Regarding the history of the Hungarian Holocaust, two fundamental issues should be considered: the unacceptability of “whitewashing” or “cleansing” the Holocaust as well as the unacceptability of ”blackening” history by denying, omitting or belittling rescue initiatives and anti-Nazi activities in Hungary even after Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the country.
This article is intended to support the argument that only historical accuracy, completeness and integrity will help further the much-desired Christian-Jewish reconciliation. Hungary’s sponsoring Holocaust memorial events during the 2014 memorial year; its marking the Raoul Wallenberg Commemorative Year in 2012; Kossuth Radio devoting an entire day to the Holocaust in April 2015; Pazmany Peter Catholic University introducing a class on the Holocaust; and other similar developments contribute to a better understanding of Hungary during a treacherous year in its history. That history is horrific, complex and at times nuanced. All aspects of this period should be examined and its history not abused for political purposes.
Focusing on these general principles, two fundamental issues should be considered: the unacceptability of “whitewashing” or “cleansing” the Holocaust as well as the unacceptability of ”blackening” history by denying, omitting or belittling rescue initiatives and anti-Nazi activities in Hungary even after Nazi Germany invaded and occupied the country.
Pre-March 19, 1944 Hungary. In order to fully understand the extent of the drastic changes brought about by the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944, one must recall, as noted by Professor Joseph Rothschild (Columbia University) and Nancy M. Wingfield (Northern Illinois University), that prior to that date and “to the chagrin and rage of the Radical Rightists, domestic social and institutional coordination with the Nazi model was also diluted by the ruling conservatives. Parliamentary debate was vigorous, opposition parties were active, trade unions remained free, the press was lively – though overt criticism of Germany was taboo. Civil liberties endured. Escaping Poles and Allied war prisoners received shelter, and the Jews though economically and socially molested, were shielded from extermination. Finally, the exasperated Hitler occupied Hungary in mid-March 1944 and forced the replacement of the foot-dragging and peace-seeking conservative government with a more pro-German one, though still not with an all-out Radical Right one.” 1
Nazi German Occupation Destroys Hungary’s Relative Freedom. The great majority of knowledgeable commentators and historians agree with Professor Rothschild that Nazi Germany occupied Hungary, a nominal Axis ally, on 19 March 1944. 2
Ignác Romsics observed that, “[a]lthough Horthy formally appointed the government [under duress] … the cabinet usually did not clear its actions with him but with Edmund Veesenmayer, whom Hitler had sent as Reich Plenipotentiary to replace the German ambassador in Budapest. During his five months in office, Sztójay set about doing all the things that the Germans and the Hungarian right wing had been demanding but which had so far been more or less successfully blocked by the conservative regime. On 28 March he dissolved all parties of the left-wing and bourgeois democratic opposition, including the Independent Smallholders and Social Democrats. During March and April over 3,000 people were taken into custody by the Gestapo and the Hungarian police and gendarmerie. … In order to preserve a semblance of legal continuity, the Parliament was allowed to carry on functioning but there was a massive clear-out of officials in key positions of the state administration and army command, including 29 of the 41 high sheriffs and two-thirds of the country’s burgomasters.” 3
The “clear-out” was successful. The German’s goal of eradicating the Hungarian Jews “was facilitated by the fact that they had destroyed the traditional Hungarian political leadership; the anti-German groups of the Hungarian economic, diplomatic and military elite had been removed from positions of influence. The conservative-liberals, leftist liberals and social democrats who had protested against the Jewish laws had either been taken into German prison or concentration camps or had gone into hiding.”4
Under these circumstances Horthy perhaps should have resigned to avoid the semblance of legitimacy as anti-Nazi Prime Minister Miklos Kállay implored. A Jewish delegation, headed by Ferenc Chorin and Móric Kornfeld, on the other hand, urged Horthy not to resign because, they believed, if he failed to appease the Germans the Jews would face extermination. 5. His “decision to remain as regent has been one of the most intensely debated questions among Hungarians ever since.” 6 Had Horthy resigned, Hungary undoubtedly would have been considered as an occupied country by the Allies, not as an enemy state, and he would not be associated with the deportation of the Jews from the provinces. The Jews of Budapest in all likelihood would have been deported to the German death camps, however.
Since Horthy did not abdicate could he have done more than to protect just the 250,000 Jews of Budapest? According to Charles Fenyvesi, “Horthy as head of state did have enough power to protect its Jewish citizens. … Horthy underestimated his freedom of action and overestimated the force of the great power facing him.” 7
Nazi German occupation was unwanted and not a friendly gesture by an ally just strolling through Hungary, but ordered by an angry and anxious Hitler who intended to keep Hungary from extricating itself from the war, as Budapest had been attempting to do as it secretly negotiated with Allied representatives. Hitler also was outraged by the Kállay government’s adamant refusal to deport Hungary’s 800,000 Jews. As succinctly noted by historian Randolph Braham, a specialist of that period, “[it] was primarily to safeguard their security interests that the Germans decided to invade Hungary. The destruction of Hungarian Jewry, the last surviving large bloc of European Jewry, was to a large extent concomitant of this German military decision.” 8. John Lukacs wrote, “[w]hat remained of the independence of Hungary [following the invasion] was largely gone … [and] so war had come to Budapest, physically, in the spring of 1944.” 9
Tragically, the lack of adequate preparations by the government coupled with the pro-German predisposition of several officers of the General Staff and senior officers in key positions and a fear of Bolshevism were among the factors that precluded any military opposition to the German invasion to defend Hungary’s borders. That failure had horrendous consequences for the Jews and Hungary.
Impact of Occupation on Jews Catastrophic; Attempts to “Whitewash” Are Unacceptable. 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 and a cross section of civilians cannot be but condemned in the strongest terms. The Nazi German occupation had horrendous consequences, resulting in the deportation under horrific conditions and death of hundreds of thousands of Jews at the hands of the Nazi occupiers and their Hungarian collaborators. Both the German and the Hungarian roles must be confronted and acknowledged, as Hungary’s leaders have started doing so beginning with Prime Minister Jozsef Antall,10 remembered and taught objectively not only for the sake of accuracy and human decency, but also to prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
The roles of Germans and Hungarians in the Holocaust are summarized by Braham as follows, “[w]hile the Germans were eager to solve the Jewish question, they could not have proceeded without the consent of the newly established [Sztójay] puppet government and the cooperation of the Hungarian instrumentalities of power. … The Hungarian ultra-rightists, in turn, … could not have achieved their ideologically defined objectives in the absence of the [German] occupation [in March 1944].” 11 György Ránki put it this way, “[n]evertheless, with all due regard to the major Hungarian component, upon examining the events, one must conclude that without the Germans, the Hungarian Holocaust would not have occurred in the same manner.” 12
And in examining the events, it is important to recall the growing anti-Semitism in inter-war Hungary; pre-occupation anti-Jewish laws; Kamenets-Podolsk where Germans carried out mass killings of Jews expelled by Hungarian authorities (deportations halted by Interior Minister Keresztes-Fischer)13; the Novi Sad massacres (perpetrators prosecuted by the Kállay government); the notorious 1920 Numerus Clausus law (objectionable section amended in 1928)14; and the labor battalions (whose plight Defense Minister Vilmos Nagy-Baczoni sought to ease and for which he was recognized as a Righteous Gentile by the Yad Vashem in Jerusalem).
It is equally important to examine why approximately 800,000 Jews remained alive in Hungary in 1944 before the occupation. This enraged Nazi Germany as reflected in a diary entry by Joseph Goebbels on May 8, 1943 following a meeting between Horthy and Hitler: “The Jewish question is being solved least satisfactorily by the Hungarians. The Hungarian state is permeated with Jews, and the Fuehrer did not succeed during his talk with Horthy in convincing the latter of the necessity of more stringent measures. Horthy himself, of course, is badly tangled up with the Jews through his family, and will continue to resist every effort to tackle the Jewish problem aggressively. He gave a number of humanitarian counterarguments which of course don't apply at all to this situation. You just cannot talk humanitarianism when dealing with Jews. Jews must be defeated.” 15
While fascists, Nazis and pro-German elements may have welcomed the German invasion, thereby betraying Hungary, Hungarian national interests and humanity, one must consider how and why they had been stymied as long as Hungary had been able to maintain a semblance of its independence until Hitler’s invasion. After the war, the war criminals, including members of the Sztójay and Szálasi governments, were tried, convicted and executed by the People’s Tribunals in Hungary.
Without detracting one iota from the responsibility and guilt of the German and Hungarian perpetrators of the Hungarian Holocaust, it is also important to recall steps that could have saved lives despite the diabolical determination of the Nazis and their Hungarian collaborators to annihilate Jews but which are not widely publicized today. They include the refusal by the Allies to bomb the Auschwitz killing installations and deportation railroads. One historian concluded, “[t]he real reason the proposals [to bomb] were refused was the War Department’s prior decision that rescue was not part of its mission.... To the American military, Europe’s Jews represented an extraneous problem and an unwanted burden.” 16
Moreover, much “more publicity about the extermination of the Jews should have been disseminated throughout Europe. . . .Roosevelt, Churchill, and the Pope might have made it clear to the Nazis their full awareness of the mass-murder program and their severe condemnation of it. . . .The European Jews themselves should have been repeatedly warned of what was happening and told what the deportation trains really meant. . . .Roosevelt, Churchill, other Western leaders, and major Jewish spokesmen should have warned Jews over and over against the steps that led to deportation and urged them to try to hide or flee or resist.” 17
It was not only Western leaders who did not warn the Jews. One among the many tragic developments in 1944 was the extent to which some Jewish leaders let their community down by failing to warn and urge the Jews to ”hide, flee or resist.” Rudolf Verba, who escaped from Auschwitz and was one of the authors of the Auschwitz Protocol, painfully and bitterly asserted that the “failure of the official Jewish representatives in Hungary to inform the Jewish population about the death mills in Auschwitz contributed to Adolf Eichmann’s stunning success in so rapidly organizing the deportation of the Hungarian Jews. It is my contention that this could have been greatly impeded if our warnings had been effectively and swiftly communicated to the intended victims.” 18
Occupation Also Devastating for Hungary. The Holocaust and the war-related suffering are separate catastrophes. But one cannot deny or belittle the devastating consequences for Hungary of the German occupation and the acts of the Quislings, such as keeping that country in the war and subjecting it to the “most destructive fighting ever to take place on Hungarian soil.” 19
Bryan Cartledge summarized the enormous price Hungary paid for its ill-fated participation in the war: “The war had cost Hungary 900,000 lives, of which 550,000 were Jewish. Six hundred thousand Hungarians, including 120,000 civilians, disappeared into captivity in the Soviet Union; half of them never returned. Nearly half the country’s national wealth had been destroyed or requisitioned, including 54 per cent of her industrial plant, 40 percent of her railways and over half her livestock. All the prizes that had lured her into the Faustian pact with Hitler’s Germany were lost. Worse, Hungary had forfeited the goodwill of the international community. At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, no voice was raised to mitigate her punishment, no concern expressed for her future. Churchill’s informal understanding with Stalin that the West would retain a 50 per cent share of influence in Hungary (subsequently reduced to 25 per cent by Molotov with Eden’s tacit agreement) was forgotten. The fait accompli of Soviet occupation was unchallenged. The year 1944–45 eclipsed the many previous tragedies and disasters in Hungary’s history, perhaps excepting only the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.” (Emphasis added)20
It also should be recalled that “[w]ith the outbreak of World War II it was clear that Hungary would not be able to avoid being involved in the war. Despite efforts to maintain her neutrality, her geopolitical situation in Central Europe – surrounded by countries either allied with or occupied by Germany – predetermined her participation. The question was whether this participation would take shape as a German ally or an occupied country… The lure of regaining Hungary’s lost territories [inhabited by Hungarians] combined with Germany’s stunning early successes persuaded many that the restoration of the territories might be won through a German alliance. This belief was strengthened by the fact that Hungarian life maintained a surprising amount of normalcy, even though limited for its Jewish citizens, until the German occupation in March 1944.” 21
Attempts to “Blacken” Are Unacceptable. Rescue efforts by non-Jewish Hungarians who stood up against evil, such as Col. Ferenc Koszorús whose intervention with his loyal troops prevented the deportation of the Jews of Budapest in July 1944, must not be omitted, denied, forgotten or minimized.
On the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, Congressman Tom Lantos, a survivor of the Holocaust himself and a liberal Democrat who served as Chairman of the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs, recognized Colonel Ferenc Koszorús: “Colonel Koszorús’ unparalleled action [in July 1944] was the only case in which Axis power 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 3 1/2 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. … Therefore it is with great honor and pride that I rise today in recognition [of the] valiant, patriotic efforts of Ferenc Koszorús. Many thousands of families are alive today as a result of the heroic actions of one man who stood up for his beliefs in a very uncertain and dangerous time. His loyalty to his country and love of humanity are an inspiration to all who struggle against oppression and the vile bigotry of racism… Too often the efforts of those who struggle against the Nazi oppression go unrecognized. This year, the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Holocaust, the world reflects on the lessons learned. I am proud to honor Colonel Koszorús, a patriot, a humanitarian, and a hero.” (Emphasis added.)22
Such rescue efforts must also be acknowledged, taught and remembered for the sake of historical accuracy and to serve as role models for this and future generations of how one should behave in the face of the barbarism that characterized the Nazis, their collaborators, and later the Communists.
A few individuals, some of them historians, are reluctant to fully acknowledge courageous anti-Nazi acts or cavalierly and unjustifiably pin the label of “cleansing” on initiatives to remember them. They appear to be motivated out of a misguided fear that remembering courageous acts by Hungarians diminishes the horrors of the Holocaust. But it needs to be acknowledged that while there is extensive literature produced about the Holocaust, very little is published or disseminated about those who actively resisted it and worked to save Jewish lives.
Some go so far as to erroneously suggest that discussing rescue activities of Christian Hungarians or the cessation of deportations in early July 1944 deflects attention from the Holocaust. So historical facts are either belittled or ignored altogether. Revisionism, half-truths and truncated histories are bereft of scholarly value and serve no purpose other than to mislead, falsify and polarize.
An example of “partial” history is how the Novi Sad/Ujvidek massacre perpetrated by Hungarian troops in January 1942 is handled. While the atrocity is described, the ensuing facts are not always included, namely that a Hungarian court martial convicted the principal culprits, some of whom escaped to Germany where they were rewarded with appointments in the SS; “they would
return to Hungary, as officers in the German occupying force in 1944."23
In some instances the record is nuanced and mixed as, for example, the conduct of the churches is. While the church leaders, including Prince-Primate Jusztinián Serédi, Bishop László Ravasz of the Reformed Church, raised their concerns with Horthy and individual members of the government, including Sztojay, they failed to speak out publicly against anti-Jewish measures and deportations. They often focused on the protection of the converts and Christians of Jewish origin. 24 Professor Istvan Deak observed: “The tragedy is that the Prince Primate kept discreetly protesting the atrocities in the ghettoes at a time when hundreds of thousands were already on their way to the gas chambers. One cannot help feeling that timely protestations in public. . .would have slowed down the deportation process. They would not have stopped Eichmann but would have thrown confusion in the ranks of the allegedly Christian gendarmes and civil servants without whom the deportations were impossible.” 25.
Braham points out that in “contrast to the top church leaders, several of the regional bishops took a more active role on behalf of the persecuted Jews in the area of their dioceses. They did everything in their power to induce the local authorities to alleviate the plight of the Jews. . . .[T]hree of the bishops [Aron Marton, Apor and Endre Hamvas] raised the issue of ghettoization and deportation publicly.” 26
Nonetheless as feeble as they were, efforts of the church leaders “yielded some positive results. They secured exemptions for church officials of Jewish background as well as for persons in mixed marriages. They also achieved a more lenient treatment of converts. . . .The church leaders undoubtedly contributed to Horthy’s decision to halt deportations.” 27
Intellectually Honest Debate Desired. In sum, 19 March 1944 and its consequences are interconnected, complex, at times nuanced but usually horrible historical facts relating to a dark year of Hungarian history. 28 Tragedies cascaded upon tragedies. It can be hoped that politics is not injected into what should be a serious and honest historical debate, remembrance of heroes and a respectful and distinguished commemoration of enormous and unimaginable tragedies and suffering that affected and continue to affect so many lives.
Frank Koszorús Jr.
References and Notes
See also, Turbucz David, Horthy Miklos, (Budapest: Napvilag Kiado, 2011) p. 182, “A belugyminiszter [Keresztes-Fischer Ferenc] a deportalast nemet nyomasra es a beerkezett jelentesek alapjan augusztus 9-en alitotta le.”
Bryan Cartledge, writes. “It should also be recorded, however, that between 1941 in mid-– 1943 the Hungarian Ministry of the Interior provided 14,000 Polish Jews with ‘Christian papers’ to exempt them from deportation; and, when reports filtered back to Hungary of the wholesale massacre of deportees by the German SS in the Ukraine, the Ministry ordered an end to all deportations, even recalling some train loads already en route.” The Will to Survive; a History of Hungary, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011) p. 384.
Fenyvesi describes Keresztes-Fischer as follows: “Strangely enough, the Hungarian governments highest ranking active anti-Nazi was the Minister of Interior himself, holding a job traditionally reserved for a villain. ‘He stepped over his shadow,’” said the late Jeno Thassy, then an army lieutenant who rescued Jews. “In his memoir, published in Hungarian under the title Dangerous Land, he described Fischer, whom he had met before the war socially, as a nondescript little bureaucrat ‘wringing his small dry hands’ while listening intently to people who appealed to him knowing that he paid attention. During the war, he took on a different role. Though the law was his Bible, he became a giant when he broke the law and saving lives,’ Thassy wrote. It was Fischer’s responsibility to keep out enemy aliens such as refugees from German-occupied Poland whose ranks included many thousands of Jews. Instead he let Jews enter Hungary by the tens of thousands, helped set up receiving centers for them, closed his eyes to Jews registering as Christians, and refused to hand them over to the Germans.
He was a not-so-secret ally of people representing diverse interests – from members of the Hungarian anti-Nazi underground to the eminent Hasidic rabbi from Poland, Aharpn ben Yissachar of Belz, whom he assisted first during his stay in Budapest 1942 to 1944 and then in his flight to Palestine. . . .
As soon as the German troops occupied Hungary, in March 1944, Fischer was relieved of his cabinet position, and after the Arrow Cross putsch in October, the Gestapo sent him to the Mauthausen concentration camp where his health quickly deteriorated. He died in Austria a few months later after his liberation by American troops.” Fenyvesi, pp. 15-26.
See Declarations of Ferenc Nagy, former prime minister of Hungary (August 9, 1950), Geza Soos (October 11, 1949), Lieutenant General Karoly Lazar (August 25, 1945), and Lieutenant Janossy (August 17, 1945); Zsuzsa Hanto and Nora Szeker, eds., Pancelosokkal az Eletert, (Budapest, 2015); Balint Torok, “Legenda Vagy Teny,” Magyar Szemle, (2000): pp. 102-119; Tsvi Erez, “Hungary – Six Days in July 1944,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Vol. 3. No. 1 (1988): pp. 37 – 53; and Laszlo Karsai and Judit Molnar, eds., Az Endre-Baky-Jaross Per, (1994) (at n. 210, p. 587).
See also The American Jewish Yearbook, Vol. 46, ed. Harry Schneiderman p. 256: “The main current of public opinion failed to take the side of Nazism against the Jews. It proved overwhelmingly anti-Nazi and largely decent toward the Jews.” Other Hungarian heroes, to name a few, include: General Vilmos Nagybaczoni-Nagy (who upon being appointed Minister of Defense by the Kállay government took measures to end the gross abuses threatening the lives of Jews in the auxiliary labor force); Tibor Baránszky (who as secretary to Monsignor Angelo Rotta, the Vatican’s nuncio to Budapest, distributed protective letters to Jews on forced marches and elsewhere); Roman Catholic priest Ferenc Kálló (who gave Jews certificates of baptism and who was killed by the Arrow Cross on 29 October 1944); József Antall, Sr. (who as a commissioner of the Ministry of Internal Affairs for civilian refugees helped well over one hundred thousand Poles, including many Jews, to settle in Hungary and to survive the war); István Bethlen (who communicated protests to Regent Horthy in 1944 against deportations); Geza Soos (the first non-Swedish official whom Raoul Wallenberg met when he arrived in Budapest in July 1944 – a jurist, the leader of a Protestant youth organization, an active participant in the Hungarian Independence Movement formed to resist the Nazis and, later, the Communist takeover of Hungary); and Zoltan L. Bay (a pioneering physicist recognized by the state of Israel as among the Righteous Among the Nations for his efforts to protect Jewish colleagues from Nazi persecution).