We Hungarian Jews had good reasons to fear the worst after the constitution of the Sztojay government. We realized that the German occupation would furnish it the excuse to vent the anti-Jewish feelings long prevalent among landed proprietors, frustrated intellectuals, mediocrities of all sorts. In fact, anti-semitism as governmental policy originated in Europe in Hungary. Already in the 1880's there arose in the Hungarian parliament a party, the only program of which was the propagation of hatred against the Jews. Its prophet was a certain Gyula Verhovay, a worthy predecessor of Hitler. He founded newspapers, clubs and fraternities, sent out speakers to the four corners of the country spreading the doctrine that the Jews were an alien body in the nation, with ideals pernicious to the moral health of the Hungarians. Verhovay's influence was widespread among the people and did not cease even after the death of the leader and the dissolution of his party.
After the First World War a new anti-Semitic movement, called the "Awakening Hungarians," was formed from among disgruntled elements of the lower-middle-classes, from non commissioned officers, suddenly discharged and jobless, from small clerks with a sprinkling of a few officers. This movement was later taken over by politicians close to Nicholas Horthy, the future Regent of Hungary.
World War I saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the proclamation of the Hungarian Republic under Count Michael Karolyi in 1918. The President of the Republic was a well-meaning, liberal, but weak politician, incapable of bearing the pressure of the times. With the dissolution of the fronts, the disorderly retreat of the armies, and especially as a result of the occupation of Hungarian territories by Rumanian, Czech and Yugoslav troops, he threw in the sponge and handed over the reins of government to the Communists. Among these the strong man was Bela Kun, Moscow-trained, a personal friend of Lenins. He was Jewish and so were two or three other members of his regime. This fact was sufficient for many to equate Communism with the Jews and to declare that the Jews were out to rule the world and that they were the enemies of mankind. Hungary subsequently introduced several anti-Jewish laws of increasing severity. Only 6% of Jewish students were to be admitted to Hungarian universities; those admitted had to sit in the last benches of classrooms, called "benches of shame." They were often beaten up by their fellow students without any protection on the part of the University authorities.
In fact, under Regent Horthy, Hungary became the forerunner of Jewish persecution as a means of political propaganda, and as a governmental policy. To a degree the racist policy adopted by Horthy and his successive governments contributed to a new era of political backwardness in Europe, a policy that had been banned from the continent since the end of the 19th century.
The Sztojay government, composed of men devoted body and soul to Hitler, considered its first and foremost task to issue a number of anti-Jewish ordinances. They followed other in rapid succession, like bullets shot from a machine gun. It became obvious to any observer that the plan of gradual annihilation of the Hungarian Jews had been drawn up prior to the occupation and was handed down to straw men put into position by the occupiers.
The edicts of the new government were posted on the walls of our city. Everywhere crowds gathered to read them. Some of them commented on them, mostly in shocked and disapproving terms. There were however, people who showed a certain malicious joy upon reading what amounted to the virtual enslavement of their Jewish fellow citizens.
The principal of these measures were:
The Minister of the Interior of the puppet government headed by Sztojay was Andor Jaross, a man of limitless ambition though lacking any distinguishing qualifications. He saw his opportunity in complete devotion to the ideas of National-Socialism. To please the Germans, he appointed two rabid anti-Semites László Endre and László Baky as Undersecretaries for Jewish Affairs with complete independence as to measures and decisions concerning their department. László Endre especially obtained unlimited power to decide the lives or death of Jews. His chief characteristics were hatred, stemming from a pronounced inferiority complex, and a complete lack of restraint. Prior to his appointment under Sztojay, he had been a judge and governor of a province. In this latter capacity he had issued special anti-Jewish ordinances considered extreme even by his own employees. His family itself regarded him as a psychopath who had never been able to control his passions and had always disregarded the laws of his country. The other undersecretary for Jewish affairs, László Baky, was a retired general of the gendarmery and a deputy of the Arrow-Crossist (anti-Jewish-pro-Nazi) party. Anti-semitism was a tradition in his family. Indeed, Laszlo Baky was the grandson of a judge who in 1882 played an infamous role in the ritual murder trial of Tisza Eszlar. (That used to be called the Hungarian Dreyfus affair which had, at the time, its repercussion throughout the entire continent.) The older Baky did everything in his power to prove that a young girl, by the name of Esther Solymossi, had been murdered by the Jews in order to mix her blood into the unleavened bread eaten by them at the Jewish Passover. His efforts failed thanks to the efforts of an enlightened lawyer who proved the insanity of the charges, but the trial poisoned the moral atmosphere of the country and it took several decades before the waves of distrust and hatred subsided somewhat in the Hungarian society.
Immediately upon entering his office, Endre held a series of interviews with members of the pro-Nazi press. These interviews all revolved around the Jewish question. The journalists vied with each other to show their sympathy for Endre and to justify the measures implemented against the Jews. Endre and Baky could act with complete immunity because the other members of the cabinet were all equally anxious to obtain the good graces of the occupants.
The press and the radio echoed the most insane, most vicious charges brought against the Jews. Anything anti-Jewish that could be found in world literature was praised as the works of geniuses. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," adopted by Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's racial philosopher, was dished up for intellectual food to the people. Every day forged articles attributed to British or American newspapers were published to vilify the Jewish people and the Jewish race. Whenever the newspapers singled out one Hungarian Jewish individual, proffering trumped-up charges against him, the individual in question was arrested within the hour after the publication of the newspaper.
Prior to the concentration of the Jews in the ghetto, the former Chief of Police Pop called me.
"All the Jews will be deported shortly! A ghetto has already been established in Kassa," Mr. Pop reported.
He had learned that twelve thousand Jews were massed in the latter city in a brickyard. It was the gendarmery, the rural police, rather than the police of the towns, who were assigned by Endre to carry out the concentration of the Jews in the provinces. Endre obviously knew his men, knew whom to trust to carry out any measures, even the most inhuman ones.
I transmitted this terrifying report through clandestine channels to some key members of our congregation, for we were at that time completely isolated from each other. I advised them to do whatever they could to put their families, their possessions and themselves in safety. Safety was, by that time, an impossibility, for the borders had been sealed off on Endre's orders. Twenty-four hours after Kassa, it was the turn of our own city. The Jews of Kolozsvar were given one hour to get ready to be taken to their place of concentration. Young and old, women and children, all
I can't ever forget those days. The sky seemed to have collapsed over our heads. The confusion and despair reigning among the intended deportees was extreme. Grabbing at random some of their belongings, dazed, not understanding, people aligned themselves on the streets, immediately flanked by the gendarmes, armed to the teeth, formidable looking, merciless, threatening devils. They hurried their victims, drove them on, often forbidding them to take some food and something to cover their bodies with. Off the long line of the wretched went, marching toward a brickyard in the outskirts of the city, marching toward their destiny.
For some reason that I cannot explain the gendarmes, who dragged out most of our coreligionists, ordered us along with a few other families, to stay. "We will come back for you!" one of the gendarmes added, looking us over. I said to myself that perhaps these devils had received instructions to spare us and a handful of other people temporarily. At any rate, the delay had to be only a temporary one. We had no illusions. Our turn would come soon.
Before entering their place of concentration, the Jews were ordered to deposit any money or valuables they might have brought with them, for they would be searched upon entering. Woe to those on whose bodies the guards found anything that could be regarded as valuable. They were beaten to insensibility. The approach to the ghetto was off-limits for the rest of the population so that no food nor anything else could be smuggled in to alleviate the plight of the unfortunates inside.
As the footsteps of the gendarmes were no longer heard, and the crowd of the victims had departed, a terrible silence settled on the streets and upon our souls also. We were no longer afraid of anything; we were beyond fear and despair. We had faced worse than death; the degradation of man.
"What shall we do?" we asked.
"We can still cross the border. Mr. Pop would surely help us, in spite of the strict surveillance," I opined.
"We have no right to save ourselves," my father objected. "If we escape and abandon our people, what will our lives be worth? How would we face ourselves? What kind of leaders do we pretend to be?"
My mother spoke up, "Don't you think that, just because you are leaders of the Jewish people, you have an obligation to save yourselves?''
My wife and my sister seemed to concur in this latter view, but my father remained adamant. "We must share the suffering of our people," he said, "just as we shared their joys. We shall stay, whatever will happen to us."
I looked at my father as he was thus speaking. An emotion that I cannot describe made my heart beat faster, and at the same time sent a chill down my spine. Never had he appeared to me more venerable than at that moment. It seemed to me that God himself had spoken through his words, for there was something infinitely lofty in them. Yet, such is human nature! A voice in me, the voice of selfpreservation, protested that to obey him would mean to be irrevocably doomed, and that we all, everyone of us, would perish in the holocaust that was engulfing our coreligionists. Real heroism in the lives of the humans does not necessarily manifest itself in noisy, public actions. It can and very often it does occur in silent moments, lived in private seclusion. I knew that I would accept my father's verdict, and that I would obey him even though every fiber in me protested against it. He was the hero and I felt ashamed before him. At the same time, deep down there was also joy in me-the joy of being my father's son. The word "covenant" upon which I had meditated in former years, all at once stood out with a new meaning and a new splendor in my mind's eye. The word meant bowing to God's will, accepting it, attempting to rise toward Him through suffering, humiliation, death, whatever fate might have in store for me. I recalled the novels and stories of Dostoevski, my favorite reading outside of the Talmud, and wondered how real, how true the situation and dilemmas of his heroes had become before me through my own situation and my own dilemma.
There was a silence among us. The women looked dejected, dismayed. My wife undoubtedly thought of our little boy; would his young life end abruptly in some horror camp? My mother ventured to say, "If we stay, if we all perish, who would carry on after the storm has passed?"
It occurred to me that perhaps there was some sort of solution.
"I will present myself to do service in a labor camp. There, my life might be safe whatever I may have to bear otherwise. Our lineage will then be preserved, and I may do something for our people, for those who will survive."
Such a solution, in my own eyes, was one of practical and moral compromise. It satisfied the vital instinct in me by the prospect of probable survival. It also appeased my conscience, or so it seemed to me, by telling myself that my survival was in the interest of the Jewish people and of all people, all my brethren to whom I had dedicated my life. All the above flashed through my mind at that moment. Things were not quite clear to me, but such was the essence of my feelings and my thoughts as I am now trying to analyze them.
My resolution to separate from my family and volunteer for labor service was still further justified in my own eyes, because I was fully aware that it would entail tremendous suffering on my part. I am not speaking only of the moral suffering of leaving with the knowledge that my beloved were in the immediate danger of being taken away to face an unknown destination, possibly death, but also of the physical suffering that the notion of labor service then represented to me. Indeed the words "labor service" were a euphemism that concealed the most cruel treatment of those who were subject to it, my fellow Jews. The prevailing principle among the anti-Semitic leaders of Hungary was that one could not trust the Jews with weapons. They should, therefore, not be enrolled in regular Army units, but constrained to serve the military effort of the country just the same by doing all the hard work connected with army operations. Under this principle, the Jewish youth enrolled in labor camps were regarded and treated as slaves without any rights, at the mercy of sergeants and officers who commanded them. Many of the latter were psychologically conditioned to look upon human material placed into their power as inferior creatures, harmful to the welfare of mankind, and as criminal elements to be watched and punished, or they were sadists, seizing the opportunity to satisfy their morbid craving for inflicting suffering. In the past few years, we had received lamentable reports to the effect that the inmates of labor camps had been savagely beaten, forced to dig ditches, starved, abused in every way. One report said that in one camp they had been ordered to climb on trees and jump from one tree to another like monkeys, forbidden to utter articulate sounds, and that those who, exhausted, fell from the trees, were beaten with the butts of rifles and finally shot. There were even more horrible reports which one blushes to reproduce.
All this information was known to me, and present in my mind at the moment when I suggested that I would volunteer for labor service. This knowledge gave weight and importance to my proposal. Deep down, in the farthest corner of my subconscious, there was a willingness to offer my expected suffering to God. The Almighty would examine my heart and watch over me. He would not abandon us, his servants, in the hour of our greatest need.
My suggestion was at first received with loud protests. "Don't go, don't leave us alone!" my wife exclaimed. "Whatever will happen to us, it should happen to all of us together!"
My mother concurred. "Think of your wife. Think of your little child. Who will protect them if you are not with us?"
I felt depressed, miserable. What could I use to oppose such words?
Again, my father spoke up last.
"Yuda is right," he said. "He can do more for you, for us, by joining the labor service than by waiting here to be deported. Also, he will most likely preserve himself that way. His being there may even protect us in some way. After all, the labor service is under military command; the authorities may consider that he is fulfilling his duty toward the country and spare us from whatever the Germans decide against the Jews."
His reasoning at that time might appear tenuous on the surface in retrospect, but we were in a desperate situation and had very little choice. We had no illusions as to the fate we could expect. And again in retrospect, beyond the narrow limits of commonsense reasoning, my father's wisdom once more proved to be right. My separation from my family would save them and would save me. At the crossroads of our destinies, I had to choose the road that temporarily led me away from them. I had to go my separate way in order to retrieve them later on.
I tried to be strong at the moment when I said "Good bye" to my wife, when I kissed my baby, when I embraced my mother, my father, my younger sister. My strength was the only thing I could give them at the moment of our separation. I caressed my crying wife, and I wiped the tears from my mother's face. I made a great effort not to falter myself.
"We have been the spokesmen of our people before God," I said. "We have been leaders of men. Shall we not show them an example of courage now?"
The women cried. They did not answer. My father said simply, "Leave us, my son; God be with you!" He put his two hands on my head and blessed me.
I left the house of my parents immediately, and hurried to present myself to the military authorities. It was extremely urgent for me to do so, for the return of the gendarmes could be expected momentarily.
In the barracks I pointed out that, as a rabbi, I had been deferred from labor camp, but that I wished to fulfill this obligation. I knew that the officer who looked over my papers was aware of the reason for my action. If he was pro-Nazi, he would not accept me and would hand me over to the gendarmes for deportation. I also knew that the army was not in complete agreement with the higher-ups in the government; it resented being commanded by a foreign, occupying power.
The officer signed my enrollment, and I was in the hands of the military where the gendarmes could not touch me.
"Which one is better," I wondered, "which kind of slavery?"
There we were, my family expecting to be taken to the ghetto, and I myself in the barracks.
"We are back in Egypt, under the Pharaohs," I thought. "Will God lead us out into freedom, as he had done once before with our people?"
I wanted to answer this question in the affirmative, to give myself hope and confidence. I was determined to remain alive.