Day by day, week by week, we will in the next few months experience the 70th anniversary of the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Some 17,000 so-called 'alien Jews,' were seized by the Hungarian authorities in July and August of 1941, and deported to Ukraine and massacred. Approximately 1,000 Jews in Novi Sad and other areas of the Felvedik region were massacred by Hungarian military units. The approximately 725,007 Jews under Hungarian rule were intact and apparently secure when on March 19, 1944, the Germans invaded and occupied Hungary. Now there is no better way in which to describe the destruction of Hungarian Jewry than with the words of the foremost scholar of the Holocaust in Hungary, Randolph L. Braham.
The Holocaust in Hungary was in many respects distinct from the tragedies that befell other Jewish communities in Nazi-dominated Europe. This distinction is reflected in the disastrous set of historical circumstances that combined to doom Hungarian Jewry in 1944.
The destruction of Hungarian Jewry during that year constitutes one of the most perplexing chapters in the history of the Holocaust.It is a tragedy that should never have happened.By the beginning of 1944-on the eve of Allied victory-the leaders of the world, including the national and Jewish leaders of Hungary, were already privy to the secrets of Auschwitz. Moreover, except for a few diehards who still believed in Hitler's last-minute wonder-weapons, even the perpetrators realized that the Axis had lost the war.
The segregation and isolation of Hungarian Jews began on April 15, with the imposition of travel restrictions, the confiscation of telephones and radios, and finally with their marking. After April 15, it was compulsory for all Jews to wear a yellow badge Star of David, 3.8 x 3.8inches. Beginning on the first day of Passover, April 16, the Jews of Carpathian Ruthenia and Northeastern Hungary were ghettoized. The deportation of Hungarian Jews began on May 15, and lasted until July 9. During this period, 434,351 Jews were deported from the countryside to Auschwitz. They were largely Orthodox and Hasidic Jews from Carpathian Ruthenia, and Northeastern Hungary. They were followed by the Jews of Northern Transylvania. This deportation took place from 55 major ghettos and concentration centers in 147 trains composed of hermetically sealed freight cars. In late June, approximately 17,500 Jews were deported to Auschwitz from Budapest.
The common ashen burial ground of the Jews of Hungary is in the Polish town of Oswiecim. Like some other towns in Western Poland, the Germans erased the Polish name and gave it a German name. That name is Auschwitz. Auschwitz, the mass killing center, was the third stage in the murder process of European Jewry. The first was the mobile killing unit stage, the Einsatz-Gruppen which began murdering Jews on June 24, 1941; two days after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. The mobile killing units operated from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea in the south.
From the summer of 1941 through the fall of that year, approximately 1.7 million Jews were murdered. Included in that number were the 33,700 Jews of Kyiv, murdered in two days, Sept. 28 and 29, Yom Kippur, 1941. They were murdered at Babi Yar, the largest mass urban murder site in Europe. Following that, the Germans understood that killing so many Jews by gun and burying them was messy and left behind evidence. And so they went to the second stage of the murder process. This was known as the Operation Reinhard Camps, memorializing the name of Reinhard Heydrich, the German butcher who was assassinated by Czech partisans in the spring of 1942. The Operation Reinhard Camps were Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, in which approximately 1.8 million Jews were murdered from the early summer 1942, into the winter of 1943. These three death camps had no barracks. Jews did not stay overnight.
Treblinka is the burial ground of the more than 350,000 Jews of Warsaw. The third stage was the Auschwitz mass killing center phase, in which approximately 1.5 million people were murdered. The overwhelming majority were Jews, the largest group coming from Hungary and Romania. The mass killing center phase began functioning as the Operation Reinhard phase came to an end. The mass killing center was established at Auschwitz in southwestern Poland because of its access to railroad lines and its proximity to the largest group of as yet un-murdered Jews of Europe, the Jews of Hungary.
By the time the deportations ended Hungary was already Judenrein, cleansed of Jews, with the exception of Budapest. Since June of 1944, the Jews of Budapest were confined to living in buildings designated with a yellow star. This frightening, but relatively safe time for the Jews of Budapest, ended on Oct. 15, 1944, when the Hungarian Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party, came to power. Many Jews were taken to the banks of the Danube River. They were shot. During the Soviet siege of Budapest nearly 70,000 Jews were ordered into the ghetto. Though liberated on January 17-18, 1945, nevertheless thousands died as a result of disease, starvation, and cold.
Among the Jews deported from the rural areas of Hungary between April 16 and July 9, was a young Hassidic yeshiva student Elie Wiesel. His lament for Hungarian Jewry on his first night in Auschwitz became the lament of the Jewish people.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky…
Rabbi Yehiel E. Poupko is rabbinic scholar of the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago.