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1944: The deadly victory

With the Nazis headed to defeat and liberation near, the murder of Jews continued apace, especially in Hungary
Birkenau, Poland, 27/05/1944, Jews standing on the platform after alighting from a train. (Yad Vashem Photo Archives)
Birkenau, Poland, 27/05/1944, Jews standing on the platform after alighting from a train. (Yad Vashem Photo Archives)

Nineteen forty-four was the last full year of the war. For some Jews, it brought rescue, liberation and survival, yet for many others it continued to be a year of suffering and death.

As 1944 dawned, many believed that Nazi Germany could not win the war. Having won battles at too high a cost and then having suffered a massive defeat on the Stalingrad line, they were about to face momentous attacks on both fronts. The Western Allies were massed in the UK preparing their invasion of France, which would take place on June 6 — D Day. The Soviets, who had fought their way into the Ukrainian heartland the previous year, were poised to launch their final major drive toward Berlin on June 22, 1944 — Operation Bagration. The date was highly symbolic, since it was the third anniversary of the invasion of the Soviet Union.

As the fighting progressed, small remnants of Jews in the East came out of hiding, and those who had evaded the first death marches, began to be liberated from Nazi camps. In the liberated camps the Soviets could be very solicitous, and medical teams tried to help the remaining prisoners. This was the case when the first extermination camp Majdanek was liberated in Poland in July 1944. The Soviets also documented the traces of atrocities and publicized the villainy of the Nazi regime. Among those who documented what they found was Private Zinovii Tolkatchev, an artist whose drawings from Majdanek were put on display in the Lublin Art Museum in November on the eve of the trial of Germans who had served in the camp. The museum sold 127,000 tickets for the exhibit.

In other places, however, the Soviets evinced much less sympathy. Not a few Jews who came out of hiding were suspect in the eyes of agents of the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) simply for having survived behind enemy lines, and were sent into the Gulag system as their reward for having remained alive. In countries overrun in 1944, people were randomly seized and also sent to the Soviet Union to the Gulags for forced labor. Among them were not a few Jews.

In Western Europe, as the Western Allies advanced, remaining Jews also emerged from hiding or from living under assumed identities as Christians. Unlike their counterparts in the East they were not threatened by a new net of oppression, but neither did anti-Semitic attitudes and behavior necessarily melt overnight. Even where overt anti-Semitism was not the issue, sympathy for the particular suffering of Jews was scarce, since their neighbors were too self-absorbed to understand that Jews had been singled out for especially harsh treatment. Instead, revenge against real and imagined collaborators was the dominant theme. Nevertheless, here, liberation meant survival for the Jews, and survival meant a nascent possibility to rebuild shattered lives.

Birkenau, Poland, 27/05/1944, Jews standing on the platform after alighting from a train. (Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archives)
Birkenau, Poland, 27/05/1944, Jews standing on the platform after alighting from a train. (Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archives)

Yet for many Jews, 1944 was not a year of liberation, and Jews continued to be sent to their deaths. On the first day of the year transports of Jews from the German Reich continued to roll; on that day it was the turn of Jews from Münster in Westphalia who were sent to Theresienstadt. They would be followed by additional trains, including a transport to Theresienstadt from Vienna on April 28, 1944, seventy years ago today.

The Jews of Rhodes and Cos were arrested at the end of July, and after being held in Athens, reached Auschwitz-Birkenau on August 17. Out of 1,700 Jews on this transport only 150 would live to see the end of the war.

Soon after, the remaining Jews of the Lodz Ghetto were also sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Lodz had been the first major ghetto established in Poland between February and May 1940. Over 204,000 people were incarcerated there during its existence. Hermetically sealed, it was a place of tremendous suffering and death, with starvation and disease claiming about one fifth of all of its inmates. Beginning on January 16, 1942 waves of transports left Lodz for extermination camps, but in June 1944 over 74,000 Jews still remained in the ghetto. Lodz was the last surviving ghetto in Eastern Europe when the Nazis began to liquidate it on June 23, 1944. By August, except for less than a thousand Jewish forced laborers in a concentration camp on the site of the former ghetto, the rest had been deported, primarily to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is estimated that between 5,000 and 7,000 Jews from Lodz survived – meaning that over 96% were murdered.

Soon after the liquidation of the Lodz Ghetto, the Slovak National uprising broke out. On August 29, 1944, after two years of planning, opponents to the Slovak fascist regime launched their rebellion. They hoped to oust the pro-Nazi regime from their country that had been led by the Catholic Priest Jozef Tizo. At the time there were still over 20,000 Jews in Slovakia; some 58,000 had been deported in 1942 and several thousand others had fled to neighboring Hungary. About 6,000 of the remaining Jews lived in labor camps that had been established by the Slovaks, and among them were armed cells that were associated with the rebels. When the uprising began, the Jews left the camps for the territories that were liberated by the rebels, and the Jews from the armed cells took part in the fighting. A victory by the rebels would mean successful rescue for the last Jews of Slovakia. However, after some initial gains, the Slovak National Uprising was brutally crushed. Ultimately a further 13,000 Jews were deported, to Auschwitz-Birkenau or Theresienstadt.

Kaunas, Lithuania, 38 Jews who survived by hiding in the ghetto until the liberation, 1944. (Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archives)
Kaunas, Lithuania, 38 Jews who survived by hiding in the ghetto until the liberation, 1944. (Credit: Yad Vashem Photo Archives)

Among the deportees were two leaders of the semi-underground Jewish organization, the Working Group: Gisi Fleischmann and Rabbi Michael Dov Weissmandl. This body had done its utmost since 1942 to rescue masses of Jews, but ultimately did not succeed. Both Fleischmann and Weissmandl were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is said that Fleischmann was deported with explicit orders that her return was not wanted, and she was murdered upon arrival. Weissmandl, who had been deported with his family, managed to escape from the moving train with some others, but his wife and children remained aboard. During the last days of the war, he was smuggled into Switzerland by the International Red Cross representative in Bratislava, Georges Dunand. Rabbi Weissmandl eventually headed a Yeshiva in Mount Kisco, New York. He penned a book entitled Min Hameitzar (Out of the Straits) about his rescue activities, which exuded profound frustration and bitterness about their inability to galvanize the world to help Jews.

The largest existing Jewish community in 1944 was that of Greater Hungary. It is estimated that there were about 750,000 in the country at that time. This number, based on a racial definition, included about 100,000 Christians. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and first sent troops to the Eastern Front in summer 1941, but in large numbers from spring 1942 onward.

The substantial Jewish community essentially had been spared the worst aspects of the Shoah when 1944 dawned, although they had not gone through the war completely unscathed. Before the war, anti-Jewish laws had been passed in Hungary, constricting their lives. In August 1941 about 18,000 Jews were deported by the Hungarians to the Ukraine, where about 16,000 were massacred by the SS at Kamenets Podolskiy. In January 1942 about 700 Jews and a few thousand Serbs were killed in Novi Sad, in present day Serbia by Hungarian troops. And lastly, from spring 1942 through summer 1944, 45,000 Jewish men were conscripted to forced labor and sent to the Eastern Front along with the Hungarian army. Some 80% died there, in very large part, because of the brutal treatment by the Hungarian soldiers attached to their units. Yet, for the great majority of Jews in Hungary, until 1944, life was appreciably better than for other Jewish communities under Nazi domination.

Of course, this changed radically on March 19, 1944 when 70,000 German troops occupied Hungary. Hitler sent in troops because Admiral Miklos Horthy, the Regent, who read the changing winds, had been trying to get out of his alliance with Nazi Germany. Early in 1944 he was poised to make peace with the Allies. Horthy was far from a friend of the Jews, but he had consistently said to the Nazis that he would solve the Jewish problem in Hungary after the war. With the entry of the Germans, however, Horthy named a prime minister more amenable to Hitler (Döme Sztójay), and allowed the government apparatus to collaborate closely with the Germans in what would become the most intensive murder crusade during the Shoah.

A Jewish council was set up in Budapest the day after the Germans arrived and forthwith was made responsible for Jews of the entire country. Senior officials from the Hungarian Interior Ministry László Endre and László Baky began to work with Adolf Eichmann to organize the anti-Jewish measures. By the middle of April, Jews outside of the capital Budapest began to be concentrated and by the middle of May, a steady stream of transports left provincial Hungary almost exclusively toward Auschwitz Birkenau. Within 10 weeks about 437,000 Jews were deported and between 75% and 85% of each transport were killed immediately upon arrival. The Hungarian authorities were so efficient in carrying out the deportations, that they didn’t even bother to try to coerce the Jewish council into playing a role, as had happened in other places.

The first wave of deportations ended on July 9, 1944, with most of the Jews of Budapest untouched. Their turn would come in the autumn when Soviet troops were already fighting in Hungary. Horthy again tried to leave his alliance with Hitler and this time was deposed in favor of the Hungarian Nazi-like, Arrow Cross leader Ference Szálasi on October 15, 1944. Soon thereafter Jews were sent to the Austrian border to build fortifications under frequently deadly conditions. Tens of thousands were closed into a ghetto in Budapest early in December and thousands more were taken to the banks of the Danube to be shot by Arrow Cross thugs.

While this was happening, rescue activities that had begun in the spring went into full gear. Neutral diplomats worked in coordination with Jewish activists, mainly Zionist Youth Movement members, to use a combination of international protection and street smarts to keep Jews safe. This rescue was supported to a significant degree by the Unites States, which early in 1944 had finally set up an official organization charged with helping Jews– the War Refugee Board. The Board provided an important underpinning for the rescue, yet, saving Jews in Budapest had mixed success. It is estimated that out of well over 200,000 there in autumn 1944 more than 100,000 remained alive when Soviet forces liberated the capital in two phases in January and February 1945. All told, about 570,000 Jews from Hungary were murdered in the Shoah.

In many ways the chapter of the Shoah in Hungary encapsulates the events of 1944. The fact that the end of the war was in sight undoubtedly contributed to the rescue. In both theory and in reality rescue did not entail keeping Jews alive for years, but only for months and even weeks. This did not mean it was easy, but it was easier than in other situations earlier in the war. The timing also affected readiness to rescue. Especially in the United States and some of the neutral countries, the feeling that the end was drawing near, allowed for an opening to entertain serious rescue work, which had not been there previously. Concomitantly, enough information about the murder had accumulated to exert influence on officials in government and various organizations.

Still, even though the war was nearing its finale, ferocious fighting would continue until the end, taking many hundreds of thousands of victims. The Nazi machinery of murder continued to destroy Jews at a great rate, and there remained no shortage of local people to collaborate with it, whether they were senior officials or from the rank and file. The murder would only stop when the Nazis and their helpers were overrun. For the last Jews of Europe, the year 1944 was truly a year of life and death.

For information, testimonies, online exhibitions and more related to Holocaust Memorial Day,http://www. yadvashem. org/yv/en/remembrance/2014/index. asp


About the Author
Dr. Robert Rozett is Senior Historian in the International Institute for Holocaust Research a Yad Vashem, is the author of Conscripted Slaves: Hungarian Jewish Forced Laborers on the Eastern Front (Yad Vashem, 2013), and co-editor with Dr. Iael Nidam Orvieto of After So Much Pain and Anguish: First Letters after Liberation (Yad Vashem, 2016).
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