Indifference, Antipathy, Antisemitism

The destruction of the majority of the Hungarian Jews is a unique chapter in Holocaust history: never before had so many people (437,000 people) been deported in so little time (56 days) from a territory of such a size (170,000 square kilometres). In addition to the comprehensive and smooth collaboration of the Hungarian authorities another reason for the Nazis' "success" was the indifference of the Gentile population. In spite of the fact that in 1944-1945, altogether tens of thousands of Hungarian Gentiles saved and/or helped the persecuted, the majority in general watched indifferently as their Jewish compatriots were deprived of their rights, humiliated and dragged away. Moreover, hundreds of thousands turned a profit from the spoliation and deportation of the Jews that was organised by the state.

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Hungarian political philosopher István Bibó wrote the following on the behaviour of the Hungarian population during the Holocaust: "[The intention to help] was only a drop in the ocean, and not even in a hostile ocean, but ... a drop in a sea of bewilderment, vacillation, not daring to help and gliding away before help was offered ... We can tell as many true stories as we wish, about the domestic heroes of human love and succour; but no one in their right mind can seriously argue that the totality of Hungarian Jewry has a reason to be grateful to the entirety of Hungarians, that as a result of the Hungarian behaviour during the persecution, they were more united than hitherto."[1] [italics in the original.]

In the interwar period antisemitism was an integral element of Hungarian political and intellectual life. It was audible in the

Arrow Cross and antisemitic graffiti on the wall of a house, 1938 (Hit the Jew)

discrete verbal antisemitism of the conservative-liberal aristocracy, it was present in the army's intention to keep the armed forces "clean of Jews", and could be sensed in the "Jewish curses" of ordinary people. Additionally, it manifested itself in the platforms of the extreme right-wing parties and the secret organisations entwined with the military elite, just as it was present in the bloodthirsty antisemitism of the right-wing press and the more restrained antisemitism of government papers. All this naturally exerted its influence on the behaviour of the populace in 1944.

The protocols report certain antisemitic phenomena in daily life preceding the German invasion. Following March 19, 1944 the situation deteriorated swiftly and radically. In Gánya "after the introduction of the yellow star it was not advisable to move through the streets because we very manhandled. We endured constant harassment: if they saw we were wearing an earring, they'd tear it out." - recalled S. G.[2]

The father of R. F. from Ungvár was denounced for having Communist sympathies in late March. "They grabbed him in the street and took him to the anti-espionage unit where they beat him atrociously."[3] This is how M. K. characterized the situation immediately after March 19, 1944: "After the Germans arrived, the Jews were subject to continuous manhandling. In particular, men in the street were attacked and beaten without cause."[4] According to S. S. "here [In Ungvár] too, as everywhere in the country, the baiting of Jews began with the wearing of the yellow star."

From mid-April, ghettoisation began in Carpatho-Ruthenia and then the entire country, and on May 15, 1944 the mass deportation of Hungarian Jewry began. Each day, several trains left the country, departing via Kassa to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Each transport carried on average 3000-3500 people.

During the summer deportations from the countryside, the willingness and opportunity for the population to offer help was

Deportation from Tata

negligible. Events occurred with exceptional rapidity, furthermore, the size of the settlements and their topographical situation would not have offered the possibility for more significant attempts at rescue, had there indeed been the intention among the Gentile population to do so. However, this willingness was only sporadically present.

Some of the survivors from Huszt recall that when they were being driven from the ghetto and the brick factory, "the non-Jewish population looked on at our march and we noticed that they seemed relatively indifferent."[5] According to B. F., in Kassa "the behaviour of the non-Jewish population, if not good natured, was neutral."[6]

The population of Técső "generally [was] glad at the sight"[7] of the gendarmes herding the local Jews into the ghetto. The survivors assessed the behaviour of the populations of Szeged,[8]  Kispest,[9] Nagyszőllős,[10] Paks,[11] Mircsén,[12] Léva, [13] Salánk[14] in the same way.

H. E.'s mother had been lying paralyzed in a hospital for three years, when "one day the gendarmes came in and ordered us to leave the hospital within fifteen minutes. I was a nurse at the time with the patients. As I was dressing her, the gendarmes kept beating me so I would hurry up. They did not want to call for a wheelchair, so I  took her for a bit on my back, but I couldn't hurry with her and they struck my back with rifles. [Then my mother] lay down on the road and asked to be shot because she couldn't move any further. The Christians even passed a remark on us saying: ‘They are taking away the stinky Jewess'. One of the gendarmes eventually took pity, brought a wheelchair and threw her onto it like a sack."[15]

Sometimes, local people would "pay a visit" to the Huszt ghetto. "Although those who entered the ghetto were unpleasant in every way and showed neither humanity nor charity towards us, I still do not think back to this period with bitterness because my parents were still there."[16] - recalled a survivor later. S. B. did not have better memories of the local Huszt people: "The local population behaved very malevolently, they drove off our cows and stole our fodder."[17]

F. S. of Dombó regarded the Gentile inhabitants of her village as "very villainous".[18] H. S., a

Deportation of the Körmend Jews, onlookers are standing on the side of the road

schoolteacher from Bilke had a similar experience and produced the following explanation: "The population certainly behaved very badly at the end, they had succeeded in inciting them against us to such a degree."[19]

The DEGOB protocols show neutrality, or indifference mixed with bad intentions, and even behaviour aimed to gain profit from the dire circumstances of the Jews. Moreover, they also give testimony to how certain citizens facilitated the annihilation process. These are small in number and generally were not mass actions, rather the active collaboration of individuals.

The Jews of Tárkány were transferred to the Sátoraljaújhely ghetto. The action was organised by a sculptor living in Tárkány, József Branna, and his father, the headmaster of the school József Branna, Sr. "The gendarmes entrusted it to them because they knew that they would set about destroying us with an enthusiasm greater that their own ‘enthusiasm for a sacred matter.' "[20]  

While a soldier, M. J. witnessed in 1941 the fate of those Hungarian Jews who did not have Hungarian citizenship and as a result had been deported by the National Central Authority for Controlling Foreigners to the military zone beyond the Dnester river. "I resolved that I was not going to do that." One night he fled the Iza ghetto and hid in a nearby wood where he encountered many other hiding Jews. Weeks later, he dared to enter Huszt carrying Christian identity papers, where a Gentile woman who knew him recognized him and reported him. M. J. ended up in the hands of the Nyíregyháza counter-espionage division, where he was beaten with a dog whip. He was then taken to Debrecen from where he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.[21]

L. N. was hiding in Kispest using Gentile documents when some local people recognized him at a tram stop. After the Sárvár internment camp he also was sent to Auschwitz.[22]

Despite considerably more people helping the Jews in Budapest and the countryside during the Arrow Cross regime, it would be an exaggeration to say it had become a general phenomenon. The majority remained indifferent.

Jews who were deported from Budapest or who served in labour service companies obtained ample experience of the behaviour of the Hungarian population.

Ödön Keleti was sent from Érsekújvár towards Budapest. "The population's behaviour was average" - recalled this former post-office employee.[23]

G. A. Sz. served in Szolnok before being sent to the capital. According to him, "the neighbouring population was indifferent."[24]

According to T. B., the "Budapest non-Jews treated us atrociously..."[25]. A. G. shared this opinion too, when they were driven through the capital. "Our miserable group was accompanied by leers and crude insults from the non-Jewish Budapest population and when we were deported, they laughed at us".[26] 

J. P. was denounced by an acquaintance in Budapest,[27] the same fate was suffered by J. E. who had already slipped through the hands of the Arrow Cross six times. "On the seventh time I tripped up. My ‘friends' had reported me."[28]

Those Jews forced to march on foot or deported by train frequently had to confront the reality that many of their compatriots desired to profit from their misery.

I. P., a university student, was crammed into a cattle car with seventy other people, heading towards the Western border. "Towards Győr, some peasants sold us a little slice of meat for a wedding ring, while a Doxa watch was exchanged for a five-centimetre-thick crust of homemade bread."[29]

Sándor Goldstein had similar experiences: "On the journey, the population brought us food to eat but they really blackmailed us. They asked 200 pengős for some bread".[30]

Gy. L., a Budapest seamstress, was dragging herself along the road to Vienna, when "we received a slice of bread from peasants for 30-40 pengős."[31]

J. I, a twenty-year-old nursery teacher, was part of a march heading towards the western border. Local peasants accompanied the group, who "were willing to carry people on carts, initially for low sums, later only for larger ones. Because the more we marched, the weaker people became and could no longer cope with the journey, and knew that they were prepared to part with their final possessions just to be able to get on the cart."[32]

Although certainly not guided by humanitarian concerns, at least these people helped the persecuted. Other deportees had much more shocking experiences. L. I. worked in Hidegség. They were accommodated in a peasant house. "My two comrades lay down in the hay. Then the host's son, who was barely twenty years old, went up to them and beat them to death."[33] 

Imre Relle performed slave labour in Balf on the defensive section, during the building of which literary historian and writer

Labour servicemen

Antal Szerb was killed: "The population of Balf did everything they could to humiliate us and make us a mockery. They were happy - everyone from small children to serious adults - to throw stones at us and beat us with sticks."[34]

In October, the SS carried out some mass executions in Hungary, where the victims were members of redeployed labour service companies. One of these executions occurred on October 11th at the Kiskunhalas railway station.[35] J. I. was one of the few survivors. The locals "threw stones at us and accompanied us through the streets, demanding that we six be executed as well." J. I. was eventually helped by a Hungarian army officer, who dressed him   in military uniform and enrolled him in a Kiskunhalas unit.[36]

It could be asserted regarding the behaviour of the Hungarian Gentile population in general that the overwhelming majority remained indifferent and at times, this indifference was married to malice and bad intentions. In contrast to certain East European countries, however, where masses of the local non-Jewish population appeared to take pleasure in the annihilation of the Jews, Hungarian civilians relatively rarely supported the collaborative authorities with action (denunciations, physical harm).




[1] Bibó 1984, p. 150.

[2] Protocol 633.

[3] Protocol 658.

[4] Protocol 348.

[5] Protocol 2374.

[6] Protocol 47.

[7] Protocol 682.

[8] Protocol 3575.

[9] Protocol 2336.

[10] Protocol 90, Protocol 3350.

[11] Protocol 3526.

[12] Protocol 70.

[13] Protocol 2423.

[14] Protocol 1647.

[15] Protocol 1091.

[16] Protocol 2912.

[17] Protocol 28.

[18] Protocol 1277.

[19] Protocol 3308.

[20] Protocol 16.

[21] Protocol 2367.

[22] Protocol 602.

[23] Protocol 2038.

[24] Protocol 637.

[25] Protocol 1638.

[26] Protocol 1642.

[27] Protocol 2243.

[28] Protocol 2921.

[29] Protocol 3625.

[30] Protocol 1692.

[31] Protocol 1312.

[32] Protocol 1214.

[33] Protocol 1524.

[34] Protocol 1898. It should be noted that Szabolcs Szita's account (Szita 1999) presents a very different account of the Balf population.

[35]  At Cservenka on the night of October 7-8, approx. 700 labour servicemen were shot, also 196 on October 11 in Kiskunhalas, 62 on October 13, 1944 at the Debrecen-Apafa firing ranges, and more than 150 at Pusztavám.

[36] Protocol 1917


Bibó 1984

István Bibó: Zsidókérdés Magyarországon 1944 után. (Jewish Question in Hungary after 1944.) In Hanák Péter (ed.): Zsidókérdés, asszimiláció, antiszemitizmus. (Jewish Question, Assimilation, Anti-Semitism.) Budapest, 1984, Gondolat. pp. 135-294.

Szita 1999

Szabolcs Szita (ed.): A humánum példái - Dokumentumok, emlékezések a magyarországi embermentő akciók 1944 - 1945. évi történetéhez. (Examples of Humanity. Documents, Recollection on the History of the Rescue Actions in Hungary in 1944-1945.) Budapest, 1999, Magyar Auschwitz Alapítvány - Holocaust Dokumentációs Központ.


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