It was 70 years ago this week that the mass deportations of Hungarian Jews began.
Only weeks earlier, in March 1944, the German army had invaded Hungary — which had been their ally from the beginning of the war until then. Along with the invading army arrived Adolf Eichmann, who had already masterminded the deportation and mass murder of the majority of European Jewry; his chief deputy, Alois Brunner and Dieter Wisliceny, the S.S. expert who had helped execute the “final solution” in Slovakia and Greece.
The tide had finally turned in favor of the Allied forces; the German army was steadily losing on the battlefield and the Soviets were approaching from the east. Instead of focusing their dwindling resources on trying to win the war, the Nazis were determined to exterminate the 725,000 Jews who comprised the sole remaining Jewish community in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Many Hungarian Jews were aware, at least to some extent, of the fate that had already befallen so many of their brethren. They were cognizant of the fact that more than 50,000 Jewish men had been conscripted into labor battalions known as Munkatabor, where — without training or protective gear — they served Hungarian military battalions in Ukraine and elsewhere, clearing mines and were harnessed to wagons to take the place of horses. Thousands perished, and those who returned told horrifying tales of mass murder and deportations to death camps.
But as late as the beginning of 1944, when millions of Jews had already been massacred, there was still a sense of disbelief among Hungarian Jews. They saw themselves as proud patriots, full-fledged members of Hungarian society. Many of them had served in the Hungarian army and had forged close working relationships with government officials. Certain that the Hungarian leadership would not abandon them, the lay leaders allowed themselves to be deluded by official promises.
It was during the week of Parashas Behar-Bechukosai, 22 Iyar 5744/May 15, 1944 that the first wave of deportations began. During the next seven weeks, 437,402 Hungarian men, women and children were killed al Kiddush Hashem by the Nazis and their cohorts. Hy”d.
In this edition we present to our readers a special supplement sponsored by Project Witness that provides a glimpse of some of the manhigim of prewar Hungary and their legacies, of some of the yeshivos, their unique methods of learning, their specific paths to avodas Hashem and, of course, the spiritual strength that accompanied Orthodox Jewry to the concentration camps.
It is a window into a world filled with mesirus nefesh, emunah peshutah, and emunas tzaddikim.
Using testimony of survivors and direct quotes from teachings uttered by the Rabbanim in the valley of the shadow of death, “The Torah Was Exiled With Them,” an excerpt from a soon-to-be-released book by renowned historian Rebbetzin Esther Farbstein, gives a close-up look at the spiritual leadership and heroism exhibited by the Hungarian Rabbanim in Auschwitz.
In a stirring interview with an elderly survivor who agreed that only his first name, Reb Shia, be used, we read how a verse of Tehillim, sung to the tune used by his Rebbe, the Belzer Rav, zy”a, saved his life. His extraordinary story is about an eternal bond with a Rebbe, and never giving up hope even in the darkest moments.
The saga of Orthodox Hungarian Jewry is one of total destruction, but it is also one of the most incredible tales of emerging from the ashes and rebuilding. With determination to start anew, exhibiting a great degree of emunah, boundless respect for their spiritual leaders, and deep ties to family and community, Hungarian survivors helped establish kehillos and yeshivos. Though they lived very much in the present, they never forgot the horrors of the past and often sought to memorialize the Kedoshim.
Unlike those who were growing up only 20 years ago, many of today’s contemporary youth — usually a fourth generation after the War — no longer have the merit to bask in the presence of Holocaust survivors. They are presumably — sometimes only vaguely — aware that their great-grandfather or great-grandmother was a survivor, but know precious little about what really happened 70 years ago.
It is our hope that this supplement will help underscore the vital importance of educating the generations to come, so that they, too, should keep alive the memories of the Kedoshim and be inspired by the mesirus nefesh of the survivors.