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Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Secondary Source:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Above: Apostág Synagogue, Bács-Kiskun County.

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

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

Sources:

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

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

 

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