On 19 March 1944, the day Germany occupied Hungary, I was barely more than two years old. Yet that fatal juncture of Hungarian history turned into an almost personal memory for me and became ever more firmly etched in my mind as years went by. Many in our family and circle of friends have recounted their own stories from that day. The fragments from those accounts that follow are intended as a tribute to them. In editing this compilation, I soon realised that nothing short of a book-length compendium could do justice and lend authenticity to the significance of that day, if only from the perspective of my own life. Therefore I have decided to pick a handful of vivid recollections by some of the people directly affected by the Nazi occupation, as well as by those who reconstructed the political undercurrent of the events from the testimonies of actual actors and witnesses.
“Hitler, as everybody knows, was an irascible man always quick to anger. When he realised, perhaps from my own reports, that Horthy and his men carried on with their secret negotiations with the British and the Americans despite his warnings and interdictions, he made his decision in his usual choleric manner: occupation. The military plans had been ready for some time… The cooperation of Romanian and Slovakian troops, disarming Hungary’s national defence, and so on. You know, once Hitler made a decision, he would never go back on his word. It was unheard of. Yet this time… Being intimately familiar with the conditions in Hungary, I immediately sensed a huge mess coming. If we launched overt military action against Hungary, at least a few garrisons would surely mount a resistance. And what would be the good of it, anyhow? Hungary could be kept at bay by different, softer measures… When I read the plan, I wrote a memorandum immediately, recommending a political strategy backed by military presence instead of an all-out military solution. Let the Wermacht march in, but only by arrangement with Horthy, for the sake of appearances if nothing else. And Horthy himself should remain in office.”
From an Interview with Major Höttl who was desk officer for Hungary in the Reich’s security and intelligence office during the Second World War. In Péter Bokor: Végjáték a Duna mentén [Endgame by the Danube]. Budapest, RTV–Minerva–Kossuth, 1982.
A LAST HUG
On the evening of 18 March, I had dinner in the home of the defence attaché for Croatia, who had invited me some eight days previously. In the afternoon, I had received a call from Béla Somogyi, who urged me to come to his place as soon as possible to meet Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, so I made quick work of my dinner with the Croatians and took an early leave. Bajcsy-Zsilinszky sized up the situation. Occupation was around the corner, we could bet on that. What was to be done? What, if any, were the chances of military resistance? Was a national uprising possible? As we were weighing the options, I remarked that it was still conceivable for the Regent to work something out in Klessheim toward forestalling the occupation for the time being. In my opinion, military resistance was entirely out of the question. Who would issue such orders? Surely not our own German-friendly colonels… The moment the occupation was completed, it would be too late. A national uprising? Without preparations and arms? Bajcsy grew angry. “I am telling you,” he retorted, “if they march in, we Hungarians will drive them back out using our ancestors’ bones as a weapon if need be!” I remained unruffled. “That’s all very well,” I argued quietly, “but those bones won’t hold a candle to the tanks. ”He calmed down. What was to be done, then? I repeated that it was too late. If they proceeded with the occupation, we would have no choice but to live with it for now. I insisted that even the pro-German portion of public opinion would be disenchanted with them in a month or two, seeing their odious conduct. Then we would have a much broader support for a resistance action, and time on our hands to adequately prepare for it in secret. Meanwhile, the Soviet troops would be pushing on, helping to bring the Germans to their senses. But for now we were helpless. Bajcsy remained fiercely adamant, and our argument dragged on for a long time. Finally, he came round and conceded many of the points I was trying to make.
Béla Somogyi gave us a ride home. We hugged one another before his gate. This was to be the last embrace.
From Gyula Kádár: A Ludovikától Sopronkőhidáig [From the Ludovika to Sopronkőhida]. Budapest, Magvető, 1978, pp. 661–666.
Note: Colonel Gyula Kádár (1898–1982) was head of the Hungarian General Staff’s military intelligence department. Surviving Nazi captivity from April 1944, he was imprisoned in the Soviet Union from October 1945 to 1955.
Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky (1886–1944), the spiritual leader of the opposition Smallholders’ Party was a staunch anti-Nazi in Parliament and in his journalism. As head of a military conspiracy against the Nazis, he was executed in Sopronkőhida on Christmas Eve, 1944.
A SHOOTOUT IN BUDA
Seeing what was coming I quickly packed the documents I wanted to save at all costs and stashed them away in the stove in the living room. “Don’t bother, it’s too late”, Endre said, taking his pistol out of the wardrobe. […]
No sooner had he said that than we heard shots being fired and the door outside cracked open. The Germans managed to shoot out the lock and pushed into the hallway. My husband was standing in the bedroom door and raised his cocked gun. Through the opaque glass panel of the outer room we glimpsed the silhouette of an armed SS man. “Hinaus! Hinaus!” they yelled through the closed door.
Endre fired first, eliciting a round of submachine gun fire from the Germans. Then he fired again, and the Germans retorted with another round. Shards from the glass panels, the windows and mirrors flew all over the place making a great clatter. The radio was hit too. When they made to break in from the other side through the bathroom, Endre fired a shot in the direction where the noise was coming from, hitting the water heater. Presently a gush of water appeared… As I later counted, three Gestapo men fired a total of thirty-six shots. In the crossfire, I heard Endre exclaim, “Shot in the stomach… another in the shoulder…” I thought he was telling me where his bullets impacted. As it turned out, he was referring to his own wounds.
Before long, the uneven combat was over. “Let us surrender, Endre”, I entreated my husband as he fired his last bullet. Then he tossed his weapon into the living room through the door. The SS burst in, and Endre, bleeding from several wounds, had his hands tied behind his back and was led away. They did not even let him put on his hat and coat. Before being shoved into the car, he saw the gathering crowd in the street and shouted to them, “Long live Hungary, independent and free!”
From Mrs Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky: “1944. március 19-e egy budai lakásban” [19 March 1944, at a residence in Buda] (excerpt). In: Kortársak Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Endréről [Contemporaries on Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky]. Ed. Károly Vígh. Magvető, Budapest, 1969, pp. 413–414.
DIVIDING A RAZOR BLADE
Behind the window panes of the Nyugati Railway Station, by then darkened by sheets of blue paper, the entire family had gathered, as had a throng of students intent on disguising their joy of freedom as sheer fright in panic. But it was not so easy to make it out of the city. That evening, hundreds of households in Budapest witnessed the same kind of conference that I had with Illyés, and thousands of people made for the countryside or, for lack of a safer shelter, toward the woods skirting Buda. At the railway stations everyone had their papers checked. On railway lines such as ours, you had to present a local rail pass or furnish proof of residence outside the city in order to be exempted from suspicion. However, my father-in-law, aided by familiar porters, managed to slip us and the whole populous family through a third-class platform restaurant. The conductors on board shone their flashlight on our tickets with the nonchalance bred by decades of monotonous work, unperturbed by the moment’s historic purport. In the course of the next two or three days – the hardest of them all, which I waited out in the village of Felsőgöd – I must have been the perfect subject of an experiment studying interferences between agitating stimuli from various sources. We were cut off from the world outside completely, and the radio aired no political news. The absence of information encouraged nightmares as greedily as a vacuum sucks in objects. The faintest creak of the garden gate sent me flying to the window, clutching my box, ready to lock up in the bathroom any moment. Illyés was thinking of ways to commit suicide in case they got us. This was when we split a razor blade in two, each of us hiding one half in a slit in the sole of his shoe. Another cause of the anxiety was Illyés himself. At first I tried to hide him, pretending he was not there at all, but on the very first afternoon he came lurching out of the room that I assigned as his lair, straight into the living room where the doctor’s wife was relishing her reunion with the Némeths. “And you?” she said in astonishment when she saw Illyés, whom she had known but had not been told about. Of course, she understood what it was all about right away…
László Németh: Mezőszilas. In: Magda Németh: Mélységből mélységbe [From Depths to Depths]. Nap Kiadó, Budapest, 2012.
Note: László Németh’s father-in-law, János Démusz, leased restaurant spaces at the Nyugati railway station. László Németh (1901–1975), a prominent essayist and novelist, featured, with Gyula Illyés and János Kodolányi, on the Gestapo list of anti-Nazis to be arrested after the German occupation.
A CHANCE TO SURVIVE
At noon on 19 March 1944, the day Germany occupied Hungary, my friend Gy. M. rang the bell at the gate of the house where I still reside today. He lived in the next street. He called to warn me that the Germans might come looking after me, just as they were looking for him. We would be well-advised to lie low some place else for at least the week to come. He waved his briefcase signalling that he had packed all his indispensable documents and was ready to leave home. I was incredulous. I did not think my person could be as important as that. Yet sinister news had begun to gather by the afternoon. One could no longer leave the city without undergoing an identity check. A nightmare, like electricity, needs two poles to wander about in between before it really picks up strength. I conferred with László Németh, who also happened to live nearby, and toward the evening we decided to strike out for the village of Göd, to his parents’. Thanks to his father-in-law, we managed to board the train at the Nyugati Station without having our papers checked. What we saw on the way was no nightmare. The streets below the embankment were teeming with patrol vans passing through.
In Göd, we came to the conclusion that the occupation might be the end of us personally, but it was the lesser of two evils for the country, whose plunge into profound infamy would thus not take place of its own accord, even seemingly, but under the violent pressure of an alien force.
The formation of the Sztójay cabinet turned this wisdom upside down: we stood a chance to survive, but the country drifted onto the brink of annihilation.
Instead of the honour of the country, now irretrievably lost, the individual would have to concentrate on saving his own honour.
In other words, we would be unable to speak as long as Hitler had the last word. Except perhaps through the language of action.
Gyula Illyés: “A Nyugat vége” [The End of the Nyugat]. In: Iránytűvel [Compass]. Budapest, Szépirodalmi, 1975, pp. 174–175.
Note: Gy. M. – György Markos was a geographer and underground communist. Gyula Illyés (1902–1983), a major essayist and poet, was the Editor-in-Chief of the anti-Nazi literary journal Magyar Csillag (Hungarian Star).
TOP MILITARY IN THE INDEPENDENCE MOVEMENT
When I got back, I stumbled into two university students waiting for my father to come home. They had come to tell him he was in danger and should leave home. […] They waited until he returned. Without hesitation, he called Lieutenant-General Gábor Faragho to ask him for advice and help. Then he phoned Dr Sándor Joó, the Calvinist pastor in the Pasarét parish, who soon showed up in the company of a fellow clergyman to pick him up. The three of them, my father in the middle, made for Torockó Square on foot. On the deserted, dark streets they were shadowed by two German soldiers.
Meanwhile back at home we waited impatiently for the arrival of Major József Takács, the aide to Lieutenant-General Gábor Faragho. Each time the gate gave a sound, we would shudder and take a peek at who was coming and to what end. József Takács got out of the staff car dressed in full uniform. […] The Major picked up the ready-pack my father had put together. As he explained, he had instructions to drive my father from the Pasarét parish to the Faraghos’ on Naphegy Hill. […] Thereafter, József Takács hosted my father for a few days with his wife Mária acting as liaison between us. My mother wasted no time packing our most valuable belongings. She rented a truck and we drove to Akarattya by Lake Balaton in the company of Piroska Lukács, the Transylvanian maid. My father followed us there later, after Gábor Faragho had made arrangements for his safety with the gendarmerie based in the village of Kenese, whom he instructed to keep an eye on our house and preempt any attempt on the part of the Germans to arrest him by detaining him themselves. Little did we know at the time that Faragho had made similar plans to protect the safety of Gyula Illyés, László Németh, Dezső Szabó and Péter Veres as well.
From Júlia Kodolányi: Apám [My father]. Budapest, Magvető, 1988, pp. 123–124.
Note: Colonel General Gábor Faragho (1890–1953) was the Supervisor of the gendarmerie. Together with Domokos Szent-Iványi he was one of the leaders of the Hungarian Independence Movement and later served as Minister to the provisional democratic government formed in Debrecen in December 1944. The novelist János Kodolányi (1899–1969) was a spokesman of anti-Nazi views in Hungary, and during the War a member of the underground resistance movement organised by Domokos Szent-Iványi and Gábor Faragho.
NOTHING BUT A MIRACLE WILL HELP
The national shield of Hungary is held up by two angels floating in the air. I have no hope left except in these two angels. Not that this hope is negligible. […] Hungary has been invaded by Germany.
My fourth day in Leányfalu. We had come by boat late in March, in the middle of a blizzard. Indeed, March is a peculiar month, as Caesar rightly believed. – The sun is setting as we arrive at the vacant house on the fringe of the village, luggage and all loaded on a farmer’s cart. Nobody is waiting to greet us; the proprietors have long left for somewhere far away. In the unheated house the windows are broken and the rooms ice cold. We find some wood in the back yard, but it’s all wet and gives more smoke than heat when we light the fire. Any other day all of this would seem cheerless and grim. Now it is merely indifferent. “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker” – Nietzsche said, with Dr Goebbels. I could not agree more.
Slowly we settle in the house. We order some food to be delivered from the nearby village inn. I find a few books on the shelf, some of them a worthy read. Such as Deák’s collection of letters by distinguished women from Hungary’s past. Six years after the disastrous battle of Mohács, the greatest worry on the mind of Kata Forgách was how to send a porker to his man in the camp. It is snowing. All one can see from the window is the Danube, wrapped in a blanket of fog.
Nothing but a miracle will help now. Miracles do exist, but I believe they must be earned to happen.
For a week now I have not read a line or got any work done. At night I sometimes sleep in total exhaustion like a log, as if I had been knocked unconscious (one always picks the simile that first comes to mind). Other times I lie awake for half the night.
And yet I hear a voice. Whose voice? I don’t know! Perhaps it’s my guardian angel, saying now is not the time yet to claim my right to walk out of life.
How quickly one adapts to new situations in life! How untrue the wisdom that we are chained to this thing or that – to dwelling, surroundings, needs! These are only words. Reality is always and invariably just that: reality and nothing else. And infinitely simple.
From Sándor Márai: Napló 1943–1944 [Diary 1943–1944]. Budapest, Helikon, 2009, pp. 181–187.
Note: The novelist and journalist Sándor Márai (1900–1989) had to hide after the German occupation because of his anti-Nazi views.
15 MARCH 1944 (excerpt)
Today I am joining those who insist that Jews must be exterminated. To think of this destiny! I have word of gas chambers near Dresden where they have been taken to die, on the will of a singleman. And back here? In their homeland they have been loathed and persecuted, only to have the allied friends of this country march in and set upon the Jews as the arch enemy to be annihilated at all cost. From one terror to another, an even greater terror. Harried and hunted everywhere. Nobody’s game, everyone’s prey free for the taking, a brute without a minute of grace to spare. Why be one of them? How I wish I could get it over with! But I will any day now, yes, I know that for certain.
Nature has created man, but what I now see around me is not fit for human beings. Death is hot on their heels, and those who urge it on must be their benefactors. For it is inconceivable that nature has nothing good in store for its creatures in death if it kills so beyond measure. If it did, it would be impossible for young people who have not had time to savour life to fall by the hundred thousands. So I have no choice but to conclude that there must be some goodness in this, for there is no other way to think about it. It is impossible that death be bad… It’s as if nature were keen on making up for life, its terrible gift, this is what I am led to believe by the excessive, constant and ruthless destruction it wreaks. – And indeed, am I going to be the worse for once finally sleeping longer than is my habit?
Milán Füst: Teljes napló [Complete diary]. Budapest, Fekete Sas, 1999. Hatodik naplófüzet [Book six].
Note: Milán Füst (1888–1967) was a prominent poet and novelist of Jewish origin. The first paragraph quoted here is obviously a product of savage and helpless irony.
THEY WERE THE MASTERS NOW
The Germans felt that only a rather small fraction of Hungarians were loyal to them. In vain did Kállay try to avert suspicion from himself in a few speeches here and there. The fact alone that he stopped short of financially destroying the Jewry, organising ghettos, issuing orders for deportation, and remained satisfied sending them off to labour battalions only added fuel to the German government’s mistrust. The reports Hitler received from his intelligence outfits convinced him that Kállay’s cabinet was seeking a cooperation with the West. All these circumstances helped ripen Hitler’s decision to remove Kállay’s cabinet by force and coerce the Regent to appoint a cabinet whose unconditional loyalty to Germany would prevent Hungary from following the example of Italy and deserting the Reich.
The Hungarian government did have cognisance of the steps Germany was about to take. Although the first reports were contradictory, they easily allowed the conclusion that troops were being concentrated along the country’s western borders.
Late at night on 18 March I received a call from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs informing me that German troops had reached the city of Győr and were advancing toward Budapest. I was advised to leave Budapest immediately, as I had reason to fear for my safety under the impending occupation. I declined to act on that counsel. On the morning of Sunday, 19 March, I received further reports that corroborated the news. Not only had the Germans broken into the country’s territory, but by then they had reached Budapest and taken over Castle Hill and the Radio. There was no doubt about it: they were the masters now.
I was told about the arrest of Interior Minister Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, his brother Lajos Keresztes-Fischer who was former chief military aide to the Regent, Károly Rassay, Károly Peyer, Member of Parliament Géza Malasits, Count György Pallavicini, Count József Somssich, and many other leading politicians. Endre Bajcsy-Zsilinszky, who resisted with a weapon, had been shot. It was only later that I learned he was alive, but had been seriously wounded in the gunfire.
After returning from Klessheim and having appointed the Sztójay cabinet, the Regent summoned Mihály Arnóthy-Jungerth for an audience. On this occasion, as I have already mentioned, the Regent recounted the proceedings in Klessheim and asked Arnóthy, “Do you think I had a choice other than to appoint Sztójay as Prime Minister?” Arnóthy answered that there was indeed an alternative. One needed to look no further than the example of the King of Denmark. He meant to say that Horthy had had the option to refrain from appointing Sztójay and to oppose Germany’s demands, possibly even to step down. Hearing this the Regent slammed his hands on the armrests of his chair and exclaimed:
“I do not insist on keeping this chair. I am willing to go, but I will not suffer idly to be replaced by a Prince Albrecht or, God forbid, a Szálasi!”
Yet he would have been well-advised to follow the Danish King’s example instead. For not only did the occupation of Hungary become consolidated and prevalent, but soon thereafter the Regent himself was removed from that chair of his which came to be occupied not by Prince Albrecht but a much more ruinous figure: Szálasi.
Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy: Végzetes esztendők [Fateful years] 1938–1945. Budapest, Gondolat, 1986.
Note: Colonel-General Vilmos Nagybaczoni Nagy (1884–1976) served in Miklós Kállay’s cabinet as Minister of Defence in 1942–1943. He resigned over his conflicts with the German-friendly Chiefs of Staff. Archduke Albrecht, who resided in Hungary, was a pro-Nazi member of the Habsburg family. Ferenc Szálasi was the leader of the pro-Nazi Arrow-Cross Party. He ruled Hungary after the German arrest of Regent Horthy on 15 October 1944, and was sentenced to death by the People’s Court in 1945.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel
REGENT HORTHY’S CASE
In the course of Hitler’s conversation with General Szombathelyi the Führer said that he wished no harm to Hungary and had no thought of annexing it. He added that if he were satisfied by guarantees given to him by Horthy the troops would move on in two or three weeks and even called in Keitel to discuss whether the occupation could be cancelled. Keitel, however, told Hitler and Szombathelyi that it was already late.
The Germans also told the Hungarians that if Horthy and his Government were reticent or even hostile to full cooperation with Germany they would give free hand to Slovakia, Romania and Croatia to invade Hungary.
The Regent’s idea was not to abdicate since that would have ended in the destruction of the lives of many thousands of people, first of all of Hungarian Jews. His old thesis was that he was still the captain of the ship of State and that his duty was to remain on the bridge until the ship was saved or went down, of course with him, the Commander of the ship.
The terms to which Hungarians and Germans agreed was a rather loose settlement and was not put into writing. Both parties had their own reservatio mentalis, which under the given circumstances was quite natural.
To quote a non-Hungarian source, I am having recourse once more to October Fifteenth: “Horthy was afterwards sharply criticised in many quarters for having given way, and in particular for having himself consented to remain at his post and thus to give an appearance of legality both to the occupation and to the shameful things which happened during the following months. Had he abdicated, it was said, even if these things had happened, at least they would have been demonstrably wounds inflicted on Hungary, without her consent, by a conqueror, and thus not to be counted against her afterwards. At least he should have adopted the Attitude of the King of Denmark, withdrawn from public life and demonstrated his refusal by refusing to sign any documents.
Horthy’s case for his decision may be read in his own book or in those pages of M. Kállay’s book which record his discussion with the Regent on the subject. Briefly, Horthy argued that if he remained at his post he would be able to save something, whereas no one else would be able to save anything at all. And it can surely not be denied that he was right in this. It must not be forgotten that the alternative offered him in Klessheim was not between the same operation, conducted in an amicable spirit or a hostile one, but between the restricted operation and the total one, carried out with help of the satellites. The latter would certainly have inflicted on the majority of the population far worse sufferings than they actually underwent. Even the Jews have reason to be thankful that he decided as he did. He did not save the Jews outside Budapest (and it may well be that a more subtle politician or one less easily influenced, could have done more than Horthy did in this direction). But he saved the Jews of Budapest, and no other man could have done it.
Horthy was undoubtedly right if all that needs to be considered is what Hungary suffered as it was, and that she would have suffered had he defied Hitler. He was wrong if it can be taken with assurance that those sufferings would have been outweighed by rewards accorded Hungary by an appreciative Peace Conference. But who can honestly believe this of a Conference at which the name of Teleki was not even mentioned?”
C. A. Macartney: October Fifteenth: A History of Modern Hungary. 1929–1945. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1956, Vol. II, pp. 239–240. From Domokos Szent-Iványi: The Hungarian Independence Movement 1936–46. Budapest, Magyar Szemle Könyvek, 2014, pp. 478–479.
Note: C. A. Macartney (1895–1978) was a Central Europe analyst working for the British Foreign Office and the BBC. He maintained close contacts with anti-Nazi circles in Hungary. From 1946 he taught at All Souls’ College in Oxford, and wrote important books on modern Austrian and Hungarian history. Prime Minister Count Pál Teleki (b. 1879) opposed Hungarian participation in the Second World War and apparently killed himself on 3 April 1941, after he could not prevent Germany using Hungarian territory for deploying her troops in her campaign against Yugoslavia.