The Last Gasp for Life: Hungary at the End of World War II
April 7, 1944. Erev Passover. For the first time since the beginning of World War II, Hungarian Jews were forced to wear the yellow star. Until then, they’d been largely spared from the lunacy of the Final Solution. But that had changed on March 19, when Germany occupied its ally Hungary, setting the stage for the largest and most expeditious killing tirade of the Holocaust.
There will surely be many 75th anniversary commemorations of World War II in the coming months. But what happened in Hungary is one of its most hideous and barbaric episodes. As a Jewish educator, I feel it’s important to retell some of the details of that late chapter in the war to help provide some lessons.
Hungary was the last country to be taken over by the Germans, who until that winter were content to let the government headed by Miklos Horthy do its job of enforcing its anti-Jewish measures, while he resisted their pressure to deport Jews to extermination camps.
Highly assimilated Jews throughout Hungary were lulled into a false sense of security. But that changed when the tide of the war shifted, and the German advance into Eastern Europe and Russia was permanently stalled in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1943.
The Hungarian government, sensing it might be on the losing side, began negotiating with the allies. To stop the defection, the Germans rolled their tanks into Budapest, Hungary’s capital, on March 19. They were, accompanied by the Nazi’s chief deportation officer, Adolph Eichmann, who, between mid-May and early July 1944, helped execute the most efficient mass murder in the history of the Holocaust to date.
Eichmann had plenty of support. Hungarian authorities and citizens acted with stunning efficiency, helping the Germans identify Jews in the provinces and countryside, herd them into ghettos, transport them in crammed cattle cars, and deliver them to the death camps at Auschwitz. On a typical day in May, there were three or four trains, with up to 4,000 people on each, easily meeting the 12,000 per-day quota.
The deportations came to a sudden stop in early July, under pressure from the allies. Coming shortly after their D-Day landing in Normandy and a failed assassination attempt against Hitler, the enemy blinked, but not for long.
In the fall of 1944, Hungarian Jews in Budapest became the targets. Power was now in the hands of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, which comprised far-right fascists and was more anti-Semitic than the Germans. When Romania swung to the Allied side in October, the situation became dire. There was no longer time to put Jews in ghettos and transport them. Instead, Hungarian Nazis corralled thousands, and took them on a 120-mile freezing trek to Austria, where they would ostensibly defend Vienna. As winter set in, young gang members in the Arrow Cross Party turned their venom on the remaining Jews in Budapest: dozens died daily, shot execution style, their bodies dumped into the Danube River. Forged identification papers, issued by the Swiss and Swedish governments and distributed by members of Zionist youth movements, had protected thousands of Jews during recent months, but even they were worthless by the end of the war.
When the Russians liberated Budapest on February 13, 1945, the Jewish population of Hungary had been decimated. According to various estimates, some 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz between May and July. After October 1944, nearly 150,000 more Jews lost their lives on death marches and random murders.
My father was in Budapest for the duration of the war. A member of a Zionist youth movement, he was carrying false ID papers when he was caught and tortured by Arrow Cross agents. My interest in Hungary is personal, but my questions are not.
Why, with clear evidence of what was happening in the camps, did the Allies allow Germany to perpetuate one more horrific cleansing?
Why did the Hungary’s Jewish leadership fail so miserably to protect the population?
And of course, how could so many average Hungarians who had lived comfortably with their Jewish neighbors, so vociferously support what was happening?
There are many excuses and explanations.
But the bottom line is that atrocities like those in Hungary have happened before and since because the politics of power continue to take precedence over the sanctity of life. As we approach Passover, the lesson of this retelling is clear: the stories need to be told over and over and over again, so that humanity remains vigilant in the face of new threats. As Jews, we know that justice is an eternal religious obligation. It is also a secular one. If there were a justice vaccine, I would make it mandatory. Failing that, the teaching of justice should be at the core of every learning curriculum.
Photo: “The Shoes on the Danube Bank” is an art installation on the bank of the Danube River in Budapest, Hungary that honors Jews killed by Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.