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MasqueradeDancing Around Death in Nazi Occupied Hungary
By Tivadar Soros
Arcade PublishingCopyright © 2003 Tivadar Soros
All right reserved.
Some History and Geography
Life is beautiful -- and full of variety and adventure. But luck must be on your side.
It was in September 1939 that Neville Chamberlain, the English prime minister, announced that war had been declared. I listened to his announcement on the radio with some of my friends. 'The human race has just lost twenty-five percent of its value,' remarked one of them; 'but a Jew's life will not be worth a penny.'
We duly noted this gloomy prediction, yet life went on. Men kept working, enjoying themselves; women kept going to beauty parlors, gossiping with their friends, giving birth.
But the handwriting was on the wall, even if we had difficulty deciphering it.
The year before, in 1938, I had been visited by a Jewish lawyer who had fled from Austria following Hitler's annexation of that country. He asked me for help. I felt sorry for him, so I gave him 300 pengos, which was a fairly substantial sum for me (around $30 at the time), especially since my finances seemed constantly teetering on the brink of embarrassment.
The Austrian took the money, but instead of thanking me, he said, 'My dear colleague, you give as though your money will be always yours.'
Only later, when Jews lost not just their wealth but their lives, did I fully realize the bitter truth of his remark.
When Hitler moved into Austria, Hungary became Germany's immediate neighbor and hence the immediate neighbor of Nazism. Her geographical position being what it was, she was really forced to behave as ally and friend, given the German theory of Lebensraum -- a notion that maintained, in essence, that Germany had the free and open right to occupy territory in Eastern Europe if that would ensure a better life for the German people. The theory of Lebensraum made brute force the operating principle in Eastern Europe. Because of its proximity, Hungary became Germany's first satellite.
But the pistol shot that took the life of the then Hungarian prime minister, Count Pál Teleki, made it clear to the world that the tilt towards Germany was no affair of the heart for the Hungarians, but an obligation. Teleki killed himself because he was deeply conflicted. As a politician he had to be friendly to the Germans, but as a person he could not tolerate the twisted and ugly measures such politics required. In 1940 he signed a Pact of Eternal Friendship with Yugoslavia and three weeks later had to sit quietly while Hitler sent his troops marching across Hungary to crush his new ally. Teleki acted, one might say, as the noble aristocrat he was: in his family there were plenty of examples of resolving personal conflicts through suicide.
The proximity of Germany, together with Hitler's anti-Semitism, made the situation of Hungarian Jews close to desperate. As early as 1939 the first 'Jewish law' was promulgated, openly breaking with the democratic principle of equality before the law. Quotas were established in the professions and no businesses could be more than partly owned by Jews. But the law was not limited to economics: it also declared that only those Jews whose families were resident in Hungary before 1914 could claim Hungarian citizenship. Everyone who had acquired citizenship since 1914 would automatically lose it. In other words, such people could be expelled from the country. While only a limited number of people were affected, their families' lives were shattered, even if they had resided in Hungary for centuries. There was a rush to acquire documents, because everyone wanted to prove that they were citizens of long standing. But how could they? Before the passage of this law, nobody had bothered to obtain a certificate of citizenship, since proof of residence was considered satisfactory for most purposes, and anybody who needed further proof could obtain it in a day or two from the appropriate office. But now it suddenly took months, or even years, to receive any kind of document at all. This was step one in what was to become a war of nerves between the government and the Jews.
By 1940 stories were circulating that more than ten thousand people of 'doubtful' citizenship had been arrested and deported to Poland, then under German occupation. The Germans drove the larger part of these people into the river at Kamenec-Podolsk and simply shot them dead. Word of mass shootings, slave labor, and Jewish rebellion in the Warsaw ghetto became more and more frequent, but we preferred not to believe such things. Untouched directly by such calamities, we felt that we were somehow above them. Our final line of defense was not to believe that such barbarisms were happening at all.
1941 ... 1942 ... 1943 ... The war years passed slowly. The German military situation steadily worsened, and every day we expected the Third Reich to collapse. Like the optimist who fell out of the skyscraper window, 'So far so good,' we said, as we passed the second floor ...
March 19, 1944. A day like any other. Nice weather. It was a little chilly, but there was a touch of spring in the morning air that warmed one's heart. I was sitting in a café, at a table with a pleasant view. Breakfast was neatly laid, as always. But there was one difference: as the waiter gave me the morning newspaper, he whispered, 'Have you heard? During the night, the Germans took over.'
I hadn't heard. For years the threat of occupation had been hanging over our heads -- in fact for so long that we had forgotten all about it. The news took me completely by surprise.
Precisely in order to avoid such an outcome, the Hungarian government had fulfilled the Germans' every wish. Miklós Kállay was prime minister at the time, a member of an old Hungarian family that had often figured in Hungarian history. In fact the family was so well known and popular that a dance had been named after them. The Kállay two-step, as it was called, involved two steps to the right, two steps to the left, and a lot of turning round in between. The dance matched the prime minister's politics: on the one hand, dispatching special envoys and diplomats to convince the Allies that he would join their side at the earliest opportunity; on the other hand, trying to persuade Hitler that he was the best of friends and his loyal servant -- in fact the best ally Hitler ever had. Political necessity obliged Kállay to give more and more advantage to the Germans to prove his reliability, until eventually he was willing to do almost anything to please them, if only to make it unnecessary for them actually to occupy the country. After all, it was not good policy to turn a friendly country into an occupied one: the Germans understood that piece of wisdom as well as anyone. But their military situation was deteriorating. On March 18, the day before the occupation, the BBC had summarized matters as follows:
The Russians have reached the Romanian border. Ten German divisions have been destroyed. In the Ukraine the encirclement and mopping-up of German troops is proceeding. The American air force has launched bombing attacks on Germany.
But, the report added,
Not only has the military position of Germany been radically weakened on the Eastern front, but the continued allegiance of Germany's eastern satellites is now more and more in question.
It was this problem that precipitated the decision to occupy Hungary. The German general staff saw clearly that if Hungary deserted she would be uniquely situated to destroy the German army in the Balkans, because she could cut off supplies to the troops, not only in Romania but throughout the Balkan peninsula -- in Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Greece. Hitler had already learned the bitter lesson of Italian betrayal and, at the very least, he wanted to postpone, if not avoid, a similar setback.
On the night of March 18, 1944, he acted.
There was no apparent resistance. Regent Horthy, along with his ministers and the chief of the General Staff, had been summoned to Germany, supposedly for conversations with Hitler, and so were not around to give orders. Many of the high-ranking officers and bureaucrats who stayed behind were German sympathizers.
Hitler generally timed his initiatives for weekends. The Hungarian occupation took place on a Saturday night. The Sunday papers were already printed, and there would be no further editions until Monday. Without newspapers, the city was full of rumors.
'Hitler has had Horthy arrested ... The rumors of Horthy's arrest are false ... The Germans have refused to give Horthy a train for the return journey ... The prime minister has disappeared ... The post office, radio and police are already in German hands ... Lots of well-known people have been arrested.'
Such were the rumors, but there were no signs of Germans in the city. The sun shone, seemingly oblivious to the historic nature of the occasion; the city streets slumbered in the peace of a Sunday morning. I had heard that the castle at Buda, on the other side of the Danube, where Horthy had his residence, had been closed to the public, but I went round that way to take a look and found Hungarian soldiers still on guard, as always. It took me a while to notice a tiny German tank, camouflaged in green and yellow. This battered little tank, it seemed, had taken Budapest.
As the morning progressed, people came out to stroll through the streets and the parks, as they usually did on a Sunday, but their faces wore puzzled expressions. Both the Jews and the more progressive of the non-Jews, socialists for example, were full of uncertainty and foreboding. They whispered disconsolately, unable to assess the situation, like fish out of water. Hitler's threats against the Jews were too serious to be taken lightly. How prudent were those who had had the sense to flee long since, while the going was good!
Up to this point I had thought of life as one big adventure.
I was just twenty years old when World War I broke out. I headed for the front immediately, volunteering while still a student, before my studies were completed. I did so not out of patriotic enthusiasm but out of fear that the war would finish too soon. In fact, I was sure that this was the last world war: if I let it go by, I would miss a unique opportunity.
I risked my life not only in the customary wartime ways, but in other ways as well, often quite unnecessarily. As an officer, I received special orders from time to time. On one such occasion I was asked to command what was described to me as a 'crater attack'. I soon learned what this meant. Only about thirty yards separated the two fronts. The technique was to bore a tunnel of sufficient length and depth and fill it with dynamite. Unfortunately, the Russians used the same technique from the other side. Since each side worried that their opponent would blow their tunnel up first, both sides were apt to move too fast. As a consequence, the entire area was full of craters. The fear lent a certain extra excitement to our daily life.
Then there was the occasion when, as commander of a small stretch of the front, I was ordered to send a soldier over the top to find out what the enemy was doing. In my opinion the order was stupid: we were within spitting distance of the Russians and nothing new could be discovered on the ground. But as a soldier I knew that an order was an order. I read my instructions to my men.
'Who wants to volunteer?'
A tall, thin soldier stepped forward. We exchanged a few words.
'You can't go,' I said decisively.
'Why not?' he asked in fearful surprise.
'Because you're afraid. I can see that you're trembling.'
He could hardly deny it.
'But, sir, for God's sake let me go. I'm only a lady's dressmaker, but I want to be an artist. I am good at drawing. I can't stand the roughness and brutality of an ordinary soldier's life. If my mission succeeds, I'm sure to be promoted, right? So give me a chance.'
I have a soft heart. I let him go.
He got down on his belly and crawled forward. He had covered no more than five or six yards when, bam!, he was hit by a bullet and lay still.
'Do I have a volunteer to bring our comrade back?'
An uneasy silence. No one volunteered.
'Do you expect me to do it?'
Silly question. No reply. In seconds I would have to decide. It dawned on me rather too late that it's better to give orders to one's men than to ask them questions. But now it was too late for an order: I had to do something. I quickly got down on my belly and crawled towards my wounded comrade. It took me only a few minutes to drag him back to our trenches, but by that time he was dead of a bullet to the head.
A soldier's story doesn't mean much unless the hero lives to tell it: the dead don't tell tales. There were many other occasions in my life when without much thought I accepted some unreasonable risk or embarked on an unlikely adventure, such as my escape from a prisoner-of-war camp in Siberia and my return through a revolution-torn Russia -- a trip that took two years and that was one long sequence of incredible scrapes.
But time had passed. I was now fifty years old, with a wife and two sons, and disinclined to risk my life, and especially not theirs. Yet I knew that my peaceful middle-class existence had come to an end. A new adventure was beginning, even if I could not embark on it with the carefree spirit of my youth. I was seized by a fear such as I had never known before. I did not want my family to think me afraid, or a defeatist, but I had to explain to them, as delicately as possible, the nature of the danger we all faced. It was different from anything we had ever known before.
All the usual guests appeared for our regular Sunday bridge game. Perhaps they were there less for the game than to discuss the day's bewildering events -- looking for information and for reassurance. There was general indignation at the absence of any army or police resistance, and much criticism of Horthy. People felt he should have resigned rather than accept such humiliation. While we were playing, news came that various prominent politicians, journalists, socialists had been arrested, and that Polish refugees had been imprisoned.
A new arrival excitedly reported a further piece of news. 'Have you heard about Bajcsy-Zsilinszky? The Germans went to arrest him first, and when they knocked on his door he wouldn't open it. The soldiers broke the door down with machine-gun fire, and Zsilinszky shot back. Eventually they killed him.'
We were shocked on hearing the story, because Zsilinszky, a member of parliament, was known as an implacable opponent of Hitler.
Later in the evening, a doctor arrived.
'Is the story about Zsilinszky true?' we asked.
'I'm afraid so. I saw the autopsy report myself.'
In the face of such certainty there could be no denying the news. Only later did we discover that the doctor had lied: Zsilinszky was ultimately executed nine months later in the Sopron-Kohida prison.
The bridge game broke up earlier than usual. We were all alone now.
When I got home I turned on the radio, as always when I had nothing else pressing. Things were going on as usual, like any normal day. Radio Budapest was broadcasting light music, and there was a Mozart opera. I tuned in to London and listened to the news in several languages. The occupation of Hungary was the lead story -- but on the radio it sounded just like any other piece of news. I had the feeling that no radio could convey the real news -- the death sentence of a million Jews. Then came a message that brought me face to face with reality. It was President Roosevelt, appealing to the Hungarian people to do what they could to help the Jews who now faced death under German occupation. It was a poignant and human statement, the first touch of humanity I had heard all day. (Sixteen years later I searched in vain for this speech in the New York Times, one of the world's most trustworthy newspapers, but was told that transmissions from the Voice of America were never published in the United States.)
I turned the radio off. My wife and I were alone in the stillness of the night. The children were sleeping and the maid had the day off. The silence was disconcerting. In the past, our comfortable apartment had always seemed a refuge from the turmoil of the outside world, but suddenly it felt more like a trap. It was laid out so poorly! There was only one exit, no winding staircase at the back, no secret doors, no underground hiding-place. If they were to come in the middle of the night to take us away, where could we hide? I examined the place carefully, in a way I had never done before. In the process I made a surprising discovery: there was a double ceiling above the dining room, with a space big enough for all four of us to hide. We could put some boxes in front so we wouldn't be noticed. But the beds would be warm, and that would give us away. And what should we do about our maid? Should we take her into our confidence? Or let her go? My wife could hardly imagine life without domestic help. But even if we let the maid go, there was still the problem of the superintendent. No, we really could not hide ourselves in the house. And, as for concealment, if they were going to find us and arrest us anyway, I would prefer not to be hauled ignominiously out of hiding, but to face up to our arresters like a man. After all, we had done nothing wrong. The fact that we were born of Jewish parents could hardly be called a crime. In any case, it wasn't very likely that the Germans would come for us on their first night in the city. What made me think we were so important?
So I dismissed thoughts of concealment and stretched out on the silk quilt so carefully spread on our bed. Close to my head the radio connected me to the world outside. I turned the dial to the major stations: London, Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Tangier. Nothing new. So I went to sleep as though nothing had happened -- as though it was a day like any other.
Excerpted from Masquerade by Tivadar Soros Copyright © 2003 by Tivadar Soros. Excerpted by permission.
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