Category Archives: Raoul Wallenberg

The Holocaust in Hungary

Budapest, Ferenc Szálasi


Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

Historian Leni Yahil estimates that in 1941 there were approximately 762,000 Jews living in Hungary, about a fourth of whom lived in Budapest. (The Holocaust, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, 506). Under pressure from Nazi Germany, the conservative regime of Admiral Miklos Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay instituted some anti-Semitic measures modeled after the Nuremberg Laws. However, up to 1944 Horthy didn’t agree with the Nazi policy of deporting and exterminating Hungarian Jews. The Communist politician Bela Vago described the Horthy regime as a contradictory mixture of authoritarianism and some openness to democratic input; of anti-Semitic attitudes and relative tolerance towards the native Jewish population in Hungary:

“This was one of the paradoxical phenomena of the Hungarian regime, which contained a mixture of vestiges of feudalism with democratic-parliamentary elements; the authoritarianism of a quasi-fascistic regime with tolerance towards the democratic opposition; an official anti-Semitic policy with tolerance toward Jews in the fields of journalism, the arts, and other areas of culture. The Jews could be active as members of Parliament until the German occupation in 1944.’”(Cited by Leni Yahil in The Holocaust, Leni Yahil, 507).

Following the Soviet victory at the battle of Stalingrad, Horthy and Kallay began to realize that the Allies might win the war. Kallay sent out feelers to the Allies, hoping to negotiate an armistice for Hungary on favorable terms. When Hitler found out about this, Germany occupied Hungary. Horthy was allowed to remain the figurehead leader of Hungary, but Kallay was replaced with the fanatical pro-Nazi general Dome Sztojay. The latter fell into step with the Final Solution program and agreed to deport Hungary’s Jews.

Adolf Eichmann personally came to Hungary along with a team of “experts”, including Dr. Siefried Seidel (the former Commandant of Theresienstadt), Theodor Dannecker (in charge of the Jewish deportations from France, Bulgaria and Italy) and Dieter Wisliceny (who had been in charge of deporting the Greek and Slovakian Jews).

Although Eichmann was ever-present in Hungary, efficiently organizing the deportation of nearly 500,000 Jews living outside Budapest, he preferred to let the Hungarian gendarmes do the dirty work of rounding up the Jews in ghettos and sending them by train or in grueling death marches to concentration camps. By allowing for this “local initiative”, Eichmann hoped to appease the Hungarian leadership’s nationalist sentiments by giving them the illusion of relative autonomy. He later stated, “Over the years, I have learned from experience which hooks I have to use to catch which fish’” (The Holocaust, Yahil, 505). In less than two months, by August 1944, the Hungarian authorities and the SS had sent over 440,000 provincial Jews to concentration camps. All that was left was the Jews of Budapest.

Given that Germany continued to lose the war, Admiral Horthy hesitated to deport the Jews of the capital. He worried that this act would create a public outcry in the international press and provoke the Western Allies. Although under increasing pressure from Eichmann and his team to eliminate all the Jews of Hungary, Horthy put a stop to the deportations. He also dismissed the pro-Nazi Sztojay and began negotiating an armistice with the Soviets. In response, the Germans staged a coup and set up an even more extreme pro-Nazi government, led by Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the Arrow Cross, whose members were notorious for their barbarism and anti-Semitism. In the process of rounding up the Jews of Budapest into a ghetto, the Arrow Cross hooligans manifested great cruelty and sadism, engaging in looting, beating, raping and murdering hundreds of Jews. Thousands of Jews were forced into death marches across the Austrian borders while hundreds, including toddlers and children, were pushed into the ice-cold Danube River. All in all, Szalasi’s Arrow Cross gendarmes murdered 15,000 Jews.

It is largely due to Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s heroic efforts that about 140,000 Jews survived in the capital. The Soviets marched into Budapest on January 1945 and drove the Nazis and their Arrow Cross allies out of power by that spring. Unfortunately, when he tried to meet with Soviet generals to help the lot of the Jews left in the Budapest ghetto, Wallenberg was taken prisoner by the NKVD. Despite his valiant efforts, only a small percentage of Hungarian Jews in general lived through the Holocaust. Out of the country’s nearly 800,000 Jews living in Hungary in the early 1940’s, fewer than a third survived.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon


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Filed under Adolf Eichmann, Claudia Moscovici, Ferenc Szalasi, Holocaust Memory, Leni Yahil, Miklos Horthy, Raoul Wallenberg, the Arrow Cross, the Holocaust in Hungary

A Holocaust Hero in Hungary: The courage of Raoul Wallenberg

Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

The Talmud states: “Whoever destroys a soul, it is as if he destroyed the whole world. And whoever saves a life, it is as if he saved the whole world” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:9, Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a). There’s so much wisdom in this saying, which also resonates with history. The Nazis did everything in their power to destroy the whole Jewish race while Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, did everything he could to save them. He worked relentlessly to save 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Holocaust.

Wallenberg’s own life story contains as much triumph as it does tragedy. By the time Wallenberg, only 31 years old, arrived in Budapest 437,000 Jews living outside the city had already been deported to Auschwitz. He could do nothing to save their lives. But there were aproximately 230,000 Jews left in Budapest, all of whom Adolf Eichamann, who was then stationed in the capital, planned to send as efficiently as possible to their deaths. The preparations of the death machine had already begun. Most of the Jews in Budapest had already been herded by the Nazis and their Fascist, Arrow Cross collaborators, into a Jewish Ghetto. They were deprived of any means of subsistence and living in terror. Every day they were subject to the Nazi actions to deport them to concentration camps as well as at the mercy of mob pogroms encouraged by the Arrow Cross.

In this humanitarian crisis, where time was of the essence, Wallenberg proved to be both flexible and resourceful. He didn’t limit himself to traditional, slow diplomatic measures to save Budapest’s Jewish community. Using his own funds, he cajoled and bribed members of the Hungarian Fascist party in power, the Arrow Cross, as well as German officials in Budapest in order to protect the lives 100,000 Hungarian Jews. Responding promptly to every call for help, he issued tens of thousands of official-looking Swedish Embassy protection papers to the desperate Jews.

Kati Marton’s beautifully written biography, Wallenberg: The Incredible True Story of the Man Who Saved the Jews of Budapest (New York: Arcade Publishing, Centenary Edition, 2011), narrates the life of this courageous and altruistic man. It also explores the still unsolved mystery of his death while imprisoned in the Soviet Union. Having managed to save tens of thousands of innocent lives and to survive WWII and the Nazi terror in occupied Hungary, in an ultimate irony of fate, Wallenberg perished at the hands of the Allies. He was caught in the lethal web of the Soviet secret police, the NKVD. Yet he managed to accomplish so much in such a short period of time.

By the time he reached Hungary in his early thirties, Raoul Wallenberg had already lived a lifetime. He had travelled the world and gained enormous life experience. Born in an affluent and established family of Swedish bankers and industrialists, Wallenberg preferred to travel and learn about different cultures rather than devote himself to making money. Although he probably could have selected any university in Europe, he chose to study at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, eager to learn more about the U.S. He also travelled to Haifa, Palestine. Through family connections he met Koloman Lauer, a Hungarian Jew who was the Director of a Swedish Import and Export Company, the Mid-European Trading Company. Within a few months, the young man impressed Lauer so much with his competence and efficiency, that he became a joint partner in this enterprise. Given the Lauer’s family and business ties to Hungary, Wallenberg traveled to Budapest, following closely the political situation there. He was especially touched—and alarmed–by the fate of the Jews.

Wallenberg also took trips to Vichy France and Nazi Germany and learned a lot about the Fascist regimes and how their bureaucracy and killing machine operated. His observations that the Nazi regime functioned through a mixture of need for respectability and natural authority served him well when he embarked on the dangerous mission of saving Budapest’s Jews. He bribed the corruptible officials with cigars, alcohol or food—a strategy that often worked in a time of severe food shortages—while at the same time issuing official-looking passports and protective orders, couched in formal language, under the auspices of the Swedish Embassy and government. At one point he even faced the “Engineer of death”—Adolf Eichmann himself—in a showdown of wills in which Eichmann backed down and Wallenberg managed to save hundreds of Jews from the clutches of the Nazis.

On January 17, 1945, following the Ally victory and Budapest’s encirclement by the Soviet army, Wallenberg and his chauffeur went, under Soviet military escort, to meet with a high-ranking Russian general. Wallenberg hasn’t been heard from ever since. Marton’s book describes that several eyewitnesses claim they have seen him in the Lyubianka and, later, in several Gulags well into the 1970’s. But, ultimately, this information is highly speculative. The evidence seems to point to the fact that Raoul Wallenberg perished in 1947 at the hands of the NKVD. The heroic man who saved countless lives from the Nazis could not be saved himself from the cold injustice of the totalitarian killing machine.

Claudia Moscovici,

Literature Salon




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Filed under Adolf Eichmann, Arrow Cross, Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory, Kati Marton, Raoul Wallenberg, the Holocaust in Hungary