Chapter from a Memoir in Progress*
Back in February of 1939 Hungary’s Regent, Miklós Horthy, had forced the resignation of the pro-German Prime Minister Béla Imrédy and named Count Pál Teleki, an anglophile, to lead the government. Both Regent Horthy and Prime Minister Teleki despised Hitler and believed that the Allies would eventually win the war. Regent Horthy, a retired admiral who had commanded the Austro-Hungarian fleet during the First World War, believed Great Britain would win because of its superior naval power. Prime Minister Teleki believed that Great Britain would win because the United States would eventually join the war rather than permit Great Britain to lose – as had happened in the First World War. Horthy and Teleki were very aware that Hungary’s fate after the war was dependent upon its remaining neutral in the war effort. The British government often reminded them of that fact.
The government had to walk a very fine line in order to keep the good will of both Hitler and Great Britain. It succeeded in doing so for more than one and a half years, but in April 1941 events conspired to force the Hungarian government to make an agonising decision that caused the British government to lose faith in Hungary. Relations between Great Britain and Hungary were already strained due to foreign policy concessions that the Hungarian government had made to Hitler in order to pacify him and to regain some of its lost territories. In December of 1940 Hungary made a move that was intended to please both Hitler and the British. It signed a “Treaty of Eternal Friendship” with Yugoslavia. The British government commended the treaty as a force for stability in the region.
Three months later a coup in Yugoslavia put a decidedly pro-Western government in charge. Hitler was infuriated and decided immediately to invade Yugoslavia. He pressured the Hungarian government for permission to march the German Army through Hungary and to assist in the invasion. In exchange he promised to return to Hungary its former land that had been assigned to Yugoslavia in theTreaty of Trianon in 1920. This created a great dilemma for Hungary. The British government threatened to break off diplomatic relations and declare war on Hungary if it broke the treaty. Both Horthy and Teleki believed that would place Hungary on the losing side of the war and thus Hungary would pay heavy consequences when the war ended. Yet if Hungary refused Hitler’s demands it would not only lose the opportunity to gain back its lost land from Yugoslavia, it might anger him to the point that he would invade and occupy Hungary. Both the Regent and the Prime Minister concluded that Hungary had more to lose by rejecting Hitler’s offer. They both voted to permit German troops to march through Hungary and agreed that Hungarian troops would participate in the invasion of Yugoslavia but only at the point of reclaiming its former territory. Prime Minister Teleki broke under the strain. He felt such personal and national shame that he committed suicide in the wee hours of 3 April leaving a note that said in part “We have become breakers of our word” and “We have taken our stand on the side of scoundrels”.
The following day the German army began its march through Hungary toward Yugoslavia. Horthy quickly appointed Foreign Minister László Bárdossy as the new Prime Minister, and the two decided to go ahead as planned. Hungary joined the invasion a week later and reclaimed its former territory. Great Britain broke off diplomatic relations with Hungary, but it did not declare war at that time. Hungary remained officially neutral, but not for long.
In May the pro-German Hungarian Chief of Staff Henrik Werth learned of Germany’s impending attack on the Soviet Union. He urged Regent Horthy and Prime Minister Bárdossy to offer the services of the Hungarian army to Hitler to assist in the invasion. Both Horthy and Bárdossy were sympathetic to the cause of an anti-Bolshevik crusade but exercised caution at that time. On 26 June unidentified airplanes dropped bombs on the cities of Kassa and Munkács, which Hungary had reclaimed from Czechoslovakia, killing civilians. General Werth and the Minister of Defence immediately blamed the Soviets. A report from an air force officer who had taken off from Kassa airfield during the raid, disputed that claim saying that it had been carried out by German aircraft with Soviet markings. Nevertheless, Bárdossy, who had withheld from Horthy and the cabinet an unusually friendly telegram from Molotov, recommended that Hungary should enter the war against the Soviet Union. Horthy agreed, and the cabinet followed suit.
Entrance into the war was very unpopular with the Hungarian public. Hungary sent 40,000 troops to the Soviet Union but soon asked Hitler for permission to withdraw them. Hitler agreed to a partial withdrawal, but as German reverses on the Eastern Front began to mount, he demanded an additional twenty-eight divisions. Hungary sent sixteen divisions, but also agreed to form a new force of 200,000, the Second Army.
On 9 March 1942 Horthy, believing that Bárdossy was too pliable with Hitler, replaced him with Miklós Kállay. Prime Minister Kállay hated both the Nazis and the Bolsheviks and played the one against the other. His policies, two steps to the left followed by two steps to the right, became known as the “Kállay Two-Step”. His intention was to gradually ease Hungary out of its alliance with Germany and seek the protection of the Western Allies against a Soviet advance into Europe. In addition Kállay refused Hitler’s demands to deport the Hungarian Jews for “war labour” to the German Reich, and to force those who remained to wear the yellow star. Tension between Hungary and Germany quickly grew to the point that Hungary was in constant fear of invasion and occupation by its supposed ally.
As a condition of its dispatch to the Eastern Front, Hitler promised to arm the Second Army with modern weaponry. He failed to do so. As a consequence the poorly equipped Second Army, which lacked even sufficient clothing and footwear to withstand the Russian winter, was virtually annihilated by the Red Army in January 1943 at the River Don. The number of killed, wounded or captured equalled 130,000 out of 200,000. In addition the accompanying Jewish work battalions lost 36,000 out of 40,000. In contrast to the horrible conditions for the soldiers and work battalions on the front, daily life for most Hungarians was hardly changed by the war. Unlike in most European countries food was sufficient. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press remained intact with few exceptions. The anti-Jewish laws negatively affected the livelihood and some of the civil rights of the Jews, but Jewish organisations continued to operate as usual. Most Jews understood that the anti-Jewish laws, as cruel as they were, were far less than the measures that Hitler had demanded. He often expressed his anger at the Hungarian government for not doing more to solve the “Jewish question”. The approximately 800,000 Jews who then lived in Hungary feared an invasion by Germany even more than most Hungarians. Most believed that the anti-Jewish laws helped to keep Hitler at bay.
Life for me was good during the early years of the war. By the spring of 1943 my employer, Nostra, had grown to employ about 70 people and had moved to larger facilities at 3 Harmincad Street in the Inner City of Pest. I was serving as the deputy to the Chief Accountant, Gyula Révay. He was at heart a good man who had become a dysfunctional alcoholic. He assigned to me the responsibility of running the accounting department so that I was in control of approximately 45 warehouses and their resources spread around the country.
In May of 1943, my long-time sweetheart, Erzsébet Hamza and I were married at the Pozsonyi Street Reformed Church. After a short honeymoon at Lake Balaton, we moved into a beautiful new apartment in southwest Budapest on the Buda side of the Danube. It wasn’t long before we learned the happy news that our new family would soon be expanding. We were expecting a baby in February.
That summer I was drafted into the military work battalions and stationed at Jászberény where I spent several weeks in training. Next I was ordered to report for an office job at the battalion headquarters in Budapest, but it wasn’t long before I was ordered to return to my regular job at the Nostra Headquarters. Nostra was considered an essential enterprise in the war effort, and the executives of the company considered me to be essential to its operation.
By that summer, 1943, it became obvious to all thinking people that Germany was losing the war. Now that defeat for Germany seemed certain, Prime Minister Kállay’s efforts to ease Hungary out of the war became more urgent. He pursued secret contacts with the western Allies. Any obvious moves would have triggered a German invasion and occupation bringing immediate disastrous consequences to Hungary and its Jewish population. Jewish representatives repeatedly pleaded with Kállay not to take any steps that would put the Jews in jeopardy.
Horthy and Kállay feared the Soviets more than they feared the Germans. With the exception of the Jews that was true for most Hungarians, especially the older generation who had terrible memories of the brief but brutal Bolshevik government of 1919. Hungarians fervently hoped that the British or American forces would reach Hungary before the Russians. This was possible as long as the Allies agreed to the strategy advocated by Churchill who proposed a lunge from the south, either from Italy or Yugoslavia. Stalin, however, insisted that his allies launch an exclusive invasion of Western Europe. The lunge from the south would have cut off Hitler’s oil supply and would have encountered less resistance than an invasion of Western Europe. It wasn’t to be. At the Tehran Conference of November 1943, Roosevelt sided with Stalin and against Churchill on this issue, thus killing any chance that the Allied Forces would reach Hungary before the Red Army.
Hungary’s repeated and urgent requests to Hitler for permission to withdraw the remnants of the First Army from the Eastern Front so that they could defend their homeland against the Soviet advance were rejected.
Eager to do whatever I could to help my country in its increasingly difficult situation I joined the Free Life Student Movement. Our goals were to educate the public as to the need for Hungary to change course and to prepare for peace and for the free democratic Hungary that we would build after the war. Our leader was Sándor Kiss, a young philosophy professor at the teacher training college. Through him we were allied with a much wider movement of similar organisations, the Hungarian Youth’s Freedom Front.
On 24 February 1944 my wife gave birth to our daughter, Erzsébet. It was a happy event in an otherwise gloomy situation with Hungary facing a likely Soviet occupation. At that time we didn’t know just how gloomy the future would be. We still had hope that Hungary would make peace with the Allies and thus be spared from becoming a battleground of the war. Less than a month later, on 19 March 1944, the German Army invaded and occupied our country.
Hundreds of government officials and Jewish leaders were immediately arrested. Some managed to escape into hiding. All Jews were immediately ordered to wear the yellow star, and many were ordered to move into designated areas, the Jewish ghettos. The systematic deportations to concentration camps, primarily Auschwitz, began almost immediately starting with the Jews in the provinces. Four hundred thousand, including tens of thousands of Roma and other “undesirables”, were deported, the majority of whom were to be exterminated in Auschwitz. By July only the Jews of Budapest remained whose deportation was thwarted by Regent Horthy and his circle.
The Free Life Student Movement continued to meet in secret and to discuss the evils of the occupation and devise ways to sabotage Eichmann’s efforts. We came to realise that we were indeed a resistance group. Starting in early April the Allied Powers inflicted heavy bombing on Budapest, and my department at Nostra was evacuated to the village of Abony on the Budapest–Szolnok road. Within weeks an auxiliary of the Free Life Student Movement was created with István B. Rácz and me in residence. Sándor Kiss and Lajos Imre were frequent guests for days at a time. My offices in Abony and Budapest had daily contact with a courier automobile in which we easily travelled and transported underground material. By the second half of the summer I was often printing and transporting underground materials as manuscripts reached me from Kiss, Rácz and others.
The underground materials took the form of leaflets, pamphlets, newsletters, manifestoes and posters. As the months passed the danger associated with our activities increased substantially. A group of students including some from Free Life were arrested from the Hársfa Street Student Residence. Although all of them were eventually released, we could no longer ignore the chilling fact that the intelligence agencies of the Hungarian puppet government were working hard to discover us.
By late summer we received word from our friend, the Rev. Albert Bereczky, that Regent Horthy, though severely limited in his powers, had resumed his efforts to exit Hungary from the Axis orbit. The bombing had ceased, and my department moved back to the Nostra headquarters on Harmincad Street. I discovered a secret second basement in the building, and it became the location of our print shop. I stocked it with two automatic stencil duplicators, three vintage mimeographs and several typewriters. We had practically unlimited supply of stencils, paper and copying ink, supplies the company had accumulated to hedge against wartime shortages. These facilities produced between 200,000–300,000 sheets of underground material.
In September the Soviet Army invaded Hungary from the east and made rapid progress toward Budapest. On Sunday morning, 15 October 1944 Regent Horthy announced on the radio that Hungary had agreed to armistice and would surrender to the Allied Forces. At that time I happened to be walking home from the Pozsonyi Street Reformed Church. It was quite a distance, but I enjoyed the walk. First I passed a Jewish neighbourhood located just south of the church. I continued south to the Erzsébet Bridge, crossed the bridge to the Buda side and the Danube, and continued walking south to my home. As I passed the Jewish neighbourhood I heard a lot of cheering, but I didn’t understand what was going on. When I reached the Erzsébet Bridge I saw German troops retreating to the west. Could it be true? Tragically, the cheering was premature.
It became clear later that day that the Hungarian Army had not surrendered in spite of Horthy’s order to do so. The pro-German factions in the army simply refused to obey his command. The following day Horthy repeatedly refused to abdicate. He finally agreed only because his son was in the custody of the Germans, and it was made clear that the release of his son was conditional on his abdication. Ferenc Szálasi, the head of the Arrow Cross (i.e. Hungarian Nazi) Party, was entrusted with the formation of a cabinet. The Germans did not honour the promise to release the Regent’s son who was transferred to Mauthausen then to Dachau where he remained until the spring of 1945. On 17 October Horthy and the rest of his family left Hungary under German escort. After the war he moved to Portugal and lived the rest of his life in exile.
The 15 October tragedy signalled to the student underground the necessity to accept greater risks. Sándor Kiss asked me to accept, safely store and distribute documents issued by governmental departments and military headquarters. I stored them in the safe in my office. We were using them illegally, but in appearance these documents were perfect: printed on the appropriate paper, stamped with the official seal and signed by the appropriate office holder. Only the name of the bearer was missing. At the outset I stored military documents from a few auxiliary commands. Later I was in charge of storing impressive looking documents from the Supreme Command. My old friend from Soli Deo Gloria, Foreign Ministry officer Géza Kádár, was an innovative distributor of these sensitive documents. We often met in a bookstore on Múzeum Boulevard. It was also here that I met Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who coordinated a network involved in saving Budapest Jews from the Nazis. Occasionally I supplied him with military documents issued for names he specified. We agreed that I would hide the documents in a specific place on a specific bookshelf, and he would pick them up or have them picked up later the same day. Subsequently we met twice at the Gyáli Road Nostra Warehouse to work out special arrangements for a consignment of medical supplies.
Sándor Kiss needed an office from which to direct his resistance activities. I hired him and introduced him to my superior and colleagues under the name of Pál Juhász, adjunct professor from the University of Kolozsvár, with whom I was supposedly writing an accounting manual for agricultural cooperatives. I assigned him an office with a telephone, access to a conference room, and a key to the basement pretending that he drew case-study materials out of the old files stored there.
Our prime printed product was the periodical Szabad Élet (Free Life), which had under its title a caption “Journal of the Free Life Student Movement”. It was published about eight times and in varying lengths ranging from five to ten pages. The issues emphasised the cruelty and hypocrisy of the Nazis as well as the hopelessness of the German cause and the necessity for Hungarians to work against the Germans and the Arrow Cross. In addition to our own publications we printed materials for other resistance movements. The operation of the print shop was efficient and secure thanks to the fortunate physical facilities and a faultlessly working team consisting of István B. Rácz, Sándor Kiss, Lajos Imre and myself. Each of us could spend long hours in the print shop at any hour of the day or night. And each was capable of maintaining the equipment.
Because of the smooth operation of the print shop, I was able to become involved in the planning of additional projects in the student underground movement. One project wherein I had a role was the Görgey Battalion (Görgey Zászlóalj), formed for the ostensible purpose of defending Budapest against the Russians. The real aim was to prevent the use of the unit and those in it elsewhere for the Nazi cause. The design was to pull together several hundred men into a military unit that would seek contacts with the Red Army approaching Budapest in order to collaborate with them in minimising destruction and loss of lives. Captains Mikó and Tóth secretly endorsed the plan and appointed Vilmos Bondor, the unit’s senior lieutenant as supply officer. Three friends became the commanding officers. Additional posts were filled with people recommended by the Free Life Student Movement. We covertly campaigned to fill the ranks with trustworthy young students and workers. During this process I gave out many of the conventional auxiliary command forms entitled “Order to Report”.
We tried to create the impression that the battalion was a hotbed of right-wing extremists. In an attempt to allay the suspicions of the Arrow Cross snoopers, we planned an attack on the guard post. Three members of the Free Life Student Movement implemented the plan. After as certaining that no one would be hurt, one of them threw a hand grenade into the guard post. The next day Free Life reported that the event was only a first warning to the pro-Szálasi Görgey Battalion. Apparently, the deception did work because the suspicions of Arrow Cross functionaries subsided for a while. Unfortunately the Arrow Cross eventually detected the real nature of the battalion, and the members had to disperse into the Buda Hills shortly before the Soviet Army surrounded the city.
Perhaps the most daring of our ideas was the forging of a “Second Szálasi Manifesto”, which aimed to convince the public that Szálasi had turned against the Germans, and that they should follow suit. The project was to write, print and post in several thousand copies a manifesto patterned after the one posted by Szálasi during the 15 October coup d’état. In his “Supreme Command to the Armed Nation”, Szálasi gave reasons for his assuming power, for pursuing the war on Hitler’s side until the end, and for re-shaping Hungary in the Arrow Cross spirit.
This “Second Supreme Command to the Armed Nation” declared that (1) the Germans were using Hungarians as cannon fodder in the war; (2) Germany betrayed the alliance with Hungary; (3) an honourable peace will be worked out with the Russians, British and Americans; and (4) the armed forces including the Arrow Cross Party Brigades will offer free passing to the Russian Army in forcing out the German Army. This bogus manifesto carefully imitated the jargon of Szálasi and copied phrases from his genuine manifesto of a few weeks earlier. The printing was to imitate fully the physical appearance of the original. Therefore, the work was to be done at the Pester Lloyd Printing Company, the producer of the original manifesto. The special written order to assure access to the printing press was forged in the name of the Deputy Minister of Justice with a forged endorsement by the Propaganda Minister.
Sadly the project had to be aborted one day before operation because of security considerations. It was to be re-scheduled, but there was no second chance for this mission or others in progress because of twelve arrests in mid-December including my own and that of Sándor Kiss, István B. Rácz and Lajos Imre.
To be continued.
* As told to Linda Horváth.
Note: My summary of Hungarian history from 1939 through the Second World War was gleaned from my personal recollections, my conversations with Domokos Szent-Iványi, head of the Hungarian Independence Movement, and from books of Hungarian history, significantly The Will to Survive, A History of Hungary by Bryan Cartledge, first published in the UK in 2006 by Timewell Press Limited.