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New Holocaust Book Explores Tabooed History of Jewish Councils in Hungary

László Bernát Veszprémy, historian, journalist, editor-in-chief of, and MIMC Founding Member presented his latest book at the headquarters of the Lajos Batthyány Foundation (BLA), in the renovated Lónyay-Hatvany villa, where he spoke with Eszter Zsófia Tóth, historian. The title of the new book, published by the Jaffa Publishing House, is Tanácstalanság („Bereft of Council”), and the topic was the history of Jewish leadership in Hungary during the Holocaust. The book is already a bestseller on Hungarian online bookstores.

After a welcome speech by Tamás Dezső, President of the BLA, the moderator, Lázár Pap asked the question: what were the Jewish councils, why were they created, what was their role? Veszprémy explained that Jewish councils were a specific Nazi invention, because the Germans soon realised that Jews could more easily take orders from their own leaders than from a German. Therefore, in the occupied countries, Jewish leaders were forcibly united and through them the German demands were passed on. They organised life in the ghettos, and they had to maintain order through the Jewish police. The Jewish leaders were ultimately faced with a tragic, insoluble dilemma, as they were drawn into the destruction of the very communities they were trying to protect.

Veszprémy identified more than 150 rural Jewish council leaders in his research. Most of the rural councils were headed by neológ men, mostly lawyers, who had previously played some role in Jewish community life, but there were also a good number of Orthodox Jews and rabbis. Sometimes leaders from very strange backgrounds became council presidents as well, for example Róbert Pap from Szeged was a „bourgeois radical” left-winger, and Ödön Antl from Kaposvár was a smallholder. The Jewish Council of Budapest was headed on paper by Samu Stern, former president of the Pest Israelite Congregation, but from the time of the Arrow Cross takeover, the de facto leader was Lajos Stöckler, an orphaned World War I veteran married into a wealthy family, who was previously unknown in the Jewish community life.

According to the author, an important question is who knew what about the Holocaust before the German occupation. Surprisingly, much could be learned about the genocide in German-occupied Europe from the contemporary press, despite censorship: there were reports of the yellow star, ghettos, concentration camps and deportations. It is true that one could not read about the Auschwitz selection process and the gas chambers, but there was also a lot of news about this from Polish and Slovak Jewish refugees. The Jewish congregation in Pest also had a press review system, the archival material of which survived. In 1943 theyreported, based on Swiss newspapers that the Germans had already murdered two million Polish Jews. The Jewish leaders were therefore well informed.

Did any of them defy the instructions of the Germans or the Hungarian authorities? In his answer, Veszprémy pointed out that, contrary to popular belief, there were indeed council leaders who organised resistance or refused German demands. These were always met with violence: some were shot dead, and others were deported. The Jewish council in the capital was supposed to play a role in Hungary’s leaving of the German side and joining the Allies, and stockpiled weapons for this purpose. This attempt was foiled in the end by the Arrow Cross takeover, but the weapons were used, according to some sources, by the resistance fighters in Teleki Square, who attacked Hungarian and German law enforcement in a shoot-out known as ‘Little Warsaw’ at the start of the Arrow Cross coup. In return, the Germans engaged in bloodshed, so this shows how much sense the idea of armed resistance made. In addition, Jewish men of military age were on labour service, women were over-represented in the ghettos, therefore it is questionable who should have resisted: the women and children?

Eszter Zsófia Tóth said about the book: the value of the book is that Veszprémy has uncovered a lot of primary sources, visited many foreign and Hungarian archives, and tried to get the last forgotten memoirs as well. “It’s rare in the profession that someone goes after primary sources with such diligence,” she noted. According to Tóth, the author wants to understand, not judge, because it is a problem that in 20th century Hungarian history we often make claims about the past on a normative basis.

After the Second World War, a popular opinion developed about the Jewish councils, which judged their activities negatively on a normative basis, and this stereotype was then passed on to generations of historians. Here Tóth cited the example of Randolph L. Braham, who compiled a list of council members superficially, based on oral recollections, rather than on primary archival data, “not going back to the basic sources”. The role of György Moldova is also important, since the writer adopted similar stereotypes in his novel about the case of Rabbi Béla Berend.

The Holocaust was tabooed after the war, and it was often omitted from Communist biographies that the person in question was in fact, a survivor. Tóth herself interviewed a factory manager who, even in his old age, had concealed the fact that he had been to Auschwitz. According to the historian, one of the reasons why many people did not take seriously the newspaper reports about the Holocaust was because they thought it could not happen here.

Pap asked: did the communists knowingly spread false accusations about the councils? The two historians agreed that this was a conscious process. Veszprémy revealed that some of the accusations came from dubious statements made to the political police, which were then obtained by left-wing newspapers and published as factual reports. In many cases, these statements were then not presented as evidence in the courtrooms. Some of the accusations, however, proved to be true, and are mentioned in the book, such as discrimination against the Christians of Jewish ancestry or the accusation of selection in the rural concentration camps. But most of the accusations were fabrications or distortions.

Tóth pointed out that in the case of the People’s Court proceedings, there was deliberate propaganda, and lawyers were often unable to do their job because the pressure was so great. After the war, many of the people were sucked into the system and wanted to avoid being picked on by the Communist press. A good example of this is István Hárnik, a Jewish Council-member from Pécs, who became a convincted Communist after the war. Veszprémy added that even this did not save some people, for example, Stöckler joined the party after the war, disbanded the Zionists, but was arrested in ’53 and beaten and then convicted in a show trial.

In response to Pap’s question, Veszprémy explained that, in reviewing the history of the Budapest Council during the deportations, he found that the council did try to help rural Jewry, but that it had minimal real influence on events. The Budapest Council sent financial aid, sent couriers, collected news and protested to the government – all to no avail.