Historians term the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of World War I, a “Golden Age” for Jews. Things began to change for the worse, however, when Austro-Hungary, allied with Germany, was likewise defeated by the Allies in WWI. Under terms of the Versailles treaty, Austria and Hungary became separate countries with republican forms of government. Like Germany, neither country had a tradition of or preparation for participatory democracy. Accordingly, political instability soon ensued in both Hungary and Austria, as it did in Weimar Germany, also aggravated by economic difficulties. In all three countries, the ever present undercurrent of anti-Semitism surfaced, became enflamed by right-wing agitators, and, not surprisingly as in the past, Jews were scapegoated.
Germany invaded Hungary in March,1944, late in the war, and installed a puppet regime controlled by the national fascist party, Arrow Cross, under the leadership of fascist dictator Ferenc Szálasi (photo above). Two-thirds of the population was Roman Catholic. In the first six weeks of German occupation, Hungarians made over 35,000 denunciations of their Jewish neighbors who, as in Nazi Germany and elsewhere, had been stripped of their citizenship rights in the 1930s. At the height of what was soon to become a killing frenzy of unprecedented proportion, an unnamed priest wrote an article for the Arrow Cross Party newspaper in which he declared: “Ever since the Jews crucified Jesus, they have been the foes of Christianity. May the Jews be expelled from Hungary, and then the Church, too, will be able to breathe more freely”
Before the invasion, Hungarian Jews had been spared deportation because, although allied with Germany in WWII, as in fascist Italy under Mussolini, Hungary’s national government resisted Nazi requests to deport Jews. After the invasion and occupation, however, as happened in Italy in October, 1943, after Mussolini’s fall from power, Jews were left unprotected. Almost immediately, Hungarian Jews began to be rounded up by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen, marched to the banks of the Danube River, ordered to take off their shoes, shot in the back of the head and pushed into the river. By mid-May, 1944, mass deportation began in earnest. Incredibly, within only ninety days, 70 percent of Hungarian Jewry was destroyed.
On the day that the deportation began, Hungary’s undersecretary of state, Laszlo Endre, in a speech declared: “The popes, as well as our own ancient and saintly kings, legislated draconian laws and imposed severe decrees upon this parasitic race. Thus, no one can complain that we are not acting in accordance with the spirit of Christianity when we enact draconian regulations against the Jews so as to protect our nation”
A Call to Prayer
In June, 1944 as Jews were being rounded up and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, an article appeared in the Arrow Cross newspaper in the town of Veszprem announcing an upcoming thanksgiving prayer service. It read:
“With the help of Divine Providence our ancient city and province have been liberated from that Judaism which sullied our nation. In our thousand years, this is not the first time we have been freed from some scourge which had befallen us. However no previous event can compare in its importance to this event, for no previous foe threatening us, whether by force or by a political takeover, had ever succeeded in overcoming us to the extent that the Jews have succeeded, with the aid of their poisoned roots which penetrated our national body and took hold of it. We are following in the footsteps of our fathers in coming to express our thanks to our God who saves us whenever we are in distress. Come and gather for the thanksgiving service which will take place on June 25 at 11:30 AM at the Franciscan Church.”
The Hungarian Jewish community was the largest community of European Jews to be deported and exterminated — late in the war with lightening speed. Destruction of this community, therefore, is one of the saddest chapters in Holocaust history. While the Wehrmacht was being routed in the East and the ultimate fate of Nazi Germany was being sealed by the successful Allied invasion at Normandy on June 6, 1944; when much of European Jewry had already been destroyed; when world leaders had undisputed knowledge of what was happening in the death camps; and while prayers were being offered in German Catholic Churches for German
Assigned as first secretary to the Swedish legation in Hungary, Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944. Despite lack of experience in diplomacy and clandestine operations, Wallenberg led one of the most extensive and successful rescue efforts for Jews during the Holocaust. His work with the War Refugee Board and the World Jewish Congress prevented deportation of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. On January 17, 1945, just six months after he began his mission in Hungary, Wallenberg, a person of conscience and true hero of the Holocaust, was captured by Russian soldiers and never heard from again. For his heroic efforts, Wallenberg was recognized as a Righteous Gentile by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.
During the final months of the war, with the Wehrmacht in retreat on all fronts, Msgr. Angelo Rotta, nuncio in Budapest, also recognized as a Righteous Gentle by Yad Vashem, joined a group of diplomats, among them Angel Sanz Briz and Giorgio Perlasca of the Spanish embassy and Friedrich Born of the International Red Cross, in trying to save the remaining Jews in Budapest. Msgr. Rotta requested that the Pope urge Hungarian bishops, who had not publicly opposed the killing, to join in the effort to stop deportations. Pius XII responded by writing letters to the bishops and to the Hungarian Regent, requesting them to demand that deportations cease. The effort bore fruit; the bishops finally issued a public protest and the deportations did, indeed, stop. Unfortunately, however, by then most of Hungary’s Jews were already dead.
Previously, in late 1942, Pius XII advised Hungarian bishops that speaking out against the carnage in the East would be politically advantageous. It should be noted that Pius’ efforts to save Jews increased as it became more likely that the Allies would win the war. Fifty- two years later, in 1994, the bishops of Hungary issued a statement acknowledging their complicity for the Holocaust. It read:
“(Catholics) who through fear, cowardice, or opportunism, failed to raise their voices against the mass humiliation, deportation, and murder of their Jewish neighbors must also be held responsible, and before God we now ask forgiveness for this failure.”
When the war ended, Szálasi was captured by American troops and returned to Hungary. He was tried by the People’s Tribunal in Budapest in open sessions and sentenced to death for war crimes and high treason. Szálasi was hanged in 1946 in Budapest.