Ágnes Heller

The Chronicler of the Holocaust

Randolph L. Braham
A népirtás politikája: A Holocaust Magyarországon
(The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary).
Budapest, Belvárosi Könyvkiadó,
Vols. 1–2, 1474 pp.

I first read Braham in English ten years ago. I felt at the time that he had said all there was to be said about the subject. Reading this new edition (corrected and with additions) in a two-volume Hungarian translation confirmed this feeling. Perhaps the impossible is possible after all and one can provide a mirror image of a whole world. This outsize narrative appears to contain everything that happened in that ill-fated year 1944, to my family and to me, to friends and acquaintances, and to all those whose stories I have heard since. Every event is there, every square and street, every death march, the ghetto, every internationally protected house. Braham has written a chronicle, the chronicle of Hungarian Jewry. His tale starts in the Golden Age before the Great War, and as it goes forward in time so the feeling of
a fall, of destruction strengthens apace.
It culminates in a hell we know: as the chronicler’s preface anticipates, the losses of Hungarian Jewry in the Second World War were greater by a third than those
of the United States Armed Forces in all theatres of the Second World War combined. The narrative turns this statistic
into a tale of horror.

From the time of the Hasburgs to the first Jewish Act the narrative pace is brisk. This is not the history of Hungary, nor of Hungarian Jewry, not even of Hungarian anti-Semitism but of all these combined and separately, only inasmuch as they had a role in a future that was still in shadow and therefore non-existent. 1944 is the vantage point, everything else is prehistory, and the Hungarian Holocaust casts its shadow on it all, both on the splendours of what is called the Golden Age and on the ominous years after the First World War.

The narrative pace slows with the first Jewish Act in 1938. The details grow in importance. The location is Hungary within her frontiers at any given time. Braham is not the chronicler of the Holocaust but of the Hungarian Holocaust. At decisive moments in the narrative, the Northern Up lands, Northern Transylvania and Újvidék (Novi Sad) are re-annexed by Hungary. That is when the country chains herself to the policies of the Axis. Újvidék was the scene of the first mass killing of Jews organized by Hungarians, indeed the only one up to the German occupation. In March 1944 the first trains to Auschwitz departed from Ciscarpathia and Northern Tran sylvania. Just about everybody abandoned the Jewry of the re-annexed territories to their fate. The Second World War events that are given importance are those that had a role in the Hungarian Holo caust, such as German dissatisfaction with Hun garian Judenpolitik, especially after the Wannsee Conference, which decided the destruction of European Jewry, or the establishment and operation of the first death camps, or the fate of Jews in neighbouring countries. The war in the Soviet Union was also relevant as there the Jewish Labour Service shared the terrible fate of the Second Hungarian Army on the Don, but as an extra, just for them, Jewish Labour Service men were also exposed to the murderous pastimes of the sadistic Hungarian soldiers who guarded them.

The pace of the chronicle reduces even more for March 19th 1944. Braham charts the Hungarian Holocaust in all its details: the pace of the narrative slows and achieves an almost unbearable intensity. Day by day cattle trucks left for the gas chambers, every day, without exception, somewhere in Hungary, Jews were humiliated, wounded and murdered because they were Jews. Braham tells us when, how many, in what manner, and where. The gendarmes shepherded the village Jews into makeshift ghettos. There was a great shortage of food. The Jews were surrounded and shoved into cattle trucks, lined up, those fit for work were selected and all the others, with the children and the old, were marched to the gas chambers. The same story is repeated again and again. The first zone (1st Gendarme District), the second zone, and so on, to the fifth zone. Half a million human beings in seven weeks. Braham describes what happened, as it happened, obeying Ranke’s rules for historians. What he asks is not why, but why this and not that, why here and not there. Generally he answers that perhaps this was the reason, perhaps that. He does not claim to know the reason why.

This self-restraint in the explanation of the inexplicable is what, for me, places Braham’s account above all others. It is the truest book on the Holocaust that I have ever read. When it comes to evil incarnate, Braham is unsparing in his condemnation. In general, however, he does not say that X or Y are guilty but that they were guilty of this or that, at this time yes, and at that time no. One cannot say that Braham judges sine ira et studio, how indeed could he do that in a book full of so much pain and anger? But he is aware and makes us aware how men are ensnared, how they lie to themselves, how they come to be disoriented in a world in which they grew up, and that is why their instincts go wrong. They bury their heads in the sand, they are weak and cowardly, sometimes they want to do good, but not all they want is good, and they neglect to act. He shows how men become the prisoners of their class interests, their ideologies and their conventions, and of the instinct to look after their own—those most like them—in the first place, and by the time they notice that they should have rid themselves of all this, it is too late. Braham is aware and makes us aware that Evil cannot perform evil deeds unabetted. Evil has need of the coward, the lazy and the selfish, just as Evil needs silence and oblivion. In Braham’s chronicle Hannah Arendt’s proposition on the banality of evil is reversed. Evil here is anything but banal, but banal sins help to make its road straight.

The structure of Braham’s chronicle changes with its pace. Up to 1944 plans, ideologies, constraints and personal motives cross each other. By 1944 the situation is that a number of men have decided to destroy Hungarian Jewry. They make their plans, establishing schedules. The mechanism is stated. Not everyone knows about the plan, or everything about the plan, but they carry it out. On the victims’ side, there is total confusion. They ought to know about the plan, and many do, but they do not understand it. The basic instinct is to escape, to escape the net without really knowing where it was, never knowing whether they really escaped or actually got further caught up in it. They felt their way in the dark, surrendering to arbitrary action, to chance, to mercy. Those who help or wish to help (Christians too) almost always miss the train, in the liberal sense of the term too. The ball is always in their court. A rational mechanism operates on one side, and perfect irrationality on the other. In a way it makes sense to depict the Holocaust situation as the apocalyptical model of the modern world. Modernity is a condition of the Holocaust (one of its conditions) but it certainly does not mean that modernity explains or makes sense of it.

Braham never claims to possess the explanation; he asks all the questions which others claim to answer, but he never answers them unambiguously. There are two kinds of such questions: those which refer to the causes of the Hungarian Holocaust, and those which ask whether the Jews could have been saved. What sins of omission were committed? Who is to blame, and to what degree, for the fact that half a million Hungarian Jews perished. We cannot, basically, know what would have happened, if... But we know that there were choices, that certain decisions proved ineffective and others most effective. Braham points out that one could never tell in advance what the result of a rescue operation would be. Most of them, and most protests, had no results, but some were nevertheless effective. Everything that was not tried, all things never done or done too late, may well have been successful if they had happened.

Braham is the chronicler of the Hun garian and not of the German Holocaust. His question is therefore not how the Holocaust grew out of Hungarian history and Hungarian anti-Semitism since that
is precisely what did not happen. If the Germans had not occupied Hungary in March 1944, Hungarian anti-Semitism would still be on record as responsible for anti-Semitic legislation unique in modern European history. Non-Hungarian Jews—the stateless—were delivered up to their murderers, and the Újvidék pogrom was carried out by Hungarians. Jewish soldiers on labour service were ill treated on the eastern front. For this, Hungarian anti-Semitism was responsible. They were terrible crimes but they were not genocide. One of the results of native anti-Semitism was that the Hungarian governing parties nullified the achievements of 19th-century national liberalism, that is the emancipation of the Jews, replacing it by racial discrimination. This policy confronted the norms of modern civilization but it did not amount to genocide.

Genocide was exported to Hungary by the German Wehrmacht.

If the Hungarian Holocaust is rooted in any sort of historical logic, and I do not believe that it is, then that would have to be the logic of German history.

Why, then, is this book, which hardly touches on German genocide politics and its background, still entitled The Politics of Genocide? What Braham’s chronicle suggests, however, is that although the Hun garian Holocaust was not the direct consequence of Hungarian anti-Semitism and systematic anti-Jewish agitation, it cannot be imagined that it could have happened as it did without such antecedents. Ger man Nazi genocidal plans could be carried out with such unprecedented speed because they could rely on twenty years of anti-Semitic propaganda and on expectations and a mentality created by anti- Jewish measures. Men and institutions in large numbers were willing participants. But this would not have sufficed. A twenty-year-long anti-Jewish campaign and the absence or rarity of protests made it natural for non-Jewish Hungarians to identify Jews not as Hungarians or fellow citizens but merely as Jews, that is as enemies or adversaries, at the very least as strangers, as aliens. That is how it came to be accepted as natural that Jews should be concentrated in ghettos, and that they should be deported from their country to places where, it was said, they would be put to work by the Germans. If that is natural, if that is acceptable, then anything may happen because anything goes. In Braham’s narrative, Hungarian anti-Semitism is not the cause or the root of the Holocaust, but the catastrophe itself.

Braham looks on German genocidal politics as a donné, without searching for an explanation. True, he notes about some particularly cruel or anti-Semitic individuals that they were of Swabian origin, with Magyarized names, giving their original Ger man names in brackets, but he does not des cribe a penchant for genocide as a racial characteristic. What he wishes to stress is that Swabians or those of Swabian origin felt a greater loyalty towards Ger many than to Hungary. Jews, on the contrary, even in 1944—a most inopportune time—force-fully stressed their Hungarian loyalties.

Could the Hungarian Holocaust have been prevented, or at the very least, moderated? If yes, then how? Are such questions as lacking in a sense of reality as similar ones related to Polish Jewry? The Germans had little time left in 1944. Thus they were able to kill incomparably fewer Jews in the Arrow Cross leader, Ferenc Szálasi’s than in Horthy’s time. Hungary was an ally, unlike Poland, an enemy. The majority of Jews in Romania survived the Holocaust, true, in a strategically more favourable position. All Hungary had to do was to play for time. The Hungarian government, and Admiral Horthy, the Regent, especially, could have had a try. The Sztójay government, however, with the exception of just one minister, brooked no delay. They preferred to wait on Eichmann and his fellows with alacricity. Horthy did not sign deportation orders but he did not protest until July 7th when, no longer passive, he stopped the deportation of Budapest Jews by ordering out an armoured brigade. Even that was merely playing for time as Horthy did promise the Germans that their turn would come later, but this did save half the Budapest Jews. Could Horthy have done that earlier? Did he want to do it? And if he had done it, would it have helped, and to what degree? All that Braham says is that he could have ordered that the deportations stopped earlier too, and that it is possible, albeit by no means certain, that this would have helped. But no more need be said.

As Braham too tells us, Horthy did not stop the deportations on his own initiative but because he was subjected to pressure by the Pope, President Roosevelt and the King of Sweden, his son, Miklós Horthy jr., acting as intermediary. What would have happened if all these had acted earlier? Why did they act then, and only then? Braham mentions several factors. Perhaps the most decisive were the Auschwitz minutes, discussed in the greatest detail in Chapter 23 (The Conspiracy of Silence). That too has its own history, with many ramifications. One concerns the role of Jewish organizations at the time of the Holocaust.

Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jeru salem is generally critical of the Judenrate who, according to her, were cowards and delivered up their fellow Jews to the wolves. Her criticism is biassed and unjust and, according to Braham, irrelevant to Hungary. Thank God, the Hungarian Jewish Councils were never in the tragic position of their Polish or Lithuanian brethren. It was not up to them to decide who was to die or survive. The Hungarian Jewish Councils and the Zionists were faced with other choices.

According to Braham, the first Jewish Council, headed by Samu Stern, did not betray Jewry but acted according to their instincts and conventions. As wealthy Hungarian Jews in cahoots with the ruling classes, they were convinced that Jewry could only be saved by the Hungarian ruling classes and Horthy. They neglected to consider the fact that this segment of the ruling classes was not in good standing with the Germans and had lost all their influence. Horthy, who could have helped, chose to be passive. The policy of the Jewish Council was ineffective when the Jews of the provinces were taken away, and to that extent its members were responsible for the fact that no one hindered that action. The same policy became effective in July when Horthy, after all, stopped the deportation of Budapest Jews. True, there had been changes in the membership of the Jewish Council, which went with political changes, but it would appear that these made no essential difference.

Rudolf Kasztner and Joel Brand, who headed the Zionist rescue operation, chose a different strategy. They argued that you had to deal directly with those in charge of genocide, with the SS, the Gestapo and the German authorities in general. In the fifties, in a Jerusalem court case, the presiding judge stated that Kasztner had sold his soul to the devil. Braham rejects this. According to the Talmud, whoever saves one man’s life saves the whole of humanity. In that sense Kasztner saved humanity many thousand times over and not only those whom he rescued from the Kolozsvár ghetto. True, he was from Kolozsvár himself, and members of his own family were amongst those rescued. Would it have been more just if he had let them perish, rescuing only strangers? Who will cast the first stone? Braham tells us that Kasztner was also instrumental in the redirection of a number of trains headed for Auschwitz to Austria, where almost everybody survived the war.

Kasztner and Joel Brand’s plan was to barter trucks and other essential goods, to be sent by the Allies, for Hungarian Jewish lives. Was this feasible? We cannot tell. In any event, the Western Allies summarily rejected the idea, calling it a trap. Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn’t. The Allied argument was that it was in the Jews’ interest too that the war be won as quickly as possible. What they have not explained to this day is why they never did bomb the railway lines leading to Auschwitz, although all Jewish organizations asked them to. Perhaps because they were of small strategic importance?

However little the Kasztner–Joel Brand strategy may have achieved, it certainly saved lives at a time when the Jewish Council proved totally impotent. On the other hand, the Jewish Council policy start ed to save lives when the Kasztner–Brand plans had come to a dead end.

Why didn’t the Churches protest against the deportations? József Éliás, who headed the Lutheran Good Shepherd Mission, acted immediately, and so did a few others. Why not the church hierarchy? Why did they protect baptized Jews only? Or—some time later—why was the pastoral letter by Cardinal Jusztinián Serédi, the Prince Primate, not read out aloud in churches? The traditional anti-Semitism of the Hungarian Catholic Church was at cross pru poses with the sensitivity required by Christian practice. This was also charac teris tic of the Vatican at the time, in addition to its customary political pragmatism. It is also true that the Churches too tended to look after their own and it took time to recognize that genocide did not discriminate in terms of religious faith. In the meanwhile, almost half a million people perished, amongst them true believers, members of Churches which had abandoned them.

According to Braham, there was no conspiracy of silence. But no one, primarily no Jewish organization, reacted as they should have. All of them, the Zionist leaders as well as the members of the Jewish Council, kept silent about Auschwitz. No one told their fellow Jews. Perhaps already in March, but certainly in April, before
the deportations started, they all knew
the whole truth about the death camps. They were in possession of the plans of Auschwitz, they knew where the gas chambers were and where the crematoria, they knew that the Hungarian Jews would be gassed, but they kept silent. All the Jews who lived in Hungary outside Budapest were sent to Auschwitz in cattle trucks, according to the official version, to work in Germany. Jewish leaders knew that the purpose was slaughter. They did not speak up. Whether people believed the official version or not, the fact is that the Jewish agencies made sure that those who wanted to believe it, could believe it. Of course, if your eyes are not opened you prefer to believe that you are taken somewhere to work, and not to be murdered.

Of course, there are explanations but, as Braham rightly argues, none of them will do. That they did not want people to panic (why not?), that they did not want to take away all hope from the last moments of the lives of the victims, that they would have been killed anyway, even had they known, that they would have climbed into the cattle trucks anyway. That could not have been known then, as it cannot be known now. I, for my part, do not believe that even one single woman would have got on of her own will with her child if she had known that her child would end up in a gas chamber two days later. They shoot at those trying to escape, as they shoot at those who resist. Many die if a crowd is fired on. But not everybody, as in a gas chamber. Christian Hungarians did not see the gas chambers but the butchering of those trying to escape could not have been kept secret from them. If that had happened they could not have believed what suited them, that the Jews were being taken to work. Perhaps more of them would have helped. Perhaps the Churches would have made a move before they did. Braham tells us that the leaders of the Jews at long last, late in June, began to publicize the Auschwitz minutes. A copy was given to Miklós Horthy jr. who passed it on to his father. Quite obviously, Horthy was already aware of the facts, but his son only found out then and, in possession of the facts, he tried to persuade his father to put an end to the transports.

Much that we want is possible, and
the impossible can also become possible. The world finally found out about the Aus chwitz minutes, thanks to just one man, George (Mandel) Mantello, a Hungarian Jew, a businessman, employed by the San Salvador consulate in Geneva. He managed to get the minutes to President Roose velt and the Vatican. That was when the Vatican, President Roosevelt and the King of Sweden put pressure on Horthy, asking him to put a stop to the transports. That is how half the Budapest Jews, who were condemned to die, managed to escape. It could well be that our lives depended on the determination of just one man.

What would have happened if the world had known about the Auschwitz minutes before the transports had begun to roll from the provinces? Would protests have been as strong earlier too? And if they had been, would Horthy have stopped the transports? And would the Germans have tolerated this six weeks earlier? Could the Jews outside Budapest have been taken away by the Germans and Hungarian Ar row-Cross alone, given passive resistance on the part of Hungarian Christians? Such questions cannot be answered, nor does Braham try to answer them. But he does insist that, in consequence of certain political and personal weaknesses, prejudices, hesitations and conflicts, options that were open were not nearly fully exploited. He suggests what should have been done long before the Germans occupied the country on March 19th. In spite of growing anti-Semitism and all the anti-Jewish legislation, that is in spite of everything that prepared the genocide, their elected leaders did not prepare Hungarian Jewry for the worst. They helped create the illusion that Hungarian Jews, unlike Jews elsewhere in Europe, would get away with it.

Once, in Cracow, my husband and I visited the new synagogue. At the time the old ghetto still looked exactly as it had done when its inhabitants were driven out to die. Two old Jews were in the synagogue. Noone else. My husband first addressed them in German and they pretended not to understand, then he switched
to Russian, and asked them about their lives. One, the older, then asked us—in German—where we had come from. From Budapest, we answered. He waved an angry finger at us. “You there, in Budapest, ate salami and made merry when our mothers and children went up in smoke in the crematoria.” It is not good manners to reproach survivors for being alive, nevertheless we felt that, essentially, he was right. Not because of the salami and our good cheer but because we did not every day and at every hour think of those who at that very moment were going up in smoke. Perhaps we did not know about them because we did not want to know. We did not even try to do what solidarity demanded—whatever the success or its absence of such actions. We are all responsible for that. Not primarily us, who were then ten or fifteen years old but those who sang us the amoral lullabies of survival, of being exempt, of getting away with it. Braham’s book is free of any kind of preaching, but this is one message it contains which is sure to last.

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