Back to the future in Hungary: Let’s not revert to the anti-Semitism and xenophobia of the 1940’s

With Hungary a focal point of the ongoing storm of controversy over Europe’s refugee crisis, it’s instructive to take note of the upcoming seventieth anniversary, on March 12, of the hanging of Ferenc Szálasi , the “Hitler of Hungary.” Szálasi, the leader of a fascist, xenophobic government responsible for terrorizing the Budapest Jewish community and murdering tens of thousands of them during the last months of World War II, was put to death in a public square in Budapest, a spectacle widely reported by the international press.

Szálasi served for two decades in the Hungarian Army, reaching the rank of major before resigning. He became associated with various parties devoted to reclaiming the territories lost by Hungary after the Great War. In 1939, Szálasi merged several groups that had been banned by the Hungarian government into the Arrow Cross Party, modeled on the Nazi Party. In June 1943, during the height of the Holocaust, Szálasi declared that, “Plutocracy, freemasonry, the liberal democracies, parliamentarism, the gold standard and Marxism are all instruments in the hands of Jews so that they can hang onto their power and control over the world.”

During the war, the Jews of Hungary suffered an increasingly oppressive physical environment, gradual elimination from public, economic, and cultural life, and impoverishment. Yet for a number of reasons, including that Hungary remained an unoccupied ally of Germany, they were spared from mass deportation to Auschwitz. That changed in March 1944, when German forces entered Hungary in order to prevent it from deserting the Axis. Adolf Eichmann, with the active assistance of Hungarian gendarmes, organized the murder or transport to Auschwitz of hundreds of thousands of Jews. Within months, with a savage efficiency learned from years of experience, all areas outside of Budapest, including the small city of Munkács where my father’s family lived, were pronounced “Judenrein.” The only remaining Hungarian Jewish community, a quarter of a million people in Budapest, was surrounded by territory and nations controlled by the Third Reich.

In October 1944, after a failed attempt to reach an armistice agreement with the Soviet Union, Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Horthy was forced to abdicate. The Germans released Szálasi from prison, where he had been held as a subversive, and anointed him as the new leader of Hungary. In his first statement to the nation, Szálasi proclaimed that the basic principle of “our fight” is “to annihilate, or to be annihilated.” Among the first acts of the Arrow Cross were to set up a “Department for the Elimination of Jews” and an “Institute for Racial Research.” As Soviet and Romanian troops reached Budapest’s eastern suburbs and began to encircle the city, and with train transport to Auschwitz no longer possible, instead of focusing on defending the city, the Arrow Cross assisted Eichmann in organizing death marches to the west, during which thousands, including women, children, and the elderly, suffered horrifically and died.

In December, as the fierce “Battle of Budapest” raged on, Szálasi and the Arrow Cross senior leadership fled the city. That same month, my mother turned nineteen. By then, she was living on her own under a false Aryan identity. It was innocents like her who the Arrow Cross hoodlums, recognizable in their green shirts, black ties, polished mountain boots, and armbands with the ancient symbol of the Magyar tribes, searched for maniacally, showing their preference for murder over combat. Carrying torches, they roamed the city, rounding up Jews and forcing them to the lower quays of the Danube, where they were shot.

In May 1945, Szálasi was captured by American troops in Austria and returned to Hungary, where he stood trial in the People’s Tribunal. Unrepentant and open about his political ideals, he was sentenced to death for war crimes and high treason. By then, my father (who had survived the Hungarian forced labor camp system) and mother had reunited, married, and fled Russian-occupied Europe, traveling on a course that would take them to Italy and ultimately New York. My mother, who now is 90, to this day cannot hear the name Szálasi without anger and sadness bubbling to the surface.

Remembering the hatred and evil that Szálasi represented is particularly important in a time when there is a rise in anti-Semitism and extreme-right wing movements in Hungary and throughout Europe. Perhaps most troubling is the mounting ascendance in Hungary of the Jobbik Party, which describes itself as “a principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party” whose fundamental purpose is the protection of “Hungarian values and interests.” Its anti-Semitism is thinly veiled as anti-Zionism. One of its demands is that Hungarian politicians be “screened” to see whether they hold Israeli citizenship. The sentiment sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Jeff Ingber

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Jeff Ingber, a financial industry consultant, is the son of survivors of the Holocaust in Hungary. He recently published a family memoir, entitled  Béla’s Letters, which is based on his parents lives.

Jeff Ingber

Jeff Ingber

7 Comments

  1. Thank you, Mr. Ingber, for providing more details in a story I’ve known since childhood (one of my great-grandparents living in Kosice and two living in Debrecen were murdered in the spring-summer of 1944, and their two daughters, a grand-daughter, among others). I was born in 1966.

    Your mention of your mother’s reaction to Szálasi’s name reminds me of how my Püspökladány-born grandmother – who left her parents in Debrecen when she emigrated to Palestine in 1936 – would not speak German with me on the phone when I was travelling in Germany (and other parts of Europe) in 1986, and – worse than that for her – had great fear that I would be abducted, killed, etc. (?) on the trip if they did not hear from me for some time (rural Greece at the time was quite challenged in regards to convenient international phone calls.)

    Your analysis is helpful too, as it reinforces several important points.

    Unfortunately – and this is perhaps related to length-restrictions for your piece – you do a tremendous disservice to those who seek justice and “never again, for anyone”, by seemingly conflating the reason for Jobbik’s proposed no Israeli citizenship condition and non-anti-Semitic anti-Zionism, the position of a growing number of Jews and many others. It’s clear that Jobbik is anti-Semitic, and anti-Zionist for that reason (and a minority of Arabs, for example, unfortunately also make this conflation.) But it’s 180 degrees different than my anti-Zionism, which is based largely on a reaction to the extreme racism that was visited upon my family during World War II (also in Slovakia). Let’s also not forget that while Jobbik’s friendly-competitor Fidesz’s anti-Semitism waxes and wanes, their policies towards Roma are consistently oppressive (it’s appalling that representatives of the Hungarian Jewish community met with Fidesz last year to apparently discuss mutual concerns about Muslim economic and political refugees — this is about the need for Hungary’s biggest partly to be demonstrably free of anti-Jewish AND anti-Roma sentiment and policy.

    It can be difficult for many to separate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism which – in their pure form, if you will – have wholly different aims. But you, frankly, have no excuse to do this. Historical and especially recent Israel policy is no inspiration for freedom and justice in Hungary, and it’s fair to say that Jobbik may be inspired by some of its mechanisms.

    This does not mean that Israel is the enemy of Hungary and that dual-citizenship should be impossible – and let’s not forget that about 20% of Israeli citizens are Palestinian! There are good people in both countries that need every excuse to be brought together to fight racist political parties such as Fidesz, Jobbik and Likud.

  2. “.. the hatred and evil ..”

    While anti-Semitism is typical for the Orban faithful, the main point is the hatred, to keep it bubbling under the surface ready to pour over the next enemy designate. It’s an ancient concept of dictatorships.

    Orban’s Fidesz is the far right, together with its unruly sibling – the Jobbik. Orban turned decisively in this direction after 2006 and now his policies have overtaken those of the Jobbik, while the narrative is not far behind. Since Jobbik germinated and grew out of Fidesz, their “intellectual” circles, media, low level politicians and voters largely overlap.
    Without Fidesz sustaining the poisoned environment the Jobbik won’t grow taller.

    Ergo, Orban delenta est, focus on the top priority.

  3. Gabriel Farkas says:

    Mr. Edelman,

    While one may or may not agree with the Israeli Likud government’s policies toward the Palestinians, I think it is more than an exaggeration to compare these policies with the Nazi policies of a party like Jobbik in Hungary, a party that is the successor of the Arrow Cross.

    Let’s not forget the fact that Israel did not occupy the occupied territories just for fun, but as a result of wars in which its enemies’ open goal was the destruction of state Israel and the drowning of its Jewish population in the Mediterranean Sea. This goal was never abandoned by the Palestinians.

    On the other hand the Arrow Cross (and other Nazis) did murder Jews (and others) just because who they were, Jews, Roma etc. The Nazis’ victims were totally innocent.

    Your comparison makes no sense (to me).

  4. Yes, Mr. Farkas you are ABSOLUTELY correct!!!!

  5. I don’t understand this. Many points of this piece are correct but the comparisons, more exactly the associations woven into it are somewhat bizarre and makes me wonder what an earth does the writer want to tell us or want us to think.

  6. Who does Hungary belong to, the Hungarian people or every one else? Is it so wrong that a people want their own countries? Why would anyone want to impose on another peoples country and demand that they accept it?

  7. Charlie London says:

    A very interesting post – thank you Jeff!

    It is still a shock to me how Hungarians, even today eulogise Horthy – when the anti-Jewish laws he put in place and developed – long before Hitler and Eichmann – set the climate for Horthy’s successor, Szálasi.

    Although you say the Germans installed Szálasi – and they did – it was Horthy who got into bed with Hitler – and even named the roundabout in the middle of Budapest ‘Hitler Adolph Korund’ (now renamed Kodaly Korund along Andrassy UT).

    Szálasi was a continuum of Jewish hate passed on from Horthy – so to say Horthy ‘saved’ hundreds if Jews – as many who erect statues of Horthy today do in Hungary – is just a travesty of truth – and History.

    That many of these statues and busts are sponsored by church and state is an even bigger warping of history and a shocking disgrace.

    Raoul Wallenberg must be turning in his grave – wherever it is.

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