AN INTERNMENT CAMP COMMANDER’S
STRUGGLE

The Story of István Vasdényey
Part I

‘All the outrages that must have been committed,
and all the holy deeds that were done.’
János Pilinszky

‘It was here that the outlines of our century were sketched […]. Like the props of the passion drama, almost all the tools of our civilization were immersed in this crisis, this inferno, this passion play. I am thinking of the heaps of hair and spectacles of the Auschwitz Museum. […] In these objects, in these memories and events, I sensed all the outrages that must have been committed, and all the holy deeds that were done.1’1 Gyula Maár, ‘Egyenes Labirintus – Pilinszky-portré a televízióban’ (Straight Labyrinth: Pilinszky
Portrait on Television, 16 October 1978), in Zoltán Hafner, ed., Pilinszky János beszélgetések
(Conversations with János Pilinszky) (Budapest, Magvető, 2016), 270.
János Pilinszky spoke these words in conversation with Gyula Maár, and in a later interview he said the following: ‘It is not simply a matter of racial hatred. There is more to it than that. It is about what man can do to man, and how, ever since Auschwitz, the world has been transformed into a concentration universe. […] The example of Auschwitz, like a black star, envelops, illuminates, and contextualizes events. One does not have the right to turn one’s back on such monstrous experiences.2’2 Éva V. Bálint, ‘Tragikum és derű’ (Tragedy and Serenity), in Hafner, ed., Pilinszky János beszélgetések, 317.

The fact that people were systematically exterminated in concentration camps in the name of science, civilization, and ideology is such a catastrophic nadir of Western culture, such an inconceivable abandonment of its own values, that no explanation can be found even after thousands of pages of analysis and decades of processing recollections. The question is often asked: ‘Where was God in this inferno?’ ‘He was there in Auschwitz too, and he wept’, was the response of one survivor. And where were the human beings? They were there among the victims in their suffering, and among the rescuers of Jews, those who bear witness to the presence of human values, even in such a hell. These stories of suffering, these testimonies, are the most realistic elements of this unreal episode of world history. As János Pilinszky said, these terrible experiences must be faced, with full awareness of ‘All the outrages that must have been committed, and all the holy deeds that were done’. The experience of the Holocaust becomes impossible to process without examples of humanity, just as the stories of those who rescued Jews can only be understood together with the depth of the inhumanity of their persecution.

The darkest chapter of the persecution of Jews in Hungary began after the German occupation, in March of 1944. The Jewish people were not only existentially vulnerable to all manner of abuse, even their lives were at stake. As early as the first days of the occupation, the obligation to wear a yellow star was imposed, and preparations for the ghettoes began. Hungarian society reacted to these measures in a range of ways. According to the summary of a 1945 study entitled ‘Hungary and the Jewish Question’, preserved among the effects of Géza Soos, who himself was prominent in rescuing Jews, ‘a small proportion of Hungarian society (10–15 per cent) who followed the German line took the Jewish measures to heart, since for nearly ten years in books, films, newspapers, and on study tours, one heard it emphasized that the cause of all Hungarian misery was the Jews, […] but even a large percentage of them were disgusted when they saw the ghettos.3’3 Ráday Archive (RL) C/230, box 16: ‘Magyarország és a zsidókérdés’ (Hungary and the Jewish
Question), 9.
Another segment observed what was happening with indifference. ‘Such people had enough problems as it was. They did not like it, but they passed on without a word.4’4 RL C/230, box 16, 9. But there were also many who ‘viewed these occurrences with disgust, contempt, and impotent rage’.55 RL C/230, box 16, 9. Hundreds of anonymous people tried in their own way to help ease the humiliation of the victims.

And in addition to anonymous individuals, there were also some heroes whose names we know, such as István Vasdényey, the camp commander at Kistarcsa, a suburb of Budapest, who in 1969 was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. From June 1942 to November 1944, Vasdényey was the commander of the Kistarcsa auxiliary internment centre. In this capacity, he did everything to ensure that the Jews interned in the camp during the German occupation lived in the most humane conditions possible, and even tried to prevent Eichmann’s detachments from deporting the camp’s residents.66 The most comprehensive recollection of Vasdényey’s rescue activities was written by György Ákos
Bálint, the nephew of Jenő Lévai, the first chronicler of the Hungarian Holocaust: Ákos György
Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben – Szubjektív emlékezés egy vészterhes esztendőre (Island in a Poisoned
Sea: Subjective Recollections of a Year Fraught with Disaster) (Budapest: Ügyvédi Kamara, 2013).
Cf. the review of this work: Zoltán Nagymihály, ‘A gondolkodás felszabadulása? – Ákos György
Bálint: Sziget a mérgezett tengerben’ (Liberation of Thought?: György Ákos Bálint, Island in a Poisoned
Sea) (Magyar Szemle, 5–6, 2017), 163–166. I would also like to thank Gyula Kodolányi for drawing
my attention to Ákos Bálint György’s book.
As a rescuer, Vasdényey acted on his own responsibility and took his own decisions. However, he did not act alone. There was a system of contacts behind him, which, among other things, made it possible for a person willing to stand up to Nazism, and equipped with the courage to act, to play a key role in saving lives.

This system of relationships, or rather this multitude of relationship networks, was not institutionalized as a unified organization—it did not have the strength or opportunity for such development, given the historical situation. Instead, it permeated Hungarian society in a ‘mist-like’ form. However, it is this very intangibility that makes it difficult to catch in the act. Nor is that all: the lack of any organizational form means that it produced no documentary records of its operations. To add to this nebulosity, many of those in this system, which was made up of thousands of acquaintanceships, a whole network of multi-level, indirect relationships, were not necessarily aware that they were themselves part of a working ‘mechanism’. However, it is not likely to have been mere chance that efforts to oppose Nazi rule were frequently coordinated, or that a person ready and willing to protect Jews—as was the case with Vasdényey—was appointed to head an internment camp. The normal workings of social life also produce these web-like connections, woven of invisible threads, but many signs indicate that during the war these threads were consciously woven as part of the high-stakes struggle against Nazism.

The roster of those who, in spite of the ever-increasing risk, could be counted on in the fight against Nazism, was made up of people from very diverse backgrounds, drawn from circles of friends, Jewish communities, church and youth movements, and public associations. However, this network of individual relationships did not yet comprise a resistance organization, and nor did it organize the kind of resistance in which the struggle is based on a unified conceptual framework and specific plans. The primacy of individuals in this opposition which they themselves had created meant that the means of opposition were likewise individual. However, the conscious coordination of human relations worked in the background, and the nebulous anti-German network was able to give considerable help to these individual efforts.

Those who were voluntarily struggling to resist from within individual organizations, state institutions, and other walks of life could not change the nature of the political system, and could not countermand anti-Jewish measures, even from very high positions, but they could save human lives. The efforts of the Kistarcsa camp commander paint a vivid picture of both the possibilities and the limitations of such efforts.

THE CAMP COMMANDER AND THE KISTARCSA CAMP

István Vasdényey was born on 31 August 1895, in Bajsa, a town then in southern Hungary (now Bajša, Serbia). His father did not return home from the First World War, so from the age of twenty-one he took care of the family of six. His father had worked as a police officer, so he enrolled with the Budapest police service in 1918. During this period he was the direct subordinate of Dr Károly Dietz, the head of the investigation department of the National Food Supply Office. His relationship with Dietz became a key, lifelong collaboration, so a short digression describing Dietz’s character is called for.77 For more, see: András Kő, ‘Egy kupica likőr – Dietz Károly rendőr- és futballkapitány, aki
letartóztatta Kun Bélát’ (A Dram of Liquor: The Police Chief and Football Manager Károly
Dietz, Who Arrested Béla Kun), Magyar Nemzet (March 2012); Péter Szegedi, ‘Ezüstkapitányok
– Párhuzamos életrajzok, Dr. Dietz Károly és Sebes Gusztáv’ (Silver Managers—Parallel Lives: Dr
Károly Dietz and Gusztáv Sebes), Magyar Narancs (15 July 2010); Péter Malonyai, ‘Kapitánytörténet’
(A Captain’s Story), Magyarország, n. 50, 28; n. 51–52, n. 56–57; Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok
Történeti Levéltára ((ÁBTL) (State Security Services Historical Archive) 3. 1. 5. O-9975/8. 19-20;
Lt István Németh, report on Dr. Károly Dietz, 29 September 1951.

Károly Dietz began working in the Budapest National Police Force in 1909. On 31 October 1918, following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and the establishment of the First Hungarian Republic, Dietz was appointed chief of police by Prime Minister Mihály Károlyi. On 21 February 1919, on behalf of the government, he issued the arrest warrant against communist leader Béla Kun, for which he was in turn arrested after the proclamation of the Hungarian Soviet Republic on 21 March 1919. During the brief premiership of Gyula Peidl he was once again appointed chief of police, this time for just four days (3–7 August). In June 1920, however, he was dismissed from the police, because of his role in the events which marked the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, known as the Aster Revolution. He worked as an accountant until 1930, and, after obtaining his law degree, opened a law office in Budapest. In addition to his law practice, from 1934 to 1939 he was the manager of the Hungarian national football team. Under him, the Hungarian team came second in the 1938 World Cup in France. As a lawyer—a role discussed later in connection with Vasdényey’s activities—he helped those who came to him for help regarding the disenfranchisement clauses of the Jewish laws, and during the German occupation he participated in the rescue of Jews. On 18 November 1944, a month after the Nazi-aligned Arrow Cross Party had seized power, in a coup against Regent Horthy, he was arrested and imprisoned in Sopronkőhida, then in the Nazi concentration camp of Dachau. After the war, he worked as a lawyer for a short time, but in July 1951 he and his family were forcibly moved as ‘reactionary elements’ to remote Bodrogkeresztúr. In 1953 he received a permit to settle in Piliscsaba, closer to the capital, and supported himself as a night watchman and then as an unskilled worker until his death in 1969.

During the Aster Revolution, Vasdényey followed Dietz to the Budapest National Police Force. After the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, he joined the newly established state police as a police inspector. Between then and June 1942, when he was appointed camp commander in Kistarcsa, he worked in a number of provincial police stations. His last position before Kistarcsa was as commander of the Garany refugee camp (now Hraň, Slovakia), where refugees—a mixture of Jews and non-Jews—were held alongside those interned for political and other reasons.88 For more, see: Sándor Halmos, ‘Szatmár vármegye zsidósága’ (Nyíregyháza: Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg Megyei Önkormányzat Levéltára és a Barankovics István Alapítvány) (The Jews of Szatmár
County. Nyíregyháza: Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County Municipality Archives and the Foundation
István Barankovics), 2008; Ádám Gellért and János Gellért, ‘Az 1941. évi kőrösmezői deportálások
– A kitoloncolásokat jóváhagyó minisztertanácsi döntés háttere (The 1941 Kőrösmező Deportations:
Background to the Decision of the Council of Ministers to Approve the Deportations), Betekintő, 2 (2013).
Vasdényey demonstrated his humanity in this role, too, as with the help of his friends in the legal profession, including Károly Dietz, he helped free many people. The composer, professor of music Leó Weiner’s letter, dated October 1941, also testifies to this: ‘On the occasion of my permanent release, the speedy and effective success of which was due in large part to the benevolent assistance of the highly esteemed chief inspector, I feel in my soul the need to express my heartfelt gratitude for the inestimable kindness and assistance I enjoyed during my stay in Garany.9’9 ÁBTL 3.1. 9. V-21680. 20. Leó Weiner’s letter to police inspector István Vasdényey, 18 October 1941. Vasdényey thus already had some experience and a network of contacts behind him to help him rescue people when he was appointed commander of the Kistarcsa auxiliary internment centre.1010 For more, see: Ferenc Vadász, Harcunk a magyar pokollal (Our Struggle against the Hungarian
Hell) (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 1961); Ferenc Vadász, ‘Harcok, bukások, erőpróbák’ (Fights,
Failures, Tests of Strength), Új Szó (6 May 1988).

In the Hungarian imagination, Kistarcsa is still inextricably associated with the memory of one of the most notorious internment camps of the communist period. However, it is less well known that the Hungarian penal system had a connection to the town even before the Second World War. The area of the camp was originally a workers’ colony of 1,000 people, a little way outside the town, which housed the workers of the Machinery and Railway Equipment Factory and their families.1111 Ádám Gacsályi, A fal két oldalán – A Kistarcsai Központi Internálótábor története (On Both Sides of
the Wall: The History of the Kistarcsa Central Internment Camp) (Kistarcsa: Kistarcsai Internáltak
Emlékéért Alapítvány, 2018). For more, see: Barbara Bank, ‘Buda-Déltől Recskig – Internáló- és
kényszermunkatáborok Magyarországon, 1945–1953’ (From Buda South to Recsk: Internment and
Forced Labour Camps in Hungary, 1945–1953), Rubicon, 10 (2015), 4–13; Csaba Ilkei, Internálótáborok
Kistarcsától Recskig (Internment Camps from Kistarcsa to Recsk) (Author’s edition, 2013).
The factory went bankrupt as a result of the Great Depression, and the land was bought by the Ministry of the Interior, with the aim of establishing an ‘auxiliary internment camp’ in the vicinity of Budapest.1212 A 1938 report by the Ministry of the Interior: ‘As the internment centre of the Budapest police
headquarters has long since proved too small to accommodate those interned there, the government
of the interior has established auxiliary internment camps in Nagykanizsa and Kistarcsa.’ The Royal
Hungarian Report and Statistical Yearbook (MKKJSE) on the Operation of the Government in 1938 and the
Public Conditions of the Country (Budapest, Athenaeum, 1940).
Prisoners began to be transported there in the early 1930s, but the expansion of the camp began in 1939, in accordance with internment regulation 760/1939. According to the official description, the camp housed persons ‘of concern to public order and public security or deleterious to other important state interests or for economic reasons’.1313 Internment Regulation 760/1939, Art. II, § 150. This, in practice, meant vagabonds, prostitutes, miscreants, and members of extreme political groups such as communists and extreme right-wingers.1414 Gacsályi, A fal két oldalán. Among those belonging to illegal left-wing political groups, for example, some individuals who later became prominent were interned in Kistarcsa, such as communist leaders Antal Apró and László Rajk.1515 Rajk was interned not as a political convict, but as an individual of dubious nationality. ‘Rajk was
born in Székelyudvarhely, and was thus a Hungarian citizen, so his citizenship was probably dubious
due to his long stay abroad’, was Vasdényey’s testimony in 1954. Rajk’s final internment decision
was also issued by the National Central Authority for the Supervision of Foreigners, ÁBTL 2. 1.
I/1-d (V-142673/4). István Vasdényey’s witness interview minutes, n. 188. Recorded by Lt Miklós
Farkas, Budapest, 30 August 1954.

From post-1945 documentary evidence and recollections, it is known that Vasdényey took many left-wingers under his protection. From 1941 to 1943, István Ormay, who had close ties to the illegal Communist Party, was the economic manager of the camp, and after the war he led a subdivision of the Interior Ministry Police Department as a police colonel. In a 1948 statement he confirmed Vasdényey’s helpful attitude towards ‘detainees persecuted for their left-wing attitude’: ‘He enabled me to provide the greatest possible assistance to left-wingers and those persecuted during the fascist era. Although […] criminal investigations were conducted against me several times, he always came to my defence and thus saved me from the danger of being found out, which would have had serious consequences for those internees who were benefiting from my activities.16’16 ÁBTL 3.1.9. V-2180. 8, statement by Police Colonel István Ormay on the activities of István
Vasdényey, camp commander in Kistarcsa, 8 July 1948.
Vasdényey was captured by the Soviets after the war, and one of his fellow prisoners recalled the assistance he had given to László Rajk. ‘In Russia he was constantly talking about how he had had Rajk in custody in the camp. He had treated Rajk so well that he was sure Rajk would have him sent home. Then, when Rajk fell into disfavour, he became silent.17’17 ÁBTL 3.2.3 Mt-430. 1. 93, report by agent ‘Tibor Lovass’ on his ‘research work’ from 14
September 1951 to 12 December 1951.

THE GERMAN OCCUPATION AND THE FINAL SOLUTION

After the German occupation, on 19 March 1944, Hungary’s powerlessness before the will of the German Reich was complete, and the already difficult situation of Hungarian Jews became increasingly tragic. The Germans took over all police functions in Budapest, and the arrests began concurrently with the occupation: in the first weeks, they detained approximately ten thousand people, including 3,451 Hungarian Jews. The implementation of the anti-Jewish measures and the special 200-man deployment squad specializing in this task was directed by SS-Obersturmbannführer Adolf Eichmann.1818 Szabolcs Szita, ‘A Gestapo Magyarországon a német megszállás után’ (The Gestapo in Hungary
after the German Invasion), Múltunk, 1 (2001), 59–105; Randolph L. Braham, A népirtás politikája
– A holokauszt Magyarországon, I–II (The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, I–II)
(Budapest: Belvárosi Könyvkiadó, 1997); Jenő Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről
(The Black Book of the Sufferings of Hungarian Jewry) (Budapest: Officina, 1946); Ernő Munkácsi,
Hogyan történt? – Adatok és okmányok a magyar zsidóság tragédiájához (How Did it Happen?: Data and
Documents on the Tragedy of the Hungarian Jewry) (Budapest: Renaissance Kiadás, 1947).
As a lieutenant colonel in the Reichssicherheitshauptamt (Reich Security Headquarters), Eichmann was granted extraordinary executive powers with regard to Jewish matters, and had previously directed deportations from his office in Berlin. Due to the large number of people involved, however, the German government deemed it necessary for him to oversee the operation in Hungary in person.1919 Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági, ‘Rendvédelmi szervek és zsidók Magyarországon’ (Law Enforcement
Agencies and Jews in Hungary), História, 8 (1998), 18–21.
‘Now, after so many years spent working behind a desk, I found myself in the harsh reality of the battlefield […]. I wanted to behave like the real “Master” […]. I wanted to set an example’,2020 Kádár and Vági, ‘Rendvédelmi szervek és zsidók Magyarországon’, 18–21. Eichmann later recalled.

The complete deportation of all Jews residing in Hungary was one of the most pressing German demands, and one in which they intended the Hungarian penal system to play a key role. This also had a major impact on Kistarcsa. After the occupation, the camp had to be adapted to German needs. Of the original residents, only a few common criminals remained in one building, while after 19 March all political prisoners were transferred to the Garany internment camp.2121 For more, see: Zsolt Badó, ‘Akit Rajk László tanított franciára – Beszélgetés a korláthelmeci
Dolgos Györggyel’ (The Man Who Was Taught French by László Rajk: Conversation with György
Dolgos of Korláthelmec), Kárpátalja (28 October 2005), www.karpataljalap.net/?q=2005/10/28/
akit-rajk-laszlo-tanitott-franciara.
The Kistarcsa camp, which had originally been designed to accommodate 200–250 people, was expanded so that 1,500–2,000 prisoners could be kept there, albeit in overcrowded conditions. Of the five barracks, several came under the control of the Germans. In one, Wehrmacht and SS soldiers convicted of various offenses were kept during the entire period of the German occupation.2222 Braham, A népirtás politikája – A holokauszt Magyarországon, Vol. II, 849. ‘There was a separate German guard detachment for them, and they also laid a separate telephone line to the German command in Budapest to enable direct communication.23’23 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 182.

The most crowded was the so-called ‘C’ barracks, which housed Jewish people rounded up during ‘individual actions’. They were the people dragged away by the Hungarian authorities in the street, in train stations, on trams, and in telephone booths, on a thousand pretexts, predominantly relating to violations of various anti-Jewish decrees: for travelling or using telephones, for instance, or for improperly wearing a yellow star, or hiding material possessions.

The ‘D’ barracks housed Jewish and non-Jewish persons arrested by the Gestapo for various crimes—‘Gestapo prisoners interned by order of Sondereinsatzkommando Eichmann’, or ‘Gestapos’ as they were known in camp parlance.2424 Gideon Hauser, Ítélet Jeruzsálemben – Az Eichmann-per története (Judgment in Jerusalem: The Story
of the Eichmann Trial) (Budapest: Európa Kiadó, 1984).
Jenő Lévai, the first Hungarian chronicler of the Holocaust, writes of them as follows: ‘They had been captured by the Germans and were brought there via the Pest County court jail. Among the “Gestapo” prisoners, the number of whom oscillated between 800 and 1000, there were more interesting groups. These included, for instance, almost the entire staff of the X-ray department of the Jewish hospital in Szabolcs Street, both doctors and support staff, who had been arrested by the Gestapo

Jews in the Kistarcsa internment camp, in the vicinity of Budapest (1 May 1944). Photo:
FORTEPAN

because they were accused of running a radio station among the X-ray machines. There was also a separate group, the so-called “MÁK” group: These were some of the officials and engineers of the Hungarian General Coalmining Quarry, who had been accused of sabotage.25’25 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 182–183.

The famous writer and Polonist Grácia Kerényi, the daughter of the world-famous classical philologist Károly Kerényi, was also imprisoned here until her deportation to Auschwitz. She wrote about what happened to her after the German occupation as follows: ‘I instinctively looked for forms of protest: I made cockades in the national colours and distributed them in the Greek seminary, I sneaked into the university building and wrote “Down with the Germans!” with my finger on the fogged-up second-floor windows. […] And then there was that particular conversation, at the back gate of Trefort Garden, which my informant overheard: a conversation at once very thoughtless and very conscious, discussing ideals and actual combat, Russian weapons and the moral value of protest—which I finished with a movingly naive phrase: “If it is for the good of my country, then I don’t mind if my head rolls here on the pavement…” […] The “Germans”, as we called them, went to my apartment on the morning of 3 April, looking for a weapon. […] I was arrested, first interrogated on 5 April, and then transferred to Kistarcsa.26’26 Grácia Kerényi, ‘Amikor én ellenálltam’ (When I Resisted), Kritika, 4 (1970), 22–23. The
article published in Kritika is an excerpt from Grácia Kerényi’s longer work, published privately in
Topográfia in 1975.

In the camp, the residents of barracks ‘C’ and ‘D’, which were under German control, were in the most vulnerable and miserable situation. Zoltán Kellner, an inmate of barracks ‘D’, gave testimony as part of the preparations for the Eichmann trial: ‘During our stay there, we were almost hermetically sealed off— unlike those guarded by the Hungarian police, the Germans did not even allow us an hour of outdoor exercise a day. Our guards came in a few times and beat us with rifles. […] For no reason, of course.27’27 ÁBTL 4. 1. A-643. 5. Dr Zoltán Kellner, witness interview notes. Recorded by Lt István Sárosi,
1 July 1960 (Hereinafter: Kellner Notes).

Beginning with the German occupation, another category of prisoners appeared in the Kistarcsa camp, Jewish lawyers gathered as hostages, who were held in barracks ‘B’, hence their camp name of ‘Bs’. According to the well-established practice of the Germans, some of the first Jews to be arrested were ostensibly detained as hostages, based on pre-compiled lists. ‘If an assassination attempt is made against German soldiers in Hungary, the lives of the hostages will be taken in reprisal’, was the justification.2828 Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben, 43. Lévai recalled what followed: ‘On 19 and 20 March they arrested the most prominent individuals in the political and economic spheres from their homes. […] The Jewish prisoners were soon crowded into the Rabbinical Seminary at 26 Rökk Szilárd Street, which remained the Gestapo prison from that moment until 15 October.2929 Under the Arrow Cross, it became the prison of the State Defence Centre. The Hungarian part
was commanded by Pál Ubrizsy.
[…] The occupation took place on a Sunday, and in the early hours of the following Tuesday and Wednesday, the lawyers dragged from their apartments by the Swabian SS boys from Tolna County with the help of Hungarian police officers, based on a pre-prepared list, were brought here. They had reached the letter ‘K’ on this alphabetical list when any further rounding up of lawyers was stopped thanks to the intervention of the Ministry of Justice.30’30 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 162. After a week or two, the hostages captured in this way were transported to various internment camps. Journalists, for example, were sent to Horthy Park, a camp on Csepel Island in the Danube, while the lawyers arrested on 21–22 March, numbering approximately 280, were taken to Kistarcsa.3131 For more, see: Aladár Ritter, ‘Horthyliget’, Magyar Sajtó, 6 (2010), 18–20.

They were in a special situation, and no internment order was issued against them, since they had been arrested as hostages and not as lawbreakers. Officially, they were considered prisoners of the Germans, but were placed in the custody of the camp command authority. Thanks to this stroke of good fortune, they were treated humanely. One former prisoner, Ákos György Bálint, in memoirs entitled Island in a Poisoned Sea, details at length the daily routine of the 280 residents of Barracks ‘B’: ‘Vasdényey arranged things so that the prisoners could see the camp as an island of peace and security.32’32 Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben, 10. The prisoners could move freely within the camp, receive letters and packages without restrictions, and Vasdényey took care of their food, medical care, books, and newspapers.

Vasdényey could do little to prevent the atrocities committed against the prisoners under the custody of the Gestapo, but he did make several attempts— and not without success—to free them, in cooperation with his old friend Károly Dietz. Dietz, as a practicing lawyer, had already helped those who came to him for assistance regarding the anti-Jewish laws, or who were fleeing persecution abroad—and often worked pro bono. In the first days of the occupation, Senior Police Adviser Oszkár Pataky, working together with the head of the Immigration Department—with whom he had already collaborated in the protection of Jewish people—freed a number of Jews who had been detained in internment camps. Dietz issued certificates for each individual, stating that the person had been en route to a work site, and had thus been wrongfully arrested. These certificates gave Pataky a legal right to release them. For this, as well as his other actions on behalf of the arrested, Pataky was forced into retirement at the end of April.3333 ABTL 3.1.5. O-9975/8. 24. Károly Dietz’s letter to the Minister of the Interior regarding the
complaint against his deportation, 30 August 1951; ABTL 3.1.5. O-9975/8. 41. Statement of Dr
Oszkár Pataky on his collaboration with Károly Dietz, 16 April 1946.
Testimony from 1947 describes Károly Dietz’s post-occupation assistance as follows: ‘The lawyer was approached by crowds of 30–40 people seeking legal aid as Jews. […] [S]ometimes there were so many people waiting that they filled not only the hall, but the corridor leading to it as well. […] As a result of such cases, the offices of the two lawyers were raided, and the lawyers were taken into custody together with their legal petitioners, but in spite of these dangers, Mr Dietz made himself available to everyone. Shortly after the occupation, I took the lawyer out to Kistarcsa in a taxi and was personally present during his discussion with Camp Commander István Vasdényey, when he asked him to help to make the Germans agree to the release of mothers with babies and inmates over the age of seventy. […] I know from multiple sources that on this basis approximately eighty people were in fact released from the Kistarcsa internment camp.34’34 ÁBTL 3.1.5. O-9975/8. 36. Certification of József Lővey (?) in the case of Károly Dietz, 19 June, 1947.

Based on legal reasoning formulated by Dietz, Vasdényey obtained the consent of the Gestapo to release men over sixty, women over fifty, and children under sixteen from the camp.3535 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 92. Learning from the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943 and considering the large number of Jews in Hungary, the Germans tried to alleviate the despair among the Jews, so that a potential uprising would not complicate the deportation. This explains why they were willing to make such concessions.

Based on the list received from Vasdényey, the Bureau for the Protection of the Rights of the Jews of Hungary tracked down the family members and obtained personal documents, then Károly Dietz, as lawyer, authenticated the (if necessary false) papers, and István Vasdényey, as executor, released as many prisoners as possible. Sándor Bródy—who, as a representative of the Bureau for the Protection of the Rights of the Jews of Hungary, was an important link throughout the period—in 1945 commented on Vasdényey’s role as follows: ‘It was largely thanks to his intervention that the Ministry of the Interior and the Gestapo agreed to the release of children under the age of fourteen, and he also helped OMZSÁ [the Bureau for the Protection of the Rights of the Jews of Hungary], […] to release 20–22-year-olds with false documents, as well as children under fourteen years of age.36’36 ÁBTL 3.1. 9. V-21680. 12. Statement of Sándor Bródy. This action affected hundreds of people, and was given special importance by the fact that it led to the release of prisoners under German supervision, who had not only been exposed to the brutality of their guards, but had also suffered the continual threat of deportation. And this deportation did indeed take place, on 28 April 1944.

Zoltán Kellner later recalled what happened: ‘On the night of 27–28 April 1944, we woke up to find that the internees in the neighbouring “C” barracks were being herded to the courtyard amid terrible beatings and screamed threats of being shot in the head. […] Later we found out that they had been taken to Auschwitz and killed.37’37 ÁBTL 4. 1. A-643. 5, Kellner Notes. On this day, 1,800 people from barracks ‘C’ were loaded into cattle cars and transported to Auschwitz. This was the first deportation train from Hungary.3838 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 183. As per German plans, the action at Kistarcsa was intended as a dress rehearsal for the mass deportations that began on 15 May.3939 Szita, ‘A Gestapo Magyarországon a német megszállás után’.

After the deportation, the number of people in the camp dropped to 350–400 people, but even after that, new internees continued to arrive for infringing various decrees, violating laws, and for other reasons.4040 Roughly 20 Italian prisoners of war arrived in the camp from the Russian front. For more, see:
Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben, 69.
By June, the number of prisoners had once again risen to between 1,000 and 1,500.4141 Braham, A népirtás politikája – A holokauszt Magyarországon, Vol. II, 849; Lévai, Fekete könyv a
magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 183.
However, after the deportation on 28 April, it was not only the number of personnel that changed, but also the circumstances of the prisoners, as the Gestapo handed over full responsibility for the guarding of the camp buildings to the Hungarian camp command, with the exception of German military prisoners. It seemed that Kistarcsa had truly become an island of safety, not only for the prisoners of barracks ‘B’, but for all its inmates. That is why the Jewish Council, in collaboration with Vasdényey, tried to place as many internees as possible in the Kistarcsa camp, in order to protect them from deportation.

To be continued.

Translated by Thomas Sneddon

  • 1
    ’1 Gyula Maár, ‘Egyenes Labirintus – Pilinszky-portré a televízióban’ (Straight Labyrinth: Pilinszky
    Portrait on Television, 16 October 1978), in Zoltán Hafner, ed., Pilinszky János beszélgetések
    (Conversations with János Pilinszky) (Budapest, Magvető, 2016), 270.
  • 2
    ’2 Éva V. Bálint, ‘Tragikum és derű’ (Tragedy and Serenity), in Hafner, ed., Pilinszky János beszélgetések, 317.
  • 3
    ’3 Ráday Archive (RL) C/230, box 16: ‘Magyarország és a zsidókérdés’ (Hungary and the Jewish
    Question), 9.
  • 4
    ’4 RL C/230, box 16, 9.
  • 5
    5 RL C/230, box 16, 9.
  • 6
    6 The most comprehensive recollection of Vasdényey’s rescue activities was written by György Ákos
    Bálint, the nephew of Jenő Lévai, the first chronicler of the Hungarian Holocaust: Ákos György
    Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben – Szubjektív emlékezés egy vészterhes esztendőre (Island in a Poisoned
    Sea: Subjective Recollections of a Year Fraught with Disaster) (Budapest: Ügyvédi Kamara, 2013).
    Cf. the review of this work: Zoltán Nagymihály, ‘A gondolkodás felszabadulása? – Ákos György
    Bálint: Sziget a mérgezett tengerben’ (Liberation of Thought?: György Ákos Bálint, Island in a Poisoned
    Sea) (Magyar Szemle, 5–6, 2017), 163–166. I would also like to thank Gyula Kodolányi for drawing
    my attention to Ákos Bálint György’s book.
  • 7
    7 For more, see: András Kő, ‘Egy kupica likőr – Dietz Károly rendőr- és futballkapitány, aki
    letartóztatta Kun Bélát’ (A Dram of Liquor: The Police Chief and Football Manager Károly
    Dietz, Who Arrested Béla Kun), Magyar Nemzet (March 2012); Péter Szegedi, ‘Ezüstkapitányok
    – Párhuzamos életrajzok, Dr. Dietz Károly és Sebes Gusztáv’ (Silver Managers—Parallel Lives: Dr
    Károly Dietz and Gusztáv Sebes), Magyar Narancs (15 July 2010); Péter Malonyai, ‘Kapitánytörténet’
    (A Captain’s Story), Magyarország, n. 50, 28; n. 51–52, n. 56–57; Állambiztonsági Szolgálatok
    Történeti Levéltára ((ÁBTL) (State Security Services Historical Archive) 3. 1. 5. O-9975/8. 19-20;
    Lt István Németh, report on Dr. Károly Dietz, 29 September 1951.
  • 8
    8 For more, see: Sándor Halmos, ‘Szatmár vármegye zsidósága’ (Nyíregyháza: Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg Megyei Önkormányzat Levéltára és a Barankovics István Alapítvány) (The Jews of Szatmár
    County. Nyíregyháza: Szabolcs-Szatmár-Bereg County Municipality Archives and the Foundation
    István Barankovics), 2008; Ádám Gellért and János Gellért, ‘Az 1941. évi kőrösmezői deportálások
    – A kitoloncolásokat jóváhagyó minisztertanácsi döntés háttere (The 1941 Kőrösmező Deportations:
    Background to the Decision of the Council of Ministers to Approve the Deportations), Betekintő, 2 (2013).
  • 9
    ’9 ÁBTL 3.1. 9. V-21680. 20. Leó Weiner’s letter to police inspector István Vasdényey, 18 October 1941.
  • 10
    10 For more, see: Ferenc Vadász, Harcunk a magyar pokollal (Our Struggle against the Hungarian
    Hell) (Budapest: Kossuth Kiadó, 1961); Ferenc Vadász, ‘Harcok, bukások, erőpróbák’ (Fights,
    Failures, Tests of Strength), Új Szó (6 May 1988).
  • 11
    11 Ádám Gacsályi, A fal két oldalán – A Kistarcsai Központi Internálótábor története (On Both Sides of
    the Wall: The History of the Kistarcsa Central Internment Camp) (Kistarcsa: Kistarcsai Internáltak
    Emlékéért Alapítvány, 2018). For more, see: Barbara Bank, ‘Buda-Déltől Recskig – Internáló- és
    kényszermunkatáborok Magyarországon, 1945–1953’ (From Buda South to Recsk: Internment and
    Forced Labour Camps in Hungary, 1945–1953), Rubicon, 10 (2015), 4–13; Csaba Ilkei, Internálótáborok
    Kistarcsától Recskig (Internment Camps from Kistarcsa to Recsk) (Author’s edition, 2013).
  • 12
    12 A 1938 report by the Ministry of the Interior: ‘As the internment centre of the Budapest police
    headquarters has long since proved too small to accommodate those interned there, the government
    of the interior has established auxiliary internment camps in Nagykanizsa and Kistarcsa.’ The Royal
    Hungarian Report and Statistical Yearbook (MKKJSE) on the Operation of the Government in 1938 and the
    Public Conditions of the Country (Budapest, Athenaeum, 1940).
  • 13
    13 Internment Regulation 760/1939, Art. II, § 150.
  • 14
    14 Gacsályi, A fal két oldalán.
  • 15
    15 Rajk was interned not as a political convict, but as an individual of dubious nationality. ‘Rajk was
    born in Székelyudvarhely, and was thus a Hungarian citizen, so his citizenship was probably dubious
    due to his long stay abroad’, was Vasdényey’s testimony in 1954. Rajk’s final internment decision
    was also issued by the National Central Authority for the Supervision of Foreigners, ÁBTL 2. 1.
    I/1-d (V-142673/4). István Vasdényey’s witness interview minutes, n. 188. Recorded by Lt Miklós
    Farkas, Budapest, 30 August 1954.
  • 16
    ’16 ÁBTL 3.1.9. V-2180. 8, statement by Police Colonel István Ormay on the activities of István
    Vasdényey, camp commander in Kistarcsa, 8 July 1948.
  • 17
    ’17 ÁBTL 3.2.3 Mt-430. 1. 93, report by agent ‘Tibor Lovass’ on his ‘research work’ from 14
    September 1951 to 12 December 1951.
  • 18
    18 Szabolcs Szita, ‘A Gestapo Magyarországon a német megszállás után’ (The Gestapo in Hungary
    after the German Invasion), Múltunk, 1 (2001), 59–105; Randolph L. Braham, A népirtás politikája
    – A holokauszt Magyarországon, I–II (The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, I–II)
    (Budapest: Belvárosi Könyvkiadó, 1997); Jenő Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről
    (The Black Book of the Sufferings of Hungarian Jewry) (Budapest: Officina, 1946); Ernő Munkácsi,
    Hogyan történt? – Adatok és okmányok a magyar zsidóság tragédiájához (How Did it Happen?: Data and
    Documents on the Tragedy of the Hungarian Jewry) (Budapest: Renaissance Kiadás, 1947).
  • 19
    19 Gábor Kádár and Zoltán Vági, ‘Rendvédelmi szervek és zsidók Magyarországon’ (Law Enforcement
    Agencies and Jews in Hungary), História, 8 (1998), 18–21.
  • 20
    20 Kádár and Vági, ‘Rendvédelmi szervek és zsidók Magyarországon’, 18–21.
  • 21
    21 For more, see: Zsolt Badó, ‘Akit Rajk László tanított franciára – Beszélgetés a korláthelmeci
    Dolgos Györggyel’ (The Man Who Was Taught French by László Rajk: Conversation with György
    Dolgos of Korláthelmec), Kárpátalja (28 October 2005), www.karpataljalap.net/?q=2005/10/28/
    akit-rajk-laszlo-tanitott-franciara.
  • 22
    22 Braham, A népirtás politikája – A holokauszt Magyarországon, Vol. II, 849.
  • 23
    ’23 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 182.
  • 24
    24 Gideon Hauser, Ítélet Jeruzsálemben – Az Eichmann-per története (Judgment in Jerusalem: The Story
    of the Eichmann Trial) (Budapest: Európa Kiadó, 1984).
  • 25
    ’25 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 182–183.
  • 26
    ’26 Grácia Kerényi, ‘Amikor én ellenálltam’ (When I Resisted), Kritika, 4 (1970), 22–23. The
    article published in Kritika is an excerpt from Grácia Kerényi’s longer work, published privately in
    Topográfia in 1975.
  • 27
    ’27 ÁBTL 4. 1. A-643. 5. Dr Zoltán Kellner, witness interview notes. Recorded by Lt István Sárosi,
    1 July 1960 (Hereinafter: Kellner Notes).
  • 28
    28 Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben, 43.
  • 29
    29 Under the Arrow Cross, it became the prison of the State Defence Centre. The Hungarian part
    was commanded by Pál Ubrizsy.
  • 30
    ’30 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 162.
  • 31
    31 For more, see: Aladár Ritter, ‘Horthyliget’, Magyar Sajtó, 6 (2010), 18–20.
  • 32
    ’32 Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben, 10.
  • 33
    33 ABTL 3.1.5. O-9975/8. 24. Károly Dietz’s letter to the Minister of the Interior regarding the
    complaint against his deportation, 30 August 1951; ABTL 3.1.5. O-9975/8. 41. Statement of Dr
    Oszkár Pataky on his collaboration with Károly Dietz, 16 April 1946.
  • 34
    ’34 ÁBTL 3.1.5. O-9975/8. 36. Certification of József Lővey (?) in the case of Károly Dietz, 19 June, 1947.
  • 35
    35 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 92.
  • 36
    ’36 ÁBTL 3.1. 9. V-21680. 12. Statement of Sándor Bródy.
  • 37
    ’37 ÁBTL 4. 1. A-643. 5, Kellner Notes.
  • 38
    38 Lévai, Fekete könyv a magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 183.
  • 39
    39 Szita, ‘A Gestapo Magyarországon a német megszállás után’.
  • 40
    40 Roughly 20 Italian prisoners of war arrived in the camp from the Russian front. For more, see:
    Bálint, Sziget a mérgezett tengerben, 69.
  • 41
    41 Braham, A népirtás politikája – A holokauszt Magyarországon, Vol. II, 849; Lévai, Fekete könyv a
    magyar zsidóság szenvedéseiről, 183.

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