Budapest 1944 – 2014: The Yellow-Star Houses

Hier ist kein Warum!
Primo Levi

On 16 June, 1944, the mayor of Budapest, Ákos Dorogi Farkas, issued a decree that marked out almost 2,000 apartment buildings in Budapest, “in which Jews (obliged under the existing decrees to wear the mark of the yellow star) may reside” [emphasis in the original]. Every one of these apartment buildings had to “mark all their street entrances with a yellow star which must be kept permanently in tact and clean. The sign shall be a six-pointed canary yellow star measuring 30 centimeters in diameter, on a 51 x 36 cm black background.”

According to the 1941 census, almost 21 per cent of Budapest's population was of Jewish origin. The order to wear the yellow star therefore applied to 187,000 Jews, and a further 35,000 converted Jews. Those “obliged to wear the yellow star” had to leave their apartments by midnight on June 24. “Forcible relocation shall take place to apartment buildings marked with the yellow star; more precisely, either to apartments already occupied by a Jewish tenant, but where the size of the apartment is above the tenant’s legitimate need, or to apartments that are vacant in the same apartment building. […] One Jewish family usually requires one residential room. If the room is smaller than 25 square meters and the family exceeds four members, or if, in the continuation of business, the preservation of equipment or office records may not be guaranteed in any other way, an additional room may be required. Where the size of an apartment or dwelling is greater than legitimate housing needs of Jews, other Jewish families will be moved into the excess rooms” – the decree ordered. Eventually, after some modifications, a total of 1,944 apartment buildings was identified to become “yellow-star houses.”

Historians of the Holocaust in Hungary have tended to overlook what happened in Budapest. When Budapest is mentioned, it is usually with reference to the bulk of Budapest Jews surviving, or, in terms of the narrative favored by the present regime’s historians and ideologists, as the city where Governor Miklós Horthy “saved” the Jews, and put an end to the deportations.

The primary location of the Hungarian Holocaust was, without a doubt, not the capital city, but the countryside, from where 437,000 people were deported to Auschwitz and other concentration camps in a period of around six weeks, from mid-May to early July, 1944. The majority of deported Hungarian Jews were either put to death on arrival in the camps, or died in the weeks and months following their forced labor. Of the 437,000 deportees, around 87 per cent (380,000 people) were killed. In Budapest, tens of thousands of people fell victim to the death marches and mass killings by Arrow Cross detachments, although the majority did survive. It is understandable, then, why over the past 25 years or so, attention has focused on uncovering the fate of rural Jews in the Hungarian Holocaust.

In January, 2014 OSA Archivum launched a dedicated yellow-star houses website. The site’s interactive map shows the location of the former yellow-star houses, and what they look like today. The map is supplemented with numerous documents, including the relevant decrees, a list of houses, a chronology, glossary, and recollections. Using the navigation tools, visitors to the site can view the former yellow-star houses at street, district and even city level, and submit their recollections or personal stories. Over the coming year, our hope is that these resources will continue to expand. The website launch was the first event in a year-long series of public programs dedicated to Budapest 1944 and the sufferings of the Budapest Jews, and which will culminate in December 2014 with an exhibition at OSA on the Budapest ghetto.

As well as presenting this history of the Holocaust in Budapest, our aim is to remind contemporary Hungarian society of the tragedy, and of the need to face up to the responsibility borne by the Hungarian political class and society of the time. We are thus concerned to emphasize our shared moral responsibility toward both the past, and the present. After all, in this country, everybody is a  Holocaust survivor in one way or another. Finally, we want to emphasize the historical and moral indefensibility of the recurring mantras of post-Communist right-wing historical revisionism: the contemporary glorification of the interwar period, the trivialization of the role antisemitism played in the 1920s and 1930s, and the culpability of the interwar governing elite and broader politically active social groups, still swept under the carpet today.

The tragedy of the Hungarian Jews did not begin on March 19, 1944, with the arrival of German troops in Hungary. Modern political antisemitism was already present in Hungarian political life from the last third of the nineteenth century, and its development followed primarily German, French and Austrian models. The strength and influence of political antisemitism had grown before and in particular during World War One, and culminated in the period lasting 1919-1945, when antisemitism became a defining element in the thinking not only of certain sections of the political elite, but also of broader social groups active in politics.

It is crucial that we be clear about the complex reasons for the state of affairs from 1919 to 1944. Among the antecedents, we must note the one-sided nature of pre-1914 capitalist modernization in Hungary, in which Jews and Germans played a particularly prominent role, and the tensions that accompanied progress, in particular those that were detrimental to agricultural society and the traditional political classes. We must also mention the impact of frustrations arising from the failure of Hungarian national independence movements, the political tensions and emotions surrounding relations with non-Hungarian nationalities in Hungary, who constituted over half of Hungary's population, the shock caused by the disintegration of the Dual Monarchy at the end of WWI, the sudden collapse of the old order and consequent upheavals, and the terror of the Bolshevik putsch that endangered not only the existence of the country, but also threatened to upend its entire social order. We must mention the blows delivered by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, and the flood of refugees which caused unmanageable social tensions and radically changed the mentality and political ethos of the traditional governing elite and the middle classes. In the background to all of this, the traditional anti-Judaism of the Christian churches, modern race theory, late nineteenth-century antisemitic theories and the radical rejection of liberalism—which was blamed for the catastrophes of the war—all served to provide a framework of analysis, which appeared to explain these disasters and frustrations. But none of this led inevitably to 1944, and organized mass genocide. These historical facts help us to understand the path to the ghetto but, in our opinion, do not and cannot explain what happened; in order to understand properly, we cannot avoid taking into account ethical and moral factors. For the tragedy to have occurred, this required the immorality and inhumanity which today seem almost incomprehensible, and which, having permeated the consciousness of broad sections of society, made it possible to conceive of and accept the mass extermination of people for no particular reason or purpose. The quotation from Primo Levi above expresses this conviction.

Although antisemitism was not the sole unjust and repellent feature of the period known as the “Horthy era”, it cannot be regarded as a secondary, incidental or ephemeral phenomenon that merely strengthened or waned during the interwar years. Antisemitism characterized not just the political thinking of just a few isolated extremist groups with limited influence, or one part of the political elite. There existed a deep interdependence between the Horthy regime's anti-liberalism, its semi-feudal view of society, its anti-democratic attitudes, authoritarianism, nationalism, irredentism, anti-Communism, and antisemitism. Antisemitism was the quintessence of everything the Horthy regime represented and believed about itself. The antisemitism of the era was a constitutive element of the entire system, and which permeated, with growing intensity over time, broad layers of society, the legislature, the armed forces, law enforcement, the middle class, the intelligentsia, the rural landowners, and substantial sections of the peasantry, petty bourgeoisie and industrial working class. Antisemitism was also the mark with which the majority of politically active and relevant interwar groups identified themselves, including large swathes of the political opposition, and many intellectual trends.

It is only a slight exaggeration to say that antisemitism was the political lingua franca of the interwar Horthy era. There existed a broad overriding conviction that the key to solving social problems, and to the resurrection of the old Hungary, was to solve the so-called Jewish Question, to restrict the economic and social influence of Hungarians designated “Jewish”, to deprive them of their rights and exclude them from the social sphere, and to confiscate and redistribute their property and goods. Everything that happened to the Hungarian Jews in the spring, summer, autumn and winter of 1944 was a direct consequence of this conviction. It was not casual rage on the part of the German occupiers and “Arrow Cross rabble” recruited from the margins of society that led to the total deprivation of rights, the plundering and murder of half a million Hungarian citizens. Without the participation and cooperation of the Hungarian government, public administration and gendarmerie, the ghettoization and deportation of the Hungarian Jews could not have taken place. Neither the numerus clausus law of 1920, the first anti-Jewish quota in post-WWI Europe, nor the series of 21 “Jewish laws” and the hundreds of related governmental and ministerial decrees adopted between 1938 and 1944, were passed by a majority of the legislature, and executed by Hungarian public administration bodies, under external pressure.

Horthy himself was a convinced antisemite. In his letter to Prime Minister Pál Teleki in November 1940, Horthy wrote that he had always been an antisemite, but that he saw a difference between those “still useful”, indispensable Jewish professionals and financiers, and the “Galicians”, between which two groups different forms of treatment were required. In a speech given in the spring of 1942, Horthy praised Hitler as Europe's post-WWI pioneer of antisemitism and anti-Communism. During talks with Hitler conducted in 1943, Horthy proudly deflected Nazi criticism by pointing out that it was Hungary which had introduced the first law restricting “Jews” in Europe. It is immaterial what Horthy personally thought about the Endlösung [Final Solution]. In his response to Hitler, it also transpires that Horthy knew precisely what was happening to the Jews in Poland and other European countries under German occupation. In other words, he knew exactly what would happen to Hungarian Jews if they ended up in German hands, and was fully aware of the potential consequences when, as the ultimate leader and the supreme commander of the country, he made the political decision to hand Hungarian Jewry over to the Germans.

It is true that Jews were not deported from Hungary when, throughout the rest of occupied Europe, the destruction of the Jews was almost complete. Yet it is also true that in the summer of 1944, hundreds of thousands of Hungarian citizens were deported in record time, in such numbers and at such a speed that was unprecedented throughout Europe. And in contrast to the widely-held belief today, it was Horthy himself who chose and appointed the government whose members were the most extreme antisemites of the era—Prime Minister Döme Sztójay, Interior Minister Andor Jaross, Interior Ministry Secretaries of State László Endre and László Baky—who, with Horthy's authorization and approval, and with the agreement of Adolf Eichmann's commando, mobilized the entire Hungarian public administration and gendarmerie apparatus for the purposes of counting, ghettoization and deportation of the Jews as quickly as possible, at the same time as their property was cataloged for expropriation. In an exceptionally short period of time, tens of thousands of requests were submitted to the Hungarian authorities, from the highest-ranking circles to the lower social classes, for property, goods, real estate and belongings confiscated from Jews. This shocking fact shows that it was not only Horthy and his government who knew that the deported Jews would probably never return, but that the majority of the wider public also shared this view.

Returning home from Privy Council discussions with Hitler on March 19, 1944, Horthy suggested that carrying out the Germans’ demands on the “Jewish Question” in full, in other words the total de-Jewification of the country, would hasten the return of Hungary’s sovereignty, and bring an end to the German occupation. Some days later, at the government session at which preparations for the ghettoization and deportation of the Jews were first discussed, Prime Minister Sztójay announced definitively that Horthy was fully aware and supportive of giving him a free hand to solve the “Jewish Question.”

Over the course of late spring and summer 1944, the Hungarian government and public administration bodies carried out the relevant orders with total exertion, encountering no opposition, and faced by the complete indifference of the majority of society. This well-oiled machinery was still working efficiently when Horthy suspended the deportations, which is further proof that he was and remained able to take decisions: without his approval, the deportation wagons would not have left, and when he suspended the deportations, the Germans could do nothing. Without the active assistance of the Hungarian authorities, the deportation of so many people could not have taken place. In those European countries where the local authorities did not cooperate with Eichmann and his commandos, the Germans could not achieve the total “de-Jewification” of the country, for example in France, where the occupiers were present for much longer.

There is some dispute over whether Adolf Eichmann's commando had arrived in Hungary on March 19, 1944 with the explicit intention to deport and annihilate the whole of Hungarian Jewry, or whether they had originally intended for only 50-150,000 people to be deported to Germany for forced labor. However, the size, composition and careful preparations made by the commando would indicate that they had arrived in Hungary with the aim of the total de-Jewification of the country. But there is much evidence to show that Eichmann's commando had not counted on being able to carry this out on such a scale and within such a short period of time. When Eichmann and colleagues arrived in Budapest, they could not have known who the new Prime Minister would be.

At the same time, it is indisputable that Hungarian decision-makers and rulers tried not to hinder, but rather hurried to carry out the deportations. They pushed for six trains per day in order to place hundreds of thousands of Hungarian citizens who were designated as members of an alien race outside the borders. Over the course of negotiations, the Germans referred to transportation and logistical difficulties, as well as the “reception capacity” of the Auschwitz camps, and regarded the demand for six daily trains as impossible, persuading the Hungarians to reduce the transports to two to three trains per day.

The fortunate survival of the majority of the Jews in Budapest was not due to the fact that they were destined for anything other than destruction. On the contrary, Hungarian decision-makers also pushed for the Budapest Jews to be deported first. It was only Reichsminister Heinrich Himmler's order that changed their minds: he prioritized the prompt “cleansing” of north-eastern Hungary and Northern Transylvania, both of which would soon become the scene of combat once the Red Army arrived. Those in Budapest who survived the ghetto, the siege and the mass murders may actually have Himmler, and not Horthy, to thank for their survival.

In the second half of June 1944, Budapest Jews were forcibly moved into the “yellow-star houses,” not only for their own flats to be expropriated and used to house people displaced by the bombings, but also because the anticipated deportations required that Jews be forcibly moved together en masse into designated sites of residence. The system of “yellow-star” houses was not an antechamber to the ghetto, but a preparation stage for deportation.

Horthy had no illusions regarding the fate of the Jews to be deported. It is wrong to believe that, in the end, Horthy halted the deportations. Given the changes in the military situation (the success of the Normandy landings and Operation Bagration), as well as domestic and international protests, Horthy suspended the deportations on July 6, 1944. His decision may also have been influenced by the rumor that if the Jews were removed from the yellow-star houses, then British planes would carpet bomb the capital city. Horthy took this decision only once rural Hungarian Jewry, totaling around 437,000 people, had already been deported, and the majority of them exterminated in Auschwitz. In the second half of August 1944, Horthy gave permission for the deportation of Jews from the Budapest yellow-star houses, for which the date of August 25 was set. Only at the last minute, on August 23, with the news of the Romanian declaration of war on Germany, was the action cancelled. In both cases—the decisions to suspend and re-initiate deportations—tactical considerations played a significant role: improving the Hungarian government's room for maneuver and negotiating position in the closing stages of the war. The fate of the deportees cannot have been a consideration. The complete “de-Jewification” of Hungary was a long-term received aim, even if the price was death for the deportees.

Similar strategic aims and tactical considerations, and the exact same “swing diplomacy” also characterized the Arrow Cross government's Jewish policy which, however, given the swift end to the war, led to the destruction of a significantly smaller number of people.

The Arrow Cross government, formed on October 17, also aimed to “de-Jewify” the country. For foreign policy and “workforce economy” reasons however, they did not      want to hand over the Jews en masse to the Germans. The creation of the international ghetto was not aimed at “protecting” the Jews, but to prepare for their removal to new host countries. Under Arrow Cross rule during the last chaotic months of occupation, the “protected houses” of the international ghetto in fact offered no protection against marauders or mass murderers. Nor was the creation of the large ghetto in Budapest's seventh district dictated by the desire to protect the masses of people enclosed therein. The ghetto was erected because the Jews could not be deported from a city that was already surrounded, and because Jews also had to be isolated from the rest of the population. However, because the siege of Budapest lasted only one month and 14 days, the fact that the ghetto was sealed off improved the chances of survival for its inhabitants.

At the same time, it is a fact that Arrow Cross leader Ferenc Szálasi pursued a more “opportunistic” Jewish policy than Prime Minister Sztójay’s policy of spring and summer, 1944. Szálasi was anxious even for neutral states to accept his Arrow Cross regime as legitimate. If Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz and colleagues had wanted to defend the Jews they could do so, however, in return, Szálasi demanded diplomatic recognition. Although there are significant differences in magnitude between the number of Jews deported and murdered under the Sztójay government and the victims of the Szálasi regime, if a system plunders and murders tens of thousands of people, it can be regarded as a system of mass murder.

These facts and circumstances have been covered in some detail by contemporary scholarly literature. At the international conference “Jewish Life and Antisemitism in Contemporary Europe” organized by the Tom Lantos Institute in early October 2013, both Deputy Prime Minister Tibor Navrasics and Foreign Minister János Martonyi took the opportunity to emphasize that the Hungarian state was also responsible for the Holocaust. At a memorial conference in New York on January 23, 2014, Hungary’s ambassador to the UN was reported in the press as having said that: “We owe an apology to the victims; the Hungarian state was guilty in the Holocaust.”

It seems that everything is in order. Yet the practice of doublespeak—saying one thing to the outside world and another to the audience at home—is still ongoing. In early November 2013, President János Áder was silent when a statue was erected in central Budapest of his predecessor in office, an accomplice in the murder of hundreds of thousands of Hungarians: Miklós Horthy. More recently, Sándor Szakály, the director of the newly-formed, publicly-funded “Veritas” historical institute, made his first major gaffe when describing the 1941 deportation and murder of almost 20,000 Hungarian Jews in Kamianets-Podilskyi as “administrative measures against illegal aliens.” On the 70th anniversary of the German occupation, the present government is planning a memorial not to the victims of the Holocaust, but to Christian Hungary, stylized as the innocent victim. The memorial is merely one more embodiment of the false thesis of “double occupation” of Hungary by the Germans and the Soviets, which has been on display for the past 13 years in Budapest’s House of Terror museum, and which, since January 1, 2012, is now inscribed into fundamental law, the preamble to the new Hungarian Constitution. It is precisely this doublespeak which makes it possible to name streets after Albert Wass, a Hungarian pulp novelist who enthusiastically greeted the German occupation and the Jews’ deportation, to officially elevate Wass into the new literary canon, and to commission the German occupation memorial to a sculptor who is also the creator of a statue that “salutes the work of Albert Wass, which gives us strength, faith and hope”, and which was erected by the citizens of the small eastern town Mátészalka in 2009.[1]

In 1944, the official line and policy promoted by Hungary and its leaders was that Hungary was an ally of the Germans in the war. In official statements and newsreels, the German army was portrayed as a partner marching into Hungary to defend it. Accordingly, in many places, the Hungarian population greeted the German troops with relief and enthusiasm. And as allies, the state, public administration and police and armed forces readily participated in the plundering and deportation of Hungarian citizens designated “Jewish.” The Nazi leaders were not unjustified in their satisfaction at the fact that the deportations and redistribution of stolen Jewish property had increased their popularity in Hungary. Today’s planned memorial is intended to conceal exactly this, which, in 2014, we must finally discuss with honesty.

[1] Sándor Révész, ‘Magyarország, te angyal’ [Hungary, you angel], Beszélő, January 21, 2014,