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Photo by Joan Marcus.

Hungarian Jews and the Holocaust

The seeds of Jewish persecution in Hungary before and during World War II were sown at the end of World War I.


Hungarian Jews and the Holocaust

In Skintight, Jodi Isaac’s son Benjamin is in the midst of a semester abroad in Hungary, where he’s been exploring his family’s roots as Eastern European Jews. Now self-identified Americans, the Isaac family has been living in the United States for nearly 100 years, and memories of Jodi’s grandparents’ lives in Hungary are distant ones. But Jewish experiences of the Holocaust in Hungary in the 1930s and 1940s loom large in the history of any family of Hungarian Jewish descent.

The seeds of Jewish persecution in Hungary before and during World War II were sown at the end of World War I. Hungary, which in the early part of the 20th century existed as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, fought alongside Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria in World War I as a member of the Central Powers. After being defeated by the Allies in 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was split up, and Hungary was greatly reduced in size and population. When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Hungary sought an alliance with Nazi Germany, who supported Hungary’s desire to regain the land it had lost at the end of World War I. Allyship with the intensely anti-Semitic Germany spurred anti-Jewish legislation in Hungary, including a drastic restriction on the number of Jews allowed in an array of professions in Hungary, a draft that forced young Jewish men into labor units, and a racial law defining who was to be considered “Jewish.”

The first massacre of Hungarian Jews took place in 1941, when some 18,000 residents were identified by the Hungarian government as “Jewish foreign nationals,” deported to Kamenets-Podolsk in German-controlled Ukraine, and murdered. In 1942, another 1,000 Jews were murdered by the Hungarian military, who claimed to be in pursuit of Serbian partisans. Hungary joined the Axis Powers alongside Germany in December 1941, but after suffering huge losses on the battlefield, Regent of Hungary Miklós Horthy attempted to withdraw from its alliance with Germany. In retaliation, Hitler’s army invaded Hungary in March 1944 and established a fascist government loyal to Germany. Under this new government, the Jews of Hungary were forced into ghettos, and during the spring of 1944, over 435,000 Jews were deported to the Polish concentration camp of Auschwitz and killed.

That fall, Horthy publicly announced that Hungary would break ties with Germany and seek a peace agreement with the Allies, but in response, Hitler overthrew Horthy’s government and put the savagely anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party, led by Ferenc Szálasi, into power. Szálasi’s government terrorized Jews in Budapest, Hungary’s capital, killing over 80,000 of them in Budapest alone and sending another 85,000 on death marches to the Austrian border, while forcing another 70,000 into ghettos.

The Soviet army liberated Hungary in April 1945. All told, around 568,000 Hungarian Jews had died during the Holocaust -- almost equivalent to the entire population of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, today. After the war, only about 144,000 Jews remained in Hungary as survivors, and around 70,000 of those soon left Hungary for Israel or Western countries, largely due to Hungary’s poor economic conditions and remaining anti-Semitic policies.

The suffering endured by Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust is almost impossible to imagine, but it is important to remember the magnitude of their tragedy. In the world of Skintight, the Holocaust can feel so distant, but as Benjamin discovers during his semester in Hungary, there is no one who remains untouched by it.