The Military

The right-wing, conservative Horthy regime did not intend to place weapons

Grave of a labour serviceman on the eastern front

into the hands of Hungarian citizens who were declared to be Jewish; however, it neither intended to spare them from the war. Therefore Jewish men of military age were obliged to perform unarmed work. Jewish labour servicemen practically performed slave labour in civilian clothes, under military guard. Between 1941 and 1944, tens of thousands of them died on the eastern front due to the cruelty of the guards, the rigours of the weather and the battles.  Mass executions and decimations also were carried out: in some cases the commanders chased the labour servicemen out to the minefields so that they would clear the place. However, it is also true that many Hungarian soldiers, officers and privates treated the labour servicemen in a humane way, many times helping or rescuing them.

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The commanders

It was predominantly the attitude of the commanders and the officers that affected the behaviour of the guards and the supply of the labour servicemen, and therefore their fate and chances of survival. Thus the responsibility of the officers was immense. This is well illustrated by the testimony of E. R.: the commander was "definitely a Jew-killer. He deteriorated our well-meaning miner guards, incited them against us."[1]

"Since we had a very good accommodation and our guards were great, my comrades were usually in

Labour servicemen in Hungary.

high spirits
," remembered the 28-year-old clerk about his days spent as a member of a lumbering company in the area of Kiev.[2] A labour serviceman, who had already suffered greatly, was assigned to the supply unit of the division in Ukraine in November 1943. "We were under the command of 2nd lieutenant Molnár, who was an angel. He treated us like a father treats his own children."[3] As the luck of company no. 4/2 would have it, its brutal guards were dismissed and thus a new era began. "These days in Mohács, in Transylvania and in Izsák were sunny. We almost felt free, the rations were good." Later the unit was redeployed to Uzsok to build fortifications, but "the guards remained the same, and our good life continued."[4] "I might say it was like a holiday," recalled Dr A. S. of his four months in 1943 to 1944 in Mohács. "Our guards were very correct with the exception of Lance Sergeants János Hász and János Hegyi. In accord with the behaviour of the guards, time was spent in the best mood."[5]

V. B. was performing slave labour for the Germans in an Ukrainian turf mine for months in 1943. Most members of his unit (penal company 482) died of hunger, since the daily rations was 20 decagrams of bread. He and ten comrades were assigned to Field Hospital 116. "We did very well there. Our commander, physician Lieutenant Colonel Dr József Fekete, treated us in an excellent way and he kept us there too." When the headquarters wanted to move them, V. B. escaped to the partisans.[6]

Several survivors gave accounts of commanders who closed their eyes to or even fostered the escapes of the labour servicemen. Not long after the supervisor of the Ministry of Defence paid a visit to company 701/2, the leaders of the unit were dismissed. The new commander, Tibor Hetényi, demanded hard work, but only because "he wanted to make sure that people did not get into trouble because of sabotaging".  Hetényi "had also a lot of compassion for the company", therefore his labour servicemen found him "an extremely benevolent person ... When Russians approached us he posed the question: ‘Shall we be captured or shall get home?' Naturally, we wanted to return to our families." Therefore the collective escape was thwarted.[7]

It also occurred that the officers actively rescued the labour servicemen. After much suffering, the fate of a company serving in Poland turned for the better when the sadistic commander, Lieutenant Somoskői,

Labour servicemen performing earthwork.

was dismissed, "because the labour service guards, together with the labour servicemen, reported against him for stealing our food". The new commander, 2nd Lieutenant Sándor Németh, a teacher, "was an excellent, correct gentleman in every respect. He stood by the Jewish labour servicemen, risking his officer's rank many times ... It happened several times that he protected us against the German SS. Once, for example, he chased away four SS men armed with machine-guns from the quarter, although he risked his life with that. It so happened that 70 people, encouraged by him, escaped the day before. Ten of them came back the day after. The SS men got to know about it and they entered the quarter and asked where those ten people were. I was the one whom they asked and they told me to tell them, otherwise they would execute me. I said I did not know. They said they would find them and they immediately took out a hand-grenade. Meanwhile the Jewish orderly of the 2nd lieutenant ... ran for the 2nd lieutenant. He rushed in the quarter with a loaded pistol in his hand. He called the SS men to account for being in there and practically kicked them out."[8] When the company returned home in October 1944, 2nd Lieutenant Németh, after urging the labour servicemen to escape (and also providing some of them with Gentile papers), deserted the army because, as he said, "he was not willing to take the Jews to Germany".[9]

From the German occupation to the Arrow Cross putsch

After the German occupation, the thus far dreaded labour service became the safe haven of Jews closed up in ghettos, since-although the situation of the labour servicemen deteriorated everywhere-the call-ups saved a lot of people from deportation to Birkenau. The Ministry of Defence often delivered summons even to the ghettos and collection camps.[10] The motivations of those ministerial officials who had shown definitive antisemitic and pro-German sentiments in the previous years are manifold. The army was in desperate need of labour force, and many soldiers must have understood that the Third Reich lost the war. Most likely certain consciences were awakened in some people, and perhaps in some cases, some took the initiative who had previously dealt with the "Jewish question" in a humane way too.[11]

Labour servicemen met decent superiors in this period too. I. K. and Ö. L. were making an inventory of the confiscated Jewish property in 1944 in Szombathely, which "depressed us so much". According to their testimony, it was due to Lieutenant Kálmán Németh and Staff Sergeant Károly Lakosi that "we did well at company ... the officers and the guards behaved themselves impeccably".[12]

The Arrow Cross Era

After the Arrow Cross takeover, when Hungarian authorities agreed on the "lending" of tens of thousands of Jews to the Germans, besides the Budapest Jews thousands of labour servicemen were set off to the west. A part of the units spent days or weeks in the capital before leaving for the border. During this time, the labour servicemen were trying to obtain protection documents issued by different foreign embassies. The commanders could play a major role in obtaining a protected status for the labour servicemen and thus in saving their lives. "A teacher from Szatmárnémeti called Vitéz Gállfy was the commander of our company, a man who was worthy of every kind of praise," said P. B. after the war. Gálffy proved his extraordinary humanity already in the countryside, since following his suggestion "our company gave our food to the Jewish women who were marching through the place, and who were in very bad condition. He sent the physician of our company to the women doing labour service to support them with medical help." In Budapest he suggested that the company should obtain a Swiss letter of protection. He was compelled to set those off to the western border who did not have such a safe conduct, "however, he brought them back too on the fourth day, since the safe conducts had caught up with them."[13] H. D. and J. S. were working together at the Weiss Manfréd factory. "The guards were rather normal. Our lieutenant obtained the Swiss letter of protection for the whole company."[14]

Many companies were not that lucky and left for Germany. It occurred that the commanders urged their men to escape or closed their eyes to desertions. It happened in 1944 at Ráckeve that "the major part of the company-since the approach of the Russians was a certainty-did not set off, but deserted. This was known by the commander [Lieutenant Jenő Niesmann], he did not do anything about it, what's more, he supported it."[15]

Imre Gordon's evacuated company marched towards the western border for eight days.  "Treatment was tolerable as our Captain Count Miklós Mikes demanded that privates treated us decently. There was not a single roll call during the trip although they were well aware of the fact that many had escaped."[16]

László Wallerstein and Dr László Farkas, who were "liberated" from Russian captivity by the counterattacking Germans, noticed that from the march towards Sopron, many escaped.  "There was a warrant officer with us, István Kőházi, who helped the Jews to escape, he even gave them money out of his own pocket."[17]

Yet most of the labour servicemen deported to the west were not able to escape. They were heading towards slave labour and concentration camps, and the survivors were liberated only in the spring of 1945. 



[1] Protocol 3395.

[2] Protocol 3013.

[3] Protocol 2895.

[4] Protocol 2208.

[5] Protocol 3189.

[6] Protocol 3255.

[7] Protocol 784.

[8] Protocol 2608.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Braham 1997, p. 346.

[11] Anyhow, it is sure that Samu Stern, who was seeking help on behalf of the Jewish Council, met a supportive attitude only at the Ministry of Defence. Protocol 3627.

[12] Protocol 3242.

[13] Protocol 3074.

[14] Protocol 2647.

[15] Protocol 1529.

[16] Protocol 2099.

[17] Protocol 2177.


Braham 1997

Randolph L. Braham: A népirtás politikája - a Holocaust Magyarországon. 1-2. köt. Budapest, 1997, Belvárosi Könyvkiadó.

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