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Artful Dodger

The routine of our daily life soon began to take shape. At seven each morning we crossed the Danube [in Budapest] to visit the swimming pool at the Rudas Baths. Coming home from our exercise, we tackled breakfast with a good appetite.

I could find no better solution [to our housing problem] than the Hotel Rudas itself. Like the baths, this modern hotel was the property of the city. In front of it was a little park resplendent with all manner of flowers…. The room was comfortable, and the price was reasonable.

If these quotations read like excerpts from the diary of a hedonistic bourgeois Hungarian, this is because their author, Tivadar Soros, was one. To be precise, he was a successful Budapest lawyer. What makes these quotations provocative, however, is that Soros was a Jew and that he wrote these words during the ten months in 1944 when the Germans were occupying his country and Adolf Eichmann’s SS and the Hungarian government were sending nearly half a million Jews to Auschwitz. Even those who had been left behind, namely the Jewish labor service men under Hungarian military command and the Jews of the Hungarian capital, were under daily threat of extermination. In fact, late in 1944, when Soros and some of the Jews he protected attended the Opera and the National Theater on a season ticket, most Budapest Jews languished in ghettos while fascist Arrow Cross hoodlums dragged hundreds of them to the shores of the Danube to be shot and thrown into the river.

The difference between the life of Tivadar Soros and that of most other Hungarian Jews is that he stubbornly found ways to remain free. This was made possible by his courage, his training as a lawyer, his skillful use of forged documents, and the nearly boundless good will and help of non-Jews. Soros also claims that, fortunately for them, no one in his family looked Jewish. Family photographs in the book do not bear this out; in any case, in Hungary, as well as elsewhere in Eastern and Central Europe, both Jews and non-Jews had an extraordinary ability to sense who was a Jew.

Beyond saving his own life, Tivadar Soros arranged for a generally pleasant and safe existence for his family, some relatives, and many Jewish friends. That he could do so was remarkable, but in wartime Hungary not all that rare. Thousands of other Jews in Budapest lived through the anti-Semitic terror in more or less the same way. But Tivadar was the father of Paul Soros and George Soros, the first a successful entrepreneur and mechanical engineer, and the second a financial genius and an immensely generous international philanthropist. The two boys idolized their father and imitated him in many ways, especially his ferocious independence, self-reliance, and skepticism of authority, though not his somewhat lazy, happy-go-lucky style of life. He was often to be found in one of Budapest’s ornate swimming pools or chatting at a café. For the boys, the events described by Tivadar were a great adventure; as George Soros puts it, in his preface to the book: “It is a sacrilegious thing to say, but these ten months were the happiest times of my life.”

Tivadar Soros finished his memoirs in 1965, when he was living in the United States. He learned Esperanto as well as Russian while a Russian prisoner of war during World War I. He wrote this and other works in that artificial international language, and it is only recently that the Esperanto text has been ably translated into English by Humphrey Tonkin, who also provided extensive notes and corrected many, but not all, of the author’s numerous mistakes. Indeed, those looking in Soros’s book for an accurate history of the Holocaust in Hungary will be disappointed; Soros could not have known what we learned later; nor does he seem to have done any additional research. What he wrote was a spirited, often charming and humorous description of the surreal life of Jews in hiding and, in general, of the wildly contradictory Hungarian scene between 1919 and 1945, when the government was outspokenly, sometimes murderously, anti-Semitic, but when, nevertheless, many Hungarian Jews lived very well indeed.1

One can distinguish four phases in the modern history of Hungarian Jewry down to the end of World War II. The first lasted roughly from the 1830s to 1918, when Jews were gradually emancipated and encouraged to help create a modern economy. Under the leadership of the nobility and a partly plebeian bureaucracy, Hungary became a liberal, largely secular, and expansive state in which assimilationist Jews were phenomenally successful in banking, business, industry, journalism, the educated professions, culture, and the arts. Shortly before World War I, Jews and converted Jews began to become important even in politics, at the universities, and in the judiciary.

This created a good deal of resentment, however, especially among members of the new Christian middle class. Their bitterness coincided with the late- nineteenth-century crisis of European liberalism, the rise of mass political parties, and the counterattack of the churches against Jewish emancipation, modern secular ideas, and anti-clericalism. Even so, the high point of Jewish integration into Central European society was reached during World War I when 25,000 Jewish commissioned officers, including some generals, served in the Austro-Hungarian armed forces.

Military defeat in the fall of 1918 and the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy brought about a tragedy for the Jews. They lost the protection of the Habsburg dynasty and now had to live in states that were highly nationalistic with only limited constitutional protection. In March 1919 the future of Hungarian Jews was endangered when a group of young, radical, and predominantly Jewish intellectuals seized power and set up a Soviet republic. Their naive and often ruthless social and political experiment lasted only a few months, but the counterrevolutionary regime that came to power made the Jews collectively responsible for the lost war, the humiliating ex-perience of Communist rule, the truncation of Hungary, and the country’s liberal, parliamentary past. There were many Communist and Jewish victims of counterrevolutionary terror.

In Hungary, no political trend ever lasts very long, and an unwritten understanding emerged within a few years between well-to-do Jewish businessmen on the one hand and the government on the other. This time, however, there could be no illusions of liberal progress. Then came the Great Depression, and in order to extricate the country from its near economic collapse as well as to recover some of Hungary’s lost provinces, the government moved closer to Nazi Germany. The price, not too reluctantly paid, was a series of anti-Jewish measures, which were aimed at reducing the Jewish presence in business, the professions, and culture.

Hungary entered the Nazi military campaign against the Soviet Union in 1941, but within two years its government was trying to withdraw from the war. Meanwhile, out of concern for the Jews and in order to win the good will of the Allies, Regent Miklós Horthy and his government refused insistent German demands that Jews be deported. True, some groups of Jews had been brutalized and killed earlier, but early in 1944, most Hungarian Jews, making up 6 percent of the population, were still alive. They still owned most of the country’s industry and banking system and were a major presence in some of the most lucrative professions as well as on the intellectual and cultural scene.

Hungary’s secret contacts with the West and the “unresolved Jewish question” caused the German army to march into Hungary in March 1944. The goal was to mobilize the population for war and to deport and exterminate the 825,000 persons whom the anti-Jewish laws labeled as Jews, even though at least 100,000 of them were Christians.

This period is the real starting point of Tivadar Soros’s story. Like so many other memoir writers, he likes to quote himself from memory, as if it were possible after several decades to recall long, impromptu conversations verbatim. In his recollected statements—mostly to his sons—on the world situation, Soros invariably displays foresight that was made possible by hindsight.

Practically anything was believable so long as it offered some hope. Writing twenty years after these events, the author still believes that he actually met, in Budapest, a young Jewish acquaintance who was wearing the “fine new uniform” of a Jewish Sonderkommando, i.e., a member of one of the Jewish groups that worked in the death camps. After being deported to Germany, Soros recounts, the young man had become a courier for the Sonderkommandos and was now back in Hungary for a while. But in fact Jewish Sonderkommandos either had no uniform or wore the baggy striped uniform of prison inmates; and as Soros himself later notes, members of the Sonderkommandos were gassed periodically.

From the very beginning, the main enemy for Tivadar Soros was the Jewish Council, the group of prominent Budapest Jews that had been set up at Eichmann’s orders in March 1944. He writes: “When systematic persecution of Jews began, it was carried out not by the Germans, nor by their Hungarian lackeys, but—most astonishingly—by the Jews themselves.” Throughout his memoirs, Soros castigates the council, which had become a vast bureaucracy that dutifully carried out German and Hungarian orders. According to Soros, it submitted a complete list of Jewish lawyers, including himself, all but a few of whom were called up and interned by the Gestapo with Auschwitz as their ultimate destination.

Soros’s indignation is understandable, but it now seems clear that it was not the Jewish Council but the National Chamber of Lawyers which provided the Gestapo with complete information on its Jewish members. The Gestapo then instructed the council to serve call-up letters to those on the list. When orders to report to the Gestapo came closer to his name on the list, Soros decided to defy the council. He is unsparing of colleagues who did otherwise: “My friends [the lawyers] were going to the slaughterhouse of their own accord. They did not need to be pushed: they took the streetcar.” He recalls that “over six hundred Jewish lawyers… perished through Jewish Council summonses in 1944.”

At first, even young George Soros, then only fourteen, was one of those who handed out the council’s summons, which often amounted to a death warrant. One is reminded of the popular Jewish joke that circulated at that time: “It is very early in the morning, and there is violent knocking on the door of a Jewish family. The husband, terrified, sends his wife to inquire, who soon returns, much relieved: ‘Thank God, it is not the Jewish Council; it is only the Gestapo.’”

The role of the Jewish Councils in Europe is a subject of eternal controversy. In Hungary, where the council was formed very late in the war, it is conceivable that more Jews could have survived if the council had ignored Nazi orders. Inevitably they would have come from among the relatively well-to-do, professional, urban Jews, whose chances of survival were better than others’. Sabotage of the German and Hungarian orders would scarcely have helped the poor, unassimilated, mostly Orthodox Jews of the countryside, who would not have known with whom to hide. Besides, Hungarian Jews were a law-abiding people who could not believe that their country would betray them.

Not Soros, however, who was intuitively suspicious of all official edicts. It helped that, as a real estate lawyer who was in charge of much property in Budapest, he had many Christian friends and was liked by the building managers and superintendents whom he’d dealt with generously in the past and who were able to help him evade the anti-Jewish laws. He was thus able to ignore most of the new restrictive measures. Following the confiscation of all Jewish telephones, radios, real estate, bank accounts, horses, dogs, etc., he still had his office phone, registered under a non-Jew’s name, and was able, among other things, to have a hideaway built for himself and an architect friend, Lajos Kozma, who designed it; this, of course, with the connivance of the building superintendent and many other Christians.

For a while, Tivadar Soros and his family wore the mortifying yellow star on their chests, without being molested or denigrated by anyone, but Soros was also preparing to go “illegal.” He first begged for and later bought real and forged documents. One needed many documents at that time; amazingly, a great many friends and even vague acquaintances were ready to give him their birth and baptismal certificates, military papers, and ration cards. Later, Kozma, the architect, provided the crucial telephone number of a master forger who could turn out practically any document within twenty-four hours, one of the most skilled practitioners in the city. (“The quality of the work is nothing to what it used to be,” he said. “Imagine how it was, back in the old days, when someone wanted, say, the title of royal chamberlain.”) Some forgers did it for profit; others, like the young Zionists and many Hungarian Christians, did so in order to save lives. Soros himself bought and sold papers, some for enormous profit from people who could afford it, others for nothing or only a nominal fee. The going price for a “good” birth certificate was 600 pengös, maybe a thousand dollars at today’s value. But even a crude forgery “certifying” that one belonged to the Order of Heroes, an anti-Communist, counterrevolutionary organization, was better than nothing. Soros bought and sold some of these certificates at a handsome profit.

Jews in hiding benefited from the administrative chaos created by the American air raids and the arrival of large numbers of Hungarian refugees from Transylvania, many of whom appeared without papers. Jen*o Thassy, then a young career officer in the Hungarian army and a savior of Jews, whom Yad Vashem has declared a “Righteous Among Gentiles,” describes in his memoirs the luck of being in the Ministry of Defense when a bomb hit the building:

While the others were working to clean up the place, I sneaked up to the upper regions to see what happened. Nothing much. A few windows were broken…. A cigarette was burning in the ashtray on the adjutant’s desk. With one jump I landed at his filing cabinet, and removed a handful of furlough forms. I listened. No noise from the corridor. I stamped the forms with the round rubber stamp lying on the desk. All of them turned out to be nice and round, except for the last form, where it had slightly slipped. By the time the adjutant returned, I was standing innocently at the window, the valuable loot concealed in the attaché case.2

Because Tivadar hardly ever provides dates, it is unclear at just what point the Soroses went underground. Tivadar having decided it was safer if the family split up, he arranged with amazing ease for them to live in various Christian homes and hotels, and continued many of his routine activities. The people involved must have known who their guests and new neighbors really were; after all, the entire family had worn the yellow star for quite a while, and now they appeared with completely new identities. Christian looks were less important than self-assured behavior, and clearly, Soros and his two sons were not lacking in self-assurance. But his wife was terrified and went around “like someone on death row.” When Soros’s mother-in-law checked into a hotel under a false name and was handed the registration blank, she exclaimed: “Shema Yisroel, I can’t fill it out already. I’ve forgotten my new name!’” The hotel clerk must have been not only a decent but a brave man. Indeed, during all these comings and goings, only Tivadar’s wife was denounced and then only once. The police came out to investigate, but clearly had no intention of finding out the truth.

Like Victor Klemperer in Dresden during the war,3 Tivadar Soros in Budapest seems to have encountered mainly people of good will, including one or two fascist Arrow Cross leaders. But, as in the case of Klemperer, one must ask, who, then, were the thousands of Hungarians who denounced Jews and were tried in People’s Courts after the war, and who were the numerous Hungarians who fell upon abandoned Jewish property? What is often ignored today is that in Hungary, as everywhere else in Europe, including Germany and Poland, there were many people—not merely a handful—who took risks to help the Jews. Even more numerous were the bystanders who looked the other way when they recognized a Jew in hiding.4

There were drastic changes during the relatively short period of German occupation. For the first few months, the persecution and the deportations went unchallenged. But early in July 1944, Regent Horthy forbade the deportation of Jews from Budapest, and by August a new government began to prepare for the hitherto unthinkable: surrender to the Soviet Red Army. This also brought some improvement in the situation of the surviving Jews. In mid-October, however, when Horthy announced an armistice with the Soviets, the SS took over and installed an Arrow Cross government in Budapest.

Now persecution began anew, with thousands of Jews being marched to the Austrian border, where they died digging fortifications or were murdered outright. But most other Jews remained in Budapest, first in so-called Yellow Star houses, then either in the International Ghetto (buildings under the protection of neutral legations) or in a newly created large ghetto. It was at this time that Raoul Wallenberg and other diplomats attempted to save thousands, and young Zionists and others forged many thousands of additional Swedish, Swiss, and other protective certificates. But as Soros observes, the famous “Swedish” and other diplomatically protected buildings were barely protected, and often turned into deathtraps. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the main ghetto were a little safer, although hungry, under the increasingly efficient protection of the Budapest police.5

There were also the tens of thousands of Jews in hiding. In fact, as Soros writes, in many workshops and apartment buildings there were more Jews in hiding than non-Jews. Sometimes, he himself played the part of a “non-Jewish” helper of Jews, as did, for example, a ubiquitous “Red Cross nurse,” who assisted many Jews and then turned out to be a refugee Polish Jewess. Dozens of young Jews infiltrated the Arrow Cross militia unit under false identities in order to save themselves and others as well. Others found refuge in a paramilitary force, called KISKA, which had been set up by the Horthy regime to counter a possible Arrow Cross putsch; and some of its units now harbored draft dodgers, military deserters, and Jews. The journalist Béla Stollár, who served in the Ministry of War as a reserve NCO, used his position to secure official papers, with which he created a pseudo-legal KISKA unit, nearly all of whose members were Jewish escapees from labor service. Their cover was blown and, on Christmas Eve 1944, the members of the unit, including Stollár, were killed in a gun battle with the gendarmes and the Arrow Cross militia.

By late 1944 many non-Jews were also in hiding, mainly as draft dodgers, creating a new community of interests with Jews. In one building I knew well, the superintendent, a member of the Arrow Cross Party, sheltered half a dozen Jews, probably in return for money. When the Russians arrived there, in January 1945, the super demanded that the Jews now protect him and his family from the marauding Red Army. Neither he nor anyone else realized that not even the officers could restrain their soldiers.

Tivadar Soros says little about his family’s liberation by Soviet troops and their lives afterward. His translator tells us that after the Communist regime abolished property law, he did some legal work for the American Interests section of the Swiss embassy and successfully taught Russian to Hungarians and Hungarian to Russians. He kept up his interest in Esperanto, and in 1947 was allowed to take George to an Esperanto conference in Switzerland; George did not return to Hungary and eventually went to London, and Paul also defected when on a trip abroad. Tivadar and his wife, Elizabeth, followed their sons after the anti-Soviet revolution was suppressed in 1956; he lived in New York until 1968, when he died at the age of seventy-four.

Despite all the monstrous obstacles thrown in his way, Tivadar Soros, by artfully dodging evil forces, did much good in his life; notwithstanding its many weaknesses, he wrote an important book, because it challenges the claim of the terribles simplificateurs who hold that during the Holocaust there were only perpetrators, callous bystanders, victims, and a mere handful of saviors. In fact, as Soros found, there were a great many sympathetic bystanders outside of Denmark also, and there were a great many non-Jewish as well as Jewish saviors.

  1. 1

    The fundamental work on the Jewish tragedy in Hungary is Randolph L. Braham, The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, second edition (Columbia University Press, 1994). On post-1945 development in Jewish life in Hungary, see Charles Gati, Hungary and the Soviet Bloc (Duke University Press, 1986), Chapter Four.

  2. 2

    Jeno Thassy, Veszélyes Vidék (“Dangerous Territory”) (Budapest: Pesti Szalon Könyvkiadó, 1996), p. 302. Translated into English by Anna Major.

  3. 3

    See Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years, Volume 1: 1933–1941, and Volume 2: 1942–1945, translated by Martin Chalmers (Random House, 1998, 1999).

  4. 4

    Among the many memoirs written by Jewish survivors, one of the most instructive is the reminiscences of Alfred Feldman, entitled One Step Ahead: A Jewish Fugitive in Hitler’s Europe, with a foreword by Susan Zuccotti (Southern Illinois University Press, 2001), which tells of the peregrinations of a family of Polish Jews. They first lived in Germany, later fled to France, and finally Alfred and his father landed in northern Italy. Several family members and friends fell victims to the fury of the Germans, the Vichy French police, and the Fascists of Mussolini’s last-ditch effort to rule in the so-called Salò Republic. But Alfred and his father survived thanks in large part to the generosity and courage of French and Italian Alpine peasants. Here, too, as in Soros’s book, French and Italian Jewish organizations did much to save the Jews. The French effort, instituted by a so-called Comité Dubouchage, turned out to be tragically misguided; Italian Jewish financial help, channeled through the archbishop of Genoa, proved to be life-saving.

  5. 5

    Diplomats representing neutral countries as well as diplomats from Fascist Italy and other countries allied with Nazi Germany often helped enormously in the effort to save Jews, not only in Hungary but elsewhere in Hitler’s Europe. Aristides de Sousa Mendes, the Portuguese consul in Bordeaux, issued thousands of Portuguese visas, against orders, to Jews and political refugees. For this, the dictator Antonio Salazar deprived Sousa of his job and salary. He died in 1954, destitute and forgotten by all. His story is well told by José-Alain Fralon, A Good Man in Evil Times: The Story of Aristides de Sousa Mendes—the Unknown Hero Who Saved Countless Lives in World War II, translated by Peter Graham (Viking, 1998).

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