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.[1] Although the president of the Council, Samu Stern,

Samu Stern leader of the Jewish Council

recalled that the Nazis nominated the body's members,[2] it seems more probable that Eichmann and his associates merely nominated the circle of those to be chosen and within that framework Stern was granted a free hand.[3] This solution well characterizes the Germans' anti-Jewish policies in Hungary. They did not want to get overly involved in uninteresting details and restricted themselves to drafting instructions to be adhered to strictly. The communication and implementation of their orders were left to Jews who knew the local conditions better. When the councils were formed, it was essential for Eichmann and his men that their members be recruited from the former circle of Jewish leaders, since it was of vital importance for the Germans that the Jewish communities accept the new body as legitimate leadership, indirectly ensuring compliance with Nazi demands. The Nazis were not interested in changing the Jewish elite. As far as they were concerned, one of the principal functions of Jewish councils was to calm down those destined to die.

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.[4] 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.)[5] 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

and leader of the Council's technical division, Miksa Domonkos,

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.[6]

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".[7] 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."[8] 

Although following the German occupation, the Jews were forbidden to travel, their vehicles were confiscated and German and Hungarian policemen arrested them in the thousands at railway stations. The capital and the countryside were not yet hermetically sealed from each other. Although it was difficult and sporadic, the Budapest Jewish Council succeeded in creating contact with the Jewish organisations of the countryside.[9] 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.[10] 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

and Ottó Komoly) by late April or early May,[11] and it is inconceivable that they did not share their contents with the Council members with whom they were in contact. But if Kasztner and his associates did keep this information to themselves, the German language document was certainly on the Council's table in early June.[12] However the Jewish Council had still not passed the protocols on to either Horthy's circle or to foreign diplomats until the second half of June. What happened in those three to six weeks? According to the testimony of E. E, one the employees of the Council, the nearly 40-page text was translated into several languages.[13] Rabbi Fábián Herskovits, who spoke Italian well, produced an Italian version from the original German to pass on to the Pope.[14] This step is entirely bewildering since even if they did not know that Pope Pius XII knew German supremely well (Eugenio Pacelli was the Berlin papal legate from 1920 to 1929), they could have presumed that the Vatican had its own German interpreter. The question can be raised: if Horthy, his circle as well as diplomats knew of the essence of the Final Solution in 1944, what would have been the importance of the Jewish Council's attempts to communicate it? In this case, one can justifiably argue: if this was the case, then why did they ultimately distribute the Auschwitz Protocols? It is telling that most members of the Jewish Council were conspicuously quiet about the Protocols. Sándor Török, the Christian member of the Council and later Deputy President of the Christian Council, mentioned the documents: "I visited various leading people with our documentary material, such as the highly important secret reports we had about the Auschwitz camp; most had the opinion that they were not true, merely "Jewish exaggerations'."[15] This does not offer an explanation for the delay. Fülöp Freudiger was silent about the documents[16] as was Samu Stern, who does not mention the Auschwitz Protocols once in his 29 pages of highly detailed testimony.[17] But they made their effects felt: in late June a flood of international protests were sent to Regent Miklós Horthy , which finally called a halt to the deportations in early July 1944.[18] The majority of the Budapest Jewry was thus able to escape, but by then, Auschwitz-Birkenau had already swallowed up all the other Jewish communities in Hungary. 

The Arrow Cross period

When the Arrow Cross seized power, and after the ghettos were set up, the

Regent Miklós Horthy

Council's only task was to protect the Jews of the capital. As we have mentioned, although Stern remained the President of this (fourth) council, it was de facto run by Deputy President Lajos Stöckler and Miksa Domonkos. Both carried out their duties with exceptional personal bravery and worked without rest to provide for and protect Jews forced into the ghetto.[19] Domonkos, in his army captain's uniform without the mandatory yellow star, posed as an envoy of the Ministry of Defence, and frequently forced the Arrow Cross gangs who arrived at the Council's headquarters intent on looting to retreat: "I forever succeeded in deceiving them [the Arrow Cross men] ... so throughout the Szálasi regime, they never conducted a house search of the Jewish Council, indeed, they didn't open a single cash box, into which we had succeeded in saving the Jewish communal funds and in particular, the exceptionally valuable Pest Kadisha hoard of gold".

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.



[1] 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 ).

[2] Protocol 3627.

[3] 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.

[4] 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".

[5] 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.

[6] 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.

[7] Braham 1997, pp. 92-115 and pp. 767-809.

[8] Protocol 3627.

[9] See Molnár 1995, pp. 120-128, Molnár, 2000, pp. 147-152. and Frojimovics - Molnár 2002.

[10] Hausner 1984, p. 481.

[11] Braham 1997, pp. 785-787.

[12] Ibid

[13] Protocol 3615

[14] Braham 1997, p. 788.

[15] Protocol 3643.

[16] Recollection of Fülöp Freudiger, published by Braham 1973, pp. 75-146

[17] Protocol 3627.

[18] The Pope, King of Sweden, and President Roosevelt of the US sent telegrams to Horthy, demanding the cessation of the deportations.

[19] Braham 1997, pp. 477 and 932-972.


Braham 1973

Randolph L. Braham (ed.): Hungarian Jewish Studies III. New York, 1973, World Federation of Hungarian Jews.

Braham 1997

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.

Hausner 1984

Gideon Hausner: Ítélet Jeruzsálemben. Az Eichmann-per története. (Justice in Jerusalem. The Story of the Eichmann Trial.) Budapest, 1984, Európa.

Molnár 1995

Judit Molnár: Zsidósors 1944-ben az V. (szegedi) csendőrkerületben. (Jewish Fate in the V. (Szeged) Gendarmerie District.) Budapest, 1995, Cserépfalvi.

Molnár 2000

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.


váltás magyarra