What was the role of Jews in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956? That can be answered in three words: waiting, seeing, leaving. That, at any rate, is how it was with us and with some 20,000 others, which left about 80,000. Why did 20,000 leave?
Why do Jews leave any place? The usual reasons. It’s just that the usual reasons are always complicated, as in this case. The complications are historical. The Hungarian story, which may be traced back to the tenth century, is the familiar one of Jews either seeking refuge or being invited in to help the economy along. They take up positions of responsibility and are then resented by the rest of society. They are persecuted and expelled but when they are needed again or expelled from elsewhere, they return. Often, they are required to live in ghettos or to wear some identifiable mark of their Jewishness. These readmissions and expulsions follow hot on each other’s heels. Too much success, particularly conspicuous success, brings on a pogrom. When they, and the country, do well, they are suspected of enriching each other at the expense of the rest; in poor times, they are an alien, troublesome underclass. The underlying perennial question asked by the majority is that of identity. Is a Jew a citizen or a Jew? If both, in whose interests are Jews acting? Whom do Jews put first?
It may be said that the modern era for Hungarian Jews began after the uniting of the Austrian and Hungarian monarchies in 1867. This followed the revolution of 1848 where many Jews fought with distinction on the nationalist side against the Austrians and the Russians. The reward for this was a brief two-week emancipation on the condition that they reformed their religious practices. However, then the Russians defeated the revolutionary forces and it was back to persecution. In 1867, Jews were at last emancipated and entered fully—and very successfully—into civic life.
The period from 1867 to 1919 was a golden period for Hungarian Jewry. Budapest was the fastest growing city in the world, and almost a quarter of the population was Jewish. The schism between Orthodox and Neolog Jews in 1869 led to greater assimilation of the Neologs. Neolog Jews were spread through the various classes and many rose to prominent places in industry, finance, medicine, the press and culture. They were also to be found at the other ideological end of society, as radical thinkers. Their rise was followed by the customary resentment from the rest of the country and from the empire at large. Budapest was simply “Judapest” to some; a city of decadence, corruption and depravity, hated by both the old landed aristocracy and the conservative church. The provinces both envied and recoiled from the sinful metropolis. The Great War put an end to that. It was the greatest trauma suffered by the country since the Ottoman invasion of 1526. It took a vast military toll. Hungary suffered the largest ratio of loss among the Central Powers; workers went on strike, soldiers rebelled and the economy collapsed. Two revolutions followed. The first was the Aster Revolution of 31 October 1918 that declared the Republic of Hungary with Count Károlyi at its head. The second was the Bolshevik Revolution of March 1919, led by Béla Kun. This was the crisis point for Hungarian Jews. Kun was Jewish, as were a number of his closest associates, such as the philosopher György Lukács and the future Stalinist dictator Mátyás Rákosi.
By the time Kun came to power, Hungary was practically defenceless. With help from his own fighting force, the Lenin Boys and the Red Army, Kun promised to protect Hungary against the insurgent subject states of the empire, who were moving into pre-war Hungary on various fronts.
He announced the dictatorship of the proletariat, set up workers’ councils, nationalised industries, expropriated property and operated what became known as a “red terror” against the opposition. But then, to the astonishment of the Hungarians, the Romanian army swept into Budapest, the dictatorship of the proletariat collapsed and Kun was forced to flee to Russia where he was later executed in a purge in 1930. Kun’s fall was quickly followed by a right-wing reaction led by Admiral Horthy. Horthy initiated a “white terror”, mostly against communists but also against Jews, since Jews at large were regarded as Bolsheviks. And not only Bolsheviks, of course, but also as the wickedest of financiers and industrialists. They were on both sides at once, and all the more culpable for that. One story of the period suggests that the Jewish-born writer Tibor Déry was a member of the committee that expropriated his own wealthy father. After the war, under the terms of the treaties of Versailles and Trianon, almost three-quarters of Hungarian territory was transferred to neighboring states and the country lost some two-thirds of its population (although only a third of the lost population was ethnically Hungarian). This trauma is still the greatest popular cause in Hungary and any politician can call upon it to summon not only patriotic, but also intense nationalist feeling. Jews constituted almost half of the Hungarians who found themselves in alien territory. My own mother was an ethnic Hungarian, born in what had just become Romania. Drawing attention to oneself as a Jew was becoming ever more problematic. The first anti-Jewish laws were drawn up in Hungary in 1920. Jews changed their names, hid their identity and tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Life was still tolerable but was being squeezed. I need not describe the Holocaust here. Its general outlines are too well known and there is not much room or need for further detail. The Second World War meant years of increasing hardship, but the deportations and death camps only got fully under way in March 1944 when the Germans deposed Horthy, took control, put Eichmann in charge and established the fascist militarised Arrow Cross as the government. The Jews of pre-Trianon Hungary were the first to be deported, followed by those of the provinces and then of Budapest itself, though by that time the Red Army was already crossing the frontier. That did not diminish the efforts of the Arrow Cross to exterminate the Jews. They were fanatical in their mission. Nevertheless, about 120,000 Jews survived in Budapest. The estimated survival rate in Hungary was roughly 30%.
George Szirtes’s intimate analysis of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution is a headline piece from the Autumn issue 2016. Subscribe to read the entire article.