The Budapest House
Conclusion of Chapter 2 – The Cauldron
… On October 14th, 1944, the Jambors [Jewish characters in the book] heard Admiral Horthy [Regent of Hungary] announce on national radio that he was seeking an armistice with the Allies. People stopped them on the street to tear off their yellow stars. That evening fellow Jews broke open a bottle of champagne to celebrate “the day of the armistice, the day when we were able to remove the yellow star, the hour of our freedom.” Agi’s husband demurred: “Let’s wait a little longer. This is the time to go into hiding. The Arrow Cross will stage a putsch, with German backing.”
By midnight, he had been proved right. The Arrow Cross took power under Ferenc Szálasi. German troops surrounded Horthy’s palace and held his son as a hostage to intimidate him. He resigned, was taken into German custody and melted away into German exile and oblivion. Jews all over Budapest sewed their yellow stars back on again. Jews living in the capital had been reprieved by Horthy’s intervention in July, but now Eichmann returned and herded 70,000 of them into ghettos. The reign of terror reached new heights. Teenage gangs roamed the streets indulging in the largest orgy of public killings anywhere in Nazi-occupied Europe. Father Kun, an Arrow Cross Catholic priest, admitted after the war to killing 500 people personally. He ordered execution squads: “In the name of Christ – fire!”
“For Szálasi and his gang, making Hungary ‘Jew-free’ seemed to be more important than anything – perhaps even than winning the war. There can be no other explanation for their totally irrational behaviour, the sole purpose of which was to humiliate, eliminate and annihilate the Jews,” wrote Hungarian historian Kristián Ungváry in 2003. Noting that Hungarian military, police and gendarmes idly watched the atrocities, he observed: “This could not have happened without a deep and far-reaching moral crisis among the population.”
As for Bálint Magyar, when he was a government minister sixty years later, he commented: “It is difficult to comprehend how Hungary could have turned its back on hundreds of thousands of its citizens, how it could have humiliated them, robbed them of their possessions and sent them to their death. Although thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of courageous people risked their lives to save those who were being persecuted, it is still difficult to grasp the fact that most
Hungarians passively watched the suffering of the Jews and that many of them even joyously seized control of their possessions. What happened was not the private operation of a small band of criminals, but rather the climax of a lengthy process, and the responsibility for what happened must be borne by Hungary’s political leaders, its intellectuals and a significant segment of its society.”
Nobel prize-winner Imre Kertész judged their behaviour more savagely as “the ethics of despair, the mad rantings of self-haters, the vitality of the moribund … the corrupt, suffocating, murderous and murder-inducing suicidal system of exclusions and discriminations.” He added: “Auschwitz was the materialization of a Weltgeist … a dark fruit ripening in the sparkling rays of innumerable ignominious deeds.”
As the Soviet Red Army laid siege to Budapest, Agi and her husband risked their lives with every move from one hiding place to another. When crossing the Danube, they had to crawl under the chains of the Chain Bridge in order to evade a Soviet fighter circling above, waiting to strafe anybody spotted moving across. Together with Agi’s mother, sister, brother-in-law and nephew, the Jambors – alias Nagy and Kocsmáros – crammed into the flat of a cousin on the Aryan side of their family.
“On the 3rd of January 1945, we had our wedding anniversary, and the friends in the house gave a little dinner party in our honour,” recalled Agi. “My cousin pulled out a jar of honey that was hidden somewhere, and everybody got one tablespoonful for his bread. Another had a can of American salmon which we divided among fifteen persons. A third one brought a candle, so we had some light, and Denes [a musician] again performed. That night we could hardly sleep at all. It was terribly cold and we had no blankets. The gunfire was unusually heavy and loud. It was a strange anniversary. Then at six o’clock in the morning the police came.”
This time they had papers permitting them to move to the Swedish Legation. There they found a senior Swedish diplomat had just committed suicide. They met a Hungarian mother who had dodged an execution bullet on the shore of the Danube and swum to safety with her baby:
“The baby was hungry and cried continually and she had nothing to give her. Then the mother began to sing to her child. She sang beautifully … and she kept on singing until the child fell asleep. It was the most heart-rending musical experience of my life,” said Agi. There was nothing to eat in the Legation, so they set out once more through driving snow in streets deserted by all except Arrow Cross gangs.
As bombing and fighting rose to a crescendo, they could dwell only underground. In the last days, they hid with a group of others in a tiny cell hidden below a cellar, with water up to their knees. Once a day, two of them crawled cautiously to the surface with buckets, one to empty of their excrement and the other to pile with snow for drinking water.
After two weeks, in the first days of February 1945, the door opened and a voice said the war was over. They crawled out half blind, and glimpsed two Russians with long dark beards in white winter uniforms. A new era was starting.
© 2007 Marcus Ferrar