The Underground Zionist Youth Movements
in Hungary during WW II
Bibliography: Brothers for Resistance & Rescue - by David Gur
Hungary was the first European country that, already in 1920, passed an anti-Jewish law, known as "Numerus clausus” (restricted number), in Parliament. This law limited the number of Jews who could be admitted to institutes of higher education in Hungary. The Regent, Miklós Horthy, was a moderate anti-Semite but the Hungarian Jews, about 450,000 people (about 6% of the population) felt safe under his rule in spite of the discriminating laws against them that were passed from 1938. Until 1938, when South Slovakia, Carpatho-Ruthenia, North Transylvania and a region from Yugoslavia were annexed to Hungary, there were about 900,000 Jews in Hungary.
The Second World War broke out in 1939 and from June 1941 Hungary fought with the Germans against the Soviet Union on the east front. At the end of the same year Hungary declared war to the Allied Forces: Great Britain, France and other countries. In Europe, occupied by the Germans, the extermination of Jews had started, but until 1944 the Jews of Hungary were spared. Although some local incidents occurred in various areas of the country during which Jews were murdered and thousands of Jewish men were enlisted in forced labor units, there were no deportations to extermination camps.
The activities of the Zionist youth movements were forbidden in the early 1940’s. In 1941 the first refugees started arriving from Poland and in 1942 from Slovakia. Most of them were young people, members of the Zionist youth movements in their country who found refuge with comrades of their movement in Budapest. The refugees needed accommodation, documents, food, clothes and either jobs or hiding places. These needs were fulfilled by the members of the Hungarian movements.
The dramatic change in the fate of Hungarian Jews took place in 1944. The defeat of the Germans and its allies was certain and the Red Army had already arrived at the Hungarian border. The Hungarian Regent, Horthy, intended to split from the alliance with Germany. The Germans, whose agents could be found in all the Hungarian governmental institutions, knew in time about this intention and in order to avoid it they invaded Hungary on 19.3.1944. Following the German army, Adolf Eichman and his staff also arrived in order to organize the extermination of the Jews. One after the other rules were published according to which the possessions and freedom of the Jews were taken away. The deportations to the extermination camps from country towns and villages took place between 15.5.1944 and 28.6.1944.
The Zionist youth movements got organized and soon started their rescue activities. In Hungary the conditions were not right for armed resistance: there were no significant Hungarian anti-Nazi resistance groups whom to cooperate with; Jewish men were enlisted in forced labor units; the population was not supportive; there were no forests and mountains that could be hiding places and, most significantly, the end of the war seemed imminent. The members of the Zionist youth groups set themselves a goal: to save as many Jews as possible.
Missions to the country towns
Over one hundred emissaries, members of the youth movements, were sent to two hundred Jewish destinations and mainly to the ghettos outside Budapest where the Jews were to be deported from. The emissaries warned the local Jews of what lay in store for them and equipped them with forged documents and money to enable them to escape. There was a weak response to the warnings because the Jews believed that they were being taken to labor camps or being "resettled” and would be able to return to their houses later on. Continuing their activities the emissaries rescued many youngsters from the forced labor units before they were sent westwards to the German Reich.
The production of forged documents
An intensive operation started which was to obtain Aryan documents from the offices of the Population Registry and to produce tens of thousands of forged documents in improvised laboratories that were set up by the members of some of the youth movements. The documents were given for free to members of the Zionist Youth Movements and to all those who needed them. These documents included, among others, birth certificates, marriage certificates, identity cards, Police Residential Cards and later Protection Documents from the neutral countries’ embassies. Many Jews managed to survive thanks to these documents, especially in the capital, Budapest. The main workshop for forged documentation as far as the scope, variety and the intended recipients (youth, old people, non-Jewish resistance groups) was unique in all of German occupied Europe. According to a careful estimate, at the time of the liberation of Budapest by the Red Army, every other Jew was in possession of some kind of document produced in the workshop of the Zionist youth movements.
The "tiyul” was a nickname for an extensive operation that organized the smuggling of Jews across the Hungarian border mainly into Romania and from there, via the Black Sea ports, to Eretz Israel (Palestine). The Romanian Government was quite flexible and it was therefore possible to carry out this operation. Attempts on a smaller scale to smuggle Jews to the partisans in Yugoslavia were also made. The "tiyul” started after the German invasion of Hungary on 19.3.1944, was expanded and became more efficient during the summer months. The candidates for smuggling across the border were equipped with forged documents, money and relevant instructions. They arrived by train in the border towns where they met local smugglers who crossed the border with them. It is estimated that about 15,000 Jews crossed the border and that most of them reached Eretz Israel (Palestine) already in 1944. This operation was in fact discontinued at the end of August with the change of regime in Romania. In the same way about 400 members of the youth movements were smuggled into Slovakia where, in August 1944, they joined the Slovak uprising. Most of them fell in battle.
Most bunkers were set up in Budapest and the environments after the end of the "tiyul” operation. The bunkers were established in apartments, caves and cellars that were made fit for this purpose by the movements’ members. The idea of establishing bunkers was born as a result of the experience of the Zionist movements in Poland which was transferred to Hungary by their members who arrived as refugees. They were meant to be used as hiding places and storage places for equipment, food and even weapons. However, very soon it became clear that most of the bunkers were traps for their occupants and, therefore, these preparations were stopped. One of the bunkers on Hungary Boulevard in Budapest was discovered and attacked by the fascists. The guard who stood outside was shot dead and the other members were caught.
The children’s houses under the protection of the International Red Cross
Fifty children’s houses were established in Budapest, most of them after 15.10.1944 when the fascist Arrow Cross Party rose to power. In those houses abandoned Jewish children, children without a father or mother and orphaned of both parents, who had been either murdered or deported to the camps, found a refuge. Friedrich Born, the representative of the International Red Cross in Hungary, put the offices of his organization in the center of Budapest at the disposal of "Department A” headed by Ottó Komoly, the president of the Zionist Organization in Hungary. Komoly was the founder of the department. The Zionist youth movements located apartments and houses where the children they collected could live. The people in charge of the children’s houses were members of the movements aged around twenty whereas the caregivers were seventeen-eighteen years old. There were some incidents with the fascists and even casualties but most of the children’s houses managed to function until the liberation of the city in the middle of January 1945. Almost 6,000 children and also adults who joined them were saved in the children’s houses. The children continued to be taken care of even after the war and many of them made aliya.
The smuggling and liberation from forced labor units and prisons
Many of the underground activists from the Zionist youth movements were caught by the Germans and the Hungarian fascists and efforts were continuously made to liberate them. Daring operations were undertaken with success. In some of these operations the underground members wore the fascist uniform and even used weapons. A group of 120 members of the Zionist youth movements underground, who were going to be executed, were liberated at the end of December 1944 from the central Hungarian military prison on Margit Boulevard. Members of the movements and other people were rescued from the forced labor units, reached Budapest and joined the underground activities.
The "Epic of the Beans” – the supply of food to the ghetto and the children’s houses
Towards the end of 1944 seventy thousand Jews from Budapest were concentrated in the central ghetto and another few thousands in the "International” ghetto. Over three thousand people crowded together in the "Glass House” and six thousand children and their educators were accommodated in the children’s houses under the protection of the International Red Cross. Budapest was under siege and gradually disconnected from the sources of supplies from the surrounding areas. The population suffered from a severe lack of food, medicines and heating materials. The predicament of the Jews was even worse due to the restrictions in movement and the wild behavior of the mob patrols of the Arrow Cross which endangered every pedestrian and all the means of transport in the capital. Within the framework of "Department A” of the International Red Cross, the Zionist Aid and Rescue Committee worked hand in hand with the Zionist youth movements underground. They cooperated with well known people in the fields of purchase and transport in order to buy and store very large amounts of food products from any possible source. The Zionist youth movements underground undertook the mission of supply, transport and delivery of food under the protection of its members who operated in borrowed uniforms and equipped with forged documents. The first priorities were to deliver the food to the children’s houses, the "Glass House” and to supplement the meager rations of the ghetto residents. These operations were financed by the aid money received by the Aid and Rescue Committee from foreign sources as well as from well-to-do Jews who were promised that their money would be reimbursed after the war. In this way famine was avoided and the predicament of the Jews of Budapest was alleviated.
Aid to the local resistance groups
Hungary was the only country in occupied Europe where the relatively small Zionist underground gave significant assistance to local non-Jewish resistance groups and to other units and organizations that rescued Jews by providing forged documents, money and other means.
The activities in the "Glass House”
The Zionist youth movements were in charge of the internal organization of life in the "Glass House” on 29, Vadász Street which was under the auspices of the Swiss legation. About three thousand Jews found refuge and were fed there. A branch of the "Glass House” was established on 17, Wekerle Street where some of the operations were undertaken.
In fact, the Holocaust of the Hungarian Jews took place during ten months, from March 1944 to January 1945, date of the liberation of Budapest by the Red Army. According to the official data of the Hungarian government, during the Holocaust, 575,000 Jews were murdered, accounting for 60% of the whole Jewish population in the country at the outbreak of the war.