Rescue Operations in Hungary: Myths and Realities

By Braham, Randolph L. | East European Quarterly, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

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.

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