Fragments of Memories

March 19, 1944: 
A fateful day for Hungarian Jews

Judith Weissenberg Cohen


As I write this article, memories rush at me. Some are so sharp that even 60 years cannot dull them. Did this really happen six long decades ago, when I was only fifteen years old?

I see my mother’s bone-weary body and worried face, asking my father "Sándor, did we pack all the basic necessities? Will we have enough food?" My father, defeated look in his eyes, just shrugs his shoulders. He was preoccupied thinking about my three brothers who were, two years prior, conscripted to the Hungarian army’s forced "labour" battalion, along with tens of thousands of other Jewish men, and we had not heard from them for quite a while.

We learned after the war, that the 50,000 Jewish men who were sent to the Ukrainian front, as ‘cannon fodder’, 43,000 did not return. Among them two of my brothers, Jenö and Miklós.

A few hours later we were forced to leave our home - the home where my parents lived for 35 years and raised seven children. Although reluctantly, we were "ready" for our forced "journey" to the brick factory, the first station to the deportation.

We didn’t know then that in less than three weeks, both my beloved parents, my nephew and sister-in-law and all my female cousins with children, would be murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz Birkenau.

The Hungarian police entered our home, by then, stripped of all our valuables, and demanded that watches and rings that we might still have -- we were to hand them over to him, or else! Stepping outside into the yard, my beautiful, brave sister Klári, 22 years old, took off her valuable little watch she received on graduation from high school, looked squarely into the policeman’s eyes, and said Here," smashing it against the wall. "Now you can have it." Surprisingly, nothing happened to her then. Little did she know at that point, that nine months later she would starve to death in the Stutthof concentration camp in Germany, along with my oldest sister Erzsébet.

Debrecen, Hungary, June 28, 1944 is etched in my memory forever. The freight train’s wheels started to move with a screech and a jolt. Bolted tightly shut by SS and Hungarian soldiers, the train carried us to an unknown destination. Our cattle car was full to the brim with people. Among them were my parents, three sisters, baby nephew Peter, his mother and many female cousins with their babies and children. We numbered 78 in the hot and airless cattle car, its tiny windows barely letting in air and light.

Within hours, the stench from the lone pail that served as toilet mixed with the voices of prayers, crying, wailing and children's quiet whining. Our elders sat on the meager belongings we brought along, with children on their laps. We young girls and women, stood like tightly packed herrings in a jar. Perspiring profusely, totally stunned, we were barely able to breathe.

The foreboding atmosphere in the cattle car foreshadowed something ominous to come. On July 1st the train, with its large pitiful cargo, arrived to Auschwitz Birkenau, the hellhole of the world -- the largest, most efficient death factory of all times.

This, of course was the end result of a process that started in 1920 with the first "Numerus Clauses" law passed by the Hungarian parliament. Followed, in 1938 by the first and subsequent, numerous anti-Jewish edicts and laws, including a Nuremberg-type racial hygiene law. Hungary became an ideological and military ally of Nazi Germany.

Six decades, laden with tears, pain and memories, have passed since March 19, 1944.

March 19 was the fateful day when Adolf Eichmann entered Budapest behind the German Army and occupied Hungary. His task was to round up and oversee the deportation of Hungary's Jews. The German Nazis linked arms with their Hungarian counterparts and together they ushered in the eventual annihilation of the last, large Jewish community and refuge to thousands of Slovak and Polish Jews in Central Europe. With total cooperation of the Döme Sztojay government, and its three branches, the city police, the infamous gendarmerie, and the bureaucrats, it took less than three months to accomplish this dreadful task.

The deprivation, ghettoization and deportations of close to 450,000 Jews living in Hungary’s provincial cities, towns and villages, to labour and death camps in Nazi-occupied Austria, Poland and Germany, was accomplished with lightening speed, efficiency and utmost brutality.

The majority of Jews in Budapest, while also suffering a great deal, especially, during the brief but deadly, terror-laden reign of the Arrow Cross Party under Ferenc Szálasi, were spared from the initial mass deportations.

In the camps, the Nazis murdered 75% of the Hungarian Jews.

During the spring and summer of 1944, with the arrival of the Hungarian Jews, the gas chambers and crematoria worked day and night in Birkenau. Orange flames continuously lit the skies and the air was laden with the heavy, sweetish odour of burning, human flesh.

To paraphrase Dr. Randolph Braham, Professor Emeritus, City University of New York and renowned historian of Hungarian Holocaust. The destruction of 600,000 Hungarian Jews was the third largest - and among the worst - atrocities in the Shoah, during the final year of the Second World War and on the eve of Allied victory.

It is our moral obligation to pass the knowledge and the torch to subsequent generations to carry remembrance and education into the future.


Published in the Canadian Jewish News, March 17, 2004.