Part Two: Confronting the Full Force of Destruction – Spring 1944
During the Holocaust there were many Jews who acted at great risk to themselves to help save fellow Jews in danger. Many of these figures are relatively unknown to the public. In my previous blog I began to feature one such story, that of Peretz Revesz a rescue activist in Slovakia and Hungary.
1944: German Occupation of Hungary
By the eve of the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944, Peretz Revesz as a Zionist youth leader in Hungary and early member of the Vaada L’Ezra Vehatsalah (Relief and Rescue Committee) in Budapest had become deeply involved in underground rescue activities. The experience and know-how he and his comrades had acquired to that point would help them to continue to foster and expand their rescue work in the new, and much more dangerous, situation that unfolded between spring 1944 and winter 1945.
Between March and July 1944, in coordination with the Germans, fellow Hungarians would isolate their Jewish neighbors, mark them, rob them, concentrate them and deport those living in the provinces, primarily to Auschwitz. The summer months would constitute a lull in the deportations, but in the autumn they would be renewed. This time they were not sent to Auschwitz but to the Austrian border to build fortifications; those who survived that ordeal often ended up in various German camps. In Budapest murder on the banks of Danube and ferocious warfare would not only make rescue work much harder than before, but would transform it into a desperate struggle to preserve as many Jewish lives as possible until the eagerly awaited arrival of Soviet forces.
By November 1943 the military situation suggested that the Germans might send troops into Hungary, which is eventually what happened the following March. Kasztner received a message from Istanbul that it would be a good idea to establish a defense committee to be in place were the Germans to enter Hungary. In December 1943 a meeting was called by Kasztner at the Balaton Lake with representatives of the Zionist youth. It was decided to establish a defense committee, to warn members in the provinces of what would happen were the Germans to enter Hungary, and bring them to Budapest to prepare for armed resistance similar to what had happened in Warsaw during the previous spring. Although they did establish a defense committee, the situation in Hungary ultimately favored focusing on rescue over armed resistance. Peretz played a central role in formulating these responses.
On March 16, 1944, Peretz accompanied Joel Brand to a “social gathering” of German Abwehr (intelligence) agents in Budapest. Through his various underground dealings, Brand had much contact with Abwehr people and thus was invited. At the gathering Brand was summoned into a room to talk with the Abwehr chief in Budapest Joseph Schmidt. Schmidt told Brand that the Germans were poised to occupy Hungary and made Brand swear he would not reveal the secret. Brand, however, told Peretz that evening, and the following day at a meeting of the Jewish National Fund, they told the attendees. Most of them took it very lightly, since everyone thought the Germans would enter Hungary at some point, but they did not really think this particular source reliable and the information accurate. Two days later, nonetheless, the Germans occupied Hungary triggered by Hungarian attempts to leave their alliance with them. Anti-Jewish measures followed quickly and intensively.
Upon the arrival of the Germans on March 19, 1944, Revesz met with Zvi Goldfarb and Rafi Friedl (Benshalom), leaders of other Zionist youth movements, to discuss how to respond. All three were refugees in Hungary, Revesz and Benshalom from Slovakia and Goldfarb from Poland. Given their experiences and analysis of the situation, they decided the best course was for their members to adopt false Aryan identities, leave Hungary when possible, and prepare hideouts and bunkers. Mostly young women were sent to the provinces to bring movement members to Budapest. Provincial Jewish leaders generally scolded the messengers for being unnecessarily alarmist and for endangering their children.
Along with Zvi Goldfarb, Peretz rented a cellar to serve as the venue for producing false documents, first under Viki Fischer and later under David Grosz (Gur). Around the same time attempts began to smuggle Zionist youth out of Hungary. Very soon it became clear that Yugoslavia, where some hoped to join the partisans, was impassable. Some of the young people who were from Slovakia returned, since the situation there in spring and early summer 1944 was relatively quiet. Romania, however, emerged as the main goal, since it was hoped that from there, Aliyah was possible. Several thousand Jews made their way to safety until Romania made an about face and left its alliance with Germany on August 23, 1944. From that point onward, the border between Hungary and Romania became more heavily guarded, since the two countries were now on opposite sides of the war.
Assistance to Kasztner
The negotiations with the Germans led by Kasztner, the subsequent Brand Mission to Turkey, and the so-called Kasztner Train, are well known, if often profoundly misunderstood. Although Peretz did not play a central role in these contacts, he was involved in some aspects of Kasztner’s dealings and a close witness to others. From time to time Kasztner would ask him to carry out a task related to his activities. At least twice when the negotiations brought Kasztner to Bratislava, Peretz put him in touch with his brother Juraj, who remained in the city in hiding and was asked by Kasztner to help him, since he was a native speaker of Slovakian. On May 23, 1944, Peretz himself went to Bratislava to bring money from Kasztner to the Working Group activist Gizi Fleischmann; and later, in August when Kasztner was negotiating with SS chief Heinrich Himmler’s representative Kurt Becher, Peretz was sent to Bratislava again, this time to deliver a dossier to the Working Group. At one point, Kasztner also asked Peretz to deliver five reports about the negotiations to the Swedish Embassy in Budapest.
On June 14, 1944, Kasztner had the Auschwitz Protocols, information about the camp that had been smuggled out to Slovakia by two sets of escaped prisoners, duplicated and distributed to the diplomats of neutral countries in Budapest. Peretz was involved in this process and kept a copy of the Protocols for himself.
In the following weeks and months, Peretz and his underground comrades would continue to engage in rescue activities, intensifying ongoing activities, and engaging in newer ones, as developing events posed further challenges.
The conclusion of Peretz’s story in the next blog.