Sunday, February 9, 2014

Yellow Star Houses and the Budapest Holocaust

Seventy years ago, in June 1944, the Hungarian government began to segregate the Jewish population of Budapest as part of Hungary's version of the Final Solution.

The Open Society Archives (OSA) in Budapest has created a map of Budapest that shows the location and addresses of each "yellow star" house, so designated in 1944.  They stretch out across Pest, but are concentrated in the historically Jewish areas of the seventh district (location of the world's second largest synagogue) and the thirteenth district, which lies along the Danube above the parliament--another historic Jewish area.



You can go to the website and search by address or browse the map to see which houses were designated "yellow star."  One of my friends discovered that her flat is in one of these buildings, as is the flat I recently vacated on the corner of Wesselényi and Nagydiófa, in the heart of the (still today) Jewish district. The image of a yellow star affixed to one of the approximately 1,948 apartment buildings in Budapest that were designated Jewish dwellings.  Starting on June 24, 1944, Budapest's entire Jewish population of nearly 250,000 was forced into these houses in the space of 8 days.



Hungary has a long history of anti-Semitism, which has ebbed and flowed over time.  At the end of World War I, thousands of Jews were killed in a wave of anti-Semitic progroms known as the White Terror.  In 1920, Hungary introduced the so-called "numerus clausus" laws that restricted the percentage of Jewish students in the university to six percent.  The situation became somewhat better under the 1920s Count István Bethlen government, although the effects of the laws were not entirely erased.  Still, the status of Jews in interwar Hungary were relatively good by regional standards.  Hungary's version of the Nürnberg Laws laws came rather late.  The government began to restrict the numbers of Jews in government, industry and universities in 1938, eventually prohibiting intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in 1941.

The relative lack of open attacks against Jews stood in stark contrast to general anti-Semistism in society, which bubbled just below the surface.  Hungary's Regent, Admiral Miklós Horthy, openly declared himself an anti-Semite, claiming,

"As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad."

Indeed, many Hungarian Jews (particularly in Budapest, if not in the countryside) were highly successful, not to mention numerous and well-integrated into Hungarian society.  At the turn of the twentieth century, 25 percent of the city's population was Jewish; they also made up 80-90 percent of the stock exchange and currency brokers and boasted between 50 and 90 percent control of industries.  They were also highly assimilated--they had Hungarian names, intermarried with non-Jews, and (on the whole) were not particularly observant--some had even converted to Christianity.

Their wealth and connections of many Budapest Jews actually protected them from the fate that had already befallen Hungarian Jews in the countryside.  The ghettoization and ultimate deportations of Jews in the countryside took place in the spring and early summer of 1944 when Nazi forces finally invaded the country; it wasn't until the fall of 1944 that the Jews of Budapest were ultimately ghettoized in preparation for deportation to concentration camps.

Horthy, although allied with Nazi Germany, had resisted orders to deport Budapest Jews to concentration camps (although he failed to protect countryside Jews from a similar fate).  Plans to eliminate the Jews of Budapest escalated when German forces entered Hungary in March 1944.  In a series of negotiations with German authorities, and partly in reaction to negative international publicity, the Horthy government prevented mass deportations of Jews from Budapest in July.  It was not until late 1944 that the Jewish population of Budapest was finally ghettoized--in contrast to other European capitals.  In October, Horthy resigned, and Ferenc Szálasi of the Arrow Cross Party assumed leadership of the country; at this point, plans to round up the city's Jewish population began in earnest.

Tim Cole writes about the removal of Jews to the ghetto as fulfilling the twin goals of "Jewish absence" (in areas that would become 100 percent non-Jew) as well as "Jewish presence" (in ghettos where Jews could be managed and contained--and, ultimately, eliminated--through a form of spatialized control).


It is clear that class helped many of the (wealthier) Budapest Jews escape the fate that would befall a much greater proportion of Hungarian Jews living outside Budapest and the poorer Jews who lived in Budapest.  Without the means to buy their escape or concealment (which Tivadar Soros--father of George Soros--had acquired for his family members, who managed to pass for non-Jews in Budapest throughout the tense final months of the war), the countryside Hungarians were depopulated at a rate approaching 90 percent (as opposed to Budapest Jews, who were depopulated at a rate closer to 50 percent).

In 1944, the Jewish ghettos were finally created.  In the process, the group was divided into "protected" Jews (those who had the support of neutral countries or other actors that had managed to procure passports and other documents for them) and "non-protected" Jews.  There were further divisions into "Christian Jews" (those who had converted prior to 1941, in addition to other restrictions) versus non-convert Jews, and foreign Jews versus non-foreign Jews. The original idea was to segregate all populations, but the biggest divide emerged between the "protected Jews" who were placed in the International Ghetto (in what is now the 13th district in the fashionable Jewish middle class area on the Pest side) and the Jewish Ghetto of the seventh district, the other historically Jewish area.  The occupants of the International Ghetto were slated for safe passage to neutral countries (with the help of certain diplomats, organizations and foreign governments), while those of the Jewish Ghetto were were slated for death.

In late 1944, the non-Jews and non-protected Jews of the International District were removed to make way for the protected Jews.  The non-protected Jews, in turn, were sent on death marches to the Austrian border or the ill-fated Jewish Ghetto of the seventh district.  In the struggle to save the Jews of Budapest, a veritable battle was waged between good and evil.

On the side of good, Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat working through the U.S. government, had been enlisted to go to Budapest as a cultural attache of the Swedish embassy--tasked with saving as many Jews as he could.  He and others gave special passports to as many Jews as possible and is widely credited with having prevented the deaths of tens of thousands of Jews.




On the side of evil was Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi functionary charged with orchestrating the deportations of millions of Jews around Europe to the death camps.  He had also decamped to Budapest to facilitate the Final Solution at the tail end of the war.  Eichmann survived the war, but was ultimately captured in Argentina by the Mossad and tried and executed in Israel in 1962 for his Nazi crimes.


In mid-1944, the protected Jews (somewhere between 15,000 and 35,000 Jews were moved into the International Ghetto).  These kinds of swaps also occurred in the Jewish Ghetto.  Here, the non-Jews were moved out of yellow star and non-yellow star houses alike--and into yellow star houses in other parts of the city.  Meanwhile, the houses of the Jewish Ghetto became 100 percent yellow star houses, with Jews moved into every apartment, making up nearly 6 people per room.  The photo below is of Jewish women being rounded up on Wesselényi street in October 1944.




In December, the Jewish Ghetto was sealed off.  There were four gates--one at either end of Wesselényi street and one at either end of Nagydiófa and Kisdiófa street.  To get into the ghetto as a non-Jew, you needed a blue pass; to get out of the ghetto as a Jew you needed a green pass.  No food was let in, leading to widespread starvation and malnourishment. No waste was collected, the dead lay piled in the streets and busted storefronts.  Diseases spread through the Ghetto, leading to further deaths.

Mass executions began in late 1944, with the population of the ghetto reduced from around 200,000 to around 70,000 when it was finally liberated by the Soviets.  Many were rounded up and shot. Others were taken to the banks of the Danube River, where they were lined up, tied together and every third person shot--falling into the river and dragging the others with them.  This was done to save bullets.  They were also forced to take off their shoes before the executions, as shoes were expensive.  The monument below immortalizes the horror:


Adolf Eichmann, charged with the logistics of effecting the Final Solution across Europe, came to Hungary to help supervise the process.  Nor were Hitler's henchmen acting alone; the Arrow Cross government were enthusiastic collaborators--there are accounts that the Hungarian gendarmes were highly motivated exterminators.

As the Soviet Army approached Budapest in 1945, the Szálasi government planned a massacre of the remaining Jews in the Ghetto.  Wallenberg found out about it through a connection in the government and convinced the German general in charge that he would personally ensure that the general would be hanged as a war criminal were it carried out.  The general, recognizing an imminent Allied victory (and fearing for his own skin), ultimately called off the massacre.  With this action, Wallenberg saved literally tens of thousands of lives.

Wallenberg remained in Budapest as the Soviets approached, thinking to negotiate a good postwar peace for the residents.  He scrambled to learn a few phrases in Russian in order to communicate with the Red Army commanders.  Unfortunately, he was instead captured and imprisoned by the Soviets after they arrived in Budapest.   His fate is still unknown, but he is believed to have perished in a Soviet gulag.

The story of the yellow star houses is remarkable for many things.  For the rapidity a minority went from a manageable existence to being marked for segregation and ultimately death. For the calculating brutality of those who carried it out.  For the fact that the process was speeded up, even as it became clear that the perpetrators would likely to be held responsible for heinous war crimes.  One wonders at what point (and which) Jewish residents of Budapest began to comprehend the hopelessness of their situation.  Today's Jewish district of Budapest is forever marked by this geography of violence.




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