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

The Wannsee Conference: Casually planning the Final Solution

HeydrichWikipedia

 

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

On January 20, 1942 fifteen high-ranking Nazi officials got together at the at the elegant villa located at 56-58 Am Grossen Wannsee near Berlin to plan the mass murder of European Jews, code-named “the Final Solution”. Arriving in style in a Mercedes, Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Reich Security Main Office (RHSA), indicated to the panelists that Hitler had personally entrusted him with implementing the “Final Solution” to Europe’s “Jewish problem”. The genocide was supposed to include not only the Jews living under Axis control or occupation, but also those living in Allied and neutral states, including in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Sweden, Switzerland, Spain and Portugal. According to the U.S. Holocaust Museum, the following Nazi officials representing the SS were present at this conference: Reinhard Heydrich, SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, chief of the RSHA Department IV B4 (Jewish Affairs); SS Colonel Eberhard Schongarth, the commander of the RSHA field office in Krakow; SS Major Rudolf Lange, commander of Einsatzkommando 2 in Latvia; SS Major General Otto Hofmann, chief of SS Race and Settlement Office. (See http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005477).

These men were the leading architects of one of the world’s most horrific genocide. Yet they treated the conference, and their decision, as an ordinary, productive and rather pleasant get-together. Nobody voiced a single objection against killing millions of innocent men, women and children. In fact, by the time the Wannsee conference took place, tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied areas of the Soviet Union had already been rounded up and murdered, often with help from the local populations. Even though the mass murder of Jews was already under way in occupied Soviet territories and Poland, this conference focused on plans of how to generalize it to the rest of Europe in the most effective fashion. If there was any debate among these men, it was regarding the logistical methods of transporting so many people to their deaths as well what to do with Jews in mixed their plans for mass murder is these men’s sang-froid. If you’ve read descriptions of criminals committing horrific murders after which the perpetrators go out to dinner with their families or play with their children as if nothing out of the ordinary took place, then you’ll be able to imagine these Nazi officials’ mindset. Imagine, but not comprehend. Because such behavior is beyond the power of comprehension of anyone who is capable of empathy. Historian Alex Kershaw paints a vivid picture of the Wannsee meeting in The Envoy (New York, Da Capo Press, 2010), a book that offers a historical account of Raoul Wallenberg’s courageous actions to save the Jews of Budapest. After discussing the arrangements for mass murder, Kershaw narrates,

“Servants brought in refreshments. The attendees drank and ate and talked about finally ending the Jewish problem not just in Germany, but in all of Europe, including Britain and the Soviet Union… The meeting formally ended after ninety minutes, with Heydrich and the Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller being the last to leave the large dining room. They asked the thorough Eichmann to share a drink with them. Soon the three men were beside a fire, warming themselves. Eichmann would never forget how honored he felt to be asked to join these two giants of the Third Reich for a celebratory tipple… ‘After awhile,’ recorded Eichmann, ‘we got up on the chairs and drank a toast, then on the table and then round and round—on the chairs and on the table again. Heydrich taught it to us. It was an old north German custom… We sat around peacefully after the Wannsee Conference, not just talking shop but giving ourselves a rest after so many taxing hours.’” (5-6).

Eichmann’s casual account of the Wannsee conference and of the attitude of the men who participated in it speaks volumes about the Nazi regime and its power structure. The people who rose within its ranks were individuals without depth, without empathy and without conscience. Not only did they not give a thought to the millions who would die senselessly because of their decision, but also they took great pride in the outcome of their meeting, indulging in pleasurable pastimes like smoking and drinking, to celebrate a job well done.

 

Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon

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Eichmann’s Extraordinary Evil: Review of Eichmann Before Jerusalem by Bettina Stangneth

Adolf-Eichmann-theguardian.com

 

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

In Eichmann Before Jerusalem: The Unexamined Life of a Mass Murderer (New York: Random House 2014), Bettina Stangneth challenges Hannah Arendt’s hypothesis that Eichmann represents the banality of evil: an ordinary man turned mass murder by extraordinary circumstances (the war and the rise of Nazi totalitarianism). The image of Eichmann that emerges from Stangneth’s book is one of a charming chameleon that deceives others about his intentions and his credentials. Without knowing more than a few words of Yiddish and having no knowledge of Hebrew, Eichmann relied upon the smattering of Jewish culture he got by spying on Jewish leaders to climb the political ladder and obtain an official function as Head of Department of Jewish Affairs in the SD (Security Service of the Nazi Party). Although most of the time he gave the impression of being calm and reserved, he would fly off into an ideological rage—similar to Hitler’s–whenever his objectives were frustrated or when it served his purposes (such as to intimidate Jewish leaders into complying with his orders). As if with the flip of a switch, however, Eichmann could instantly revert to being courteous and collected (for instance, when a German woman would step into one of the ideological meeting). His emotions, like his attachments, were shallow. Although he remained “loyal” to his wife, Veronika Liebl, he cheated on her and dominated her. At one point he boasted that he tore up the Bible of his highly religious wife, though eventually he allowed her to practice Christianity. Their dominance bond was quite strong, however, since Vera patiently–and faithfully–waited for years while her husband lived in hiding after the war and eventually joined him in Argentina, where he managed to escape justice for eleven years.

The picture that emerges from Stangneth’s book is not that of an ordinary man corrupted by power in a totalitarian regime—as Arendt famously indicates in Eichmann in Jerusalem, A report on the banality of evil–but that of a psychopath: a highly narcissistic man without remorse, without conscience and without the capacity for forming deeper human attachments. Hungry for power, Eichmann unscrupulously adapts himself to the norms of the Nazi regime, even anticipating Hitler’s wishes to implement a program of exterminating the Jews after the German invasion of Russia in 1941. War enabled the Nazis to carry out what couldn’t be achieved during peacetime: a systematic genocide of unprecedented proportions carried out, at least in the Eastern campaign, openly and often with the collaboration of the local populations.

Eichmann became responsible for the mass deportations of nearly 6 million Jews to concentration camps, where most victims were sent to the gas chambers. Far from merely following orders—as he later stated during his defense in the trial in Jerusalem—Eichmann showed great enthusiasm and initiative for mass murder. In 1944, when even Himmler had begun to reverse course and issued an order to stop the Jewish deportations, Eichmann went to Hungary to personally oversee the deportation and extermination of the Hungarian Jews. With astonishing efficiency, in a few months, Eichmann managed to send 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz, where about 80 percent were killed on the spot and most of the rest died afterwards from hunger, abuse or disease. Only the heroic actions of the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg prevented him from sending all of the Jews of Budapest to their deaths. Interestingly, like most psychopaths, Eichmann was a bully only with those in a position of weakness. When Wallenberg confronted him face to face and stopped the deportation of hundreds of Jews, Eichmann didn’t do anything to stop him. Only afterwards, behind his back, he railed against the Wallenberg, calling him “a Jewish dog” and “an interventionist”. Turning moral norms upside down, Eichmann felt that all those who expedited genocide were courageous heroes and those who fought against it were cowards and weaklings.

Although highly manipulative and versatile, Eichmann remained, to the very end, a man without conscience. After the war he even expressed great pride in his genocidal actions, stating that he would “leap laughing into the grave because the feeling that he had five million people on his conscience would be for him a source of extraordinary satisfaction.” He may have boasted about his actions, but like most psychopaths, Eichmann didn’t want to have to pay their consequences. After Germany’s defeat in 1945, he fled to Austria and later, in 1950, to Argentina. There he joined a community of Nazi expatriates. Far from leading a quiet, anonymous life, this mass murderer longed for his former glory and power.

In fact, Eichmann even planned to write a book, based on a series of interviews with Willem Sassen–a Dutch collaborator and Nazi journalist also hiding in Argentina–that would not only leave his Nazi legacy for posterity but also, he hoped, instigate a second coming of the Third Reich during his lifetime. Perhaps it was this psychopath’s extraordinary hubris that finally did him in. Eventually the Mossad, Israel’s Intelligence Service, caught up with him in 1960 and brought him to Jerusalem to stand trial. He was charged, among other things, with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against the Jewish people. The jury found Eichmann guilty on all counts. He was executed by hanging on May 31, 1962. Perhaps no book on the subject can compete in its influence with Eichmann in Jerusalem, but in one significant respect I found Bettina Stangneth’s account far more accurate than Arendt’s: Eichmann’s evil was anything but banal.

 

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

 

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A Holocaust Hero in Hungary: The courage of Raoul Wallenberg

RaoulWallenbergsavingJewsimgsoup.com

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