Day Two In Budapest, Hungary

Today was our last day in Budapest, and we had the entire morning to do as we pleased. During the Holocaust, countless Hungarian Jews were taken to the Danube River and were forced to strip naked before being shot into the River. Most of the time, the Jews were told to take their shoes off since shoes were a great commodity during the war, but if their shoes were worn out, they would likely be killed still wearing them. In many cases, the Arrow Cross would remove the shoelaces and tie the victims’ hands together, and in such instances, only one person would be shot, causing the other to drown. During the winter of 1944-1945, the Danube River was known as the “Jewish Cemetery,” because even if you weren’t shot, you’d likely die from the freezing cold water.

In 2005, a memorial was installed on the Pest bank of the Danube River, with three plaques in Hungarian, English, and Hebrew reading, “To the memory of victims shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross militiamen in 1944-45.” “On the banks of the Danube River in Budapest, not far from the Hungarian Parliament building, sit sixty pairs of old-fashioned shoes, the type people wore in the 1940s. There are women’s shoes, there are men’s shoes and there are children’s shoes. They sit at the edge of the water, scattered and abandoned, as though their owners had just stepped out of them and left them there” (http://www.yadvashem.org). There’s not much I could say to describe The Shoes On The Danube Promenade Memorial, but as you can imagine, it was completely silent as everyone reflected on the tragedies that occurred right where we were standing. In my previous post, I mentioned that there was a plaque by the Dohány Street Syngagogue which commemorated all of the gentile heroes who helped save Hungarian Jews from being killed in the Holocaust. One of those heroes was Raoul Wallenberg, a man who saved over 100,000 Hungarian Jews. This is only part of his story:

“In 1944, the United States established The War Refugee Board (WRB), an organization created with the mission of saving Jews from Nazi persecution. The WRB soon realized that serious attempts were being made from the Swedish side to rescue the Jewish population in Hungary. The WRB’s representative in Stockholm called a committee with prominent Swedish Jews to discuss suitable persons to lead a mission in Budapest for an extensive rescue operation. […] The committee approved Wallenberg and by the end of June 1944, he was appointed first secretary at the Swedish legation in Budapest with the mission to start a rescue operation for the Jews.

By the time Wallenberg arrived in Budapest in July 1944, the Germans, under the leadership of SS officer Adolf Eichmann, had already deported more than 400,000 Jewish men, women and children from Hungary. They had been deported on 148 freight trains between May 14 and July 8.

Only about 230,000 Jews, out of a population that once numbered close to three-quarters of a million, were now left.

Wallenberg’s first task was to design a Swedish protective pass to help the Jews against the Germans and their Hungarian allies. At the start, Wallenberg was only given permission to issue 1,500 of his passes. Quickly, though, he managed to negotiate another 1,000, and through promises and empty threats to the Hungarian foreign ministry he eventually managed to raise the quota to 4,500 protective passes.

It was at this point that Wallenberg started to build “Swedish houses” – some 30 houses in the Pest part of the city where Jews could seek refuge. A Swedish flag hung in front of each door and Wallenberg declared the houses Swedish territory. The population of the “Swedish houses” soon rose to 15,000. Other neutral legations in Budapest started to follow Wallenberg’s example, issuing their own protective passes, and a number of diplomats from other countries were even inspired to open their own “protective houses” for Jewish refugees.

Toward the end of 1944, Wallenberg moved over the Danube river from Buda to Pest where the two Jewish ghettos were situated. Even the once minimal level of law that existed on this side was now gone. Simultaneously, Wallenberg’s department at the Swedish legation grew constantly and finally kept 340 persons “employed.” Another 700 people also lived in their building.

Wallenberg searched desperately for suitable people to bribe, and found a very powerful ally in Pa’l Szalay, a high-ranking officer in the police force and an Arrow Cross member. (After the war, Szalay was the only Arrow Cross member that wasn’t executed. He was set free in recognition for his cooperation with Wallenberg.)

In the second week of January 1945, Wallenberg discovered that Eichmann planned a total massacre in Budapest’s largest ghetto The only one who could stop it was general August Schmidthuber, commander-in-chief for the German troops in Hungary.

Wallenberg’s ally Szalay was sent to deliver a note to Schmidthuber explaining how Wallenberg would en sure that the general be held personally responsible for the massacre if it proceeded and that he would be hanged as a war criminal after the war. The massacre was stopped at the last-minute thanks to Wallenberg’s action.

Two days later, the Russians arrived and found 97,000 Jews alive in Budapest’s two Jewish ghettos. In total 120,000 Jews survived the Nazi extermination in Hungary. According to Per Anger, Wallenberg’s friend and colleague, Wallenberg must be honored with saving at least 100,00 Jews” (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org).

2 comments on “Day Two In Budapest, Hungary

  1. davidprosser says:

    Well written Daniel. If memory serves me well, didn’t Wallenberg disappear mysteriously, presumed murdered towards the end of the war? A great shame after all his heroic work.

    • danbalva says:

      That’s correct! I read that while no one is sure of what happened to Wallenberg, it is believed that the Russians were probably under the impression that Wallenberg had other reasons for his rescue efforts. Sources say that they couldn’t imagine him helping others for selfless reasons, so they most likely suspected him of being an American spy and were almost certainly skeptical of his contact with the Germans. After that, like you mentioned, he was unfortunately never seen again which is a terrible ending for such a courageous and heroic man.

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