On Israeli Holocaust (Shoah) Memorial Day this year the focus of many services was on the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry in 1944 by the Nazis, ably assisted by the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross movement.
In 1944, the Hungarian Jewish population of ca. 800,000 was the largest remaining intact Jewish community in Europe. Although the Germans were already on the way to losing the war, instead of slowing down the murder of Jews they speeded up. In early 1944 Adolf Eichmann convened a meeting of his most efficient Jew-killers and tasked them with the job of destroying Hungarian Jewry in the shortest possible time. This Sonderkammando-Eichmann came up with a plan that would require 45 days to murder most of the Jews of Hungary.
By the time the Nazis decided to invade its ally Hungary in March 1944 and take over the running of the country, about 50,000 Jews had already been murdered. Able-bodied Jews had been rounded up by the Hungarian authorities and set to work in labor gangs making roads and digging ditches, etc. They were fed very little and treated brutally by the Arrow Cross militias, and most of them died. The Hungarian fascist government under Admiral Horthy nevertheless assured the Jewish community that as long as they remained loyal Hungarians they would not suffer. But, then an action by the Arrow Cross in the north of the country murdered about 15,000 Jews. But, the Government justified this because they were mostly foreign Jews who had escaped into Hungary trying to avoid capture by the Germans.
Rabbi Ervin Birnbaum, Emeritus Rabbi of the Conservative Beth Israel synagogue in Netanya is a survivor from that time in Hungary. He remembers waking up one morning in March, 1944, looking out of the window in his small town in Hungary and finding it filled with troop carriers filled with German soldiers. From that day their lives were doomed, although they did not realize it, and they refused to believe the stories of mass murders that they had heard from Polish Jewish escapees. There were soon directives that Jews had to wear yellow stars, could not use public transport, go to school, go to theaters, use public parks, etc. etc. On one of the last days of school, on the advice of his father, Ervin stole the identity card of a Christian boy who resembled him, in looks and height etc. His Jewish friends were appalled that he would steal someone’s id, yet they didn’t realize that in a few days these papers would save his life.
As soon as they were in control the Germans implemented the plan to destroy all the Jews of Hungary. In each district 4 trains a day were sent to Auschwitz carrying 85-100 Jews per car in 45 car trains. In this way, ca. 10,000 Jews a day were murdered at Auschwitz. In 45 days ca. 450,000 Jews were murdered. After a few days the Jews in Ervin’s area were ordered to appear in the square, whereupon they were all imprisoned in the local brick factory and soon shipped by train to Auschwitz. But, he and his older brother left the area after taking off their yellow stars and with their false ids went to hide in the attic of the nearby cinema. About 30 Jews hid there, being supplied with food and water by a local Christian woman. His parents managed to make their escape also with false papers to Budapest where they hid.
Then one morning the woman they depended on came with an anonymous letter that had been left in her mail box that said they knew she was helping Jews who were hiding in the cinema, and if she left a basket with the equivalent of ca. $15,000 in a store across the street, then they would not give them away to the Germans, but if they didn’t then they would report them. There was much discussion about what to do, but most agreed that there was no point in paying this blackmail, because they would be turned in anyway for the rewards given by the Germans. Ervin and his brother decided to leave that night and try to get to Budapest. Their false papers were scrutinized twice, once at a checkpoint and once at the station, but they passed both times. Then on the train their cousin who did not have false papers, but who sat separately from them, was taken by the guards and never seen again, but once again their papers passed. They managed to find the apartment where their parents were hiding and luckily survived to the end of the war.
By June 1944, most of the remaining ca. 250,000 Hungarian Jews were living in Budapest, and there the Germans established a ghetto where they were packed in. Every day hundreds of Jews were marched by Hungarian fascists to the River Danube near the Hungarian Parliament and machine-gunned and thrown in the river (there is a small memorial there, but a new larger one was due to be opened today) estimated total dead ca. 10-15,000. But, as the Russians came closer to Hungary and eventually reached its borders in June 1944, the Germans ran out of trains to ship these Jews, so they force marched about 100,000 of them, men, women and children, both to Austria and to Auschwitz, about 120 and 180 miles away, respectively. During this appalling action, Jews were shot by the guards and murdered by the Hungarian population as they were defenceless and without food and water. Thousands died or were killed on the march and very few survived. Approx. 100,000 Jews were saved by Raoul Wallenberg and other diplomats who took it upon themselves to find safe houses for the Jews. When the war ended in January 1945 only ca. 200,000 Hungarian Jews (ca. 25%) had survived this brutal, bloody and primitive ethnic cleansing that took 9 months. For more information see “The Summer that Bled,” by Anthony Masters (1973), that includes a biography of Hannah Senesh and her fate in Hungary.
What is one to make of this terrible example of man’s inhumanity to man? I have no rational answer to this question, the only thing I can say is that my grandson is now in the IDF and he with his comrades is the only prevention of a repeat of this obscene, brutal, inhuman genocide.