The Hungarian Holocaust started 70 years ago today

May 14, 2014


Jewish women and children arrive to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Hungary in cattle cars.

May 14th marks the 70th anniversary of the beginning of the deportation of Hungarian Jews to concentration camps in Poland.  Over a period of 57 days, 437,000 Jews, mostly women, children, were crowded onto 147 trains and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  The vast majority were gassed within a few days of their arrival.  The scale and ferocity of the operation was unprecedented in the tragic annals of the Second World War.

Although various government officials have attended various memorial events this year, no official mention was made of this important anniversary today.  Instead, the pro-government newspapers (including the openly anti-semitic Magyar Hirlap owned by prominent Fidesz oligarch Gábor Széles) wrote about the conviction of former Communist Interior Minister Bela Biszku for war crimes against Hungaran civilians in the wake of the 1956 revolution.

The following is a translation of the article appearing in entitled “The first trains to Auschwitz departed 70 years ago”.  The article was prepared in consultation with prominent historians Aly Götz, Christan Gerlach, Randolph L. Braham, Krisztián Ungváry, György Ránki, and János Gyurgyák. 

Before the German invasion of 19 March 1944 the general situation of the Hungarian Jews was more favorable than in those parts of Europe under German control where the creation of ghettos and deportation were the order of the day.  “Security” in Hungary primarily meant that in the area of Hungary enlarged before the Second World War the lives and personal freedom of Hungary’s 800,000-strong Jewish community were not directly threatened.  However, Hungarian Jewry had already suffered losses before the German invasion:  the mass killings at Kamjanec-Pogyilszkij, the round-up and murder of Jews in Novisad (Újvidék), and the induction of Jewish males into labor battalions attached to the army had already claimed some 34,000 lives.

The societal role of Hungarian Jews had already been significantly limited by the first and second Jewish laws of 1938 and 1939.  At the start of 1944, among other things, marriage between Jews and non-Jews was officially banned and a law was passed providing for agricultural land owned by Hungarian Jews to be taken over.  Hungarian society grew accustomed to the incremental loss of rights and restrictions placed on Jews.

There is no indication in the diplomatic correspondence through the middle of 1942 that this took place under pressure from the Germans.  However, from 1942 the German government began to demand that the Hungarian government “take appropriate steps with regard to the Jewish question.”

Deprived of human rights

Before the invasion the Germans did not have concrete, detailed, developed plans concerning the fate of Hungary’s Jews. However, they had ample experience from other countries in how to organize the deportation of Jews.  Their intention in Hungary was obvious:  they wanted to deport as many Jews as possible in as little time as possible.

This was a daunting task for the German authorities as there were 800,000 Jews living in Hungary.  Furthermore, in 1944 they did not have the necessary capacity to undertake such an operation.  Much depended, therefore, on how they could cooperate with the Hungarian authorities and on the tempo and actions they could impress on the Hungarian government.

During the first days of the occupation, Adolf Eichmann, an SS officer at the Imperial Security High Command (RSHA) who headed the department responsible for Jewish matters, arrived with 150 people who, prior to the invasion, had attended a preparatory meeting at the Mauthausen concentration camp.  Eichmann was an experienced expert in the deportation of Jews.  Accordingly, his job was to do everything in his power to ensure that the disenfranchisement and deportation of Hungarian Jews went as smoothly as possible.

His personal authority was limited, since after the invasion he had to arrange for the Hungarian government to take the necessary steps.  In his activities he was directly assisted by his Hungarian superior, Otto Windelmann, who was the Commander of Hungary for the German Security forces.   Edmund Veesenmayer, German ambassador and plenipotentiary, was available to assist him and arrange for anti-Jewish actions on the part of the Hungarian government.

The individual appointed to head the government, Döme Sztójay, and his party had represented anti-semitic politics since the early 1940s.  Accordingly, it was not surprising that the Sztojay government quickly implemented the Germans’ demands with regard to the Jews.   The Germans used the same tactics here as in other countries:  first they wanted to label the Jews, then deprive them of their basic rights and property.  Their physical separation followed with the creation of ghettos, and finally their deportation and destruction.  Veesenmayer and the Germans’ goal was for the Hungarian government to take the necessary steps and for the Hungarian public administration to implement them.

The first phase began on March 19 with the passage of a series of laws providing for Jews to be labeled and deprived of their rights:  They made wearing the differentiating Star of David obligatory, banned them from using public transportation and baths, as well as visiting centers of public entertainment, and from employment in intellectual, legal, and share-trading activities. Jews were banned from membership in media, theatre, and film chambers.  The laws became progressively more serious.  In the middle of April government orders appeared transferring Jewish property to the State.  At first they had to report Jewish bank accounts.  Several weeks later all the accounts were combined into one account and taken over by the state.  The closing of Jewish businesses followed.  And from the middle of June, Jews could only appear in public in the afternoon between 2 pm and 5 pm.

In addition to this the Germans employed the standard means of deception.  They demanded the creation of a countrywide Jewish council for the purpose of relating their demands to the country’s Jews.   On March 31 Eichmann met the head of the Jewish council and placated him:  they wanted to use the Hungarian Jews to perform work.   He even promised that after the war the Jews would be free.  However, he warned them that they should be accommodating lest they be harmed.  Such meetings were intended to spread a false sense of calm so as to ensure that the deportation of the Jews took place without incident.

In light of these developments Veesenmayer satisfactory reported to Berlin at the beginning of April that the Hungarian government was taking the Jewish question seriously, and wrote “the developments are taking place unusually fast given the domestic conditions”.

The loss of freedom:  the ghettoization

The development was so fast that by the beginning of April the meetings necessary to organize the ghettos were already taking place at the Ministry of the Interior.  Two freshly appointed state secretaries, Laszlo Bakz and Laszlo Endre, together with Eichmann’s men prepared an internal directive bearing Baky’s signature entitled “the marking of Jewish residences” that precisely delineated the ghettos’ goals and nature.   According to the directive the ghettos should be created beginning in the north-east and then, with the creation of ten gendarme districts, should move towards the center of the country.  So at first districts were established in Kassa (Kosice, Slovaki), then Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca, Romania), Marosvásárhely (Targu-Mures, Romania), following that Sopron-Komarom, Pecs, Debrecen, Szeged, and Miskolc, and finally Budapest.

The directive provided for the Hungarian gendarmes and police to establish the ghettos.  At most the Germans appeared as advisors.  The purpose of the procedure was to physically separate the Hungarian Jews from the rest of the inhabitants.  The directive allowed Jews to take 14 days worth of food and 50 kg worth of luggage with them into the ghetto.  The establishment of the ghettos took place everywhere according to plan: the Jews living in the villages were collected in the early hours of the morning and characteristically taken to the central Synogogue.  After a few days they were delivered to a brick yard or an empty factory in a nearby city into which that city’s Jews had been crowded.

Before transporting them to the ghettos the Jews were stripped of their property.  This took place locally by three-member committees representing the Hungarian authorities who made a precise inventory of Jewish property and valuables left in their apartments.   All Jewish property was appropriated by the Hungarian state.  Numerous laws regulated the fate of their possessions.  In some places the valuables were locked up in abandoned flats.  In other places they were assembled in large warehouses created specifically for this purpose.  It was never expected that the property would be returned to the Jews.

The creation of the ghettos happened quickly.  The process began on April 16.  According to Veesenmayer’s report, by April 23 150,000 Jews had been forced into ghettos.  By the middle of May, Northern Transylvania finished establishing its ghettos.  Following this the establishment of ghettos happened in parallel in the other parts of the country.  Meanwhile in the eastern parts the deportations began.   Most of the ghettos only existed for a few weeks, or even days, as they were only intended as a transit stop on the road to deportation.  At most the ghettos existed for a month, as in the case of the ghettos in Kárpátalja (now the part of Ukraine west of the Carpathians) where a month passed between their creation and the deportations.  The government stopped the deportations before the Budapest ghetto could be established.  It was only in October after the Arrow Cross putsch that it was created.  In the summer of 1944 Jews were crowded into “star houses”.

Altogether 47 ghettos were created in the country in extraordinarily primitive conditions:  the brick factories and the crowded flats did not meet even the most basic of living standards.  Jews locked in the ghettos often slept out in the open without any provision for basic hygienic and nutritional needs.  In the Nyiregyhazi ghetto, for example, the daily food allowance at the beginning of May was 10 dkg of bread, 10 dkg of potatoes, and 1 dkg of flour.  In setting up the ghettos brute force was used not infrequently.   It was indicative of the conditions of the time that, although Baky’s directive was valid, the prime minister’s order for the creation of the ghettos only appeared on April 28th, twelve days after the start of the ghettoization.

The decision 

It is not known precisely when and under what circumstances the decision to deport all the Hungarian Jews was made.  There is a general agreement among historians that the final agreement between the German and Hungarian governments concerning the deportation of all the Jews was made around April 20.  Before that the negotiations concerned the Hungarian government turning some 50,000-100,000 Hungarian Jews over to the German government for work in the airplane program and in industries of vital importance to the war effort.

However, around April 20—not unrelated to the terrible conditions brought about by the creation of the ghettos—the discussions concerned the deportation of all the Hungarian Jews.  Presumably the negotiations took place between Baky and Eichmann which finally accelerated the procedure.  From that point on the preparations are well documented:  it was necessary to obtain the necessary number of wagons, and to agree on the scheduling, and for the Germans to designate the destination.  Representatives of the SS, the Gestapo, the Hungarian, German, and Slovak railways, and the Hungarian police and gendarmes met in Vienna on May 4.  The latter were tasked with delivering the Jews in wagons under armed escort to the German border.  It was also agreed at the conference that from the middle of May four trains would depart each day, each with 3000 people.

Following this fevered preparations were undertaken at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  At the end of March an order was issued to stop all construction. In other words they did not calculate with interning a large number of Jews, but rather killing them in the gas chambers.   However on May 8 Rudolf Höss was renamed commander of Auschwitz.  He began the expansion of the crematoria and the network of train tracks within the camp.  From the beginning Höss objected.  In his opinion Auschwitz was not able to receive many hundreds of thousands of people.

The German invasion took place on March 19.  It did not take two months for the Hungarian government working at the encouragement and in the service of the invaders to deprive every Jewish person of their rights and property and to lock them in ghettos.  On May 14, that is 70 years ago today, the first trains left for Auschwitz.

Referenced in this article:

Hetven éve indultak az első vonatok Auschwitzba,, 14 May 2014