Archive for the ‘Samuel Stern’ Tag

Summer Storms Over Hungary (I): The Nazi Deluge of May-August 1944.   Leave a comment

The Introduction of ‘The Final Solution’ to Hungary:

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By 1944 it was clear that the Hungarians had backed the wrong side in the war, despite the extension of the country’s territories that its support for the Axis Powers had enabled since 1938. After their forces had been crushed on the Eastern Front fighting alongside the Germans, Regent Horthy had tried to manoeuvre a way out of the war. In March, however, when Hitler had learnt of Horthy’s plans, he forced the Regent to accept an occupation of the country and the application of the ‘Final Solution’ to Hungary’s territories through the deportation of the entire Jewish population, as enumerated in 1941, to Auschwitz.

 

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Four gas chambers were fully operation by 1943 and were working at full stretch by the time 437,000 Hungarians were brought there from early May and killed, within a matter of eight weeks, by early July. At the camp, between four and eight hundred people could be packed into huts that had originally been designed for forty-two horses, in which lice and flees were endemic.

SS Obersturmbannfuhrer (Lieutenant-Colonel) Adolf Eichmann led the special force that deported the Jews from Hungary.

He later boasted to one of his cronies that he would ‘jump laughing into his grave’ four his part in the deaths of four million Jews. In a 1961 diary entry after his conviction in Israel for genocide, Eichmann wrote, chillingly:

I saw the eeriness of the death machinery, wheel turning on wheel, like the mechanisms of a watch. And I saw those who maintained the machinery, who kept it going. I saw them, as they re-wound the mechanism; and I watched the second hand, as it rushed through the seconds; rushing like lives towards death. The greatest and most monumental dance of death of all time; this I saw.

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Ghettoisation, Deportation & Collaboration:

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Above: The Dohány Street Synagogue, at the centre of the Jewish ghetto in 1944-45.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street Synagogue (above). The following day, 4 April, Sztójay’s minister László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.  It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:

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

This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept by Eichmann’s SS) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were to be transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. At the end of April,the Jewish leaders of Hungary, together with the Hungarian leaders of the Roman Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran Churches, in addition to the Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, received a detailed report about the deportation to Auschwitz, but kept their silence, thus keeping the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews and their Christian neighbours in ignorance, and enabling the success of Eichmann’s timetable. The reality that no one in the villages knew anything about the plan in advance of it being carried out is borne out by the testimony of the Apostag villagers detailed below. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains.

Allied Inaction:

Although it was logistically possible for the Allies to have bombed Auschwitz by air from Foggia in Northern Italy from early 1944, the decision was taken not to bomb a camp that the Allies had known since 1942 was being used for the systematic extermination of Polish Jews. While it was evident that the unmarked underground gas chambers and crematoria might well have escaped, it is argued that it might have been possible to bomb the railway lines running to and from the camp, and would anyway have been worth the attempt. French railway lines, stations, depots, sidings and marshalling yards were principal targets during the pre-D-Day bombing operations, after all. The possibility of killing large numbers of inmates was a major consideration, of course, but a much more regularly used argument was that the best way to help the Jews was to defeat the Germans as quickly as possible, for which the RAF and USAAF needed to bomb military and industrial targets instead. On 26 June 1944, the US War Department replied to a request from American Jewish organisations for the bombing of the Kosice (Kassa) – Preskov railway line between Hungary and Auschwitz by saying that it considered the most effective relief to the victims … is the early defeat of the Axis. By then, the opportunity to save the remainder of the Hungarian Jews from outside Budapest had telescoped to little more than a fortnight, since the last deportations were on 9 July and photo-reconnaissance, weather analysis and operational planning would together have taken longer than fifteen days. One historian has concluded that … Even if it had been successfully bombed, Jews would simply have been transported over a different route.

In any case, with the Allied Chiefs still concentrating on the battle for Normandy (Caen only finally fell on 9 July), the bombing of Auschwitz and/ or Kosice was not likely to get much high-level consideration. Nonetheless, the camp inmates desperately wanted the camps to be bombed, even if many of them would have been killed in the process. When the nearby IG Farben factory was attacked, killing forty Jews and fifteen SS, the inmates quietly celebrated.

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The first transports from Hungary to Auschwitz began in early May 1944 and continued even as Soviet troops approached. The Hungarian government was solely in charge of the Jews’ transportation up to the northern border. The Hungarian commander of the Kassa railroad station meticulously recorded the trains heading to Auschwitz with their place of departure and the number of people inside them. The first train went through Kassa on May 14th. On a typical day, there were three or four trains, with ten to fourteen thousand people on each. There were 109 trains during these 33 days through to 16 June, as many as six trains each day. Between June 25th and 29th, there were a further ten trains, then an additional eighteen trains between 5-9th July. By then, nearly 440,000 victims had been deported from the Hungarian towns and countryside, according to the official German reports. Another ten trains were sent to Auschwitz via other routes from Budapest, while seven trains containing over twenty thousand people went to Strasshof at the end of June, including two from Baja, on the lower Danube.

The Deportation of Rural Jewish Communities:

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The village of Apostag is in the County of Bács-Kiskun, occupying an area of thirty-two square kilometres, and with a population of just over 2,100. It is located close to the eastern bank of the River Danube, to the south of Budapest. It is both a village and a municipality. There has been a Synagogue in Apostag since 1768, by which time the Jewish population had developed into a sizeable, settled community, worthy of its own place of worship.  The Jews had first settled in this part of Hungary at the beginning of the Turkish occupation, following the Battle of Mohács in 1526.

By the end of the Great War and the beginning of the living memory of those giving oral evidence, there were some 2,300 inhabitants of the village and 104 Jewish families. Some of them owned land and some rented it, so not all the Jewish families were rich, and some remained quite poor. There were between one and three children in the families (smaller than the average ‘Magyar’ family). Twenty-four councillors were elected for the Village Council, one for each group of ten families. These representatives needed to be fairly wealthy landowners to qualify for election and the fact that twelve of these councillors were Jewish also shows how integral a part of the leadership of the village they had become.

One of these councillors, János, had joined the army in 1940 and was a soldier until 1948. He was only given leave once during this time, and this, crucially and perhaps poignantly, happened to be in May 1944. While he was at home, the Jewish families were taken away from the village. There is no evidence that anyone in the village, including ‘regular’ soldiers like János, had any prior knowledge of the Nazi deportation plan. Even if they had heard something, there were only two cars in the village in 1944, so there was no real possibility of escaping abroad in the days and nights before it was so rapidly and ruthlessly enacted. As it happened, János was surprised by the speed with which the Hungarian Gendarmerie and ‘Military Police’ came in and took the Jewish people to Kalocsa. No one knew where they were being taken, or how long they would stay there, or what would happen to them. They were told to gather what they needed and they had to leave this village. Two little girls, aged 9 and 11, were somehow left behind, and they were able to stay on for a while, but one day the soldiers came and took them to Kalocsa as well. He was able to talk with the Hungarian soldiers who said that they weren’t very happy to take the girls away, but they had to do this. In 1991, the surviving villagers recalled:

When the Jews had to leave this village, Anna saw a little girl in someone’s lap, crying, ‘don’t let me go away, I want to stay here’, but she had to go as well. Everybody had to leave this village. When the Jews had to leave the village, they didn’t want to leave their houses and were wailing at the walls. They were kissing the walls with their lips and caressing them with their hands. The children were crying. It was really terrible. Some of the Christian families who lived close to the Jews went to the Jewish houses to say goodbye, and it was a very sad event, such a sad thing that they cannot forget it.

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The Library in the Village House (former synagogue), Apostag, 1991.

All the witnesses agreed in their evidence that the village people who weren’t Jewish couldn’t do anything to save their Jewish neighbours. The villagers also told us how they had watched from the nearby woods, in secret disbelief, as the soldiers took the Jews away in May 1944. They went on carts from the village to Kalocsa, which although further south of Budapest along the Danube, was apparently used as an assembly point for the Hungarian Jews being sent to the concentration camps. The villagers all stated that they did not know this at the time. So, when the Jewish people were taken away from the village, nobody knew anything about where they would go. They went by horse and cart to Kalocsa, some with their non-Jewish servants driving, so unaware were they of the ghastly reality which awaited them. All anyone knew was that they would stay for a while in Kalocsa, but nothing else. Of the roughly six hundred Jews deported from the village, only six ever returned after the war, before emigrating.

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In total, 147 trains were sent to Auschwitz, where 90% of the people were exterminated on arrival. Because the crematoria couldn’t cope with the number of corpses, special pits were dug near them, where bodies were simply burned. It has been estimated that one-third of the murdered victims at Auschwitz were Hungarian. For most of this time period, 12,000 Jews were delivered to Auschwitz in a typical day. Photographs taken at Auschwitz were found after the war showing the arrival of Jews from Hungary at the camp (see above and below).

The devotion to the cause of the ‘final solution’ of the Hungarian Gendarmerie surprised even Eichmann himself, who supervised the operation with only twenty officers and a staff of only a hundred, including drivers, cooks, etc.

Very few members of the Catholic or Protestant clergy raised their voices against sending the Jews to their death. A notable exception was Bishop Áron Márton, in his sermon in Kolozsvár (now Cluj Napoca in Romania) on 18 May. But the Catholic Primate of Hungary, Serédi, decided not to issue a pastoral letter condemning the deportation of the Jews. By contrast, later that summer, when the fate of the Hungarian Jews became known in the West, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in a letter to his Foreign Secretary dated 11 July 1944, wrote:

There is no doubt that this persecution of Jews in Hungary and their expulsion from enemy territory is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the whole history of the world….

Churchill in France in 1944

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Above: Hungarian Jews from the Carpathian Basin continue to arrive at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944.

Even so, in the summer of 1944, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry continued to defend its actions on The Jewish Question against the mounting international outcry against the genocide, led by the United States. According to the Hungarian government, the Hungarian nation was defending its own against the…

… greatest danger… a much greater danger than that presented to the white population of the USA by the negroes or the Japanese. As the Soviet army approached the frontiers of Hungary the defeatist propaganda and disruptive activity of the Jews had had to be stopped. They had therefore been segregated and set to useful work in Hungary and elsewhere. A large number of Jews had been transferred to Germany as a workforce, as had for years also been the case with Christian Hungarians.

The Rounding-up of the Roma:

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Above: Rounding up the Roma & a labour detail in 1944

The ‘Christian’ Hungarians referred to may well have been members of the Roma communities. Alongside the anti-Jewish actions, the Roma were also herded into labour camps in several counties, including Szolnok and Bács-Kiskun, which were established on some of the larger farms. In June, those Roma designated as unreliable were moved to special concentration camps within Hungary. These were established near the bigger provincial towns, and the settled Roma communities in Szolnok, Csongrád, Bács-Kiskun, Pest, Heves and Nógrád counties were moved to camps in Szekszárd, Veménd, Pécsvárad, Baja and Nagykáta. A sizeable number of Roma and Sinti ‘gipsies’, in the tens of thousands, were also sent to their deaths in Auschwitz and other camps.

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The Role of the Regency & the Reserve Corps in ‘saving’ the Jews of Budapest:

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The idea that any member of the Hungarian government, including the Regent (pictured left), was unaware of the scale and nature of the deportations is fanciful, to say the least, as is the idea that Horthy was responsible for stopping the deportations from the countryside and/ or the capital. It is true that Horthy ordered the suspension of all deportations on July 6, but by then the Regent was virtually powerless. This is demonstrated by the fact that another 45,000 Jews were deported from the Trans-Danubian region and the outskirts of Budapest to Auschwitz after this day. Domokos Szent-Iványi (below right), an officer in the Regency and a leading member of the Hungarian Independence Movement, wrote of Horthy’s motivation:

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The Regent’s idea was not to abdicate since that would end in the destruction of the lives of many thousands of people, first of all, Hungarian Jews. His old thesis was that he was still captain of the ship of State and that his duty was to remain on the bridge until the ship was saved or went down, of course with him, the Commander of the ship…

Macartney, a fellow British diplomat, recorded in his memoirs that:

Even the Jews have reason to be thankful that he decided as he did. He did not save the Jews outside Budapest (and it may well be that a more subtle politician or one less easily influenced, could have done more than Horthy did in this direction). But he saved the Jews of Budapest, and no other man could have done it…

Photo Sándor H. Szabó / MTI

Above: The Royal Palace on Castle Hill in Buda, which housed the Regency offices, facing the Parliament House and Government offices across the Danube in Pest; taken from Gellért Hill.

The Jews of Budapest itself, numbering about 230,000, had not yet been touched except that they had been required to move into Jewish Houses, but neither had they yet been saved. The negotiations between the Jewish leaders and the Germans were still going on. Although at one time Eichmann offered to suspend the deportations, or at least the gassings, pending the conclusion of a bargain, his price was far higher than anything which the Hungarian Jews could pay. Most of the negotiations concerned relatively small numbers – in the first place, only 750 emigrants for Palestine. Later, larger numbers were mentioned, partly in connection with a remarkable offer made by the Germans to trade the Jews for war material. The Allies rejected this, and in the end, the Kasztner-Brand negotiations brought the release of only a few thousand Jews. A few Jews bought their way out privately, and these included one group whose fate involved issues of nation-wide importance. These were the inter-linked families of the Weiss, the Kornfelds, the Chorins and the Mauthners, who between them owned not only the Weiss Manfred Works on Csepel, by far the biggest heavy industrial plant in Hungary, which alone employed over forty thousand workers, but also a very large number of other assets.

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Above: Map (with Hungarian legend) showing the extent of the ‘Holocaust of European Jewry’, 1933-45, with deaths shown as a percentage of the total Jewish population, the main centres of the Jewish population in 1933 (red spots and squares) and the main concentration/ extermination camps (black spots).

In the spring and early summer of 1944, those who were interested in what was happening to Jews throughout Eastern Europe had relatively broad access to accurate information, whether from Hungarian soldiers returning from the front, or from refugees escaping from Galicia into Hungary. However, the plain fact is that these pieces of information did not interest a significant part, perhaps the majority, of both the non-Jewish and Jewish population of Budapest. Hungarian Jews looked down on other eastern European Jews and were unconcerned as to their fate. In any case, open resistance on the scale seen in Warsaw seemed futile and their faith in Hungarian society was not completely dead. Samuel Stern, the leader of the Jewish Council in Budapest, had no illusions about Eichmann’s aims, as he later stated:

I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.

János Horváth (born 1921, in Cece, Hungary), was an economist, becoming an MP 1945-7, who then emigrated to the US where he became founder-President of the Kossúth Foundation in New York. He returned to Hungary in 1997 and became an MP again after 1998 when he recalled how the Budapest Zionists had…

… got hold of the Auschwitz testimonies written by two Slovakian Jews, who had been able to escape from the death camp in early 1944. (They) had it translated and sent to diplomats and Jewish leaders abroad and in Hungary, as well as to Regent Horthy’s daughter-in-law, Ilona. This was the first time… as late as spring 1944, when political leaders in Europe and America read authentic personal testimony about systematic Nazi extermination going on in Auschwitz.

The saving of most of the Budapest Jews was made possible by Horthy’s reserve corps, the élite armoured battalion of Esztergom marching on Budapest on 5 July under the command of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús, dispersing and disarming pro-Nazi ‘gendarmerie’ units. This was a direct result of Horthy’s stunned reading of the testimonies…

Five years ago, on the seventieth anniversary of the German occupation of Hungary, Frank Koszorús, Jr,  the Colonel’s son and a lawyer in Washington DC, founder of the Hungarian American Coalition and President of the American Hungarian Federation of Wahington DC, wrote a clear statement of the established ‘facts’ of the Holocaust in Hungary; in the March 2014 edition of The Hungarian Review, he recorded the following view of these associations on the events of 1944:

The American Hungarian Federation, representing a cross-section of the Hungarian American community, strongly supports historical accuracy, completeness and integrity… Considering the extent of the catastrophe of the Holocaust, great care should be taken to avoid actions that serve no purpose other than to open old wounds and needlessly exacerbate controversies. Care should also be taken to objectively discuss all aspects of a period and not abuse history for political purposes.

Considering these general principles, the Federation believes:

First, that any attempt to whitewash the catastrophe of 19 March 1944 – when Hitler occupied Hungary – and the ensuing deportation and murder of 550,000 Hungarian Jews or the involvement of Hungarian authorities cannot be tolerated.

… the Federation further believes that rescue efforts by non-Jewish Hungarians who stood up against evil, such as Col. Ferenc Koszorús who intervened with his loyal troops to prevent the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944, must not be omitted, denied, forgotten or minimised. Such rescue efforts must also be acknowledged, taught and remembered for the sake of historical accuracy and to serve as examples for this and future generations of how one should behave in the face of barbarism that characterised the Nazis and their collaborators…

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Map showing the ghettos, main concentration zones and deportation routes in Hungary.

The figure for the total death toll in the Holocaust quoted above takes account of the estimate that about half of the Jews of Budapest eventually became the victims of the ‘Arrow Cross’ Terror of the winter of 1944-45. On the fiftieth anniversary of the Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, publicly acknowledged the role of Colonel Ferenc Koszorús:

‘Colonel Koszorús’ unparalleled action (in July 1944) was the only case in which Axis powers used military force for the purpose of preventing the deportation of the Jews. As a result of his extraordinarily brave efforts, taken at great risk in an extremely volatile situation, the eventual takeover of Budapest by the Nazis was delayed by three and a half months. This hiatus allowed thousands of Jews to seek safety in Budapest, thus sparing them from certain execution. It also permitted the famous Raoul Wallenberg, who arrived in Budapest on 9 July 1944, to coordinate his successful and effective rescue mission…’

(Hon. Tom Lantos, ‘Ferenc Koszorús: A Hero of the Hungarian Holocaust’, Congressional Record, 26 May 1994.)

Himmler diaries

Above: Himmler and his journal.

In reality, the Sztójay government continued to ignore the Regent and rescheduled the date of deportation of the Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz to August 27th. What prevented the resumption was that the Romanians switched sides on 23 August 1944, causing huge problems for the German military, and it was on Heinrich Himmler’s orders that the cancellation of further deportations from Hungary was enacted on 25 August. Horthy finally dismissed Prime Minister Sztójay and his government on 29 August. By that time, the deportations from the Hungarian and sub-Carpathian villages had been completed, however.

The Jewish Council, Samuel Stern & Kasztner’s Train:

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In 2012, Zsolt Zágoni edited and published a notebook written in 1944 by Rózsi Stern, a Jewish woman who escaped from Budapest. Written in Hungarian, it was translated into English by Gábor Bánfalvi, and edited by Carolyn Bánfalvi. The notebook is of primary historical significance because it summarises, in forty-four pages of handwriting (published in facsimile), the events beginning from the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 until the author’s arrival at Bergen-Belsen. It describes the general scene in Hungary, the looting of her family home, and the deportation of the Jews from Budapest. Rózsi Stern was the daughter of Samuel Stern. In March 1944, he was the leader of the group which was obliged to negotiate with Adolf Eichmann, the SS man in charge of the final solution in Hungary, about the fate of the Jewish community. Given the controversy surrounding these events, and Stern’s life, it could be seen as a controversial document. However, as Zágoni himself points out in his ‘Foreword’,

… the importance of the notebook is that an everyday person – realizing the extraordinariness of the events – decides to tell her story, her fate, and the dramatic days of her family’s life and the black weeks and months of in Hungary … while she tries to understand the incomprehensible.

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Rózsi’s account goes on to describe what happened to close relatives and neighbours in Budapest, as well as to the Jews in the countryside and provincial towns, where the Jews were first of all forced into ghettos and then deported or sent to forced labour camps as part of the army. Ghettos were then made in Budapest as well, and designated buildings were marked with a yellow star hanging on the front gate. In the best cases, friends and relatives were able to move in together, five or six of people to one room. Rózsi’s family had to move because their house was designated as a yellow star building, and they occupied his apartment on the first floor, though all the other Jewish people staying there were soon moved on to another apartment house. Together with their father, there were nine of them living in the apartment by June 1944. Her husband, Gyuri, decided they should leave for Palestine, but her seventy-year-old father could not be persuaded to leave his responsibilities, and Rózsi could not imagine parting with him and her mother’s grave. She would also have to leave her husband’s family, including her eighty-year-old mother-in-law. In the end, she decided to leave with her husband and daughter, accepting the place reserved for her on Kasztner’s Train. They were supposed to spend eight to ten days in a German camp outside Vienna and then travel through Germany and Spain to reach Palestine. The question was whether the Germans would keep their word and allow them to reach the Spanish border. The deportees on the Kasztner train numbered 1,684. Rózsa and Gyuri, her husband, were among the ‘privileged ones’ as she described them, those who ‘had a little hope to survive’:

One day my father told us that if we wanted to leave Budapest, there would be one more chance to make ‘aliyah’ to Palestine with the Zionists. This was the particular group I already mentioned. Gyuri, without any hesitation, decided to take the trip, even though this was also very dangerous. He couldn’t take all the stress and humiliation any more, or that so many of our good acquaintances had been taken into custody at Pestvidéki… We received news every hour: in Újpest and Kispest they are already deporting people, and on July 5th it will already be Budapest’s turn… In spite of the immunity that we were entitled through my father – and the protection of the German soldier who was ordered to live with us by the Gestapo (he was protecting us from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie) – Gyuri decided that we should take this opportunity and leave. 

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Above: Samu Stern’s memoir written in 1945, before he died on 9 June 1946, with his photo on the cover.

Despite this decision, they were still hesitating on the eve of their departure, 29 June, when ‘Mr K.’, Resző Kasztner, who started this aliyah, came to see them and brought news that forced them to make a final decision. He also tried to persuade ‘Samu’ Stern to leave, because, he said, “if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either.” He reassured them that he had a firm promise that they would reach their destination and that the best proof of this was that he and his whole family would be going with this ‘aliyah’. Unlike his family, Samu Stern decided to stay in Budapest, and somehow survived the terror of the Arrow Cross rule of the winter of 1944-45. However, when the Soviet troops arrived, he was accused of collaboration. The police started an investigation against him, but he died in 1946 before his case could go to court. His activity in 1944, manoeuvring between cooperation and collaboration, is still controversial, as is that of Kasztner and Brand, but it is not the topic under discussion here. However, when considering the question of his anti-Zionism in relation to the potential for Jewish resistance, we need also to notice the total indifference of the Hungarian authorities in Budapest towards the fate of the Jewish population.

On 30 June, her father, accompanied by the German soldier who had been billeted with them, took them by taxi to the camp with their luggage. After two hours trying to ensure their safety, he left them at the internment camp, the synagogue on Aréna Street, which was already crowded with people, mostly those saved from the brick factories in the countryside. Finally, after an anxious day standing in the pouring rain, they boarded carriages ready to depart:

After a two-hour carriage ride, we arrived at the Rákosrendező train station – on the outskirts of Budapest – totally soaking wet. It was starting to get dark by the time we occupied the wagon that was assigned to us.The suitcases were piled up against one of the walls of the wagon, and the backpacks were hanging on nails all around. In the meantime, people from other camps arrived, so by the time everyone got on there were seventy-two of us in our wagon… The wagon was only supposed to hold six horses or forty people…

We were sitting on our blankets, as tightly packed as we could be. There were twenty-six… children in our wagon, including sixteen orphans with one guardian lady… It was a miserable scene, especially seeing so many mentally worn-down people. Some people tried to stretch out, which was almost impossible, and others tried to make room for their legs while they were sitting.  Little children were crying from fear and because of the unusual environment; the bigger ones were fatigued, sleeping and leaning on one another. The adults, worn out from the stress they had gone through, were arguing or weeping in silence.

Everybody was wondering how long we would be able to take this. And we took it, and even worse… The wagon had no toilet, of course, so our human needs could only be taken care of when the train stopped for awhile and we got permission to get off, which was not too easy either as the wagon was very high, so women and children could only get off and on with help and that could take some time… People jumped off the train like animals and shamelessly took care of their needs… because there wasn’t enough time to get farther away…

On Saturday July 1st at 10 a.m., we departed (from Ferencváros Station). We all rushed to the wagon’s only small window to wave a last goodbye to Budapest and everything and everyone that meant our life until now. Tears silently dripped down our faces and our hearts were broken from the pain. Maybe this was the last time we would ever see the Danube, the bridges, and the whole beautiful city where we were born and raised. The youth began to sing the “we’re going to find a new homeland” Hebrew song. Perhaps they will find it, but the older ones cannot be replanted.

The train moved at a quick pace to the border at Mosonmagyaróvár, arriving there at 6 p.m. During the night a baby girl was born, with the help of the doctors in the carriage. They stayed there for four days, built latrines, washed fully and washed their clothes, and bought provisions from local villagers. Their German guards protected them from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie. On 6 July the train was directed to Komárom and rumours spread that they were being taken to Auschwitz. However, they arrived at the station in the Vienna suburbs in the evening of 7 July and were then moved on to Linz by the next morning, having been told that the camps around Vienna were full. Here they were disembarked and disinfected, fearing that they were to be gassed. When they departed, having been thoroughly humiliated and terrorised by the guards, they had little idea where they were going or how many more nights they would spend on the wagon:

The train sped towards Hannover. We stopped one or two times because there were airstrikes., but this didn’t even affect us anymore. We had submitted to our fate and were totally indifferent.

We arrived on the 9th, a Sunday morning, at an improvised forest station near Hannover. It was a huge prison camp. We washed ourselves in big troughs and after an hour’s break, we sped further towards our destination, Bergen-Belsen.

A whole bunch of German soldiers were waiting for the train, holding enormous bloodhounds on leashes… They yelled their orders harshly. They counted us by putting us in lines of five. This took about an hour and a half in the strong afternoon sun, and we almost collapsed from fatigue. After this, we walked nine kilometres. Sick and old people and our luggage were carried on trucks… We reached an immense camp. There were prisoners here of all types and nationalities: Russian, Polish, French, Dutch, Hungarian and Jewish. Each barrack block was separated with wire fencing. We got block 11. When we arrived, everyone was registered, and then they assigned our accommodation. Men and women were separated… 

About 160 of us were placed in one barrack, as an average. It was a dark wooden building with one small window (without lighting in the evening) and three-level wooden bunk beds above each other. Lydia and I got bottom beds so I wouldn’t have to climb ladders. Between the beds there was just enough room to turn around. It was very sad to move in here, but we were so tired that we were happy to have the possibility to finally stretch out. However, this only happened much later. Once everybody had a bed, we received an order to line up… Lining up took place in the yard, with people grouped by barracks. The first lineup took two hours in the pouring rain, with us wearing thin summer clothes without hats…

The first dinner was next. They brought soup in pots. We stood in a line individually with the mess tins we were given. Unfortunately, no matter how hungry we were, we couldn’t swallow this slop. In the backpack we still had a little bit of food left from home, but we really had to be careful with that because our prospects were not very encouraging… we had to lie down wet, without blankets. It was a divine miracle that we didn’t catch pneumonia…

It is hard to imagine sleeping in these physical and mental conditions. Sometimes a child would start crying, suppressed sobbing and deep sighs, for the old life and loved ones we left behind. You could hear other people snoring, and the different emotional and physical manifestations of 160 people. There was not a single minute of silence. Crowds of bedbugs and fleas rushed to welcome us. However, towards the morning, sleep still overcame me because I was greatly exhausted.

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That is where the notebook ends. On 1 August 1944, Lídia (pictured above) sent a postcard, which still exists, from Bergen-Belsen to her fiancée,  in a labour camp in Northern Transylvania. It told him that she and her parents were ‘doing well’ and had ‘the best prospects’ of continuing on their journey. Apparently, a ‘Collective Pass’ allowing group border crossing, stamped by the Swiss Embassy in Budapest and signed by its Consul, Carl Lutz, was what eventually secured their onward journey and border crossing. After their round-about route to Bergen-Belsen and their horrific sojourn at the death camp, the refugees were then taken in two groups to Switzerland. One of these groups, comprising 318, including Rózsa Stern and her husband and relatives, arrived in Switzerland relatively quickly, while the other could only pass the German-Swiss border in December 1944. About a dozen people died on the way. Rózsi Stern (Bamberger) died in 1953, the year after her husband György.

Rezső Kasztner’s personal courage cannot be doubted since he returned from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to rescue more people before he himself emigrated to Palestine, where he was assassinated by Zionist extremists in 1957.

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(to be continued…)

Posted June 23, 2019 by TeamBritanniaHu in anti-Semitism, Austria, Axis Powers, Britain, British history, Castles, Christian Faith, Christianity, Church, Churchill, Communism, Conquest, Deportation, Economics, Ethnic cleansing, Ethnicity, Eugenics, Europe, Factories, Family, France, Genocide, Germany, History, Holocaust, Humanitarianism, Hungarian History, Hungary, Integration, Israel, Italy, Jews, liberal democracy, manufacturing, Marxism, Memorial, Narrative, nationalism, Palestine, Papacy, populism, Refugees, Russia, Seasons, Second World War, Serbia, Technology, terror, Transference, tyranny, United Kingdom, USA, USSR, War Crimes, Warfare, Women at War, World War Two, Yugoslavia, Zionism

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Budapest, 1944-45: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   1 comment

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Dancing with the Devil Himself:

Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.

Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.

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Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue

As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:

From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann. 

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Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.

On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.

On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order  went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.  It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:

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

This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make  contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.

Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of  Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.

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Apostag

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The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.

The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.

A significant birthday:

While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.

Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.

There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.

By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.

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Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.

On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews.  The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…

…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..

But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:

The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.

In hiding…

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Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957

Tom continues the family’s story:

By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives

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Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.

My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.

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One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s  mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.

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My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout  Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.

For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence.  Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.

Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’

Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.

Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was  unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.

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By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:

Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.

with-second-cousin-kati Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?

Secondary Source:

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

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.

Anti-Semitism & Zionism: Looking Back to Move Forwards   1 comment

Why its time to part company with the past, and Ken, in British politics:

Not so long ago, I posted a criticism online of an extremist, ‘Zionist’ group that had obviously ‘photo-shopped’ a picture of a swastika flying above Hebron, claiming that it had been placed there by Palestinians to incite Israelis. I pointed out, as a historian used to looking at old photographs, that the part of the picture containing the swastika was obviously taken from a picture of a World War II Zeppelin, since the rope connecting to it was coming down from the sky and not up from the tower below. Someone then added an anti-Semitic remark, something about ‘typical Jewish tactics’ to which I reacted by adding the comment that it was possible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic. My co-commenter retorted that this was impossible, and that I needed to ‘grow some balls’ in the fight against ‘the Jewish state’. Leaving aside the slur on my manhood, I realised he was right – that it was now impossible to be anti-Zionist without being anti-Semitic, in that people like him were Jew-hating supporters of Jew-killers in the conflict in Israel-Palestine and would not rest until the state of Israel had been destroyed and its people, mainly Jewish, ‘driven back into the Mediterranean’. Since then, I have read, written and published extensively about the growth of Zionism in its historical context, especially in Hungary, where it began, and where I now live, having married into a part-Jewish Hungarian family. Let me be clear. I believe in self-determination for both Jews and Palestinian Arabs in a two-state Israel-Palestine with religious freedom for Muslims, Jews and fellow Christians.

For some time now, and notably since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in Britain, I have felt tired of having to reply to numerous posts on social media (mainly on sites purporting to support the Labour Party) from those using the terms ‘Zionist’ and ‘Zionism’ without knowledge of, or reference to, this historical context, and therefore, in my view, in a way which is either inaccurate or just plain wrong. Then I got the news that the former Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, ‘left-hand’ man of the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn (his right-hand man being John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor), had been suspended for claiming publicly that Hitler was a Zionist when he came to power in 1932. So I decided to consult the sources I’ve been working on recently in connection with the Hungarian Holocaust to see what they can reveal about the development of these forces between the wars. I feel bound to state, before venturing further into this historical yet still very contemporary quagmire, that, whatever it reveals, can have only limited relevance to today’s ongoing global arguments about the management and resolution of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, since there is a ‘fault line’ running through the history of the last century which refocuses historical interpretation of the entire century in terms of what actually happened between the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in November 1938 and the setting up of the state of Israel a decade later. The displacements, dispersals, deportations and ultimate destruction of the European Jewish peoples have been fully documented are established facts of the highest order which are protected by law in many countries. Therefore, what politicians like Ken Livingstone try to do is to chip away at the bedrock of these events by seeking to re-contextualise them in order to make outrageous comments like those of Naz Shah seem mainstream, when they are far from it. There is, quite rightly, much debate over the role of Hitler’s ‘Aims’ and ‘Plans’ in determining the outbreak and course of the Second World War, comparative to a whole range of other factors, but what is indisputable is the course of what we have come to know as ‘the Holocaust’ enacted against the Jews, Roma and others whom the Third Reich and its Führer determined to be ‘undesirable’.

Additionally, we need to bear in mind that, correctly defined, both parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict are Semitic peoples in the original linguistic-cultural use of the term, and therefore much of what passes for ‘Islamaphobia’ is actually not directed against Islam, of which it is largely ignorant, but rather anti-Arab and therefore another form of anti-Semitism which also needs to be confronted and extinguished. There is therefore no rank order among the oppressed peoples of the middle east, and upholding the rights of one ethnic group does not mean trampling on the rights of another. Neither is there any need, as Corbyn has done, to conflate anti-Semitism with ‘Islamaphobia’ as a form of racism. The latter may turn into anti-Arab racism, or be confused with it, but it begins, as the term suggests, with an irrational fear of religion, and therefore has different causes to anti-Semitism. It should be treated with different remedies. We do not need an ‘independent’ enquiry to tell us this. Xenophobia is currently, sadly, rampant throughout European society, but it is its deliberate exploitation by racists that makes it so toxic.

Added to this, since former Assyrians and Persians are also Semitic peoples, a general solution to the conflicts inherent or active in the middle east cannot be found without respecting the identities of Kurds, Iraqi minorities and Iranians. At the moment, religion is being used to deny these identities in many cases, but their re-emergence and recognition is part of the secular and inter-faith campaign which is needed to defeat the tyranny and terrorism of ethnic cleansing in the region as a whole.  Zionism simply means what the name suggests, Jewish nationalism, which has a right to co-exist with every  other nationalism of Europe and the Middle East, including the legitimate demands for Kurdish and Palestinian self-determination in statehood. It’s only when such aspirations go unrecognised and get pushed into corners that they become potentially destructive.

I felt reluctant to write much more than this until Ken Livingstone’s remarks made me determined to delve back into the earlier part of the twentieth century. One reason for my initial reluctance was that I was hoping that wiser heads would prevail in the Labour Party, and would, by now, have come up with a framework for constructive discourse on the Israel-Palestine Conflict, providing parameters of acceptable uses of language for its members, many of them new to the party and new to this particular discourse. Jeremy Corbyn’s tendency to refer everything back to the ‘growth of the party at grass-roots level’ is patronising to those who have worked at this level for many decades and are more aware than he is of the challenges posed by the sudden influx of ‘unschooled’ proto-socialists. The fact that there is a concurrent conflict on anti-Semitism among students would suggest to a more pro-active or even reactive leader that this is not a problem which will simply settle down among the ‘grass roots’. His ‘Crisis? What Crisis?!’ response was also a complete abnegation of responsibility. A new fault line has opened up within the Party, and he opened it by making it clear that it was acceptable for party leaders, himself included, to appear on platforms with representatives of Hezbollah and Hamas, organisations which have as their stated aim the destruction of the state of Israel which, were they to succeed, would involve another act of genocide against Jewish people.

His election as leader has, as many of us on the mainstream Left predicted, opened a Pandora’s Box of the uglier tropes of ultra-Left ideology, and it may be impossible to get the lid back on it. However, it is not too late for him to express regret over the support implied in his own past actions, and also to distance himself from the ‘Stop the War’ campaign’s ‘Cairo Declaration’ which sought to justify attacks on British service people in Iraq. For the sake of his Party, if for no other reason, he needs to ‘draw a line in the sand’ for his fellow-travellers on its ultra-Left, whether old comrades like Ken, or new militants who have yet to come to political maturity. Unlike the other major political parties, the Labour Party has always had a set of familiar values and discourses which have to be learned by its members, sometimes the hard way. As Ken’s case proves, this is a process of lifelong learning. Just as an ‘old dog’ like Corbyn has shown himself to be capable of learning ‘new tricks’ as leader, so too all of us have gaps in our knowledge as well as our know-how, or ‘political nous’.

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Understanding Zionism in its historical context:

So, having re-educated myself on these contemporary-historical issues, partly through living and working in the part of Europe that experienced them, let me attempt to offer a basis for genuine historical understanding. Reading Anna Porter’s book on ‘Kasztner’s Train’, together with more anti-Zionist sources from within the Budapest Jewish leadership of 1944-45, I began to understand that the British Left had failed to understand Zionism as a movement, both contemporaneously and subsequent to the Holocaust. This is because it mirrors the interpretation of ‘European Jewry’ as a monolithic collective culture and ethnicity within European society. Historically, the Left has tended to  refer to ‘the Jews’ as if they are somehow a homogeneous group, like other ethnic minorities which exist across national boundaries, when, in reality, they were just as culturally diverse as Slavs or Celts. What made, and still makes them, different, are their religious cultures, which also remain as heterogeneous as those found within Islam or Christianity, the other monotheistic faiths. At the beginning of the twentieth century it was not a foregone conclusion that their faith would continue to mark them out and marginalise them within mainstream European societies. It was their persecution in these host societies which prevented their further integration. Living in Budapest at this time, Theodor Hertzl, regarded as the founding thinker of Zionism, prophesied that what would make the case of Hungarian Jewry so tragic was that of all the Jewish populations of Europe, they were the most integrated. Like him, they tended to live close to the synagogues in the capital, but there were no ghettos to speak of. In the countryside, Jewish families were dispersed throughout villages, and the only difference between Christian and Jewish peasant children was that the first attended church and the second the synagogue. This had been the case for at least two centuries. Similar-looking children would swap places on Saturdays and Sundays, and no-one, not even their parents, noticed the friendly prank!

The Hungarian Jewish population had begun to increase significantly in the eighteenth century, after the end of the Ottoman occupation of a large part of Hungary’s crown lands, and by the mid-nineteenth century they accounted for 3.5 percent of the total population. They were mainly farmers and traders who were spread out very unevenly around the country. In Budapest twenty percent of the population was of Jewish faith and there were similar proportions in larger cities in eastern Hungary, which then included Transylvania. In the western cities of Transdanubia their number was much lower, while in the villages there it was insignificant. Unlike Jews elsewhere in eastern Europe, Hungarian Jews had had equal rights since the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, and by 1900 they seemed to have successfully integrated into wider society. Leading figures in the industrialisation and modernisation of Hungary were of Jewish faith. For decades Hungarian GDP grew at a faster pace than the European average as metropolitan Budapest grew at the same rate as Chicago or Detroit. Its Jewish people became assimilated within a growing bourgeoisie and were generally welcomed by the Hungarian political élite. The growing competition between the traditional noble hierarchy and the newer capitalist classes had not yet become a major threat to political stability, so that anti-Semitic movements were unable to attract significant support either in the capital or the provincial towns and villages. However, when the economic boom ended and capitalism began to go into crisis in the early years of the twentieth century, both Jewish and Schwabian (German-Hungarian) ‘alien’ elements began to be made scapegoats for its failures and shortcomings.

The growth of anti-Semitism and Zionism in Hungary in the 1920s:

Anti-modernity movements in Hungary first appeared in the second half of the nineteenth century and were closely associated with a gradual growth of anti-Semitism. However, as in Germany, it was the social fractures of 1918, 1919 and 1920 which brought it closer to the central focus of Hungarian national life. In 1919, a ‘Bolshevik’ Republic was proclaimed, led by Béla Kun. Unfortunately for all the Jews of Hungary, Kun and many of his associates were Jews. For the commanders who beat down the Republic of Councils (Soviets), Jews and Bolsheviks were the same thing. Traditional anti-Semites saw the whole Kun interregnum as a failed Jewish plot, ignoring the fact that Jews were also over-represented among its victims, many of whom were wealthy Jews, and that communism posed a deadly threat to the Jewish aristocrats who held 20 per cent of the nation’s wealth. This made no difference to those seeking someone to blame for the Communists’ few months in power.

As Anna Porter has pointed out, this began to change in the early 1920s when both peasants and factory workers in Hungary suffered extreme hardships, and Horthy’s new government hit on the perfect scapegoat for the country’s ills – the Jews. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Germany, they became a natural target in every country, including Hungary. In Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine there were already pogroms, murderous rampages, against the Jews. In Germany, Juilius Streicher launched the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in 1923 with the ominous headline, “The Jews are Our Misfortune”. The first anti-Jewish law, the Numerus Clausus Act, was introduced in Hungary as early as 1920, the first anti-Semitic legislation in twentieth-century Europe, long before Hitler came to power in Germany. It is a frequent mistake on the Left to equate anti-Semitism with Nazism in Germany or ‘Hitler going mad’ as Ken Livingstone has, and can be viewed as a grotesque reduction  of the entire Holocaust as the responsibility of Hitler and his henchmen. Of course, many Hungarians have also tried to promote this distortion of events.

The 1920 Hungarian anti-Jewish Law limited the number of Jews at universities, teachers and students, to the same small proportion, 6%, that they represented in the population at large. The cream of Hungarian intellectuals, including almost all of those who later won the Nobel Prize, were forced to study at western European universities. A similar law also existed in Poland, and in Romania Jews were granted equal rights due to the intervention of the western allies. The Hungarian Numerus Clausus was allowed to lapse eight years later, but many contemporaries saw it as a harbinger of tougher laws to come, and they were proved right. The Regent, Miklós Horthy, declared himself anti-Semitic, but his regime moderated its virulent growth and violent eruption throughout the inter-war period in Hungary. Although it was widespread and ever-present among the ruling aristocratic classes, the élite reached a compromise with the wealthy Jews, whose industrial capital they needed. Ferenc Chorin exemplifies those industrialists of Jewish origin who became part of the political élite themselves.

Rezső Kasztner declared himself a Zionist at the age of fifteen. For him, it was a romantic rather than a political notion. “Zion” was the biblical name of ancient Jerusalem, where King David had built the fortified temple that was later destroyed by the Romans. The fifteenth-century poet Yehuda Halevi was the first to apply the term to the people of the Diaspora. The idea that the Jews would one day return to their ancient lands in Palestine attracted Rezső even before he discovered Theodor Herzl’s writings. Herzl wrote of the ingrained, centuries-old anti-Semitism among Europeans and declared that he understood the reasons for it. Although Jews had endeavoured to blend themselves into their surrounding communities while preserving their faith, they had not, he wrote, been permitted to do so. They had continued to be viewed as ‘aliens’. Yet, he observed:

My happier co-religionists will not believe me till Jew-baiting teaches them the truth.

As early as 1896, Herzl foretold the disasters of National Socialism under Adolf Hitler and warned his fellow Jews to found their own homeland before it was too late. In 1919, Britain was mandated by the League of Nations to administer and control Palestine. In 1920, following another resolution of the League, the British government agreed to the creation of a “national home for the Jewish People” in the mandate territory, as spelled out by the Balfour Declaration. The Yishuv, the Jews already living in Palestine would now be represented to both the British and the rest of the world by a new organisation, the Jewish Agency, which was composed of various Zionist factions  present in the pre-1930s World Zionist Organisation.

Rezső Kasztner had read Hitler’s Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in its first German edition, which German newspapers hailed as the brilliant work of a young genius who had a clear-eyed view of how best to solve Germany’s postwar problems. Kasztner found it to be the incoherent ranting of a poorly educated man, full of hate and ambition. Hitler’s one consistent thought was his identification of “the Jew” as the chief enemy of his herrenvolk, the Aryan master race. Like David Ben-Gurion, the chairman of the Jewish Agency in Palestine, Kasztner realized that if Hitler came to power, he would begin a war which the Jewish people would bear the brunt of. As a Hungarian journalist, Kasztner wrote about the likely effects of the era of Béla Kun’s short-lived Communist government on Hungarian politics. Kun was from Kolozsvár, then in Romania, the same Transylvanian city as Kasztner.

Porter has written that given his quick rise in society, it was surprising that Kasztner did not leave behind his Zionism. For a Kalozsvár (Cluj) Jewish intellectual in the 1920s, Zionism was unfashionable. The idea of emigrating to Palestine to live on communal farms, barely retrieved from the desert, did not appeal to urbane, integrated European citizens. Jews enjoyed public life, commerce, banking, the arts and sciences; some of them were noted scientists, writers, humorists and historians. Nor was Zionism popular among religious Jews, most of whom did not believe that Jews should return to their homeland before the advent of the Messiah. True, Rezső’s elder brother, Gyula, had emigrated to Palestine in 1924 to work on a kibbutz, but at that time the younger brother had still been in high school, and any ideas he had of joining his brother were subsequently put on hold by his father’s death in 1928, when he was still only twenty-two. Even after having joined the Ihud, one of the main Zionist organisations, and having reading Mein Kampf, when Hitler became German Chancellor, the worst that Kasztner could predict was that he would demand was that all Jews leave the German territories.

Racism, anti-Semitism & Jewish emigration in Germany between the wars:

004In Germany between 1919 and 1923 the state had been faced with coup attempts from right and left, of which the most serious, the army-backed Kapp Putsch of 1920, was only overturned by a General Strike in Berlin. German society was bitterly divided with the nationalist right completely irreconcilable to the parliamentary Weimar Republic. They blamed Jews and Marxists both for Germany’s defeat and the problems of democracy.  Anti-Semitism became the hallmark of the radical right and led to regular attacks on synagogues and the desecration of Jewish graveyards. The Nazi movement, in the form of the German Workers’ Party, had its origins in Bavaria. Hitler joined the party in September 1919 and the following February co-authored a 25-point programme which was both anti-capitalist and anti-Semitic. In April 1920 the party changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and Hitler became its leader in July 1921. Two years later, at the height of the inflation crisis in November 1923, Hitler launched an armed coup in Munich which was crushed by the local police.

003During his nine months in Landsberg prison he wrote the first volume of Mein Kampf which became the ‘bible’ of the movement re-founded in Bamberg in February 1926. This new movement adopted a programme of ‘biological politics’ to create a ‘healthy German race’ and to stamp out ‘alien elements’.  The Nazi movement viewed the new Germany predominantly in racial terms, using the concept of biological purity which was present in the theories of racial hygiene (eugenics) popular in sections of the medical establishment throughout Europe and America. Eugenic theory suggested that human populations, like those in the animal kingdom, were subject to the laws of natural selection that Darwin had outlined in the previous century. A ‘healthy race’ required the elimination of those who had physical or mental defects, or who introduced ‘alien blood’ into the traditional ‘racial stock’. This pseudo-scientific view of racial policy was expressed by Hitler in Mein Kampf. Once in power, Hitler established an apparatus of laws and offices whose task was to cleanse the race.

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Anti-semitism intensified. Jews were hounded from office or imprisoned in the first wave of lawless anti-Semitism in 1933. In September 1935, the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws were announced. The subsequent Reich Citizenship Law of 14 November defined ‘Jewishness’. The same day, The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honour forbad inter-marriage and sexual relations between Jews and Germans, also those between Germans and blacks, Sinti and Roma (gypsies). These laws linked the eugenic programme with the regime’s anti-Semitism. Over the following four years, the Jewish community was gradually excluded from business and the professions, through the programme known as aryanisation. It lost citizenship and its entitlement to welfare provisions.007

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There can therefore be little doubt that, in its own terms, the regime embarked upon a programme of ethnic cleansing from the day it took power. In this ‘peacetime’ context, Jewish emigration helped to serve this purpose, and was therefore encouraged by the Nazi state. This cannot, however, be interpreted as ‘support for Zionism’ as Ken Livingstone has attempted to suggest. About half of Germany’s Jews emigrated between 1933 and 1939, but only 41,000 of these ‘refugees’ from Nazism went to Palestine under the terms of the Ha’avarah Agreement made with Zionist organisations in Palestine on the transport of emigrants and their property from Germany. Twice this number, 102,200, found their own way to the USA, 63,500 went to Argentina and 52,000 to the United Kingdom. There was one unlikely ‘collaboration’ with the SS when training camps were set up in Germany for emigrants to acquire the skills needed in their new life in Palestine. However, by 1937 the whole process of emigration had slowed down as receiver states began to limit further Jewish immigration. The British in particular restricted the official influx into Palestine which they governed as a mandate under the League of Nations (I have written about this elsewhere on this site).

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As Jewish emigration slowed, those left in Germany suffered an intensification of anti-Semitism sponsored by the Nazi state and movement. On 9 November 1938, at the instigation of leading racists, a nationwide pogrom destroyed thousands of synagogues and Jewish businesses. In all 177 synagogues were destroyed and 7,500 shops. Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) did indeed signal a more violent phase in racial policy, but it was not a departure from previous practice orchestrated by the regime with the aim of driving Jewish people from their homes and out of Germany. Neither Hitler nor his henchmen cared much where they went, though if they could accelerate the exodus by encouraging Zionist emigration to Palestine, some of those henchmen saw it as a means to achieve their own ends. In ‘peacetime’, other means were not yet available.

The Racial War & ‘the Jewish Question’:

The conquest of continental Europe provided the circumstances for a sharp change in direction in German race policy away from discrimination and terror to the active pursuit of genocide. Whilst it is true that Hitler and the radical racists had no master plan for the annihilation of the Jews in 1939, their whole conception of the war was one of racial struggle in which the Jewish people above all were the enemy of German imperialism. When the Third Reich found itself ruling very large populations after the conquest of the east, it began to explore more extreme solutions to ‘the Jewish question’. The German New Order was viewed from Berlin in terms of a hierarchy of races: at the apex were the Germanic peoples, followed by subordinate Latin and Slavic populations, and at the foot of were the Jews, Sinti and Roma, ‘races’ deemed to be unworthy of existence. The policy towards them began with a programme of ghetto-building or imprisonment in camps, but in the summer of 1941 it became more violent, with Barbarossa including orders for the mass murder of Soviet Jews. In the Baltic States and Ukraine native anti-Semitism was whipped up by the German occupiers, leading to widespread massacres. There is strong evidence from the trial of Adolf Eichmann  that in July 1941 Hitler himself ordered the ‘physical extermination of the Jews’, six months before the Wannsee Conference (20 January 1942), which is often referred to as the meeting at which The Final Solution was agreed. The record from that meeting reveals that Heydrich’s plan was for the extermination of the entire Jewish population of the whole of Europe, from Ireland to European Turkey.

The systematic murder of Jews began in late 1941, and was extended to the Sinti and Roma in 1942. In 1943 Germany put pressure on Italy to release its Jewish population in 1943 and Hungary in 1944. When both states were occupied by German forces, any remaining resistance to The Final Solution was quashed and hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported and slaughtered in the death camps even after it became clear that the Reich could not win the war. Hitler was determined to achieve what he had always seen as his own chief legacy for Europe, a ‘Jew-free’ continent. This had always been his aim, as well as that of the NSDAP from its re-founding in 1926, if not sooner. There was no point at which he ‘went mad and decided to kill six million Jews’ as Ken Livingstone suggested. What he needed in order to achieve it were war-time conditions, and especially the subjugation of occupied Europe.

The dilemma for the leaderships of the European Jewish populations in general and the Zionist movements in particular, is clearly illustrated in the case of war-time Hungary. From 1938, one law after another had been passed limiting the rights and wealth of Hungarian Jews.  The most important of these were Act XV (1938), the First Jewish Law, which restricted the proportion of Jewish workers to 20 percent in some professions, the Second Jewish Law (IV, 1939), that lowered this to 6 percent and redefined ‘Jewishness’ on racial rather than religious grounds, and the Third Jewish Law (XV, 1941), the law for “protection of the race” which banned marriage between Jews and non-Jews. A fourth law followed in war-time, which confiscated land owned by Jews (XV, 1942). These laws were not a copy of the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, but were ‘tailored’ to Hungarian social conditions. To political leaders it might have seemed that the growing economic and political tensions could most easily be relieved by legal discrimination against the Jews, but those politicians whose declared aim, as in Germany, was to segregate and expel Jews from the country gained more and more room closer to the apex of power.

Hungary as an Axis Ally:

In 1941, in spite of all the laws passed and the measures taken against the Jews, Hungary still seemed to be a peaceful island among the stormy seas to its east and north. While the Jews of eastern Europe were deported to death camps or executed on the spot, in Hungary only those without Hungarian citizenship could be expelled. Most of these who were rounded up were executed by SS officers near Kamenc-Podolsky in Slovakia. In the early spring of 1941, Kasztner left Kolozsvár, now once more part of Hungary, as a result of Hungary’s alliance with Germany. Whatever was going on in the German territories, and despite the new Hungarian Jewish laws affecting Transylvanian Jews, the Jewish community was relieved to be outside the jurisdiction of the Romanian mobs. In January 1941, members of the Iron Guard had launched a rebellion to overthrow Antonescu’s Romanian government. The fascist guards hunted for Jews in villages and small towns, herded them into boxcars and left them there on the sidings for days without food and water. In Bucharest, bodies of Jews were hung on meat hooks and displayed in the windows of Butcher shops. In March, German troops arrived in Romania,  preparing to invade the Soviet Union.

The Hungarian government had closed down all the Jewish newspapers in Kolozsvár, including Új Kelet (New East), the paper that the thirty-six-year-old Kasztner had been writing for. He decided to go to Budapest, a cosmopolitan city, which he was sure would provide the assistance he sought for the Jewish refugees who were streaming over Hungary’s borders from the countries already occupied by the Third Reich. By now Kasztner had a broad-ranging knowledge of Hitler’s record on which he based his pessimistic predictions for the future of European Jewry. Budapest, he believed, would remain the safest place in eastern Europe. Nevertheless, he argued, the Reich, as a dictatorship of the Right, would not permit a dictatorship of the Left to continue as an ally, or even to continue at all. He had a letter of introduction to Ottó Komoly, the president of the Budapest Zionist Association and an author of two books about the future of the Jews. He was socially well-connected and a committed Hungarian patriot, despite his support for a Jewish homeland. “It is not a contradiction,” he insisted. “There must be a Jewish homeland, but I am not likely to live there myself.” Komoly had been introduced to Zionism by his father, a close friend of Theodor Herzl, bu he had not applied for an entry visa to Palestine. He felt comfortable in Budapest, though he warned Kasztner that the time would come when no Jew would find comfort in the city:

Too many of us have been in the window of social life. We have attracted the attention of other, less fortunate segments of the population. A person is inclined to believe in the in the permanence of favourable conditions and is reluctant to pay attention to warning signs.

That group, he thought, included himself. As in Kolozsvár, the Zionist movement divided along the same lines as in Palestine and, eventually, as it would in Israel. On the left were the Ihud (later the Mapai), the Israeli Labour Party that had been running the Jewish Agency, in effect the government in Palestine. This was the group that Kasztner had joined: the socialist Hashomer Hatzair, a youth organisation with small clubs, called ‘nests’, throughout Europe; the Maccabee Hatzair, another socialist youth movement that had been organised at Jewish high schools in the late 1930s; and the Dror (affiliated with the Ihud), which, with its leadership in Poland, had been active on Hungary’s eastern borders, helping to bring across refugees from both Poland and Slovakia. On the right was Betar, the youth wing of the Revisionists, which, led by Vladimir Jabotinsky, a Russian Jew who had emigrated to Palestine, fought bitterly with the Mapai leadership. He fostered armed resistance to both the British in Palestine and to the Germans in Europe, though, like Kasztner, he too became involved in deal-making to save lives. The Klal, or general Zionists, focused on emigration to Palestine, and the Mizrachi, the religious Zionists, saw themselves as the intellectual leaders of the Zionist movement. Despite all the alarming outside threats, the Zionists remained deeply divided along religious and political lines, each passionately opposed to the others’ points of view. This open animosity among the various groups was difficult for even the Jewish leadership to understand, as was its continuance during the German occupation of 1944-45. Despite these divisions, Kasztner knew as early as 1941 that the only Zionist organisations left in eastern Europe were the ones in Budapest.

From the spring of 1941 to the spring of 1944 the Hungarian Jewish community, uniquely in Europe, remained more or less intact. In every other country, occupied by the Reich, Jews had already been taken to extermination camps or were gathered in ghettos working under inhuman conditions. The losses among Jewish men in forced labour units of the Hungarian Army from 1942 had been heavy, but this was true of the entire Army fighting on the eastern front. Against this back-drop, the Israelite Community of Pest had remained staunchly opposed to Zionism. Its president, Samu Stern, in his acceptance speech in 1929, had warned the members of the community not to fall for the tempting words of emigration and Zionism. He believed that for the Hungarian Jews the only possible route was not to leave their traditions and not to form a separate Jewish party, but to be present in all Hungarian parties. He maintained particularly good relations with many personalities in the political establishment, and regularly played cards with Regent Horthy in his role as a Hungarian Royal Court Advisor, a nominal post and title which he had been given in 1916. Following the occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 he was appointed president of the Jewish Council set up by the Nazis.

Hungary under Nazi occupation:

The Hungarian historian Krisztian Ungváry has pointed out how, within days of the occupation beginning, the prominent characters of the Hungarian Jewish community found themselves suddenly cut off from their former social connections in wider society. Those whom they could previously rely upon were either arrested or removed, as the Hungarian authorities had no choice but to obey the German High Command’s representatives. These included Adolf Eichmann who, together with his colleagues, made systematic use of the Jewish Council both to calm the victims and to make them carry out as many of the anti-Semitic measures as possible. Ungváry characterises the dilemma facing the Jewish leaders as follows:

In this situation you could only choose between bad and worse, and in many cases it was not even clear which choice would be more acceptable. The conditions for open resistance were totally missing. In Hungary, the Jewish community did not separate as much from the majority in the society as it did in other eastern European countries. The overwhelming majority of Jews considered themselves assimilated with only cultural ties to their origin. They considered themselves to be Hungarian nationals. On the other hand, the Christian middle class, the segment of the majority society that was mainly in contact with people of Jewish origin, mostly showed anti-Semitic behaviour. Good examples of this were the chambers of doctors or architects which were regularly biased against their Jewish members, even taking away job opportunities from them.

In the spring and early summer of 1944, those who were interested in what was happening to Jews throughout eastern Europe had relatively broad access to accurate information, whether from Hungarian soldiers returning from the front, or from refugees escaping from Galicia. However, the plain fact is that these pieces of information did not interest a significant part, perhaps the majority, of both the non-Jewish and Jewish population of Budapest. Hungarian Jews looked down on other eastern European Jews and were unconcerned as to their fate. In any case, open resistance on the scale seen in Warsaw seemed futile and their faith in Hungarian society was not completely dead. Stern himself had no illusions about Eichmann’s aims, as he later stated:

I knew about what they were doing in all the occupied countries of Central Europe and I knew that their operation was a long series of murders and robberies… I knew their habits, actions, and their terrible fame.

Nevertheless, in a meeting with Rezső Kasztner on the afternoon of 22 March, Stern had revealed his disdain for the Zionist cause. The two men met in an elegant, old-world café that Jews of any standing would soon be forbidden from entering. A record of the meeting was made by Ernő Szilágyi, and summarised in English by Anna Porter:

Kasztner leaned toward the older man, his hands resting on the table. He pleaded as before: “The gentlemen at the Astoria know everything about us, sir – they know who we are and what we have been doing. They have had dealings with Zionists before, most recently in Bratislava. They are expecting to hear from us – in fact, they would be astonished if we did not try to make contact. They know that we are tough bargainers and that we will try to save lives. They know we deliver on our promises. “

Stern sipped his espresso.  “We don’t need help from Zionists,” he said, “A few months, and the Germans will disappear.” 

“Exactly,” Kasztner replied. “But it’s those few months we are talking about-how to survive those months. Don’t imagine, sir, that those months will be uneventful. We know what they can do. You have heard from the refugees. You must know, as I know, that obeying every order, that delivering whatever they ask for, that begging and crying at their doorsteps is useless. We are looking for an alternative to committing suicide.”

“We don’t need advice from Zionists,”  Stern repeated.

Though Stern already knew the whole story, Kasztner persisted in telling him about Dr.  Adam Czerniaków, the Warsaw engineer who was president of the Jewish Council there when almost 400,000 Jews were stuffed into the ghetto. Czerniaków had been eager to please the Germans, fulfilling their every wish, responding to their calls, a good negotiator, a professional, “just like you, sir.” Late one night, the Jewish Council was told to appear before the German commander. Word spread through the ghetto like wildfire. Nobody slept. In the crowded one-room apartments, children and adults stood by the windows, waiting, talking about what it was the Germans wanted this time. They were frightened, hungry, exhausted, beaten. During the night, the Gestapo came for the doctors, the lawyers, the other prominent Jews and their families and murdered them where they found them. At dawn, the militia arrived with dogs, hunted down more people, and packed them into waiting trucks.

008 (2)The next morning, the German commander gave Dr. Czerniaków this order: “Seven thousand Jews to be ready for transport to Treblinka tomorrow morning. Seven thousand more the next day. Seven thousand the day after tomorrow. ” The first seven thousand had already been collected by the Ukrainian militia the night before. Czerniaków knew what Treblinka meant, as did everybody else in the ghetto. The next day, the Jewish Council had a new president. Czerniaków had killed himself.

“This, sir, is the Jewish Council,” Kasztner said.

“I know the story,” Stern said, his voice hard and decisive. “It has nothing to do with us. I have my contacts with the Hungarian government, and they are confident these are temporary measures. If we keep our heads down, we shall survive. And I have my own contacts with the Germans.”

But Kasztner persisted: “Now I would like to tell you about the kind of contact Zionists in Bratislava had with the Germans.”

“I know that story, too,” Stern said, irritated…

“It is the Zionists they wish to deal with, sir. As they did in Vienna and Berlin, and Bratislava. And we are going to need money, sir, a lot of money, but more than that, we will need your trust. We must be able to represent you and the council when we go to meet Eichmann’s men…”

At that point, Stern is reported to have risen to his feet and left the café, with a dismissive glance towards Kasztner. In referring to ‘the gentlemen at the Astoria’ Kasztner meant the SS staff whom Eichmann had brought with him and who had set up a temporary HQ at the Astoria Hotel in ‘downtown’ Pest. In referring to deals in Vienna, Berlin and Bratislava, he meant the agreements the Germans had made with various Jewish leaders, including Zionists, in those cities, for the exit of large numbers of Jews to Palestine.  Over the next fortnight or so, Stern continued to call for calm, as rumours of deportations in the east began to grow. “But it’s only in the eastern provinces,” he rationalised, “You can see from the papers that there are saboteurs in these areas, and we can’t be sure that some of them are not working directly with the partisans.” However, even his daughter, Rózsa, felt increasingly nervous as the deportations from the provinces nearer by became a fact of everyday life in late April and May:

 Every day we heard the news about which town was being deported. A number of good friends and acquaintances disappeared like this. Meanwhile in Budapest, the Community, with an exact list from the Germans (lawyers, doctors, merchants, journalists, etc.) was supposed to collect people who were then interned to Csepel, Kistarca, and other places. Only through tremendous financial efforts was it possible to save some Zionists with highly respected backgrounds from the brick factories in certain towns. They were interned to Budapest until there would be an opportunity to take them to Palestine. 

The Zionist negotiations with the Nazis:

Despite the obvious fact that Kasztner was the undisputed leader of the Zionist Va’ada in the capital, on 25 April, it was Joel Brand whom Eichmann summoned to his new office in the Majestic Hotel, on the leafy Buda side of the Danube. He probably made this decision because he had seen the letters from Istanbul which were all addressed to Brand. They were concerned with the tyul, or ‘excursion’ to Palestine that Kasztner and Brand were planning together. Eichmann had decided to take over the negotiations over this ‘deal’, as Brand later testified at the SS commander’s trial:

He summoned me in order to propose a deal.  He was prepared to sell a million Jews – “goods for blood,” that was how he spoke at that time. Then he asked me a question… which sticks in my mind until today. He said: “Who do you want to have rescued – women able to bear children, males able to produce children, old people? Speak!

Kasztner asked Jozsi Winninger, the former Abwehr agent he’d known since arriving in the capital what exactly Eichmann wanted with Brand. Winninger told him that Eichmann had always dealt directly with Zionists, ‘selling’ the right-wing Austrian Zionists (or Revisionists as they were known within the movement) under Vladimir Jabotinsky’s leadership. He had also been invited to Jerusalem by Zionists, and Winninger thought that he ‘liked Zionists’. He added, jokingly, “doesn’t everyone?” When Brand and Eichmann met, according to Wiscilency’s testimony at Nuremberg, Eichmann stunned Brand by announcing that he was a Zionist and asking Brand if he had read Herzl’s book, The Jewish State. Brand nodded and thought to himself how the classic book offered the Jews the only happy solution, their own homeland, a place where they could be safe from men like Adolf Eichmann. Of course, the question was laced with heavy irony and designed to catch Brand off guard. “I know all about you!” Eichmann shouted, “You know nothing about me… I am in charge of the Aktion! In Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria, it has been completed. Now it’s your turn.” Herman Krumey explained that the German war effort needed trucks and that, if the Zionists moved quickly, ten thousand trucks would buy one million lives. “Not a bad deal,” he mused, “one hundred Jews for only one truck. One truck for every one hundred lives… a great bargain, don’t you think?” Brand protested that trucks would be difficult because the Allies might think they were military equipment. Eichmann promised to give his personal undertaking that the trucks would only be used on the eastern front. Brand returned to the Zionist Central Information Office in Pest, where he met Kasztner and Komoly. They agreed to try to meet the terms and immediately began writing to the Jewish Agency offices in Istanbul and Geneva.

After further lengthy negotiations, which involved other parties as well, Kasztner made a deal with Eichmann that in return for Jews getting to Switzerland, Zionist organisations would transport the required trucks through Switzerland to Germany. As a first step, Himmler was willing for a larger transport to travel with Kasztner to Switzerland. Kasztner had the right, and responsibility, to decide who would get on the train that meant survival. He selected mainly wealthier, educated people, and of course included many Transylvanian Jews. It is only fair to point out that by choosing people he could trust to keep the secret, he was also ensuring the success of the rescue mission. He also included some poor people, who paid nothing, and negotiated for a further 20,000 Jews to be kept alive – Eichmann called them ‘Kasztner’s Jews’ or ‘Jews on ice’.

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The Deportations of 1944 and Kasztner’s Train:

Altogether, 437,000 people were deported by train from the provinces up until July 1944, when Budapest was supposed to be evacuated of Jews. Transportations were then suspended by Himmler to divert resources to the eastern front in order to resist the advances of the Red Army through Romania, which had abandoned the Axis cause and changed sides. Hungary’s Regent also tried to agree an Armistice with the Soviet Union, but was arrested and deposed by the SS, who installed a puppet government consisting of Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascist Party) members. From mid-October, deportations recommenced on foot, with the Red Army now surrounding the Carpathian Basin. Rózsa Stern estimated that as many as half a million Jews in total were deported from Hungary. The remaining Jewish population of Budapest comprised about a quarter of a million, about half of whom we think were either murdered by the Arrow Cross, shot on the banks of the Danube, their bodies falling into it, or starved to death in the ghetto which they set up (I have quoted more about these conditions from Rózsa’s diary elsewhere on this site). The deportees on the Kasztner train numbered 1,684. Rózsa and Gyuri, her husband, were among the ‘privileged ones’ as she described them, those who ‘had a little hope to survive’:

One day my father told us that if we wanted to leave Budapest, there would be one more chance to make ‘aliyah’ to Palestine with the Zionists. This was the particular group I already mentioned. Gyuri, without any hesitation, decided to take the trip, even though this was also very dangerous. He couldn’t take all the stress and humiliation any more, or that so many of our good acquaintances had been taken into custody at Pestvidéki… We received news every hour: in Újpest and Kispest they are already deporting people, and on July 5th it will already be Budapest’s turn… In spite of the immunity that we were entitled through my father – and the protection of the German soldier who was ordered to live with us by the Gestapo (he was protecting us from the cruelty of the Hungarian gendarmerie) – Gyuri decided that we should take this opportunity and leave. 

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Despite this decision, they were still hesitating on the eve of their departure, 29 June, when ‘Mr K.’, Resző Kasztner, ‘who started this aliyah’, came to see them and brought news that forced them to make a final decision. He also tried to persuade Samu Stern to leave, because, he said, “if there are no mice, there is no need for a cat either.” He reassured them that he had a firm promise that they would reach their destination, and that the best proof of this was that he and his whole family would be going with this ‘aliyah’. Unlike his family, Samu Stern decided to stay in Budapest, and somehow survived the terror of the Arrow Cross rule of the winter of 1944-45. However, when the Soviet troops arrived, he was accused of collaboration. The police started an investigation against him, but he died in 1946 before his case could go to court. His activity in 1944, maneuvering between cooperation and collaboration, is still controversial, but it is not the topic under discussion here. However, when considering the question of his anti-Zionism in relation to the potential for Jewish resistance, we need also to notice the total indifference of the Hungarian authorities in Budapest towards the fate of the Jewish population as well as the active involvement of the gendarmerie in the deportations which took place from the countryside.

Kastner’s train was taken on a round-about route to Bergen-Belsen and then in two groups to Switzerland. This group, comprising 318, including Rózsa Stern and her husband and relatives, arrived in Switzerland relatively quickly, while the other could only pass the German-Swiss border in December 1944. About a dozen people died on the way. His personal courage cannot be doubted, since he returned from Switzerland to Nazi Germany to rescue more people.

The aftermath of the Holocaust and its survivors :

After the war, Kasztner was a witness at the trials of major war criminals in Nuremberg, including defence witness for Kurt Becher, the SS officer who concluded the negotiations with him in 1944, who later settled in Israel. In 1953 Kasztner was accused in a newspaper article of collaborating with the Nazis. Since he wanted to have a political career in Israel, he decided to try to clear his name by filing a lawsuit. However, the court convicted him of libel, saying that he had “sold his soul to the devil”. The case turned into a scandal in Israel at a time when the domestic political scene was toxic. The survivors whose lives had not been saved by the train, and whose family members were killed in Budapest, saw Kasztner as a mean, calculating collaborator. As a consequence of the lawsuit, the Israeli government had to resign and the Israeli political right called their political opponents Gestapo agents. This was the first time that the general public in Israel and the world became aware of the negotiations that had taken place between the Nazis and Zionist organizations. Kasztner’s family were subjected to a hate campaign which included violence against his daughter, and it culminated with his shooting in front of his apartment in Tel-Aviv on 3 March 1957. He died twelve days later. In 1958 the Supreme Court of Israel acquitted him of all charges except one, that of helping Nazi war criminals to escape prosecution. Kasztner’s act of “making friends with the devil” in order to save Jewish lives still divides the shrinking number of survivors throughout the world, not just in Israel and Hungary.

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For that reason, if for no other, the politicians of the later twentieth century, of whom Ken Livingstone is one held in high esteem by many, should know better than to associate the names of Adolf Hitler and his henchmen with Zionism. They are deliberately opening old wounds in order to encourage anti-Zionism and justify anti-Semitism in the process. They should leave it to the historians to examine and interpret the evidence, and hand over the task of ridding British society of xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism to a new generation in a new century with fresh moral challenges and choices.

Andrew James, May 2016   

Sources:

Zsolt Zágoni (ed.), (2012), From Budapest to Bergen-Belsen: A Notebook from 1944. Budapest: The Author.

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

Richard Overy (1996), The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Third Reich. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

 

 

 

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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