Machberes: Inside The Chassidish And Yeshivish World
By Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum
On Tuesday, January 27, 2015, hundreds of Holocaust survivors, along with several world leaders, gathered in Auschwitz, Poland, to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation by the Soviet Red Army of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp where more than one-and-a-half million people, mostly Jews, were killed. Ten years ago, more than 1,500 Auschwitz survivors attended the commemoration. This year, the number of Auschwitz survivors was only about 300. Commentators remarked that ten years from now, there will likely not be any significant number of survivors of the Auschwitz camp attending. This year, the youngest of the 300 who traveled to Poland for the ceremony are in their seventies.
Because of adverse politics, Vladimir Putin, president of Russia, did not participate. Together with Rabbi Berel Lazar, chief rabbi of Russia, Putin did take part in a meaningful commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz held in Moscow, where he announced additional new services to help Holocaust survivors. Paula Lebovics, of Encino, California, told how a Russian soldier who was among those who liberated the camp took her in his arms and rocked her tenderly with tears streaming from his eyes. She was 11, ill and suffering from malnutrition. Now 81, she told the Associated Press that it was a shame that Putin, leader of Russia, was not among those at the ceremony in Auschwitz. “He should be here,” she said. “The Russians were our liberators.” Another survivor, Eva Mozes Kor, told the AP that she did not miss Putin, “but I do believe that from a moral and historical perspective, he should have been here.” The vast majority of survivors of concentration camps were liberated by the advancing Russian Army.
At almost the same time, the liberation of Budapest was marked. A commemoration was held on Sunday, January 18, at the Dohany Street Synagogue, to mark the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Budapest ghetto. Andras Heisler, head of the Federation of Hungarian Jewish Communities, proclaimed the day as a combination of twin emotions of mourning for the murdered and celebrating the joy of liberation and survival.
Rabbi Robert Frolich, chief rabbi of the Dohany Street Synagogue, said that when they remember the millions of victims of the Holocaust, they also celebrate survival. Rabbi Tamas Vero said that after the 437,000 Jews of the countryside were deported, the Jews of Budapest represented survival for the Jewish people. The Jews of Budapest were the last European population of Jews alive. “Had they not been saved from death by the Red Army, we would not be here today. We must honor and celebrate the survivors, who had the strength to start again.”
Hungary’s government was represented at the commemoration by Minister of Justice Laszlo Trocsanyi. The Hungarian government paid tribute to the memory of the victims and to the survivors and pledged that similar atrocities will never again take place in Hungary.
In numbers, the liberation of Budapest overwhelms the liberation of Auschwitz. Immediately before liberation, the most notorious of death marches took place in the freezing weather of January 1945, when the Russian army advanced on occupied Poland. Nine days before the Soviets arrived at Auschwitz, the SS marched more than 60,000 prisoners out of the camp toward Wodzislaw Slaski (German: Loslau), 35 miles away, where they were put on freight trains to other camps. Approximately 15,000 prisoners died on the way. On the day the Russians liberated Auschwitz, only 6,000 prisoners remained there alive. Aside from the few handfuls who managed to hide, they were too weak to have been forced onto the march.
The Siege of Budapest was one of the longest and bloodiest battles of WWII. From the arrival of the first Soviet tank until the final surrender, less than eight weeks passed. In comparison, Berlin fell after two weeks. No other European city, with the exception of Warsaw, was the scene of a major battle. Throughout history, 15 different major battles were fought in Budapest, none comparing to the destructive siege of 1944–1945. During the siege, about 38,000 civilians died from starvation and military action. The city unconditionally surrendered on February 13, 1945. It was a strategic victory for the Allies in their push towards Berlin. The Russian Army started its offensive with more than a million soldiers, split into two operating maneuver groups. The assault meant to isolate Budapest from the rest of the German and Hungarian forces. On December 26, the road linking Budapest to Vienna was seized by Russian troops, completing the encirclement. The “Leader of the Nation,” Ferenc Szálasi, had fled on December 9. As a result of the Soviet linkup, more than 33,000 German and 37,000 Hungarian soldiers, as well as more than 800,000 civilians, became trapped within the city. Refusing to authorize a withdrawal, German dictator Adolf Hitler had declared Budapest a fortress city, to be defended to the last man.
A major factor of the dynamics that took place immediately before and during the siege was Raoul Wallenberg. From July 9, 1944, the day Wallenberg arrived in Budapest with the specific purpose of saving as many Jews as possible, he played a much greater role than is generally acknowledged today. During the siege of Budapest, he had designed a plan of rehabilitation of Budapest and of Hungary as a whole. Initially, the plan was only shared with a select number of people in position to carry it out. Sadly, Wallenberg was not able to implement the plan, which later evolved into the Marshall Plan authored by U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall and actuated in 1948.
Wallenberg’s bold methods of saving Jewish lives put him in constant peril, but he never thought of stopping. He remained in the city during the Soviet siege of Budapest with the “protected” Jews. That protection included his distribution of legally bogus Swiss Shutzpasses and his establishment of safe houses. He did not hesitate to threaten the German commander and the Arrow Cross leader that they must not harm Europe’s last remaining Jewish population. Before the Soviets entered the city, he told Per Anger, his colleague in the Swedish legation: “I’ve taken on this assignment, and I will never be able to go back to Stockholm without knowing inside myself that I’d done all a man could do to save as many Jews as possible.”
Raoul Wallenberg, Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest between July and December 1944, had, without any authorization, issued protective Shutzpass passports and sheltered Jews in apartment complex buildings which he designated as Swedish territory, saving tens of thousands of lives.
Wallenberg’s actions were crucial to the ultimate success. In a section of Budapest designated by the Hungarian government as the International Ghetto, Wallenberg purchased 32 large apartment complex buildings where he draped oversized Swedish flags next to the Jewish Star on the facades of the buildings. These buildings, and others for which he was able to negotiate and control, were assumed to have been given the full protection of the Swedish government. Wallenberg brazenly posted proclamations throughout the city declaring the safe houses as off-limits to police or soldiers. In addition, the proclamations warned that ignoring the warning, as well as the protection of his Shutzpasses, was a violation of international law. In these protected houses, Wallenberg personally set up hospitals, schools, soup kitchens, and a special shelter for 8,000 children whose parents had already been deported or killed.
Because of Wallenberg’s swift action in setting up shelters that offered care and protection, the other neutral legations and the International Red Cross followed his lead and helped expand the number of protected houses. After the war it was established that more than 70,000 Jews living in the foreign houses of the International Ghetto had survived. Of these, more than 30,000 were directly under Wallenberg’s protection in the 32 safe houses that he personally established and directed.
Károly Szabó, an employee at the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, attracted exceptional attention on December 24, 1944 as Hungarian Arrow Cross Party members occupied the Embassy building on Gyopár Street. Szabó rescued 36 kidnapped employees from the Budapest ghetto. This fearless action attracted Raoul Wallenberg’s full interest. Wallenberg agreed to meet Szabó’s influential friend, Pál Szalai, a high-ranking member of the police force. The meeting was on the night of December 26. The meeting was a preparation to save the Budapest ghetto from events that unfolded in January 1945.
Pál Szalai provided Raoul Wallenberg with special favors and government information. In the second week of January 1945, Raoul Wallenberg learned about Adolf Eichmann’s planned massacre of the largest Jewish ghetto in Budapest. The only one who could stop it was the man given the direct responsibility to carry out the massacre—the commander of the German troops in Hungary, General Gerhard Schmidhuber. Through Szalai, Wallenberg sent Schmidhuber a message advising that he, Wallenberg, would make sure the general was held personally responsible for the massacre and that he would be hanged as a war criminal when the war was over. There was nothing to stop Schmidhuber from simply having Wallenberg killed for threatening him; however, the general knew that the war would be over soon and that the Germans were losing. The massacre was stopped at the last minute thanks to the courage and daring action of Wallenberg.
More than half of those who were forced into the ghetto in 1944 were sent to concentration camps, starting almost immediately from the establishment of the ghetto. From occupation to liberation, the Jewish population of Budapest was reduced from 200,000 to 70,000 in the ghetto, and more than 30,000 housed in specially marked “safe” houses outside the ghetto.
Generally, the Swedish flag and the passports held by those living in the houses were protection enough. If Wallenberg’s embedded spies told him that a raid was being planned by the Nazis or their Hungarian counterparts, young, blond Jewish men living in the houses would be dressed in Nazi uniforms and put outside to “guard” the houses.
Agnes Adachi recalls the night when she and her coworkers needed to complete about 2,000 Shutzpasses and deliver them before 6 a.m., when the Nazis were scheduled to round up several thousands of Jewish women. She tells of working by candlelight in a villa on the outskirts of Budapest. Wallenberg came in and calmly announced that the villa next door was the Gestapo headquarters. He then smilingly assured his staff that they must continue their work and not be alarmed. The Shutzpasses were completed, and each was delivered on foot before 6 a.m.
One of Wallenberg’s drivers recounted how the diplomat intercepted a train about to leave Budapest for Auschwitz. “He climbed up on the roof of the train, carrying a bundle of Shutzpass passports and started to hand them over to open hands eagerly stretched out through open doors.” He also passed Shutzpasses down through slits of the train’s wooden slat roof. Wallenberg ignored shouting Nazi guards who were firing warning shots at him. Ignoring the threats, he pleaded and encouraged anyone who held a protective pass to get off the train, saving them from almost certain death.
Despite saving so many people, Wallenberg’s own life had a sad and unexplained ending. In January 1945, after the Soviet Union captured eastern Budapest, Wallenberg was voluntarily detained by Soviet troops. He intended on sharing his rehabilitation plan with Soviet authorities. It was the last time he was seen in public. On January 17, 1945, Wallenberg was detained by Soviet authorities on suspicion of espionage and subsequently disappeared. It’s not clear why they arrested him or how he died. In 1957, the Soviet foreign minister released a report to the Swedish authorities saying that he had died of a heart attack on July 17, 1947 in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison.
Rabbi Gershon Tannenbaum is the rav of B’nai Israel of Linden Heights in Boro Park and director of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.