The Holocaust in Hungary

The Holocaust in Hungary is one of the more notable chapters in the dark and checkered history of Jewish persecution in central Europe.  Having long been a safeplace for Jewish people, Greater Hungary had a total population of over 700,000 Jews + 100,000 Jewish converts to Christianity who were still racially Jewish.  The interesting aspect about the Holocaust in Hungary is that all parties were aware of Auschwitz at the time and they still went ahead with the plans.  It was clear to see the impending doom of the Third Reich and its twisted ideologies was inevitable, yet the Hungarian government succumbed to this pressure to exterminate Jews.  The government of Hungary represented a truly anti-Semitic nation before German influence.  There are generally many facets of anti-Semitism evident in pre-war Hungary but a few of the notable causes of the Holocaust in Hungary are detailed in the following article due to their uniqueness to the Hungarian experience.

The Four Main Aspects of the Holocaust in Hungary:

  • The attitude and position of the Hungarian Jewish community.
  • The policies and calculations of the Hungarians.
  • The military and strategic implications of Hungarian-German relations.
  • The impact of Slovakian Jewish policy on the Hungarian government.
The leaders of the Jewish community of Hungary were all born during the time of the Golden Age of Austro-Hungary.  The leaders of the Jewish community in Hungary were emancipated early on, and many assimilated and even converted.  The universities became open to all students and many Jews rose to prominence after a short time.  The Jews also provided the Magyars (ethnic Hungarians) with the necessary, razor-edge majority over the other minorities of the kingdom.  They called themselves “Magyars of Israelite faith,” and the Jewish religion was accepted as equal in the year 1895 – well before many other nations in the area.  After World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian empire brought more misfortune for the Jews of Hungary than had been seen in quite some time.

Hungary Loses Big in Treaty of Trianon; and Regains Land by Allying with Hitler.

The trouble started with the Treaty of Trianon at the end of World War I, which had been devastating for the newly formed Kingdom of Hungary.  This treaty cost Hungary a huge portion of their land and was viewed very unfavorably by the people of Hungary.  After a few attempts at reconciliation and revisionism of the Treaty of Trianon, Hungary established itself firmly in the anti-Allies, pro-Fascist German camp.  Their two main concerns then became 1) revising their borders that were set by the Treaty of Trianon, and 2) the solving of the Jewish question.  The Jewish people had their first wake-up call when Hungary established the Numerus Clausus in 1920 – the very first country to adopt anti-Semitic legislation.  

As the foreign policy of Hungary was more and more aligned with Germany they were able to undo some of the aspects of the Treaty of Trianon.  Between 1938-1941, the Hungarians regained tracts of land from the nations of Yugoslavia; Czechoslovakia; and Romania.  Hungary refused to take part in the Final Solution in the way that Hitler’s other satellite nations had been so willing and able to (with one caveat in Kamenyets-Podolsk in 1941, detailed below.)  This all changed, however, when the years dragged on and it became more obvious that the Axis would lose and Nazism would topple.  In 1943 Italy withdrew from the alliance with Hitler; Mussolini fell; the Russians pushed back and started to reclaim territory; and the campaign in Africa and the MIddle East was not going well.  This left Hungarian officials wary of the Russian encroachment and terrified of Communism, so they acted in a way that was meant to be seen as a slow distancing from Germany and an attempt to work out a second peace with the Western Allies of England; France; and the United States.  This was in vain for multiple reasons, but the primary one was that Hitler had decided not to let Hungary go as easily as he had parted with Italy.  

(above) Hungarian Jewish Family in front of their store; pre-war Hungary.

(right) Jews marched through Kamenets-Podolsk where they would be massacred on August 27 & 28, 1941.

Kamenets-Podolsk

The issue at Kamenets-Podolsk began shortly after Hungary decided to declare war on the Soviet Union in 1941.  Local government officials who were responsible for foreign nationals in Hungary decided to deport the Jews who could not prove Hungarian citizenship.  This consisted of mostly Polish and Russian Jews, but there were also many refugees from Western Europe who had to go with them.  Many Jewish communities were deported in their entirety, with Transcarpathian communities being hit especially hard. The Hungarians loaded the people into freight cars and took them to Kőrösmező (presently in Ukraine) where htey were then transferred to the Germans.  Upon arrival the Jewish deportees had to march from Kolmyia to Kamenets-Podolsk.  On August 27, 1941, the massacre of both the newly arrived Hungarian Jews and the local Jews from Kamenets-Podolsk began.  Friedrich Jeckeln was the head of the detachment unit of the Einsatzgruppen that performed the mass-murder.  Jeckeln’s infamous report details the massacre and puts the number at 23,600 Jewish people killed. This was the beginning of the massacres that would occur all over the occupied eastern bloc during the summer and autumn of 1941.

 

auschwitz album

Hitler Won't Lose Hungary Too

Romania was a very valuable asset for World War II-era nations.  This is due to its large oil production capabilities, which effectively render it the closest supplier of fuel for many nations in that area.  It was crucial to Hitler’s military success that he have access to this oil through the Hungarian corridor, which he would have lost if Hungary had been allowed to withdraw from its alliance with Germany.  This is the main factor that went into Hitler’s decision to occupy Hungary in 1944, just months before the end of the war.  Following the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944, Hungarian Admiral Miklos Horthy was permitted to remain as Regent, but Prime Minister Miklos Kallay was dismissed. The Germans installed General Dome Sztojay, former Hungarian minister to Berlin and avid Nazi sympathizer, as the new prime minister. Sztojay affirmed Hungary’s commitment to the war effort and promised cooperation with the Germans in the deportation of Hungarian Jews.  The Hungarian Jewish community was the final community of Europe that would fall.  All the great Jews of Latvia; Lithuania; Poland; Germany; and everywhere else in Europe had already been massacred, but Hungary’s Jews had lived in relative isolation and peace during the Shoah, truly not believing that any harm could come their way.  

Miklos Horthy is a very interesting character in Holocaust history, and it is still up for debate today as to whether or not he was a friend or foe of the Jews. After an initial deportation of Jews from Hungary – 435,000 Jews from all over Hungary and its occupied territories, everywhere except Budapest, – there was a lull in the rate of deportations.  This lull came to an end dramatically in October of that year when Horthy tried again to withdraw from his obligations to the Germans.  Hitler immediately exiled Horthy and installed Arrow Cross Chief Ferenc Szálasi as the new head of Hungary, on October 15, 1944. In acts of horrific public violence, Arrow Cross men massacred roughly 600 Jews during the initial days of Szálasi’s regime. Within weeks they had rounded up Jews and forced them to build fortifications on the Hungarian-Austrian border.  The Jews who were used in this fortification effort were essentially death-marched there and not intended to live long – as many as 50,000 more Jews died this way. While some Jews were working on the the border of Austria, the Szálasi government ordered the creation of a ghetto for the Jews of Budapest, who still remained relatively untouched at this point. Up until that point Jews had just been living in specially designated homes throughout the city, but by December 2 most of the Jews were in the ghetto (as it corresponded with Jewish neighborhoods) and it was sealed shortly thereafter.  It is estimated that about 15,000 ghetto inhabitants perished in the time between December and its liberation by the Soviets in February, 1945.  

Almost all of the Jews that perished during the war were sent to Auschwitz for immediate gassing during the initial deportation phase.  If a Jew lived within the pre-1920 borders of Hungary, they had an exponentially larger chance at survival versus those Jews that lived in occupied areas, such as Transylvania.