17. Hungarian Catastrophe


At the end of February 1944, Adolf Hitler left the claustrophobic surroundings of his military headquarters in a forest in East Prussia and travelled to the Berghof, his home in the mountains of southern Bavaria. The reason for his change of location illustrated Germany’s fortunes at this point in the war – his headquarters in East Prussia were no longer safe from air attack and had to be fortified. So while that work took place, he returned home to the landscape that had inspired him since the 1920s.

When Hitler stood on the terrace of the Berghof he could stare across at the Untersberg, the mountain in which according to legend the mighty warrior Frederick Barbarossa lay sleeping. But by now his own dream of becoming an all-conquering hero stood little chance of turning into reality. German forces were in retreat. The Wehrmacht had abandoned the vital Ukrainian iron-ore mines, and Germany’s supply of oil from Romania was threatened. In late February 1944 the Americans had launched a series of massive bombing raids against Germany’s industrial base. These attacks, later known as ‘Big Week’, didn’t just destroy key factories, but demonstrated that Germany’s air defences were wholly inadequate to deal with the Allied threat.

Yet Hitler was nothing if not self-confident. Despite all these setbacks, when Goebbels visited him at the Berghof in early March he found his Führer ‘fresh and relaxed’ – almost upbeat. The new front line in the east was shorter, said Hitler, and that was to Germany’s advantage. Moreover he was ‘absolutely certain’ that the expected Allied landings in France would be repelled. German soldiers could then be moved from the west for a new offensive in the east. ‘I hope these prognoses made by the Führer are correct,’ wrote Goebbels in his diary. ‘Lately, we’ve been disappointed so often that you feel some scepticism rising inside you.’1

Hitler’s anger was directed, as always, against the Jews. The week before his meeting with Goebbels, he had spoken to Nazi leaders in the banquet hall of the Hofbräuhaus in Munich on the twenty-fourth anniversary of the foundation of the party. In his speech he had promised that the Jews of Britain and America would be ‘smashed down’ just as the Jews of Germany had been. His words had been greeted with ‘thundering applause’.2 Now, back at the Berghof, he brought up with Goebbels once again the question of troublesome partners – to begin with, Germany’s difficulties with Finland. The Finns, whom Hitler had always thought unreliable friends, looked to be trying to exit the war, just as the Italians had done. He didn’t need to mention – since both he and Goebbels knew it – that the Finns, even more than the Italians, had refused to cooperate in the deportation of their Jews. Not that the Germans had particularly pressed them, since they knew in advance that the Finnish government would be loath to agree to German demands for a comprehensive ‘solution’ to the ‘Jewish question’ in Finland. While the Finns had handed over to the Germans several thousand Soviet prisoners of war, a number of whom were almost certainly Jewish, and eight non-Finnish Jewish refugees, the remainder of the Jews in Finland – fewer than 2,000 – had been kept safe. Moreover, the Finns had not put in place any anti-Semitic legislation, and Finnish Jews were even serving in the Finnish Army fighting against the Soviets. This led to the ideologically strange situation, from the perspective of the Nazis, of Jews fighting on the same side as the Germans against Bolshevism, an ideology that the Nazis believed was backed by Jews.3

Just as he realized he could do little to make the Finns cooperate over the deportation of the Jews, Hitler accepted that he could not do much to prevent them leaving the war.4 It certainly wasn’t, from his point of view, worth the effort to try and force them by military means to do what he wanted. But, as he told Goebbels, that was not the case with every one of the Germans’ recalcitrant partners. In particular, said Hitler, the situation in Hungary was very different. While the Hungarians – like the Finns – were trying to extricate themselves from the war, Hungary – unlike Finland – possessed not just enormous numbers of Jews but also valuable raw materials, food stocks and other supplies of use to the Germans. So Hitler had decided that he wanted to confront the Hungarian leader, Admiral Horthy, occupy the country, seize whatever the Germans wanted and deal with the Hungarian Jews once and for all.

Hitler met Admiral Horthy at Klessheim Castle near Salzburg on 18 March 1944. Horthy had hoped Hitler would be prepared to discuss bringing home Hungarian soldiers from the eastern front. He was wrong. Hitler wanted to talk about something else entirely. As soon as they met, Hitler launched into a tirade. He said he knew about the continuing Hungarian attempts to renege on their alliance with the Germans, and claimed that the best way forward was for Hungary to contribute more to the war, not less. The problem, as Hitler had said many times before, was that the Hungarian government refused to deal with the Jews who lived in Hungary. Germany would not tolerate this security threat existing so close to the approaching enemy. As a result, Hitler said, he was about to order the German occupation of Hungary and he demanded Horthy agree to this course of action. Horthy refused and started arguing with Hitler. When Horthy said he would resign sooner than sign, Hitler threatened that if that happened he could not guarantee the safety of Horthy’s family. Horthy, outraged, left the room.

Eventually, after the Germans had employed various tricks to prevent Horthy leaving – such as pretending the phone lines were down and faking an air raid on the castle – Horthy was persuaded to agree to the Wehrmacht entering Hungary and to the deportation of 100,000 Jews. The next day, 19 March, German troops occupied Hungary and two days after that Adolf Eichmann was installed in Budapest, ready to implement the destruction of the Jews.

The occupation of Hungary was not, as the Nazis saw it, an act motivated only by a desire for vengeance against the Jews, even though Hitler certainly believed that the Jews had sabotaged the Hungarian will to fight. The Nazis had a good deal to gain in practical terms from Hungary. Not just raw materials and strategic military advantage – given that the Red Army were advancing ever closer to Hungary’s borders – but also the wealth of the Hungarian Jews. Not only could the Jews be robbed, but those who were deemed fit enough could also be used as forced labour. Given the enormous numbers of Jews in Hungary, that prospect appeared an attractive one to the Nazis.

For many of the Jews of Hungary, the sudden arrival of the Germans, although frightening, did not seem necessarily to mean their obliteration. ‘I could see the fear on my parents’ faces,’ recalls Israel Abelesz, a teenager living in the south of Hungary, ‘and I could see the whole atmosphere had changed. [Maybe] it’s the beginning of something horrible. Though we were hoping this was just a military manoeuvre and the Jewish population will not be affected.’ He read in the newspapers that ‘the Germans had to occupy Hungary in order that they could carry on the war better. We thought it won’t affect the Jewish population. That was the hope. That was the hopeful side. I mean, in a situation like that there’s always hope and despair – it keeps on alternating in one’s mind.’5

Despite the German occupation, Eichmann and his team knew that it would be impossible to deport the Jews without the support of the Hungarian authorities. Eichmann had studied what had happened in Denmark and knew that lack of local assistance had caused immense difficulties, so it was vital for the Nazis to have Hungarian administrative and police help. And that is just what they received. The new Prime Minister, Döme Sztójay – the former Hungarian ambassador in Berlin – was appointed only after the Germans had given their approval, and the two state secretaries with responsibility for the Jewish ‘question’ were both proven anti-Semites. One of them, László Endre, was particularly eager to assist the Nazis. Endre enthusiastically collaborated with the Germans and implemented a whole series of restrictive measures against the Jews – such as banning them from owning vehicles and phones and compelling them to list all their valuables. Also keen to help was a commander of the Hungarian gendarmerie, another anti-Semite called László Ferenczy,6 and Eichmann soon struck up a warm relationship with him.

The recent background to anti-Semitism in Hungary would have been familiar to Eichmann. Hungarian anti-Semites – like German and Austrian anti-Semites – had pointed to the influence that Jews were alleged to possess in the media and in key professions, and also to the supposed links between Judaism and the hated creed of Communism. At the end of the First World War there had even been a Communist government of Hungary for a brief period, dominated by the revolutionary Béla Kun who was of Jewish origin.

Despite this history, and a group of Hungarian anti-Semites willing to assist him, Eichmann knew he was embarking on a vast enterprise that was fraught with difficulties. The potential, from the Nazis’ perspective, for the whole project to fall apart was large. Suppose the Jews learnt that they were all to be shipped to Auschwitz, where the majority of them – particularly the most vulnerable – would be murdered? Wouldn’t they then do all they could to hide and even resist? Eichmann was aware of the precedent of the Warsaw ghetto uprising – what if something similar happened in Budapest?

Eichmann, given the chance for the first time to be the man on the spot rather than directing operations from a desk in Berlin, was determined to avoid the issues that had dogged Nazi plans in both Denmark and Warsaw. To this end, he not only ensured that compliant anti-Semites were in key positions within the new Hungarian administration, but he also moved to calm the anxious Jews about their fate. As a first step, Jewish leaders were told to form a Jewish Council. On 31 March, Eichmann met with four members of the newly formed council at his office in the Hotel Majestic in Budapest and told them that while measures were to be introduced against the Jews – such as the wearing of the yellow star – they should not be concerned about what was going to happen to them, as long as they behaved themselves. He said that ‘the Jews had to understand that nothing was being demanded of them except discipline and order. If there was discipline and order, then not only would Jewry have nothing to fear, but he would defend Jewry and it would live under the same good conditions as regards payment and treatment as all the other workers.’7

The members of the Jewish Council seemed to have been reassured by Eichmann. In one way, the restrictive measures against the Jews implied that the Germans were not going to kill them, but might be seeking a longer-term accommodation. In short, why make Jews wear the yellow star if you just want to shoot them? That was certainly the interpretation that Israel Abelesz and his family favoured. ‘After a few days they came out with restrictions,’ he says. ‘We thought, all right, this is something which we can live with. Because we were aware that the war was not going well for the Germans. It’s just a question of time. They will be defeated. Look – we had been brought up strongly in Jewish history and we realized that all through the generations in different places, Jews have suffered for being Jews. I mean, the original anti-Semitism of course originates from the Jews not accepting that Jesus is a saviour, and that kind of hostility to the Jews has persisted through the centuries. And so we’re not surprised at all that we are being discriminated [against]. It’s just a question of to what degree.’8

Again learning from mistakes that had been made by Nazis elsewhere, Eichmann planned on conducting the deportations not in one massive operation but piecemeal. He would start with the Jews in the east of Hungary, far from Budapest. This had the double benefit, from the Nazis’ point of view, of first tackling the Jews who were closest to the advancing front line under the pretext of military security, while simultaneously not yet attempting the difficult task of deporting the large number of Jews in Budapest, who had more opportunities to hide than Jews in the countryside.

Jews in the east of Hungary – including many who lived on land that had been annexed by the Hungarians – were forced into ghettos as soon as early April. In an operation of great speed, which would have been impossible without the cooperation of the Hungarian gendarmerie, nearly 200,000 Jews were imprisoned in ghettos or in hastily constructed temporary camps in less than two weeks.

The initial agreement with the Hungarian authorities had been that the Germans would deport 100,000 Jews, but once the ghettoization process began the Hungarians themselves lobbied for all the Jews to leave. A crucial element in their thinking was the question of what they would do with the Jews who had not been selected for forced labour. Just as in Slovakia two years before, the Hungarian authorities believed they were better off asking the Germans to take all their Jews, including old people and children.

As the Hungarian Jews waited in the ghettos, most were still uncertain about what lay ahead. Though sometimes they heard clues. Alice Lok Cahana, a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who lived with her family in western Hungary, remembers one non-Jewish Hungarian saying to her, ‘You know, we make soap out of you.’ ‘I said “Really? So remember if you wash yourself with the good-smelling soap it’s me.” ’ Later she ‘cried’ and felt ‘so humiliated that he dared to say something like that, so vile, so horrible to me’.9 But such offensive remarks still did not amount to proof that they were to be killed. Many Jews, like Israel Abelesz and his family, still thought they might be sent to work as ‘compulsory’ labour. ‘That was the best hope,’ he says, ‘the families will stay together and we’ll just have to survive for another few months, because the war is coming to an end. I mean, we were taken away in the last stage of the war.’10

At first sight this lack of certainty among Hungarian Jews about the fate they faced at the hands of the Germans seems strange. Several thousand Hungarian Jews, for instance, had returned home in 1943 from work in labour battalions in the heart of the killing zone in Ukraine, and they would surely have learnt what was happening. Indeed, one Hungarian writer confirmed that by 1943 ‘we had already heard much about the massacres from Hungarian soldiers and Jewish conscripts back from the Eastern front.’11

However, not only would there almost certainly have been a different level of knowledge between sophisticated Jews in Budapest and Jews in remote agricultural areas, but a potent mix of uncertainty and hope still remained in many people’s minds. There were always ways of rationalizing what was going on. For example, even if the Germans had been killing Jews in the east, perhaps that policy of murder applied only to Soviet Jews? It simply made no sense, so one argument went, for the Germans to be killing Jews now that the war was going badly for them. Surely they now needed workers more than ever before? It was these kinds of thoughts that Eichmann encouraged with his promise of safety for Jews who kept their ‘discipline and order’.

What the Jews did know for certain was that the Hungarian gendarmerie, as well as many other Hungarians, were getting rich at their expense. Israel Abelesz watched as members of the gendarmerie searched the Jews and stole ‘money and jewellery’, while Alice Lok Cahana’s family lost not just their house but their whole business – sold for a pittance to a non-Jewish man called Mr Krüger. ‘I was so embarrassed,’ she says, as she and her family were forced out of their town. ‘The scene of going out of Egypt came to my mind. And here was Mr Krüger watching us go by, not with compassion but with glee – the owner of our factory, the owner of our house.’12 Elsewhere in Hungary there were even reports that the gendarmerie tortured Jews to make them reveal where they had hidden their money.13

Central to Eichmann’s plan for the deportation of the Jews in Hungary was the role of Auschwitz. This place was not the crude ‘solution’ to the Nazis’ ‘Jewish problem’ that had been offered by the Reinhard camps. No, the complex of camps at Auschwitz offered a multifaceted answer to the perennial Nazi question of how to deal with the Jews. Part of that, as we have seen, was the sense of permanence of the place, and the development of a more efficient killing process during 1943 with the opening of four new crematoria/gas-chamber complexes at Birkenau. But there were also more recent ‘improvements’. It was only now, for example, that a railway spur was completed that allowed new arrivals to enter under an arch in the red-brick guardhouse of Birkenau directly into the camp. Previously the arrival ramp had been close to the main railway line, roughly halfway between Auschwitz main camp and Birkenau. But with the new railway track inside Birkenau the journey to the crematoria and gas chambers for those selected to die was just a few minutes’ walk. It had taken four years for Auschwitz to evolve to this point, but the images of Auschwitz Birkenau from this short period of a few months have become emblematic not just of Auschwitz but of the entire Holocaust – to a large extent because photographs taken by the SS of the arrival of a transport of Hungarian Jews at Birkenau survived the war.

However, more important than any enhancements in the murder procedure was what Auschwitz had become in conceptual terms. For Auschwitz was not just the biggest murder factory ever built – where people became ashes just a few hours after arrival – it was also, by now, an efficient sorting machine for human beings. The idea was that Hungarian Jews would first be selected on arrival inside the camp at Auschwitz Birkenau, with the old, children and others who looked unfit sent straight to the gas chambers. The remaining Jews would usually be held in a ‘quarantine’ camp within Birkenau for several weeks, and then either allocated to work camps in the Auschwitz area or sent further away, often to camps near industrial concerns within the Reich. Those working in the camps near to Auschwitz would be returned to Birkenau to be murdered once they were deemed no longer useful.

Himmler, working to the wishes of his Führer, had finally devised a physical institution that appeared to solve the question that had dogged Nazi policy on the Jews since the beginning of the extermination process – how does one reconcile the usefulness of the Jews as workers with the ideological desire to eliminate them? Heydrich at the Wannsee conference in January 1942 had talked about working the Jews to death by making them build roads in the east, but the practical details of how this could be put into effect had never been thought through. Instead there had been a series of disputes between those who wanted to preserve the Jews to exploit their labour and those who wanted to kill them. Not only did Auschwitz bridge those two apparently irreconcilable objectives – as long as there remained a steady supply of replacement workers – but it did so within a secure environment. There was little risk of revolt at Auschwitz – the secure area around Auschwitz, known as the ‘zone of interest’, extended far beyond the wires of Birkenau and the main camp, and within Birkenau the various sections of the camp were fenced off from each other. A mass escape along the lines of the uprisings at Treblinka or Sobibór was all but inconceivable. Auschwitz and its network of sub-camps serving various industrial concerns was a self-contained universe. Once inmates entered it, they could live, work and die there – at every stage under the controlling eyes of the SS. It is this – the fact that Auschwitz by this point had become the practical manifestation of the Nazis’ ideological imperative – that helps make Auschwitz the most potent symbol of the Holocaust.

In July 1944, Israel Abelesz experienced first hand how Auschwitz impacted on the Hungarian Jews. He and his family arrived at Auschwitz Birkenau in a freight train after several days’ journey from western Hungary. His train travelled down the new railway spur, under the archway in the guardhouse, directly into the camp. The doors were opened and everyone was ordered out of the wagons. ‘We were told just the people should get out,’ he says, ‘and they should leave their luggage behind – the luggage will be distributed later.’ He remembers that while ‘everything went so fast’, the arrival process still seemed well organized. ‘The prisoners who came out to receive us,’ he says, ‘they brought water. So everybody who was thirsty could drink water.’ He believes this was so that the new arrivals would not get ‘panicky’. ‘We just asked them,’ he says, “what is it here?” They said, “It’s a labour camp.” ’14

The Sonderkommandos on the ramp helped organize the separation of the Jews into two groups: ‘They said, children with their mother, they should go in one row’ and men into another. ‘That’s when I saw my little brother who was eleven years old, he went with my mother, being a child, and that’s the last time I saw them. And I was standing in front of a smart-looking German officer with my father and my older brother, who was sixteen at that time. And the German officer looks at me and he says to me in German, how old are you? So I said to him, “I am fourteen.” ’ Israel added that his birthday had been just a few days before. The SS man ‘smiled back, “Oh, Geburtstag, sehr gut [birthday, very good]. You go with your brother.” And my father also was sort of following us, and he says [to him], “No, no, you go this way.” In a nice [way], just pointing with a little baton.’

Israel Abelesz remembers the SS wanted ‘everybody’ to ‘be reassured’ so they didn’t make ‘any scenes’. ‘Their purpose’, he says, was ‘really speed, like in a factory. It was like on a conveyor belt, and there shouldn’t be any hitch in the conveyor-belt system.’ When he witnessed what was happening, he ‘thought everything’s going to be all right. We are going to work here – like everybody else. I saw those Jewish prisoners, [and thought] we are going to be prisoners like them and we are going to be sent out to work somewhere near by.’ As for his mother, father and younger brother who had been selected to join a different group, he ‘thought they would also be all right. They would be in a different camp.’ After all, that’s what the arriving Jews were told by the prisoners who met them on the ramp. ‘They said, “They’re going to a different camp.” ’

After Israel had been at Birkenau for about three weeks, one dramatic event convinced him that his mother, father and younger brother had been murdered. On the night of 2 August, he heard ‘screaming and crying … and dogs barking’. The noise came from the direction of the Gypsy camp, near his own prison barracks. And ‘in the morning there were no Gypsies in the camp.’ Overnight, following orders from Himmler, the entire Gypsy camp had been liquidated – around 2,800 Roma and Sinti had been murdered. ‘Then I realized’, says Israel, ‘that if they do that to the Gypsies, they would do that to us – or they have done it to us. And gradually it came to our mind that, yes, those people who were not able to work, they went to the gas chambers.’

For the whole summer of 1944 Israel lived in a section of Birkenau that he describes as a ‘labour pool’. There were regular selections from within the group, and the chosen prisoners were taken away to work as forced labour, either within the Auschwitz zone of interest or elsewhere in the Nazi empire. Now that he realized that Birkenau contained gas chambers, Israel was desperate to ‘get away from Auschwitz’. As a consequence he ‘always volunteered’ whenever the SS announced they were selecting workers. But they didn’t pick him. He was small – even for a fourteen-year-old – and bigger and stronger prisoners were taken ahead of him.

Israel became increasingly anxious. Not only was he never picked, but he was growing weaker. ‘Every day there was rationing of food – it was just not enough, a starvation diet. And the overwhelming feeling besides the fear of death is the feeling of hunger. The feeling of hunger is such an overpowering feeling that it covers up any other feeling, any other human feelings … [you become] just like a dog who is looking for food.’15

After three months at Birkenau he saw a new and terrifying sight. Just outside his hut the Germans assembled a measuring bar. Those who reached the required height would be sent to one group, those who were under that height to another. Israel just ‘couldn’t reach it’ so he was put with the group who had failed the test. They were predominantly children between the ages of twelve and sixteen who had survived the initial selection at the ramp because, as Israel had witnessed, ‘there was always a few borderline cases. I mean, both through the upper age and the lower age.’

Israel and the others ‘were told that they are going to the children’s camp. Where they are going to have much better treatment. I didn’t believe it.’ A number of others in the group didn’t believe the promise either, but ‘I suppose they were in such despair by then that they just said it’s no good. No good to fight, we’re giving up, sort of. I mean there were people who went to the electric wires and just killed themselves. They just didn’t want to live like that … they gave up. There’s no purpose in life. I mean it was a terrible situation. People who were part of a family, they lived in a family, suddenly they were thrown into the worst part of hell … your people are getting sent to the gas. It was not a gradual transformation, just suddenly. And it was such a shock for people, they couldn’t take it … In my experience there was no hysterics. The people accepted fatalistically what’s going to happen to them. There was no screaming. Maybe – I heard in the night when they were taking them in the gas chamber there was a bit of screaming. Otherwise, what is to scream? To whom do you scream? You accept your fate. Well, a condemned man in his cell is screaming all night? I don’t think so.’

Determined to survive, he used the confusion of the selection process to his advantage and simply ‘ran over to correct side’ where he hid with the group who had passed the test. But it was only a short reprieve. Shortly afterwards he failed another selection. This time he was saved because he started ‘crying’ and pleading with the SS man, saying, ‘But I’m fit to work, I can work.’ A Kapo slapped him and told him to shut up, but the German SS man said to the Kapo, ‘Oh, leave him, leave him alone.’ As a result ‘he took somebody else instead of me. I just don’t know why I was spared … But that’s what happened with me. So I had the feeling that I’ve been fated by God to survive. I had this strong feeling by then that somehow I will manage to survive. After I managed to get through the selections, I always had a strong feeling … I mean it’s a series of fortunes that I’m here.’

However, Israel didn’t rely entirely on the belief that he was ‘fated by God to survive’. He also looked out for himself. ‘I had with me my brother,’ he says, ‘who was two years older than me and he had more feeling [for others] … I never had this feeling. I was a bit more selfish. For instance, I remember one of the children was crying one morning that his ration of bread was stolen in the night and he’s so hungry. I remember my brother gave a piece of his bread to this boy … I said to him, but why have you given it away, you don’t need [to do] this. “His need is bigger than mine” [said his brother]. This is something I always admired in him.’

By a combination of luck and sharp wits, Israel Abelesz managed to survive until the camps were liberated. But though he was no longer in the hands of the Nazis, he was still tormented by what he had experienced. ‘I don’t know how to deal with it … hardly a day passes when I’m lying in bed and I cannot sleep for one reason or another, [I] always look at those faces of the children [selected to die] and my imagination goes: what’s happened in their last minute? When they were in the gas chambers and the Zyklon B started and they couldn’t breathe any more? And they realized that we are going to get suffocated from the gas. What was in their mind?’

The lethal reality of life in Auschwitz forced many to reconsider their faith. ‘I became an atheist immediately after deportation,’ said Ruth Matias, another Hungarian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1944. ‘My father never wronged a soul, and not only was he wronged, but also so many small innocent children. I saw it with my own eyes, they caught them by their feet, banged them against the wall and their brains split open … Now I am fatalist.’ In Auschwitz she also saw how traditional family bonds of care were tested to breaking point. ‘I saw a girl hitting her mother. The mother would not eat anything but gave her entire ration to her daughter, and still, if the mother took as much as one spoon of food for herself, the daughter hit her … The mother would defend her daughter; be angry at our interference, “Don’t mix in, I’m not hungry.” ’16

As the Hungarian Jews discovered, the Nazis were selecting Jews to work not just in the factories around Auschwitz, but also within the territory of the pre-war Reich. Yet for years a basic tenet of Nazi ideology had been that the Jews should be expelled from these lands. So once again the Nazis demonstrated that there was no absolute ideological clarity in the way they implemented their Final Solution, given that this change in policy was purely pragmatic and was designed to address a labour shortage. It also meant, of course, that unlike the Jews who worked in the network of factories and mines in the immediate area of Auschwitz, the Jews working in the Reich were out of the reach of the gas chambers of Birkenau. Many of them would still die of starvation, disease and beatings, but they did so out of the orbit of Auschwitz.

At the same time as the Hungarian Jews suffered in Auschwitz Birkenau, a mile and a half away Tadeusz Smreczyński tried to survive in Auschwitz main camp. Most of the Poles he had arrived at Auschwitz with a few weeks before had already been sent to the gas chambers, and in early July 1944 he thought it was his turn to die. In the middle of the night, the SS ordered him to join a group of several hundred prisoners and march to Birkenau. ‘Nobody told us what was going to happen,’ he says. ‘During our march we were surrounded by SS men, and one of my friends proposed that we attack them if they are taking us to the gas chambers, because a fast death from a bullet is better than being suffocated for a dozen minutes.’17

But Tadeusz and the rest of his group were not on their way to the gas chambers. They were loaded on to freight wagons at the ramp in Birkenau and taken far away, across the border into Austria to a destination that was almost as infamous as Auschwitz. For Tadeusz Smreczyński had been transferred to one of the most notorious concentration camps in the entire Reich – Mauthausen, near Linz in Austria. Mauthausen opened in the summer of 1938, and had been conceived from the beginning as a very different kind of camp from the traditional Dachau model. To begin with, unlike Dachau, the location of Mauthausen camp had been selected primarily for economic reasons. The camp was next to a vast granite quarry, and prisoners were forced to work here under the most appalling conditions, lugging blocks up the ‘stairs of death’ from the quarry floor.

Before the war, few Jews were sent to Mauthausen. The inmates were primarily those the Nazis claimed were ‘incorrigible’ criminals or ‘antisocials’. But that policy changed in 1941 when hundreds of Dutch Jews were deported to the camp in reprisal for acts of resistance in the Netherlands. Most of these Dutch Jews were dead in a matter of weeks. So dreadful was the experience for the Dutch Jews at Mauthausen that the Nazis in the Netherlands subsequently used the place as a threat – if the Jews did not agree to be deported to the east, then more Jews would be sent to Mauthausen. The reality of this Austrian concentration camp was therefore presented as a more terrifying prospect than the unknown fate that awaited the Dutch Jews if they boarded the deportation trains. The Nazis themselves even recognized the special brutality of Mauthausen. When Reinhard Heydrich had split concentration camps into categories, Mauthausen had been placed in the most severe group of all. Thus while many inmates in Birkenau longed to be selected for a transport out of Auschwitz, simply leaving the Auschwitz zone of interest was no guarantee that their prospects of survival would improve.

Mauthausen was at the heart of an enormous series of business concerns – some owned by the SS, others by private enterprise. The granite quarry was under the aegis of DEST – Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke GmbH, the German Earth and Stone Company – a commercial venture run by the SS. But Mauthausen also supplied workers for outside companies involved in a variety of manufacturing businesses – from armaments to pharmaceuticals. As a consequence, scores of sub-camps were established to service these factories, and the complex rivalled Auschwitz in terms of scale and variety. Mauthausen was also similar to Auschwitz in another respect – a gas chamber was built at the camp. It was used for the first time in spring 1942 around the time that gassings began in the Little Red House at Birkenau. Like the gas chambers at Auschwitz, the one at Mauthausen, though smaller, used Zyklon B. But despite the presence of the gas chamber, Mauthausen was never a camp primarily concerned with the Final Solution, even at the height of the extermination process elsewhere. About 200,000 prisoners were sent to Mauthausen in the course of its existence. Poles made up the largest ethnic group, with approximately 40,000 Polish prisoners deported to the camp. Altogether around half of all those sent to Mauthausen died there, including an estimated 14,000 Jews.18

‘They brought us to Mauthausen,’ remembers Tadeusz Smreczyński. ‘SS men from Mauthausen surrounded our train. Meanwhile the armed SS escort from Auschwitz were standing on the platform doing their best to kick or hit everybody leaving the train with their rifle butts, as if saying goodbye. I saw what was happening. I waited at the back of the train, gathered speed and jumped out of the wagon a few metres away from the escorting guards. I did it to avoid being hit and I was not. New SS guards escorted us to Mauthausen camp. Dawn was breaking. The windows [of the houses] were shut but you could see the curtains open slightly as the Austrians discreetly watched what was happening. We reached the camp. It was situated on a hill with beautiful scenery around and the Alps visible – an area of exceptional beauty where people were meeting their tragic fate.’19

Once in the camp, Tadeusz and the others were told to strip naked and their heads were shaved. ‘The SS men returned from their breakfast,’ he says, ‘and inspected the prisoners standing in lines. We were naked. They walked up and down along our lines and slapped us in our faces, hitting us in the abdomen and stamping on our feet. I waited for my turn. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a young, blue-eyed and blond SS man, maybe in his early twenties. He took a step in my direction. I kept looking straight into his eyes, as he was looking straight into mine for a few seconds, and he did not hit me. He moved towards the next prisoner and hit him. Later my friends were asking how was it possible that he did not hit me. I do not know. I do not know what was on that boy’s mind.’20

Tadeusz found conditions in the barracks at Mauthausen even worse than those he had endured in the main camp at Auschwitz. Not only were there no spare beds to sleep on, but ‘space was very limited and about sixty of us had to stand during the night. They could lie down [only] if someone left his place to go to the toilet, and on his return he would join the standing.’ Next morning they were ordered to assemble in the roll-call square. ‘It was a very hot day and prisoners were reluctant to stand in lines for hours because those who fell down as a result of the heat were finished off. I was standing in the first line. Those too slow to form the lines were beaten with a truncheon. The beating gained such impetus that they started hitting those who did form the lines and I was suddenly hit on the back of my head. I fell down. Luckily the strike was not too strong and nothing happened to me, but at that very moment I remembered the Polish prisoner [in Auschwitz] who advised me not to stand in the most exposed sides of the prisoners’ lines and not to let them kill me.’21

Tadeusz was one of a group selected to travel a dozen miles west of Mauthausen to the city of Linz. Here they were told to build a new camp – part of a network of labour camps in the area. Though one or two wooden barracks and a barbed-wire fence were already in place, the prisoners had to construct everything else themselves. The work was so physically debilitating that Tadeusz realized that he stood little chance of surviving for long. But then he heard that a few prisoners were to be selected for easier work in the kitchen. ‘We ran to the kitchen gate where the chef, and an SS man – a Rapportführer – were standing and choosing ten out of a group of sixty candidates. By the time we reached them they had already selected nine, so I only had one chance. I was asked in German about my age and whether I was healthy and strong and what my occupation was. I responded in German and told them I was a baker because I had worked in a bakery before I got arrested. After some deliberation in low voices they took me on as the tenth one. For me it was the happiest moment of the war.’

As a result of working in the kitchen, he was able to escape the worst vicissitudes of life in the camp – in particular, the hunger. ‘The conditions [in the rest of the camp] were horrible,’ he says. ‘The hunger grew and prisoners fainted from hunger and were dying. Once I saw prisoners carrying a bowl of soup which looked like water from a puddle … As they were walking the soup spilled on the ground covered with trodden snow … and people were licking it out of the snow. Horrible sight.’

The prisoners were at risk not just as a result of their treatment at the hands of the Nazis, but from Allied bombing as well. Shortly after Tadeusz arrived at the camp in Linz, American bombers targeted military factories close by. Suddenly bombs exploded within the camp. ‘I was seized by an enormous panic,’ he says. ‘Those who were running in front of me simply vanished – they were torn apart and [their bodies] scattered. I noticed a hole in the fence and six prisoners the other side of the wires and I followed them unconcerned that any voluntary departure from the camp meant a death sentence for the prisoners.’ Tadeusz and the other prisoners ran about a mile away from the camp and then rested on grass near an embankment. ‘After fifteen or twenty minutes we suddenly heard “Hände hoch!” We stood up with our hands up. Wehrmacht soldiers stood behind the trees with their machine guns aimed in our direction. They were part of the anti-aircraft artillery and having shot down a few bombers they took us for American paratroopers. They were shouting “American parachutists!” At that moment I had a sort of revelation and I shouted back that we are not Americans but the prisoners of the Mauthausen Camp, Linz 3, which had been bombed by the Americans … and that we were waiting there for our SS men to come and take us back. It later turned out that it saved our lives’. Other prisoners who had fled from the camp were executed, but Tadeusz’s prompt explanation of his conduct meant that he and the other prisoners with him were spared. He remembers that the day after the bombing, ‘two young Russians who had escaped with me’ came ‘to thank me for saving their lives’.

The bombing of the camp had another lasting impact on Tadeusz Smreczyński. As he watched the doctors, who were also prisoners, tending the wounded he had a sudden insight: ‘I felt that life could only regain sense if you try and do good to other people. I decided that if I survived, I would become a doctor. I was inspired by prisoners who were doctors who were helping others in the camp.’22 After the war, Tadeusz did indeed become a doctor in his native country. But because he refused to join the Polish Communist Party, his career was blighted and he was denied the opportunity to pursue medical research. ‘I totally rejected Communism in the form it existed,’ he says. ‘It was not at all about the poor, the working classes and the peasants; it was for the benefit of the so-called leaders.’ He stayed true to the life philosophy he had developed as a prisoner of the Nazis. ‘Life has sense only when one does good. Am I right? I did not feel the urge to live a public life. I did not care about financial incentives that would let me compare my car with someone else’s car. I did not need to impress anyone.’23

At Auschwitz, the arrival of the Hungarian Jews in the spring and summer of 1944 led to the most intense period of killing in the history of the camp. Around 430,000 Jews from Hungary were transported to Auschwitz between May and July 1944.24 The majority of them were killed on arrival, with the proportion selected for immediate death varying between 70 and 90 per cent of each transport. To accommodate the vast numbers to be killed, large cremation pits were dug near crematoria/gas chambers IV and V, not far from the original improvised Birkenau extermination centres in the Little Red House and Little White House.

Amid the vast numbers arriving at Birkenau, individual members of the SS felt free to indulge their sadistic imagination. Morris Venezia, one of the Jewish Sonderkommandos working in the crematoria, remembers that two young Jewish sisters and their friend asked one of the SS men if they could be killed together. He was ‘very happy’ to do as they asked, and in the process thought that he would try and see if he could kill all three of them with one bullet. He placed them in a line and pulled the trigger. All three girls collapsed and appeared to be dead. ‘Right away,’ says Morris, ‘we took them and threw them in the flames [of the open pit]. And then we heard some kind of screaming [from the pit].’ It transpired that one of the girls had only fallen down and had not been killed, so now she was burnt alive. ‘And that German officer was so happy because he killed two of them at least with one shot. These animals … No human brain can believe that or understand it. It’s impossible to believe it. But we saw it.’25

Not all Jews in Hungary were sent to Auschwitz. Back in Budapest, Eichmann and other members of the SS were pursuing a parallel strategy in an attempt to extort the Jews’ wealth. Kurt Becher, as head of the economic department of the SS in Hungary, spent his time wresting large quantities of money, jewels and other valuables from Jews in exchange for a promise that their lives would be spared. He allowed members of the Weiss family, for example, one of the richest and most prominent Jewish families in Hungary, to escape to a neutral country once they had transferred ownership of the enormous Weiss Steel and Metal Works to the Nazis.

Eichmann was also directly involved in attempts to extort goods from Hungarian Jews, and in the process he made one of the most extraordinary proposals of the Final Solution. On 25 April 1944 he met a leading Budapest Jew called Joel Brand and told him that the Nazis were prepared to let ‘one million’ Jews go free as long as a suitable ransom was paid. ‘We are interested in goods, not in money,’ said Eichmann. ‘Travel abroad and liaise directly with your international authorities and with the Allies. And then come back with a concrete offer.’26 It is likely that Eichmann knew that such an offer was doomed from the beginning. Why would the Allies bargain for Jewish lives by supporting the Nazis with equipment that could be used to prolong the war? Especially when the Nazis said that any material the Allies handed to the Nazis in exchange for Jews would not be used on the western front – an obvious attempt to split the Alliance. But even if the negotiations stood little chance of success, Eichmann must have thought he would still benefit by them. That is because by suggesting this offer he would demonstrate to Himmler that he too could be as flexible as Becher, his SS colleague, at a time when the German war machine needed all the raw materials it could get.

On 17 May 1944, Brand – together with a shady figure called Bandi Grosz – left Hungary for Istanbul to make contact with the Allies and propose a deal whereby 1 million Jews would be ‘saved’ if the Allies provided the Germans with 10,000 trucks. Once in Istanbul Brand met with the Turkish representatives of the Jewish leadership from Palestine. Subsequently, on 26 May, the British High Commissioner for Palestine, Sir Harold MacMichael, was told of the proposed exchange. The Americans also soon learnt of the Nazi plan, and a divergence in the British and American response to the proposal began to appear. Although both sides rejected the idea in principle, they had different opinions about whether or not to use it to open up negotiations. In America the War Refugee Board, established by Roosevelt in January 1944 to assist those persecuted by the Nazis, took an interest in the idea. The perception of the British, expressed at a meeting of a war cabinet committee on refugees on 30 May, was that Henry Morgenthau, the driving force behind the War Refugee Board, had promised that America would ‘rescue’ Jews, and that this might lead to an ‘offer’ from the Germans ‘to unload an even greater number of Jews on to our hands’.27 Morgenthau, as the British knew, was Jewish, and that thought, plus other factors such as the difficulties the British authorities already had in Palestine, and the challenge of transporting large numbers of Jews during wartime, would have made the British wary of the idea.

The British and Americans had already discussed the problem of rescuing Jews at the Bermuda conference the year before, in April 1943. This gathering of second-tier politicians and advisers rivalled the Evian conference of 1938 for the reluctance shown to offer safe haven to large numbers of Jews. Just as at Evian, the conference was not even officially about the Jews, but about ‘refugees’. And just as at Evian, the British would not commit to accepting substantial numbers of Jews into Palestine. Only a handful of journalists were permitted into Bermuda to cover the conference and the ‘proposals’ reached were kept ‘confidential’ – ostensibly because they needed to be discussed by the respective governments but also, one suspects, because they amounted to virtually nothing. It was in the wake of this ineffectual response to the extermination of the Jews that Roosevelt created the War Refugee Board.

By the start of July 1944 the divergent views of the British and Americans over the Brand mission had hardened. The Americans believed that shelter should be offered to ‘Jews and similar persons in imminent danger of death’, while the British countered with a suggestion that such an offer should be made only for certain categories of Jews – like children and religious leaders.28 This discussion turned out to be of little practical importance because on 7 July the Americans decided to notify the Soviets about the Brand mission.

It is not hard to imagine why the Americans felt it important to tell the Soviets about Eichmann’s proposal. This was a particularly sensitive moment in the relationship between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union. Not only had D Day just been launched in the west, but in the east the Red Army had started Operation Bagration, a massive attack on German Army Group Centre that dwarfed D Day in scale. There were also unresolved political issues connected with the Soviet advance, relating to the future of the eastern European nations that the Red Army was about to liberate. Now was not the time, the Americans felt, to keep the Soviets in the dark about a proposal from the Nazis that would destabilize the alliance. The Soviets, not surprisingly, rejected the Brand deal outright.

But there was another – sensational – element to the Brand mission that the British discovered in Cairo only once they started to interrogate Bandi Grosz, the minor intelligence agent who had accompanied Brand on his trip. Grosz said that he had been told by leading figures in the SS in Budapest to use the mission to ‘arrange a meeting in any neutral country between two or three senior German security officers and two or three American officers of equal rank, or as a last resort British officers, in order to negotiate for a separate peace between the Sicherheitsdienst [SD] and the Western Allies’.29 This idea that the real purpose of the mission was to open negotiations with the West about a way out of the war was certainly what Joel Brand came to believe. ‘My impression was’, said Brand in 1961 at Eichmann’s trial, ‘that Himmler used the Jews as a bribe, as it were, in order to have a visiting card with which to enter into bigger things. [Eichmann] made it clear to me that the deal originated with Himmler.’30

That Himmler knew about the ‘Jews for trucks’ deal is confirmed by Kurt Becher’s post-war testimony and by contemporary documents.31 Indeed, it is scarcely possible that the mission could have gone ahead without his knowledge and approval. Himmler would have felt he already had permission to pursue such an approach because in December 1942 Hitler had authorized him to ransom Jews for hard currency – as long as such an action brought in substantial amounts of foreign money.32 But it is unlikely that Himmler also received authorization from Hitler to start discussions about a separate peace with the Western Allies, even if only in an attempt to cause discord between the Western Allies and Stalin. Although Hitler was open to the spreading of false intelligence – he authorized the leaking in Spain, for example, of a fictitious attempt by the Soviets to seek a separate peace33 – it is hard to see how he would ever have entered substantive peace negotiations, not least because if news of the talks became public the consequences for German morale would be disastrous.

As for Himmler, it is likely that he did attempt to open discussions about a way out of the war at this point. In that context there is an intriguing mystery around a record of a British decrypt made of a telegram from ‘Himmler’ on 31 August 1944. The message was sent direct to Churchill, who clearly didn’t want the document to exist. ‘Himmler telegram. Kept and destroyed by me,’34 he wrote on a note in the file. This is the only record of a decrypted message from Himmler, and apparently the only one out of thousands of other German documents that was destroyed by Churchill. What was in the message – an offer of peace negotiations? It appears we will never know.

A few months later, in December 1944, Theodor Ondrej, an SS intelligence officer, was shocked to learn from his boss, the Nazi foreign intelligence chief Walter Schellenberg, that Himmler wanted to find a way out of the war. ‘One day, by mid- or end of December 1944, Schellenberg told me that Himmler was trying to secure a separate peace,’ says Ondrej. ‘Schellenberg trusted me, so he also told me that Himmler had taken him into his confidence only because Schellenberg, as Germany’s highest intelligence officer, would learn about peace feelers from his foreign agents anyway. This is why he took him into his confidence. My first thought was that Himmler was the least suitable man for a separate peace settlement. SS General Schellenberg smiled and said, “It’s amazing, isn’t it? I support this, even though I know that he is the least suitable man for this.” So Schellenberg was absolutely clear about it, but at the time we were clutching at straws.’35

As we will see later, by the spring of 1945 Himmler was pursuing a number of different options in an attempt to deal with the West, ultimately, as Hitler saw it, ‘betraying’ Germany. So it is not too far fetched to imagine that he was behind the Bandi Grosz suggestion in the summer of 1944. Maybe at that time he just wanted to create a split between the Allies with the suggestion of a separate peace, or perhaps he was seriously looking for a way out of the war and wanted to progress talks. Or, equally possible, he hadn’t decided between those two options and was waiting to see what developed. What is extraordinary, as both Schellenberg and Ondrej remarked, is that the man who in a speech in Posen in October 1943 had boasted that he had helped make the Jews ‘disappear’ could imagine that little more than a year later the Allies would negotiate with him. But Himmler’s ability to delude himself was immense.

In Budapest, in late May and June 1944, Eichmann awaited news of the Brand mission. While he waited, Brand’s wife, Hansi, and an enterprising Hungarian Jew called Rudolf Kasztner held a series of meetings with him. They tried to persuade Eichmann to offer a gesture to the Allies to show that the Nazis were serious about releasing Jews. These discussions crystallized around a proposal to send a trainload of Jews to Switzerland. From Eichmann’s perspective this was not an unwelcome idea. It would demonstrate good faith to the Allies, and also be a means of extorting more money from the Hungarian Jews, as the Nazis could demand payment for every place on the train. Given Eichmann’s interest, Rudolf Kasztner took on the practical task of trying to make it happen. In the process ‘Kasztner’s train’ would become the focus of criticism from the Jewish community – and the repercussions would lead to Kasztner’s assassination in Israel after the war.

In part, Kasztner was attacked because the train contained many of his own relations – including his mother and brother – as well as a disproportionate number of Jews from his hometown of Cluj. Out of a total of 1,684 passengers, 388 came from this one small city in Transylvania. Éva Speter, then twenty-nine years old, was selected for the Kasztner train, along with her husband and son. Their places had been assured because her father was one of those, along with Kasztner, who chose who travelled. ‘Everybody tried for himself to stay alive,’ she says. ‘If you have to save your life you’ll try it in every way, even in a criminal way if it comes to that, but you have to save yourself. Your life is the first, you are nearest to yourself, whatever people try to say.’36

Éva Speter and her family were well aware of what had happened to the Hungarian Jews who were deported. She believed that the Germans wanted ‘to kill all the 11 million Jews who are living in Europe, including the Jews of Russia’. She had even learnt that the Germans gassed Jews after pretending that they were about to take a shower. And just before she left Budapest she discovered that many more people also knew that the Germans were deporting Jews to their deaths: ‘There came a working woman, and she had seen my son, we were all with the yellow star, [and she] said: “Give me your son, I’ll take care of him. He will grow up, and don’t take him to be murdered with you.” Of course I didn’t give her my son, but I thought – this working woman, whom I never knew, wanted this beautiful little child to grow up: a Jewish child. For that I can’t be really angry with the Hungarians.’37

When Éva Speter left Budapest on 30 June aboard the Kasztner train she didn’t trust the Germans to keep their word, and when the train stopped at Linz in Austria she grew increasingly concerned about what was going to happen to them. Here the Jews were told to disembark because they were to be medically examined and had to take a ‘shower’. She remembers that ‘I was standing naked before the doctor, and still looking very proud, into his eyes, and I thought he should see how a proud Jewish woman is going to die.’ Once in the showers, from the taps came ‘fine warm water … a very relieving experience after we were ready to die there.’38 The Nazis, it turned out, had told the truth about the showers for once.

But in at least one respect Eichmann had lied, because the train’s immediate destination was not Switzerland but the concentration camp of Bergen-Belsen in the north of Germany. A section of the camp had been set aside for so-called ‘exchange Jews’ – those the Nazis might try and ransom – and these Jews received better treatment than Jews elsewhere. For example, Shmuel Huppert, who was sent to the exchange camp with his mother in 1943, remembers that not only did he receive enough food to survive in Bergen-Belsen, but he also learnt to play chess in the camp.39 The Jews from the Kasztner train received similar preferential treatment, and after months of protracted negotiations the vast majority eventually reached safety in Switzerland.

After the war Kasztner was criticized not only for giving places on the train to his friends and relations, but for causing the deaths of large numbers of other Hungarian Jews by not warning them that the Nazis planned on deporting them to Auschwitz. On the first charge he is guilty, but on the second the evidence is less clear cut. While it is true that on a visit to his hometown of Cluj he didn’t alert people to the Nazis’ true intentions, it is doubtful if an intervention by him would have made any difference. Jewish youth movements within Hungary, like Hashomer Hatzair, Maccabi Hatzair and Bnei Akiva, had made a concerted effort to warn Jews in the provinces of the dangers they faced, but in every case their warnings were ignored.40 In part that was because of the lack of options the Jews faced – there were few mountains or thick forests in which to hide, and many of the non-Jewish locals were anti-Semitic – and partly it was a desire to block out the idea that the terrible rumours might be true. ‘People didn’t listen to whatever they heard,’ says Éva Speter, ‘because people don’t want to believe – never want to believe – the worst. They always try to believe something that’s better … Hope is one of the best qualities that men get from when they are born.’41

Kasztner knew about the mass killings at Auschwitz because he had read a report written by two former inmates, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler. They had managed to escape from the camp in April 1944 and had made their way back to their homeland of Slovakia. There they recorded what was happening at Auschwitz Birkenau. Prior to this, few people in the world knew about the true function of Birkenau. Because Birkenau was partially a work camp, at the centre of a whole network of other work camps, many observers outside the Reich had misunderstood its primary purpose. Richard Lichtheim, for instance, of the Jewish Agency in Geneva, had thought – prior to reading the Vrba–Wetzler report – that the Germans were deporting Jews to Auschwitz in order ‘to exploit more Jewish labour in the industrial centres of Upper Silesia’.42 But the Vrba–Wetzler report left no room for doubt about the real purpose of Auschwitz. It accurately described the opening of the new crematoria/gas-chamber complexes at Birkenau in 1943 and the way in which the murders were conducted. It wasn’t surprising that the report was so authentic, because one of the Sonderkommandos working in the crematoria, Filip Müller, had told the two Slovaks exactly what went on there. ‘I had handed to Alfred [Wetzler] a plan of the crematoria and gas chambers as well as a list of names of the SS men who were on duty there,’ wrote Müller after the war. ‘In addition I had given to both of them notes I had been making for some time of almost all transports gassed in crematoria 4 and 5. I had described to them in full detail the process of extermination so that they would be able to report to the outside world …’43

The Vrba–Wetzler report circulated in Budapest during May 1944. By late June the news had reached London and by early July the authorities in Washington had been informed. Armed with such authentic intelligence, a whole variety of people – from Roosevelt to the King of Sweden – protested to Admiral Horthy about the deportation of the Hungarian Jews. Even the Pope wrote to Horthy in a letter of 25 June, calling on him to reconsider his actions.44 Archbishop Gennaro Verolino, a papal diplomat in Budapest, remembers that even before the Vrba–Wetzler report had surfaced, ‘Gradually we came to the conclusion that “compulsory work abroad” meant deportation. And deportation meant extermination, annihilation. We then protested very vigorously, at first the nuncio himself, and then with the other diplomats.’45 The papal nuncio in Hungary gave up to 15,000 letters of safe conduct to Jews in Budapest. ‘It saved my life once,’ says Ferenc Wiener, a Hungarian Jew. ‘It saved my life when I showed it to a German officer. And they were executing all the others. I was next to be killed. I then showed my letter and the officer told me I could move on.’46 In the light of incidents like this, Gerhart Riegner, the wartime representative of the World Jewish Congress in Switzerland, maintains that the Vatican’s intervention in Hungary was ‘the only example in the history of the Holocaust where the Vatican systematically took the right decision.’47

Admiral Horthy now had to decide what to do. Should he try and stop the transports to Auschwitz and so incur the wrath of the Germans, or let them continue despite the protests? Leading Nazis like Joseph Goebbels had previously felt secure in their hold over him – not just because they had successfully bullied Horthy into ‘inviting’ German troops into Hungary in March and cooperating in the deportation of the Jews, but because they believed that he now welcomed the chance to expel the Jews from his country. ‘At any rate,’ wrote Goebbels in his diary on 27 April, ‘he now no longer obstructs the cleansers of public life in Hungary; on the contrary, he is now murderously angry with the Jews and has no objections to us using them as hostages. He even suggested the same thing himself … At any rate the Hungarians will not escape the rhythm of the Jewish question. Whoever says A must say B, and the Hungarians, having started with Judenpolitik, can for that reason not halt it. From a certain point onwards Judenpolitik propels itself.’48 This is a particularly revealing diary entry, for Goebbels states unequivocally how he believed the Nazis could handle their allies over the question of the Jews. If the Nazis managed to get blood on the hands of their allies, they would have no choice but to stick with the Third Reich come what may.

But Horthy didn’t react as predicted. Even though he was already massively compromised, he reversed his position and on 6 July told the Germans that he wanted the deportations to end. The transports to Auschwitz officially stopped three days later. The pressure on Horthy had been just too much. While he had felt able to sanction the deportations when there were only rumours – however strong and compelling – that the Jews were being killed, now that there was clear evidence that the Jews were being sent to a murder factory he wasn’t prepared to permit them to continue. Especially when not only was he receiving protests from the international community, but Budapest was under direct attack from the Allies with the Americans bombing the Hungarian capital on 2 July. Now that the Western Allies were fighting in France and the Red Army was advancing into eastern Europe, there was no hiding from reality – the Germans were losing the war, and one day the victorious powers would call their collaborators to account. By stopping the deportations now Horthy must have thought he stood a chance of constructing an alibi for himself. His judgement was right. Notwithstanding Hungarian participation in previous atrocities against the Jews, Horthy escaped without punishment at the end of the war. He retired to a seaside town near Lisbon where he died in 1957 aged eighty-eight.

The Germans, having already deported 430,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz, were prepared to pause before deporting the rest. After all, this was just one setback the Nazis faced that summer among many. They had to deal not just with the desperate situation on the front line, but with a crisis at the top of the Nazi state when, on 20 July, disaffected Wehrmacht officers tried to kill Hitler by exploding a bomb at his headquarters in East Prussia. Hitler was not seriously hurt, but the search for the perpetrators now became an immediate priority for the German security services.

In the aftermath of the attack on his life Hitler – always at heart an angry man – became even angrier. According to General Heinz Guderian, newly appointed Chief of Staff of the German Army, ‘the deep distrust he [Hitler] already felt for mankind in general, and for General Staff officers and generals in particular, now became profound hatred … It had already been difficult enough dealing with him; it now became a torture that grew steadily worse from month to month. He frequently lost all self-control and his language grew increasingly violent.’49

A month later another disaster loomed for the Germans – this time on the diplomatic front. The Romanians wanted to quit the war. On 5 August, Hitler met the Romanian leader, Marshal Antonescu, and used all his rhetorical skills to try and convince him to keep fighting, but mere words could not alter the dire reality for the Romanian soldiers on the front line. On 20 August large sections of the Romanian Army simply fell apart as the Red Army attacked in the Jassy–Kishinev offensive. On 23 August, Antonescu was removed from office. The Romanians now changed sides and announced that they were at war with Germany.

But Hitler, true to character, would not alter course. And his determination to prolong the war until Red Army soldiers were in the streets of Berlin led inevitably to one final period of appalling destruction.

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