Lecture delivered at Yad Vashemin symposium on
“Jews Rescuing Jews Facing Annihilation,”
In the dark days of 1944 when tragic events befell Hungarian Jewry, the Zionist Youth Resistance Movements’rescue operations were a bright ray of light.
In March of 1944, duringthe first weekof Hungary’s occupation by the Germans, I was sought by the leadership of the movement. I was told, “You are joining the team at the workshop for forged documents.” It was a pivotal event for me. All at once, this new positionplaced me at the center of the underground activities; I was to be part of a huge rescue operationas the person in charge of thecentral workshop for forged documents of theZionist Youth Resistance Movement.
By the end of 1943 and early 1944, it was clear to the leadership of the ZionistYouthResistanceMovement inHungary that the Germans had instituted the systematic annihilation of European Jewry.
When the Germans entered Hungaryon March 19, 1944, the leadership realized that Hungary’s Jews were the remnants of European Jewry. It was the leadership’s duty and responsibility to do everything it could – the possible as well as the impossible – to rescue and foil the Germans and their collaborators’ heinous schemes to annihilate Hungarian Jewry. To rescue…
The reasons that decided in favor of rescue unequivocally were:
- Absence of favorable topographical conditions: Most of Hungary’s territory is a flat terrain, wooded sparsely and without swamps.
- Lack of time: With the entry of the Germans, the anti-Jewish decrees followed one after another with dizzying speed. Within a very short time, the Jews of the provinces were forced into ghettos, and a few weeks later they were deported to Auschwitz. There was no time to get organized.
- A shortage of people able to bear arms: Most of Jewish men aged 21 to 42 had been conscripted for forced labor by the Hungarian army, and from 1942 the majority of them had been sent to the Russian Front. Those aged 18 to 48 who had not been conscripted were called into service after the entry of the Germans. It was impossible to organize an armed resistance with women and children alone.
- The lack of empathy by the local population: There was an atmosphere of hostility and alienation among the citizens of Hungary and it was unrealistic to expect anyassistance whatsoever from the local non-Jewish population. Not water or food, no hiding shelters or intelligence, not weapons.
“One revolts when there is no other option.When you don’t want to die andwon’t allow others to kill you, when you can ensure life – that is an awesome responsibility,”declared Rafi Benshalom.
The Hungarian authorities were taken by surprise by the occupation of Hungary, as were the Jewish institutions. However, the Zionist Youth Movementwere not. With the eve of the occupation andon the next day, while other organizations had not yet realized the dramatic significance of the current situation, they reacted.Members over seventeen years old were ordered to assume an Aryan identity,(Aryanization,) and go underground. Armed thus with a new identity, anti-Jewish laws would not apply to them and they would be free to act and rescue others. Withthat strategic decision, the underground’s activities began.
Along with the Aryanization, the youth movements took on two rescue operations:
- Dispatching emissaries to the Jewish communities in the provincial towns and to forced labor camps.
- Organizing the smuggling of Jewish youth across the Romanian border, from where they would continue to Palestine.
From the first day of the German occupation, the Jewish communities in the provincial towns were isolated, cut off from the central Jewish institutions in Budapest and from the rest of the world. Jews were prohibited from using public transport, telephones were disconnected, and radios were turned over to the authorities. On their own initiative, the Underground Youth Movement sent emissaries to the cut-off provincial towns to warn them of the expected anti-Jewish measures: The ghettoization, imminent deportations and what was to follow. The emissaries brought forged documents, money, and instructions for the Jewish youth on how to escape to Budapest.
The emissaries were equipped with the proper documents for their dangerous missions. Efra Agmon wore a uniform of a railway official.Asher Arányi the uniform of Levente, the state paramilitary youth organization, and Efra Nadavtraveleddressed as a student from Budapest,equipped with the Student identify card of the university. Others reached their destination with order papers for a labor camp or as ordinary citizens. The hunters of army deserters and Jews in disguise did not suspect the innocent appearance of TzipiNadav.Sometimes the emissaries managed to make contact with friends or local Jews, at othertime there was a total lack of trust by community leaders. Documentation exists attesting that in the course of 1944, some 200 emissaries were dispatched to 300 communities and forced labor camps. The Zionist Youth Resistance Movement inHungary was the only initiator that carried out thosedangerous missions to rescue others.
Aliya was the only way to escape concentration camps, death campsand certain death: Crossing the Romanian border and continuing on the way tothe land of Israel. Thus began the organized border smuggling of Jewish youth, (known as tiyul, the Hebrew codename used by professional smugglersas well) into Romania, via the border towns of Szeged, Kolozsvár (Cluj), Békéscsaba, and Nagyvárad (Oradea). Among those who had participated in that dangerous activity, we shallname HannahGantz, Asher Arányi, Moshe Alpan,JakovDiósi, Yehuda Levi, and MenahemTzviKadari.
Smuggling people across the border was a dangerous and complex operation. It began with grouping them in Budapest and preparing each member individually.Along with memorizing their new names, they had to be provided with suitable clothing andproperdocuments,and each had to be provided with both Hungarian and Romanian currency. The candidates were briefed on how to behave on the long train journey, where they would meet and how they would recognize the smuggler, what they had to do in a strange city at night, how they would send the message that the border had been crossed successfully, and what they must do on the Romanian side. First they had to pass through the ring of security forces – the army, the police, and undercover agents who tried to identify and capture Jews in disguise– enter the railway station in Budapest, and purchase train tickets. Then, during the long train journey they had to avoid attracting attention, and provide their documentsnonchalantly to the suspicious inspectors. They had to spend the night in a strange city, in the dark and in the company of the smuggler. They had to cross the border at night on foot and then send back the agreed signal that the crossing was accomplished. They had to reach the first big city on the Romanian side, either Arad or Torda, where the local Jews who spoke Hungarian helped the escapees – who did not speak Romanian – to reach Bucharest, and onward from there… Some were captured in those dangerous operations, on the train journey, in the border towns, or sometimes on the Romanian side as well.
The organized smuggling operation ended on August 23, 1944. Romania switched sidesand joined the USSR against Germany. The border between Romania and Hungary became a battlefield. Apart from the Zionist Youth Resistance Movement, no other organization took responsibility forthe rescue operation. According to the records of the Jewish communities in Arad and Torda, between April and August of 1944, 15,000 Jewish youth crossed the border illegally. This smuggling operation that rescuedJews from certain death was unprecedented in its scope in German-occupied Europeduring World War II.
On October 15, 1944, following the putsch by the fascist “Arrow Cross”Party, the brutal persecution of the Jews of Budapest began. Every day, Jews of different age groups, men and women, were ordered to report for forced labor. In the wake of the various deployment orders, the adult Jewish population of Budapest disappeared and many children were left on their own. Then, a spontaneous campaign began:Neighbors and older siblings brought the children who remained without their parents to the offices of the International Red Cross, at 4 Mérleg Street.The Zionist Youth Resistance Movement reactedat once. Within a short time, they established 55 children’s homes under the protection of the International Red Cross, in the framework of Department A, headed by OttóKomoly, president of the now-illegal Zionist Federation. They rented suitable buildings and provided them with basic equipment: beds, mattresses, blankets, cooking utensils, and toys. They organized a staff of educators from among the movements’ membership, appointed administrative and economic staff, placed guards, and put up a sign on the building’s façade: “This building is under the protection of the International Red Cross.”
The Zionist Youth Resistance Movement ensured a regular supply of food to the children’s homes, as well as a supply of heating material for the cold winter months. Every evening, the director of the economic section of Department A, the person in charge oftransportation, and Efra Agmon, who represented the Underground Youth Movement, would discuss thoseneeds. The three decided to which children’s home, “protected house,” or the central ghetto Seventh District supplies would be sent on the following day, which supplies, from which storehouse, and by which means of transport. The role of the Underground Youth Movement was to escort the carts, protect the food supplies from armed “Arrow Cross” squads, or from arbitrary confiscation by an army unit, and to deliver the suppliessafely to their destination – that was the supreme mission of the Underground.
During the reign of terror of the “Arrow Cross” Partyand the siege of Budapest, the Underground Youth Movement established, operated, and saved fifty-five children’s homes in which 6,000 souls survived. This is a unique and inconceivable story of World War II.
From 1941, the Swiss embassy in Hungary had represented both Great Britain and Palestine affairs, as part of the British Empire, including arrangements for Aliya to the land of Israel. Three weeks after the successful Allied landings in Normandy on June 6, 1944, a forum of Hungarian government ministers approved the Swiss embassy’s memorandum:The 7,800 immigration certificatesissued by the Palestine authoritiesand available at the Budapest officecould be implemented.
On July 24th, an office was opened at the “Glass House”on 29 Vadász Street with the sign:“Emigration Section of the Office for Foreign Interests Representation of the Swiss Legation.” It processedemigration applications and organizedemigration to the land of Israel. Until the administrative emigration process was finalized, the applicants received confirmation to the effect that they were registered in a collective passport, and until their departure from Hungary they were considered Swiss citizens under the protection of the Swiss legation. This document was known as a Schutzpass (letter of protection).
The Zionist Youth Resistance Movement demanded representation at the “Glass House,” a building that held extraterritorial status. In August, an office headed by Rafi Benshalom began operating. On the door was a sign reading, “Hehalutz Section.”In that office, the Underground distributedthe forgeddocuments; missions were assigned to the underground members;candidates for crossing the border were prepared; coded messages on successful border crossings were received, and the emissaries were directed to the forced labor camps. At that “Glass House,”news about the captureof underground members and their imprisonment was received, and plans for their releasewere made. At that Hehalutz office, discussions of cooperation and negotiations with representatives of anti-German and anti-fascist groups were held,without the knowledge the “Glass House” administration. The leadership of the ZionistYouth Resistance Movement also met in the safety of the “Glass House,”and this replaced the random and dangerous meetingsheld in cafés and parks.
Duringthelast two weeks of October, after the putsch by the “Arrow Cross”party, the doors of the“Glass House”were opened. Under the initiative of Alexander Grossman,escapeesfrom forced labor camps, families of Zionist activists, members of the youth movements and othersmoved in. In November, a Swiss embassy emblemwas affixed also to 17 Wekerle Street (today Hercegprimás). In December, the wall separating the attached building on 31 Vadász Street was torn down and the abandoned building of the Hungarian Football Association was filledwith about 1,000 recruits of the youth movementsunder the command of Dr. Shimshon Nathan. The Zionist youth movements organized the activities of daily life in the three buildings, and of the many people involved, we shall rememberMoshe Biderman, SimhaHunwald, and Benjamin Feigenbaum. In those three buildings of the “Glass House,” more than 4,000 Jews found refuge, and were liberated by the Red Army on January18th, 1945. The building that had been chosen to serve asthe office of emigration (Aliya) had become a significantshelter for persecuted Jews, all thanks to theYouthUnderground Movement.
In October and November of 1944, Jewish men aged 16-50 and women aged 16-40 were ordered to report for forced labor on defenses and fortifications around Budapest (October 21st); 70 forced-labor units of Jews were removed by the Hungarian Army to Germany (October 26th). The horrific death marches of women, children, and the aged were off on November 6th, while on November 2nd and 3rd, the thunder of Russian Katyusha rockets could already be heard about 12 to 20 kilometers away from Budapest.
The mad race for life began. The Zionist youth of the “Glass House”initiated animmense ambitiousrescue operation: Provide a Schutzpassfor every person, to gain time and to postpone the end!!!
They began by printing the Schutzpasses, underground members distributed them from the “Glass House” and the offices of the International Red Cross at 4 Mérleg Street and at 52 Baross Street, on József Avenue, and at the ”Swiss Consulate”on 2-4 PerczelMór, that was established precisely for this purpose.Mounted police in front of the building in Szabadságtérprotectedthe crowds who were “storming” the consulate, until PeretzRévész and AvriFeigenbaum (Prof. Andrei Fábry), who had presented themselves as consulate officials, managed to sign the Schutzpasses. With the help of these documents, entire units of forced laborers were brought back from the German border. One of those who conceived and ran this vast and successful rescue operation was Alexander Grossman.
In May-June 1944,the Magyar Front, an anti-German alliance, was formed.Several anti-government parties participated,along witha number of individuals (Kisgazdapárt, Kettős Keresztszövetség, SzociáldemokrataPárt, BékePárt, NemzetiParasztpárt, Demény-Csoport, EndreBajcsy-Zsilinszky).When the participants had decided on concrete measures, i.e., to operate underground, they needed forged documents. In the absence of a suitable apparatus, all the members of the anti-German alliance approached the Zionist YouthResistanceMovement with an identicalrequest, to provide the documents that would enable them to change their identities and operate underground. All their requests were fulfilled. The significant documents provided for the anti-German alliance were a 'Police residential report', military documents, and military factory workers documents. Some of the connections made through the cooperation in the struggle against the regime were PálDemény and his close circle, and Labor leaders IvánKádár, LászlóSólyom, and SándorGalambos-Futó. The Underground Youth Movement also maintained contact with a priest, the Protestant Albert Bereczky,with PálFábryof the liberal circles,with Van der Walls, an Allied officer who had escaped from German captivity,with VilmosTartsay, with the priest PáterBalogh, and with others. The anti-German circles provided apartments, hiding places, and jobs for the members of the Zionist Youth ResistanceMovement.
The Underground Zionist YouthResistanceMovement, a small andpersecuted Jewish underground, cooperated and provided commendable assistance to the anti-German organizations.
The most effective weaponof the Zionist Youth Resistance Movement was thedocument, the appropriatedocument, and the workshop for forged documents was the Underground’s very core. An efficient team, working undercover, produced the various daily ammunition required by the Zionist Youth Resistance Movement and the anti-German resistance groups.
At the request of HashomerHatzairyouth movement, David Gur joined the workshop team in March, 1944. Within a short time, he was in charge of the workshop’s operations, converting production from“Elite tailoring” and adapting it to the demands of the time, that of mass production: Obtaining document forms, preparing stamps, and solving conspiratorial logistical problems.
The illegal forgery workshop served the underground’s rescue-resistanceeffortfaithfully. The conciergeof the apartment houses demanded astamped 'Police residential report'. For the members of the underground whose livesdepended on forged documents, obtaining a ration card was also an existential issue. The people who crossed the border into Romania, the emissaries sent on rescue missions to the provincial towns, the escorts of the food consignments to the children’s homes, inmates in the forced labor camps who were planning to escape, all needed appropriate documentation. In addition, documents were needed to rescue Jews from mass gatherings prior to and from the death march itself. As the front moved closer to Budapest, only a “military factory worker” document or an “army discharge”certificate could save men of recruitment age from deportation to Germany, or from facing a firing squad.
Due to safety and conspiratorial reasons, the workshop changed its location and cover. It moved from the studio at 12 Bethlen Street into a private apartment at 1 Darázs Street. After it was hit by an Allied air-raid, it moved from its location at 52 Kerepesi Road to the basement of 93 Rózsa Street, where it operated in temporary safety,acting asan office representing a soy factory, located at Csepel Island.
Following theputsch by the“Arrow Cross”Party,the workshop tried its luck in the MóritzZsigmond bookshop in Baross Street, and later again in the same street,in the library building of the fascist students union, (CsabaBajtársiEgyesület), that belonged to the Semmelweis University. The daily appearance and presence of several youths of university age blended with the local atmosphere. In early December,our liaison with the outside world did not appear at the appointed time, or later.As dictated by the underground’s unwritten rules, the workshop relocated at once.
On December 21, 1944,at its new “working location” at a branch office of the City Engineer at 13 Erzsébet Street, three members of the workshop team, along with all the equipment, were captured.
The three, David Gur, Miki Langer, and Andrei Fábry, were brutally interrogated at the“Arrow Cross” offices in the SixthDistrict. Miki Langer died as a result of theextreme torture. The remaining two were taken to the Central Military Prison on Margit Avenue, where their interrogation and torture continued. In a daring operation on December 25th, the Zionist Youth Underground freed them along withthe 118 imprisoned members of the underground.
In German-occupied Europe of World War II, the central workshop for forged documentsoperated by the Zionist YouthResistanceMovementin Hungary holds a significant and prominent status, both in terms of the sheer quantity and range of the documents it produced, and therescue and resistance achievements that were attained due to those forged documents.
The impressive initiatives and rescue-resistance operations of the organized Zionist Youth in Hungary in 1944 are unique:
- Smuggling some 15,000 young people into Romania on their way to the land of Israel, thereby saving them from Auschwitzand certain death.
- Dispatching 200 emissaries to various Jewish communities and forced labor camps to warn and rescue.
- Providing Schutzpassesfor tens of thousands of Jews.
- Setting up and running 55 children’s homes and saving six thousand souls –unparalleled ever.
The leadership of the Zionist Youth Movement inHungary read the sociopolitical map correctly during an extreme historical crisis, and reacted immediately and practically, organizing rescue missions and assumingresponsibility for life and death. In its wisdom, the leadership knew to delegate responsibility and activated the members of the underground in expanding circles. The members of the underground risked their lives willingly to save their comrades and rescue tens of thousands of Jews unknown to them, all in the spirit of Jewish and human solidarity.
The decisions of the leadership of the Zionist YouthResistanceMovement on rescue operations were autonomous. No one issued them orders,not locally or from abroad. The activists of the Underground had ample opportunities to escape. That they did not do. They remained at their posts, risking their lives time and again to save others.
The actions of the Jewish resistance bore sociopolitical significance for the wider Jewish public.Toward the end of the Szálasi regime, the Jewish population of Budapest viewed the underground membership and leadership as an alternative Jewish leadership.
The German Nazis and Hungarian fascists fully intended to annihilate and not leave a traceof Hungarian Jewry. The Zionist Youth Movement dared and opposed those schemes, and rescuedmore than 30,000 soulssuccessfully. ThoseYouth Movement emerged from the ruins of the war bloody,yet triumphant.
The Zionist Youth Resistance Movement'sunique, extensive rescue enterprise with its impressive achievements during the German occupation wrote some glorious pages in the history of Hungarian Jewry.Indeed, they are lessons andinspiration for future generations.
March 15, 2015