Listen to the audio cast: Terror on the Banks of the Danube – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Four)
In the last post we discussed the basic necessities that the citizens of Budapest needed to survive the siege. Another item of survival (and tragedy) during the siege was shoes. Today there is a unique monument consisting of shoes along the Danube Embankment in Pest. These are in memory of the estimated 15,000 Jews who lost their lives during the siege. Hundreds, if not thousands of Jews were brought to the banks of the Danube. Many of them had already been stripped of their clothing. Those wearing shoes were forced to leave them on the embankment. This was one of their last acts before being murdered.
The fate of the Jews in Budapest during the siege was part of a longer historical continuum that had seen Jews in Hungary meet with both tragedy and triumph. Their history in the Carpathian Basin goes back many centuries, though the origins of their first immigration to the area are clouded by uncertainty.
During the first thousand years of Hungarian rule the Jewish population experienced everything from liberation to persecution and expulsion. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews made up approximately 5% of the Hungarian population and a quarter of those living in Budapest. In the city they became relatively prosperous. Several made fortunes and some were even able to scale the heights of the political pecking order during the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. Following the First World War though, Anti-Semitism grew exponentially. It was inflamed by the communist takeover of the government in 1919.
A Failed Revolution and Its Consequences
During the 133 chaotic days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, communists led by a Hungarian of Jewish descent, Bela Kun, attempted to build a people’s republic. Workers were given unprecedented rights while landowners, aristocrats and the church came under extreme pressure. The oppression quickly turned into a Red Terror. Many were run off their land, out of the country or went into hiding. These same people would later become fixated on the fact that close to three out of every four commissars in the Communist government were of Jewish origin. The Bolshevik revolution failed, but became identified with Jews.
When Admiral Miklos Horthy and a legion of conservatives took power in the counter revolution, they quickly rid the country of communists in a White Terror. The upshot was a mistrust of the Jews which only worsened as fascism took hold across Central Europe in the years prior to the war. From 1938 through 1941, the Hungarian Parliament passed a series of anti-Jewish Laws that restricted their numerical participation in commercial enterprises to 20%, defined anyone with at least two Jewish grandparents as racially Jewish, forbid their employment in government and prohibited intermarriage.
Despite these laws and the fact that Horthy expressed a general distaste for the Jews, they were allowed to live in the country, if no longer freely, at least in the shadows up until 1944. Because of this situation, Hungary had by far the largest population of relatively free Jews in Hitler ruled Europe during the war. This all changed when German troops occupied Hungary on March 9, 1944 in order to ensure Hungary would do the Third Reich’s bidding.
Hitler’s henchman, Adolf Eichmann, was sent in to carry out the prosecution of the Final Solution. He was aided by the well-organized Hungarian gendarmerie as well as the radical right. Hungarian Jews in all areas outside of Budapest were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps. Consider that a Jew living in the Hungarian countryside in March 1944 had a less than 10% chance of surviving the following 12 months. In Budapest, a Jew’s chance of survival in those same 12 months was about 50%. By the middle of 1944, there were an estimated 200,000 Jews living in Budapest.
Marked From The Beginning
When the siege began, Jewish citizens were immediately under threat. They were literally marked, with a Star of David on their clothing or that same star painted on their dwelling. They could even be easily identified by the “safe houses” in which many of them were now hiding. On October 15, 1944 Horthy was forced out as the leader of Hungary by the Germans. The Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party immediately took charge. On that same day, the shootings of Jews began along the Danube embankment.
Who were the Arrow Cross? The short version is that they were the Hungarian version of the Nazi party. Like the Nazi’s they attracted virulent anti-semites, uber-nationalists and hangers on from the very fringes of society. One telling statistic: 25% of Arrow Cross party members were convicted criminals. How popular was the Arrow Cross? One rough estimate by historian John Lukacs – who actually lived through the siege – is that they enjoyed the support of only about 15% of the Budapest citizenry. While that is probably true, the Arrow Cross had control of the levers of government while much of the population stood by passive and idle. Throughout the latter half of 1944, Jews began to be either executed or shunted off into labor battalions at the front. From mid-October until the start of the siege at Christmas, just over half of the 200,000 Jews in Budapest had disappeared from the city. Yet at the same time efforts were underway to save Jewish lives.
Place to Visit: The Danube Promenade – 300 meters south of the Hungarian Parliament, near the Hungarian Academy of Sciences
Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006
The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, Paul Lendvai, Princeton University Press, 2003