsi had occupied midweek during the immediate post-war years. The district authority allocated that room to a couple from the provinces. They were not unpleasant people, but the situation was difficult for everyone with shared kitchen and bath room for three very different households (one single young woman, one couple, my mother and me). Mami and I shared the largest room in the flat. The large sofa was turned each night into a wide twin bed. The room also housed a baby grand piano, a large bookcase, a coffee table and a very large old desk, which was my pride and joy as I was allowed full use of it from an early age. The wall opposite the window had the large ceramic stove jutting out into the room (next to the piano). Our room had the french window leading to the small balcony and the stairs to the garden. We shared the garden with Csöpi, but the couple just had the small room and use of kitchen and bathroom all of which opened from the entrance hall. The windowless dining area also opened to the entrance hall, then had two doors: one to our room and to Csöpi’s room (my old room). Our two rooms also had an intercommunicating double door, which did not give either of us any privacy, though we kept it closed…

… It was assumed that the couple who were `brought in’ had some party links, so it was always best to keep a low profile. All blocks of flats had wardens and the wardens were paid to keep an eye on the residents and to inform the secret police of any trouble or suspicious activities by the standards of the state. Residents gave wardens gifts in order to try to keep in favour, as false accusations were quite common.

Our warden lived in the flat below ours, which now would be called a ’garden flat’. Their front window looked out to our garden at knee level, but they only had access to the yard at the back. He was a cantankerous middle-aged man with a liking for too much alcohol, but he had a kind and forbearing wife. Mami made sure that whenever we had a parcel from my uncle Bandi in England, the warden had a present. Occasionally, the warden would appear on our doorstep, somewhat embarrassed, and ask a few questions about a visitor he had not seen before. It was all part of his job.

The shocking figures, combined with Tom’s eye-witness evidence, reveal the supreme inhumanity of the régime not just in terms of the scale of the deportations but also in the dehumanising effect of the housing measures in poisoning private relations, breaking consciences and confidences and undermining public commitments. For anyone who has read George Orwell’s 1984, published in 1948, it is not difficult to imagine how varying degrees of distrust pervaded individual relations, if not necessarily in their families and with intimate friends, surely with colleagues, neighbours, fellow members of clubs and choirs. On one of my first visits to Hungary, in July 1989, a Catholic priest commented that, for him, growing up in Budapest, 1984 was not a work of fiction. It described exactly what life was like in Hungary in the period 1948-53. The gap between the official proclamation of the people’s democracy and the reality of their helplessness against the obvious violations of its principles made people apolitical in a highly politicised age, turning them away from civic service.

Meanwhile, the communist state embarked on a 5-year plan of heavy industrialisation. The three-year economic plan, whose task was bringing reconstruction to completion, through the restoration of pre-war production levels, had been accomplished ahead of schedule, by the end of 1949.  The building of Ferihegy Airport, just outside the capital, begun during the war, was also completed. Huge investments were made to enhance industrial output, especially in heavy industry. Planned targets were exceeded, at the expense of agriculture. In respect of the latter, the earlier gradualist approach had been abandoned by the Communists in the summer of 1948. Although the organisation of co-operative farms was their long-term goal from the outset, they realised that the sympathy of the peasantry depended on land reform, and therefore they supported it in the most radical form possible. Even in early 1948, a long and gradual transition to cooperative farming was foreseen, but in view of the June resolution of the Cominform, which censured the Yugoslav party  because of its indulgent attitude to the peasant issue. Rákosi also urged the speeding up of the process, setting aside a few years to its accomplishment. Smallholders were forced into large agricultural collectives managed by party bosses (large landowners had already fled to the west and their land was confiscated). Eventually, the cooperatives were quite successful, but in the first years the effects were devastating. Food production slumped by half and food shortages became the order of the day. In spite of the fact that its share of national income was the same in agriculture as for industry, the former suffered from low investment.  When Tom’s uncle visited from Britain, where ration books controlled the austerity of 1947, he was surprised that war-devastated Hungary still had food in plenty. But by 1951, queues for rations of milk, bread, cheese and meat were the order of the day. Tom remembers standing in food queues after school, keeping a place for his grandmother.

The entirely unreasonable project of transforming Hungary, whose mineral resources were insignificant, into a country of iron and steel established an imbalance in the national economy to the extent that, while the population in general was satisfied with the modest increase in living standards compared with the terrible conditions of 1945-6, the target of reaching pre-war consumption levels was unrealistic. Meanwhile, Hungary’s foreign trade relations were undergoing a profound transformation. By 1949, the Soviet Union took over Germany’s place as its foremost foreign trade partner, a process sealed by the signing of a treaty of friendship and mutual aid between Hungary and the Soviet Union in February 1948. This was followed by the establishment of an entire network of exchange through the creation of the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (COMECON) on 20 January, 1949. The Soviets realised that they could save the expenses of dismantling, transporting and reinstalling equipment and, in addition, use Hungarian labour while exerting greater control over the country’s domestic economy, by creating or reorganising companies of key importance in shipping, air transport, bauxite exploitation, aluminium production, oil extraction and refinement, as mixed concerns. Tom Leimdorfer comments on the combined effects of these economic policies on ordinary people:  

With everything nationalised, gradually all choice in items of clothing also disappeared. Worse still, there were actual shortages of items likes shoes or socks or shirts. These were quite unpredictable and probably partly due to rumours and panic buying. Occasionally, one would hear that clothing items of a certain size were available at a particular outlet (by now all stores were also state-owned or directed co-operatives), but there would soon be a shortage. Long queues would form and the item would soon disappear. Large quantities of other items would be lying around unsold. The state denounced the rumours as being started by enemies of the communist state. It is possible that they had a point, but the ridiculous system of supply led planned production was probably mainly to blame. A certain factory had a target to produce a quantity of a certain product and that had to be fulfilled, irrespective of what was actually needed. Workers and managers who fulfilled or exceeded their targets were given prizes (‘Stakhanovite’ medals with small financial bonuses), those who failed faced disciplinary action.

There was a culture of fear in the workplaces. People were regularly denounced as enemies of the state and investigated. Someone could be denounced for pre-war right-wing connections, for having been a ‘capitalist’, for having links with the west or for supposed fraud or misdemeanour at work. Actually, there was a lot of fraud, mainly perpetrated by those who thought they were safe. In fact, nobody was safe as they could be denounced by others who wanted their job or who wanted to climb the political ladder within the party. One close friend who experienced the horrors of the ‘knock in the night’ was Gyuri Schustek, who had been at college with my father. He was taken for interrogation by the secret police for allegedly falsifying documents in the workplace. At one point, he was told at gun point to sign a false confession. He kept his nerve and refused. After several months, he was released without explanation or apology. He never knew who denounced him or why. Such experiences were quite common.

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The main organ of repression, the ÁVH or Ávó, was separated from the Ministry of the Interior and put directly under the authority, first of the council of ministers, and then of the Defence Committee. Its permanent staff originally consisted of 28,000 officers, striking at individuals or refractory groups or rivals of the leaders upon direct orders from them, based on ‘evidence’ collected from about 40,000 informers also employed by the the political police. Records were kept on about one million citizens, or over ten per cent of the total population. Of these, around two-thirds were prosecuted and nearly 400,000 served terms in prisons or internment/ labour camps, mostly in quarries and mines. By 1953, the tide of persecution had turned on the creators of the system itself, including the chief of the political police. About eighty leading party members were executed, tortured to death or committed suicide in prison, and thousands more zealous communists served prison terms.

There were a few ‘show trials’ and presumed disappearances to Siberia. More likely, prominent figures who were or were deemed to be in opposition to the regime served lengthy terms of imprisonment, some with hard labour. One distant relative, the poet György Faludi (his hungaricised name from Leimdörfer) spent time working in stone quarries and later recorded his experience in the book ‘My happy days in hell’. 

For most people, however, it was all much less dramatic. Just an all-pervading atmosphere of fear and distrust, families teaching their children not repeat conversations they heard at home, everyone careful not to be overheard in public places. The language of the school and the workplace (which had to be really ‘politically correct’) was totally different from private conversations. The state controlled media was not believed by anyone (not even when it happened to tell the truth) and listening to low volume radio broadcasts of the BBC World Service or the right-wing ‘Radio Free Europe’ was both risky and difficult as they were often jammed by state-generated radio interference signals.

It was not all negative, of course. The communist regime improved the health service and education, especially in rural areas, and eliminated absolute poverty. There was no real starvation, homelessness or unemployment. There was improvement in sports facilities and Hungary gloried in its near invincible football team and the 16 gold medals at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. The pervading mood, however, was drabness and fear.

While the mobility between the main sectors of the economy was as yet insignificant, the project of social levelling advanced towards the ultimate communist ideal of a classless society with no private property, an ideal which was not against the wishes of a broad cross-section of society. As a result of the land reform, the nationalisations, the mass forced removals of officials from their posts and the deportations, ‘genteel’ Hungary, the peculiar amalgam of post-feudal, capitalist and liberal-nationalist values was, as Rákosi claimed triumphantly, thrown into the dustbin of history. The business and middle classes who had championed them either emigrated or metamorphosed into service industry or factory workers and engineers. Previously sharing over forty per cent of the national income, they now accounted for a mere ten per cent, while the mass of rural paupers became small proprietors or kulaks, before they too were consigned to history’s dustbin by the intensification of the class struggle in the 1950s. People were told that the reason they could not buy butter or eggs was because the kulaks who were hoarding and hiding their produce.

The party operated an immense system of patronage through which non-measurable benefits (mainly job promotion) could be earned; and for the party élite various perquisites were available according to rank, in a salient contradiction to the professed ideal of equality and the frequent calls to ever tighter austerity in the interest of a glorious future. Among the bulk of the population, a silent resentment grew. Aversion to the personality cult and the ideological terror, the hatred of police repression, bewilderment at the stupidities of economic planning and anger at the anomalies it caused, and the utter exasperation and disillusionment with the régime in general were sentiments occasionally expressed in strikes and perceptible across the Hungarian social spectrum by the time Stalin died on 5 March, 1953. Besides sparing Hungary and other eastern-central European countries from having to ‘import’ a new wave of terror from  the USSR, which had begun in the previous months, the ensuing power struggle and its outcome favoured important changes in the tone and methods, if not in the content and substance, of the communist régimes. With the permission and even on the insistence of Moscow, the process of de-Stalinisation could be started throughout the Soviet bloc. 

Sources:

See part three, following.

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