To Take A Life, To Save A Life – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Five)

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Murders of the Jewish population of Budapest during the siege caused an international outcry. Pressure was placed on the Hungarian Government from the Allies, International Red Cross and neutral nations to protect the Budapest Jews from persecution. The Arrow Cross leadership was willing to make some exceptions due to the fact that they were seeking foreign recognition of their government. This brought about the creation of “safe houses” that were considered extra territorial and under the protection of neutrals such as Sweden. It also led to the creation of an International Ghetto. These actions saved many Jewish lives. Yet at the same time, many Jewish lives were lost. Two personal stories help illuminate an exceedingly dark, complex and tragic situation.

Jewish lives taken
Andras Kun had been educated at a seminary in Rome and served as a Roman Catholic priest of the Franciscan order. He would seem to be the kind of man that, even though of a different religious faith, Jews could have turned to for help. After all, though the church had once supported the anti-Jewish laws, after the massacres started, they began to protest. Kun did not protest, instead he killed.

Kun had moved back to Budapest in 1943 and a year later rose to a position of leadership when the Arrow Cross party took power. With impunity Kun took to robbery and murder. Amongst the blossoming hills of Buda, along the winding streets, Kun led a gang that dispensed its own demented sense of justice. With a  pistol holster attached to his cassock, Kun roamed with a gang of Arrow Cross thugs. In just an eight day period starting on January 14th he led three bloody massacres – two occurring at hospitals where over 400 Jews were murdered. These were not isolated incidents, Father Kun continued to lead his rampaging gang even as the city exploded around them. He obeyed no one’s authority other than his own.

Andras Kun - with pistol holster strapped to his cassock

Andras Kun – with pistol holster strapped to his cassock

Gellert Hill, the Buda Castle

Once he robbed a Swiss diplomat at gunpoint for 100 gold coins. Another time, he led the arrest of high ranking police officers. After once being captured by the Budapest police, he escaped not only from jail, but also from the city during the breakout. But Kun could not escape justice. Soon after the war ended he was brought before a people’s court where he readily admitted murdering over 500 people. He apologized for his excesses and was then executed. What makes a man like Father Kun turn to the dark side? Was it in the very fiber of his being from the start? Was it the intoxication of absolute power? Was it the circumstances? And can justice ever be done to those who commit such horrible crimes? The judgment of history, even six decades later, may not offer an answer.

Jewish lives saved
Many have had heard of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat whose efforts during the siege helped save countless Jewish lives. Wallenberg was a very brave man, but without the bravery of many others, including some Hungarians, his efforts would not have been possible. One of these brave men was named Pal Szalasi. He was born in Budapest and during the early part of the war he had been a committed member of the Arrow Cross Party. He quit though after becoming disillusioned with its tilt toward radical extremism. Yet his one-time membership served him well, because when the Arrow Cross took control of the government, they gave Szalasi a high ranking position as their police liaison officer. It was from this position that he was able to save lives.

Holocaust Memorial at the Dohany Street Synagogue

Holocaust Memorial at the Dohany Street Synagogue

The night after Christmas, just as the siege began, Szalasi first met with Wallenberg. It was at this meeting that Szalasi agreed to leak sensitive government information regarding the Jews to Wallenberg. In January 1945, he alerted Wallenberg to a planned massacre in the ghetto that was being organized by Adolf Eichmann. The only one who could stop it was the man given the responsibility to carry out the massacre, the commander of German troops in Hungary, Major General Gerhard Schmidhuber. Through Szalasi, Wallenberg sent Schmidhuber a note promising that he, Raoul Wallenberg, would make sure that when the war ended Schmidhuber would be held personally responsible and hanged as a war criminal for any massacre that might occur. The general knew that the war would soon be over and that the Germans were losing. The massacre was stopped at the last minute thanks to the courage and daring action of both Szalasi and Wallenberg. In 2009, Pal Szalasi was honored as Righteous Among the Nations for risking his life to save Jewish lives. 806 Hungarians have been given this honor.

What made Szalasi choose a different path than other Arrow Cross leaders? Why didn’t Szalasi follow in the footsteps of Andras Kun? Szalasi had absolute power as well. He could decide right and wrong, but he took a very different course.   For that, the state of Israel remembers him for saving hundreds of Jewish lives. Szalasi, Wallenberg and many others of great courage are truly heroes of the Siege of Budapest. Most importantly their legacy lives on, through the descendants of those they saved.

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

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