The End of One War And The Start of Another – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Ten – Conclusion)

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In 1947 the Liberty Statue (Szabadsag Szobor) was constructed  atop Gellert Hill close to the Citadella. It occupies not only a prominent place in the city, but also an ironic place in Hungarian history, both physically and literally. Ironically, because Gellert Hill, is a place where the last two historic occupiers of Hungary, the Austrians and Soviets decided to display an imposing symbol of their rule. The Citadella, directly behind the monument, is a fortress built by the Habsburg Empire following the failure of the 1848 Hungarian revolution. It was representative of Austrian rule over the Hungarian people.

Liberation By Occupation
Likewise, almost a century later, the Soviets placed the Liberty Statue near the same spot. Throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century, anytime Hungarians gazed upwards from the lower parts of their capital city, they would see the so called “Statue of Liberty” holding a palm leaf in her hand. The palm leaf was meant to symbolize peace, but it meant something quite different. Lady Liberty might as well have been holding a hammer or sickle instead. The monument was really not about liberty, instead it was about occupation. The Soviets had gained control of the city at great cost, over 200,000 casualties, during the siege of Budapest. They had no intention of losing that control.

The Liberation Monument (Szabadsag Szobor)

The Liberty Statue (Szabadsag Szobor)

The Liberty Statue was one of the more innocuous symbols of Soviet rule. After all, following the surrender, the Soviets had imposed their will as they saw fit. An alarming degree of violence and lawlessness tormented the population of Budapest long past the end of the war, into the next year. Soldiers shot prisoners, both POW’s and civilians. Thousands of women were raped. National treasures owned by the Hungarian people were looted from vaults. One war had ended and another had just begun. This would be a war for the soul of the Hungarian nation.

A Monument Survives, Its Meaning Changes
If that was not bad enough an insidious communist dictatorship arose right along with the Liberty Statue. Thousands of innocent citizens were imprisoned, sent to forced labor camps, tortured or executed. In 1956, just eleven years after the siege came to an end, the Hungarian people rebelled against this dictatorship. But the revolution attempt failed while thousands perished and even greater numbers emigrated to the West. It was not until 1989, when the communist yoke was finally thrown off, that the Hungarian people would finally be able to once again freely rule themselves.

Not long thereafter, the wording on the Liberty Statue was changed as well.  It had said, To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes [erected by] the grateful Hungarian people [in] 1945.” After the iron curtain was torn down, the wording changed, “To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.”
There was and still is talk today of having the monument removed once and for all. Yet it has survived, just as the Hungarian people have survived. Eventually this monument will crumble, but the nation of Hungary will still be standing, the ultimate survivors.

Indeed survival is a recurring theme in the history of this city, this nation and of the Hungarian people. A healthy respect and understanding of their history during the Second World War will help the nation not just survive, but also to thrive. Respect for the sacrifices and suffering of their countrymen and women – some who still walk the streets of Budapest today – who lived through the siege. And also, an understanding that the highest price of World War II, was the loss of freedom and independence for the Hungarian people.

Places to visit: Gellert Hill, Liberty Statue, Citadella

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006. Specifically Chapter Six, The Siege And The Population, Life Goes On, pgs. 363 – 373.

Every Statue Tells A Story: Public Monuments In Budapest, Bob Dent, Europa Konyvkiado, 2009, pgs. 258 – 263.

Twelve Days: The Story of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, Victor Sebestyen, Vintage Books, 2006, Chapters 3 & 4, pgs. 20 – 33.

A Battle That Should Have Never Been Fought – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Nine)

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As the siege came to its final, tragic end, Budapest, the “pearl of the Danube” was largely in ruins. Famed Hungarian author Sandor Marai left this impression, “What I see is at first sight horrifying, but after every hundred meters becomes more and more grotesque and improbable. The mind boggles. It is as if the wanderer were passing not through city districts but through excavations. Here is a wall of a building where a friend used to live, there the remnants of a street, in Szell Kalman Square the wrecks of streetcars and then the devastation of Vermezo Meadow, Naphegy Hill and the Castle.” Marai’s words recapture a surreal, otherworldly moment seared into the city’s consciousness by the all-consuming flames of total war.

Memorial plaque in Buda at the site of Marai's home from 1931-45 in District I - Krisztinavaros

Memorial plaque in Buda at the site of Marai’s home from 1931-45 in District I – Krisztinavaros

The Great Forgetting
Ironically, the siege and ensuing battle for Budapest are hardly spoken of today. It suffers from a case of historical amnesia. It has been nearly forgotten by popular historians, but physical evidence in the form of bullet and shell holes is still readily apparent to the discerning eye.

So why is the siege relatively unknown? Well for one, there were more famous, but not greater battles to come. The battles for Vienna and Berlin were respectively six and fourteen days in length. Compared to the fifty-one day siege of Budapest those battles lasted for a short period of time. Consider also, that the fighting in Vienna and Berlin would not have concluded so quickly without the huge loss of German forces during the siege of Budapest. The Germans bought time for themselves with their futile defense of the city, but it came at so high a cost that later battles were over relatively quickly due to a lack of manpower and weaponry.

Another reason for the relative anonymity of the battle is that there were really no famous figures that met their fate here. There was no Hitler shooting himself in a bunker, only thousands of common soldiers slowly expiring beneath the streets of Buda. There was no General Zhukov creating a historical legacy on the rubble of the Reich, only men with such forgettable names as Malinovsky, men who history would soon forget, but who led the Soviets to victory in the most terrible war ever known to mankind.

A view of Buda Castle from the slopes of Gellert Hill

A view of Buda Castle from the slopes of Gellert Hill in the siege’s aftermath

A Battle That Should Have Never Been Fought
And finally, there were really no heroes to proclaim. The siege of Budapest was a battle that should have never been fought. The Hungarians, whose capital had been sacrificed, did not want it. The common German soldier was not allowed to surrender, only sacrifice – first their Hungarian allies, but in the end, also themselves. And the Soviet’s would gladly have accepted a Hungarian armistice and bypassed the whole horrific affair. Their designs lay further west, Hungary was a land that had to be crossed, but ended up as a prolonged battle that never should have occurred.

The Soviet commander of the 2nd Ukrainian front, Rodion Malinovsky, furious at the protracted fighting, is said to have told the German commander Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch following his surrender, “If I weren’t obliged to account for your head in Moscow, I’d have you hanged in the main square in Buda.” Many others were not as lucky. The Soviets took revenge on those who had slowed their drive westward. They also imposed their will on the Hungarian people over the months, years and decades to come.

Places to visit: Marai Memorial plaque on his former home at Miko utca in Buda, District 1, Krisztinavaros.

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006.
Specifically: Chapter Six, The Siege and the Population, pgs. 257 – 373   
                           Epilogue, pgs. 374 – 380.
Memoir of Hungary, Sandor Marai, Central European University Press, 2001.
Marai quote from A Walk in Buda, Budapest, Sandor Marai, December 1945.
Malinovsky quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 376.

What Lies Beneath: The Labyrinth – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Eight)

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Much of the fighting at the end of the siege took place on Castle Hill in Buda. Today bullet holes from the final stages of battle still pockmark the facade of the former Military Ministry building which stands equidistant between Buda Castle and the Matthias Church. Such battle scars have been left as a physical reminder of the ferocious fighting throughout this area just before the siege’s end. The building could now be easily repaired, unlike the damage that was done to the bodies and psyches of thousands left in the city as the siege neared its end. Many of those who stayed behind, spent their final days in the ground directly beneath the Castle District.

What Lies Beneath
The Buda Castle district contains over six miles of underground passageways, known as the Labyrinth. During the war these were used by approximately 20,000 German and Hungarian soldiers as shelter from the constant bombardment of the Soviet Air Force and artillery. As the circle around the defenders continued to close, this area became as much a tomb as it was a shelter. The Castle complex was one of the last areas to surrender.

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Corridor of the Hospital in the Rock as it looks today

Following the failed breakout attempt on February 11th, those left behind included about 5,000 Hungarian soldiers. Many of them lay among the thousands of badly wounded, unable to leave makeshift, underground field hospitals. The Hospital in the Rock – which can be visited today – was one of several subterranean areas beneath the hills of Buda, that held the wounded, infirm and those brought to the very edge of sanity by the siege.

Even the magisterial grandeur of Buda Castle, had become a house of horrors. In its cellars lay a couple of thousand wounded. These included many who had been wounded in the failed break out attempt only a day earlier. One medical officer, Werner Hubner, described the scene as where “sheer madness ruled. The weeks of encirclement had driven everybody to the brink of insanity….Pistols were going off in every corner of the huge underground infirmary: nobody wanted to be captured by the Russians in a wounded state.

Unfathomable Scenes
Soon the infirm and starving were roused and consequently enraged by the discovery of large amounts of food that had been withheld from them by their commanders in the underground chambers. One non-commissioned officer happened upon the now vacant bunker of the German commander Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, found his uniform and decided to wear it. He was soon shot dead by a furious soldier who had mistaken him for the commander. And where was Pfeffer-Wildenbruch? This “leader” who had neither the courage to disobey Hitler’s futile orders to holdout or the bravery to lead the breakout, was busy on the morning of February 13th surrendering himself to the comparative safety of the Russians. As a commander he would be held as a prize of war, his soldiers would not be so lucky.

Meanwhile, the situation in the cellars continued to devolve into a morass of suicide, death and despair. By the time of the surrender, it was too late for many. For days afterward, those left intact in body or mind witnessed scenes that are even now hard to fathom.  Medics were reduced to doing surgeries in an underground hospital that contained a large store of ammunition. A shootout took place among two combatants who made their way into the makeshift hospital. The discharges from their firearms set the place ablaze. The fire spread rapidly, as shells and grenades began exploding. Flames engulfed everything in the hospital, including the patient’s straw beds. This tragic incident was one of many that were all too common in the final days of the siege.

Places to visit: Castle District, Hospital In the Rock

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006. Specifically Chapter Five, The Break-Out, pgs. 201 – 256.

Hubner quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 242.
Pfeffer-Wildenbruch’s uniform story from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 243.
Shootout in underground hospital from The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 244.

Descent Into Darkness: The Attempted Breakout – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Seven)

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As the fighting moved over to Buda, the cause of the defenders appeared increasingly hopeless. At this point surrender seemed to be their best option. It was only a matter of time before the weight of Russian numbers and supplies would exact a heavy toll. So why did the Germans and Hungarians continue to fight on?

Fighting Out Of Fear
One reason was fear. The possibility of captivity under the Soviets was extremely daunting. German soldiers risked being shot on the spot, especially those who were members of the SS.  The same was true for Arrow Cross members. Even regular enlistees were at the mercy of the Soviet soldier. They were known to be capricious, cruel and erratic. A senseless unpredictability seemed to be the defining trait of the common Soviet soldier.

Even if a Hungarian or German survived first contact with their captors, those held for any length of time would be required to do forced labor service. Often they were marched off to the east, where they would be either worked to death or suffer years of hard labor. If this was what resulted from surrender, than death in battle might be an appealing option. For this reason, no German garrison ever surrendered to the Soviets during the war while they still had a chance of breaking out.

The Royal Palace - hardly recognizable following the siege

The Royal Palace – hardly recognizable following the siege

Sacrificed For the Reich
There was also the slim possibility that German commanders in Budapest might receive word from the Reich that they could attempt a break out. Unfortunately for the defenders this word never arrived. Hitler had declared from the start that Budapest would be a fortress city. It was to hold out at all costs until help arrived. The overarching strategic idea was that the longer Budapest held out, the more German forces could be marshaled to defend Vienna, 100 miles to the west.  In essence, Budapest was sacrificed to protect the German Reich. On three separate occasions, the Germans attempted offensives in an attempt to rescue and resupply the besieged garrison. None of these were successful. The closest any of them came was about 20 kilometers from the city, but then the Russians would send in reinforcements and push back the effort. The last relief attempt failed in late January.

By the final day of January, the German and Hungarian defenders were generally confined to a pocket of land in Buda which included the railway embankment, Gellert Hill, the Buda Castle complex and ended on Margit Korut which runs into Szena square. The defenders were starved, shell shocked and under constant bombardment. The commander of German forces in Budapest, Karl Pfeffer-Wildenbruch, finally decided to attempt a break out, the main thrust of which would try to bust through the Russian lines at Szena square. From there they would try to make their way out of the city into the low hills and forests beyond. They hoped to flee into the nearest German lines which were located anywhere from 15 to 25 kilometers away.

Delusion and Apocalypse
To say this was a suicidal plan might actually be an overstatement. By this point, the Germans and Hungarians were down to just a handful of tanks, armored vehicles and a wide variety of assault guns. They had only a fraction of the firepower with which they had begun the siege. Nonetheless, fanaticism and delusion still gave hope to some Hungarian and German leaders. Arrow Cross officers believed that they would soon be resupplied with super weapons that would destroy the Soviet forces. German Major-General Schmidhuber, one of the highest ranking officers still alive, announced they would breach the Soviet lines, make their way to safety and be enjoying drinks the next day. Schmidhuber would be killed shortly after the attempted breakout began.

The breakout was set for February 11th at 8:00 p.m. It would take place at Szena Square. Chaos and confusion took hold of the great mass of soldiers and civilians who prepared to plunge into a cauldron of flame, shot and shell. For every soldier, there were at least two civilians attempting to escape as well. It was a last, suicidal gasp for the men and women who had somehow survived the siege up to this point.  Lieutenant-Colonel Alajos Vajda described the scene in Szena and Szell Kalman squares as “beyond the wildest flights of imagination. The squares were almost as light as day with the many tracer bullets, flare rockets and searchlights.  Shell after shell exploded. I am not exaggerating a bit if I write that there were mountains of dead bodies everywhere.

Descent Into Darkness
By midnight, only four hours after the breakout had begun, the situation was relatively quiet at Szell Kalman square. The first wave of soldiers and civilians had surprised the Soviets and largely been able to make their way into the forested areas beyond. The second and third waves were not as lucky. They had been devastated by Soviet counter strikes with artillery and rockets.  Those lucky ones who had made it through, were in constant fear of being attacked. In both small and large contingents, quietly desperate, they tried to find their way in the dark labyrinth of the early morning hours.  They were assisted by a thick winter fog that had descended upon the hills. The first soldiers that made it safely to German lines arrived about 24 hours later.

The statue of St. Gellert overlooking war torn Buda

The statue of St. Gellert overlooking war torn Buda

Of the 28,000 soldiers trying to escape, only 700 were fortunate enough to stumble all the way into friendly territory. Many of these men undertook journeys lasting several days. Some spent the final leg of the exhausting trek crawling to safety. Others spent the entire spring and early summer in the forests hiding out until the war came to a definitive end.  As for the estimated 80 – 100,000 civilians fleeing the shattered city, it is thought that five to ten thousand made their way to the hills northwest of Buda and then pushed westward toward Vienna. Hundreds if not thousands were left behind in dead heaps on the busted pavement of Buda, between the burned out ruins of the narrow blocks. Many more were taken prisoner by the Russians. For them the war would continue in labor camps or as part of work details. Some came back home in months, others in years and still many others, not at all.

From a military standpoint the breakout was one of the worst disasters of the entire Second World War. Consider that the German command had 44,000 soldiers prior to the attempt. A mere four days later, over 39,000 of these had been killed or captured while a few thousand more were wandering aimlessly in the woods where they would soon be captured. A soldier had about a one in a hundred chance of making it to safety, but an almost four in ten chance of being killed during the breakout. One of the lucky few that did make it, Lieutenant Helmut Wolff, later said, “I have nightmares every night because I am still alive.

Places to visit: Szena ter and Szell Kalman ter

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006. Specifically Chapter Five, The Break-Out, pgs. 201 – 256.
Schmidhuber comments from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 207.
Alajos-Vajda quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 212.
Helmut Wolff quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 201.

An Ocean of Flames (Fighting at The Chain Bridge) – Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Six)

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Let us now turn our attention back to the battle which was raging throughout the city. The siege officially began when the Soviets had completely surrounded Budapest on Christmas Eve. Fighting in the streets of Pest quickly turned into classic urban warfare.  Snipers picked off both soldiers and civilians, mortar and artillery fire shattered apartment blocks and tanks rumbled down the Great Boulevard blasting away at the smoldering ruins. House to house gun battles resulted in vicious firefights taking place from one floor to the next. In some of these the Soviets would occupy the bottom floor for several days before they were finally able to dislodge resisters with everything from flamethrowers to multiple grenade attacks. By the end of the siege, approximately 75% of the city’s buildings had either been totally destroyed or heavily damaged. The ruins were transformed into crumbling fortresses that prolonged the defense.

Pest at Margit Korut

Pest at Margit Korut

A City Lit Only By Fire
By the evening of January 17th the defending Hungarian and German forces were on the verge of being totally pushed out of Pest. If they were to continue the fight over in the hills of Buda, they would have to cross the Danube immediately. By this time, only two bridges over the river were still intact, the famous Szechenyi Chain Bridge and further south, the Erszebet Bridge.

Hungarian and German forces were ordered to evacuate troops across these two bridges. Ironically, while Hungarian civilians were attempting to escape into Buda, many Hungarian soldiers in Pest had totally given up the battle as lost and placidly awaited their Soviet captors. General staff Captain Ferenc Kovacs tried to rally the Hungarian troops, but said “everywhere they were waiting for the Russians and had no desire to go to Buda. In one of the cellars an air force officer told us with an insolent grin that for him the war was over. There was nothing we could do for him.

Meanwhile, the frantic escape through the streets of Pest gained in chaos and intensity. Lieutenant-Colonel Alajos-Vajda witnessed, “total panic which increased when we had to walk past a burning palace in a narrow street. We no longer knew where we were….Heat was pouring out of the blazing buildings, with window frames and other wooden parts showering the motor vehicles….Here and there shells and mines began to strike at steep angles. The terrible detonations were accompanied by submachine gun salvos….As if by a miracle we somehow reached the square in front of the Chain Bridge. There we were met by a veritable firework display. It was almost daylight in the middle of the night….Through huge gaping holes in the bridge we could see the water. The rear of a German military car, which had somehow been caught up in one of the holes, pointed toward the sky.

An Ocean of Flames
Meanwhile, Soviet planes circled overhead, dropping a relentless barrage of bombs. A huge crowd developed in front of the bridge. One officer wrote, “Imagine the logjam in front of the bridge, vehicles on top of vehicles, and then the circus started. The huge blocks of flats were burning like torches, the streets full of wrecks, bodies and collapsed walls.” Throughout the night and into the early hours of morning hundreds attempted to make their way across the damaged bridge.

Finally at 7:00 a.m., just 25 minutes before sunrise, the Bridge was blown up. There were still evacuees left on the structure when it sank into the icy waters of the Danube. Only the pillars remained intact. Beginning with the November 4th accidental detonation that irreparably damaged the Margit Bridge, it had taken the Germans just seventy-three days to render all the Budapest bridges across the Danube unusable. It would not be until 1963 that the bridges were fully repaired and carrying traffic again.

The Chain Bridge submerged in the Danube. Looking from Buda towards Pest.

The Chain Bridge submerged in the Danube. Looking from Buda towards Pest.

From the Buda side, looking back across the Danube, one young Hungarian soldier saw, “an ocean of flames….It looked as if all life had perished over there and only the raging fires were left to rule over the ruins. I didn’t dare to think of my loved ones who lived there.” The heart of the battle now moved across the river. Buda’s hilly terrain was more easily defensible, but no less deadly. The noose would continue to tighten around the Hungarian and German forces.

Place To Visit: Szechenyi Chain Bridge (Pest side in Szechenyi Istvan ter)

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006, Yale University Press, 2006
Ferenc Kovacs quote from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 148.
Alajos-Vajda quote from:  The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 149-50.
Hungarian soldier’s quote from: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, pg. 152.

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

Terror on the Banks of the Danube – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Four)

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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.

Shoes on the Danube Promenade Monument

Shoes on the Danube Promenade Monument

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.

Jewish women being arrested in Budapest 1944

Jewish women being arrested in Budapest 1944
(German Federal Archive – Propagandakompanien der Wehrmacht – Heer und Luftwaffe (Bild 101 I)

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

The Fight For Survival – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Three)

Listen to the audio cast: The Fight For Survival – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Three)

What do people really need to survive? That stark question was foremost in the minds of the citizens of Budapest for a fifty-one day period beginning on Christmas Eve of 1944. At the beginning of that period, approximately one million people were living in the city. By the end of the siege over 200,000 soldiers and civilians were dead. Those figures do not include the tens of thousands who were wounded, taken as prisoners of war and then deported eastward to Soviet labor camps. For those that were able to survive the siege they needed the three basic necessities of life: 1) food, 2) water and 3) shelter. In addition, they also needed luck, to avoid the enemy – that is, if they could tell who the enemy was.

Horse Meat & Carrots
As far as necessities go, food was probably the most in demand since very little had been stockpiled before the siege. And why should it have been? After all the newspaper Magyaorsag had stated in mid-November that, “Nobody needs to worry that the Hungarian capital will become the scene of street fighting.”  It is hard to fathom such a line of thinking when the Soviet Army at that time stood just 20 km from the city center.

Almost all the available stocks of food were stored in the outer eastern suburbs of the city and fell into Soviet hands almost immediately.   The worst was definitely yet to come. The Hungarian and German armies were hardly better off.  They had enough food to last five days. That supply would only last about one-tenth the entire length of the siege.  For soldiers, one option became to steal from other soldiers. If you were Hungarian, that might mean taking from the Germans. For instance, Company Sergeant Major Gero of the Hungarian 12th Reserve Division risked his life to feed his men. Years later, Gero  recalled, “the most dangerous and most successful undertaking of my life was when one night, to feed my hungry soldiers better, I stole a pig from the Germans with a few of my lads.” It could have cost Gero his life, but so could starvation. By the end of the siege no pigs were left.  Soldiers were reduced to relying on carrots that had once been animal feed.

Speaking of animals, the civilian populace relied mostly on horses as a source of food. Over 30,000 had been brought to the city by the Hungarian and German armies. By the end of the siege almost none of these animals were left alive. A common sight in the streets, squares and broad boulevards were citizens hacking off what meat they could find on half-starved, newly dead horses.
But the starving city was also a place of otherworldly contradictions, where a German soldier such as Reinhard Noll had, “barely enough water for a soup a day, but the best spirits were available in huge quantities.” He got, “only one slice of army bread a day, but were fully supplied with lard, jam, and the like.” Noll took up chain smoking since the “most expensive Hungarian cigars” were available “in the cellars by the case.” He relied on the habit to calm his ever taut nerves.

The dome of the Hungarian Parliament was heavily damaged during the siege

The Hungarian Parliament was heavily damaged during the siege

The Search For Water
The second basic necessity for survival was water. Flowing right through Budapest was the Danube, one of Europe’s great rivers. This should have been the place where the populace lined the banks to gather water. Yet this was the dead of winter, the Danube was froze solid. The winter of 1944-45 was much colder than normal for Central Europe. Even if someone could break through the thick ice, there was an ever increasing chance of being shot by a sniper. Outlined against an icy white sheen, civilians were easy targets. As for the Hungarian Parliament Building on the banks of the river, citizens of Pest were drawn to these very grounds. The area surrounding Parliament was one of the few places to find good water from a well. There were dangerous dashes to procure enough water to drink, cook or wash with. The threat of getting shot down by a sniper or cross fire was ever present. But the choice was either to risk your life for water or lose your life without it. These choices had to be made daily by thousands of citizens.

In The Cellars Of Parliament
The third aspect of survival was shelter. Ironically, unlike food and water which could sustain life, shelter might be a savior or a death trap.  Tens of thousands lost their homes and then searched to find the sturdiest structure: a building that hopefully, would not be blown apart. The parliament building became a gigantic shelter. It had been constructed at the turn of the twentieth century with the best materials available, built to stand the test of time. As Pest exploded, crumbled and was laid waste around it, the building took its hits as well, but nonetheless stood. Citizens fled into the building’s cellars. Many of these were the sick and wounded who slowly succumbed to disease or horrific wounds, even those left alive would lay half stripped for days on end, with little or no medical care. Above them, loomed the chambers where parliament had once debated the very policies that had brought the nation to the brink of destruction. As bad as conditions at the Parliament building were, it was still a relatively sturdy structure. Outside its stone walls, apartment buildings were being blown to bits by heavy artillery and tank shells. Below these ruins thousands huddled in basements as their last refuge.

The final element needed for survival was something few had control over, luck. This was the luck to avoid the enemy. Enemies could change from day to day, depending on one’s situation, nationality or most alarmingly for one group of citizens their ethnicity.  The fate of the Hungarian people was caught in the crossfire between the armed forces of their own side, the occupying German forces and the looming menace of the Soviet Army. For the citizens of Budapest, there were no good choices, only strategies of survival.

Place to visit: Hungarian Parliament Building (walk from Margit Bridge to Hungarian Parliament grounds on Kossuth Lajos ter where open ground faces the Ethnographic Museum)

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006

The Destruction of Margit Bridge – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Two)

Listen to the audio cast:  The Destruction of Margit Bridge (The Siege of Budapest Tour – Part Two)

On Saturday, November 4, 1944 the Margit Bridge, one of the main crossings of the Danube, was packed with automobiles, streetcars and pedestrians. City dwellers crossed back and forth between Buda and Pest going about their daily business. At the same time, German troops were carrying out a military exercise at the bridge. They were attaching primed explosive charges to the structure. These were to be detonated if and when the bridge might need to be destroyed in order to stop the advancing Soviet army, which now stood only 20 kilometers east of Pest.  The situation was growing ever more dangerous. The thunderous boom of artillery had been heard in the distance for days. Suddenly a loud explosion at the bridge brought the danger straight to the heart of the city.

Margit Bridge at the turn of 20th century

Margit Bridge at the turn of 20th century

In the early afternoon, a watercraft passing beneath the bridge accidentally ignited one of the primer fuses, causing a violent explosion.  Three pillars on the Pest side of the bridge were blown up, causing much of the structure to collapse into the Danube. The chilly waters of the river suddenly became a final resting place for hundreds of civilians caught by happenstance on the bridge at the time of the explosion. 640 soldiers, 90% of whom were Hungarian also lost their lives. This was an ominous sign of the death and destruction that would descend upon the city in the coming months. A month and half later, Budapest would be surrounded by the Soviet Army. The battle in and around the city would rage for over one hundred days. In this urban war zone, Hungarian soldiers and civilians would fight a multitude of enemies: the Soviet army, at times the “protecting” German army, as well as the Hungarian home grown fascist Arrow Cross Party. This was not just a fight for the Hungarian capital, but also a fight for the soul of a nation and its very survival.

It was also a battle that should never have been fought. Both German and Hungarian Army commanders were in agreement that Budapest should be declared an open city, meaning that it should not be defended. They realized that fighting for the city would be a hopeless cause. It would only lead to high rates of casualties, loss of essential military equipment and needless destruction. Sieges on the Eastern Front during World War II were always in favor of the side with greater amounts of men, material and weaponry. In this respect, the Soviets held a huge advantage.

Ironically, the pre-siege leader of Hungary, Admiral Miklos Horthy and the man the Nazis replaced him with, the fanatical Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szalasi, had diametrically opposed views on almost everything with only one exception.  They both believed that Budapest was already lost. Szalasi actually said, “Budapest must be evacuated and we must make a strategic retreat to the Transdanubian hills.”

Looking downriver towards the Margit Bridge after it was accidentally destroyed

Looking downriver towards the Margit Bridge after it was accidentally destroyed

Unfortunately there was one man who wanted the city to be defended at all costs, this was Adolf Hitler. His strategic reasoning, though flawed, was also best expressed by Szalasi when he stated, “the Germans want to gain time by defending Budapest.” Despite this, several German commanders tried to persuade Hitler to allow a retreat. Hitler’s reply was twofold. First, he replaced dissenting commanders with compliant individuals. Secondly, he issued directives, such as the one on November 23rd, that no houses in Budapest be abandoned without a fight, regardless of civilian casualties or material damage. From that point forward, the city’s fate was sealed and the siege just a matter of time. The Margit Bridge was the first casualty in what would become a Battle for Budapest.

Place to Visit: Margit Bridge (where Szent Istvan korut meets Margit hid)

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006

A Second Stalingrad – Introduction to The Siege of Budapest Tour

Listen to the audio cast: A Second Stalingrad – Introduction to the Siege of Budapest Tour

Welcome to the Budapest World War II tour. Imagine that you are standing on the banks of the Danube in Pest, just upriver from the famous Chain Bridge. From here you are looking across the river to the hills of Buda and the historic Castle District, a World Heritage site. If you had been standing in this same place a little less than seventy years ago, beautiful Buda would have looked very different. It was in total ruin following the siege of this great city. Budapest had just suffered through one of the longest sieges of the Second World War. In the fighting that took place, approximately 80,000 Soviet soldiers were killed or wounded, up to 40,000 Hungarian and German soldiers were killed, wounded or captured and at least that many civilians also lost their lives. The carnage of the siege is often forgotten, but that makes it no less horrific.

View from near the Chain Bridge looking across the Danube towards Buda Castle post-siege

View from near the Chain Bridge looking across the Danube towards Buda Castle post-siege (Photo:

When the Second World War is discussed, events such as the siege of Leningrad, the firebombing of Dresden, the Holocaust, the Battles for Stalingrad and Berlin get much of the attention. Much of this focus is well deserved. All of these were major historical events that proved to be of great importance to the war’s outcome. Yet during this tour you are going to learn about the little known and even less talked about Siege of Budapest that took place during the winter of 1944-45. This battle was just as ferocious, terrifying and destructive as the more iconic events of the war.

In the coming days and weeks you will be learning how the Battle of Budapest serves as a microcosm of the destructive nature of the Second World War. The fighting which took place here in the depths of a harsh winter deserves to be remembered as an example of the violence and suffering as well as the courage and will to survive that were hallmarks of the conflict. Astonishingly, all the events that occurred with such horrifying effect over five and a half years across the whole of Europe, were mirrored in fifty-one days of ferocious combat right here in the Hungarian capital. The depravities of the siege and ultra-violent nature of urban combat brought the infernal fires of warfare to a civilian population that would experience a whole new level of suffering.

Buildings in central Buda, in Viziváros neighborhood

Buildings in central Buda, in Viziváros neighborhood (Photo:

Along the wide boulevards of Pest, amidst the winding streets of Buda, across the industrial island of Csepel, all the horrors of the Second World War were acted out in the city. At siege’s end, the icy waters of the Danube was tinged red with the blood of Hungarian, German and Soviet soldiers along with scores of innocent civilians caught in the crossfire.

A few moments ago some of the seminal events of the war were mentioned, let’s now look at how the siege of Budapest mirrors them. Aerial Bombardment: The city was targeted by the same strategic bombing that the allies had used to great effect at most notably Hamburg and Dresden. The monumental architecture and beautiful structures in the city known as “the Pearl of the Danube” were not spared.

The Holocaust:  a cataclysmic experience for European Jewry, was no less so in Budapest. Ironically, the Jews of Budapest were relatively safe until late 1944. Yet when thousands were finally deported, the Nazi killing machine had been refined to the point where it took them away faster and in greater numbers than those who had perished before. For those Jews left in the city during the siege, many would meet a terrible fate along the banks of the Danube.

Who among us has not heard of the urban warfare and vicious street fighting in that epic, defining battle at Stalingrad which turned the tide of war against the German Army. The same type of urban warfare was visited upon Budapest just a year and a half later, leaving almost three-fourths of the city in ruin. One German soldier called the battle a “second Stalingrad.”

Or what about the siege of Leningrad, with a population reduced to starvation and forced to make a choice, either living in the most primitive conditions or death in a frozen hell. Yes the citizens of Budapest suffered in much the same manner, not for a thousand days, but just a little over fifty. Yet at siege’s end their lot would not be victory, but defeat and life under a new conqueror.

Soviet Flag Displayed in Parliament Square

Soviet Flag Displayed in Parliament Square (Photo:

Admittedly, all this sounds very bleak, but today Budapest is once again the Pearl of the Danube. It has recovered rather well, considering the trauma of the siege. The city has retaken its place among the great cities of Europe.  Certainly the grandeur of Budapest has been scarred, but in many ways this adds to the mystery and intrigue of its history. It is this history which still speaks to us today. Across the decades, we hear the echo of not only the voices of suffering, but also of survival. And perhaps it is the act of survival that best defines Budapest. It has outlived the destruction of the siege and today survives as a testament to the will and pride of the Hungarian people.

Once again, welcome to the Budapest World War II tour.

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006