On August 19, 1944, a quite extraordinary thing happened in Hungary, which had been under German occupation for five months already. Dr János Benedek, the főszolgabíró 1 of the Kiskőrös district ordered the internment of István Velich, the agricultural officer of the district and local functionary of the Eastern Frontline Companions’ Association (Keleti Arcvonal Bajtársi Szövetség, hereafter referred to as KABSZ), a far-rightist organization. This fascist, paramilitary organization – comprising of 200 members –, which had been founded in 1942 by veterans who had served at the Russian front, was infamous for its extreme anti-Semitic and anti-communist conviction and the obsession with remaining loyal to the Germans until the end. Until March 19, 1944, the time of the German occupation, it operated illegally, afterwards, they stepped up openly. The members organized unexpected attacks on Jews and leftist workers, as a result of which they earned the dubious reputation of one of the most dreaded organizations.
Between 1920 and 1944, Hungary was a kingdom, whose head of state was Regent Miklós Horthy. In the late summer of 1944, the Horthy regime’s administration was still functioning, but Hungarian far-rightist movements were already preparing for seizing the power with German support. So how and why did a simple district leader confront such a dangerous company, even though he was well aware that he was taking up an important position in Hungarian public administration at a time when there was a double power structure in the country?
Introducing the sources
We are in the fortunate position that two sources are at our disposal concerning this case. The first one is the memoir of Dr János Benedek, entitled Egy porszem a nagy viharban [A fleck of dust in the great storm], which is a quite long autobiography of six volumes. The volumes can be found in the XXXII.5 fond of the Hungarian National Archives – Pest County Archives. The author presents the events of his life in chronological order between 1900 and 1978, from his lineage to his retirement; the case is described in the fourth book. Since János Benedek lived through the entire 20th century, he witnessed many crucial events, such as the Holocaust. As a person responsible for the implementation of anti-Jewish measures on a local level, he described these along with the fate of the properties left behind, the activities of those profiting from them, the organization of the ghettos in and around Kiskőrös, and the circumstances of the people forced to move in them. Numerous other stories concerning the Jews can be found in the autobiography, such as the impact of the anti-Semitic atmosphere, infiltrating the era as an unpleasant “smell”, on the emotions of a young civil servant preparing for public service, or the fuss around the restitution of survivors returning from death camps.
János Benedek saw and heard a lot, he walked around with open eyes and ears. Probably he wrote a diary, as his data, names and events are traceable; he is quite accurate and precise. Naturally, the memoir finished in 1978 is subjective and clearly not free of the self-justification, which was characteristic to the Hungarian memoirs written after the Second World War by civil servants or persons who had had a position in the army of the Horthy regime. Nevertheless, a critical reading of Benedek’s narrative – complemented by other types of sources – reveals the scope of action of civil servants: whether they were mere “puppets” of the regime or they had space to manoeuvre at a time when even the slightest diversion from the central directives could save the lives or ease the situation of the persecuted.
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The second group of sources is the records of the official investigations produced during the case, which can be found in the Pest County Archives: IV.408-b 41994/1944, 5139/1944 (records of the Subprefect) and IV.401-b 3420/1944, 3930/1944 and IV.401-a 3806/1944 (records of the Prefect). The protocols provide the complete picture of the case, which followed three threads. From them it is clear that KABSZ initiated the case, as according to them Benedek “did not implement [the anti-Jewish laws] radically enough”. Through the proceedings, testimonies, results of investigations, a clearer picture can be gained about the climate of the era, the actions and motives of the actors. These sources can also be applied to contextualize what is written in Benedek’s memoir.
Benedek was born on February 27, 1900 in Galgahévíz, as the fourth son of a peasant family. His life was characterized by physical work from the age of 4, and it remained like that until his university years. After finishing elementary school, he frequented the Petőfi Gymnasium of Aszód between 1913 and 1921; then he applied to the Public Administration department of the University of Economics, which he finished in 1926. Besides studying, he worked as the notary of Hévízgyörk in 1924. In 1926, he was appointed as the delegated szolgabíró 2 of Pest-Pilis-Solt-Kiskun County, which was, however, an unpaid job. In the following seven years he worked in almost every district of Pest County – even in the Centre for a while. Then in 1933, he was chosen as szolgabíró. In 1942, he applied for the position of főszolgabíró, which he won as the result of the political plotting of county officials. This was the road a peasant had to take among the social-political conditions of the then still half-feudal Hungary, in order to obtain this important post.
From the spring of 1944, the beginning of the implementation of the “Endlösung” in Hungary, Benedek faced ever graver decisions both morally and legally. This was the time when it turned out who was a real “servant of the public” and who was a cogwheel in an inhumane machinery, who might even spin it up out of financial interests or led by blind ideology. The case presented here is an outcome of this situation.
After he survived the Second World War with his family in Budapest, Benedek returned to Kiskőrös in February 1945. He was encouraged by a letter, which was written by the inhabitants of the Kiskőrös district, asking him to return. After several rounds of approbation – by the district’s Soviet military leadership, the Approbation Committee of Kiskőrös – he received his previous job. This fact makes it probable that he was not found guilty of collaborating with the German occupiers or blindly implementing the anti-Semitic regulations of the Hungarian government in 1944, which is underpinned by that he did not escape to the West at the end of the war, like the majority of anti-Semitic civil servants. Shortly after the communist takeover, he was removed from public service by the leadership of the newly formed Bács-Kiskun County, as according to them “the measures against the kulaks of the district were not strong enough”. These words were strangely similar to the ones in the report of KABSZ, only this time they were written by the Hungarian communists.
The conflict of the KABSZ of Kiskőrös and Dr János Benedek, April-October 1944
The documents of the so-called “Velich case” can be found at two places at the Pest County Archives: in the fonds of the subprefect and those of the prefect. The reason for this is that three investigations took place at the same time. From the Interior Ministry, the subprefect ordered official investigations based on the report of the KABSZ; János Benedek initiated two investigations; one in order to detect the accusations against him and another to search for incriminating evidences against István Velich – the denouncer – local leader of the KABSZ, based on which he could intern him.
As János Benedek wrote in his memoir, “Velich would like me to back him and cover his actions [against the Jews]. He said that numerous times. Then I answer that I cannot prevent his actions, he does whatever he can and wants, but I will not back him and cover him. He should leave me out of his activity, they should not count on me. Later on, I heard from my informers that he kept advocating against me and incited the Arrow Cross [far right, anti-Semitic party] against me as they are getting stronger. I don’t know whether Velich is acting out of his own will or is encouraged by others.” This quote enlightens how “neutrality” could be used against the representative of the KABSZ: seemingly Benedek “washed his hands” and gave freedom of action to Velich, but he also made it clear that he would be accounted for his deeds, as the főszolgabíró did not provide legal backing. Benedek’s attitude in turn provoked Velich’s hostility and contempt.
According to the memoir, while talking with the district notaries, Benedek learnt almost “by chance” that Velich had mishandled the state property entrusted to him. Grabbing the opportunity, Benedek initiated investigations immediately, involving the gendarmerie. The gendarmes found out that indeed misusage had happened; then together with evidences and testimonies, Benedek went straight to lieutenant general László Mérey, the prefect of Pest County. With the consent of the prefect, he had Velich interned, however, with the help of the Arrow Cross, he was soon set free.
From the archival documents a slightly different order of the events evolves, which revolved around the denunciation for being too “merciful” towards the Jews. The reason for this discrepancy might lie in that Benedek intentionally omitted the sensitive question of the persecution from the memoir – not only because of its moral connotations, but also because during the socialist period the Holocaust and the pre- and post-war situation of the Jews was a taboo. On the other hand, it would not have created a flattering picture of him that during the case he had proved his loyalty to the Horthy regime.
According to the sources, the story started with the report of the KABSZ, written on June 4, 1944 and sent to the Interior Ministry. From this document it turns out that the far-rightists of Kiskőrös charged Benedek with several things, which would have justified his removal. A few quotes from the text of the report:
- Benedek does not want to implement the anti-Jewish decrees “very radically”, because “we don’t know what will follow [after the war]” (quote from Benedek)
- “The Germans don’t care about Hungary’s fate. For them, it doesn’t matter whether the frontline is over or within the Carpathians, as there is the Tisza and the Duna, beyond which they can retreat” (quote from Benedek)
- When the Jews were forced into ghettos, he kept a Jewish “advising committee” in his office, which gave him advices concerning the ghettoization. In exchange, the Jews built a bunker in the courtyard of the főszolgabíró’s office
- When the decree ordering the closing of Jewish shops was read in the radio, Benedek did not act immediately, therefore the Jews could keep their shops open for one more day
- He handled the cases of the Jews with utmost understanding, at the same time criticized the decrees of the government
- Jews could do shopping at the local market and they could stay in touch with Christians
- Benedek was not willing to distribute the claimed Jewish house to KABSZ, referring to formal mistakes of the application
The report concludes with the following sentence: “Since it is not indifferent in which direction a district is progressing today, removing him and pushing him to the place he deserves, would be a relief and it would be a warning to those who think the same way.”
The final reason why the KABSZ reported the főszolgabíró was one of his statements – unfortunate at the time – which he had said to Mária Póczy, a teacher in Kiskőrös, who had visited him for the fourth time in the hope of getting a Jewish house. Referring to the uncertain situation – as the Germans had been collecting the Jews of Kiskőrös just then – he said, “You see, now they are collecting the Jews but maybe at some point it will be our turn.”
Considering that the ghetto of Kiskőrös was established at the end of May and the denunciation happened at the height of the persecution, even if the charges of the KABSZ were exaggerated, they prove that the “neutrality” of Benedek was used in favour of the Jews at least partially. Some of his statements give away that his attitude derived from the ability to clearly see the military situation and the approaching defeat of Germany, and taking into consideration the possible consequences. Even though he only tried to balance between his duties as a civil servant and an individual, who would have to face a post-war calling to account, this resulted in that eventually he eased the situation of the persecuted.
Dr István Paál, entrusted with the investigation of the complaint of KABSZ, got over with the whole case on August 5, within only one day. The activity of Benedek must have had been observed for a while, as we get to know it from the testimony of Dr László Komáromy, his deputy. According to him, gossips about Benedek’s removal had been going around in the district since the end of March – following the German occupation. First, János Székely – Velich’s companion in the plotting against the főszolgabíró – mentioned this to him accidentally; probably he had been curious of his reaction. After the bombing of Kiskőrös on April 3, he was told that the főszolgabíró would surely be removed from the district in the coming days. Then “recently” he had heard from Dr Károly Gyimesi, a general practitioner in Kiskőrös, and other officials not from the same district that the transfer would happen for sure. Thus, Komáromy was constantly informed about the planned change, moreover, about the report of KABSZ too. The question arises, why he did not inform his superior about the plotting against him, about which he had been told at least three times? Unless he had received an offer from Velich in the case of Benedek’s transfer!
Dr János Benedek’s defence and István Velich’s internment
During the investigation of Dr Paál, in his testimony, Dr János Benedek obviously denied the statements attributed to him. Dr Paál accepted this, labelling them as gossips or things heard indirectly. The charges stating that Dr János Benedek “did not fulfil his official duties against the Jews and he implemented the relevant decrees in favour of the Jews”, Dr István Paál dismissed them by saying that “This statement is refuted by the content of the protocol.” However, he did not underpin this with facts! Concerning the above charge, Benedek referred to the decrees of the prefect: “About the Jewish issues, I can only say that I proceeded according to the orders of the subprefect and the prefect; as they ordered me to treat the Jews humanely during the ghettoization and even after that.” However, it would be pointless to search for such passages about polite treatment in the decree no. 27.409/1944 of the subprefect, as it only states that “this decree shall be implemented with utmost force, but refraining from any brutality or abuse”. Thus, much depended on how the civil servants implementing the decrees wanted to read them – and here the nuances of interpretation as well as the scope of action of civil servants can be captured: Benedek saw politeness and humaneness in the decree; carefully picking the actions which would compromise him neither then, nor after the war, he could, again, cover up his real intentions with a “neutral” stance.
Keeping his distance from the Jews allowed him to reflect on the charges of KABSZ, concerning those Jewish families who did not wear the yellow star, like this: “I do not know them personally, thus I do not have the possibility to control everyone.” Thanks to his bureaucratic machinations, Jewish shops were closed one day later, while he was waiting for the decree to get to him through an official channel and did not act immediately based on what had been said in the radio, as Velich and his companions urged him to do. Thus, Jewish shopkeepers had the possibility to sell their merchandise. These actions balanced between persecution and helping: obviously the főszolgabíró had the means to control whether the Jews kept the laws, it was his duty to do so, therefore implicitly assisting them in eluding anti-Jewish measures meant going against the regime and the will of the occupiers. By doing so, Benedek became an exemplary representative of those members of administration, who demonstrated that “following the orders” was not an excuse for participating in anti-Jewish persecution without conscience.
In order to prove his loyalty to the regime, Benedek attached two documents to the case: one about the proclamation of the ghetto of Kiskőrös, in which its territory was assigned, and his decree no. 3801/1944, issued on May 23, 1944, in which he informed the municipalities and gendarme posts of his district about the setting up of the ghettos and their regulations. According to the főszolgabíró, even though the decree no. 27.409/1944 did not limit the amount of properties the Jews could bring to the ghettos, he did so in his own decree. “Despite this, as főszolgabíró, I confirm that we applied restrictive measures concerning the properties that the Jews could take to the ghetto, about which I present the committee protocol no. 3801/1944, written on May 23, 1944.” This decree can be found in the records of the investigation of Paál, however, there is no mention of restrictive measures concerning the properties of the Jews in it.
Reading the protocols, it is obvious that Dr Paál wanted to help Benedek. The still present, anti-German persons in the administration of Pest County also wanted to protect him. His strongest ally was most probably the prefect himself, László Mérey, who was forced to retire in 1940, due to his anti-German attitude. In 1944 (after the German occupation), he accepted the post of the prefect with the personal guarantee of the Regent that the German influence would not increase in the country. Mérey needed people like Benedek or Paál in order to keep the administration from shifting to the far-right – and into the hands of the Germans. Concerning this, a sentence of the prefect is characteristic: “In my opinion, in the case of the [Russian] occupation, it is much better if he is the főszolgabíró and no-one else.”
The counter-attack of Dr János Benedek in the case was stylish. His campaign to gather evidence against Velich was quite successful, as he managed to shed light on two illegal acts. These cases justified the internment. In 1937, misusing his authority, Velich forced the expensive Shell insecticide on the farmers of the district; moreover, he obtained this insecticide with the help of a Jewish wholesaler. In the spring of 1944, he sold blue vitriol entrusted to him by the state to the local wine growers, in exchange for processed pork meat. Apart from these, Velich also had a traffic infringement case, when it turned out that he had used his car without the permission of the főszolgabíró on May 29, 1944, the day after of Pentecost, a holiday. The főszolgabíró felt the evidences at his disposal strong enough to get Velich interned on August 19, 1944, and inform the prefect only two, while the subprefect six days later about this. The reason of the internment was a banal thing.
The end of the case was, of course, that Subprefect Sághy put an end to the internment on August 29, 1944, thus Velich could return to Kiskőrös. Benedek wrote in his memoir that a local doctor, who was known in far-rightist circles, visited him in his office the next day and calmed him that the “Arrow Cross” – meaning the KABSZ – did not plan revenge. This was far from the truth, as it turns out from the records of the prefect: Benedek was reported again at the Interior Ministry on September 15. The charges were almost exactly the same as in the previous report, with the addition that Benedek “interned a respected father of three out of his personal vanity, which resulted in common indignation.” However, the főispán wrote a letter to the ministry that the charges were the same as in the previous case and Dr István Paál had proven that they were false and served only political revenge.
On October 15, the Arrow Cross Party seized power and the főispán, following his resignation on October 20, had to go into hiding until the end of the war. Some days later the front reached Pest County, thus the war put an end to the case. István Velich did not return to Kiskőrös after the war, his fate is unknown.
According to the charges and the superficial investigation conducted by the county against Benedek, it is probable that he did not withhold his opinion and the incriminated sentences had indeed been said. Even though implicitly, he tried to help the Jews who were forced into ghettos, he was not German-friendly – as many other civil servants at the time – and probably he belonged to the Anglophile circle. The fact that the KABSZ denounced him twice, seems to prove this. Most probably Benedek was an opportunist, who sought his own survival, and tried to preserve his position, which came with good salary and social prestige – and which he had obtained with difficulty due to his origins. During the time of the Holocaust, his actions were also motivated by that he had no other income apart from his salary as a civil servant; besides, he feared for his family. On the other hand, knowing too well that the war was coming to an end, he also did not want to collaborate unconditionally.
As a result, he had to juggle on the edges of two knives in 1944. He had to prove his loyalty towards the far-rightist, German-friendly government; on the other hand, he tried to decrease the weight of anti-Jewish measures, seeing that soon he would have to give account on his deeds to the new regime, and his own conscience. For him, the situation was a serious existential question, which is strengthened by the fact that he tried to remove István Velich from the district by every possible means. All in all, Benedek’s example demonstrates the situation, possibilities, limitations, scope of action of a civil servant during the Holocaust; his case shows us how one individual could balance on the blurry boundary between collaborating and helping.