In response to:

Could the Hungarian Jews Have Survived? from the February 4, 1982 issue

To the Editors:

I must dissent from Istvan Deak’s ironic but incorrect conclusion in his review of Randolph L. Braham’s The Politics of Genocide [NYR, February 4] based on a leap of inference from another source which is justified neither by that source nor by Braham’s work. Firstly, he cites Lucjan Dobroszycki’s assertion* that the determining factors in Jewish survival during the Holocaust were “1) geography and topography, 2) relations between Jews and non-Jews, and 3) ‘the status of a given country in the German scheme for occupied Europe’ ” (not listed in the order of importance). My own work, Accounting for Genocide: National Responses and Jewish Victimization During the Holocaust (Free Press, 1979), actually studied twenty-two states and regions occupied and allied to Germany to test several competing hypotheses which might account for the difference in the percent of Jews becoming victims. Two variables alone explained most of the difference: the success of the prewar anti-Semitic movement before 1936 in each state and the SS grip over that state in 1941 which was inversely related to its political status. Geography and topography alone explain nothing: the distance between Estonia and Finland is about the same as the route between Denmark and Sweden pioneered by the Danes to rescue the Jews and no Jews were known to have fled to Finland although twenty to twenty-five thousand Estonians fled there in 1944 to escape Soviet domination. Exploiting physical resources always depended on a defense network to help Jews evade the Nazi net.

Prof. Deak’s subsequent inference is egregious: this is the assertion that Hungary’s political status changed between March and July 1944 giving the Germans power to rule by decree through Jewish councils. The Jewish councils did not rule: the government of Hungary did throughout. Hungary was still a self-governing ally of Germany between March and July 1944 able to authorize or cancel deportations as Admiral Horthy did in July. The fact that the Hungarian government could call it off affirms its responsibility. As Braham indicated, the deportations were neither a motive for German intervention nor a non-negotiable demand implying sanctions for noncompliance. Regardless of one’s judgment about Jewish leadership in Hungary (and mine is perhaps more negative than that of Braham), one cannot reasonably conclude (as Deak does) that “the Jewish Councils caused the Jews in the provinces to be put into ghettoes, deported, and exterminated” when deportations were authorized by the Hungarian government and the full police power of the state was mobilized for this goal. Indeed, Adolf Eichmann recalled in an interview granted in Argentina prior to his capture that

It was clear to me that I, as a German, could not demand the Jews from the Hungarians. We had had too much trouble with that in Denmark. So I left the entire matter to the Hungarian authorities. Dr. Endre, who became one of the best friends I have had in my life, put out the necessary regulations, and Baky and his Hungarian gendarmerie carried them out. Once these two secretaries gave their orders, the Ministry of the Interior had to sign them. [Life, December 5, 1961, p. 110]

Similarly, the German ambassador, Veesenmeyer, testified after the war that the deportations would have been impossible without “the enthusiastic participation of the entire Hungarian police apparatus.”

As in Hungary, prewar anti-Semitism most often accounted for the readiness of states to cooperate in segregating the Jews; segregation, in turn, made it more likely they would be caught if deportation raids were executed. Segregation had to be preceded by definition (for registration and enumeration) and stripping the Jews of jobs, property, rights, and statuses. Since German allies and satellites (including Hungary throughout the war) had the sovereign power to agree or refrain from agreement to deport Jews, it was their decision to cooperate which was the promixate cause of Jewish vulnerability in those states. Almost two-thirds of the processing of Jews toward their destruction—definition and stripping—occurred in Hungary prior to the German occupation in 1944.

Thirdly, Deak’s “frightening conclusion…that for the Jews in a given country to have had a chance of survival, that country had to be loyal to the Germans” is unwarranted. German allies and satellites did have the greatest opportunity to prevent or defer deportations as Finland consistently did and Bulgaria, France, and Rumania did after initial collaboration: Jewish evaders (non-victims) were up to 99.5 percent, 80 percent, 70 percent, and 40 percent there respectively. Ninety percent of the Jews of Denmark and 80 percent of the Jews of Italy were saved despite the German takeover and raids (undertaken by German police and troops since Danish and Italian police were not trusted) after German occupation was provoked by what Germany saw as these states’ disloyalty and sabotage. About half the Jews of Belgium and Norway were saved although these states were occupied throughout the war. What we do find in every instance in which the majority of Jews were saved is that the authorities of the dominant church protested (justifying noncooperation and subversion of German orders); and in states without the freedom to deter deportations, resistance movements and/or specialized social defense movements to aid the Jews soon emerged to affirm that they were their brothers’ keepers. To find a road through forest, frontier or sea leading toward a sanctuary when confronted by a sudden and catastrophic threat, a chain of helping hands is needed.


Helen Fein

New Paltz, New York
To the Editors:

Permit me to offer a correction on two grave errors I discovered in Professor Istvan Deak’s review of Braham’s Genocide…. I must state in advance that in both instances Professor Deak is not to blame. He got them from Braham, who made the errors in the first place. On page 26, in the second column, just under the drawing, Professor Deak wrote that the Council Members were exempt from wearing the Yellow Star, and from the other restrictive measures. False. The Council Members enjoyed no such exemptions. Just as all other Jews, they were forced to wear the Yellow Stars and were subject to all other restrictions. The Presidential Troika, however, Samu Stern, Charles Wilhelm, and Ernö Petö, did receive in August the Gubernatorial Exemptions from Regent Horthy, in the Edict 2040/1944ME. of August 22, 1944. Braham committed this error on page 429/30 in the Genocide, but 353 pages later Braham contradicted himself, when he reported that the Trio applied for and did receive the Gubernatorial Exemptions. Now then, if they were exempt from the very beginning, why on earth would they apply for it in the end of August 1944? Furthermore the Zionist leaders were not exempted either, only the Four Leaders of the Vaadat Ezra Vhatzalah, i.e., the leaders of the Rescue Committee, Dr. Otto Komoly, Dr. Rezsö Kasztner, Joel Brand, and Andreas Biss, and their families. They indeed enjoyed complete exemptions from all restrictions. They got it, from the Gestapo which appreciated their collaboration and their efforts to fill the Nazi luggages with gold, diamonds, hard currency and other valuables.

The other fallacy is, in the last column on page 27, the reviewer said, “The German action through the Jewish Council caused the Jews in the provinces to be put in ghettoes, deported and exterminated.” This is utterly false on two accounts. First of all, in Hungary, not the Germans but the Royal Hungarian Government ordered and carried out the deportations through its own gendarmes and civil servants. Sure, the Gestapo and the Nazi Foreign Ministry (Ambassador Veesenmayer) pressed for it, but the whole de-Jew-ification “cleansing” operation was a Hungarian enterprise from A to Z. Dr. Deak referred to the valuable document collection called Vádirat filled with edicts from Hungarian ministries, foremost among them the Secret Edict 6163/144 res. from the Ministry of the Interior ordering the round up and deportation-called-evacuation of the Jews. The Hungarian ministries acted and carried out the devilish plan of ridding Hungary of its Jews through their own officials and own security forces (gendarmes and police). The Jewish Council had nothing to do with it. The only exception was the Judenrat in Budapest, appointed by Eichmann, which did send out summons to fellow Jews to be arrested, interned, and in the end deported. The Stern Judenrat accepted such a list almost daily from both the German as well as the Hungarian Gestapo (László Koltay) and ordered those fellow Jews to report at Rökk Szilárd utca 26 for internment. The Judenrat (Stern-Wilhelm-Petö) did this in March-April and the first part of May, 1944. At no other place in all of Hungary had the Judenrat anything to do with the deportations of fellow Jews….

Dr. Albert B. Belton

New York, New York

To the Editors:

Istvan Deak ends his review of Randolph Braham’s Politics of Genocide with a misleading dictum. “The frightening conclusion we must draw is that for the Jews in a given country to have had a chance of survival, that country had to be loyal to the Germans.” In the preceding sentences Deak tells that Hitler’s two murderous assaults on the Hungarian Jews during 1944 were directly connected with two Hungarian attempts to surrender to the Allies. His conclusion thus implies that it was directly harmful to the Jews if a European government tried to join the Allies. Frightening indeed! But is the rule true? Hardly! What about Rumania, where the government saved the remnant of the Jewish community in the late summer of 1944 by successfully jumping onto the Allied side? What about Denmark, where the society saved the Jews while the government never really left the Allied side? Even Deak’s logic is wrong in his concluding sentences. He argues syllogistically from some Hungarian acts of commission to derive a general law of omission.


The conclusion is not the only misleading part of the review. Throughout it Deak snipes at the notion that democratic behavior and liberal ideology were useful or would have been useful to the Jewish cause. Early on he remarks: “the conduct of several Axis countries such as Italy, Bulgaria and even Rumania was…more humanitarian than that of some neutral and Allied powers.” We swallow that half truth only because it seems a passing wisecrack and because Deak attributes it to Braham, mentioning “thirty-two long chapters” of good scholarship. There-upon Deak proposes that the Jews of Hungary were perfectly correct between the wars in tying their fate to Horthy and his aristocratic entourage instead of steering a middle-class liberal political course. Well, certainly they chose the easy way, the Magyar nationalist way and a parochially comfortable way; but were they above criticism?

“Many factors determined the fate of the Jews in Hitler’s Europe, but the least important factor of all was the democratic or undemocratic character of the countries where they lived.” Deak makes this central statement of his review in a context that implies its applicability to interwar as well as to wartime Europe. Patently it does not apply. The British Jews of interwar Europe were saved, and they were saved by Liberalism and democracy. The emigrant Jews of interwar Europe were saved, and they too were saved by Liberalism and democracy. The bulk of the Soviet Jews were saved also, and this because they were ruled by a regime which until 1948 was too inhibited by its residual of European democratic socialism to become overtly anti-Semitic. Even when Deak’s statement is applied to Hitler’s Fortress Europe it does not really hold water. Again, what about Denmark? And what about Hungary? Deak labels the Horthy regime as “often anti-Semitic and unquestionably antidemocratic, antiliberal and antisocialist.” Well and good for the context of 1919-1939! But in the context of Festung Europa it has seemed to many historians that some at least of Horthy’s clique were astoundingly and anachronistically liberal, and that precisely because of their gentlemanly nineteenth-century Liberalism the Jews of Hungary evaded Hitler as long as they did.

Enough of such nit-picking. Deak is a fine historian of modern Pannonian political history. He makes these provocative statements because he has a serious goal in his review, and to accomplish it feels obliged to free us from our old, anti-Fascist historical tradition. In brief, he senses that it is somehow inhumane to condemn all the so-called “collaborationist” regimes of Festung Europa indiscriminantly as morally reprehensible. He wants to devise a measure of the collaborationists’ record that takes into account their political helplessness. The real trouble with the review lies in his failure to come up with an adequate measure.

I think the failure begins paradoxically when Deak gives too much credit to the Horthy regime for saving Hungary’s Jews from Hitler up to 19 March 1944. He follows Braham and Macartney in finding that strategic, rather than ideological factors dominated Hitler’s Danubian policies. He judges that a mistake of the Horthy regime both triggered the German occupation of Hungary and caused the first murderous German onslaught upon Hungarian Jewry. Implicit here is the view that Horthy had saved the Jews so far, and could have saved them further with a cleverer policy. Yet if one accepts even part of Lucy Dawidowicz’s thesis that Hitler waged a “war against the Jews” Deak’s view seems debatable. The 900,000 Jews in Hungary in March 1944 were one of the largest parts of the “racial enemy” Hitler had slated for extermination at least since 1941. Does it not follow that from 1941 on Hitler fully intended to get rid of them, but opportunistically delayed the assault because he had machinery that demonstrably could do a quick job at a later date? Repeatedly in 1944 the Germans told the Hungarians that the strategic and racial issues were separate—that the occupation of Hungary was to be temporary, but the solution to the Jewish question, final. Maybe collaborationist regimes in countries with small Jewish populations had a real chance of saving their countrymen permanently from Hitler’s machinery. But in the case of Hungary the achievements of collaboration have been overesteemed.

Come D-Day the military situation in Europe was transformed, and it is here that Deak’s effort to devise a fair measure of collaborationism fails decisively; for he leaves out this critical change. If Horthy had tried to stop Eichmann’s anti-Jewish operation between 19 March 1944 and 6 June, it seems reasonable to assume, as Deak does, that Berlin would have ousted him. If he had interfered immediately after 6 June, however, can one see Hitler withdrawing troops from France or Italy in order to punish him? In effect when Horthy did stop Eichmann’s deportations on 7 July, the Germans did nothing until, because of retreats on the eastern fronts, they once more had overwhelming military superiority in Hungary and until on 15 October, Horthy very clumsily forced their hands. It follows that after D-Day the collaborators within Hitler’s Europe had very much more leeway to save Jews than before. Indeed, this is why one can damn Horthy. As Randolph Braham shows all too clearly, the Regent had full information about Auschwitz for some time in June 1944 before he stopped the deportations.

Professor Deak’s conclusion should have read: “For the Jews of a given country to have had a chance of survival before 6 June 1944, it helped if their country seemed loyal to Germany. It helped also, however, if the regime in their country acted on a residual of liberal values, as in Hungary, or with an eye to the future, as in Rumania; and fundamentally, in countries with significant Jewish populations probably only a postponement or blunting of the German assault was then possible. After the Normandy invasion, however, it became possible to save the Jews. Thereafter the mettle of the host society became a main factor in determining the fate of the Jews in those countries not directly ruled by the Germans.”

It is worth mentioning that Deak is not the only scholar who has overlooked the importance of the Normandy invasion in the tragedy of the Hungarian Jews. Professor Braham also, in his generally magnificent book, has tended to disregard D-Day and, for example, carps at the Western Allies for failing to bomb Auschwitz in May and June 1944 while hardly mentioning what they actually were doing.

William McCagg, Jr.

Michigan State University

East Lansing, Michigan

Istvan Deak replies:

Unable to comprehend, less even to explain, the enormity of the disaster that befell the Jews and European civilization in World War II, historians develop extraordinary susceptibilities. They anxiously scan the horizon for signs of deviation from the line, even though there is in effect no correct line for interpreting the Genocide. Helen Fein’s reading of my essay seems to have convinced her that I was trying to exculpate the collaborationist Hungarian authorities. This was hardly my intention. Why else would I have devoted so much space to the discussion of Hungarian anti-Jewish measures following the German military occupation on March 19, 1944? I believe I put sufficient emphasis on the insane combination of petty harassment and brutal deportation procedures that characterized Hungarian policy toward the Jews in those days.

Conversely, I could easily persuade myself that Helen Fein wishes to shift the blame for the annihilation of Hungary’s provincial Jews from Adolf Eichmann and the SS to the Hungarian authorities. Her approving citation of statements by Eichmann and Edmund Veesenmayer, the German Plenipotentiary in occupied Hungary, would seem to support such a contention. I for one find Eichmann’s postwar claim ridiculous that he, as a German, could not have demanded the Jews from the Hungarians. In reality, he not only could have but did, and he received them, too, although not all of them, as Professor Braham has explained so well. Beginning on March 19, the Germans were in power in Hungary; their Gestapo arrested thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish citizens and, on the very day of the invasion, SS officers Krumey and Wislyczeny informed the hastily assembled Jewish leaders in Budapest that “from this moment on all Jewish affairs come within their [that is, the SS’s] competence.”1

When the Jewish leaders turned to the Hungarian authorities for assistance, they were told by the police chief of Budapest that “whatever the Germans demand must be obeyed.”2 In other words, contrary to the claims in the letters above, the Hungarian authorities surrendered responsibility for the fate of their Jewish fellow citizens to the Gestapo. From that time on, and until July 1944, there was the closest possible cooperation between the German occupation authorities and the collaborationist government virtually appointed by Veesenmayer, then the real ruler of Hungary. Not until the summer of that year, after several military disasters had diverted German attention from Hungary and had weakened their occupation forces, did Regent Horthy and his conservative advisers regain enough freedom of action to dismiss the collaborationist Sztójay cabinet.

Helen Fein asserts that the deportations were neither a motive for German intervention nor a non-negotiable demand. May I quote my other critic, Professor McCagg: “From 1941 on Hitler fully intended to get rid of them,” i.e., the 900,000 Hungarian Jews. The Final Solution of the Hungarian Jewish question was the alpha and the omega of the Germans’ policy toward Hungary, one which they saw as closely tied to their other policy goal, the reactivation of Hungary’s participation in the war. Quite mistakenly, the Germans thought of the Jews as spies and saboteurs. Having been sent from Germany to Hungary incognito to study the situation there, Veesenmayer reported in December 1943:

The Jew is enemy number one. The country’s 1.1 million Jews mean the same number of saboteurs, and there are at least as many, if not twice as many, Hungarians who, as vassals of the Jews, help them or cover up for them in the fulfillment of their [the Jews’] massive sabotage and espionage scheme…. The overwhelming majority of the Jews in Hungary ought to be seen as the vanguard of Bolshevism…. For diverse reasons the hour has struck for decisive action on the Jewish question. The clarification of this question is a precondition [my emphasis] for Hungary’s joining in the struggle for the defense…of the Reich.3

Thus, in the opinion of the future German Plenipotentiary in Hungary, the killing of the Jews was a strategic imperative. When the time came, in May and June 1944, the German High Command placed 147 trains at the disposal of Eichmann’s deportation specialists, thereby seriously weakening German military operations in the East. Of course, Veesenmayer was correct in stating after the war that the deportations would have been impossible without “the enthusiastic participation of the entire Hungarian police apparatus.” But, then, such a statement would be perfectly valid for several other countries now boasting of their wartime resistance exploits. Moreover, I did emphasize this very fact when I wrote that “most of the planning and execution was done by the Hungarians.”

This brings me to the harrowing issue of the Jewish Council and my misleading sentence: “German action through the Jewish Council caused the Jews in the provinces to be put in ghettos, deported, and exterminated.” Ms. Fein quotes this sentence without the crucial first three words, which allows her to distort the meaning of my statement. But this is not the most important consideration. The Jewish Council’s involvement in the deportation process was indirect, not direct.4 Consider the veritable stream of appeals which the Jewish Council, under German pressure, sent to Hungarian Jews everywhere, urging them to obey the authorities! “Every [Jew] must fulfill the instructions and commands of the authorities, without any hesitation or excuses, immediately, with the greatest dedication and preparedness,” wrote the Gazette of the Hungarian Jews, the official organ of the Jewish Council, on April 6, 1944, a few weeks before the start of the mass deportations.5 Is it any wonder, then, that the provincial Jews, always the poor cousins of the Budapest Jews, marched obediently to the concentration points? Was this appeal anything else but “German action through the Jewish Council”? Wealthy and assimilated Jews in Budapest tended to share Admiral Horthy’s own view that there were good Jews and bad Jews, and that the good Jews were mostly in the capital whereas the bad Jews were to be found generally among the unassimilated, teeming masses of north-east Hungary, near the Galician frontier.

Clearly, I erred, together with Professor Braham, on the issue of the Star of David worn or not worn by Jewish leaders. Only some members of the Council and a handful of Zionists were exempted from the anti-Jewish measures, and in the case of the Council members, this exemption came at a relatively late date. But I still believe that a country’s prewar political system had little to do with the fate of its Jews in Hitler’s Europe. Since I specifically referred to “Hitler’s Europe,” I do not understand why Professor McCagg is reminding us of Jewish survival in Great Britain and the Soviet Union. The Jews also survived in Franco’s Spain, Peron’s Argentina, and Japan, none of them a model of democracy or “residual European democratic socialism” (i.e., what McCagg believes motivated the Soviet Union). Local political tradition was not necessarily a factor, otherwise the Jews of the democratic Netherlands would have survived and the Jews of fascist Italy would have died. Yet the contrary was the case. Jewish survival depended on such factors as the “defense networks” mentioned by Helen Fein, the ability of a government to act on its own, the military and geographic situation, internal rivalry within the Nazi system, the presence or relative absence of local prewar anti-Semitism, etc. The more we analyze the problem, the more difficult it becomes to make generalizations.

Let me use this opportunity to protest, energetically, although probably without effect, against the time-honored practice of comparing the fate of Danish, Norwegian, or Finnish Jews with that of the East European Jews. This is popularly expressed in such terms as “Why did you Poles not imitate the Danes in saving the Jews? The King of Denmark himself put on the Yellow Star.” In fact, the King of Denmark never wore the Star of David, and it seems incongruous for me to remind such experts as Helen Fein and William McCagg that there were only about 10,000 Jews in Norway, Denmark, and Finland combined, whereas there were at least three million Jews in prewar Poland and 900,000 in Hungary of the 1941 frontiers.

The Scandinavian Jews were assimilated members of the middle class; the East European Jews exhibited every conceivable variety of wealth, poverty, assimilation, and self-imposed isolation. The Scandinavian Jews had no influence on the life of their country; in prewar Hungary Jews owned much of the economy, the media, and the culture. Reproaching the Poles, Romanians, Ukrainians, or Hungarians for being unlike the Scandinavians sounds like an Icelander reproaching a Harlem Jewish merchant for secret anti-black sentiments.

Besides, it is time to put an end to the legend of the perfect Danes. In McCagg’s words, the Danish government “never really left the Allied side.” With all due respect to the Danish saviors of persecuted Jewry and to the Danish resistance movement, the fact remains that of all the Western European countries, Denmark alone did not resist the German invasion in 1940. For this, in Raul Hilberg’s words, “the Danes were awarded a degree of autonomy which was unusual for a region under German occupation.”6 The monarchy, the government, the army, and the police were left intact by the Germans, at least in the first years of the war. And it was precisely because of the Danish economy’s usefulness to the German war machine that the local German occupation authorities later closed their eyes to Danish efforts to save their own Jews.

Helen Fein is entirely correct in saying that “Germany’s allies and satellites had the greatest opportunity to prevent or defer deportations,” but since we agree on this point, then perhaps she should not so categorically reject my suggestion that, for the Jews “to have had a chance of survival, that country had to be loyal to the Germans.”

Undoubtedly, William McCagg’s revised wording is more precise than mine. Still, there is some truth to my statement. The time has come to recognize that the interest of the Allies, namely to win the war as fast as possible, and the interest of the Jews, namely to survive, did not always coincide. Or is it always in the interest of the hostage for the police to storm the terrorist hide-out? And while we correctly blame the Hungarians for the horrors they perpetrated on their Jews, we also ought to recognize that in the country that was Hungary before 1938 and that has been Hungary since 1945, the proportion of Jewish survivors was almost 50 percent. This is better than the proportion of Jewish survivors in the Netherlands, where about three-quarters perished.7 This might very well have something to do with the fact that the Dutch had militarily opposed the German invasion and had therefore been deprived of almost all autonomy by Hitler. Hungary’s deferral of deportation until late Spring 1944 and her renewed delaying action between July and October of the same year helps explain why at least a few hundred thousand survived. And this survival was due in no small part to such anti-German conservatives as Count István Bethlen or pre-German invasion Prime Minister Miklós Kállay. I gladly concede to Professor McCagg that these avowed right-wingers and counterrevolutionaries could very well have been liberals at heart.

The collaborationist regimes delayed the end of the war by helping the German war machine and they caused the deaths of many people by turning them over to the Germans. Yet the fact remains that there were influential members of some of those regimes who through collaboration—or the semblance of collaboration—succeeded in postponing deportations and helped to save lives.

This Issue

May 27, 1982