|Witness of his times|
|By Roland S. Süssmann|
Among the countries of central Europe, Hungary stands out from its neighbors in many ways, starting with its language, which has nothing in common with those of adjacent nations. It is a member of the Finno-Ugric family of languages, which includes Finnish, Lapp, Estonian, and several dialects from the Baltic states, and has some things in common with both Mongol and Turkish. And where are the Jews in all that? Both historically and today they manifest a strong identification and national pride towards Hungary. As in Germany, they were first and foremost citizens of the Jewish persuasion, and like in Germany, this highly integrated and assimilated community was effectively annihilated.
To talk to us about this country and especially what has happened during the Second World War, we met Mr. EMERIC DEUTSCH, born in Hungary and a Shoah survivor, who agreed to recount his personal experiences set against their historical backdrop.
Before telling us the story of your life, can you in just a few words tell us what was special about the Shoah in Hungary?
The first unique thing about the Shoah in Hungary was that these terrible events only took place towards the end of the war. Obviously, this had been prepared long in advance, for in Hungary antisemitism was both ancient and very characteristic. Among all the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the Jews of Hungary were the best treated and had the most rights. It should be recalled that at the Emancipation of 1867, Hungarian Jews received almost the same rights as their fellow citizens: abolition of the limitations on the rights of residence, of the prohibition on owning land and the practice of various professions, free access to secondary schools, which became compulsory, and to higher education. Hungary was a partially autonomous kingdom within the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In this connection, it is interesting to note that in Galicia, the large tract of Polish territory that was part of the kingdom, the Jews there had none of the same rights, as in Bohemia, where persecutions took place from time to time. That is why Hungary had Jewish immigration from Germany, Bohemia and Galicia. The Jews hailing from west of the Danube (Pressburg) were in general from Moravia and spoke German and Hungarian. The Polish ones, largely from Galicia, spoke Yiddish. Jews made up the Hungarian middle class and used their new freedoms to develop the whole of industry, as well as the country’s artistic and cultural life. Their importance, you must understand, was considerably greater than in Germany, where they also played a central role (see SHALOM Vol. 41). Hungary was actually a feudal country where the nobility and the great agricultural landowners had effectively no contact with the people. These were people who did no work and employed stewards (often Jews) to look after their affairs. These estate managers were the real employers of the workers and peasants. Commerce was totally under-developed. In rural regions, it was the Jews who owned the village shop and who had to sell on credit to the peasants, who, because they owed them money, detested them. Similarly, in Budapest just prior to the Second World War, all the theaters, except the National Theater, were managed by Jews. All the main publishers, producers and the like were Jewish. When anti-Jewish legislation began, many leading producers left Hungary for America, where they often made great careers; I will mention just one of the best known, George Cukor. It is important to understand the degree to which the Hungarian economy and culture were influenced and developed by Jews, it was simply phenomenal.
You mentioned the first anti-Jewish laws. When were they and what did they entail?
Prior to WWI, the only limitations on Jews were in the professional army and in the upper reaches of the Civil Service. In 1918 the Austro-Hungarian monarchy collapsed and gave way to a communist revolution. The regime that came to power, led by Bela Kun, had many Jews among its leadership. A large number of the commissars who instigated a reign of terror were Jews and much hated. During 1919 a counter-revolution chased out the communists. The establishment and stabilization of the new government involved a certain amount of Jewish violence, and this period, known as the “white terror”, claimed around 3,000 victims. Admiral Miklos Horthy from Nagybarna (1868-1957), the head of the Emperor’s bodyguard, who had led the counter-revolution, came to power in 1920 and set up state antisemitism, of which the first act was the introduction, on 22 September 1920, of a quota in universities, limiting the number of Jews to 6%. In 1928, this measure was slightly relaxed, but was still largely maintained. There were nonetheless two exceptions, for the sons of lawyers and doctors, who could attend those faculties. The fact was that 60% of the lawyers and doctors in Budapest were Jewish. Count Pal Teleki, was Prime minister 1920-1921 and 1939-1941 and personally drafted the antisemitic laws of 1920, 1939 and 1941, which each time became increasingly severe and limiting, and whose objective was to progressively exclude Jews from public life: first in the universities, then in certain professions and finally in cultural life, such as the opera and journalism. His writings prove that he was an inveterate Jew hater. He committed suicide on 3 April 1941. Despite all these restrictions, there were members of parliament, senators and even a minister who were Jewish. When the Jewish religion was recognized, the Orthodox and Neolog Chief Rabbis were appointed Jewish representatives to the Senate. It should be borne in mind that most anti-Jewish laws were due in large part to the influence of the Church. Antisemitism was thus not just a habit, but also an integral part of Hungarian culture. And here we touch on one of the fundamental aspects of the Shoah. This shows how a part of the population could be stigmatized just by saying, “They are nor like us” – and therefore inferior, and therefore a form of easy prey. Lastly, it is interesting to note that despite the state antisemitism and the laws that were in force, the Jewish community was not just integrated into society, but also played a crucial role in the country’s development, on both the economic and cultural levels. There were many synagogues and Jewish schools, including high schools for boys and for girls that offered education through to high school graduation.
You mentioned “Neolog” rabbis. What type of Jewish community was this?
A short history is required. In 1887, the government in Vienna required the Jews to establish rules for their representation and internal organization. A major congress was organized, at which representatives of all the Jewish communities in the country participated. There were a certain number of fundamental questions on the agenda: who could be a member of a community, which rabbinical qualification was valid (whether educated in a yeshiva or at the Budapest rabbinical seminary), the presence of an organ in synagogue and other issues. It became rapidly clear that no agreement was possible and a historic split took place between the Orthodox and Neolog communities, both being recognized by the State. To complicate matters, there was a third community that was not affiliated to either, called “Status Quo”. Thus there were communities with three synagogues. The Neologs were neither Liberal nor Conservative (in the American sense) Jews, as they had retained most traditions, while installing an organ in the synagogue, played by a non-Jew. It is interesting to note that even though the communities were fairly separate, all ritual slaughter of meat was run by the orthodox community. Despite this schism, there was in Hungary a terrific Jewish life, with every sort of active institution, including yeshivot. 25% of Budapest’s population was Jewish, about 250,000 people. The capital was not the exception, and many other towns had Jewish populations representing 25-30% of the total inhabitants. Another point in common between the communities was that, curious to say, Zionism never really took root in Hungary. On this topic there is a famous exchange of letters between Theodore Herzl, who was himself born in Budapest, and community leaders. These latter explained to him that while there was some antisemitism, Jewish life on the whole was pleasant and well structured. He replied to them in quasi-prophetic terms, “It is possible that the excesses of antisemitism will only affect you later than the others, but it will be all the harder for you”.
There was therefore a rather paradoxical situation. On the one hand there was state antisemitism that promulgated anti-Jewish laws and real antisemitism among the population and on the other hand some sort of protection for the Jews, who evinced a very deep, patriotic attachment to Hungary. How did these two situations manage to coexist?
The Jews were to a degree protected by Horthy, who personally had many Jewish friends. The theory of he and his antisemitic advisors can summarized as follows: “The influence of the Jews must be curbed – we must prepare to replace them progressively in industry and culture, but they should not be killed”. In this respect, it should be noted that when in 1941 the Germans demanded that Horthy deport the Jews, he only agreed to deport stateless Jews. Since the Germans did not know what to do as Auschwitz did not exist yet, 30,000 Jews were massacred in Hungary itself, at Kamentz-Podolsky, by Hungarians and Germans. In 1938, with the growing influence of the extreme right and their sympathy for Nazi Germany, the “First Anti-Jewish Law” was presented to parliament. Its purpose was to limit to 20% the number of Jews in the professions, the civil service and in commercial and industrial concerns. In 1939 the “Second Anti-Jewish Law” was passed, whose purpose was to reduce the number of Jews in economic activity to 6% and limited their political rights to 5%. As a result, a large number of social cases started appearing within the Jewish communities. Finally, in 1941 the “Third Anti-Jewish Law” was promulgated, defining who was a Jew along the lines of the Nuremberg Laws, as well as prohibiting mixed marriages. Thus by mid-1941 Jewish society was effectively excluded from political, economic, cultural and social life. In 1941 Hungary entered the war on the side of the German-Italian Axis and recovered a certain number of territories in Romania and Czechoslovakia. The first steps were to attack the Jews and to apply the first law, excluding them from the army. However, so that this provision should not be considered a privilege, Hungary set up “Labor Battalions”, where all men of age to go the army were enrolled, among them my father then aged 55. What was so serious about this development was that some of these battalions were sent to the Ukraine, where 35,000 – 40,000 Jews were massacred (it has been generally estimated that there were about 50,000 Jews on the Eastern Front). And when the Hungarian Army was put to flight by the Red Army on the River Don in 1942, the Hungarian troops took vengeance on the Jews, who were thus also murdered by Hungarians. Another major loss occurred the same year, in January, when 1,000 Jews were massacred by Hungarian police at Novi-Sad and Bacska. Despite everything, however, even though Hungary was an ally of Germany, the Hungarian government refused to deport Jews holding Hungarian nationality right until the effective occupation of the country by the Germans in 1944.
What happened in 1944?
On 18th March 1944 the Germans entered Hungary, and from 15th April all Jews in the provinces were herded into ghettos. I should mention that the Jews who had been drafted into Labor Battalions remained part of the Hungarian Army and were not deported. That’s how my brother and I were saved. With extraordinary rapidity the Jews were dispossessed of their basic rights (a prohibition on travel, on employing non-Jews, to own a telephone or a radio, and other measures) and of their possessions. The deportations started in May. The process must be understood. Firstly there was the herding into ghettos, which meant the crowding of thousands of people in the area around the synagogue. Next came putting most of the Jewish population into brickworks; what was special about these constructions was that they had roofs but no walls, to allow the bricks to dry. It is superfluous to say that people penned in like this lived in inhuman conditions, and that in some ways they were even relieved to see the trains arriving. I was personally involved in one deportation. On 12th June 1944, coming back from a day’s work, we were surrounded by Hungarian gendarmes and two SS men, who escorted us to the station where the Jews were being crammed onto a train. We were asked to empty our pockets, to leave our military armbands and to get into the train. By chance, I had in my pocket a certificate of immunity given me by my father, who was the representative of the orthodox community on the Jewish Council of the town. It was signed by a very important SS Obersturmbannführer. I went up to the SS commander who was directing the deportation and showed him the certificate. Seeing the signature on it, he stood to attention and told me, “I am sorry, but I cannot deport you”. Next to him was a major in the Hungarian Gendarmerie, who did not speak German. He asked me what was happening and I acted as interpreter between the two. In the meantime, one of my comrades had managed to get away and warn the Hungarian command that “they were deporting the army’s laborers”. The Hungarian Lieutenant Colonel leaped into his car and came down there. I participated in a discussion that reached the following conclusion: those already on the train would have to leave, but the others would remain behind. This Hungarian Lieutenant Colonel nonetheless saved 250 Jews. But I saw children and the elderly leaving, and I knew the majority would never reach their destination alive.
This anecdote illustrates the efficiency with which the deportations were carried out. In 54 days, 450,000 people were deported while the Russians were only 200 km from the Carpathians. The Germans and the Hungarians had just one concern: deport the Jews! It is important to stress that the Germans, who were starting to sense that the wind was starting to blow in the other direction, were a bit reticent, but the Hungarian Gendarmerie and railway workers did not simply collaborate, they carried out the fateful work organized by the Germans. When they arrived at Auschwitz the Hungarian Jews were immediately gassed because there was no room left, no more work and no more food in the camp. It is generally estimated that one third of the persons murdered at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews. In addition, a large number of the Jews who arrived at Auschwitz after July 1944 had to join the Death Marches to Buchenwald, Mauthausen and Dachau, and died on the way from exhaustion or sickness.
In Budapest itself there was no ghetto, and Horthy tried to get out of the war. But a coup d’état took place on 15 October 1944, and the head of the antisemitic Arrow Cross party, Ferenc Szalasi, seized power. That was the start of the terror, the creation of a ghetto, and between 15 October 1944 and 18 January 1945 50,000 – 60,000 Jews were deported. The entire deportation was on foot as there were no more trains, and many died of cold and exhaustion. You should understand that the massacre of the Jews was taking place everywhere, in Jewish hospitals, and along the banks of the Danube, where almost 20,000 people were slaughtered. It is estimated that almost 100,000 people lost their lives during the last months of the Shoah in Budapest, which was almost 50% of the Jewish population before the war.
In 1944 the Shoah was already very well advanced. Did you know what was happening?
We did not know about the gas chambers, but we knew there were camps where they were killing people. I joined the Hatzalah organization. We knew we could buy Jews for $50 each!
I understood the true gravity of the situation when I took part in a deportation. We did not know what was happening in the rural parts of the country. I had just one objective: not to be deported. At one time, I escaped from the labor camp and went to Budapest, where I helped produce false Swiss “Schutzpass”. I was caught, beaten and tortured before managing to save myself by diving into the Danube, where I should have been shot. Finally I was saved in the Swiss House, where, together with almost 4,000 other Hungarian Jews, we miraculously survived.
I will finish off by saying something about the Jewish resistance, which was led by extremely brave and highly intelligent young Zionists. Their purpose was not to kill Germans or Hungarians, but to save as many Jews as possible.
Lastly, one question about current affairs. You lived through this terrible period in our history. Today we are living in this paradoxical situation where on the one hand a special effort is being made to retain the memory, while on the other hand there is a new wave of active antisemitism throughout the world. How do you think the Shoah should be taught and how should we fight effectively against antisemitism?
For Shoah education to be useful, you have to start at the beginning and explain the process. We must hammer home that the slightest antisemitic slur like “dirty yid” is the first step on the road to Auschwitz.
The next stage is much more difficult because it touches directly on our identity. The Shoah was special because we are a special people. That’s where the difficulty is, because most of us reject this specialness, wanting to be “like everyone else”, which means assimilated. So an effort must be made in education to convince Jews of the special nature of their difference. One of the origins of antisemitism lies in the Jews being the Chosen People. More and more today, the extraordinary success of the State of Israel, whether or on the scientific or technological levels, elicits a lot of jealousy, which is one of the elements of antisemitism linked to being anti-Israeli.
As for the struggle against antisemitism, it should be understood that this is an evil that cannot be eradicated. It’s a type of sickness that does not heal, though it can be treated symptomatically and combated effectively. It starts by standing up to the slightest insult. Even if we know it’s a lost cause, the slightest aggression should be reported to the police. What we have to do is damage control. We must also identify the guilty by name, and when it is a Moslem responsible for anti-Jewish activity, we should say so loud and clear. The fight against antisemitism is made up of three phases, which must happen in parallel: teaching what happened, strengthening our identity, and a vigorous, strong and determined reaction to the slightest incident.
The testimony and the life of Mr. Emeric Deutsch are rich in stories and adventure, and could be the subject of a major book. Today, following a brilliant career in France, he lives with his wife in Jerusalem.