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This Month in Holocaust History – Alfred Lerner Fellows – March 2024

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This Month in Holocaust History – March

View from atop the train of Jews lined up for selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Courtesy of USHMM. Photograph Number 77231.
Jews from Subcarpathian Rus undergo a selection on the ramp at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Courtesy of USHMM. Photograph Number 77234.
Jewish women and children from Subcarpathian Rus who have been selected for death at Auschwitz-Birkenau, walk toward the gas chambers. Courtesy of USHMM. Photograph Number 77305.

Germany Occupies Hungary

Germany’s defeat at the battle of Stalingrad in February 1943 was a turning point in the war. Hungary, a member of the Axis alliance, suffered tremendous losses at Stalingrad. Realizing that Germany would probably lose the war, Prime Minister Miklos Kallay sought to negotiate an armistice with Great Britain and the Western Allies. To prevent this from happening, Germany occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944.

Up until this point, the Jews of Hungary had lived in relative safety. They were the last large Jewish community left in Europe. After the invasion, however, the Nazis immediately dismissed Prime Minister Kallay and established a government under the former Hungarian ambassador in Berlin, General Dome Sztojay. Sztojay continued to send Hungarian troops to the German war front and cooperated with the Germans in their efforts to annihilate the Hungarian Jews.

Hungarian officials passed a series of anti-Jewish decrees. By the beginning of April 1944, the government had forced the Jews to wear a yellow star, had removed them from most professions, had frozen their bank accounts, and had outlawed their use or possession of telephones, cars, and radios. They forced some 500,000 Hungarian Jews who lived outside Budapest to move into ghettos that were established in certain cities. The Jews typically only stayed in the ghettos a short time before they were deported – just long enough for the authorities to extort their assets and arrange the transports.

On April 25, 1944, Adolf Eichmann, who came to Hungary to help coordinate the deportations, met with Joel Brandt, a leader in the Hungarian Jewish community, and made a proposal. Eichmann was willing to exchange one million Hungarian Jews for 10,000 trucks that the Germans needed on the Eastern front. Brandt left Hungary, and over the next month, met with representatives of the international Jewish community. Word of the proposal reached the Foreign Office in London, where it was considered and eventually rejected by the Committee of the War Cabinet on the grounds that the Allies would not be blackmailed.

In mid-May, the Hungarian authorities began to systematically deport the Jews. Over the next weeks, nearly 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary; most were sent to Auschwitz. In preparation for their arrival, Rudolf Höss, the former Commandant of Auschwitz, who had been promoted to a position in Berlin, returned to the camp to oversee the murder of the Hungarian Jews. On average, 75 percent of the people on each transport were murdered upon arrival at Auschwitz. Recognizing that the gas chambers and crematoria could not accommodate the surge in numbers, Höss and his colleagues prepared huge cremation pits.

On July 7, 1944, Regent Mikós Horthy, under pressure from the Vatican, the Red Cross, and Western Allies, ordered a halt to the deportations. He too sought to negotiate a secret armistice, this time with the Soviet Union. By the end of July, approximately 200,000 Jews remained in Budapest – the only remaining Jewish community in Hungary. During the next several months, Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, along with Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, and Italian businessman, Giorgio Perlasca, coordinated an extensive rescue effort and saved tens of thousands of Jews.

In October, during the final stage of Horthy’s negotiations, the Germans engineered a coup d’etat, arrested Horthy, and replaced him with Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the fascist, antisemitic Arrow Cross party. Arrow Cross gangs terrorized the Jews of Budapest and violently killed hundreds. In November 1944, the government forced the 70,000 remaining Jews of Budapest into a ghetto the area of .01 square miles. Simultaneously, tens of thousands of Budapest Jews were sent to Austria to be used as slave laborers. Because of the shortage of trains, they were forced walk. Several thousand Jews died along the way.

In January 1945, Soviet forces liberated the Pest section of Budapest, and in February, they liberated the Buda section. The rest of the country was liberated in early April. By the end of the war, 563,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered.

It is important to look at the Holocaust in different countries and regions. You might discuss the Holocaust in Hungary in order explore how the last remaining Jewish community in Europe was murdered as the war in Europe was coming to an end.

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