The Jewish Council
As elsewhere in Nazi-occupied Europe, certain administrative bodies-known colloquially as Jewish Councils-were created in Hungary in spring 1944. These bodies were obliged to communicate the wishes of the Germans and the local collaborating authorities to the Jewish communities. Outside Budapest, the Jewish Councils existed for only weeks, since all of the countryside communities had been deported by the beginning of July. Assessment of the Budapest Jewish Council is ambivalent: some consider them traitors of their coreligionists, while others state that they did everything they could to save those doomed to die.
Click here to read more about the Holocaust in Hungary.
The Budapest Jewish council was formed on March 21, by order of the Germans. Although the president of the Council, Samu Stern,
Samu Stern leader of the Jewish Council
In the early weeks, the Hungarian authorities effectively ignored the existence of the Jewish Council, and it remained entirely under German command. In spring 1944, the Jewish leaders were astonished to realize that they were totally isolated: their traditional system of political relations had collapsed in a single stroke when the Gestapo immediately arrested a significant proportion of their supporters in the most prominent positions. Others went into hiding or were simply replaced. When they desperately turned to the various Hungarian authorities for help, the answer was chillingly clear in every instance: the Germans must be obeyed. The Hungarian government decided in mid April to terminate this legally unclear situation and to legalize the Jewish Council. This body, which was named the "Interim Executive Committee of the Association of Jews of Hungary," was officially placed under the jurisdiction of the Hungarian authorities. The process was accompanied by a change of personnel but the leadership of the Council, which continued to be chaired by Stern, remained essentially unchanged. (In early July, under pressure from the Christian churches the government created the "Association of Christian Jews of Hungary" for those Jews who had converted to Christianity. This Christian quasi-Jewish Council was not able to carry out any meaningful activity, and its operation remained formal.) After the Arrow Cross took power, the Jewish Council was again transformed. Although Samu Stern remained as its leader, he remained in hiding until the liberation, since his health was destroyed and he rightfully feared that the Arrow Cross would kill him. The council and the "large" ghetto of Pest was directed by his deputy Lajos Stöckler
Lajos Stöckler, member of the Council
Evaluation of the activity of the Jewish Council remains disputed even today. Stern and his colleagues followed a consistent policy, the essence of which was adherence to law and loyalty to the Hungarian state. Although the Hungarian state visibly abandoned its Jewish citizens, the Jewish leadership still behaved as if the invasion had not happened. This extreme historical situation led to an extreme moral dilemma-without acceptable alternatives. If one accepted membership on the Council, he facilitated the smooth execution of the deportations in accordance with German plans, which is to say he became morally implicated in the death of his people. If the Council had failed to execute orders, another council would have taken its place without the close ties to various political circles maintained by the traditional leadership. In April 1944 no one could know just how long the initial isolation would last, and felt there would soon be a need for the old web of relations. This, however, proved to be speculative. When a few weeks later, Hungarian Jewry again found itself under the authority of the Hungarian government, this brought not positive but almost immediately negative consequences: the Sztójay government communicated with them via a hail of decrees that deprived them of all rights. Stern and his colleagues were convinced that when danger threatened, they could better hold together the network of religious and aid organisations and associations. They were rightfully afraid that if they did not lead the Jewish Council, then some far less competent staff might take over. They made their decision and accepted the task. They decided poorly because it was impossible to decide well. The new Hungarian government acted against the Jews with such efficiency that it led to the largest and fastest deportation in the history of the Holocaust, surprising not just the Jewish leadership who blindly believed in Regent Miklós Horthy and the traditional Hungarian elite, but the occupying Germans as well.
Information and resistance
The members of the Jewish Council behaved according to their traditions in their new roles. They diligently organised provision for the Jews and constantly tried to influence the German and Hungarian authorities, as well as diplomatic bodies to obstruct and halt the deportations. They even supported, as far as they dared, some rather audacious negotiations by certain Zionist groups with the Nazis. There is no question that many of the Council members could have fled, if they had chosen to exploit their material wealth and connections. Most did not do this, although this would have been far more reassuring for both themselves and their families.
One of the concomitant issues of the Council's policies was that they did not impart all the information at their disposal to the Jewish masses. Relevant literature has shown unambiguously that the Hungarian Jewish leadership knew early on about the realities of the Nazi "Final Solution". Samu Stern did not deny this in his recollections, since he formulated the following about Eichmann and his associates: "I knew what they did in all the occupied states of Central Europe, and I knew about the long succession of murders and despoliation of their operation ... I knew their customs, deeds and terrible reputation."
Although following the German occupation, the Jews were forbidden to travel, their vehicles were confiscated and German and Many have asked what might have happened had Stern and the others illuminated the masses, or at least, informed the leaders of other local councils of what they knew of the Germans' plans. It seems probable that they would no more have believed news about mass extermination than they believed the Halutzim, members of young Zionist organisations, who tried to stir the inhabitants of certain ghettos with news of the Final Solution. "If I had known what Auschwitz was, then no power on Earth would have forced me onto that train. But there was no power on Earth that would have made me believe that such as place as Auschwitz existed" - recalled a Hungarian survivor during the 1961 Eichmann trial in Jerusalem. It seems that this entirely understandable attitude was generally held in Hungary's ghettos in the summer of 1944. What might have happened if the Jews had believed the news denied to so many of them? During the Holocaust, the Jews of not one single European country rose up. At most, groups living in certain ghettos took up arms, when the deportations of the majority of the community proved that there was no hope for survival. In the summer of 1942, the Nazis deported 275,000 people from Warsaw, the majority of whom were unable to work, in a mere 53 days to the Treblinka death camp. The famous uprising only occurred eight months later, when those left behind learned from the first to escape that the Nazis intended to kill every single one of them. Of the 70,000 surviving inhabitants in the ghetto, fewer than a thousand took up arms in the spring of 1943. In Hungary the basic conditions for such an armed uprising were missing.
Even had the Jewish Council found receptive ears to calls for widespread resistance, the rebels would almost certainly have met a bloody end, which would not have been any more destructive than the selection Dr Mengele. carried out at the ramp in Birkenau. Eighty percent of Hungarian Jews who disembarked from the cattle cars were dead within a few hours of arrival. This rate of mortality could hardly have been surpassed by retributive executions following any hypothetical wave of disobedience, escapes and resistance. There was no good decision here. Yet this is perhaps where the central Jewish Council unwittingly made its biggest mistake. No conceivable scenario could have been more destructive than what happened in reality.
The Auschwitz Protocols
The least comprehensible and defensible decision of the Council's members was not to pass on much sooner the documents recording the Birkenau mass exterminations (the so-called Auschwitz Protocols) to Hungarians who were at least not antipathetic to them, as well as neutral diplomatic bodies. The Auschwitz Protocols seem very likely to have been in the hands of Budapest Zionist leaders (Rezső Kasztner
Zionist leader Rezső Kasztner
The Arrow Cross period
When the Arrow Cross seized power, and after the ghettos were set up, the
In summary, we can say that the Jewish Council was fundamentally well intentioned but chose a poor strategy and, as a victim of events, remained generally ineffective. Of the seventeen members occupying the four Budapest Jewish Councils, three (Miklós Szegő, János Gábor and Ottó Komoly) were murdered by the Germans and the Arrow Cross.
 Its members: Samu Stern, President (merchant, banker, president of the National Office of Hungarian Israelites and the Neolog Pest Israelite Community); Ernő Pető (lawyer, vice-president of the Neolog Pest Israelite Community); Ernő Boda (lawyer, vice-president of the Neolog Pest Israelite Community); Károly Wilhelm (lawyer, elder of the of Neolog Pest Israelite Community); Samu Csobádi (president of the Buda Israelite Community); Samu Kahán-Frankl (rabbi, president of the Orthodox Israelite Central Office); Fülöp Freudiger (industrialist, president of the Budapest Autonomous Orthodox Israelite Community) and Niszon Kahán (lawyer, elder of the Hungarian Zionist Association ).
 Protocol 3627.
 This is supported by the reminiscences of Niszon Kahán, Zionist member of the Council, according to which Eichmann's deputy SS-Obersturmbannführer Hermann Krumey "let the Jews choose a seven-member council from its hitherto existing leadership." For Kahán's testimony, see Molnár 2000, p. 179.
 Prime Minister's Decree 1520/1944 on Jewish self-government and interest representation. April 19, 1944. Budapesti Közlöny April 22, 1944. For the sake of simplicity we will continue to use the expression "Jewish Council".
 Prime Minister's Decree 2540/1944 on the modification and augmentation of Prime Minister's Decree 1520/1944 on Jewish self-government and interest representation. July 12, 1944. Budapesti Közlöny July 14, 1944.
 The orthodox members of the Council abandoned the sinking ship: Samu Kahán-Frankl withdrew into illegality and hid; Fülöp Freudiger escaped across the Romanian border with his family in August 1944 and survived the war.
 Braham 1997, pp. 92-115 and pp. 767-809.
 Protocol 3627.
 See Molnár 1995, pp. 120-128, Molnár, 2000, pp. 147-152. and Frojimovics - Molnár 2002.
 Hausner 1984, p. 481.
 Braham 1997, pp. 785-787.
 Protocol 3615
 Braham 1997, p. 788.
 Protocol 3643.
 Recollection of Fülöp Freudiger, published by Braham 1973, pp. 75-146
 Protocol 3627.
 The Pope, King of Sweden, and President Roosevelt of the US sent telegrams to Horthy, demanding the cessation of the deportations.
 Braham 1997, pp. 477 and 932-972.
Randolph L. Braham (ed.): Hungarian Jewish Studies III. New York, 1973, World Federation of Hungarian Jews.
Randolph L. Braham: A népirtás politikája - a Holocaust Magyarországon. (The Politics of Genocide. The Holocaust in Hungary.) Vols. 1-2. Budapest, 1997, Belvárosi Könyvkiadó.
Frojimovics - Molnár 2002
Frojimovics Kinga - Molnár Judit (eds.): Ghettohungary 1944. Documents of the Central Jewish Council. Makor (Magyar Zsidó Levéltári Füzetek) 2005/5.
Gideon Hausner: Ítélet Jeruzsálemben. Az Eichmann-per története. (Justice in Jerusalem. The Story of the Eichmann Trial.) Budapest, 1984, Európa.
Judit Molnár: Zsidósors 1944-ben az V. (szegedi) csendőrkerületben. (Jewish Fate in the V. (Szeged) Gendarmerie District.) Budapest, 1995, Cserépfalvi.
Judit Molnár: Csendőrök, hivatalnokok, zsidók. Válogatott tanulmányok a magyar holokauszt történetéről. (Gendarmes, Officials, Jews. Selected Studies on the Hungarian Holocaust.) Szeged, 2000, Szegedi Zsidó Hitközség.