Last week’s installment concluded with the Elek family’s arrival in Dombovar in 1924, as the tides of discrimination were waning.
For the most part, the Hungarian-Jewish relationship was an on-again, off again, love-hate relationship. Jews found a fertile soil for commercial and social opportunities, and interaction with their Hungarian gentile neighbors was pleasant, for the most part. Small towns all over the world tended to share similar experiences in their relationship with the newcomers who never really did assimilate completely into the native society and customs.
There were flare-ups of antisemitism, fueled by some event that was exploited by virulent antisemitic forces, often among the Christian clergy. But soon it was over, and life returned to the previous harmonious coexistence. Jews, discussing such flare-ups of anti-Jewish agitation, would assure themselves of the transient nature of their neighbors’ hatred and were sure it would soon pass. And for the most part, it always did. There really was nothing unique in the treatment of the Jews living in Hungary. Although perhaps the clinging of the Jews to Hungarian culture, and the large percentage of assimilationists, may have made the circumstances somewhat unique.
Assimilation was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it allowed Jews to blend into Hungarian society by turning their backs on the customs of their forefathers and adopting the Hungarian culture, lock, stock, and barrel. On the other hand, as the anti-Jewish laws were enacted, many of the assimilated Jews were stuck in a society that didn’t really want them. What to do now? Where to go? While some of their coreligionists were free to explore an exit from Hungary by packing their bags, calling it quits, and moving to greener pastures (the age-old response of Jews to discrimination), what could these newly minted “Hungarians” do? Where could they go?
So they were caught in a trap of their own doing. By all accounts, the Elek family and their friends in Dombovar never entertained the idea of emigration. Hungary was their country, their culture. They read Hungarian literature, identified with the fate of the country, and in their heart of hearts thought of themselves as Hungarians. The exception to the rule was someone like Hannah Szenes (Senesh), who was thoroughly assimilated and yet chose to immigrate to Israel. But people like Hannah were few. The Elek family and their friends thought that the increase in anti-Jewish attitudes would blow over. After all, it always had in the past.
The Anti-Jewish Laws
Toward the latter part of 1930s, things were changing. Hungarian society began to manifest a new and much more dangerous strain of discrimination, a changing of the guard. This new strain was more deep-seated and demanded a complete divesting of all property, possession, and wealth of the Jews, transferring it to gentile hands. The new guard demanded an end to any Jewish participation in political, cultural, and economic life in Hungary. In short, they demanded the complete annihilation of Jewish society in the country. To be sure, the winds of Hitler’s Nazism were sweeping across the continent. But actually, the rise of Hitler only widened the opening for the Hungarian anti-Semites to emerge and assume a decisive leadership position.
In May of 1938, the Hungarian Parliament adopted a regulation aimed at “rebalancing the cultural and economic inequality” among Jews and gentiles in Hungary. Naturally, this law aimed to curtail Jewish prosperity by reducing to 20 percent Jewish ownership of any business employing over 10 workers.
The law, however, had some exemptions. Exempt from this regulation was any wounded war veteran from the First World War, or the widow of one who died in battle and his orphans. Additional exemptions were made for those who had converted to Christianity before 1919 and who were faithfully following their new religion, as well as their descendants, but only if they did not return to the faith of their ancestors. This law was the first salvo in the campaign to curtail Jewish ownership of business, manufacturing, and trade in Hungary.
In May 1939, the second anti-Jewish law was announced and enacted. This law broadened the definition of who was a Jew by declaring that anyone who converted but who had one parent or two grandparents who were Jewish would henceforth be considered a Jew and subject to the new rules. According to the 1941 census, in Dombovar, 613 Jews and an additional 56 Christians were now considered Jewish under the new regulations. This new regulation also readjusted the 20 percent allowance to 6 percent for Jewish ownership of certain businesses. Voting rights were now also curtailed, as well as participation in local government. Jews were now forbidden to work as doctors or pharmacists. The ownership of farmland was now also forbidden.
The appearance of these laws was met with great alarm by the Jews of Dombovar. Jews were integrated into the town’s life in all areas. Town government had numerous Jews in various positions, both elected and appointed. These regulations cast doubt on their very “Hungarian-ness.” Most Jews met these regulations with disbelief and embarrassment.
International events in 1939 also had a profound effect within the country.
Germany occupied Poland in September, and the Second World War had broken out. Although Hungary did not participate in the invasion of Poland, she was nevertheless greatly influenced by these events. Ever since the hated Trianon Treaty, Hungary had been hoping that, somehow, there would be some redress of this grievous wrong. And Nazi Germany was sympathetic to the desire of Hungary to reclaim her lost possessions. In 1940, Hungary officially joined the Axis forces (Germany, Italy, Japan), and her entry into the war was now inevitable. By the spring of 1941, Hungarian troops began the recapture of much of the lost territories from Yugoslavia and Transylvania. The people of Hungary enthusiastically applauded and embraced the growing German influence spreading across the nation. In this climate, the popularity of extreme right-wing forces were gaining ground, fanning the flames of extreme Jew hatred.
The third wave of anti-Jewish laws was ushered in, prohibiting intermarriage between gentiles and those defined as Jewish according to the second anti-Jewish law. Intermarriage was, until now, a convenient escape from anti-Semitism. Jews were now also forbidden from service in any unit carrying firearms, but were mandated to enroll in the Hungarian auxiliary units for forced labor.
These antisemitic regulations had a profound effect on every Jew living in Dombovar. Dr. Josef Riesz had adopted the Christian faith and lived as a practicing church-going Christian for many years. But, suddenly, his valuable services as the town physician were no longer needed. Newspaper articles touted the opening of “Christian-owned” businesses, encouraging the townsfolk to support Christian-owned enterprises to “show these strangers that they are not the only ones who can become successful in the commercial trades.” Strangers?
Searching through the newspapers from the late 1930s, one sees the disappearance of the customary advertisements of Jewish businesses and any mention of upcoming Jewish social events.
The once integrated community was slowly but surely becoming segregated, as being Jewish was now a stain that could not be scrubbed off. Those who converted years ago found themselves back amongst the same group they sought to escape.
Step by step, and much to their bewilderment, the Jews were met with ever-increasing humiliation as they were publicly excluded from all previously held positions. Memberships in clubs and professional organizations were suddenly terminated. The Jews were alone.
The new realities brought with them not only economic hardship but humiliation. For centuries, Jews had fought to prove to their gentile neighbors that they were loyal Hungarians, that they could be trusted to put the welfare of the nation first. They gradually achieved respect from many of their neighbors for their good deeds and accomplishments and their exemplary lifestyles.
But the anti-Jewish laws showed the Jews that their neighbors, who now openly turned their backs on them, had never really accepted them. Suddenly, they were faced with derision and contempt where only a short while before they had been held in esteem.
No Jew escaped this fate. The synagogue-goer along with the long-ago-converted Christian were treated the same. They were all contemptible Jews.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor.