There are so many Holocaust memoirs in print. You can’t come close to even reading a representative sampling, no matter how much you want to. And, I’d like to read more than I have, because I have never read one that didn’t fascinate me, or teach me something.
Hungary’s experience is different from the experience of the rest of central or eastern Europe, largely because Germany did not enter Hungary until 1944, and occupied it less than a year. Most other countries were invaded in 1939 or 1940. Even though the Nazi occupation was short, the actions against the Hungarian Jews were brutal, in part because by the time Hungary was occupied, the killing centers were in operation, and the railroads were working in and out of the country. Approximately 75% of the 800,000 Jews living in Hungary in 1944 were killed within a ten month period.
I had read a few books on the Hungarian Holocaust. I had read John Bierman’s “Righteous Gentile”, the story of Raoul Wallenberg, the Jews he saved in his safe house, and his mysterious disappearance into the Soviet Union. I had read Anna Porter’s “The Kasztner Train”, the story of the attempts to buy the freedom of Budapest’s Jews from Adolph Eichmann in return for giving the Nazis money and equipment, which failed overall, but did permit over a thousand Jews to leave Hungary. I had read Imre Kertesz’s “Fatelessness”, his memoir of his life in work camps as a teenager. And, I have traveled to Budapest and, when there, done some touring of the major (and not so major) Jewish sites.
And, I thought that I had a pretty good idea of what went on from my trip and these books. But the other day, I ran across a copy of “Masquerade” by Tivadar Soros, the father of financier and investor George Soros. It wasn’t his wealthy son that attracted me – in fact, that gave me the opposite thought, or would this book have been published if he didn’t have a wealthy son? What attracted me was the odd fact that Tivadar Soros had written his memoirs not in Hungarian, but in Esperanto. That fact alone encouraged me to purchase the book.
Soros’ family came from rural Hungary, and appeared to have been financially successful. When he was 20, he enlisted in the Autria-Hungarian army. His unit, in World War I, was taken prisoner by the Russians and he found himself in Siberia, where he worked to perfect both his Russian and his Esperanto. Soros was nothing if not resourceful, and was able to escape from his prison camp and make his way home. He then became a lawyer. As he describes it, he was a lazy lawyer (with one very wealthy client), who never wanted to be prominent; he thought prominence was risky (and it turns out he was right).
What I learned from his book is what happened in Hungary before the Germans moved in, something I had not previously understood. As Soros tells the story, the Hungarian government ardently supported Hitler from the beginning, so strongly that the Germans saw no need to invade and occupy. Anti-Jewish legislation, such as that limiting the number of Jews admitted to universities, were introduced as early as the 1920s, as the country reacted to the extraordinary professional and financial success of its Jewish population during the first two decades of the century. Beginning in 1938, very stringent restrictions were placed on Jews, most related to employment (limiting number of professionals, keeping Jews from government employment, etc.), and even curtailing the right of Jews to vote. Soros says that, in spite of these enormous restrictions, the Jews accommodated, believing that the restrictions would one day pass. (From the Kertesz book, I had learned that Jews were being forced into work teams and work camps, even before the Germans took over; I don’t recall Soros mentioning this.)
The Germans decided to invade and occupy Hungary, according to Soros, when it seemed clear that they were losing the war. They were concerned that Hungary might change sides, as Romania had just done. They asked the Hungarian leader, Horthy, to take some additional steps, which he refused to do. This led to the invasion by the Germans and the replacement of Horthy with a local fascist government. And that’s when the problems began.
From what I see on Wikipedia, 90% of the Hungarian Jews living outside of Budapest failed to survive, while 50% of the Jews in Budapest lived through the German occupation. The Budapest Jews accomplished this in a number of ways. But Soros thought there was only one safe way to hide – to do it in plain sight, forging a new identity with false papers, living as a Christian, and having his family members each go their own separate way. Soros had a wife,a mother in law, and two sons. George was 14; his brother 16.
And it worked. They lived here, they lived there, moving around. They met now and then, at this cafe, in that park. Soros seems to have met every forger in town (and there were many of them), getting papers not only for himself, but for tens of others. He was obviously someone with a gregarious personality, who could easily pass-for-Hungarian. He was a charmer. He didn’t seem pressed for funds. And the authorities, for whatever reason, either did not know he was Jewish, or decided to let him alone.
The story of Soros’ finagling his way, and his family’s way, through this terrible year is sometimes hard to believe. But I assume we are reading fact, not fiction.
It would be interesting to read the memoirs of George or his brother of this year. I don’t know whether they have written anything or not. But if they have, and I find it, I will read it.