During the Holocaust, Hungary had a unique situation concerning its Jewish citizens. In order to understand and appreciate the horrific events of World War II, it is important to know the Jewish history of the country.
The Jewish history in Hungary extends to the 2nd or 3rd century A.D., when the first Jewish people came to the area, mainly from Rome. Artifacts dating to 225 have been uncovered, showing a strong Jewish community long before the Magyars conquered the area in 896. When King István I adopted Christianity, declaring it the official religion, he also guaranteed the right to religious freedom, including the practice of Judaism. Religious freedom continued through the Árpád dynasty until it ended in 1301. András II, under pressure from the pope, created a prohibition on mixed marriages in the Golden Bull of 1222, an edict establishing the rights of noblemen. During his reign, he also restricted Jewish people from national and public office, forcing them to wear signs proclaiming their religion. Due to the economic services they provided, some remained in their appointed posts; one example is Count Teka, who was the Jewish royal chamberlain.
Under threat of invasion by the Mongols, King Béla IV implored Pope Gregory IX in 1239 to allow him to relax the laws, so the national revenues could be controlled by Jews. Béla accomplished this, so during his reign and the reign of his son, István V, there were many Hungarian coins minted with Hebrew characters inscribed on them. This attests to the privileged position of the Jews during this time.
Jewish and Hungarian history has been intertwined for centuries, with the Jews being the welcomed people or the outcasts, flipping back and forth. It was not until the early 20th century that Hungarian Jews were able to hold political positions, but even then, they were not able to make strongholds in creating changes.
The Hungarian regent, Miklós Horthy, of the right-wing Christianized government was in power from 1920 to 1944 and was heavily influenced by the Germans. He and the economic situation at the time pushed the country toward fascism. The Jews realized that efforts to assimilate had been in vain. Horthy aligned Hungary with the Germans and Italians. He had them promise that the land lost due to the Trianon Treaty after World War I would be returned to Hungary. As Hungary aligned with Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini, the Jews were no longer in a position to strive for equality. Horthy had come to an agreement with Hitler to save the Hungarian Jews; however, Jews from all over the country were rounded up and many sent to Budapest to live in abandoned factories or "star houses" which were eventually ghettos. They lost everything.
SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann was the official head of deportations from the countryside that started in March 1944. During the last 2 months of World War II, Hungarian police, who were feeling the pressure of Soviet troops getting closer, successfully rounded up and deported 440,000 Jews in more than 145 trains heading primarily to Auschwitz. Thousands of others were sent as workers to dig fortification trenches on the Hungary-Austria border. Those who could not be deported in time were lined up along the Danube by German soldiers and shot in the back, their bodies falling into the river. Those who were killed at the Dohány Synagogue were buried on the grounds, against Jewish law.
Horthy, recognizing that the Axis Powers were not going to win the war, started secret negotiations with the Allied Powers. When this came to light in mid-May 1944, the German Security Police, with the assistance of the Hungarian authorities, methodically began to deport Hungarian Jews. Horthy, under threat of war-crime trials by the leaders of the Allied Powers, decided to stop the deportations on July 7, 1944. The following month, he dissolved his government, trying to create a resolution agreement with the Soviets, who were at Hungary's borders. After finalizing his negotiations with the Soviet commanders in October, Horthy was arrested by the Germans. They created a new government headed by Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the fascist and radically anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party.
Under the Arrow Cross regime, members of the party terrorized the Jewish population. Men and women were murdered by the hundreds. Hundreds more died from the brutal conditions of forced labor inflicted upon them. By November 1944, the Arrow Cross rounded up the balance of the 70,000 Jews in Budapest and forced them into a ghetto within an area of .3sq. km (.1sq. mile). During November and December of the same year, several thousand more were forced to march from Budapest to the Austrian border. Those who could not keep up were shot along the way.
In January 1945, Soviet forces were in Pest and had signed a ceasefire. They liberated the Buda side of the city on February 13, 1945, driving out the last of the German troops and their Arrow Cross compatriots by early April 1945.
In 1941, Hungary was home to approximately 825,000 Jews, but 63,000 were killed before the Germans arrived in March 1944. An additional 500,000 died under the Germans from murder or maltreatment. Less than one-third of the total Jewish population of Hungary prior to the war survived the Holocaust; about 255,000 Jews survived.
Many of the survivors owe a debt of gratitude to the Hungarian intellectual class and to government employees of neutral countries who intervened on their behalf, risking their lives in the process. The best known among them was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who processed thousands of Swedish protectorate passports for Jews, so they could escape to Sweden safely. He was arrested by the Soviets in January 1947 and never heard from again. Under pressure, the Soviets claimed he died of a heart attack while in prison, yet this was never confirmed. Carl Lutz of Switzerland, as Swiss vice-consul to Hungary, saved Hungarian Jews from deportation by allowing them to immigrate to Palestine under protection of a Swiss safe-conduct, where he housed them in buildings that he declared part of the Swiss delegation. Ángel Sanz Briz was sent to Budapest in 1942 where it is estimated that he saved 5,200 Jews from the Holocaust through his influence as a Spanish diplomat and by using the Spanish embassy. He was aided by Giorgio Perlasca, an Italian veteran of the Spanish Civil War who was ordered to leave Budapest in 1944 but continued working with fake documents asserting he was a Spanish diplomat. Angelo Rotta, a Catholic priest and a member of the Vatican diplomatic corps, issued 15,000 protection letters to Hungarian Jews and gave them baptismal certificates from the Catholic Church. Friedrich Born, a Swiss citizen working for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), recruited 3,000 Jews as workers in his offices and declared those offices to be under protection of the ICRC.
Several Hungarians were recognized as saviors of the Jews. Margit Slachta, who founded the religious order the Sisters of Social Service, was instrumental in saving many Jewish lives. She was an avid protester, raising objections against racial persecution, the anti-Jewish laws, and the deportations. Mother Slachta traveled to Rome in 1943 to appeal to Pope Pius XII to intercede against the persecution of Jews. From the spring of 1944, the mission of the sisters was fully directed at helping the Jews. They hid as many as 1,000. One sister, Sára Salkaházi, was murdered by Arrow Cross men on December 27, 1944. She was awarded the title "Righteous among the Nations" in 1969; Sister Margit received the honor 12 years after her death, in 1986.
General Tibor Almásy was an officer in the Hungarian army during World War II. He provided food, medical assistance, and certificates for his Jewish soldiers and was recognized as "Righteous among the Nations" in 1987. Because of his actions, he was arrested and imprisoned in March 1944. Following his release, he was commissioned as the garrison commander of Sopron's prison camp, where 400 Jews were forced laborers. Almásy reassured them that he would protect them as long as he was in charge. When he was ordered to exterminate his servicemen by the Arrow Cross, he saved them by declaring a typhoid quarantine of the entire barracks and erecting huge signs that said DANGER, TYPHOID FEVER: ENTRANCE FORBIDDEN.
Dr. József Antall, the father of a former Hungarian prime minister, was awarded the title "Righteous among the Nations" in 1989, posthumously. As head of the Department of Refugees and the Ministry of Interior, he issued legal permits for thousands of Jewish refugees from other occupied countries to stay in Hungary while at the same time Christianizing them. He opened a boarding school in Vác for Jewish children who had lost their parents. He was arrested by the Gestapo only to be released in September 1944.
Daily life did not improve for the Hungarian Jews after the war was over. When the Communists came to power in 1948, many of the middle class, including a great number of Jews, were either deported or sent to labor camps. The Jews of the lower classes struggled to survive financially. Their shops were closed or their business licenses were withdrawn, causing further hardships. Religious practices were strictly regulated and limited to ceremonies within the synagogue. It was impossible to raise children in the traditional ways.
Many Jews took part in the unsuccessful revolution of October 23, 1956, including Auschwitz survivor, István Angyal. He, among other Jews, was executed. International relations between Israel and Hungary were abolished and reinstated a number of times. As of 1994, they both abolished visa requirements between the two countries and now have a free trade agreement. This has created a boom in Jewish tourism to Hungary. Today, there are approximately 100,000 Jews living in Hungary, with 80-90% living in Budapest itself, making this the largest population of Jews in Europe.
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