Jewish Fate in Hungary

by László Varga

Randolph L. Braham. The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. 2 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1981. 1,260 pp.

The annihilation of Jewry in Hungary deserves a special chapter in the contemporary tragedy of the European Jews.1 The incomprehensible destruction took place in a few brief months, with almost stormy speed. This is the reason why the precise number of victims has never been established. Prior to the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944, almost 60,000 Jews perished as the consequence of individual deportations and local pogroms, and primarily as the result of forced-labor military service. According to postwar statistics, 618,000 Jews were killed after the occupation began. From this, the liquidation of half a million Jews can be unambiguously confirmed, while the fate of 150,000 remains unclear, though the majority of them were also victims of the Holocaust.

Thus, recent estimations do not contradict the 1946 statistics concerning the order of magnitude of the destruction, and one can agree with Professor Braham's decision not to devote major attention to the question of the "accurate" number of victims but to the process of the Holocaust itself. His work is characterized by consistent precision, but he is aware, as the preeminent expert on this issue, that one must get beyond the increasingly senseless dispute over figures.

Braham is also aware that the tragedy of the Jews in Hungary did not start with the German occupation. Although the backbone of his work is naturally the era that followed the occupation, his presentation of the subject starts historically, with the evolution of the modern Jewish question in Hungary. It is difficult to comprehend, not only emotionally, but also scientifically, why and how the fate of the Jews was characterized by such extreme changes throughout a period of nearly a century prior to the liquidation. A whole generation lived through a golden age before the turn of the century, then through an extremely antisernitic era after World War I, and then, directly before the Holocaust, experienced once again a kind of safe and protected island for Jews in Hungary.

In his introduction, the author explicitly states that he will endeavor to present an introduction to this extremely controversial severaldecade-long process. He cannot stop at the description of the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews but must also undertake an analysis of Hungarian history itself. The inevitability of this approach is stated by a Hungarian author, who put it this way: the perishing of Hungarian Jewry is not simply Jewish fate, but Hungarian history.2

This dual aspect in itself faced Braham with an extremely difficult task, for he had to formulate the central questions of Hungarian history for readers who probably know little about it. With this in mind, Braham broadly surveys Hungarian history since the 1867 AustroHungarian Compromise. As he approaches the tragic end, his treatment becomes more detailed and his analysis more finely shaded.

Formally, one might say that Braham begins his presentation by describing conditions during the age of dualism, then, after presenting the main events, quickly reaches the more direct historic preliminaries of the Holocaust, i.e., Hungary between the two world wars. In his description of Jewish assimilation before World War 1, that is, even while presenting the golden age, Braham cannot ignore the Hungarian Endlosung of half a century later. But the imposition of later facts on an earlier period can result in a historiography whose interpretations are subject to question.

In Hungary, one increasingly hears quoted a letter of 1903 written by Theodor Herzl, in which he seems to predict the tragic fate of Jewry in Hungary.3 This apparent prophecy may be held to justify the opinion of those who consider the large-scale assimilation of Hungarian Jews both initially mistaken and ultimately fatal. In other words, if HerzI, who was born in Budapest, had a foreboding and also pointed out the impossibility of escape, then in the 1980s to raise questions about assimilation at the turn of the century cannot be considered anachronistic.

However, this line of thought is extremely dangerous. It is only one step away from declaring that HerzI's fatal prophecy came true in the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews, and that Hungarian and German fascists were merely its executors. But HerzI did not and could not foresee the coming tragedy, a tragedy that did not distinguish between assimilated and nonassimilated Jews.

In fact, HerzI was not hinting at this later fate, as suggested by the quotation mentioned; he only assumed that the antisernitism of his age would not halt, in the long term, at the borders of the Hungarian kingdom. Six years earlier, during preparations for the Basel Congress, he surveyed in one of his articles the prevailing situation of European Jewry. The results of this survey were quite upsetting. He seemed to see only two oases in antisernitic Europe, Britain and Hungary. The English example was explained away by the insignificant number of Jews, not by English democracy. In the case of Hungary, he predicted that Hungarian ruling circles would soon halt Jewish immigration, revealing inconsistencies in their liberalism. His assumption was correct to the extent that debates about this took place in Hungary in fact precisely these debates inspired his pronouncement but his concrete prediction proved to be mistaken, for immigration was not restricted.

In fact, there are more complex questions at stake than simply the judgment of HerzI's prediction. In a work treating the Holocaust, one can surely mention the connections between Jewish assimilation and Hungarian modernization. Yet the prevailing notions about this seem rather one-sided, namely, that the Jewish bourgeoisie became distorted in some way and adjusted itself to the values of the ruling class.4 But there was actually a much more comprehensive "bargain." The policy of the liberal nobility regarding the modernization of the country as indispensable, was willing to give equal rights to the Jewish bourgeoisie, but demanded in return its national (not religious) assimilation. This requirement was also motivated by the dangers inherent in the multinational character of Hungary.

In the spirit of this unspoken bargain, the Jewish bourgeoisie accepted national ideals and occasionally even overidentified itself with aristocratic traditions. But the majority continued to adhere to bourgeois values and, in addition, played a leading role in bourgeois radical and bourgeois democratic movements.5 In other words, assimilation, which was almost total by the turn of the century, cannot be judged in retrospect. It can only be taken as the function of historic preliminaries and the economic and social conditions of the period.

It is an extremely difficult question, largely unilluminated, how far the liberalism of the ruling circles affected the whole of Hungarian society, but this question only became determinative in the period between the two world wars. The description of that period is the proper beginning of Braham's book. Braham directs his main attention to official government policy. However justified this emphasis is, its consequence is the somewhat sketchy treatment of the social background, for the large-scale spread of nationalism and antisernitism closely linked to it provided not only the preliminaries but the prerequisites for the 1944 tragedy. The excellent description of this tragedy in the subsequent chapters would have justified a broader approach.6

Braham, who is familiar with Hungarian history, is aware that the genuine beginning of his subject can be located at the end of the 1930s. He utilizes all available means to illustrate this fact appropriately. For example, in the chronological survey at the end of the volume, he lists by year the most important events after 1938, and in the text itself he forsakes the comprehensive style of depiction he has used until then for more detailed description; the title of the relevant chapter explicitly indicates the line he is pursuing: The Beginning of the End.

In the chapters that follow, the framework is provided by governmental policy. The prewar rearmament program and the gradual strengthening of a German orientation having been discussed in detail and Braham demonstrates clearly that this was not a personal issue, so that orientation meant not merely intentions, but also the forcible course of the Hungarian economy and policy. Braham then places two main questions in the foreground, territorial expansion and Jewish policy.

This emphasis is justified for many reasons. Territorial expansion changed the characteristics of the -Hungarian Jewish community. Within the frontiers of Hungary after Trianon, Jewry was relatively united and largely assimilated, a stratum in which liberal forces were in the majority. The Jews in the re- annexed areas were different. Here there were more closed Jewish communities, and orthodoxy was strong. This affected the self-image of Jews throughout Hungary: while earlier, assimilation was almost the only possibility, the reannexed areas strengthened the possibility of Zionist ideas, formerly minimal in influence.

On the other hand, precisely these territorial changes provided the foundation for the agitation that led to the approval of anti-Jewish laws. Thus territorial expansion, carried out with German approval and support, further narrowed the country's room to maneuver and this manifested itself most obviously in the different handling of Jewish policy.

A basically new situation emerged after these territorial changes. In the absence of any concrete interests, German orientation could have only very wobbly "ideological" bases (loyalty to the Axis allies and anti- Bolshevism); that is, there were no concrete interests sufficient for the ruling circles to have wanted to participate in a war. Thus, the grave failure that followed the initial military successes necessarily affected the government's policy, in which, in addition to feelers for a separate peace, it was the "Jewish question" that became the key element.

Certain inconsistencies could be observed in the government's Jewish policy. While during the last years of the 1930s and even later, Hungarian policy "led the way" with its anti-Jewish measures, during the increasingly decisive accomplishment of the Endlosung not only was the Hungarian government unwilling to step forward in this field, it even allowed a certain liberalism in the execution of earlier laws.

Braham describes in detail the diplomatic offensive that the German leadership carried out with increasing determination in order to involve Hungary in the "final solution." The government's consistent opposition for the time being saved Hungary's Jews from sharing the fate that befell European Jews of other nationalities. But because of this, the "Jewish question" grew beyond its own particular significance and became a function of peace efforts. To promote the willingness of the Allies to negotiate demanded a different approach to the Jewish question by Hungary, which was, as mentioned earlier, the provision of an island of safety.7 The same intentions can also be seen in the German demands, for by that time, it was not simply the spread of the "final solution" but the compromising of the Hungarian government in the eyes of the Allies that was desired.

After a subtle description of these intricate relations, as befits the subject, Braham again changes his approach. After having introduced the concrete system of political connections, he then focuses on the fate of the Hungarian Jews. This is how we reach one climax of the volume, the description of the fate of the forced laborers.

In presenting the German occupation, the beginning of the end, Braham again takes a new turn. Until this point, we have admired how securely he guided his readers through the maze of complex and intricate political relations. He now astonishes us by a description that extends to the most minute details. His task was extremely difficult, for even determining the facts themselves is not easy. Little information is available to the researcher, and he had to assemble his picture of the events in the manner of a mosaic from tiny pieces. It is fascinating to watch as the mosaic emerges, and it is truly remarkable how precisely he can reconstruct from it the tragic fate of Hungarian Jewry.

We have mentioned the kinds of difficulties that Braham had to overcome. The moral questions linked with the Holocaust in Hungary are no less significant and no less difficult. Can the question of the responsibility of Jewish leaders of that time be raised in connection with the genocide of the Jews? In the Eichmann trial, Gideon Hausner avoided this,8 while Hannah Arendt discussed the responsibility of the Jewish Council in Budapest in connection with the trial.9

The role of the Jewish Council is an extremely vexed question in every country. It is still unclear whether the ominous joke about the Jewish Council came to Budapest from Holland or from Poland. Obviously, leading Jewish politicians in Budapest bore more responsibility, because they were the last and thus already possessed information. Leading Jewish politicians were taken to court after the war in other countries also charged with collaboration but the attempts to make them answerable did not take place anywhere so dramatically as in Hungary.

All these politicians ultimately had quite different fates. Otto Komoly, the leader of the Zionists, died as a martyr, while the majority were compromised. Bela Berend was tried in Budapest; as a war criminal, he was first sentenced to imprisonment for ten years, and then, in a still inexplicable manner, he was acquitted. Berend settled in the United States and takes anybody to court who dares put his name in writing-naturally, he also sued Braham. His main accomplice, according to many including Braham, was Zoltan Bosnydk, the champion of antisernitism in Hungary, who disappeared after the war without a trace. However, according to recent information, he was executed in Hungary in 1952. It is still unclear what his confession about Berend contained. Rezso Kasztner was tried morally by the court in Israel, charged, and did not live to enjoy his later acquittalhe was killed. The appearance of Fulop Freudiger in the Eichmann trial caused a dramatic scene.

All this only indicates what subsequent personal tragedies Braham was confronted with. However, he succeeded in surrounding the sea of emotions, and he treated these questions with his customary composure and objectivity. He does not hold another court trial, but his analysis, in a manner worthy of a historian, appears in a chapter appropriately called "The Conspiracy of Silence." Since then, John S. Conway has written a special study of this issue indicating that the dispute has never been settled.10

The question of Hungarian and/or German responsibility is also pertinent. The disputes and mutual accusations started before the end of the war. The Germans shot a film at Nagyvarad about the brutality of the Hungarian gendarmes, while the Hungarians participating in the deportations placed the responsibility on the Germans in their explanation to the Jewish leaders in the summer of 1944.

After the war, Jewish survivors raised this question. Similar voices raised from the Christian side, such as that of Albert Bereczky, a Protestant pastor, or of Istvan Bibo, a politician in the Peasants Party, ceased or were silenced. A long silence followed, and all attempts to raise the question of Hungarian responsibility were drowned in this silence. Consequently, it is only after forty years that a nation has its first opportunity to confront the most shameful period of its history. This also holds true in regard to the Christian churches.

Nonetheless, this does not mean that Braham's book can be placed in opposition to Hungarian historiography, although there are already and most probably will be such attempts. Because it is not as if Hungarian historiography hushed up the facts of the Holocaust this is contravened by the numerous references and notes cited by Braham. Partly it neglected the preliminaries (and thus it is not accidental that this paper has dealt largely with the preliminaries); on the other hand, it accepted too easily the premise that the known facts should fall victim to a type of collective amnesia, Verdrangung.

Readers interested in the history of Jewry in Hungary were not surprised that after almost thirty years of research this work was written by Randolph L. Braham. He attracted attention earlier, with the elaboration of certain "partial questions"11 and with two other major publications whose effects were substantial. In one work he covered the German archival sources12 with his customary precision, and in the other he published the most extensive annotated bibliography13 to date about the Holocaust in Hungary.

Commemorations and publications in connection with the fortieth anniversary of the deportations in Hungary drew particular attention to the work of Braham. Under the impact of these commemorations and The Politics of Genocide, which is now inseparable from them, Hungarian public opinion became more open and interested. From the Hungarian point of view, this is one of the major achievements of Braham's work. But however great its effect, only the publication of the book in Hungarian can have a direct impact. It is to be hoped that this will happen sooner rather than later.


1. The title of this essay was also the title of the first comprehensive work about the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry: Jeno Levai, Zsidosors Magyarorszdgon (Budapest, 1948). An earlier summary by Levai was also published in English: Eugene Levai Black Book on the Martyrdom of Hungarian Jewry (Zurich, 1948).

2. Maria Ember, Hajuikanyar (Hairpin-bend) (Budapest, 1977).

3. Among other places, it is quoted in the introduction to an interview with Braham, "Magyar Endlosung-Hungarian Endlosung. An Interview with Radolph L. Braham, A Historian in New York," bet es Irodalom (15 June 1984). The ominous excerpt from the letter written to Erno Mezei, a respected Hungarian- Jewish politician, goes as follows: "The hand of fate will also reach the Hungarian Jews. The later this happens and the stronger the Jewish trunk is-the harder will be the blow with which it will be mercilessly struck. There is no escape."

4. In connection with Braham's book, the same view was presented in Istv6n Deak, "Could the Hungarian Jews Have Survived?" New York Review of Books (4 February 1982).

5. See William McCagg, Jewish Nobles and Geniuses in Modern Hungary (Boulder, 1972). This duality was reflected in the strange sound of Hungarian titles of nobility in front of Jewish-German family names. A characteristic example of the dissonance is the coat-of-arms of Manfred Weiss of Csepel, one of the most important industrialists in Hungary. On it one sees not only the requisites of the traditional medieval noble coat-of-arms (e.g., the lion), but also the requisites of bourgeois values (e.g., a ballbearing) as well as two Stars of David.

6. See Deak, "Could the Hungarian Jews Have Survived?"

7. Naturally, we can only speak of an "island" in comparison with the occupied countries or with the German allies.

8. Gideon Hausner, justice in Jerusalem (New York, 1966).

9. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil (New York, 1963).

10. John S. Conway. "Der Holocaust in Ungarn: Neue Kontroversen und Oberlegungen," Vierteljahrshefte fur Zeitgeschichte 32 (1984): 179-212.

11. Braham's earlier publications are: "The Holocaust in Hungary: An Historical Interpretation of the Role of the Hungarian Radical Right," Societas 2 (1972): 195- 220; "The Destruction of the Jews of Carpatho-Ruthenia," Hungarian-Jewish Studies 1 (1966): 223-35; "The Kamanets Podolsk and Delvidek Massacres: Prelude to the Holocaust in Hungary," Yad Vashem Studies 9 (1973): 133-56; "The Role of the Jewish Council in Hungary: A Tentative Assessment," ibid. 10 (1974): 69-109; "The Jewish Question in German-Hungarian Relations during the Kallay Era," Jewish Social Studies 39 (1977):183-208; "The Treatment of Hungarian Jews in German-Occupied Europe," Yad Vashem Studies 12 (1977): 125-46; The Hungarian Labor Service System, 1939-1945 (Boulder, 1977).

12. The Destruction of Hungarian Jewry: A Documentary Account, 2 vols. (New York, 1963).

13. The Hungarian Jewish Catastrophe: A Selected and Annotated Bibliography (New York, 1962).

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