The Holocaust in Hungary

Two-thirds of Hungarian Jewry was destroyed between 1941 and 1945. More than half a million people fell victim to the labour service, the deportations organised by German Nazis and their Hungarian henchmen, the brutality of the Hungarian authorities, the death marches, the gassings in Auschwitz, the mass executions, and the terrible circumstances of the concentration camps. Hungarian Jews were murdered on the Ukrainian snow-fields, on the streets of Budapest, in the countryside ghettos, behind the barbed wires of German concentration camps, in the gas chambers of Birkenau, and on the country roads. Every tenth victim of the Holocaust and every third victim of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest Nazi extermination camp, were Hungarian.

Between 1941 and 1944 Hungarian Jewry suffered losses in the tens of thousands. Barely one month after special SS units (Einsatzgruppen) began the systematic murder of Jews in

The massacre at Újvidék

the framework of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Hungarian National Central Authority for Controlling Foreigners initiated the deportation of people with "unspecified nationality", so-called "stateless" Jews. Starting in late July, in a few weeks the Hungarian authorities transported some 16,000-18,000 Jews across state borders to areas occupied by German troops. In late August the majority of these people (around 15,000) were machine-gunned into mass graves by SS units in the outskirts of Kamenets-Podolsk. In the history of the Holocaust this was the first massacre where the number of victims reached a five-digit figure. Of those deported, a maximum of two thousand returned to Hungary. Under the pretext of hunting for partisans, in January 1942 Hungarian military and gendarmerie units killed 3300 people in Újvidék (Novi Sad), 700 Jews among them. In the so-called labour service 25,000-42,000 unarmed Jewish men ordered to battlefields lost their lives between 1941 and 1944 at the hands of brutal guards, due to inhuman conditions and/or military action.

Still, despite the loss of tens of thousands and the hardship caused by anti-Jewish legislation, until March 1944 the majority of Hungary's Jewish community lived in relative security. In the meantime, in much of occupied Europe, the Holocaust was already in full swing: SS mobile extermination units swept through the eastern territories, death- and forced labour camps were operating and the Jewish communities of Europe were destroyed one after the other. Between 1942 and 1944 the conservative Kállay government, although passing a number of new anti-Jewish laws and making extremist anti-Semitic statements, still rejected German demands aimed at the deportation of Hungarian Jews.

This relative sense of security evaporated on March 19, 1944 when German troops occupied Hungary. The occupation was motivated primarily by the fact that Berlin got wind of cease-fire talks between Hungary and the Allies and Hitler wanted to prevent Hungary from following the example of Italy and deserting the war effort. Moreover, Germany planned to exploit the Hungarian economy more effectively than ever before to cover the increasing costs of the war. The Jewish question played but a secondary role in the country's occupation.

The German army was accompanied by a special unit (Sondereinsatzkommando - SEK) with orders to "dejewify" the country. The SEK was

Hungarian Jewish children in Birkenau, May, 1944

placed under the command of SS-Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, head of the Reich Security Main Office's (Reichssicherheitshauptamt - RSHA) IV/B/4 department, which was responsible for Jewish deportations across Europe. The SEK had no more than twenty officers and a force of over one hundred (including drivers, guards and secretaries, etc.). It was obvious that on its own, without the cooperation of the Hungarian authorities, the unit could not organise the collection and deportation of 760,000-780,000 Jews scattered all over the country with an area of 170 thousand km2.

Under German pressure, a few days following the occupation, Regent Miklós Horthy appointed a collaborating government ready to serve Nazi interests, led by former ambassador to Berlin Döme Sztójay. Interior ministry officials of the Sztójay cabinet (Minister of the Interior Andor Jaross and State Secretaries László Baky and László Endre) cooperated with the Germans with unexpected zeal. The "final solution of the Jewish question in Hungary" got under way with a speed and efficiency surprising even the Germans: between mid April and late May practically the entire Jewish population of the countryside was ghettoized and, in the largest deportation operation in the history of the Holocaust, between May 15 and July 9, over 437,000 people (with the exception of 10,000-15,000) had been transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The speed with which the Hungarian authorities cast out Jews from society, then robbed, segregated and deported them was unprecedented in the entire history of the Holocaust.

By early July 1944 only Budapest Jews and those serving in the labour service units remained in Hungary. The gradually deteriorating

Dead bodies in the large ghetto of Budapest

military situation, the wave of international protests and the spreading of the news of the mass extermination induced Horthy to stop the deportations in early July. Romania, which had been an ally to Hitler until that point, changed sides and declared war on Germany, which shook the Nazis' positions in the region. Exploiting the situation, Horthy dismissed the Sztójay cabinet and appointed a new government led by General Géza Lakatos. The new administration's main task was to prepare to leave the German alliance. The action was poorly planned and badly executed. On October 15, the Germans took the initiative, made Horthy resign and put Ferenc Szálasi and his Arrow Cross movement to power. The new "Leader of the Nation" recommenced the deportation, and during November and December some 50,000 Jews from Budapest and labour service units were taken to Germany - most of them were chased in foot marches to the territory of the collapsing Reich. The Jews remaining in Budapest were locked up in two ghettos. Terror became constant in the capital, and Arrow Cross militiamen murdered thousand of Jews. Survivors of the ghettos were liberated in January 1945, while those in the concentration camps were liberated in the spring of the same year by the Allied forces.

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