How It Happened

Issue section: 
(443)

This is a long overdue translation of Erno Munkácsi’s 1947 first-hand account of the final months and days that saw the extermination of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews in the death camp at Auschwitz. It is a powerful addition to any serious understanding of the degradation, humiliation and ultimately extermination that befell European Jewry with the victory of fascism. It should serve as an urgent and powerful reminder to all those fighting the far right today as to what awaits us if we are unable to stem its poisonous ideology.

Munkácsi was the last surviving chief secretary of the Hungarian Central Jewish Council (Judenrat) at liberation. His book is part of a body of work written by Jews that appeared immediately after the Second World War attempting to make sense, not only of the Holocaust, but of the “choiceless choices” that the Judenrat faced in trying to comply with the increasingly antisemitic demands of local regimes or Nazi invaders.

Indeed one of the book’s vital strengths lies in it restating what should be obvious but cannot be said enough — any mistakes and errors that those resisting Nazi terror made were not the cause of that terror; they were the actions of people trying to make sense of and resist what was humanity’s darkest hour. Blame must always be placed on a system that gave space for such a vile and inhuman ideology to grow and take hold.

The problematic thesis of Munkácsi’s book also marks out why it is such an important text.

Because he was a member of the Hungarian Judenrat based in Budapest, he is trying to explain and largely absolve its disastrous decisions that compounded the onslaught. However, he is too honest to hide from the fact that its strategies and actions were profoundly mistaken.

Like the Judenrat of Warsaw they betrayed the people they were supposed to protect. Tragically Hungarian Jews did not even get the chance to rise up like the Warsaw Ghetto and would die in their hundreds of thousands in a matter of weeks.

The book has many major weaknesses and quite frankly unbelievable claims. Munkácsi’s claim that no one knew of, or believed in, the camps by 1944 is unsustainable. His failure to recognise the Council leadership’s slavish petitions to the profoundly antisemitic Miklós Horthy regime as a mistaken strategy, to say the least, hides something he only hints at in the text: the question of class in the Hungarian Jewish community.

His depiction of the role of some of the Zionist leadership is weak. He rightly points to the bravery of many young Zionists, who risked their lives to save the Jewish communities outside of the capital. But his account of the events of the Kasztner Train is naive at best. And yet for all this the volume is of real importance. Not only for what it tells us but for the things that it only hints at.

“Choiceless choices” is a very good description of what people faced in their communities. However, who got to make those “choices” was also vital.