THE BUDAPEST GHETTO
Prelude and historical background
Consequences of World War I, Treaty of Trianon
After World War I in 1920 the ethnically diverse Kingdom of Hungary was torn apart by the Treaty of Trianon to form several new national states, thus the country’s area being reduced by 72%. Hungary claimed that the new state borders did not follow the real ethnic boundaries. The new Magyar nation-state of Hungary was about a third the size of former Hungary, and millions of ethnic Magyars were to be left outside the Hungarian borders. Many historically important areas along with major educational and cultural centers of Hungary were assigned to other countries. The distribution of natural resources came out unevenly, Hungary lost its main railway network, most of the salt/gold/silver/coal mines, access to the sea, woods, mountains, etc. The various non-Magyar populations of the old Kingdom generally saw the treaty as justice for the historically-marginalized nationalities, from the Hungarian point of view the Treaty had been deeply unjust, a national humiliation and a real tragedy.
The Treaty and its consequences dominated the Hungarian public life and politics in the inter-war period. The Hungarian government started swinging more and more to the right.
Admiral Miklos Horthy
Miklos Horthy started his career as a Frigate Lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian Navy in 1896 and attained the rank of admiral in 1918. He became Commander-in-Chief of the Austro-Hungarian Navy in the last year of the World War I. In 1919, following a series of revolutions and external interventions in Hungary from Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, Horthy returned to Budapest with the National Army and established a regency government.
He led a national conservative government through the interwar period, banning both the Hungarian Communist Party as well as the fascist Arrow Cross party. He pursued an irredentist foreign policy in the face of the Treaty of Trianon.
King Charles IV of Hungary unsuccessfully attempted to return to Hungary twice. He was escorted out of Hungary on a British warship into exile.
In the late 1930s under Regent Miklos Horthy Hungary established close relations with Benito Mussolini‘s Italy and Adolf Hitler‘s Germany. The alliance with Nazi Germany made possible Hungary’s regaining of southern Czechoslovakia in the First Vienna Award in 1938 and Subcarpathia in 1939. But neither that nor the subsequent military conquest of Carpathian Ruthenia in 1939 satisfied Hungarian political ambitions. These awards allocated only a fraction of the territories lost by the Treaty of Trianon, and Hungarians resented the most the loss of Transylvania to Romania.
The Story of Hungarian Jewry Before and During the Holocaust – film by Yad Vashem
The way to nationalism, Ferenc Szalasi
On 1 October, 1932 Gyula Gombos became the Prime Minister of Hungary and it was around this time that Ferenc Szalasi, the highly ranked military officer, became fascinated with politics and started lecturing on Hungary’s political affairs. Szalasi was a fanatical right-wing nationalist and a strong proponent of ‘Hungarism’, advocating the expansion of Hungary’s territory back to the borders of Historical Hungary as it was prior to the Treaty.
In 1933 he published a 46-page pamphlet with the title ‘Plan for the Building of the Hungarian State’ – a summary of his ideas – and sent it to several politicians. Soldiers and military officers were banned from politicizing, thus Szalasi was sentenced to a 20-day detention and expelled from the General Staff by a military court. After his release, Szalasi was ordered to the 14th Infantry Regiment in Eger, where he served as staff officer then first adjutant.
Szalasi gradually disillusioned with the army and requested resignation in October 1934.
On 1 March 1935, Szalasi left the army in order to devote his full attention to politics. On March 4, 1935 he established the Party of National Will, a nationalistic group. This was outlawed on 16 April, 1937 by the conservative government for being too radical. On 24 October the same year, Szalasi declared the foundation of the National Socialist Party, which was born from the fusion of 7 smaller fractions, like the Socialist Party of Race Protection lead by Endre Laszlo.
The Minister of Internal Affairs banned this party too on 21 February 1938 – claiming that the Party is identic to the Party of National Will.
After Germany’s ‘Union’ (Anschluss) with Austria in March 1938, Hungary became neighbour with Germany. Szalasi’s followers became more radical in their political activities, and Szalasi together with 72 followers was arrested and imprisoned by the Hungarian Police. Even while in prison he managed to remain a powerful political figure.
He founded the Hungarian National Socialist Party – Hungarist Movement in April 1938. He was able to attract considerable support to his cause from factory workers and Hungary’s lower classes by pandering to their aggrieved sense of nationalism and their virulent antisemitism. On 23 February 1939 this party was banned too. Szalasi started summarizing his ideology and wrote his paper titled ‘Way and Goal’.
Arrow Cross Party
On 15 March, 1939 the party was reconstituted under the name Arrow Cross Party and was lead by Kalman Hubay. This new party was modeled fairly explicitly on the Nazi Party of Germany, although Szalasi often and harshly criticized the Nazi regime of Germany.
The party used the arrow cross symbol preferred by the Hungarian extreme right, clearly inspired by that of the Nazis. The arrow cross emblem was an ancient symbol of the Magyar tribes who settled Hungary, thereby suggesting the racial purity of the Hungarians in the same way that the Nazi swastika was intended to allude to the racial purity of the Aryans.
Its radical right-wing politics, nationalism, and antisemitism placed it close to German National Socialism, with the addition of irredentism, the aim of annulling the Treaty of Trianon and expand the Hungarian state in all cardinal directions towards the former borders of the Kingdom of Hungary. A more accurate comparison might be drawn between Austrofascism and Hungarian turanist fascism which was called Hungarism by Ferenc Szalasi – extreme nationalism, the promotion of agriculture, anti-capitalism, anticommunism and militant anti-Semitism. The party and its leader were originally against the German geopolitical plans, so it was a long and very difficult process for Hitler to compromise with Szalasi and his party. The Arrow Cross Party conceived Jews in racial as well as religious terms. Thus, although the Arrow Cross Party was certainly far more racist than the Horthy regime, it was still very different from the German Nazi Party. The Arrow Cross Party was pro-Catholic and its antisemitism had its origins in the traditional anti-Semitism of the Catholic church. It was also more economically radical than other fascist movements, advocating worker rights and land reforms.
The party could already participate in the parliamentary elections of 1939 on 25-26 May, gaining a quarter of the votes which meant 31 seats in the Hungarian Parliament, thus becoming the largest opposition party in Hungary. The number of followers at this point was reaching around 300,000.
In February 1940 the sentence of Szalasi is prolonged for 3 years 1 month and 23 days. In August the same year Prefect Odon Malnasi ordered a mourning in honour of the Leader – Szalasi. The followers of Szalasi were mourning their Leader in a theatrical way creating the image of a martyr prisoner. In the meantime the Arrow Cross Party had less radical leaders in the persons of Kalman Hubay and Jeno Ruszkay thus gaining a larger base of followers for the party than ever.
After the Second Vienna Award rendered on 30 August in 1940 Regent Miklos Horthy ordered a general amnesty and freed Szalasi too, among others, who returned to politics.
His followers were celebrating his return but the party was losing popularity due to the decreasing unemployment thanks to the military preparation and the breaking of the party in September 1941 by Laszlo Baky and Fidel Palffy whose groups re-established the Hungarian National Socialist Party and later got into alliance with the party of Bela Imredy, the Hungarian Life Movement – bringing to life the Nationalsocialist Alliance for Hungarian Renascence.
When World War II began, the Arrow Cross Party was officially banned by Prime Minister Pal Teleki, forcing Szalasi to operate in secret. During this period, Szalasi gained the support and backing of the Germans, who had previously been opposed to Szalasi because his ‘Hungarist’ nationalism placed Hungarian territorial claims above those of Germany. Szalasi went around the country to agitate, however by the end of 1943 the number of members in his party were not reaching 100,000 anymore.
Actions against the Jews, Forced Labor
Unarmed forced labor was the Horthy regime’s solution for bringing ‘untrustworthy’ elements (Jews, Communists, national minorities) into the war effort. By 1942, tens of thousands of Jewish forced laborers had been sent to the eastern front to face arduous conditions.
Occupation of Hungary
German troops entered Hungary on March 19, 1944. Prime Minister Miklos Kallay fled, and Horthy appointed a government on 16 October that was satisfactory to the Nazis and their Hungarian supporters. Former Hungarian ambassador to Berlin and long-standing antisemite, pro-German Dome Sztojay (Dimitrije Stojaković his original Serbian name) was appointed Prime Minister. The Arrow Cross Party was then legalized by the government, allowing Szalasi to expand the party. Szalasi declared a Government of National Unity, and himself as Leader of the Nation.
Eichmann was the SS lieutenant colonel in charge of ghettoizing and deporting Jews to death camps across the eastern half of occupied Europe. He arrived to Budapest with his commando when the city was occupied on March 19, 1944, and ordered the deportation of every Jew from Hungary, plans for which were finalized with the Hungarian authorities in the first week of May. Eichmann personally oversaw deportations from Budapest as late as July, 1944.
When Sztojay was deposed in August, Szalasi once again became an enemy of the Hungarian government and Regent Miklos Horthy ordered his arrest.
Arrow Cross takeover of power
Following Hungary’s Regent Horthy’s unsuccessful attempt to take Hungary out of the Axis alliance with Germany on October 15, 1944, army officers sympathetic to the Arrow Cross occupied key positions of power, including the Buda Castle. In the meantime the Germans had become concerned that Horthy would succeed in surrendering to the Allies and had found a perfect ally in Szalasi. When the Germans learned of the Regent’s plan to come to a separate peace with the Soviets and exit the Axis alliance, Germany launched the Operation Panzerfaust to prevent Hungary’s desertion from the war and kidnapped Horthy’s son, Miklos Jr. Germany threatened to kill him unless Horthy abdicated in favor of Szalasi. Horthy abdicated and under duress signed a document giving ‘legal sanction’ to an Arrow Cross coup. To quote Horthy’s memoirs “a signature wrung from a man at machine-gun point can have little legality.” The Germans then pressured the Parliament to install Szalasi as Prime Minister and Head of State.
After the Arrow Cross takeover of power Jewish males in Budapest aged 16-60, and Jewish women aged 16-40, were forcibly conscripted, thousands of whom were marched to the western border to build fortifications, or employed in concentration and labor camps in Germany. Between 50-70,000 people died in the combined forced labor projects.
Ghettoization in Hungary
The plan to ghettoize then deport the Jews was worked out by Adolf Eichmann and his commando, together with Hungary’s new Minister of Interior Affairs Laszlo Endre, a dedicated antisemite and experienced civil servant. Ghettoization began on April 15 in Transcarpathia in the east, and the process moved westward across the country until early June, when deportations from the countryside were complete. In small communities and villages, Jews were herded together and transported to the nearest town or a ghetto erected on its outskirts, and from there to holding camps, most of which were brick factories. The time allowed for packing and forcible relocation varied from minutes, to days. Urban Jewish communities were generally forced to live in cramped conditions within an existing Jewish district, or in ruined parts of the town.
Deportations from Hungary
The process of ‘de-Jewification’ was carried out with exceptional speed and efficiency. Moving from east to west, region by region, the ghettos and holding camps were liquidated and Jews packed onto cattle wagons and deported.
Mass deportations began on May 15, 1944. Empty trains arrived at the train stations nearest to the ghettos and holding camps. Jews were frequently searched while still in the ghetto, and closely accompanied along closed streets by the gendarmerie to the trains; many were beaten en route. At the stations, between 60 and 100 Jews and their remaining luggage were crammed standing onto the wagons, each of which could hold around 40 people. One bucket of drinking water and one for relieving bodily needs was placed in each wagon for the journey which lasted some days, and included frequent long delays.
Between May 15 and July 9, 1944 some 437000 Jews mainly from rural Hungary were deported to Auschwitz – Birkenau. They were deported from 55 ghettos and other concentration places in 147 transports. Most of them were murdered in the gas chambers of Birkenau after their arrival.
Suspension of the deportations
At the end of June 1944, Horthy came under pressure from two sides: the Nazis and the majority of the Hungarian government wanted the remaining Jews deported, while prominent individuals close to Horthy and international representatives, including Pope Pius XII, King Gustav of Sweden and US President Franklin D. Roosevelt, tried to persuade him to stop the deportations. The military situation at the time undoubtedly favored the Allies and, with the publication of the Auschwitz Protocols more and more information had come to light regarding the workings of the death camps. Horthy’s decision to suspend the deportations was influenced not so much by the Protocols, since he had been aware for some time of the realities of the ‘Final Solution‘, but rather by the international outcry they generated. On July 6, Horthy issued a directive to suspend the deportations. At this point, only the deportation of the Budapest Jews remained.
Ghettos in Budapest
After putting an end to the death marches on November 21, 1944, the Arrow Cross government crammed the Jews of Budapest into two ghettos. The small or international ghetto in Ujlipotvaros, Budapest’s 13th district, contained those who held protection papers issued by a neutral state, which were also forged in great number. The international ghetto area around Szent Istvan Park and Pozsonyi Road was, by December, soon overcrowded with almost 40,000 people living there, often with up to 60 people sharing one room.
On 29 November 1944 the new Minister of Internal Affairs – Gabor Vajna released the Decree on the Establishment of the Budapest Ghetto.
The Budapest Jews without protective documents had to move to the land of the 7th district enclosed by the Dohany, Kertesz, Kiraly, Csanyi, Rumbach, Imre Madach streets and the Karoly ringroad. On December 10 the area was sealed off from the outside and at the entry the sign appeared: christians forbidden entry. By January the next year almost 70000 people were crowded into the apartments of the area, with up to 14 people sharing one room, many simply being stuck outside on the streets.
The total population of the two ghettos together was around 100,000, all of whom were prey to the constant threat of Arrow Cross raids and shootings at the Danube. Under the Arrow Cross government, around 8,000 Jews were killed by party service activists, and a further 9,000 died from the bombing, hunger, illness, the harsh winter or suicide. Many thousands were in hiding throughout the city with the help of non-Jews, or false papers. These were the last two large ghettos in Nazi Europe, and liberated by the Red Army between January 16-18, 1945.