On the eve of World War II, Hungary was an ally and supporter of the Axis Powers, led by Germany. Its ruler was Admiral Horthy, whose official title was Regent (because this Country, although a Kingdom at the time, had no King position). In the framework of his support of Germany, he cooperated by allowing German Forces passage through Hungarian soil when those attacked Yugoslavia, in April, 1941; and on 27 June 1941, Hungarian Forces joined the German Offensive on the Soviet Union. In December of that year the Regime also declared war on the U.S.A. and on Britain. In 1942, the Hungarian Expeditionary Force to the Russian Front grew from one Corps to an Army of 3 Corps. It included Battalions of Forced Laborers, most of whom, about 50,000 people, were Jews. These Forces fought primarily on the Ukrainian Front and in the Don River region. In 1943, the Hungarian Forces suffered some serious defeats by Soviet Forces, and on the Voronezh Front the Hungarian Army was almost completely destroyed, including most of the Forced Labor Battalions. In March, 1944, the Germans took control of the Country and a pro-German Puppet Government was established there. This resulted in anti-Nazi reactions, which were quickly suppressed and caused the beginning of deportations of Hungarian Jews. With Romania joining the Allies, Hungary’s Ruler, Admiral Horthy, decided to follow suit. He stopped the expulsion of Jews, and on 11 October 1944, signed an Armistice with the U.S.S.R. This event led to a pro-Nazi Coup, carried out against Horthy that month by members of the “Arrow Cross” Party and bringing to his removal from power. In September of 1944, Soviet Forces entered Hungary, and in February of 1945, following fierce battles, they liberated Budapest.
The Hungarian Underground’s resistance arose only in the summer of 1944, though it was crushed, mainly by mass arrests. The Communist Party operated in secret, having been outlawed, and engaged primarily in the dissemination of leaflets. Efforts by the SOE to raise sabotage activity in the Country did not succeed and Partisan movement was sporadic and small in scope. Hungarians who participated in the Slovak Uprising, in July, 1944, and those who established contact with Tito’s Forces in Yugoslavia should also be mentioned. In November, 1944, a Committee of Liberation was formed but most of its members were arrested by the Germans. Overall, the Hungarian Underground’s contribution to the Country’s liberation and to the defeat of the Germans was rather small.
Hungary was the only one of the Axis Countries that did not adopt a policy of oppression against Jews. Hungarian Jews were considered Hungarian Nationals despite limitations on their civil rights, and the Country’s leaders did not change their position on the issue despite German pressure on them to do so. For this reason, Hungary became a relatively safe haven for Jews from central Europe; and thus, waves of refugees began to arrive there from various places. The first wave arrived from Germany, following the passage of the Nuremberg Laws in 1935. Jews then arrived from Austria, from the Czech Bohemia and Moravia Regions and from Slovakia. After Hungary’s occupation by the Germans refugees from Poland began to arrive, especially Soldiers who had been serving in the Polish Army. All these people were divided into two groups: legal refugees, who stayed in Refugee Camps and received aid from the Jewish Community, and illegal refugees, who lived under false identities and forged documents. In late 1943, the number of refugees was estimated at approximately 15,000.
Jewish Underground activity in Hungary concentrated on urban areas and was carried out mainly by members of the Pioneering Youth Movements, “Hashomer Hatza’ir” and “Hechalutz” among them. Already in 1941, the Underground was helping with the escape of about 500 members of the Youth Movements from Poland and Slovakia and seeing to it that they received identification documents and then smuggled into Romania. Assistance to the escape (code-named, the “Trip”) even expanded, until April, 1942, when the Organization was exposed and 12 of its members arrested, tortured and sent to Detention Camps in Hungary. The year 1943 was marked by an increase in the number of incoming refugees from Slovakia and Poland, and by an attempt to realize the immigration (Aliyah) of youths to Eretz Israel that had been promised by British Authorities. In the summer of 1943, following the liquidation of the Ghettos, escaping from Poland to Hungary through Slovakia increased, and that autumn it reached a few dozen people every day. Most of the refugees came to Budapest, the only place where Zionist Movement activity was permitted and aid services given.
The Underground’s principal activity started after the German takeover of Hungary, in March, 1944. As deportations from provincial towns began, messengers bearing false identification and money were dispatched from Budapest to warn as well as to rescue people, and thus developed a system of smuggling of individuals whose lives were in danger to Romania, which had already seceded from Germany. Several thousand persons were smuggled out this way. Some 15 people attended to this task, in which the Underground prepared thousands of identification cards and various kinds of false documents necessary for the operation.
When the Fascist “Arrow Cross” people took over power in October, 1944, and began murdering Jews, Bunkers were built, some even equipped with weapons that had been acquired in all kinds of ways, and approximately 150 Underground members whose lives were in danger hid in them. Yet most Underground activity continued to be focused on save and rescue efforts. These endeavors were based on hiding Jews in sites that were flying the Flags of neutral parties, such as Switzerland, Sweden and the Red Cross, and under the aegis of the false documents issued to those people. Among those hidden in the course of this operation were about 4,000 children. They and others were later smuggled out to Eretz Israel by way of Romania.
Members of the Jewish Underground used various means of operation, including disguising themselves as Christians or as Soldiers of the Hungarian or German Armies and as members of the “Arrow Cross”. They roamed the streets of Budapest, protected threatened Jews and also set free Jews who had been arrested. Further, they maintained contacts with members of the Hungarian Communist Underground and with others, and even assisted them in some activities.
Estimates indicate that approximately 500 persons operated in the Jewish Underground in Hungary.