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


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

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