Assisting Refugees before the German Occupation

Throughout its thousand-year history, Hungary has been and has remained a recipient country of immigration.

Refugees arriving from territories that had fallen under Nazi rule, Germans and Austrians followed by Polish groups enjoyed a friendly welcome most of the time. The Polish group was particularly numerous; it consisted of tens of thousands of exiled. High-ranking officials of the Ministry of Interior, Colonel Zoltán Baló and József Antall snr., liaised with their leaders, among others with Henryk Slawik, operating legally or illegally in the country.

Since the spring of 1938, persecuted and terrified groups of Austrian Jews had showed up in the woods at the borders in western Hungary. Some tried to escape from Nazi groups on boats or ships. Those who had family or business ties on the Hungarian side had good chances to mingle in the countryside or in Budapest and disappear from the sight of the authorities. Officially, many of them were treated as temporary immigrants with their stay tolerated.

In Budapest Austrian Jews (although formally interned) had a treatment that was in complete contradiction with the inhuman and merciless behavior of the German authorities and security services. The word about this spread quickly, therefore further families, smaller or larger groups made the attempt to cross over into Hungary. As of 1941, a semi-legal chain of activists helping Jews to reach Palestine was established.

Polish refugees, fleeing the treacherous combined German-Russian attack, were accommodated in an organized, supportive manner. Many of them found room and board in the countryside. By the beginning of October 1939, no less than 88 camps for Polish civilians and 91 camps for the military had been established. Until 29 February 1940, the Hungarian Red Cross had taken care of 30,681 Polish military personnel and of approximately 11,000 civilians. The data from 1941 also testify to that the Hungarian authorities and private individuals took care of almost fifty thousand Poles. In Balatonboglár, rev. Béla Varga, Member of Parliament had established a Polish grammar school. Through great sacrifice and personal risk, he engaged himself in rescuing the French, German, Transylvanian, Bukovinian and Jewish refugees. He had to go into hiding during the German occupation of Hungary.

During the deportations in Slovakia, Jews who felt enough courage to do so tried to run away. Through acquaintances, relatives, former business contacts, organized actions, more and more of them infiltrated through the Hungarian border. In their rescue, Ján Spišiak, Ambassador of Slovakia to Budapest took significant risks.

The more dangerous activities were carried out by Jewish youth. The captives had been interned by the Hungarian gendarmerie in camps situated in Ricse, Garany and Csörgő, near the border. Those who managed to escape took hiding in Budapest. Often groups of young Zionist Jews supported them. Many of them were accommodated in children's homes, apprentice homes and orphanages, the older girls worked as tutors.

In the countryside, the Transdanubian Jewish communities in particular admitted and supported the fugitives from Slovakia. One of them was Walter Rosenberg (later known as Rudolf Vrba), who found refuge in Budakalász in the spring of 1942. Later, he was forced to return to Slovakia, and was deported to Auschwitz. On 7 April 1944, along with Alfred Wetzler (Jozef Lánik), he managed to escape from Auschwitz-Birkenau. They had compiled the 32 pages of the so-called Auschwitz Protocol: data and facts gathered on the functioning of the concealed "factory of death". Their report shocked the world public opinion.

It is not possible to establish the exact number of refugees based on the available sources. According to some estimates, some six to eight thousand Jews fled to Hungary, escaping the deportations in Slovakia during 1942. In most cases the Hungarian authorities behaved leniently. During the persecution of the Jews in Slovakia, local priests aided many. The names of Reformed Church pastors István Puskás from Zólyom (Zvolen, Slovakia), László Sedivy from Nyitra (Nitra, Slovakia) and Sándor Brányik from Eperjes (Prešov, Slovakia) are worth mentioning. The three of them baptized more than a thousand Jews, helping them to avoid the gravest consequences. With the aid of his community, Ferenc Gaál, parish priest from Nyékvárkony hid labor service fugitives. Puskás and Sedivy were imprisoned by the authorities and suffered tormenting detention.

During the investigation of the rescuing of Jews of Slovakia, it has been established that many members of the Hungarian Party in Slovakia, and its leader, Count János Esterházy actively assisted the persecuted. Already in the autumn of 1939, Esterházy supported admitting Polish refugees into Hungary. On 15 May 1942, he was the only one out of the 63 members of the Slovak parliament to display exceptional courage and demonstratively reject to vote for the law on deporting the Jews from Slovakia.

Subsequently, he was stripped of his parliamentary mandate and sentenced to half a year in prison for defamation of the Slovak State. In 1944 he repeatedly helped persecuted Jews, Slovak and Czech citizens and families to cross the Hungarian border. In April 1945 the Soviet authorities arrested him in Bratislava and, along with several fellow Hungarians, hauled him to Moscow. On fabricated evidence, he was sentenced to ten years of forced labor. The Czechoslovak authorities sentenced Esterházy in his absence, without evidence, to death and complete confiscation of property. He died in the Mírov prison in 1957, aged 56.

Until the beginning of 1944 at least four thousand French prisoners (both civilian and military) had escaped to Hungary. The main camp for them operated in Balatonboglár. For most of them, the conditions were of internment, not of detention. In Paris, the community of the Hungarian Reformed Church, headed by Pastor Imre Kulifay and his wife, provided assistance by baptizing and offered documents.

The protection provided to the small number of English, Dutch, Belgian and Czech soldiers, prisoners of war who had successfully escaped from German detention also qualifies as rescuing. Some two thousand Italian soldiers and people from other countries also found refuge in Hungary. Many could testify that until the German occupation in the spring of 1944, Hungary was a hospitable country.

At the beginning of 1944 confidential reports informed that "large scale human trafficking had developed through Slovakia. Foreign internees and prisoners of war that managed to escape from camps in Poland, as well as incredibly hidden Polish Jews took the road to Hungary through Slovakia. (…) Veritable committees for reception welcome and send on the refugees."

Available sources estimate at fifteen thousand at least the number of Austrian, German, Slovak and Polish Jews that took refuge in Hungarian towns and villages until the German occupation. Unfortunately, their stories are still untold.