Category Archives: the Holocaust in Hungary

Elie Wiesel’s Night: Shedding Light upon the Darkness

 

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

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Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night (New York, Hill and Wang, 2006, translated by Marion Wiesel), is one of the best-known and most highly acclaimed work about the Holocaust. The New York Times called the 2006 edition “a slim volume of terrifying power,” yet its power wasn’t immediately appreciated. In fact, the book may have never been written had Wiesel not approached his friend, the novelist Francois Mauriac, for an introduction to the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, whom he wanted to interview. When Mauriac, a devoted Catholic, mentioned that Mendes-France was suffering like Jesus, Elie Wiesel responded, in the heat of the moment, that ten years earlier he had seen hundreds of Jewish children suffer more than Jesus did on the cross, yet nobody spoke about their suffering. Mauriac appeared moved and suggested that Wiesel himself write about it. The young man took his friend’s advice. He began writing in Yiddish an 862-page manuscript about his experiences of the Holocaust. The Central Union of Polish Jews in Argentina published in Yiddish an abbreviated version of this book, under the title And the World Remained Silent. Wiesel later translated the text into French. He called it, more simply and symbolically, Night (La Nuit), and sent it to Mauriac, who helped Wiesel find a publisher (the literary and small publishing house Les Editions de Minuit) and wrote its Preface. The English version, published in 1960 by Arthur Wang of Hill and Wang, received strong critical acclaim despite initially modest sales. Elie Wiesel’s eloquent and informed interviews helped bring the difficult subject of the Holocaust to the center of public attention. By 2006, Oprah Winfrey selected Night for her high-profile book club, further augmenting its exposure.

This work is definitely autobiographical—an eloquent memoir documenting Wiesel’s family sufferings during the Holocaust—yet, due to its literary qualities, the text has been also read as a novel or fictionalized autobiography. The brevity, poignant dialogue, almost lyrical descriptions of human degradation and suffering, and historical accuracy of this multifaceted work render Night one of the most powerful Holocaust narratives ever written.

Elie (Eliezer) Wiesel was only 15 years old when the Nazis entered Sighet in March of 1944, a small Romanian town in Northern Transylvania which had been annexed to Hungary in 1940. At the directives of Adolf Eichmann, who took it upon himself to “cleanse” Hungary of its Jews, the situation deteriorated very quickly for the Jewish population of Sighet and other provincial towns. Within a few months, between May and July 1944, approximately 440,000 Hungarian Jews, mostly those living outside of Budapest, were deported to Auschwitz aboard 147 trains.

Wiesel’s entire family—his father Chlomo, his mother Sarah, and his sisters Tzipora, Hilda and Beatrice—suffered this fate. Among them, only Elie and two of his sisters, Hilda and Beatrice, managed to survive the Holocaust. However, since the women and the men were separated at Auschwitz upon arrival, Elie lost track of what happened to his sisters until they reunited after the war. In the concentration camps, father and son clung to each other. Night recounts their horrific experiences, which included starvation, forced labor, and a death march to Buchenwald. Being older and weaker, Chlomo becomes the target of punishment and humiliation: he’s beaten by SS officers and by other prisoners who want to steal his food. Weakened by starvation and fatigue, he dies after a savage beating in January 1945, sadly, only a few weeks before the Americans liberated the concentration camp. Throughout their tribulations, the son oscillates between a paternal sense of responsibility towards his increasingly debilitated father and regarding his father as a burden that might cost him his own life. Elie doesn’t dare intervene when the SS officer beats Chlomo, fearing that he himself will become the next victim if he tries to help his father. In the darkness and despair of Night, the instinct of self-preservation from moment to moment counteracts a lifetime of familial love. Even when Elie discovers the death of his father in the morning, he experiences through a sense of absence: not only his father’s absence, as his bunk is now occupied by another inmate, but also the lack of his own human response: “I did not weep, and it pained me that I could not weep. But I was out of tears. And deep inside me, if I could have searched the recesses of my feeble conscience, I might have found something like: Free at last!…” (112)

Night is offers a stark psychological account the process of human and moral degradation in inhumane conditions. Even the relatively few and fortunate survivors of the Nazi atrocities, such as Elie, became doubly victimized: the victims of everything they suffered at the hands of their oppressors and the victims of everything they witnessed others suffer and were unable or, perhaps more sadly, unwilling to help. Although Night focuses on the loss of humanity in the Nazi concentration camps, the author’s life would become a quest for regaining it again, in far better conditions, if at least one condition is met: caring about the suffering of others. As Wiesel explains to his audience on December 10, 1986 during his acceptance speech of the Nobel Prize in Oslo, his message to his son–and his message to the world at large—is about the empathy required to keep the Holocaust memory alive. He reminds us all, “that I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices. … We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (118).

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Anti-Semitism in Hungary today

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

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Anti-Semitism has a long history in Hungary, nearly as long as the history of the Jews living in the country. In fact, Hitler was not the first to prescribe armband to mark, isolate and shame the Jews. King Ladislaus IV of Hungary (1272-1290) ordered that each Jewish person should wear a piece of red cloth. In the fourteenth century, Jews were suspected of spreading the plague and expelled en masse from the country. (Incidentally, centuries later, this was a pretext offered by the Nazis for the establishment of Jewish ghettos). King Ladislaus II (1490-1516) accused Jews of ritual murder and burned them at the stake. The Diet of 1686 declared that Jews were not subjects of Hungary because they were not Christian (it categorized them as “unbelievers”). Queen Maria Theresa (1740-1780), perhaps emulating Catherine the Great of Russia (who segregated the Jews into the Pale of Settlement), expelled the Jews from Buda.

It is only in the modern period, under the reign of the Enlightened monarch Joseph II (1780-1790) that Jews attained minority rights. The National Assembly officially emancipated them half a century later, in 1849. This enabled the vast majority of Jews in Hungary to integrate well into the country and even to thrive. This was particularly true of the Jews of Budapest, a city where they constituted almost a quarter of the population. The Nazi influence upon the authoritarian regime of Miklos Horthy, and the rise to power of the Fascist Arrow Cross, undid a century of civil rights progress. The Holocaust of 1944 nearly wiped out the Jewish population of Hungary, killing nearly 600,000 Jews in Hungary and Hungarian territories.

The current Jewish population of Hungary remains very small: about 110,000 Jews live in Hungary, roughly the same number as right after WWII. Most of them live in Budapest and consider themselves to be assimilated Jews. In fact, only a small percentage—10 percent—of Jews identifies themselves as “Jewish” by religion. It seems incredible to me—even though this phenomenon is far from rare—that a country with such a small and well-assimilated Jewish population would experience a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. Yet this is precisely what has happened in Hungary over the past two decades. Abraham H. Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, states: “In Hungary, Spain and Poland the numbers for anti-Semitic attitudes are literally off-the-charts and demand a serious response from political, civic and religious leaders”. In 2014 the ADL declared Hungary as the most anti-Semitic country in Europe. The future looks bleak, as according to its survey, 50 percent of young Hungarians (people under the age of 35) have anti-Semitic attitudes.

Not surprisingly, contemporary Hungary has experienced a rise in neo-Nazi and other authoritarian anti-Semitic political parties and groups, such as the HunterSS, White Storm and Endlosung as well as the illegal paramilitary group the Hungarian National Front. In May 2014, Apathy Istvan Laszlo, a representative of the right wing nationalist party Jobbik (“The Movement for a Better Hungary”, which aims at the preservation of “Hungarian interests and values”) in the city Erzsebetvaros, even went so far as to publically state on his Facebook profile that the historical accounts of the Holocaust were exaggerated and to charge the Jews—or as he put it “the Jewish background superpower”—as responsible for the Holocaust. Making contradictory and inflammatory statements reminiscent of Hitler and the Nazi leadership, at the same time, Laszlo has denied that the Holocaust ever happened.

The dramatic rise of anti-Semitism in a country with so few Jews—most of whom identify as Hungarian—confirms one of the lessons of the Holocaust: anti-Semitism is an attitude that has little to do with the object of racial hatred and everything to do with authoritarian political parties that predicate their nationalist agenda not on constructive policies in the interest of the country they claim to represent, but upon a mythical sense of national identity formed by the exclusion and denigration of groups marked as “Other.”

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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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)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

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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A Holocaust Hero in Hungary: The courage of Raoul Wallenberg

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

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

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