Dr. Rob Rozett shared his talk “The Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust” with our students during their seminar at Yad Vashem.
The Nazis invaded on March 19, 1944. But the story of Hungarian-Jewish persecution begins long before. Before the Nazis invaded, Hungary was already involved in a war. The Hungarian government didn’t trust Jewish men with weapons so they forced them to labor: building roads and digging ditches. They often gave the Jewish laborers the most dangerous jobs such as retrieving bodies from the battlefield, the Soviets would shoot at them and so would the Hungarians at times. They were also forced to be human mine sweepers, without any tools they used their bodies to search for the mines. The Jews weren’t provided with adequate food, clothing or shelter. Some Jewish men defected and picked up weapons against the Hungarians, after joining the USSR. Inevitably, the Soviet military treated them worse than the Hungarians did; eighty percent if these men perished.
After March 19, 1944 Jewish persecution increased. Within just a few months of Nazi occupation, Nuremberg laws were introduced, and ghettos were established in every major city, excepting Budapest. (There was a prevailing thought that the Jews would save the city, if they spread Jews around Budapest, then the allies wouldn’t bomb the city.) Then the transports started. There were two transports in April, but the bulk of the transports happened from May to August 1944. In these four months, roughly half a million Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Eighty percent were murdered in the gas chambers within 24 hours. Nearly 12,000 Hungarian Jews perished daily. For the mostly part, only Hungarian Jews were arriving in Auschwitz at this point.
Meanwhile, the D-Day invasion started on June 6, 1944, and the Russians began Operation Bagration, which would eventually bring them to Berlin. In addition, Jan Karski came to the Allies and told them what was happening to the Jews in Europe. Karski was a Polish partisan, who had seen the horrors of the Holocaust. He met with President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President’s response to Karski’s testimony was, “Young man, I don’t believe a thing you say. It’s not that I don’t believe it, it’s that I’m unable to believe.”
Sweden and the US communicated with Horthy, Regent of Hungary, pleading to end the deportations. On July 8, he made a declaration to end the deportations. Then the Germans kidnapped his son and threatened to kill him if Horthy didn’t abdicate. He did abdicate and Ferenc Szalasi became the Head Minister and Prime Minister of Hungary, and the deportations started again.
There were attempts to save Hungarian Jews. One was made by Great Britain through Switzerland. They offered papers of protection to Hungarian Jews who could get to Switzerland, which would presumably lead to visas to Palestine. However, Tito and Slovenia blocked the way, not to mention Austria and/or Fascist Italy.
Other more complicated attempts of rescue were made through Joel Brands, which was essentially sabotaged by Bandi Gross who was a triple agent trying to align Great Britain and Germany against Soviet Russia. The Kastner Train was sent to Switzerland, not Auschwitz, as a German gesture of “good-will.” This saved 1,600 Jewish lives.
In December 1944, Pest was liberated, and in February 1945, Buda was liberated. Nazis looking for recognition and goodwill from the allies started “saving” Jews. For this reason, fifty percent of the Jews in Buda survived. They had not been deported before because they had never been centralized in a ghetto. In Pest, Jews who had not been transported, were shot into the freezing Danube River in the winter of 1944. 3,500 pairs of iron cast shoes now mark their footsteps along the on the Pest side of the Danube. This memorial was erected in 2005.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website