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The International School for Holocaust Studies

The Hungarian Tragedy in Retrospect

Interview with Professor Yehuda Bauer

Interviewers: Liz Elsby, Sheryl Ochayon, Franziska Reiniger


Professor Yehuda Bauer

Professor Yehuda Bauer is Professor Emeritus of History and Holocaust Studies at the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Academic Advisor to Yad Vashem. He is fluent in Czech, Slovak, German, Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French, and Polish. Professor Bauer was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia in 1926. His family migrated to Israel in 1939. After completing high school in Haifa, he attended Cardiff University in Wales on a British scholarship.
Upon returning to Israel, Professor Bauer joined Kibbutz Shoval and began his graduated studies at Hebrew University. He received his PhD in 1960 for a thesis on the British Mandate of Palestine. The following year, he began teaching at the Institute for Contemporary Jewry at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He was the founding editor of the Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Professor Bauer has written numerous articles and books on the Holocaust and on Genocide. In 1998 he was awarded the Israel Prize, the highest civilian award in Israel, and in 2001 he was elected a member of the Israeli Academy of Science. Professor Bauer has served as advisor to the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance, and Research, and as senior advisor to the Swedish Government on the International Forum on Genocide Prevention.

For historical background, please see the separate article in this newsletter on Hungary during WWII.

If Hungary had such an antisemitic atmosphere before the war, why did the Final Solution hit it so late?

The reason for that is that Hungary was, after all, an independent country and it joined the Germans in the attack on the Soviet Union because of its territorial and international interests. To hand over Hungarian citizens to the Germans was – from a nationalistic point of view – a problem, even when one hated Jews or engaged in antisemitic propaganda and so on.

There was also in Hungary a very clear position of the ruling elite. The ruling elite was not only Horthy, but the Hungarian aristocracy which was partly Catholic, partly Lutheran, partly Calvinistic. They had absorbed into that elite the upper levels of Jewish bourgeoisie. Part of them had converted to Christianity, but part of them had not. And to that Jewish aristocracy there was also an additional social stratum of intellectuals and traders and so on. The elite differentiated between the masses of Hungarian Jewry who were considered to be enemies of Hungarian nationalism and this narrow stratum of top-level Jewish economic leaders.

And it is quite true that Hungary was the only country in Europe where Jews had control of much of the economy of the country before World War I. So there was a social differentiation there. The opponents of the regime from the right within Hungary relied on the massive antisemitism in the Hungarian population, which had existed since the 19th century, and attacked the government from the right demanding more radical steps against the Jews. And these steps were Hungarian steps. In other words, when the Final Solution was developed – because it was not pre-planned, it developed in stages – some of the Hungarian opposition to the conservative regime identified with it and some thought that Hungary should deal with its Jews in a negative way – by itself.

So it is a very complicated issue.

On top of that also is the fact that in 1943 the defeats of the German army at Stalingrad and the surrender of the German army in North Africa (in May 1943) strengthened the tendency in Hungary to seek a separate peace with the Allies. That tendency was there already from 1942.
Also, some – not all – but some of the leaders of the conservative elite that was in power, especially the Prime Minister Miklos Kallay who was certainly a Hungarian nationalist, began to doubt the possibilities of a German victory. And it was not a good idea – so he thought – if Hungary was going to seek some kind of separate accommodation with the Allies, to identify with the murder of Jews of which they knew. They did not know details but they had a fairly good idea of what was happening in Poland at that time. Now, this strengthened in 1943.

This is a complicated answer to a simple question.

What did the Hungarian Jews know or understand regarding the Holocaust?

I think the knowledge of what was happening in Poland was quite widespread; contrary to postwar testimonies that argue that [the Hungarian Jews] didn’t know anything. That is totally untrue. People repress what they actually knew. Now, what they knew was not details. But consider the following facts. The Hungarian army was in occupation of areas in the Ukraine where Jews were being murdered. And they used labor battalions recruited from the Jewish population because they were not recruited to go to the army – they were recruited for labor battalions – they were basically canon fodder. [The Jews in these labor battalions] were sent out to clear mines with inadequate equipment and forced to build trenches under impossible conditions. There were exceptions amongst the Hungarian officer corps, people who were less brutal. But the overall picture is pretty grim.

Now, of these Hungarian Jews some 50,000 – 10 percent – came back in 1943 and, of course, they told the stories to everyone. Officers and soldiers of the Hungarian army on leave told their relatives, their friends and sometimes their Jewish friends as well what they saw. It spread. About 2,500 Jews managed to escape from Poland in 1942, 1943 into Hungary. They were living all over Hungary – not only in the large cities, and they told their stories. No one believed them, but they knew the information. They had the information. We have testimonies to prove that. There were some 800,000 radio receivers amongst the Hungarian population. And the story of what was happening to the Jews in Poland was occasionally told. That spread to the Jewish population. Until 1944 the Jews had radio receivers.

Then you have the Slovak Jews, at least 7,000 of whom escaped from Slovakia in 1942. And they had information directly from Poland. And they spread the news. Now, they didn’t know about Auschwitz, nobody knew about Auschwitz. Nobody knew details about Treblinka or Belzec and so on. But they knew that Poland meant death. Now, that information did not become knowledge because when you are threatened with life-endangering information and you have no way to escape the consequences, you tend to repress it. So we have x-number of testimonies that say: “Yes, we heard, they told us, but we didn’t believe them.” I think that is the crucial situation. The idea that somebody would have told them in 1944 something about Poland they didn’t know, stretches the borders of imagination, contrary to what they say. Survivors will tell you and contradict themselves: “We had no idea. Yes, they told us, but we didn’t believe them.”

That is a well-known issue. Epistemology shows that it is a natural human tendency. You receive information, but it doesn’t mean you understand it or you accept it, which would mean that you have knowledge.

Why has Kasztner become such a codeword? Why is he controversial?

Kasztner was never a member of the Hungarian Judenrat. He was the head of a minority group within the Zionist movement in Hungary which itself counted about five percent of Hungarian Jews – a small minority. The vast majority of Hungarian Jews would have nothing to do with Zionism. And the Zionist movement was split – as usual.

Kasztner’s political party – the Jewish labor party (today it would be the Mapai or Avodah) in Hungary within the Zionist movement, was a minority. The majority were either religious Zionists, Mizrachi, or left-wing Zionists, Shomer Hatzair, and general Zionists. And Mapai, the Jewish labor party, was a minority. However, in Palestine it was the majority – the ruling party in the non-independent Jewish community in Palestine. So, it had a special place. And there was constant struggle. And in order to accommodate everyone the compromise was that the head of the underground Zionist movement in Hungary should be a General Zionist, Komoly, who was a Hungarian hero from World War I, and his deputy would be somebody from Mapai. So, chairmanship would be in the hands of the majority and the deputy would be from the minority. That’s the background. And Kasztner was not a Hungarian Jew! He was a Romanian Jew from Cluj, from Transylvania. Before he came to Hungary he was a secretary of the Romanian Jewish representation in the Romanian parliament. So, he was a foreigner. He was a completely unknown personality. However, when the underground was set up and the threat of German occupation came, this underground became important. And Kasztner was a very energetic and ambitious man. So, he became a representative. Also there was an internal decision amongst the Zionist leadership that Komoly and some others would deal with the Hungarians – because he was, after all, very well known amongst the Hungarian elite, a hero from World War I, so he could talk to them – and Kasztner would deal with the Germans. He [Kasztner] spoke Romanian perfectly and German of course, because that was the language of culture. Kasztner became – not by any pre-planning – the representative of the small Zionist minority towards the Germans. So, the negotiations that began were conducted first not by Kasztner, but by somebody much less important, Joel Brand, who was also a member of the Mapai. Then, Kasztner and Brand loved to hate each other. When Brand was sent by the Germans to negotiate with the Allies, Kasztner came in. He wasn’t there from the beginning. That is how he became the negotiator. Basically not representing anybody. This all came later on.

Has the opinion about Kasztner changed? I am not sure. There are still a great number of people who take extreme positions on either side, who will either see him as a traitor and a collaborator and so on, or see him as the ultimate hero who wanted to rescue – which is quite true. I’m not sure that the opinions have changed that much, but they have become more based on factual evidence in a way. And I obviously represent something more in the middle. But I do think that Kasztner was a rescuer. I have no doubt about that. I also think he had not much choice but to turn to the Germans because they were the ones who were deciding the fate of the Jews. And the Jews had no possibility of either rebellion or flight. So, what else should they have done?

On the other hand he was a very unpleasant person. And he was certainly responsible for things that are totally inexcusable, such as, for instance, his attitude to the question of Hannah Szenes, the parachutist, and generally to the parachutists.[1] Now, I can understand why he did that because they were threatening the possibility of rescuing large numbers of Jews, in his eyes. Nevertheless, you don’t do things like that.

Secondly, postwar – he was sent to Nuremberg basically by the Jewish Agency and the World Jewish Congress. They tried to hide that. He was just a Jew who had immigrated to Palestine, later Israel. He was sent there because he had had contact with Nazis. What should he do there? My assumption is – I can’t prove it – but my assumption is that they wanted to – through his contacts with the Nazis who were arrested and facing trial in Nuremberg – to get to other people much more important to the Jewish Agency – namely Eichmann, because he had known Eichmann personally very well and some of his Nazi contacts had of course, naturally. I can’t prove it, but that is my assumption. At Nuremberg he did try to rescue some Nazis from trial. Some of Eichmann’s henchmen, for example Kurt Becher. And he lied about it in the trial. He literally lied. There is no question about it. Like with many Jewish heroes in the Holocaust it’s not white and it’s not black. In the case of Kasztner I would say it is white with a lot of grey spots.

You come to recognize a person like that from the testimonies, as we don’t know him. We rely largely on the testimony of his concubine Hansi Brand. I knew Hansi Brand and we interviewed her. And Hansi Brand – I think – was telling the truth.

We know that Eichmann planned to deport all of Hungarian Jewry. What happened in Hungary that it did not work out as planned? Why did many Jews from Budapest remain safe?

The survival of the Jews of Budapest is due to the international situation and to the retreat of the German army, which caused the Hungarian army to do a counter-coup-d’état and get again in control of Hungary. And Horthy stopped the deportations. Horthy in negotiations with the Germans promised the Germans to deport the Jews of Budapest as well. But he didn’t mean that. He was already sending negotiators to Istanbul and to Moscow in order to see what kind of separate peace could be obtained by Hungary. And the new prime minister – after this change – was a general loyal to Horthy – Géza Lakatos – who agreed with Horthy’s policy of trying to reduce the reliance on Germany and possibly negotiate a separate peace. They naively thought the Germans didn’t know that. The Germans knew. But they used also Anti-Hitler, Anti-German intelligence people.


[1] Ed.: Three paratroopers from Palestine made their way to Budapest in an attempt to save Jews. Hannah Szenes was caught, interrogated and murdered by the Hungarian police. The other two, Yoel Palgi and Peretz Goldstein, went to see Kasztner in his office who convinced them to turn themselves over to the Gestapo. They were tortured by the Germans and sent to Germany, but Palgi jumped off the train and managed to escape and survive the war.