The Deportation of the Hungarian Jews

Hungarian Jews arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, May 26,1944

It was not until May 1944, when the Hungarian Jews were deported, that Auschwitz-Birkenau became the site of the largest mass murder in modern history and the epicenter of the Final Solution. In 1942, there were 2.7 million Jews murdered by the Nazis, including 1.6 million at the Operation Reinhard camps, but only 200,000 Jews were gassed at Auschwitz that year in two old converted farm houses. This information is from the book "Auschwitz, a New History" by Laurence Rees, published in 2005.

Almost one half of all the Jews that were killed at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews who were gassed within a period of 10 weeks in 1944. Up until the Spring of 1944, it had been the three Operation Reinhard camps at Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor, that were the main Nazi killing centers for the Jews, not Auschwitz.

The order to round up the Hungarian Jews and confine them in ghettos was signed by Lazlo Baky of the Royal Hungarian government on April 7, 1944. Jews in Hungary had been persecuted since 1092 when Jews were forbidden to marry Christians.

The deportation of the Hungarian Jews began on April 29, 1944 when a train load of Jews were sent to Birkenau on the orders of Adolf Eichmann, according to the book by Laurence Rees. According to The Holocaust Chronicle, a huge book published in 2002 by Louis Weber, the CEO of Publications International, Ltd., another train filled with Hungarian Jews left for Birkeanu on April 30, 1944; the two trains with a total of 3,800 Jews reached Birkenau on May 2, 1944. There were 486 men and 616 women selected to work; the remaining 2698 Jews were gassed upon arrival.

On May 8, 1944, former Commandant Rudolf Höss (Hoess) was brought back to Auschwitz-Birkenau to supervise the further deportation of the Hungarian Jews. The next day, Höss ordered the train tracks to be extended inside the Birkenau camp so that the Hungarian Jews could be brought as close as possible to the gas chambers.

According to Laurence Rees, in his book "Auschwitz, a New History," the first mass transport of Hungarian Jews left on May 15, 1944 and arrived at Birkenau on May 16, 1944. The mass transports consisted of 3,000 or more prisoners on each train.

In October 1940, Hungary had become allies with the Axis powers by joining the Tripartite Pact. Part of the deal was that Hungary would be allowed to take back northern Transylvania, a province that had been given to Romania after World War I. Hungarian soldiers participated in the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

On April 17, 1943, after Bulgaria, another ally of Germany, had refused to permit their Jews to be deported, Hitler met with Admiral Miklos Horthy, the Hungarian leader, in Salzburg and tried to persuade him to allow the Hungarian Jews to be "resettled" in Poland, according to Martin Gilbert in his book entitled "Never Again." Admiral Horthy rejected Hitler's plea and refused to deport the Hungarian Jews.

From the beginning of the persecution of the Jews by the Nazis in 1933, until March 1944, Hungary was a relatively safe haven for the Jews and many Jews from Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Poland sought refuge within its borders. However, in 1938, Hungary had enacted laws similar to the laws in Nazi Germany, which discriminated against the Jews.

On September 3, 1943, Italy signed an armistice with the Allies and turned against Germany, their former ally. Horthy hoped to negotiate a similar deal with the Western allies to stop a Soviet invasion of Hungary.

"Sonderkommando Eichmann," a special group of SS soldiers under the command of Adolf Eichmann, was activated on March 10, 1944 for the purpose of deporting the Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz; the personnel in this Special Action Commando was assembled at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria and then sent to Hungary on March 19, 1944 during the celebration of Purim, a Jewish holiday.

Famous photo of Hungarian Jews walking to the gas chamber

On March 18, 1944, Hitler had a second meeting with Horthy at Schloss Klessheim, a castle near Salzburg in Austria. An agreement was reached in which Horthy promised to allow 100,000 Jews to be sent to the Greater German Reich to construct underground factories for the manufacture of fighter aircraft. These factories were to be located at Mauthausen, and at the eleven Kaufering subcamps of Dachau. The Jews were to be sent to Auschwitz, and then transferred to the camps in Germany and Austria.

When Horthy returned to Hungary, he found that Edmund Veesenmayer, an SS Brigadeführer, had been installed as the effective ruler of Hungary, responsible directly to the German Foreign Office and Hitler.

On March 19, 1944, the same day that Eichmann's Sonderkommando arrived, German troops occupied Hungary. The invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union was imminent and Hitler suspected that Horthy was planning to change sides. As it became more and more likely that Germany would lose the war, its allies began to defect to the winning side. Romania switched to the Allied side on August 23, 1944.

After the formation of the Reich Central Security Office (RSHA) in 1939, Adolf Eichmann had been put in charge of section IV B4, the RSHA department that handled the deportation of the Jews. One of his first assignments was to work on the Nazi plan to send the European Jews to the island of Madagascar off the coast of Africa. This plan was abandoned in 1940.

According to Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz, "Eichmann had concerned himself with the Jewish question since his youth and had an extensive knowledge of the literature on the subject. He lived for a long time in Palestine in order to learn more about the Zionists and the growing Jewish state."

In 1937, Eichmann had gone to the Middle East to research the possibility of mass Jewish emigration to Palestine. He had met with Feival Polkes, an agent of the Haganah, with whom he discussed the Zionist plan to create a Jewish state. According to testimony at his trial in 1961 in Jerusalem, Eichmann was denied entry into Palestine by the British, who were opposed to a Jewish state in Palestine, so the idea of deporting all the European Jews to Palestine was abandoned.

At the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, at which the Final Solution to the Jewish Question was planned, Eichmann had been assigned to organize the "transportation to the East" which was a euphemism for sending the European Jews to be killed at Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Hungarian Jewish children walk to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The next day after German forces took over Hungary, Adolf Eichmann arrived to oversee the process of deporting the Hungarian Jews. There were 725,000 Jews living in Hungary in 1944, including many who were previously residents of Romania, according to Laurence Rees, who wrote "Auschwitz, a New History."

The Jews in the villages and small towns were immediately rounded up and concentrated in ghettos. One of the ghettos was located in a brick factory in the city of Miskolc, Hungary, where 14,000 Jews were imprisoned while they waited to be transported to Birkeanu.

Magda Brown, who was born in Miskolc on June 11, 1927, said in a speech at a Synagogue in Morgan Hill, CA that her family was marched though the city to the Miskolc ghetto on her 17th birthday in 1944. From there, Magda was transported on a train to Birkenau, where she was immediately separated from her family.

After two months at Birkeanu, Magda was sent, along with 1,000 Hungrian women, to work in a munitions factory at Allendorf, a sub-camp of Buchenwald. In March 1945, the prisoners at Allendorf were evacuated and marched to the Buchenwald main camp; Magda escaped from the march and hid on a farm until she was rescued by American soldiers.

Vera Frank Federman is another Hungarian survivor who was sent to Auschwitz and then transferred a few weeks later to the Allendorf sub-camp of Buchenwald.

The following quote is from an article published on April 29, 2003 in The Daily, the newspaper of the University of Washington. Vera Frank is a graduate of UW.

On Federman's 20th birthday, June 27, 1944, she and her parents were herded onto one of the transports and spent the next three days traveling to Auschwitz.

"We arrived [at] Auschwitz, and they separated the men from the women, and my father went with the men, and my mother and I arrived in front of an S.S. officer," Federman said.

The officer ordered Federman and her mother in different directions, despite Federman's claim that she was only 13 years old. She never saw either of her parents again.

Federman stayed in Auschwitz for six or seven weeks, and saw her health and that of others rapidly deteriorate.

"Girls came down with scarlet fever, and my cousin, with whom I came, became ill with scarlet fever, but she was so lucky, because up to that time, [the Nazis] took [sick people] immediately, and took them to the gas chamber," she said.

After several weeks, Federman and her two friends, Vera and Zsuzsi, were marched in front of Dr. Josef Mengele, the camp's human-genetics researcher, so he could decide which women would be sent to other labor camps, and which would be killed. Federman and Vera were rejected, while Zsuzsi was chosen to go to a labor camp.

Zsuzsi insisted that her sister come with her, and after some questioning by Mengele about whether they were twins, he approved Vera. Federman tried to convince Mengele to approve her as well, but he rejected her again.

"I said, 'Oh, but I am very strong, I can work.' And a German officer standing next to him whispered, kind of a loud whisper, 'Lassen sie das kleine gehen' - 'Let the little one go,' and he let me go," she said.

The photo below shows Hungarian women who have been selected to work.

Hungarian women who have just arrived on a transport train

According to a book which she wrote, Holocaust survivor Eva Fahidi was 18 years old when, together with her family in the town of Debrecen, Hungary, she was herded into a cattle car headed to the Birkenau death camp. Her Mother and 11-year-old sister, Gilike, were instantly murdered. Her father bore the hard labour for a few weeks only.

Eva spent six weeks in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Then she was shipped with one thousand other women to Allendorf, a slave-labour sub-camp of Buchenwald. Here, the women had to work with harmful chemical agents, "without protective gloves or masks; we inhaled all the dangerous vapour and walked in saltpeter up to our knees," twelve hours a day, incredibly hard work, "but in comparison with a death camp it was a better option." Here, being able "to maintain a reasonable hygienic standard; in times of great need being able to help each other," dignified their lives and contributed to survival.

Hungarian women who have been selected to work at Auschwitz-Birkenau

The photo above shows Hungarian women walking into the women's section on the south side of the Birkenau camp after they have had a shower and a change of clothes. Behind them is a transport train and in the background on the left is one of the camp guards. The woman with dark hair in the center of the photo is Ella Hart Gutmann who is in the outside row facing inward. Next to her is Lida Hausler Leibovics; both women were from Uzhgorod. Their heads have been shaved in an attempt to control the lice that spreads typhus.

One of the Hungarian Jews who survived was Alice Lok Cahana, whose story was recounted by Laurence Rees in his book entitled "Auschwitz, a New History." Alice was 15 when she was registered in the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, but months later she was sent to the gas chamber in Krema V and told that she would be given new clothes after taking a shower. The purpose of the red brick Krema V building was deceptively disguised by red geraniums in window boxes, according to Alice. She was inside the gas chamber in Krema V when the revolt by the Sonderkommando unit in Krema IV began on October 7, 1944. This was the occasion when the Sonderkommando blew up the Krema IV gas chamber building with dynamite that had been sneaked into Birkenau by some of the women prisoners who worked in factories outside the camp.

Laurence Rees wrote:

But the revolt did save some lives. It must have been because of the chaos caused by the Sonderkommando in crematorium 4 that the SS guards emptied the gas chamber of crematorium 5 next door without killing Alice Lok Cahana and her group.

Eva Olsson is a Hungarian Jew who arrived at Birkenau on May 19, 1944; she was 18 years old. In a speech at St. Patrick's High School and St. Christopher Secondary School, as reported by Tara Hagan in The Observer, a Canadian newspaper, Olsson told about a Nazi official who came to her neighborhood in Hungary and began rounding up the Jews, telling them that they were going to be sent to Germany to work in a brick factory. Instead, they were sent to Birkenau. Out of 89 members of her family, Eva and her sister Fredel were the only survivors.

Olsson has spoken to over a million people since she started giving lectures about the Holocaust in 1995. In her talks, she tells about the gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen and about children being burned alive, five at a time, in the crematory ovens at Bergen-Belsen.

According to the article by Tara Hagan, Eva Olsson told the students that when the Jews arrived at Birkenau "People who didn't do what they were told were shot on the spot. If a mother was holding a baby, they shot the baby and the bullet would go through to the mother. You save a bullet that way."

Tara Hagan also wrote that, at the Birkenau camp, Olssen "recalled living on bread and black, watery soup that had tufts of human hair in it, bones and mice."

Eventually, Olsson was sent to work in a factory in Essen, Germany, then to the Bergen Belsen concentration camp. At Bergen-Belsen, Olsson was starving, covered in lice and sores and had a fever. She told the students that she "dampened a cloth with her own urine" in order to cool down. Others, she recalled, drank their urine.

Iby Knill was 18 and working as a resistance fighter in Hungary when she was arrested and eventually transported to the Birkenau death camp in June 1944, according to this news article by Virginia Mason, published on January 26, 2010.

Iby's story begins when she was a young girl growing up in her native Czechoslovakia; when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia in 1938, she escaped over the border into Hungary but was arrested as an illegal immigrant.

"There were five of us, all girls and we made a pact to stay together as we walked through those gates and were greeted by the man we later learned was Dr Josef Mengele," she says of her arrival at Birkenau. "From that day on it became a test of survival." Miraculously, she adds, all five of them lived to witness the liberation from the Nazis in 1945.

By 2010, Iby had started writing her story and was seeking a publisher for her manuscript, which is chillingly brutal in its frankness, according to Virginia Mason's article.

According to Iby Knill, "The shower unit and the gas chamber looked the same. They had been built that way, so we never knew if we were to be gassed or just showered."

In her lectures on the Holocaust, Iby describes the infamous Dr Mengele, whose experiments in the name of medical science earned him the nick name, Angel of Death. "We lined up and he would walk in front of us, picking out the weakest. Their fate was the gas chambers."

She talks of the cramped, inhuman conditions at Birkenau, the incredible hunger and thirst, and worst of all, the scraps of gray, latherless soap made from human ashes, and the constant fear of extermination in the gas chamber.

According to her story, Iby was able to leave the Birkenau death camp only by volunteering to go to the Lippstadt labour camp, a sub-camp of the Buchenwald concentration camp, where she worked in the hospital unit. On Easter Sunday, 1945, while on a death march to the main Buchenwald camp, she was freed by Allied Forces.

The following information about Holocaust survivor Lily Ebert is from an article by Ross Lydall in the London Evening Standard on January 26, 2010:

At the age of 14, Lily Ebert was taken from the Hungarian town of Bonybad to Birkenau in a packed cattle car, along with her mother, brother and three sisters. Lily was registered upon arrival in July 1944 and tattooed with the number A-10572, even though she was below the age of 15 and could have been sent directly to the gas chamber.

After about four months at Birkenau, Lily and her three sisters were transferred to an ammunition factory near Leipzig, Germany, which was a sub-camp of the Buchenwald concentration camp.


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This page was last updated on January 27, 2010