“Stir up the embers of ire, / the flames of hatred! / The accusation falls on assassin “doctors” / who sowed cruel death – / let them reap the hatred of the people, / let them be swallowed by a bottomless depth / – those who would tear out Zhdanov’s / faithful heart a thousand times…” – wrote poet Lajos Kónya in early-1953 in his poem reflecting on political events of the time.
The Hungarian general public first heard of Stalin’s last great reprisal on14 January 1953. Pravda published an editorial – allegedly drafted by the Soviet dictator himself – on doctors “on the payroll of imperialists” and in the service of Joint, a “Jewish bourgeois nationalist organisation”. The piece was used in its entirety by Szabad Nép – the daily newspaper of the ruling Communist party of Hungary, the Hungarian Working People’s Party. The “white-smocked assassins” – as they were called in the Soviet communiqué – supposedly murdered via mistreatment for instance Colonel General Shcherbakov, as well as Zhdanov, mentioned in Kónya’s poem.
The editorial of Szabad Nép the following day insisted not only, as usual, that “the instigators of the bestial murderers are in Washington”, but also that “serious conclusions are to be drawn by popular democratic countries including ours… that Joint’s activities are much more widespread in Hungary than in the Soviet Union”.
THE ZIONIST THREAT
The origins of the anti-Zionist campaign connected to Joint, a Jewish relief organisation, and the preparation of a large-scale anti-Semitic trial go back to 1948, and the launching of the fight against cosmopolitanism. The campaign in the Soviet Union then targeted “homeless cosmopolitans” of Jewish origin, primarily in the spheres of literature, music and theatre. (Ironically, a portrait of the 19th century German composer, Félix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, who converted to Christianity, was also removed from the Moscow Conservatory.)
Hungary too launched its own anti-Zionist campaign in 1949, ironically lead by a cadre formerly attached to the Zionist movement, István Szirmai.
In the meantime, the Jewish Anti-fascist Committee, which consisted of Soviet Jewish citizens and which, according to Stalin, served only propagandistic purposes during the Second World War, was dissolved in 1948 in Moscow. One of its representatives, the actor Solomon Mikhoels, was murdered in what was made to look like a “traffic accident”. All the other leaders without exception were arrested within a year. Their show trial was held in 1952; thirteen of the defendants were sentenced to death, among them Solomon Lozovsky, the former deputy to Foreign Minister Molotov.
The fight against cosmopolitanism was given further impetus by the Slánský trial, orchestrated in Moscow and conducted in Prague in autumn 1952. Rudolf Slánský, the General Secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party until his removal a year before, played an important role in the terror unfolding after 1948. Slánský tried to commit suicide in his prison cell twice, first by hanging himself, then by banging his head against a heater but was saved both times only to be executed “properly” by hanging.
JEWISH DOCTORS AND DEPORTATION
When in January 1953, the communiqués and incendiary editorials were published in the Soviet Union about the white-smocked terrorists on the payroll of Joint, many people, mostly Jewish doctors, had already been arrested. Yakov Rapoport, a Soviet doctor, was told by his interrogators right away that “you were arrested as a Jewish bourgeois nationalist and an enemy of the Soviet people. Tell us about the crimes you committed”. Even if they only referred to it indirectly, the fabricators of the case left no doubt as to the fact that several functionaries from the highest circles had also been implicated in the “Jewish Doctors’ Plot”. In its first wave, 37 people were arrested, among them Jewish doctors working in the Kremlin. A letter of protest, written allegedly by renowned Jewish intellectuals, was drafted in advance. Finally it was discarded because it did not fit into the unfolding narrative of anti-Semitic propaganda. Doctor Lydia Timashuk who, according to the propaganda, “unmasked” the plotters, was awarded the Lenin medal (but it was revoked shortly after Stalin’s death).
News about the “heinous crimes” of terrorist Jewish doctors and the exposure of an American spy nest shocked senior members of the party leadership. They were right in assuming that the Generalissimo wanted to remove them from power. At the 19th Party Congress held in autumn 1952 after a long break, many new men ascended to leadership who depended solely on the “Master”. During the unfolding anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic campaign in February 1953, the future Prime Minister and always stylish Bulganin was so desperate to prove his innocence that he offered his help to Stalin in an eventual deportation of Soviet Jews to Siberia. (Even though he, unlike most of the Soviet leading elite – as the historian Miklós Kun points out – was not even an anti-Semite.)
It still has not been proved whether they ever actually wanted to deport Jews to Far-Eastern labour camps at the beginning of 1953. The son of Kremlin doctor Yakov Etinger – who was also implicated in the Zionist affair – recalls that from 1952 on, barracks were allegedly being built in the “Far-Eastern Jewish Autonomous Oblast of Birobidzhan”, to accommodate deported Jews. According to Etinger, deportation would have begun in spring 1953 but it was put on hold due to Stalin’s death.
ZIONIST PLOTTERS IN HUNGARY
Based then on the Soviet formula, Hungarian party leader Mátyás Rákosi gave orders to Gábor Péter, commander of the Hungarian secret police (State Protection Authority, or ÁVH) to prepare a series of large-scale trials at the end of 1952. The doctors’ trial would have been accompanied by a Zionist spy trial. The previously mentioned Slánský affair in Czechoslovakia presented itself as a suitable model. The Czechoslovak secret police “confirmed” that Rudolf Slánský met with Ben Gurion on a secret conference where they agreed to establish an imperialist spy centre in Israel on US orders. In Hungary, they were looking for characters for a similar show trial.
In the meantime, the General Secretary changed his mind about the persons to be tried. Gábor Péter, who originally prepared the trial, suddenly found himself as a defendant. The ÁVH leader was arrested on 3 January 1953 in Rákosi’s villa on Lóránt Street. Péter arrived shortly before from Szuhakálló, the site of a mine disaster where he personally tried to identify the “plotters” and “diversionists”. (Even in the case of accidents, a culprit had to be found. According to the official Stalin doctrine, when the class struggle sharpens, members of the previous elite try to sabotage the socialist-communist regime more and more desperately. The permanent, almost war-like propaganda tried to prove the same – just as with the arrests, the military procedures and the executions for simply “sabotaging public supply”. As a result, there was hardly any family which remained untouched by the repression.)
The concept underwent several changes and the list of “cosmopolitan Zionist plotters” slowly took shape. After Gábor Péter, his former and current Jewish colleagues were soon arrested, among others the Minister of Justice Gyula Décsi, law-enforcement colonel Gyula Princz from the Ministry of the Interior and Tibor Vajda, Head of the Investigation Department. (Tibor Vajda fled to the West during the 1956 revolution as a “freedom fighter” and settled in Australia. He worked there as a dentist, although he never attended medical school. One of his victims recognised him and he was consequently prosecuted. In the 1990s an employee at the Ministry of the Interior – and an ex-member of the ÁVH – wrote to the Australian authorities in Vajda’s defence that “at the Investigation Department of the ÁVH it was not allowed to use torture or violence against suspects during the period in question, i.e. between 1950–52 . Head of department Tibor Vajda explicitly banned it.” This was obviously a lie.)
István Szirmai, President of the Hungarian Radio, was also arrested at the beginning of 1953. About the same time, György Aczél, a communist functionary and future culture czar, who had been imprisoned since 1949, was separated from his cellmates, supposedly to be later implicated in the trial as a defendant alongside Szirmai. (Both Szirmai and Aczél were Jews and had both participated in the Zionist youth movement before the war. In Aczél’s 1949 trial, Zionism was one of the charges.)
A day after the ominous SzabadNépeditorial was published, László Benedek, the former superintendent of the Jewish hospital and a leader of the Hungarian branch of Joint, and last but not least, a fervent communist, was arrested by the ÁVH along with a number of other Jewish doctors including the renowned professor István Székács, whose brother was in fact previously a member of the British intelligence under the code name Francis Shelton, although the two brothers were not in contact. One of the main protagonists of the Zionist spy trial would most likely have been a relative of Doctor Benedek, the party functionary and economist Zoltán Vas. He escaped arrest but was quickly removed from the party leadership and demoted to head of the Mining Trust in Komló.
WALLENBERG’S RESCUE ACTIONS
Raoul Wallenberg caught the attention of the secret police relatively early. Wallenberg, who as a Swedish diplomat saved many Jews in Hungary during 1944–45, was arrested by the Soviet Smersh (“Death to Spies”) shortly after the Soviet occupation of Budapest, it is believed on 19 January 1945. The reasons for his disappearance remain a cause for speculation: was he to be an American spy, or was his kidnapping linked to his knowledge of the Katyn massacre by the Soviets in 1940, and to the fact that he secured some of the documents relating to it? (The equally mysterious disappearance of Zoltán Mikó early 1945, a staff captain who worked with Wallenberg, is also important. It was captain Mikó who, at Wallenberg’s request, got hold of the Katyn documents. The Soviets wanted to destroy every witness and piece of evidence pertaining to the tragedy. Based on false evidence, Mikó was sentenced to death in Odessa by the Soviet army court in summer 1945 and was executed.)
In 1953, nothing precise could be known about the whereabouts of Wallenberg, and especially not in Hungary. The Soviet government announced a few years later that the late Swedish diplomat died in his Moscow prison cell in 1947 as a result of a heart attack. In response to the report of his death at the time, Deputy Minister of State Security Abakumov gave the following order to prison doctor Colonel Smoltsov: “Cremate the body without an autopsy.” (However, something must have transpired even in Hungary: in 1949, presumably at the behest of the Soviets, the Wallenberg memorial – the work of sculptor Pál Pátzay – was hastily removed only a few days after it was erected.)
Raoul Wallenberg – who was sent to Hungary in July 1944 with American support partly to rescue people –, as well as Swedish journalist Valdemar Langlet, Swiss Consul Carl Lutz, and Italian businessman Giorgio Perlasca (who posed as Jorge Perlasca, the Spanish consul-general to Hungary) – just to mention a few important foreigners – saved the lives of tens of thousands of persecuted Jews, helped by their Hungarian assistants.
The first secretary of the Swedish embassy was in touch with leaders of the so-called Jewish Council – which was established after the German occupation on the Germans’ order – on a daily basis. First with Samu Stern, and after Stern was forced to go into hiding, with Lajos Stöckler and Miksa Domonkos. He also met Pál Szalai, who was the police liaison for the Arrow Cross Party during the Szálasi regime, after the Soviets surrounded Budapest. Szalai had joined the extreme right Arrow Cross youth movement in the 1930s, an act for which he received a prison sentence. He later became disillusioned with the movement under Szálasi’s leadership and left the party. He was reactivated after the German-assisted Arrow Cross coup d’état on 15–16 October 1944. By November, Szalai, who appeared in several newsreels at the time, had been appointed as the party’s police liaison. He was one of the few Arrow Cross Party members who played an active role in rescue actions. Many people owed their lives to the young police liaison: he actively protected the office and the refugees of the Glasshouse on Vadász Street, led by Carl Lutz. It was also due to his courageous intervention that residents of the protected house on Üllői Street 2, among others Stöckler and his family, were brought back by Arrow Cross Party members from the execution site on the bank of the Danube. His most important deed is connected to the ghetto in Pest. After he learned that Arrow Cross leaders who remained in the city under siege were planning a pogrom, he quickly asked help from Wallenberg and Gerhard Schmidhuber SS supreme commander to prevent the burning down of the area and the massacre of the residents. The ghetto was saved and reached by Soviet troops shortly after. After the war, Szalai was one of the few acquitted by the People’s Court – partly thanks to the testimonies of Lajos Stöckler and Miksa Domonkos.
It was not long after the ghetto was saved that Raoul Wallenberg was taken prisoner by the Soviet authorities. The Soviet authorities still reassured the Swedish ambassador in Moscow on 16 January 1945 that the first secretary of the Swedish embassy in Budapest was found and “the Soviet military authorities will guarantee the protection of Mr Wallenberg and his belongings”. But there would be no sign of Wallenberg whatsoever after that. Following Sweden’s repeated requests, Soviet Deputy Foreign Minister Andrey Vyshinsky gave the following response: “After a thorough investigation it has been found that Wallenberg is not and has never been to the Soviet Union; his person is unknown to us… Wallenberg died during the Budapest operations or was captured by Szálasi’s henchmen.”
The Swedes did not believe the hollow explanation nor did they accept Wallenberg’s mysterious disappearance. Thanks to further diplomatic communications from Sweden, Vyshinsky, now promoted to Foreign Minister, suggested in March 1952 that “the Ministry of State Security of the Soviet Union should see it expedient to revoke the opinion formulated by comrade Vyshinsky in his personal communication dated 18 August 1947”. The Russians wanted to settle the affair of the former secretary of the Swedish embassy once and for all, and they thought it would come in handy if a show trial would prove that Wallenberg had been murdered in 1945.
The ÁVH probably cast former police liaison Pál Szalai in a key role in the trial dealing with Wallenberg’s death. For instance, Szalai could have attested that the Swedish diplomat had been the Hungarian resident of an international imperialist spy organisation already at the time. (Another candidate for this “post” besides Wallenberg would have been Israel Gaynor Jacobson, former director of Joint in Hungary.) He could have attested to the murder of Wallenberg too, or could have been an accomplice as well along with his Arrow Cross associates.
Stalin’s death on 5 March 1953 fundamentally changed the situation. Preparations of the anti-Zionist trial were aborted almost immediately in the Soviet Union. Some of the persons arrested were released saying that they had been victims of anti-party provocation.
The Zionist conspiracy was pigeon-holed in Hungary too. Gábor Péter was now accused of human smuggling, illegal issuing of passports and corruption, only to become six months later – following Beria’s arrest in Moscow – the person most responsible for all unlawful actions, who deceived party leaders, tortured people and was accountable for countless deaths. The “case” of the Wallenberg murder now completely overshadowed the anti-Semite spy trial. According to the new concept, Wallenberg was killed in January 1945 not by the Arrow Cross, but by Jewish leaders. In the first version he was killed because he saved “too few” lives. This hollow story was soon thrown out at the ÁVH, to be replaced by the simple charge of murder and robbery. The “murderers” would have been former Zionist leaders who were originally defendants in the anti-Zionist trial: Miksa Domonkos, Lajos Stöckler and perhaps Dr László Benedek. Now Pál Szalai was forced to confess not that he participated in murdering Wallenberg, but that he had seen Wallenberg’s body in January 1945 in the vault of the American Embassy on Liberty Square, then used by the Swedes. According to the testimony Miksa Domonkos, a member of the Jewish council was standing beside the body with a smoking gun in his hand, while Lajos Stöckler, who also worked in the Jewish council and later became president of the Jewish community in Budapest, stood on the other side. According to the new charges, Domonkos and Stöckler wanted to rob Wallenberg who was hiding huge amounts of Jewish wealth. The case was built on visceral anti-Semitism, using the cliché of the vicious, greedy Jew ready to kill even his benefactor for money. Szalai’s former deputy at the police, Károly Szabó was also captured on the street as a possible witness. Szalai bravely resisted for a long time, Károly Szabó broke more easily – at least this is what the latter told Mária Ember in an interview published in Magyar Nemzet in the 1990s. But the prisoners eventually all gave up resistance under torture – which, apart from beating, consisted mainly of electric shock to the brain.
“Detective Szeiffert’s method of investigation was mainly smacking. When he forced me to admit that I was an accomplice in Raoul Wallenberg’s murder, I could count eighty-four smacks until I lost consciousness” – said Dr Benedek in his testimony prepared for his rehabilitation trial in 1956. There were other charges apart from Wallenberg’s murder. According to a draft investigation report dating from the end of May 1953, Stöckler and his accomplices were also guilty of “delivering the poor Jewish population to the hands of the Germans and the Arrow Cross after their election to the Jewish council. When the ghetto was created, they practised favouritism. They packed all the poor Jews in a small place of inhuman circumstances, while rich Jews were given comfortable accommodation. They set up a web of informants after the ghetto was established. Informants reported those who opposed the anti-people activity of the Jewish Council [sic]. Those Jews who were reported were delivered to the Germans for forced labour, and many of them perished. They also delivered women to Arrow Cross men who then raped them. They carried out orders beyond measure, to the detriment of poor Jews”.
Due to Rákosi’s loss of importance and the strengthening of Imre Nagy’s power, the political climate loosened and the trial was eventually cancelled. Stöckler and Benedek were convicted of minor infringements. The first man to be released was the completely broken Miksa Domonkos in the autumn of 1953. He was aggressively pulled from the prison hospital and placed in St Stephen’s Hospital, where his relatives could visit him. His son, István Domonkos recalls that “we went to the hospital with my sister only to find our father in a terrible state. He used to be a strongly-built, athletic man weighing 220–240 pounds; now there was a wizened, crippled figure lying in the bed in a poor condition, almost beside himself due to the torturing. […] We brought him home but we had neither the time, nor the energy to ask him about what had happened. In his present state we did not even want to try. After a few weeks he got a heart-attack and died. His death was clearly the result of the physical and mental torture he underwent in prison”.
The thirty-nine year old Pál Szalai was freed in February 1954, grown old, with his hair turned white. At least that was how his former deputy, Károly Szabó recalled his old friend when he saw him by accident in the New York Café and tried to avoid him. Szabó himself sustained severe and permanent injuries during his imprisonment and died young in the 1960s. Szalai fled the country in December 1956 and settled in South America under the adopted name Paul Sterling, to avoid being recognised by his ex-Arrow Cross comrades. (But a book entitled Hungarian Martyrs, published by emigrant Arrow Cross in the 1960s still commemorated him as a national-socialist hero who protected the ghetto and lawfulness against extremists.) He visited Hungary again after the democratic changes, but was denied proper justice for his deeds back then, as he was deemed a member of an extremist organisation. After his death in 1994 he was honoured as Righteous among the Nations.
László Benedek, who was released in spring 1954 died in Sweden in the 1970s. Lajos Stöckler was freed in 1956 but died a few years later in Australia, suffering from mental health problems caused by his torture by the ÁVH.
The communists who had been arrested in the affair were also released from prison: the former president of the Hungarian Radio and first cultural head of the Kádár regime before György Aczél, István Szirmai, got out in 1954. Zoltán Vas was soon called back from Komló to the capital: he joined the politics of the new era, and became head of Prime Minister Imre Nagy’s Information Office. Gábor Péter was sentenced twice: once in 1954 and again in 1957. After his release in
1959 he worked as a librarian. And finally, a few words about the arrested ÁVH officers: Gyula Décsi retired as a lexicographer of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Gyula Princz did not get party support after his release and worked as a bartender in a restaurant.
As for Raoul Wallenberg, even today, nothing certain is known about his fate, despite the fact that the Soviet leadership admitted at the end of the 1950s that he died in a Moscow prison in 1947. But even after his alleged death, he was still said to have been spotted by prisoners in different Soviet prisons in the 1950s and 1960s.
The poet Lajos Kónya cited above turned away from political poetry after the 1956 revolution; he died relatively young, at the age of fifty-seven in Budapest.
Translation by Orsolya Németh