On 19 March, 1944, the German army entered Hungary. Starting on that date, all matters concerning the Jews fell under German authority. Their fate was dictated by Adolph Eichmann’s special unit, and executed by the Gestapo and its Hungarian minions.
On 26 June, 1944, three weeks after the Allied invasion of Normandy, on the coast of France, the Hungarian Crown Council, headed by Regent Miklós Horthy, convened and ratified the Hungarian cabinet’s decision to honor the request by Swiss Deputy Consul Carl Lutz, that the holders of 7,800 “certificates” to immigrate to British-controlled Palestine be allowed to leave Hungary.
Car Lutz was appointed as Switzerland’s deputy consul in Hungary on 2 January 1942. His job included representing the countries whose diplomatic relations with Hungary had been severed due to the war. In mid-June 1944 Lutz asked the Hungarian government to allow him to distribute the 7,800 immigration certificates (issued by the British Mandate in Palestine), which had been relayed to the Palestine Office in Budapest.
Following the Hungarian government’s approval of the distribution of the certificates, Lutz requested permission to set up a new office, separate from the Swiss consulate, where he was already handling the consular matters of 12 countries. The sole purpose of the new office was to process applications for the certificates. Palestine Office Director Moshe Kraus, who had obtained asylum in the Swiss consulate, asked the Hungarian Zionist Association to help find a suitable building. Albert Geyer, a lawyer who represented the association, suggested the glass factory owned by the Weiss family, at 26 Vadász Street, and the Weiss family agreed. At the request of Lt. Col. László Ferenczy, the Hungarian Royal Gendarmerie’s liaison with the Gestapo, ownership of the building was transferred to the Swiss embassy. On 24 June, 1944, a sign was affixed to the building, “Department of Emigration, Representation of the Foreign Interests of the Swiss Legation.”
The Zionist activists formed the backbone of the clerks who processed the applications and verified the eligibility of the 7,800 Jews who sought to build their future in Palestine. The application forms with all their details and the applicants’ photos, and which were signed by Carl Lutz and the Hungarian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were bound in four albums.
The applicants received confirmation that they were included in a “collective passport” and that until the completion of the formal processing (the German passage permit was granted only on 15 November, 1944, by which time half of Hungary was controlled by the Red Army), they were protected by the Swiss government.
From the moment the Germans invaded Hungary, the Zionist youth movements operated together as the underground Zionist Youth Resistance Movement (ZYRM). This organization claimed that it was an Aliyah movement and demanded its own representation, as had been the practice for many years in the Palestine Office in Hungary. Their request was accepted and in the middle of August the movement was assigned an office in the Glass House. The sign on the door was the Halutz Department, and its director, Rafi Benshalom, represented all the branches of the ZYRM. Rafi represented the ZYRM in all its dealings with the management of the Glass House, the Zionist institutions, the Jewish community bodies and the neutral embassies.
The ZYRM, under the auspices of the extraterritorial status of the Glass House, was able to hold its meetings in the building. At these meetings, tasks were delegated, members were given life-saving documents to use during their missions, underground couriers were sent out, information was shared regarding successful border crossings, or conversely, regarding members who had been captured by the police, and plans were made to release the prisoners. This safe house was used for discussions with representatives of the non-Jewish anti-Nazi groups, who came for assistance from the ZYRM. All these activities were conducted without the knowledge of the Glass House director or Consul Lutz.
The constant comings and goings at the Halutz office attracted attention, and the management was not pleased with all the activity. On 15 October, 1944, the directorate exercised its authority and banned the entry of the ZYRM leadership. The police at the main gate, who personally knew each and every one of the leaders, gave them the disturbing news. Rafi Benshalom and Efraim Agmon forcefully interrupted a meeting of the directorate, demanded their rights and the rights of the ZYRM. Only the radio announcement of Horthy’s message of a ceasefire between Hungary and the Soviet Union halted the argument.
After the Hungarian Arrow Cross party gained control of the government, dramatic events ensued, one after another. Budapest’s Jewish residents (men aged 16-60, women aged 16-40) were conscripted to forced labor units, to build fortifications around the city. 70 units of the Hungarian army’s Jewish forced laborers came under the direct command of the Germans. In a brutal death march, women, elderly men and children were exiled to Germany. During that period, the outskirts of Budapest resounded with the thundering of Soviet Katyusha rockets.
The mood in the Glass House changed. The underground and its ideals were accorded legitimacy. The doors of the building were opened to the Zionist youth movement members and deserters from the forced labor companies, and essentially any Jews who reached the building were given refuge. The sign of the Swiss consulate was also affixed outside the office building at 17 Wekerle St., and passageways were dug between the basements of the Glass House and the neighboring abandoned offices of the Hungarian Football Association at 31 Vadász St. By liberation day on 18 January 1945, the three buildings that comprised the Glass House complex were serving as a safe haven for over 4,000 Jews.
The Glass House building was not designed to house thousands of people. In the new reality the administration had to maintain order and discipline, and organize sleeping arrangements (in shifts), food, water, sanitation and guard duty at the entrance. Alexander Grossmann shouldered these responsibilities, and with exceptional organizational skills and tireless dedication (sleeping only 2-3 hours each night), he managed the daily lives and activities of the multi-generational masses that crowded into the commercial building that was initially transformed into “consulate” and ultimately became the largest and safest refuge for the persecuted Jews of Budapest. The attic housed the Hanoar Hatzioni members, members of the Mizrahi movement and Bnei Akiva. The basement was shared by members of the Hashomer Hatzair , Maccabi Hatzair and Dror Habonim. The basement was also the location of the synagogue and had space allocated to Orthodox families with children. Grossmann’s burly guards regulated the traffic at the entrance gate.
When the “consulate” extended its control to additional buildings, Grossmann moved his office to the “branch” at 17 Wekerle St. Simha Hunwald took over for him at the Glass House. Alexander (Shimshon) Natan was chosen as the “commander” in charge of the nearly 1,000 youth movement cadets and forced labor unit deserters, who moved into the adjacent basement at 31 Vadász St. Hunwald and Nathan were assisted by activists at the Glass House and group leaders of the various youth movements, such as Moshe Biedermann (Hanoar Hatzioni ) and Benjamin Feigenbaum (Bnei Akiva).
The underground leaders realized they had one mission: staying alive. There, in the confines of the Glass House, they came up with the idea to provide every Jew with a Schutzpass – a certificate of protection from the Swiss government – to delay the inevitable for as long as possible. During the final months of the Arrow Cross’s reign of terror, led by Ferenc Szálasi, and the siege of Budapest, the underground initiated the printing and distribution of 120,000 Swiss protection certificates.
The certificates were distributed by members of the underground , via every possible channel, including the International Red Cross’s offices, institutions and children’s houses. In order to keep up with the demand, the underground set up a “consular branch” at 2 Perczel Mor St., opposite the consulate where Carl Lutz worked, on Szabadság tér (Liberty Square). Peretz Révész and Avri Feigenbaum were in charge of that branch. Mounted police were stationed outside the entrance to the branch, to maintain order among the thousands of certificate applicants.
Pest, the eastern part of the Hungarian capital, including the Glass House and its branches, the main ghetto in the District VII, and the international ghetto (what was left of it), was liberated by the Soviet army on 18 January, 1945.