The Righteous in Hungary

Until the spring of 1944, Hungarian Jews remained the largest Jewish community in Europe which had not been affected by mass extermination. That all changed when the Germans occupied their country. At that time, the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary, Miklós Horthy, established a new government which began working with head of the Jewish section of the Reich Security Service, Adolf Eichmann. Read about the course of the Holocaust in Hungary, discover the stories of individuals and international organisations who saved Hungarian Jews and the names of whom they rescued.

Even before the outbreak of World War II, Hungary, headed since 1919 by right-wing dictator Miklós Horthy, was one of those countries which supported the Third Reich. The alliance with Germany was intended to provide Hungary with the opportunity of expanding its borders. In 1938-1939, using Nazi Germany's anti-Jewish policy as an example, Hungary introduced discriminatory laws against its own 800,000 Jewish citizens.

The aim of the first regulations was to eliminate Jews from economic life. In 1941, in accordance with the Nuremburg Laws, a racial law was introduced to determine who was to be considered a Jew. From 1939, Jews were forcibly incorporated into the so-called labour brigades (munkaszolgálat) and were banned from military service. They were considered to be "untrustworthy elements posing a threat to national security”. Workers' groups were stationed in Hungary and on the Eastern Front, in Ukraine. Jews worked on repairing bombed railway tracks, clearing minefields and building airports.

Following subsequent annexations of parts of the territory of Yugoslavia, Slovakia and Romania, the country then contained around 861,000 Jews. In August 1941, the Hungarian government deported about 18,000 Jews (including, among others, refugess from Poland) to Ukraine. There, in the vicinity of Kamieńca Podolskia, Ukrainian and German troops carried out a pogrom on the Jews. At that time, more than 23,000 people were murdered, among them 16,000 Hungarian Jews. In January 1942, in Újvidék (Novy Sad), Hungarian soldiers murdered around 700 Jews and more than 2,500 Serbs in the area occupied by Hungary in northern Serbia (Vojvodina).

Despite these tragic events, Jews in Hungary could still feel relatively safe. Moreover, for a long time, Hungary was a kind of refuge for Jewish refugees from many European countries in which the systematic extermination of Jews had already been carried out by Germany.

In the spring of 1943, the Third Reich's pressure intensified on Horthy to resume the deportation of the Jews. However, the dictator put up some effective resistance and, by the end of 1943, he began ceasefire talks with the Allies. As a result, on 19th March 1944, the Germans entered and occupied Hungary. Germanophile Döme Sztójay became Hungarian Prime Minister. In 1935, he had legalised the activities of the anti-communist, fascist and antisemitic Arrow Cross Knights (Nyilaskeresztese), headed by Ferenc Szálasi.

The Holocaust of Hungarian Jews in 1944

The authorities in occupied Hungary intensified activities directed against the Jews. In April 1944, the Hungarian government introduced the obligation for Jews to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes. Two days later, it decided to establish ghettos and resettle, inside them, around 500,000 Jews who lived outside of Budapest. By the end of 1944, two hundred ghettos had been established in Hungary In April 1944, on the orders of Adolf Eichmann, deportations to KL Auschwitz began of Jews living outside the capital. During the main wave of deportations, from 14th May to 9th July, 437,402 Jews were transported there. Most of them died in the gas chambers soon after their arrival.

Around 200,000 Jews still remained in Budapest. They were also to be deported to KL Auschwitz but, on 6th July 1944, Miklós Horthy halted transports from the capital. He was motivated by the deteriorating military situation of the Third Reich and feared Allied reaction. In mid-October 1944, he endeavoured to contact the command of the Red Army which was entering Hungary. When they learned of this, the Germans arrested Horthy.

Ferenc Szálasi became the new Prime Minister and immediately resumed the transport operations. Around 30,000 Jews were incorporated into the labour brigades and deported to Germany via Austria. Approximately 70,000 Jews, who remained in Budapest, were locked inside the ghetto. There, they died from the cold, from disease and from hunger. Until February 1945, between 13,000 and 15,000 were brutally murdered by the Arrow Cross Knights. Jews, who held special security papers (Schutzpässe), could live in specially marked houses outside the ghetti (the so-called "international ghetto"), in which embassies of neutral countries granted them diplomatic protection. Around 20,000 people found refuge in this manner.

The Attitude of Church Authorities to the Holocaust

The Catholic church and Protestant churches initailly supported the anti-Jewish regulations imposed by the Hungarian government. The first to openly protest against Jewish repressions, especially against converts, was the Bishop of the Reformed Church, László Ravasz. In the first weeks of German occupation, in April 1944, together with the Primate of Hungary, Cardinal Jusztinián Serédi, and the Protestant Bishop Kapi Béla, he demanded the exemption of converts from the anti-Jewish regulations, including the wearing of the Star of David and isolation into ghettos.

However, later, the Hungarian churches did not participate in the fight against the anti-Jewish policies of their German occupiers. An agreement, on this matter, was reached between Ravasz and members of the Protestant church. However, Cardinal Serédi did not join into subsequent protests. He also never publicly opposed the deportation of Hungarian Jews and never issued a pastoral letter which could have explained the Church's stance on this issue.

Some Hungarian bishops were dissatisfied with this attitude, including Bishop Györ Vilmos Apor. The group was supported by the Apostolic Nuncio to Hungary, Angelo Rotta. 220,000–250,000 Hungarian Jews survived the War. They included those with false papers and the 30,000-35,000 in hiding in Budapest.

Help From Diplomats

A significant number owe their survival to international organisations with offices in Hungary and to foreign diplomats. They tried helping the Jews by issuing them with their own country's passports and by placing them into building protected by international immunity. Thanks to the staff of diplomatic missions, the Apostolic Nuncio in Budapest and the Red Cross, more them 100,000 were saved from the Holocaust.  

For their activities, more than thirty diplomats have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations. The most famous is the Swede Raoul Wallenberg who, with the consent of the Swedish government, issued his country's passports to about 10,000 Jews. He bribed German and Hungarian officials in order to extract Jews from transports to extermination camps. He placed Jewish refugees into buildings which were under the protection of neutral states and employed several hundred within his own embassy.

Diplomats Helping Jews

Read slected stories of ambassadors, consuls and diplomatic mission staff »

One of the first diplomats to openly protest the discrimination against Jews and their deporation to extermination camps was Archbishop Angelo Rotta, the Apostolic Nuncio in Budapest. With his help, more than 15,000 Jews were provided with the protection of Vatican passports.

Another diplomat involved in providing help was Carl Lutz who, from 1942, was Swiss Vice-Consul in Budapest. He organised Palestinian visas (approved by the British authorities) for Jews seeking to flee Hungary. More than 10,000 people received them. Also, with his consent, more than 50,000 received protection passports. Lutz contributed to the establishment of 76 homes in the "international ghetto", where more than 30,000 Jews were placed. He also created a refuge in the "glass house", owned by the Swiss Embassy in Budapest, which could accommodate 2,000-3,000 people.

The Story of Carl Lutz

Read more about the help provided in Budapest by the Swiss Vice-Consul »

Angel Sanz Briz also came to the aid of Jews. From 1944, he served as Chargé d'Affaires at the Spanish Embassy in Budapest. He saved the lives of more than 5,000 Jews by issuing them with Spanish passports and placing them in rented homes, flying the Spanish flag, in Budapest. In smuggling Jews out of Hungary, he worked with Italian Georgio Perlasca who, after Briz's departure back to Switzerland in the autumn of 1944, impersonated his deputy. From December 1944 until the middle of the following January, he saved around 5,000 Jews. About 1,000 Jews also saved by Portuguese diplomats Alberto Teixeira Branquinho and Carlos de Sampayo Garrido, in cooperation with the Portuguese Minister for Foreign Affairs and with the knowledge of their country's dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.

Henryk Sławik, Chargé d'Affaires of the Polish representative office in Budapest, headed the Civil Committee for the Care of Polish Refugees. Together with József Antall, the Hungarian government's Commissioner for Refugees, he issued Jews with documents confirming their "Aryan identity". He also rescued Jewish children, whom he sent to an orphanage in Vác. As a result of his activities, he was arrested by the Germans and was murdered in the Mauthausen concentration camp.

The Story of Henryk Sławik

CRead more about the help provided by this Chairman of the Civil Committee for Refugee Care »

International Jewish organisations also came to the aid of Hungarian Jews. The activities of one of the leaders of the Zionist Aid and Rescue Committee (Vaadat Ha'ezra ve Ha'Hatzala) in Budapest, Rezső Kasztnera, a lawyer and journalist, remains controversial to this day. In April 1944, he negotiated with Adolf Eichmann, offering him diamonds, gold, money and other valuable goods in exchange for saving one of the transports of Jewish prisoners heading to Auscwitz on 30th June 1944 (the "Kasztner train").

Help Provided by Jewish Organisations

In this way, he saved the lives of 1,684 Jews who, after several months spent in the Bergen-Belsen camp, reached Switzerland. After the War, Kasztner's activities met with criticism. In 1953, Jewish journalist Malkiel Gruenwald accused him of collaborating with the Germans and of partcipating in the extermination of Hungarian Jews.A defamation court case began. After two weeks, the court found him guilty, arguing that, although he knew that Jews were being killed in gas chambers, he did not inform anyone of this. He sacrificed some and saved a select few. In 1958, the Supreme Court annulled this verdict, but this took place after Kasztner's death. He was murdered in 1957.

The provision of false documents for Hungarian Jews was also independently carried out by Zionist youth organisation activists. In May and June 1944, some captives in provincial ghettos received these "Aryan papers", which enabled many of them to escape. During the deportation of Jews in the spring and summer of 1944, Zionist activists helped smuggle Hungarian Jews into Romania. Thanks to their activities, 2,000-4,000 Jews survived.

Help for the Jewish population was also provided by some Hungarian citizens who were not affiliated with any organisation. As at 1st January 2018, 861 Hungarians have been honoured with the title of Righteous Among the Nations

Dr Aleksandra Namysło, September 2018

English translation: Andrew Rajcher

Righteous Around the World

Read the stories of help provided to Jews in other countries together with the historical context of German occupation »


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