The history of rural Judenräte (Jewish Councils) in Hungary is not widely known, because most of rural Jewry was destroyed, and the surviving members obviously tried to keep silent about their actions. I am not trying to write a short history of Hungarian Jewish Councils here, but I will have to note that many members of Hungarian Jewish Councils faced unjust accusations after the war.
Sometimes the accusations did not stop at honour courts and angry articles. Some Jewish Council members were put under investigation by the so-called people’s attorneys (népügyész) and some even faced trials.
This article deals with the case of the co-head of the Kaposvár (South-Western Hungary) Judenrat, Ödön Antl. Antl was born in 1898 in the tiny village of Felsőmocsolád. He fought in the First World War, and later became a wealthy timber merchant (a newspaper named him as one of the richest locals in 1941). Antl was active in politics, even though he was an Orthodox Jew, in 1918 he founded and led the local branch of the Smallholders’ Party. (A party known for many anti-Semitic members).
After the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, mayor György Kaposváry named Antl as co-head of the local Judenrat, the other leader being Jenő Mittelman, a rich owner of an apothecary shop. The Judenrat was reorganised many times, on 4th May they were still co-heading the organisation, but by 2nd June Antl was the only head. (The reason behind this could be that Mittelman had left for Budapest earlier, hidden by rabbi Béla Berend).
After the war, some newspapers wrote that Antl was deported, but in reality, he was called in for unarmed labour service to the army. Interestingly on 15th December, the mayor was notified that the Judenrat was functioning again, mostly through aiding labour servicemen. Available at the local archives is mayor Kaposváry’s call to the public, announcing that the Soviet army has named him as head of the town. Therefore we can see that the Judenrat was in existence for a while even after the town’s liberation.
Many works have been written about the local Holocaust, and none of them describe any serious role in the deportations by the local Judenrat. Yet Antl’s file among the papers of the people’s attorney was opened in June 1945, under the code Nü. 36/1945.
Antl was under investigation for having sold walnut wood to Germany as a merchant, and therefore aiding Hungary’s role in the Second World War. Had he stood trial and been found guilty, he could have been executed.
The accusation was ridiculous: from confiscated company documents one can see that Antl never sold great quantities of wood, and the material was only good for making furniture. It is obvious that other charges were raised against Antl as well, but of these, we can only learn from the testimonies of Antl’s colleagues.
According to clerk Margit Fink, Antl was never “in touch” with German officers during the occupation. She did testify, however, that the Germans confiscated Antl’s flat on 22nd March 1944. Imre Mike, the director of the company testified that according to his knowledge, Antl has never “dined” with German officers during the occupation.
From these testimonies, it is clear what questions the authorities asked Antl’s colleagues: they tried to paint him as an evil capitalist Jew having fun with Nazi Germans. This picture of Judenrat leaders later reemerged when charges were raised against the Budapest Judenrat.
Antl’s lawyer, one Gábor Goitein wrote a detailed reply to the attorney. From this, it is clear that at one point Antl was charged with having promised arrested fascists a “quick change of system and also release (of the arrested)”.
Goitein pointed out how ridiculous it must have sounded to charge a Jew from a small Hungarian town with having aided the role of Hungary in the Second World War: “Can it be imagined (…) that the accused, like some sort of Basil Zacharov from Felsőmocsolád (…) wanted to turn the tide of world politics (…) and out of all countries, with his attributes (as a Jew) he would have tried to help the Germans?”
Antl’s testimony is also an important document: he made clear that he was a Jew forced to perform labour service, that his wife, sister and the whole family was deported. His wife survived the Holocaust, and we do not know how many relatives Antl had lost. But in one text written in the 1950s, he wrote that “95% of my family was murdered”.
In the end, the people’s attorney concluded that the Hungarian state has exercised a monopoly over the export of timber used for making weapons from 1942, and that the wood sold by Antl was so little in the quantity that “it cannot be viewed as an economic role that could have aided the country’s role in the world war in any way”. The file was closed in September 1945.
After the liberation of Hungary, Antl was head of the local Orthodox community, and also a member of parliament for the Smallholders’ party. He only held one speech though: he attacked the passive role of authorities during the 6th August 1946 pogrom of Kunmaradas. In 1950 he left for Austria, and then one year later for Argentina. In one letter written in 1961, he claimed to live in Chile, but in 1965 he was already living in New York. According to one article, by this time he was an enthusiastic Zionist, having established a foundation in memory of his brother for Israeli medical students. He died on 21st December 1976 in New York. According to press reports, he was buried in Israel.
This story speaks of the controversial treatment given to surviving Judenrat members in post-war Hungary. Sometimes post-war transformative justice caught real war criminals, and sometimes completely innocent men like Antl were caught in its machine. Antl’s tale cautions historians to view every document and story with a critical eye.