Voices from the Nazis’ Last Victims: Remembering the Holocaust in Hungary
“There is one thing that has puzzled me and has puzzled the world: that the Germans dedicated manpower and trains and trucks and energy towards the destruction of the Jews to the last day. Had they stopped six months before the end of the war and dedicated that energy towards strengthening themselves, they may have carried on the war a little longer; but it was more important to them to kill the Jews than even winning the war.”
These words of Hungarian survivor Bill Basch not only illustrate what makes the Holocaust in Hungary so startling and exceptional but also what it reveals about the larger underlying motives, drives and priorities of the Nazis’ and their genocidal mission.
To witness what happened in Hungary after the Germans invaded in March 1944 is to witness the Germans’ race to annihilate the last great concentration of Jews left in Europe.
Explore this singular and revealing period of the Holocaust through the voices of the Nazis’ last victims:
In reaction to the heavy losses on the Soviet front, the Hungarian government began to waver with regard to their part in the Axis alliance. When Italy withdrew from the Axis in the fall of 1943, Hungary expressed support for the new Italian regime. The Hungarian government also allowed public criticism on the war in the press, as well as public calls for Hungary to withdraw from the war. The prime minister wrote to Hitler and demanded that Hungary be allowed to call its troops back from the Eastern front. Last but not least, the Hungarian regime refused to round up the country’s Jews and deport them to concentration and death camps. Furious, on March 17, 1944, Hitler summoned Regent Horthy to a meeting and raged at the betrayal. He told Horthy that the German army would occupy Hungary and if the Hungarians resisted, he would order all units in the surrounding countries to attack. Making good his threat, on March 19, 1944, the German army rolled into Hungary. The impact on the Jewish community was immediate.
Anti-Jewish Laws in Hungary
Between 1938 and 1941, a variety of decrees focused on eliminating internal “threats” to national values were introduced in the Hungarian parliament. The first decree, enacted on May 28, 1938, defined Jews by religious affiliation and formally sealed the community’s disenfranchisement by limiting Jewish participation to 20 per cent in civil service, industries and institutes of higher learning. The following May, the noose tightened further on Jewish representation in industry and business, pushing many Jews into poverty. This time, however, the delineation of “Jewish” expanded to align with Germany’s infamous Nuremberg Laws. Now, members of the “Israelite faith,” or any person with two Jewish grandparents — including 100,000 Hungarian converts to Christianity and their offspring — fell victim to these laws. A third decree criminalized marriages between Jews and non-Jews.
Finally, immediately after the invasion Jews could no longer travel without written permits, and radios and telephones were forbidden. By the beginning of April, all Jews in Hungary were ordered to wear the yellow star on their clothing.
These laws were a precursor to what would come after the Germans invaded Hungary in March 1944. They laid the groundwork, helping to foster public acceptance for the violent measures and mass deportations to death camps carried out by the Germans and their Hungarian collaborators.
The Ghettos of Hungary
In April 1944, weeks after the German occupation of Hungary, Hungarian authorities forced roughly 500,000 Jews living outside of Budapest into ghettos.
Some larger ghettos were built in former Jewish neighbourhoods, whereas other ghettos were merely a single building, such as a factory.
In some Hungarian cities, Jews were compelled to live outdoors, without shelter or sanitary facilities. Food and water supplies were dangerously inadequate. Medical care was virtually non-existent. Hungarian authorities forbade the Jews from leaving the ghettos. Police guarded the perimeters of the enclosures. Individual gendarmes often tortured Jews and extorted valuable personal belongings from them.
These ghettos were short-lived. After two-to-six weeks, the Jews of each ghetto were shot or put on trains and deported to death camps. For this reason, these Hungarian ghettos have been referred to as “destruction ghettos.”
The Arrow Cross
Although nearly 500,000 Jews in the Hungarian countryside were being deported to death camps in the spring of 1944, the Jews of Budapest lived in relative safety through the interventions of Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy.
This relative safety ended when a Nazi-orchestrated coup ousted Horthy and installed the hyper-nationalist, anti-communist and radically antisemitic Arrow Cross Party.
Immediately after taking power, the Arrow Cross gangs perpetrated a reign of terror against the Jews of Budapest. Hundreds of Jews, both men and women, were violently murdered. Most of those who were murderd were shot on the banks of the Danube River, while others died from the brutal conditions of forced labour to which the Arrow Cross subjected them.
In the few months until the Soviets took control of Hungary in mid-January 1945, more than 80,000 Jews were murdered in Budapest.
Nowhere in western or central Europe were Jews sent to their death so quickly and so brutally as they were in Hungary. Even under these conditions, two men tried to save as many of the Nazis’ last victims as they could.
Raoul Wallenberg was one of them. He was Swedish diplomat who succeeded in saving tens of thousands of Budapest Jews by issuing them Swedish certificates of protection. He managed to set up thirty “safe houses” and organize food distribution, medical assistance and child care. The majority of Budapest’s Jews that survived did so because of his valiant work.
Rudolf Kasztner, head of the Budapest Relief and Rescue Committee, through his controversial negotiations with high-ranking Nazi officials (including Adolf Eichmann) arranged for thousands of Jews destined for death camps to be given special treatment and sent to “safe” locations in exchange for money.
Lieutenant-Colonel SS Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest in late March. His orders, as they had been in other occupied countries, were clear: make Hungary free of Jews. His enthusiastic assistants in this enterprise were State Secretaries Baky and Endre and the chief enforcer was Lieutenant-Colonel Ferenczy of the gendarmerie. As Eichmann recalled in a later interview with a Dutch journalist in Argentina, “On that evening, the fate of the Jews of Hungary was sealed.”
In less than two months, Hungarian gendarmes, under the supervision of Adolf Eichmann and his thugs, expedited 147 trains to Nazi camps, containing 437,402 Jews.