Hungarian Jews in the eye of the storm

How was it possible, in 1944, where millions of Jews had already been murdered, that such a large Jewish community could continue to live in tranquility?

A memorial in Budapest to the Jews of Hungary. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A memorial in Budapest to the Jews of Hungary.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On the morning of March 20, 1944, the latest copies of the Orthodox Jewish weekly Orthodox Zsido Ujsag were delivered and laid neatly on the shelves of the Jewish stores in Budapest.
That edition was devoted entirely to Passover, the Festival of Freedom, whose celebration was to begin in less than two weeks’ time. Its pages were full of ads for wine meeting the strictest standards of kashrut, and for other familiar products for Passover. There was nothing in the magazine’s routine appearance or in its comforting content that indicated that this would be the magazine’s final edition, or that a fateful event in the life of the Hungarian Jewish community had taken place the day before, on March 19, the day that Nazi Germany invaded Hungary.
It had become clear to the Nazis that Hungary was conducting secret negotiations to join with the Allied Forces and that they must be stopped. Up to that point, Germany had allowed Hungary, its ally, to manage its internal affairs as it saw fit. As a result, the situation of Hungary’s Jews, though difficult, was immeasurably better than that of Jews in the neighboring countries, who, in fact, regarded Hungary as a place of refuge.
Although they suffered from social rejection, severe financial hardship and a range of restrictive, discriminatory laws, the Hungarian Jews were not exposed to physical danger. Their hope was to remain in this condition until the end of the war, which seemed imminent. The period of relative safety, however, for over 700,000 Hungarian Jews, came to an abrupt end on March 19. From that day on, their lives were at stake.
How was it possible, in 1944, in the geographical center of a Europe being consumed by flames, where millions of Jews had already been murdered, that such a large Jewish community could continue to live in tranquility? How could they ignore the threat of Hungarian anti-Semitism and the pressures of Nazi Germany? Did they really fail to understand that the seething cauldrons of war just over their borders could boil over and destroy them, their families, their community? Did they really believe “This can’t happen to me?” On the other hand, what political conditions allowed Hungary, an island isolated in the German ocean of influence, to remain unaffected by the storm raging in the area? A number of historic factors help explain this anomaly.
In the mid-19th century, a Hungarian renaissance movement was formed, with the goals of renewing the Hungarian language (which, until then, was spoken mainly by the peasant population), nurturing Hungarian culture and working toward strengthening the country’s political position. Its territory was quite large, and included ethnic minorities from Slovakia, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Ukraine, among others. Slightly over half the population of greater Hungary consisted of ethnically non-Hungarian minorities.
In order to enlarge the Hungarian portion of the country’s culture and to legitimize the claim for the Hungarian nation state, the renaissance movement encouraged the non-Hungarian minorities to join the Hungarian culture by Magyarization – adopting the Hungarian language and culture, and identifying with the national goals.
Most of the members of the minority groups who maintained cultural and linguistic connections with their brethren in neighboring countries rejected the offer of Magyarization, while the Jews, for the most part, adopted the absorption project with great enthusiasm. They saw Magyarization as the key to a series of financial and cultural opportunities of great value. As things developed, the majority of Jews identified as Hungarians, and as a result the Hungarians achieved a majority in their quest for Magyarization.
The Jews saw themselves as an integral part of Hungary, in all its aspects, except for their religion. Jacob Katz, the historian, wrote that Hungarian Jews “...did not see themselves as similar to the Jews of France or Germany, who were merely pasted on to a pre-existing body. The experience of being full partners in the creation of a new People deepened their identification with the new nation and built a Jewish community whose hallmark was its love for the Motherland. Szabolcsi, the dean of Jewish Hungarian journalism, in 1903 tried to convince Herzl that the Hungarian Jews would turn their backs on the idea of a Zionist, national movement. Moreover, he urged that such a movement could not thrive in Hungary, as ‘Our love for our Magyar Motherland is so true, and has soaked up so much of our blood, that even if we wanted not to love her, we couldn’t do so; just as a mother is incapable of not loving her child, even if that were her desire.’”
The winds of modernization which blew so mightily in Western Europe were late in arriving in Hungary. The country’s economy, until the First World War, had been mostly based on the outdated methods and structures of feudal agriculture. The ruling elite sought to carry out broad reforms in the economy and in society in order to bring the country up to the level of the developed nations of the West. Unfortunately, despite the forward-looking views of its elite, Hungary lacked sufficient skilled, motivated manpower to lead the country in the process of moving from a feudalistic to a modern society.
It was just that combination of circumstances, at the turn of the 20th century, that made the Jews of Hungary a decisive element in fashioning the shape and nature of the country’s economy. At the beginning of the 19th century, nearly all of Hungary’s Jews lived in agricultural areas, while 100 years later, at the beginning of the 20th century, the greatest concentration of Hungary’s Jews was in the cities; especially in Budapest, the capital. Very quickly, these centers of urban life became the backbone of Hungary’s middle class. These accelerated changes in the nature of the economy opened unprecedented commercial opportunities for the country’s Jews.
Since Hungary did not as yet have a modern infrastructure, the Jewish-led enterprises were able to operate almost without competition. In a relatively short time, industry and commerce began to develop, as did agriculture and the modern banking systems for which the Jews supplied the critical, educated manpower. The percentage of Jews in the commercial life of the country, in medicine, law, the arts and academe grew rapidly toward the end of the 19th century, and Jews became dominant in a number of areas.
“The Hungarian Jews became a decisive factor in molding the image of Hungarian society and culture... the role of Hungary’s Jews in developing their country was greater than the contribution of the Jews, as a group, to any other country in Europe,” wrote historian Katz.
Hungary’s social anti-Semitism grew and deepened in reaction to the strengthening of the Jews’ status in the financial and cultural life of the country. Because the ruling circles and the aristocracy consistently gave them support, the Jews did not perceive anti-Semitism as an existential threat.
Anti-Semitism failed to upset the co-existence between Jews and non-Jews which had prevailed in Hungary since the granting of Emancipation in 1867. Although, to a certain degree, Jews did experience social rejection, they were not discriminated against in the judicial system, as was later the case in the period between the two world wars.
Although the Jews’ successful integration into Hungary’s cultural and industrial realms was the primary reason for the hate directed against them, it was this very success which earned them the support of the country’s elite, who recognized the Jews’ significant contribution to the modernization of Hungary, and to the furthering of its national and cultural goals. The period between the Emancipation and outbreak of WWI was considered the Golden Age of Hungarian Jewry. Patterns of loyalty and patriotism and identification with the land and people of Hungary were firmly set, as if in concrete. The extraordinary economic success, the sense of partnership in building a People, and the consistent support of the country’s elite led the Jews to trust completely in the Hungarian establishment, the leadership and the people.
It should come as no surprise, then, to read the headline of the liberal Jewish newspaper at the outbreak of WWI, calling for the Jewish population to enlist in the Hungarian armed forces in order to defend “The Holy Land,” and even “to sacrifice one’s life for this “great and noble People.” In fact, many Jews did enlist, and over 10,000 were killed in battle.
The outcome of the war, however, brought instability to the status of Hungarian Jewry. With the defeat of the Central Powers, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was disbanded, and, according to the Trianon Peace Agreement of 1920, approximately two-thirds of Hungary’s territory and 60 percent of its population were distributed among Hungary’s neighbors. Postwar Hungary spoke one language, controlled much less land, and Jews became the only “others” in the eyes of the majority. There was no longer any need for the policy of Magyarization, and the Jews lost the advantage of their enthusiastic adoption of Magyarization since most other minority groups were now living in their own national states.
The Jews’ status and influence in commerce, industry, medicine, the courts of law, journalism and academe were evident even before WWI. But in the pre-war days the Jews were perceived as a part of the Hungarian People. After the war, the economic situation worsened considerably and the social and religious differences between Jews and Christians, and especially the Jews’ relatively prosperous economic status, served to arouse envy, revulsion and hate. The Hungarian perception now was that the Jews were foreigners, and their successful merging with the state and with Hungarian culture was seen in the light of the Trianon debacle as a foreign takeover of their homeland.
Even when the post-1920 Hungarian governments adopted right-wing, or even openly anti-Semitic, positions, the Hungarian Jewish community remained complacent and unwavering in its support of the country’s leadership. The Jews were convinced that anti-Semitism was an import from foreign European countries, and that the Hungarian People were basically fair and tolerant. They interpreted the anti-Semitic outbursts to which they were witness as fleeting episodes which would soon disappear.
Those who were advocates of this interpretation angrily rejected the attempts made by the Jews of France and England to intervene with the Hungarian leadership on behalf of Hungarian Jewry. When a law was passed in 1920 limiting the number of Jews in institutions of higher learning, the claim was made that the acceptance of outside interference in an internal Hungarian matter constituted a vote of non-confidence in Hungary. Moreover, the Hungarian Jewish leadership decided not to act in order to establish Jewish political organizations, as had been done in other European countries. They considered such organizations damaging to Hungarian loyalty. Even when anti-Semitic laws were instituted in the late 1930s, the Hungarian Jews chose to see them as a temporary phenomenon, which the Hungarian leadership had invented to pacify the extreme right wing, who wanted to take care of the “Jewish problem” in their own, radical ways.
The Jews’ attitude to “their” land in the decades between the two wars was, as Szabolcsi told Herzl, word for word: “Anti-Semitism can rage as wildly as if it were a plague, but no force in the world can shake the patriotic passions of the Magyarized Jews. If it should break out, we shall suffer under its yoke, but our Magyarism will not be changed.”
Jewish loyalty to Hungary was not affected even in the early ‘Thirties, when the extremist right-wing parties gained strength in parliament, and modeled themselves after the fascist parties in Italy and Germany, who spread increasingly noxious, racist propaganda about the “questionable loyalties” of the Hungarian Jews. It should be mentioned that one of those parties was the Cross Arrow party, which later played a key role, in the spring of 1944, in the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Another point which must be kept in mind in finding an answers to the basic question raised in this article is that even at this juncture, a majority of the leaders of the country avoided joining the outright waves of anti-Semitism, because of their vested commercial and financial involvement with the Jews. It was in their interest to perpetuate the bond forged in the prosperous period of the past.
The attitude of the Hungarian leadership to the Jews of Hungary made it possible for the entire Jewish community to live in relative stability, despite enormous pressures from within Hungary and from the Nazi regime whose agents were applying consistent pressure on the Hungarian regime.
During 1942 – 1943, the Germans demanded a far more rigid attitude toward the Jews: the Jews should be removed completely from the commercial and cultural life of the country; they should be forced to wear the hated yellow patches on their clothing; and the transports of Jews to Eastern Europe should begin.
According to documents from the Hungarian Foreign Ministry, the Hungarian government at this point was fully aware that the Germans were slaughtering the Jews and that transport to the East meant annihilation. They rejected the Germans’ extreme measures, arguing that the government couldn’t expel the Jews in one quick action without triggering financial instability throughout the country. In a meeting with Hitler, the Hungarian regent, Admiral Horthy raised similar issues in response to Hitler’s complaint that the Hungarian government’s attitude, under Kalay, was “pro-Jewish.” The Hungarian government stood fast, maintaining that every sovereign country bore the responsibility to solve the “Jewish Problem” as it saw fit.
It is also clear that by this time, Kalay and his government were beginning to realize that Germany could lose the war. The German Wehrmacht had suffered a massive defeat in Stalingrad and Rommel’s forces had been routed by the British in North Africa. Kalay understood that his policies regarding the Jews would improve his standing in the eyes of the Allies in the post-war period. All this served to nurture the Jew’s trust in the Hungarian government which had stood by them for so long. They held on to their illusions and failed to gauge the depth of the abyss which lay ahead.
All this fell to pieces when the German army invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944.
The newspaper of March 20 testifies to the surprise which reigned in the Jewish community on that fateful day. In one fell swoop, their island of relative tranquility, the last remaining shelter, on which the refugees of Europe pinned their hopes of survival, was demolished. The extreme right wing came to power, the ghettoization began, and within two months hundreds of thousands of Jews were shipped to forced labor or extermination camps. In only two months’ time, during June and July of 1944, nearly half a million Jews were slaughtered by the Nazis and their Hungarian helpers.

Dr. Jehuda Hartman is a Mathematician, currently writing a pHD dissertation on Hungarian Jewry

Translated from Hebrew by Jonathan Gershowitz.