To understand hell, you have to experience it

Historians who approach the Hungarian Holocaust from archives alone can miss key truths.

Otto Komoly became leader of the Hungarian Zionist Association in 1940 (photo credit: DANIEL MORGENSTERN)
Otto Komoly became leader of the Hungarian Zionist Association in 1940
(photo credit: DANIEL MORGENSTERN)
I TALK to British school children about my Holocaust experiences in Hungary and looking at the literature about the same period, it struck me how little emphasis is placed on the pre-existing conditions of the country’s Jews, the divisions among them, and the mental make-up arising from these. Having reread the private diary of my uncle Otto Komoly of 1944, I feel compelled to add my thoughts to those of historians and other writers who did not experience the conditions, or whose analysis is biased by a political agenda.
In order to understand what happened in Hungary to the “seventh million,” it is useful to be familiar with the historical background. Hungary’s centuries long antisemitism was followed in the 20th century by the slow emancipation of Jews in society. Hungary’s Jewry, in particular the secular layer in urban areas, made huge contributions to the nation in science, industry, commerce, the art world – occupying up to 50% of leading professions. This led to jealousy and the reawakening of past hatreds. Hungary followed the German example by introducing anti-Jewish laws: in 1939 the restrictions on professions and education to 2% and then in 1942, total exclusion from professions, trades and education, leading to the loss of 200,000 livelihoods.
The traditional Hungarian Jewish leadership took little notice of this deterioration of conditions, and even less of the events after the German occupation of Poland and Czechoslovakia, and the resulting huge influx of Jewish refugees from those countries. My uncle, Otto Komoly, stepped into this quagmire as leader of the Hungarian Zionist Association in 1940. As early as August 1941, some 18,000 Jews were taken from Hungary to Kamenets Podolsk in Soviet Ukraine to be massacred for lack of Hungarian identity papers. Zionist activists, including Joel Brand, successfully attempted to rescue relatives and others (2,000 in all) and brought the news back. This was the first massacre during the Holocaust reaching a five-digit figure and it was totally ignored.
News of the extermination camps reached the world starting in 1942, such as Abraham Bomba’s report about Treblinka, Karski and Tabeau’s (the “Polish Majors”) report through the Polish government in exile, BBC broadcasts, articles in the British press, the British Parliament’s protestations about murder in the camps (1942), and several others.
The Hungarian Jewish attitude was “It could not happen here, we’re a respected and valuable part of Hungarian society.” The leadership were preoccupied with internal conflicts among the Neolog, Orthodox and “status quo” various groupings of Zionists and the Palestine office.
The German army occupied Hungary in March 1944 to stop the Governor’s plans to switch sides in the war. Eichmann arrived with only about 200 SS men to put into place the “final solution.” In this he was supported by the government, 22,000 Hungarian gendarmes, and could also rely on the backing of rising numbers of Hungarian Nazis (some estimates go as high as 900,000) and their sympathisers. He set up the Jewish Council representing the religious, secular, and the 100,000 converted Jews. Komoly, refusing to join, created the Aid and Rescue Committee (JRC or Va’adat Ezrah veHatzalah) together with Rudolf Kasztner, Hansi and Joel Brand, and seven others, which provided assistance to Jews fleeing from Poland and Slovakia, as well as Hungary. Komoly was also appointed head of the International Red Cross office.
The Jewish Council sequestered property, organized ghettos and collecting camps, and then the fascists deported people. They became morally implicated in the death of their people, but if the Council had failed to execute orders, others would have taken their place without the close ties to various political circles maintained by the traditional leadership. They made their decision and accepted the task. They decided poorly because it was impossible to decide well. Although this ‘help’ eased Eichmann’s problems, it must be firmly stated that with most Hungarian men, and women in the age group 18-40 having already been accounted for in various ‘work’ units, he certainly did not have to worry about a Hungarian Jewish uprising. The German and Hungarian authorities completed the evacuation of the provincial collecting camps and consequent deportations (around 437,000) in the spring and summer.
In April 1944, the Slovaks Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz and their report on the gas chambers reached Hungary. It was distributed by a Zionist group before reaching world leaders. Various authors, most recently Paul Bogdanor, having no awareness of the backcloth concerning Hungarian Jewry, and relevant Hungarian historians’ writings, came out accusing the Zionists, specifically Kasztner who had become a controversial figure, of collaborating with the Germans and suppressing this so-called Auschwitz Protocol, claiming that more widespread knowledge would have prevented hundreds of thousands of deaths.
It was not the information that was missing. The Zionist youth, who tried in ghettoes and collecting camps to spread the terrifying news about the death camps, were received in most cases with animosity and incredulity, in some cases chased away, and in others handed over to the police. All they could do was print false documents, investigate secret escape routes, bribe and forge high-quality official papers such as Palestine visas and Christian identity cards. 
Dressed in German and Hungarian army uniforms, they rescued people from the hands of Arrow Cross gangs, brought provisions to the children’s homes and took an active part in supplying the Budapest ghetto with food. 
The most sobering case of incredulity verging on suicide is described by Asher Arany, who in the latter period of deportations secretly approached Jews in temporarily unguarded wagons on the Polish border, prising open the doors and described what awaited them, offering false documents, food and money, and escape to the woods. Not one took up the chance, and some even threatened to call the guards.
My own mother found herself among a group of 200 women rounded up by four Arrow Cross men and marched towards a collection camp. When she made a run for it, the young recruits took shots at her but missed. The ensuing confusion was the perfect opportunity for some or even most of the others to try and do likewise – to run for it – but instead they stayed put and awaited their fate. 
It is easy to ridicule the lack of response even by those who did believe the horrific information, in the light of our knowledge today of the six million who perished. In 1944, the attitude of “where there’s life, there’s hope” was reinforced by the murderous brutality of the vast array of Hungarian Nazis. Survivors even testified that, when it came to the crunch, it was preferable to board the deportation trains than to face instant demise or cruelty. In those days the notion of ‘fight and die’ simply did not occur. As surprising as this may seem, additional information about gas chambers was immaterial. Everybody in my family and neighborhood knew that deportation equaled certain death.
The position of the JRC was clear: there was no hope of receiving assistance from abroad or from domestic sources. Eichmann’s Blood for Goods deal offered the release of one million Jews to neutral territory in exchange for 10,000 trucks and other goods. The Committee bluffed and pretended to accept this, knowing full well that whatever international connections they could muster, they would never be able to persuade the Allied leadership to bring forth the goods. It was never more than a highstake poker game to gain time, knowing that after the Normandy landing, the American and British forces from the west and Russians from the east were getting within a few hundred kilometers. Thus while Brand (and later Kasztner) negotiated with the Germans and achieved the release of one trainload of Jews as a test of the scheme, this resulted in around 1,700 being rescued on the “Kasztner Train” and another 20,000 being diverted from Auschwitz to an ordinary labor camp where they survived.
Meanwhile, Komoly and other committee members used their contacts with neutral embassies, the Red Cross and, towards the end, with the Hungarian government’s more enlightened members to set up safe houses, ease the misery of starving and other cruelties, keeping tens of thousands out of the ghetto, in particular some 5,000-6,000 orphaned children. Komoly was murdered by the Arrow Cross just before liberation.
After the war there was a formal attempt to hold members of the Jewish Council to account. In Israel, in 1954, Kasztner brought a case for libel after being accused of collaboration. The case was turned against him by a skilled attorney, and the judge declared that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil.” Kasztner was subsequently murdered by a right-wing extremist before he could hear the Supreme Court reversing that judgement.
The British Bomber Command received undeserved condemnation after the war, but 70 years later the government saw fit to raise a memorial to them. Is it not time that Israel – after commemorating Otto Komoly and saluting Kasztner in the Knesset last April – gives proper recognition to all the Zionist heroes at Yad Vashem or elsewhere?
The writer was born in Budapest in 1936, left in 1956 and now lives in England, but visits Hungary regularly to keep in touch with his surviving relatives.