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Shoes on Danube. Part 1
How “Anti-Semite” Miklos Horthy Saved the Jews of Budapest [*]
By Eliezer M. Rabinovich

Admiral and Mrs. Horthy

1. Introduction

In 1944, Hungarian Regent Miklós Horthy saved more Jews than anyone else in the world [1]. Yet today, next to the efforts of heroic diplomats like Carl Lutz and Raoul Wallenberg, Horthy has become a forgotten footnote to history. The reason? At first glance, Horthy—a self-proclaimed anti-Semite and anti-Communist—was not exactly a hero for the textbooks. But the truth isn’t so simple. Closer examination shows that Horthy paid lip service to the Nazis while privately strategizing how to prevent deportation of the Jews. Horthy defied Hitler, took back partial power and forbade further deportations, ultimately preventing a quarter-million Hungarian Jews from perishing in the Holocaust.

By March 1944 almost all of the 800,000 Hungarian Jews had yet been alive and not deported. In spite of anti-Jewish laws that limited their economic activities, the Jews lived in relative dignity and prosperity protected by 77-year-old Regent Miklos Horthy, his prime-minister Miklos Kallay and his Minister of the Interior Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer. But on March 19, 1944, the German army occupied Hungary, deprived Horthy of real power and forced him to appoint a pro-German government. Adolf Eichmann arrived and the deportation to Auschwitz started with an extreme speed: 437,000 Jews of the provinces were deported in less than 2 months. However, 270,000 to 280,000 Jews of Budapest had yet lived in the city, when in July Horthy, who had remained alone, found a loyal armored unit, took back partial power, and forbade further deportations. In October Horthy declared truce with the Soviets and was overthrown, and the fascist and anti-Semitic party Arrow Cross headed by Ferenc Szálasi took over. The ghetto for seventy thousand Jews was established. More than ten thousand people were shot in the ghetto near the Great Synagogue. About three thousand were shot on the Pest bank of the Danube, where the victims were forced to take off their shoes, and after the execution their bodies fell into the river and were carried away by its flow. In 2005, the cast iron shoes in the style of that time were made and placed as a monument on the river bank not far from the Parliament Building. Still, the majority of the Budapest Jews survived.

2. Brief History of Hungary Before WWII. Hungary and the Jews

Who was this man, an admiral in a country with no fleet and a Regent in a kingdom with no king? Miklós Horthy de Nagybánya was born in 1868 in a family estate in Kenderes into an old Calvinist family in a mostly Catholic country. At age 14 he entered the Austro-Hungarian naval academy. In 1901 Miklos married 19-year-old Magdolna Purgly, daughter of a member of the Hungarian Parliament; they stayed together “till death did them part” 55 years later. In 1909 captain Horthy became a naval aide-de-camp to Emperor Franz Joseph, whom he idolized all his life. During the First World War Horthy was awarded the Iron Cross for his courage.
Miklos Horthy and Magdolna the estate of Horthy Kenderes.

In 1916 Franz Joseph died, and in February of 1918 the new Emperor Charles I appointed Horthy to command the entire fleet, awarding him the rank of Rear Admiral. On October 31, 1918, a day after he promoted Horthy to the rank of Vice-Admiral, Charles I ordered the surrender of the fleet to the newly-formed state of Yugoslavia. However, Hungary would soon become a land-locked country, so Admiral Horthy had no fleet to command and retired to his estate in Kenderes. On November 16 the Hungarian Democratic Republic was declared, and on March 21, 1919 Hangury became a Soviet Republic headed by Bela Kun. This communist republic survived for 133 days. The Red Terror instigated by the communists had resulted in at least 590 executions not counting executions in the army. In August the Romanian army entered Budapest and overthrew the communists.

The counter-revolutionary forces assembled in the city of Szeged. They formed a government and invited Horthy to take the position of the Minister of War. He formed a “National army” that consisted of several semi-independent units. It started the White Terror against the communists and the members of the other left parties. We cannot deny that, though the majority of the Jews did not support the communists, almost the entire Kun’s government consisted of Jews. Many victims of the White Terror were Jews, although it is certain that Horthy had not given special anti-Jewish orders. In the article on Horthy, Wikipedia says that “the Jews of Pest went on record absolving Horthy of the White Terror as early as the fall of 1919, when they released a statement disavowing the Kun revolution, and blaming the terror on a few units within the National Army.” In October 1919 Horthy stated: “I declare solemnly that in the matters of the persecution of the Jews, which are the crimes of the irresponsible elements, I have instituted the most rigorous investigations.

The number of victims of the White Terror has been largely exaggerated by the Left. Professor Andrew Simon wrote that “the Social Democratic Party’s human rights commission surveyed the country in the 1920. They found that the so called White Terror resulted about 600 - 800 missing persons.

On June 4, 1920, The Treaty of Trianon, which oversaw dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, was signed. The defeated multinational empires were replaced with national states. The problem was that clear-cut boundaries between the ethnic groups had not existed, so the new “national” states necessarily included in them large diasporas of other groups. Hungary undeservedly suffered more than any other country; it was deprived of 2/3 of its territory and 1/3 of its Magyar population.

Hungarians preferred a monarchy to a republic, but the victors did not want to hear about the possible return of the Habsburgs. On March 1, 1920, the National Assembly of Hungary voted to restore the Kingdom of Hungary and offered Admiral Horthy the position of the Regent, or the Governor. Horthy, as the US pre-war ambassador John Montgomery testified, never violated the Constitution. Most frequently he let his prime-ministers make the decisions and followed them. There were no such thing as “Horthy’s regime” or “Horthy’s clique”; these names were invented by the Left, which wanted to attribute personal responsibility for all the subsequent faults and crimes of the nation to this constitutionally weak ruler. Istvan Deak wrote that “Hungary had a parliament in which, as late as March 1944, sat a few Social Democratic and other progressive deputies, but the majority of the deputies heralded fascist ideas.

After Emperor Franz Joseph gave the Jews full citizenship rights in 1867 “the Jews as a group had achieved a power position in Hungary unmatched by their coreligionists in any other country” (Raphael Patai). Istvan Deak wrote that “there existed… a tacit agreement between the ruling gentry and the enlightened, educated, and patriotic segment of Jewry for a division of labor in modernizing Hungary. The Jews would contribute the investment capital,… and their own business acumen, dynamism, and diligence. The non-Jewish political elite would provide the legislative and administrative assistance necessary for economic expansion… The resulting success of Jews was dazzling.

According to Yuri Slezkine, in the 1921 Budapest nearly 90% of the stock and currency brokers were Jews. Between the two wars more than half and perhaps as much as 90% of Hungarian industry was owned or operated by Jewish families. In 1920, 60% of Hungarian doctors and 51% of the lawyers were Jewish. Deak wrote that in 1938 the Jews owned about a quarter of national wealth.

The communist revolution brought an end to this Christian-Jewish symbiosis. Randolph Braham wrote that “almost symbiotic relationship… distorted the Jewish leaders’ perceptions of domestic and world politics during the pre-Holocaust era. While the Jewish elites shared the aristocratic-conservative leaders’ abhorrence of Nazism and Bolshevism, they failed to recognize that the fundamental interests of the Hungarians were not always identical with those of Jewry. Their myopic views proved counterproductive during the interwar period and disastrous when the Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944.

When the country allied with Germany, the anti-Jewish measures became a part of the package. The Germans demanded limiting the Jewish rights almost in every letter, so Horthy and his conservative circle believed that some anti-Jewish measures would serve as a sort of protection for the Jews; many Jews shared this opinion. Two laws prepared by rabidly anti-Semitic Bela Imredy were introduced and passed by the parliament in 1938-1939. They were aimed at reducing the Jewish part in the economy. In general, these laws, though bad, were frequently ignored, and, as Deak wrote, even in March of 1944, “many Jewish factory owners and bankers in Budapest had made immense profits from manufacturing arms for the German and Hungarian armies.

Horthy hated Imredy, and in 1939 replaced him with Count Pál Teleki who was almost as much anti-Semitic as Imredy. Was Horthy personally an anti-Semite?

It seems that Horthy unequivocally answered this question in his private letter to Pal Teleki dated October 14, 1940 (emphasis mine - E.R.):

As regards the Jewish problem, I have been an anti-Semite throughout my life. I have never had contact with Jews. I have considered it intolerable that here in Hungary everything, every factory, bank, large fortune, business, theater, press, commerce, etc. should be in Jewish hands, and that the Jew should be the image reflected of Hungary, especially abroad. Since, however, one of the most important tasks of the government is to raise the standard of living, i.e., we have to acquire wealth, it is impossible, in a year or two, to replace the Jews, who have everything in their hands, and to replace them with incompetent, unworthy, mostly big-mouthed elements, for we should become bankrupt. This requires a generation at least. I have perhaps been the first to loudly profess anti-Semitism, yet I cannot look with indifference at inhumanity, senseless humiliation, when we still need them. In addition, I consider, for example, the Arrow Cross to be far more dangerous and worthless for my country than I do the Jew…

But again, the bare facts prove misleading. Horthy’s statement that he had “never had contact with Jews” is plainly laughable; he played bridge with them, invited them to his table, and encouraged them in commerce. But in this particular moment of history he was a leader of the nation that had chosen anti-Semitism as a way of life. In the 1939 elections “The Arrow Cross” and several other right-wing parties received a quarter of the votes. The country allied itself with Hitler’s Germany. So is it possible for the leader of such a country not to at least pay lip service to anti-Semitism in order to protect the Jews?

Why did he sign the anti-Semitic laws? He did it because he was the head of an anti-Semitic democracy.

So maybe we should re-read Horthy’s letter to Teleki from a different angle. What is this letter really about? It is about the impracticality of removing the Jews from the Hungarian economy during the life of at least a generation because the well-being of the population would suffer. It is about the notion that, if the country cannot manage without the Jews, they should be treated with dignity.

Krisztián Ungváry wrote:

"Proposals to place the entire Jewish population in ghettos had been floated in Parliament as early as 1941, and it was only the tactical maneuverings of Prime Minister Miklós Kállay and Miklós Horthy, the head of state, that had stopped the proposals coming to a vote." [A minor correction: Kallay became prime minister in 1942.]

No doubt that the letter to Teleki was a part of "the tactical maneuverings".

We may assume that in a situation when anti-Semitism was a kind of a “cultural code”, Horthy could have uttered a word or two that today we may find objectionable. But it is utterly unjust to try to eavesdrop on every small murmur, long lost in the winds of history, and to neglect his great undertaking: with his “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Psalm 136:12) Horthy saved a quarter million of Jews. In those inhuman years he passed the test of the real values - the test of life and death.

3. Hungary in War
3.1. The Initial Period
The year of 1941 was definitely not “the finest hour” of the Western civilization, certainly not of Hungary and its leaders, Horthy including. In 1938-40 Hungary in a semi-peaceful way recovered parts of the territories lost at Trianon, with Germany’s and Italy’s arbitration. In December of 1940 Teleki signed a treaty of “eternal friendship” with Yugoslavia. However, when on March 26, 1941 the Yugoslav government was overthrown by a pro-Western regime, Hitler decided to invade, and offered Horthy a chance to recover additional territory. Teleki was categorically against the invasion, but on April 1 the Cabinet approved the measure. On April 2, the Hungarian ambassador to Britain warned Horthy that by invading Yugoslavia he would put his country at war with Britain, the USA and the USSR. On April 3 Teleki shot himself in his official residence. Horthy entered the territories on a white horse, and his popularity in Hungary skyrocketed. Britain broke diplomatic relations with Hungary. In my opinion it was the greatest mistake of Horthy’s life.

In January 1942, in the town of Újvidék (Novi Sad) in Serbia the Hungarian troops killed up to 2500 Serbians and 700 Jews, allegedly as a revenge for the actions of partisans. When the story became known in Budapest, the Parliament and public became furious, and Horthy ordered a military tribunal. After the war Tito demanded extradition of Horthy for this crime, but the Americans considered the case and justly found that Horthy had not been informed in advance and never approved the measure.

The outwardly anti-Semitic Horthy proves an unusual hero on horseback.

After Teleki’s suicide, Lászlό Bárdossy became the prime minister. The Third Jewish Law that forbade mixed marriages passed through the Parliament, but the most important thing was that he and Horthy were in charge when Hungary entered the war with the Soviet Union and the USA. However, Deak and the majority of historians do not believe the leaders had much choice; Hitler would have occupied Hungary if it refused to participate.

During the annexation of the Carpathian Russ 15,000 to 35,000 Jewish refugees were allowed to enter Hungary by a special order of the Minister of Interior Keresztes-Fischer for temporary settlement, but another agency in charge of aliens arrested them and expelled them to the Soviet territory near Kamenets-Podolsk where they all were killed by the Germans in the course of several months. No mass killing of the Jews had happened until then, and the executions came unexpectedly for the central government that accepted back two to three thousand survivors. A Hungarian historian Kinga Frojimovics wrote that in this case “the exclusive responsibility of the Hungarian authorities in the murder… cannot be established with complete unanimity.” Sakmyster believes that “reports describing this atrocity must have had a profound impact on Horthy and his advisors, for from this point on the Hungarian government refused to consider any further deportation of Jews.” Because of that “Regent Horthy adamantly resisted demands that he dismiss Keresztes-Fischer…”

Keresztes-Fischer opened Hungary to refugees, both Jews and non-Jews, from the surrounding countries. When the Slovakian government protested that its Jews were entering Hungary without any documents, the Minister instructed the police to enhance the official control but to ignore the illegal border crossing. The illegals crossed, surrendered to the police and were sent to a refugee camp. The relatives and the Jewish community took 90% of them from the camps, and they received proper identity cards. Forty to seventy thousand Jews entered in this way.

In February 1942, Sakmyster wrote, Horthy re-evaluated the situation and found that he disliked it. He had not wanted rapprochement with Hitler and still had sent a large army to Russia to be destroyed there. He had considered himself an anglophile but found Hungary at war with the entire English-speaking world. Not being capable of any self-criticism, Horthy blamed Bardossy for all Hungarian ills. So in early March of 1942 he invited a friend and former Minister of Agriculture Miklos Kallay to his office and asked him to take over the government. Kallay hesitated, but accepted and was sworn into office on March 10. Bardossy, furious, warned his successor:

“You will lead the country to catastrophe. Everyone knows that you are anti-German and pro-Allied, and no anti-Semite. You will run after the English and never catch them… They are committed to our enemies, the Russians and the Little Entente… You will lose Germany’s friendship, and Hungary will be left alone. There is no changing the fact that if Germany is defeated we too shall finish on the list of defeated enemies…”
Prime minister (1942-1944) Dr. Miklós Kállay

Kallay asked the leaders of the Government Party on what conditions they would support him in governing. They replied in the spirit of Bardossy’s words that their views were “dominated by a desperate fear of the Soviet Union and so these people wished for a German victory… That fear was the basis of their attitude towards the Jews, too. If Germany won the war, and we continued our tolerance towards the Jews, the Germans sooner or later would treat Hungary as a Jew-ridden enemy country… The Western powers… would hand us over to the Soviet Union…”

(It would be wrong to say that Bardossy or these leaders were mistaken in their fears.)

Therefore, the conditions of their support were that Kallay “made concessions to public opinion on the Jewish question;” and “made a pro-German declaration”. Kallay replied that his concessions at the expense of the Jews “had to be restricted to the economic field.” Keresztes-Fischer told Kallay that they should do nothing that cannot be undone later (as economic legislation surely can), and in this way “we could perhaps save the masses of Hungarian Jewry at the price of such apparent sacrifices.”

Horthy wrote that “as Minister of Agriculture Kállay had rendered his country meritorious service, but not until he attained the Premiership did his talents find their full outlet. He combined a penetrating intelligence with a shrewdness that knew when to use cunning in the face of overwhelming odds; when no other method was appropriate.” The anti-Jewish law introduced by Kallay limited Jewish landownership to 142 acres (57 hectares).

3.2. Jewish Politics Before Occupation

Let us follow this government’s actions regarding Jews day by day.

June 7, 1942.

Hitler invited Kallay for a visit. The major thing that interested the Führer was a supply of additional Hungarian troops for the eastern front. Kallay also told Hitler that in Hungary, with 10% of the population being Jewish, their elimination from the economic life could be achieved only gradually.

Upon return Kallay made a report to the party committee that “a final settlement of the Jewish problem could only come after the war, when the only solution would be to expel the 800,000 Jews.” What this really meant, of course, was that until the end of the war the Jews were safe.

August 15, 1942.

The Hungarian ambassador to Germany Döme Sztojay reported that Hitler disagreed with postponement and demanded immediate anti-Jewish actions.

October 8, 1942.

Ribbentrop wrote Kallay that the Germans had given him enough time, and the results were unsatisfactory. There were three minimal demands:
         1. The Jews to wear a yellow star;
         2. A ghetto in every town;
         3. 300,000 able-bodies Jewish men and women to be placed at Germany’s disposal for the rehabilitation of the economy in Ukraine.

Sztojay said that “neither the neutral states nor even the Western Allies allowed Jewish refugees to enter; Hungary alone kept her gates open for them.”

October 17, 1942.

The German minister in Hungary Jagow delivered a note that repeated the previous demands.

December 5-14, 1942.

The Kallay government sent, through Sztojay, a note where it flatly rejected all the demands.

December 25, 1942.

Sztojay warns Kallay that if he continues to resist the German demands on Jews they would try to force his resignation by every means available.

January 15, 1943.

Ribbentrop's deputy Luther told Sztojay that Transylvania problems would not be resolved without Hungary's cooperation in Jewish deportations.

April 17th, 1943.

Hitler summoned Horthy and demanded that Kallay be dismissed. He showed Horthy the German intelligence reports that Kallay initiated negotiations with the Allies in Turkey. Also, Kallay refused to supply Hungarian soldiers to the Eastern front and was completely uncooperative on the Jews. Seventy-five-year-old “Horthy declared, however, once and for all, that just as he had never dreamed of trying to influence Hitler or the German government in their choice of ministers so he would accept no prompting, nor even the expression of a wish or an observation, that his premier, who enjoyed his full confidence, should be replaced.”

Deak wrote that Horthy “said, naively, “What am I supposed to do with the Jews then, after I have taken from them all possibility of making a living? After all, I can’t have them shot.”” Sakmyster noted that “Hitler never quite figured out what to make of the Hungarian Regent: was he a hopelessly uninformed political innocent, or was he a shrewd calculator who feigned ignorance…?”

Kallay said that people often felt: “Could [Kallay] risk involving all Hungary in catastrophe for the sake of Jews?” His response was that it was not a Jewish but a Hungarian question: the country that would yield its Jews would lose its independence and eventually would yield in everything. “I am describing how I saw the problem then: that the Jewish question was not purely Jewish one, but one decisive for the entire nation. I still see it so today.

Jenö Lévai wrote:

«…Thus while the Germans had more or less completely destroyed all the Jews in Central Europe, the million odd Hungarian Jews were known to Hitlerism as a virtually untouched Central European island of Jews under the protection of Regent Horthy and the Kállay government.

Similar opinions were expressed by Braham, Patai, Karsai, and Istvan Deak.

But Kallay and Horthy failed to preserve the Hungarian sovereignty.


See the end of the story here

[*] Это сокращённая версия статьи, опубликованной по-русски в альманахе "Еврейская старина", No. 1, 2014, стр. 4-102. Статья полностью доступна на: http://berkovich-zametki.com/2014/Starina/Nomer1/ERabinovich1.php
This is a greatly abridged version of my article published in Russian in “Evrejskaya Starina”, #1, 2014, pp. 4-102.  The major sources (among 75 references) are: 1) memoirs of: a) Miklos Horthy with 600 footnotes of professor Andrew Simon; b) Horthy’s daughter-in-law Ilona, Countess of Edelsheim-Gyulai (Mrs. Ilona Bowden); c) Nikolas Kallay, Hungarian Premier-Minister in 1942-1944; d) prewar ambassador of the USA to Hungary John F. Montgomery; e) the Chairman of the Jewish Council of Budapest Samuel Stern; f) a survivor Steven A. Colman; other recollections; 2) Records of interrogations and of trial of Adolph Eichmann; 3) A magisterial biography by Thomas Sakmyster - Hungary’s Admiral on Horseback – Miklos Horthy, 1918 – 1944; 4) Books and articles of major historians in the field: Randolph L. Braham, Istvan Deak, Mario D. Fenyo, Kinga Frojimovics, Raul Hilberg, Lévai Jenö, Laszlo Karsai, Istvan Lazar, Raphael Patai, T. Zane Reeves, Krisztian Ungvary and others.

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Взгляните: Проклятый памятник. http://anna-bpguide.livejournal.com/243168.html
Это про евреев в Будапеште

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