Even though some 10,000 soldiers of the “Israelite faith” lost their lives on the battlefields, traditional antisemitism continued to grow after World War I: Hungarian Jews were accused of sabotaging military service, cowardice, black marketeering, and fraud in military deliveries. Polemics about the “Jewish question” flared up in the contemporary press, the most influential being a survey of leaders of public opinion in Hungary, conducted and published by the Huszadik Század (Twentieth Century; the most important social scientific periodical of the time, edited by Oszkár Jászi) in 1917.
As a consequence of losing World War I, greater Hungary was dismembered and greatly reduced in both geographic size and population. Bourgeois radicals and social democrats, many of whom were Jewish or Jewish-born intellectuals, gained an important role in the bourgeois revolution led by Mihály Károlyi. This provoked a negative reaction from the public that only intensified when the Communists under Béla Kun (who was Jewish) took power in March 1919.
While Jews or those of Jewish origin had served as ministers in the Károlyi government, their proportion among the highest echelons of the Hungarian Soviet Republic was unprecedented. Of the 29 members of the Revolutionary Governing Council, 19 were Jews. Similar proportions obtained among leaders and activists in the countryside. The Bolshevik attempt failed by the end of July 1919 due to internal difficulties and foreign intervention, and after a short time, the national army—composed of right-wing antirevolutionary radicals and adherents of the old system led by Admiral Miklós Horthy—took power.
Only a small fraction of Hungarian Jews participated in the revolutions; the majority, who were middle class, opposed the Commune from its very first days and some actively supported counterrevolutionary activities. Nevertheless, antisemitism flared up in wide-ranging sectors of Hungarian society to an even greater extent than before. Anticommunist and anti-Jewish atrocities in the central region of the country and the towns and villages of Transdanubia accompanied the establishment of the regime in August 1919. The antisemitic acts were meant as retribution for the “Red Terror” that in reality had had many more Jewish than non-Jewish victims (the number of Jews was estimated to be about 3,000).
There were several reasons for this “new” antisemitism: the search for a scapegoat to blame for the defeat in World War I; negative sentiments raised by difficulties experienced by Hungarian refugees from successor states; economic competition; the prominence of Jews in economic and cultural life; and the role some Jews—or those perceived to be Jewish—played in the revolutions. The most vital ingredient of anti-Jewish sentiment was the manner in which Hungary was established anew following the loss of national territories: national integration was now based on ethnic principles.
After the stabilization of the political situation in 1921, violent antisemitic acts subsided but Hungarian society continued to be characterized by nationalistic, right-wing and anti-Jewish attitudes. The new government’s policy—contrary to the earlier prewar liberal period—remained openly antisemitic. The Horthy regime tried simultaneously to consolidate and repress Hungarian Jewry as much as possible. One of the means of achieving this was to limit Jewish access to higher education.
In 1920, influenced by antisemitic student movements and conservative Christian circles, the National Assembly passed the first “Jewish Law” in post–World War I Europe, the so-called numerus clausus law (Article XXV; 1920). While Jews were not mentioned explicitly and the law employed categories of nationality and race, it was aimed principally at Jews (who until then had never been defined legally in such terms). The numerus clausus placed a ceiling of 6 percent (corresponding to the percentage of Jews in the general population) on the percentage of Jewish students allowed in institutes of higher education. This law, silently designating Hungarian Jewry as a racial–national minority, posed a great blow for proassimilation Jews who had proclaimed their loyalty to the Hungarian nation. It came despite the fact that official representatives of the Hungarian Jewish Community—at the request of the government—refrained from turning to the League of Nations for help; they did not ask them to pressure the Hungarian government to withdraw this measure, and even went so far as to distance themselves from such initiatives by some international Jewish organizations.
Owners and workers of the Rosenfeld Brothers, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, Nagykőrös, ca. 1930s. The inset portrait is of Sandor Rosenfeld, a son of the business’s founder. (Centropa)
The situation of the Jewish community gradually stabilized under Prime Minister István Bethlen (1921–1931); negative reactions triggered by anti-Jewish policies also subsided. Although the assimilation of Hungarian Jewry continued apace, Hungarian society underestimated its extent and in any event now considered it undesirable. In the second half of the 1920s and the first half of the 1930s, the political elite willingly agreed that there was a “Jewish question” that needed to be “solved” and only quoted pragmatic reasons for attempting to moderate the antisemitic demands of the ultra right wing. Such reasons included the economic role of Jewry, reactions from abroad, difficulties in carrying out the restrictive measures, and the problem of the successor states. Despite protests by Hungarian Jewish organizations, the numerus clausus law stayed in effect for many years, although it is true that in some cases (especially at universities in the countryside) its implementation was limited. After lengthy negotiations, the law was finally modified in 1928 but not fully eliminated; greater emphasis was placed on the percentage of certain socioeconomic and professional groups.
In 1928, Jews as a religious group gained representation for the first time in the upper house of parliament. Immánuel Löw, the rabbi of Szeged, was elected to represent the Neolog community; Koppel Reich, the rabbi of the Orthodox community in Budapest, represented the Orthodox. In 1927, the Zionist Alliance was permitted to renew its activities. In the mid-1930s, the movement had perhaps just 4,000–5,000 members; subsequently, this number grew to 10,000–12,000. In addition, an organization flourished in which Zionists and non-Zionists could cooperate along philanthropic lines to aid the Yishuv in Palestine.
In the interwar period, Hungarian Jewry underwent radical demographic, social, and economic changes. As a consequence of the loss of territories (constituting 71.5% of pre-Trianon Hungary) the Jewish population of Hungary dropped from 910,000 in 1910 to just 473,000. The majority were middle-class craft workers, merchants, and entrepreneurs as well as highly skilled workers and intellectuals. Their absolute and relative numbers continued to decrease in the decades that followed; the ratio of younger Jews (up to age 20) decreased, while the share of the older Jewish population increased. Jews were moving to cities and especially to the capital at an increasing speed: more than half of Hungarian Jewry now lived in greater Budapest, making it the second largest Jewish community in Europe. In Hungary, 65 percent belonged to the Neolog trend, 29 percent were Orthodox (most of the large Orthodox Jewish communities were annexed to the successor states after World War I) and 5 percent were Status Quo Ante.
Young rabbis, Budapest, ca. 1934. (Seated, third from left) József Katona, future chief rabbi of the Dohány Synagogue. (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Ferenc Katona)
The situation of Jewry continued to be relatively quiet even after the resignation of Bethlen, when Hungary continued to have increasingly right-wing governments. Following the mid-1930s, however, there was another sharp antisemitic turn. This was caused by several factors: the rise of groups that opposed the economic and intellectual influence of Jews (government officials, military officers, a wide range of middle-class people who suffered from uncertainty), the strengthening of movements expecting help from Nazi Germany in achieving their revisionist goals, as well as the appearance of the Arrow Cross movement. As a result of (ultra) right-wing propaganda that transposed urgent economic and social issues into a “racial question,” the “Jewish question” again was addressed on the governmental level.
The draft of the First Jewish Law, submitted on 8 April 1938, limited to 20 percent the ratio of Jews in the free professions, in administrative jobs, and as employees of commercial and industrial companies. (Jewish now was defined to include those who had converted after 1919 or were born to Jewish parents after this time.) The opposition parties strongly attacked this draft; nevertheless, it was ratified by both houses of parliament (Act XV of 1938). The Second Jewish Law (Act IV of 1939) was announced on 5 May 1939; this legislation extended the definition of Jewish on a racial basis and further limited the economic activities of those considered Jews. The ratio of 20 percent set by the First Jewish Law was reduced to 6 percent.
Official Jewish organizations, especially the Pest Israelite Community, launched wide-ranging social activities to help Jews who had thus been pushed out of economic life. Those affected by the law also tried to find ways of circumventing it. The number of conversions grew (some 5,000 Jews converted after the passing of the First Jewish Law), the number of “Christian” employees began to grow in “Jewish” companies, and some people tried to circumvent the law by signing fictitious contracts that “Aryanized” their companies.
The first (1938) and second (1940) Vienna Decisions increased the size of Hungary. Consequently, while in 1930 there had been 444,567 Jews living within the borders of post-Trianon Hungary, the census taken on 31 January 1941 showed that of the 14,683,323 total population, 725,007 were Jews, of whom 184,453 lived in Budapest. After Yugoslavia dissolved in 1941, some 20,000 additional Jews came under Hungarian jurisdiction. The racist Third Jewish Law (Act XV of 1941) prohibited sexual encounters between Jews and Christians and classified another 58,320 people who did not profess Judaism. In reality, the number of Christians of Jewish origin was much greater than this number: by mid-1941 it may have exceeded 85,000.
Hungarian Jewry suffered its first losses in July 1941, when 16,000–18,000 Jews of questionable citizenship were deported to Ukraine, then under German rule. Most were murdered near Kam’ianets’-Podil’s’kyi. The second great loss came in January 1942, when Hungarian gendarmes and soldiers murdered some 800 Jews in Bácska while pursuing Serb partisans. In 1940–1941, Jews were excluded from regular military service and were required to perform forced labor service. By November 1942, forced labor became obligatory for all Jewish males between the ages of 24 and 33. After the attack of the Soviet Union, forced labor units were also sent to the front, where their numbers gradually grew to 50,000. After the great breakthrough of the Red Army by the Don River (in January 1943), some 40,000–43,000 forced laborers had died or fallen into Russian captivity.
The situation of the forced labor units remaining in Hungary improved somewhat, especially after 10 March 1942 when the pro-German Prime Minister László Bárdossy was succeeded by the somewhat more moderate, conservative Miklós Kállay. In July 1942, parliament downgraded Judaism from a “received” confession to a “recognized” one, and in September Kállay released an order that permitted land to be confiscated from Jews and property in the countryside to be cleansed of Jews.
Members of a Hungarian Jewish forced labor battalion constructing a road, Cluj, Romania (formerly, Kolozsvár, Hun.) 1943. (United States Memorial Museum, courtesy of George Pick)
By early 1943, the government initiated a program to eliminate all Jews from public and cultural life, and a policy was implemented limiting the percentage of Jews in the economy to 6 percent (the familiar percentage of Jews in the general population). Land owned or rented by Jews was almost entirely confiscated, and “race-protecting” legislation separated Jews from the rest of Hungarian society. As the situation worsened early in 1944 and Hungary began reaching out to the Allies, Hitler ordered the military occupation of Hungary. The Hungarian Holocaust, the destruction of the majority of the so-far intact Hungarian Jewry, was the consequence of the invasion on 19 March. Its beginning was symbolized by the appearance of the Eichmann Commando in Budapest between 19 and 21 March.
On 22 March, Döme Sztójay formed a new government consisting mainly of extreme pro-Nazi elements. Interior Minister Andor Jaross was assigned the handling of Jewish affairs; practical steps, however, were coordinated by undersecretaries László Baky and László Endre. Jewish organizations were dissolved all over the country and on 20 March, a Jewish council consisting of eight members was set up in Budapest at the command of the occupying Germans in order to handle the affairs of the Jewish community.
After 29 March, the Sztójay government issued more than 100 anti-Jewish orders aimed at the total exclusion of Jews, obliging those perceived to be Jewish to wear a yellow star. Jews were ex-cluded from all public activity and a variety of jobs, their stores were closed, and income over 3,000 pengő was confiscated along with cars, bicycles, radios, and telephones. In April, a decision was made to ghettoize and then to deport Jews. The gendarmerie, together with local administrative authorities, began isolating Jews in ghettos in the eastern parts of Hungary and in northern Transylvania. This was followed by the “concentration” of Jews in the rest of Hungary, except for Budapest. They were first gathered in a temporary pool and later forced into larger central ghettos.
Deportations began on 15 May. Hungarian and German authorities organized the process jointly, but transporting Jews to the northern borders was the task of the Hungarian government. Between 15 May and 7 June, approximately 290,000 people were transported from Zone I (Subcarpathia) and Zone II (Northern Transylvania). By the end of June, more than 50,000 people were deported from Zone III, consisting of northwestern Hungary and the territories north of Budapest. The Jews of Zone IV (the Great Plains and Central Transdanubia)—about 41,000 people—were also deported by the end of June. The last phase was the deportation of more than 55,000 Jews living in Zone V (Transdanubia and the suburbs of Budapest) by 9 July. A total of 437,402 Jews were deported, the majority (95%) to Auschwitz. Those able to work (perhaps 10%) were selected there and sent to concentration camps all over the Reich.
The behavior of the overwhelming majority of the Hungarian population was characterized by indifference; modest sympathy protests and rescue attempts were the exception. It was primarily the churches that had the opportunity to rescue people. The authorities exempted several hundred Jews from deportation based on their military or other merits. As a result of the agreement between the Relief and Rescue Committee (formed in 1943 by Rezső [Rudolf] Kasztner, Ottó Komoly, and others) and Adolf Eichmann, some transports—altogether about 15,000 people, mainly from Debrecen, Szeged, and Szolnok—were taken to Austria. These transports were not affected by selection; families were allowed to stay together and the majority survived the ordeal. As part of the “blood for goods” negotiations with Eichmann, Kasztner also arranged that on 30 June 1944 some 1,684 Jews would be permitted to travel to Switzerland for a fee of $1,000 each. On 25 June 1944, the Ministry of the Interior ordered the concentration of the approximately 220,000 Budapest Jews in 2,000 houses marked with a yellow star in several districts of the capital. Their situation improved unexpectedly when on 6 July Horthy halted further deportations as a result of changes in the military situation and international protests.
In August, the situation of the Jews further improved as General Géza Lakatos formed a new government, less servile to the Germans, with the intention of preparing a truce with the Allied Forces. On 15 October, however, the Nazis helped Ferenc Szálasi’s Arrow Cross Party take power. They immediately launched anti-Jewish terror. Forced labor units were sent to western Hungary; on 6 November, they set off a group consisting of approximately 25,000 Budapest Jews on foot toward Hegyeshalom near the Austrian border. Others—altogether an estimated 50,000 to 60,000 people—later followed this group. Together with the forced laborers, some 75,000 Jews worked at the foot of the Alps building the defense line against the Russians during the winter of 1944–1945.
Members of the diplomatic corps in Hungary attempted to pressure the Szálasi government, which sought international diplomatic acceptance. Still, Jews remaining in Budapest were divided into two groups: starting in mid-November, the majority were moved into the central or large ghetto, while a smaller group found refuge in the so-called international ghetto under the protection of neutral countries.
Organized resistance did not achieve a grand scale. One form of resistance was the activity of the Zionist ḥaluts rescue movement that provided false identification papers and helped those in need with money, food, and clothes, and by rescuing and hiding people. Rescue operations by diplomats of some neutral countries were much more effective. Embassies of neutral countries that remained in Budapest issued tens of thousands of safe-conduct passes to the persecuted; these documents stated that their owners were under the protection of that country. The Zionist underground then duplicated many certificates. Principal figures in the rescue operation were Angelo Rotta, the papal nuncio to Hungary; Swiss diplomat Charles Lutz; the Italian Giorgo Perlasca; and the Swede Raoul Wallenberg, who was abducted by the Soviets after they occupied Budapest.
By mid-January 1945, in addition to some tens of thousands of Jews hiding with friends, acquaintances, or in deserted apartments, there were about 70,000 people in the large ghetto and 30,000–35,000 in the international ghetto of Budapest. From the time of the Arrow Cross seizure of power until the Russian occupation of the city on 18 January 1945, some 100,000 Jews of Budapest lost their lives in death marches, forced transports, and mass murders committed by Arrow Cross units, and because of epidemics, hunger, and suicide. Out of the 825,000–850,000 Hungarian citizens “considered Jewish” (ca. 5.4% of the total population), the total number of victims of the Hungarian Holocaust is estimated to be 565,000; of these, 297,000 were from the post-Trianon territory of the country. More than 40 percent of Budapest Jewry and about 75 percent of Jews from the countryside perished.
Randolph L. Braham, ed., Hungarian-Jewish Studies, 3 vols. (New York, 1966–1973); Randolph L. Braham, The Hungarian Labor Service System, 1939–1945 (Boulder, 1977); Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, 2 vols., rev. and enl. ed. (New York, 1994); Asher Cohen, The Halutz Resistance in Hungary, 1942–1944, trans. Carl Alpert (Boulder, 1986); László Gonda, A zsidóság Magyarországon, 1526–1945 (Budapest, 1992); János Gyurgyák, A zsidókérdés Magyarországon (Budapest, 2001); Nathaniel Katzburg, Hungary and the Jews: Policy and Legislation, 1920–1943 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 1981); Nathaniel Katzburg, Fejezetek az újkori zsidó történelemből Magyarországon (Budapest, 1999); Raphael Patai, The Jews of Hungary: History, Culture, Psychology (Detroit, 1996).