Rescue Operations in Hungary: Myths and Realities
Braham, Randolph L., East European Quarterly
In his autobiography, Gyula Kadar, the former head of the Hungarian Military Intelligence Service, wrote an irreverent comment on resistance in wartime Hungary:
If [Hungary] had had as many "resistance fighters" before March 19, 1944 as it had in May 1945 and later, Hitler would not have risked the occupation of the country, because he would have been afraid of a paralysis in production and deliveries of goods as well as the need to resort to arms. (1)
The intelligence officer was clearly referring to the large number of heroic accounts of resistance that were published during the Communist era. To a large extent, the same can also be said about the postwar accounts of rescue.
An attempt at differentiating between the myths and realities of the rescue operations during the German occupation of Hungary in 1944-45, requires a clarification of the term "rescue" and the approximation of the number of Jews who were actually rescued. Under the term "rescue," I include only those Jews who were saved from deportation and the subsequent ordeal in concentration camps by Christian friends, neighbors, anonymous good Samaritans, state officials, members of governmental and ecclesiastical organizations, and fellow Jews. In the context of this study, I exclude from the category of "rescued" the Jewish survivors of the concentration camps, most of the surviving labor servicemen, the Jews who fled to neighboring countries on their own, and those who hid and survived without the assistance of others. Having survived the ordeal of the camps, forced labor, or hiding, these Jews were liberated by the victorious Allied forces--a liberation that was not an end in itself but a consequence of successful military operations.
One can only approximate the number of Jews who were rescued under the definition used in this study. According to the census of 1941, Hungary then had a Jewish population of 725,007, as well as approximately 100,000 converts and Christians who were identified as Jews under the racial laws then in effect. At the time of the German occupation of March 19, 1944, Hungary had 762,000 racially defined Jews, of whom 231,450 lived in Budapest. The difference between the 1941 and 1944 figures consists mainly of the large number of men called up for labor service and subsequently deployed in the Ukraine and Serbia.
The wartime losses of Hungarian Jewry are generally established at 565,000 lives. Of these losses, over 60,000 were incurred before the German occupation. The post-occupation losses were 501,500, with the great majority of the Jews murdered in Auschwitz following massive deportations in May-July 1944. Of these, 100,803 were from Budapest. Of the 260,500 Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust, 130,650 were from Budapest, and 129,850 were from the provinces.
It is almost impossible to determine the number of Hungarian Jews who survived with the help of others, whether that assistance was offered purely on humanitarian grounds or for remuneration. There are no data, for example, on the number of Hungarian Jews who joined the Slovak and Polish refugees who had decided to return to their respective homelands at a time when conditions there were more tranquil than in Hungarian-ruled areas. It is also difficult to identify the number of Jewish men who were rescued from various ghettos by benevolent labor-service commanders who recruited them into their units, saving them from deportation. For many of these labor servicemen, however, the rescue proved only temporary, because they, too, ended up in Nazi concentration camps following the Arrow Cross (Nyilas) coup of October 15, 1944.
It is also almost impossible to determine the number of Jews who were rescued by Christians, either for payment or for humanitarian reasons, despite the risk. In the course of the years, Yad Vashem has recognized many, though certainly not all, of the humanitarian rescuers as Righteous Among the Nations. Of the more than 600 Hungarians who were so identified, by 2003, a few were recognized for the "humane policies" they had pursued during their terms in office. However, they had never risked their or their families' lives for indirectly saving or helping the lot of Jews.
Most of the Jews who were rescued by Righteous Gentiles had lived in Budapest, where the conditions for survival and rescue were much more favorable than in the countryside. In the capital, the rescue of Jews acquired momentum only after the Nyilas acquired power on October 15. Then the Soviet forces, having already occupied almost all of Northern Transylvania, were poised to cross into Trianon Hungary.
The rescue of Jews was more perilous in the provincial towns and villages than in the capital, because of their small geographic size and relative isolation, the prevailing antisemitic climate, and especially the speed with which the ghettoization and deportation process was carried out. This was especially true in Carpatho-Ruthenia and Northern Transylvania, the centers of Jewish orthodoxy, where the mass deportations began. It was partially because of these reasons that the number of Righteous Among the Nations from these areas was relatively small. Of the close to 600 Christians recognized so far, only 14 percent were from the provinces. Their relatively small number notwithstanding, the heroic acts of the Righteous Among the Nations represent the shiniest pages in the otherwise dark history of Hungary during World War II.
A considerable number of Jews owed their survival to rescue operations that were initiated during the German occupation by either Hungarian state leaders or Jewish communal and Zionist officials. Of these, six became the subject of heated controversies both during and after the war--controversies that continue to agitate historians and lay persons alike. The myths and realities surrounding these rescue operations have been the subject of numerous scholarly and polemical works.
These operations involved (1) rescuing the Jews of Budapest; (2) the rescue of 1,684 Jews in the "Kasztner-transport"; (3) the transfer of 18,000 Jews to Strasshof; (4) the rescue of eighty prominent Jewish communal and ecclesiastical leaders by Philip Freudiger; (5) the rescue of the Weiss-Chorin families; and (6) the "rescue of many thousands" of Hungarian Jews across the Hungarian-Romanian border. Hungarian and other officials were involved in only one, albeit the largest, of these operations--the rescue of the Jews of Budapest. Noticeably absent from the Jewish communal and Zionist leaders initiating and carrying out these rescue missions were the national leaders of Hungarian Jewry who subsequently emerged as the dominant figures in the German-imposed Central Jewish Council. The one exception was Freudiger: he exploited his personal "friendship" with Dieter Wisliceny, one of the leading members of the Eichmann-Sonderkommando, to save himself, his family, and some of his closest friends.
The failure of the Jewish national leaders to be involved in rescue operations before and during the Holocaust, or even to adopt rescue-related contingency plans can be traced to the perceptions and attitudes developed during the "Golden Era" of Hungarian Jewry. These leaders were convinced that the bonds they had forged with the governing conservative-aristocratic leadership of Hungary would safeguard Jews from the harm that had befallen their co-religionists in many other countries of Europe. As a consequence of the mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship that evolved between the two leadership groups, all Jews felt ever-more secure and became ever-more patriotic and assimilated. (2)
In the forefront of the Magyars' struggle for national independence in 1848-49, the Jews of Hungary had played an important role in the modernization of the country, in the flourishing of its culture, and, more importantly, in providing the slim political majority the basically feudal aristocratic-gentry class needed to rule in the multinational kingdom. Identifying themselves as "Magyars of the Jewish faith," the Jews even assumed a leading role in the government's drive for the Magyarization of the ethnic-national minorities. (3) Grateful and ever-more patriotic, the Jews in general and their leaders in particular were ready to overlook the fact that the conservative-aristocratic leaders of Hungary, enlightened as they appeared, were fundamentally undemocratic and reactionary, imbued with neither the principles of toleration nor the conceptions of pluralism.
The "social contract" between the ruling and the Jewish elites was basically tenuous, one-sided, and short-lived. While the conservative-aristocratic elite formally adhered to it as long as its political and economic interests required it, the Jewish leaders looked upon it as "binding," a guarantee of safety for the Jews. These leaders convinced themselves that the Magyars, civilized and chivalrous, would never forget the political, economic, and cultural services the Jews had rendered to the Hungarian nation since 1848.
The fact that the contract was one-sided and ephemeral was revealed almost immediately after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918. (4) While the postwar Hungarian ruling elite unequivocally nullified it, the Jewish leaders continued to cling to it as still in effect, firmly adhering to their pre-war patriotic posture. They looked upon the newly adopted Numerus Clausus law (the first anti-Jewish legislation in post-World War I Europe), the antisemitic outbursts that followed the short-lived Communist dictatorship, and the anti-Jewish rampages of the Horthy-led counterrevolutionaries as mere temporary aberrations. Clinging to their patriotic stance, they vehemently rejected the drive by some international Jewish organizations to have Hungary penalized for violating the peace treaties as a gross intervention in their country's internal affairs.
The national leaders of Hungarian Jewry continued to retain this posture even after Hungary, in emulation of Nazi Germany, began to carry out an increasingly severe anti-Jewish program in 1938. They tended to interpret the avalanche of ever-more restrictive anti-Jewish laws as "reflections of the spirit of the time." They rationalized that the adoption of some, if not all, of them were both "understandable" in light of the international situation at the time and "necessary" in order to appease the Nazis abroad and the Nyilas and their allies at home. While they agonized over the many excesses that were committed in the name of the "New Order"--the Hungarians caused the death of around 60,000 Jews between 1941 and March 1944--the Jewish leaders continued to believe that what happened in Poland and elsewhere in Nazi-dominated Europe could not possibly happen in chivalrous Hungary.
The leaders' sense of optimism was shared by most, if not all, the Jews of Hungary, including the Zionists. They felt basically secure. The government of Miklos Kallay (March 9, 1942-March 19, 1944) consistently rejected the Germans' insistent demands that Hungary adopt the program leading to the "final solution of the Jewish question." By the fall of 1943, the Jews--the leaders and masses alike--became even more convinced that they would survive the war, albeit in economic ruin. Their optimism was reinforced by the destruction, in January-February 1943, of the Hungarian and German armies at Voronezh and Stalingrad, respectively, and by the surrender of Italy a few months later. It was further bolstered by their conviction that independent Hungary's alliance with Nazi Germany provided an additional plus for their safety.
The communal and Zionist leaders became so convinced of the chances of the Jews' survival that they apparently decided to keep the masses uninformed about Auschwitz and the "final solution," secrets about which they were by then fully aware. (5) Confident to the end, they failed to take sufficient notice of the ever-darker clouds that were gathering over their heads, neglecting to take any precautionary contingency measures. They did not and could not envision a scenario under which Nazi Germany would occupy an ally like Hungary and subsequently liquidate the conservative-aristocratic leadership on which the Jews were depending for their survival.
Stunned and bewildered after the occupation, the Jewish leaders grasped at the last straw of hope. They were relieved …
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Publication information: Article title: Rescue Operations in Hungary: Myths and Realities. Contributors: Braham, Randolph L. - Author. Journal title: East European Quarterly. Volume: 38. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer 2004. Page number: 173+. © 1999 East European Quarterly. COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group.
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