Murdered on the Verge of Survival: Massacres in the Last Days of the Siege of Budapest, 1945

Part I: First-Hand Accounts

Introduction

The diverse and multilingual nature of Holocaust-era records is clearly exemplified in the case of the historical sources pertaining to the Holocaust in Hungary. Despite large-scale wartime damage and intentional destruction, millions of Holocaust-era archival records survived in Hungary. Due to the subsequent border changes, the documents on the Holocaust in Hungary are scattered across seven countries today. Even within Hungary proper, the material is divided among more than one hundred collection-holding institutions.

The documents and photographs published and analyzed in this blog post are culled from six key collections from the four major archives in Budapest holding Holocaust-related records. This selection provides an insight into the final phase of the so-called “Last Chapter” of the Holocaust, as the genocide in Hungary aptly named.

The blog post is divided into two parts. Part I presented below depicts the last and bloodiest crimes committed by Hungarian extremist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest at the very end of the war via early survivor accounts and trial records, as well as documents of post-war autopsies and exhumations. Part II: The Profile of the Perpetrators will appear in the Document Blog soon.

See fullscreen visualisation of Massacres in the Last Days of the Siege of Budapest, 1945

Mapping the documents was made possible by Neatline (an Omeka plugin).

Please follow the links for the collection descriptions in the EHRI portal:

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Historical background

January 18 is a key remembrance day in Hungary dedicated to the end of the siege of Pest and the liberation of the largest (and one of the last) surviving ghettos in Hitler’s Europe. However, the events which unfolded on the other bank of the Danube in these fateful days are seldom remembered. In Buda, the battle raged on, and pro-Nazi Arrow Cross militias continued to terrorize Jews, whom they held responsible for the Soviet invasion, and others they also regarded as „internal enemies”. Instead of facing the overwhelming Soviet forces, a group of Arrow Cross diehards took vicious “revenge” on the most defenseless targets. In the charming middle-class neighborhood of Városmajor (District XII) they launched raids against three Jewish health care institutions. Between January 12 and 19, the Arrow Cross men slaughtered more than 300 people, mostly the elderly, the sick and women, at these sites, while the advancing Red Army troops were only a couple of blocks away. The murderous campaign continued until the Soviets captured the Buda side of the city on February 13, 1945. The total number of Jewish civilians killed by Arrow Cross militias in Budapest is estimated at 8- 9,000.

As a result of the increased concentration of Jews in the historically Jewish quarters on the Pest side (Districts V, VI and VII) during the waves of ghettoization between June and December 1944, only a couple of thousand Jews had remained in the Buda side of the city. As most of the young men and women were dragged away for forced labor, those who stayed were mostly women with children and elderly people. Some of them lived in a couple of designated “yellow star” houses, whereas others found refuge in Jewish health care institutions. Many of these sites had been put under the protection of the delegations of neutral countries and the International Committee of the Red Cross. International diplomats launched a campaign in the summer of 1944, which evolved into the most-large scale and organized rescue operations in the history of WWII. As the Arrow Cross government pursued to gain international recognition, initially the embassies of neutral countries (including Sweden, Switzerland, the Vatican, Spain and Portugal) could keep the Hungarian authorities under pressure and the protective status was largely accepted. However, later on this influence diminished, as these countries failed to acknowledge Ferenc Szálasi’s regime. After Christmas time, when the Soviet forces encircled Budapest and the top leadership of the Arrow Cross left the city, terror was unleashed again in the streets of Budapest. Arbitrary violence perpetrated by independent Arrow Cross gangs did not even spare the sick, elderly or minors, and did not respect any diplomatic immunity. Instead, Jewish hospitals and social institutions became primary targets of vicious attacks. Robbery, blackmail, torture and rape became an everyday routine in this period. Thousands were dragged away from the ghettos and internationally “protected” buildings, taken to the bank of the Danube and shot into the icy river.

In District XII of Budapest, the Arrow Cross militias brought particular notoriety. They were under the command of the infamous former Catholic monk, “Father” András Kun, a particularly merciless and fanatic perpetrator. From their bases at Németvölgyi Road 5. and Városmajor Street 37. they launched raids on a daily basis, targeting Jews, whom they collectively accused of having Soviet and communist sympathies, as well as deserters, “traitors” or other opponents of their regime. Having retreated from the Pest side, they targeted Jewish social institutions in the neighborhood, which were under the protection of International Red Cross. The hospitals survived hostile attempts back in the end of November, when delegate Friedrich Born successfully intervened on behalf of them. In January, however, neither the status of immunity nor the certification issued by Arrow Cross higher authorities stopped the militiamen.

Hungarian National Museum Photo Department
Captured members of the Városmajor Arrow Cross group lined up at the mass grave in the backyard of the Maros Street Jewish hospital, April 23, 1945

The Városmajor Massacres

On January 12, 1945, a detachment of some 20 armed militiamen under the command of András Kun raided the Jewish hospital in Maros Street. They sacked the building and then they led their victims to the garden, where they shot all the staff and patients, 40 men and 44 women. Four young nurses were dragged to the Németvölgyi Street base, where they were tortured, gang raped and killed. On January 14, 1945, 20 to 30 militiamen invaded the buildings of the “Dániel Bíró” Orthodox Jewish hospital and sanatorium in Városmajor Street under the pretext of controlling the papers of patients and employees. The terminally ill unable to move were killed in their beds, whereas the others were taken to the backyard of the building and shot. A group of Jews with forged documents and non-Jewish employees as well as some people hiding in the cellars survived this attack. However, the following day the murderers returned and killed every survivor found in the building. The death toll was around 150. In order to get rid of the bodies, the hospital building was set on fire on January 17 and burnt to the ground. Finally, on January 19 the Orthodox Jewish nursing home on Alma Street was attacked by the killing squad. Due to the close proximity of the two blocks, the old men and women in the nursing home witnessed the tragedy next door, and realized lethal danger, but they were helpless and had nowhere to escape in the besieged city. Kun’s men robbed the building as a routine, and then took more than 70 inmates to the nearby park, where they slaughtered them with hand grenades and gunshots. Then, they threw the bodies into a bomb-crater.

 

Justice and Documentation

In the case of the Arrow Cross atrocities in Budapest, retribution followed the crimes with exceptional swiftness. Only days after the massacres, the first investigations began on the Pest side, and the People’s Courts started to operate. The first war criminals were hanged on February 3, 1945, while the combat for Buda was still going on. In the upcoming weeks, nearly all members of the Városmajor killing squad were arrested, and the re-organized Hungarian authorities started to collect evidence on the events. Established by the National Committee of Budapest in late February, 1945, the Committee for the Investigation of Nazi and Arrow Cross Atrocities was one of the earliest attempts at the documentation of the Holocaust (avant la lettre) in Europe. The members of the committee collected thousands of testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses, organized exhumations, autopsies and burials of victims and provided the people’s tribunals with invaluable material for the trials against war criminals.

Only a fragment of the records of the Committee for the Investigation of Nazi and Arrow Cross Atrocities have survived in the Budapest Municipal Archives. The majority of the collection (6 fascicles) consists of administrative records concerning the creation and daily activities of the committee, correspondence, police records and photographs on fatalities and autopsies as well as burial records. Only 3 fascicles (Boxes no. 19-20, cc. 0,25 linear meters) contain testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses recorded or received by the Committee.

Hungarian National Museum Photo Department
Relatives of victims, spectators, policemen and representatives of the Committee for the Investigation of Nazi and Arrow Cross Atrocities at the exhumations in the Maros Street hospital, April 23, 1945.

The exhumation of the victims of the three massacres in Városmajor began on April 22, 1945, and lasted for about a week. It became an emblematic commemorative event, as well as a key moment in early documentation of the Holocaust. Besides the representatives of Hungarian and Soviet authorities, the relatives of victims, eyewitnesses and a five-member camera unit under the renowned Hungarian-Jewish artist and photographer Sándor Ék, the officer of the Soviet Red Army, most of the perpetrators were also present. Fourteen out of the some twenty members of the killing squad had been captured and were confronted with the remains of their victims, as a series of dramatic photographs and a film footage testifies.

Newsreels on the exhumation of the victims in Maros Street, 1945: http://filmhiradokonline.hu/watch.php?id=5956

In a series of trials between 1945 and 1951, 20 members of the Városmajor Arrow Cross group were sentenced to death and were executed.

The memorial plaques erected at the killing sites had reflected the ambiguous and far from equivocal attitudes of Hungarian society toward the Holocaust: one plaque is hidden within the Maros Street building, the other in Városmajor Street merely mentions “Jewish victims who lost their lives here”. Only in 2015 was a memorial providing a detailed account of the events erected on the wall of the Alma Street nursing home.

 

Bibliography

On the ghettoization in Budapest in 1944, see Tim Cole, Holocaust City. The Making of a Jewish Ghetto. New York-London: Routledge, 2003, Chapters 5-8.

For a detailed account on the siege of Budapest and an overview on the Arrow Cross terror in general, see: Krisztián Ungváry, The Battle for Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II. London-New York: I.B. Tauris, 2010, esp. pp. 236-251.

For a documentary account and overview on the Arrow Cross rule, mass murders, and international rescue, see: Zoltán Vági, László Csősz and Gábor Kádár, The Holocaust in Hungary. Evolution of a Genocide. Washington, D.C.: USHMM-AltaMira Press, 2013, Chapters 5 and 9.

***

Translation of the documents: Gergő Paukovics, Hungarian National Archives

Special thanks go to Wolfgang Schellenbacher (Jewish Museum in Prague) and Krisztina Oláh (National Széchényi Library Map Collection) for their invaluable contribution to the editing process. We are grateful to our colleagues at partner institutions, János Varga (the former Hungarian National Film Archives), Etelka Baji and Judit Gaskó (Hungarian National Museum), András Sipos and his team (Budapest Municipal Archives) and Gábor Prinner (Hungarian Jewish Archives) who provided vital assistance in obtaining the documents featured in this blog post.

© Map of Budapest, 1937-38, courtesy of National Széchényi Library, Map Collection TA 6 696/ 25-27; 31-33

© Photos: Sándor Ék, courtesy of Hungarian National Museum Historical Photo Department (MNM TF 88.328; 88.271)

13 Comments Leave a reply

  1. I’m one of the babies that survived (born July 25, 1945) the Pest side of the Arrow Cross sweeps. My Mom was not very precise about locations where she hid during “those months.” Thank goodness she was successful. But she did talk about the challenges of coping with the terror of roving bands of thugs. Her husband had been taken to Mauthausen; she was proecting their baby. She said it was “horribilis”. Well into the 1950s, we always had to eat with the curtains closed shut. Thank you for the links to these awesome records. Every name uncovered is an additional bulwark supporting the “never again” aspiration. Evil happens. Light keeps it at bey.

  2. Thank you for your supportive and thoughtful comments! Thank you, Andrew, for sharing this very personal story with us. In the upcoming second part of our blog post we are planning to analyze what kind of people actually constituted these “bands of thugs”. We are going to present some results of our archival research on their social backgrounds and motivations.

  3. Thank you for all this. Although it is deeply upsetting to read, it is also very important for the information to be publicized. My second cousin, Eva, was 26 years old in 1944, and from 1999 – 2003+ she recalled some of these events when she told me about how she and her sister survived the siege. I wrote down everything she said, including “My father’s brother in law was a bookkeeper at a maternity hospital on Varosmajor utca … and his wife… was the head midwife…. One hideous, horrible day, a Catholic priest wearing a big cross came in with Nyilas soldiers. the priest sang Catholic prayer songs while the soldiers killed everyone – women in labor, babies, family members… and my uncle and his wife.”

  4. In 1944 I was liberated on Xmas Day in the Second district in Buda. My mother and I along with my sister were hiding out at a house on Endrody Sandor utca. There was no sign of Nazis only a few Wermacht units were packing to leave on Pasareti Square.

  5. I would add two individual stories about losses during the last phases of the battle for Bdapest. The first one concerns the hamily of the engineer-businessman Lajos Sebestyén, his wife, their dughter and infant grandson, who fled from their hometown of Debrecen to Budapest to avoid the mass deportations then in full force in estern Hungary. They found refuge in Buda, but were discovered there by a roving “Nyilas” band of roughs who draged the group down the Danube enbankment shot at them and threew them into the water. Only Mrs.Sebestyén by having been pulled from the water my a kindly bystander, and survived the warin a hospital.

    The other tragic story if of engineer Leo Báron who, was caught on the streets by units of the advancing Red Army in Buda, and who was then commandeered to carry supplies up Gellért Hill for the Soviets battling the last remnant of Nazi Resistance. This was the last day of fighting in the Budapest area. While at work Báron was hit by a random gun shot and immediately lost his life. He left a widow with four children.
    He was an uncle of myself, and his children, my cousins, ended up in America after the War.

    This incident showed that hazards, other than “Arrow Cross” Jew killing, did not avoid fatal outcome for some unfortunate persons, Jewish or otherwise.

    Andrew Lenard, Bloomington, Indiana

  6. Many thanks once again for sharing these outstanding stories with us. Actually, each of them could incite further discussion. For example, the fate of Leo Báron should remind us what we tend to forget: hardships did not end with liberation. Battles, diseases and hunger took their toll. Besides, thousands of Hungarian Jewish survivors were dragged off to Soviet camps right after the end of the war.

    1. I am not sure how many people, today, know about Selvarajan Yesudian or Elisabeth Haich. They founded a Yoga school in Budapest in 1939 and had popularized Yoga across Hungary for many years.

      They, too, went through hard times during ‘The Siege of Budapest’. They have mentioned about it in some of their books. I have recounted some of it on my website on Yoga. Those interested may go through the following link, http://www.standupandbefree.com/about.html

  7. Please email Dr. Zsuzsanna Ozsvath
    The Leah and Paul Lewis Professor of Holocaust Studies
    Ackerman Center for Holocaust Studies
    The University of Texas at Dallas

    She lived at Abonyi street 10?

    She has also written the book, When the Danube Ran Red (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010) by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth about the YELLOW HOUSE, location Abonyi Street 10.

    Email her at: zozsvath@utdallas.edu immediately!
    and get her story on this website!

    Thank you so much!

    Best regards,
    Z. O.

  8. Thank you for this website. My father lived at 91 Kiraly utca and along with his parents, were hidden in a basement while the massacres took place.

    He was taken at 14 to work in a work gang (1944) cleaning brick from broken buildings. My grandmother got him away from it some how.

    He’s gone now and I wish I could find out more. He had a wonderful life in Australia from 1949 till 2018.

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