(In memory of family members, friends, and residents of my hometown, Kassa (now Kosice), who perished at the hands of the Nazis.)
By the beginning of March 1944, Adolf Hitler had turned his attention to the destruction of the last body of Jewry still in existence within his realm.
He ordered Heinrich Himmler, who in turn authorized Adolf Eichmann, to carry out the mass removal and execution of Hungary’s Jewish community, which during the war years stood at more than 800,000 after the annexations of regions in Slovakia, Romania and Yugoslavia.
It required a destructive genius like Eichmann to carry out such a colossal task, particularly at a time when the German military on all fronts was in retreat or preparing for a last stand.
Eichmann assembled his most proven and efficient henchmen at Mauthausen to lay out the plan for a proper execution of the ghastly task. The elite murderers lived up to their reputation. Their strategy demanded a total of forty-six days to methodically erase the last vestige of Jewish creativity on the European continent.
In the course of the ages there wasn’t a Jewish community more convinced of its capacity for survival than the Jewish community of Hungary in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Jews of Hungary were patriots in the fullest sense of the term. In the 1848 Hungarian uprising against Austrian Hapsburg rule Jewish volunteers participated in the ensuing battles in numbers far above their percentage of the general population. When the rebels were beaten, the Jewish community was penalized by Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph with a crushing monetary fine for tenaciously siding with the rebellious Magyars.
It was the only community this writer is aware of where even many chassidim adopted the vernacular language for everyday use in addition to or sometimes even in place of Yiddish.
The Jewish song known by almost every Jew in Hungary, religious or secular, stemmed from the Rebbe of Kallo and was written in Hungarian. The story has it that one day the Rebbe came across a shepherd who was playing an appealing melody on his flute. The Rebbe sought to learn the melody, and as he did it became erased from the shepherd’s mind. The Rebbe then penned beautiful words in Hungarian that speak loftily of the rooster announcing the breaking of the dawn, as God and His people approach one another seeking perfect union (in the Hungarian original, “szol a kakas mar”).
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The initial anti-Jewish laws in Hungary were in the realm of numerus clauses (quotas or limits) and economic expropriation dating to the 1930s, and were not seen as a threat to survival.
With the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, followed by Hungary’s declaration of war against the Russians, able-bodied Jews were recruited into forced labor battalions used for building bridges or clearing mines in advance of regular army units. These Jews, far from their homes, were cruelly treated and thousands perished.
Rumors of the terror reached their homes but were not taken seriously because they were so unbelievable.
When the first expulsions of Jews took place, in the summer of 1941, they were explained away as actions against Jews who were not Hungarian nationals. The clear implication was that “fully emancipated” and patriotic Jews were safe and that no harm would befall them.
No wonder, then, that even as waves of anti-Jewish persecution swept over Hungary, and reports of wholesale slaughter filtered through from areas lying to the north and elsewhere, Hungarian Jews, though uneasy about the unfolding events, dismissed the notion that their very existence was in jeopardy.
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About the Author: Dr. Ervin Birnbaum is founder and director of Shearim Netanya, the first outreach program to Russian immigrants in Israel. He has taught at City University of New York, Haifa University, and the University of Moscow; served as national superintendent of education of Youth Aliyah and as the first national superintendent of education for the Institute of Jewish Studies; and, at the request of David Ben-Gurion, founded and directed the English Language College Preparatory School at Midreshet Sde Boker. Dr. Birnbaum’s memoir, “Turning Obstacles Into Stepping-Stones,” is now in its second printing and can be acquired by contacting email@example.com
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