With 75 years since the end of the Second World War, Hungary has yet to acknowledge its true role in the murder of 600,000 Jews and the systematic looting of their property.
Despite evidence to the contrary, Hungary, stubbornly clings to the myth of being a victim of the Nazis and denies their role as allies and partners of Nazi Germany enthusiastically participating in the murder of their innocent and loyal citizens.
But, Hungary’s collusion in the Holocaust is, undeniable. The anti-Jewish laws they promulgated to strip the Jewish citizens of their rights and their property were published publicly. Today, they remain as everlasting proof along with the victim’s testimonies of the guilt of the government and the people of Hungary. In fact, as the movie “1945” so aptly portrayed, many Hungarians are living with terrible secrets stemming from the looting of their Jewish neighbors.
Adolf Eichman, in charge of carrying out the “Final Solution”, came to Hungary with a meager, skeleton staff of fewer than 200 clerks and soldiers. Eichman relied on Hungarian help to deport the close to half a million Jews in the Hungarian countryside. Robert Rozett, the former director of the Yad Vashem Libraries and world renowned scholar on Hungarian Jewish history explains, that it was left to the Hungarian Interior Ministry, the Gendarmes (a paramilitary police force operating throughout Hungary) and the local authorities to actually round up the Jews and put them in the cattle cars for shipment to Auschwitz. The gendarmes were all too eager to help.
But as eager as Hungary was to deport the Jews, they had no intention to turn over to the Nazis any Jewish wealth. In fact, in a secret decree by the Minister of the Interior (no:6163/1944) instructing the Gendarmes, he warned that “ special measures must be taken as to prevent Jews from hiding cash, jewelry and other valuables. Therefore, meticulous body searches must be performed not only when they are rounded up but when they are transported from temporary collection sites” (DEGOB website)
After the entry of German forces into Hungary on March 19, 1944, the Hungarian government made preparations to finalize their century’s old dream of solving the “Jewish question”. With the provincial Jews concentrated in small, cramped ghettos awaiting deportation, special squads of Gendarmes descended on the freshly vacated Jewish homes searching for hidden valuables. Not being satisfied that they had all the Jewish loot, they drew up a list, with help of the local population, of those who may have had more property.
One by one, the Jews on the list were interrogated. Men and women were severely beaten, to reveal hiding places with teeth knocked out, arms broken during such sessions. Following the directive of the Interior ministry, cavity searches were conducted on the men, crudely probing the rectum and on the women, the vagina and rectum. Wanting to be extra thorough, fathers and mothers were stripped in front of their children and electric prods placed into their genitalia. The physical pain with the emotional humiliation made most confess the hiding places. However, those who truly had nothing to surrender were often beaten to death.
The Gendarmes laughingly referred to these torture sessions as “mint operations”. They were practically minting money.
These mint operations were systematically duplicated in every ghetto. They have been aptly documented in post-war testimonies by Jewish survivors and available on the DEGOB website. Furthermore, during these “official confiscations” receipts were often given, listing the inventory of how many geese, table cloths, jewelry or cash was confiscated. One survivor, a Mrs. Weisz from Budakalasz testified, that the gendarmes’ cruelty far exceeded the conditions in Auschwitz!
My mother, Olga Elek, was herded into the Dombovar ghetto along with her aged father. A list was compiled for the coming mint, that was headed by the notorious gendarme, Peter Hain. Hain’s reputation for cruelty and hatred of Jews was legendary. Sometime later, his unit was disbanded by the government as being too cruel and sadistic. Olga had heard about him as well. As a bank official, my grandfather made a comfortable living. But, of course, that was before all Jews were fired from their jobs and became unemployable. Olga and her father lived off their savings, but now it too was gone. My grandmother passed away a few years before and my mother sold all her remaining jewelry to buy the tombstone. Now, they literally had nothing.
Olga discovered that her name was included on the “mint” list. She was terrified, sure that Hain would not believe her and she would be tortured and perhaps beaten to death. An acquaintance, and former student of hers, was a member of the notorious gendarme unit. He came to see Olga and whispered to her “don’t worry Miss, I took your name off the list-you will not be interrogated”. Olga thanked him but was not reassured. Hearing the screams of her neighbors, and seeing the beat up, broken bodies made her especially terrified. But luck was with her and her student was apparently right. She was never summoned. My mother’s neighbor however was not so lucky. After a round of interrogation, during which his arm was broken and several teeth knocked out, he surrendered whatever he had.
No sooner were the Jews herded into the cattle cars and shipped out, than it was the neighbors’ turn to help themselves to Jewish ‘wealth’. Like vultures picking over a dead carcass, they broke into the Jewish homes and looted whatever was left. Furniture, pillows, dishes, clothing, books, everything was taken. Those who were lucky found silver candlesticks or flatware that may have escaped the attention of the Gendarmes. Today, seventy-five years later, some of these looted possessions adorn the shacks and homes of the descendants whose grandparents were the neighbors of the deported Jews. As neighbors, they often entered the Jewish homes helping to lite a fire, something that was prohibited to the Jews on the Sabbath. They knew who possessed what and even where they were hidden. Today these possessions stand as silent indictment of the guilt of the grandparents.
Hungary continues to deny their shameful collusion in the torture, looting and murder of her citizens. Many of her most shameless “sanitizers’ like Maria Schmidt, claim that any such testimony aims to besmirch the reputation of the “good Christian Hungarians”. Only the Germans were guilty, they claim.
The notorious Gendarmes, disbanded in shame in 1945, are making a comeback under the government of Victor Orban. He is leading a campaign to honor these murderers. I wonder if those who conducted the “mint operations” will get special recognition?
Dr. Alex Sternberg is the author of “Recipes from Auschwitz: The Survival Stories of Two Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight” Available on Amazon