In last week’s installment, Dombovar’s Jews were still proud of their town and their accomplishments in improving the town’s social, economic, and intellectual reputation. Olga and her father never thought of living anywhere else.
But toward the latter part of the 1930s, things were changing. Hungarian society began to manifest a new and much more dangerous strain of discrimination. This 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 existence in the country.
To be sure, the winds of Hitler’s Nazism were sweeping across the continent. But actually, the rise of Hitler only gave a welcome opportunity for the Hungarian antisemites 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. This law aimed to curtail Jewish prosperity by reducing Jewish ownership of any business employing over 10 workers to 20 percent.
The law, however, had some exceptions. Exempt from this regulation was any wounded war veteran from the Great War (WWI), or the widow and orphans of one who died in battle. Additional exemptions were those who converted to Christianity before 1919 and who were faithfully following their new religion. Their descendants were exempt, too, but only if they did not return to the faith of their ancestors. This law was the first salvo in the campaign to limit Jewish existence in Hungary.
In May of 1939, the second Jewish Law was 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 there were 613 Jews and an additional 56 Christians who 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 and participation in local government were also curtailed. Jews were now forbidden to hold positions such as doctor or pharmacist. The ownership of farmland was also forbidden.
The second anti-Jewish law guaranteed a sweeping reduction of the civil rights of the Jew.
The appearance of these laws was met with great alarm in 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, more importantly, with 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, the country was nevertheless greatly influenced by these events. Ever since the hated Trianon Treaty, Hungary had been hoping that there would be some redress of this grievous wrong. The time had finally come, and Hungary was completely in the orbit of Nazi Germany. Hitler had promised a sympathetic ear to the desires 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. Transylvania was reattached to the kingdom of Hungary, and by the spring of 1941, Hungarian troops began the recapture of much of the lost territories from Yugoslavia as well. The people of Hungary enthusiastically embraced the growing German influence spreading across the nation. In this climate, the popularity of extreme right-wing forces was gaining ground, and, like vultures, they circled their prey.
The third set of anti-Jewish laws was ushered in, prohibiting intermarriage between gentiles and those defined as Jewish according to the second Jewish law. Until now, intermarriage was a convenient escape from antisemitism. 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.
The new regulations shook the Jews to their core. Dr. Josef Riesz, the respected town doctor, had long ago adopted the Christian faith and lived as a practicing church-going Christian. But suddenly, his valuable service as the town’s physician was no longer needed. Newspaper articles touted the opening of “Christian-owned” businesses, urging the gentiles to support them. Pamphlets were disseminated asking for solidarity to “show these strangers that they are not the only ones who can become successful in the commercial trades.” Strangers?!
Newspapers from the late 1930s reveal the disappearance of the customary advertisements of Jewish businesses and any mention of upcoming Jewish social events. Instead, one saw ads for: “A young Christian man seeks employment.”
The once integrated community was slowly but surely becoming segregated. Jewishness was now a disease, a stain that could not be scrubbed off. Those who converted years ago found themselves back amongst the very same group they sought to escape.
Step by step, and much to their bewilderment, the Jews 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 economic hardship and humiliation.
For centuries, Jews 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 slowly achieved respect for their good deeds and accomplishments and their exemplary lifestyles. But these new laws showed the duplicity of their neighbors, who turned their backs on them. It seemed that they had never really been accepted by them.
No Jew escaped this fate. The synagogue-goer along with the long-ago converted Christian were treated the same. They were all contemptible Jews.
Although allies in the war, there was some political daylight between Nazi Germany and Hungary. The Regent of Hungary, Admiral Miklos Horthy (Hungary was a landlocked country with no navy) had occupied that position as the leader of the country since the 1920s. A proud antisemite, Horthy was constantly urged by Hitler to deport all the Jews of Hungary for “work” in Germany. Horthy, in contact with President Roosevelt, was told by Roosevelt in no uncertain terms that such a deportation would be viewed negatively by America and her allies. In fact, Roosevelt warned Horthy that should he deport the Hungarian Jews, Horthy would be considered a war criminal and executed after the war.
By 1944, it was pretty obvious to all, including Horthy, that Hitler was losing the war. Hungary would find herself, once again, on the losing side. Horthy was scared and took the warning seriously, so he resisted. In fact, he began to enter discussions with the Allies, intending to switch sides and leave the Axis orbit. But Horthy’s inner circle was riddled with spies for Hitler, and word of his intended defection became known to Hitler.
In order to prevent this, Hitler ordered the Nazi army to invade Hungary and deposed Horthy as regent. On March 19, 1944, the German Army, along with the chief architect of the “Final Solution,” Adolf Eichmann, marched into Hungary. Horthy was deposed as the ruler and the Germans installed a government led by the former ambassador of Hungary to Germany, Dome Sztojay. Sztojay was a rabid antisemite who despised the Jews. He wanted to expel every Jew, preferably by killing them. Sztojay appointed several of his Arrow Cross henchmen into key positions. Among them were the two Laszlos, Baky Laszlo and Endre Laszlo, extreme right-wing, German-leaning, longtime Jew haters. The new government of Hungary actually had very few changes in leadership other than these few men.
Most Jews living in Hungary had thought that they would escape the horrors faced by their co-religionists in Poland, Germany, and elsewhere. And the assimilated Hungarian Jews, although many could have escaped to western shores, wouldn’t undertake such a radical move. They simply could not imagine living anywhere else.
The German occupation spelled disaster for the Jews of Hungary and, of course, Dombovar.
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.