Between May 14 and July 8, 1944, 437,402 Hungarian Jewish men, women and children were transported to the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It took 148 trains to carry them. More than 90% of the Jews were gassed immediately upon arrival. By July 9, 1944, only 230,000 Jews survived in Budapest.
SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann was given the job of deporting the Hungarian Jews. He planned to deport the surviving Jews of Budapest to Auschwitz by the end of July 1944. The war, however, was going badly for Germany. The Russians were advancing from the East, the Allies from the West. With the end of the war nearing, Regent Horthy of Hungary began to resist Eichmann and the deportations.
By the end of July 1944, the deportations of Hungarian Jews had ceased. Nevertheless, Eichmann and his SS kept up their reign of terror against the Jews of Budapest. Hungarian Jews were herded into ghettos and makeshift concentration camps. The round up of Jews was carried out district by district by collaborating Hungarian Arrow Cross, with Eichmann and his SS men supervising. Eichmann and his SS troops were surprised by the cruelty of the Hungarian Arrow Cross.
Eichmann continued to abduct Jews for forced marches out of Budapest. Even so, there was relative calm at this time. The work of Verolino, Rotta and the other neutral diplomats was not over; the worst was yet to come.
By the end of August 1944, SS commander Heinrich Himmler ordered Eichmann to stop the deportation of Hungarian Jews. A few days later, Hungarian Regent Horthy appointed General Gezá Latakos, a stalwart Horthy loyalist, as the new Prime Minister. He was given instructions to stop the persecution of the Jews. Again, the worst seemed to be over for the Jews of Budapest.
During this period of relative calm, Eichmann acted on his own murderous authority. He defied Himmler in coordinating continued deportations. He continued persecutions, including the round up and murder of Jews. On August 30, Eichmann was ordered to withdraw from Budapest with his SS command.
On October 12, Horthy planned to sue for a separate peace with the Allies. The situation improved greatly for the Jews of Budapest. Many Jews even stopped wearing the Star of David.
The Nazis discovered Horthy’s attempt to negotiate with the Allies. Immediately, the Germans brought thousands of troops into Budapest and initiated a coup against Horthy. The Germans deposed Horthy and installed the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross party in power, with Ferenc Szálasi as Prime Minister.
Eichmann told the Jewish community leaders, “You see, I am back, our arm is still long enough to reach you.” Immediately, widespread arrests and pogroms against Jews resumed. Nearly 200 people were murdered by members of the Arrow Cross. Arrow Cross leaders cooperated with the Nazis in the murder and deportation of the Jews.
Eichmann was delighted with the cooperation and the enthusiastic participation of the Hungarian fascist party. During this period, Jews were terrorized by bands of Arrow Cross thugs who roamed the city beating, robbing and killing.
On October 20, 1944, Eichmann again began the mass round up of Jewish men. His plan was to deport the Jews of Budapest on mass death marches. They were to be taken to the Austrian border to dig trenches and build fortifications against the advancing Russian army. Hundreds died of exhaustion and starvation on these marches.
Diplomats of the neutral missions and their volunteers traveled tirelessly up and down the roads between Budapest and Hegyeshalom, the route of the death marches. They brought truckloads of food, medicine and clothing. Diplomats carried blank protective passes that they issued on the spot. Thus they saved many thousands of Jews from almost inevitable death.
The courage that the neutral diplomats and their volunteers displayed during the German occupation was remarkable. They would walk up to trains loaded with deportees. In front of the SS and Arrow Cross officials, they would hand the deportees “safe passes.”
In October-November 1944, the neutral diplomats established numerous “diplomatic” safe houses, leased in the name of the country with the shield and flags of the country prominently displayed on the front door. They even claimed extra-territoriality, which they did not have. When Nazis and Arrow Cross soldiers tried to raid these safe houses, the diplomats and their volunteers were able, in most cases, to keep them out.
These buildings under diplomatic protection, along with the protective passes, were the most important tools in saving large numbers of Jews. The Swiss, Swedish, Vatican, Spanish and Portuguese buildings gave shelter to at least 40,000 and perhaps as many as 70,000 Jews. The exact number will never be known. Thus, the Budapest rescue effort by neutral diplomats saved the greatest number in any location in World War II. This is in no small part thanks to the leadership of the dean of the diplomatic corps, Angelo Rotta.
The lives of diplomats in Budapest were in constant jeopardy. The Arrow Cross did not consistently recognize the authority of the diplomatic missions to protect Jews in Budapest. Eichmann was heard to threaten Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg: “Accidents do happen, even to neutral diplomats.” Soon thereafter, Wallenberg’s diplomatic car was rammed by a truck. Henryk Slawik, the Czech Chargé d’Affaires, was arrested for helping Jews and was deported to Mauthausen concentration camp, where he died. The Nazi plenipotentiary in Budapest, Edward Veesenmayer, asked for permission to kill Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz.
In addition to the Nazi terrors, the diplomats shared the dangers that people in a city under siege face. In fact, bombs hit various legation buildings toward the end of the siege.
When the Russian army entered Budapest in the beginning of January 1945, they found 120,000 Hungarian Jews who had survived. This was the largest Jewish community surviving in Europe. They would not have lived without the neutral diplomats.
by Eric Saul