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“To be blunt: My family used its connections and money to escape the inferno, while others with less money and fewer connections were murdered.”

A First-Hand Look at Atrocity, by a ‘Privileged’ Witness

In the preface of How It Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry, editor Nina Munk writes about her cousin Ernő Munkácsi’s testament to brutality and first-hand account of the Jews’ moral dilemmas in wartime Hungary — with a focus on the Jewish Council (aka Judenrat). The book has been published in English for the first time.

A few years ago, while rummaging through his desk drawers, my father, Peter Munk, found a tattered copy of a Hungarian book written in 1947 by his cousin Ernő Munkácsi. My father sat down, read the book in one sitting, and called me. “This book,” he began urgently. “It has to be published in English.”

Leading scholars of the Holocaust in Hungary have long been influenced by Ernő Munkácsi’s remarkable book of 1947. Notably, How It Happened served as a vital source for Randolph L. Braham’s encyclopedic The Politics of Genocide. But as my father understood immediately, How It Happened is not only an important historical record of the Holocaust in Hungary; it is an extraordinary first-hand account of the atrocity, written by a “privileged” eyewitness and victim.

Memoirs of war are almost always affected by hindsight bias. How It Happened was written right after the Second World War, when the wounds were still raw. That immediacy magnifies the horrors Munkácsi describes: the barrage of increasingly preposterous demands made by Adolf Eichmann’s special operations unit in Budapest (Sondereinsatzkommando Eichmann); the complicity of the Hungarian authorities; the disagreements that unfolded behind closed doors among frantic members of the Hungarian Judenrat; the mind-numbing swiftness and barbarity with which hundreds of thousands of Hungary’s Jews were rounded up, robbed of their property and civil rights, herded into ghettos, and murdered in Nazi concentration camps.

My father and Ernő Munkácsi were first cousins once removed. (My father’s grandfather was Munkácsi’s uncle.) The Munk family was big and tightly knit and comfortably bourgeois. In Budapest in the years leading up to the war, family members gathered frequently at their local coffee house (Országház kávéház), at their synagogue on what was then Csáky St., and for Shabbat dinners at my great-grandfather Gábor Munk’s well-appointed apartment in Lipótváros. Ernő, born in 1896, was 31 years older than my father. My father, born in 1927, remembered his older cousin as serious, dutiful and “rather dull.” By all accounts, Ernő was all that and more. He was a member of Budapest’s Jewish intelligentsia, a highly respected jurist, cultured, and committed to doing right by his community. As Susan Papp argues in her biographical essay (included in this volume), by acting as secretary for the Judenrat or Jewish Council, Ernő Munkácsi surely believed he could act as a bulwark against the Nazis.

The reality was something very different, of course, as revealed by a disquieting joke that Ernő recounts in How It Happened:

A Jew is woken up in the middle of the night by a banging on his door.

“Who’s there?” he calls out.

“The Gestapo,” comes the answer.

“Thank God,” says the Jew, with obvious relief. “I thought it was the Jewish Council!”

To read How It Happened is to understand that the Budapest-based Judenrat, an administrative body established by the SS immediately after the invasion of Hungary in March 1944, inadvertently facilitated the Nazis’ “wholesale extermination of Hungarian Jews” (Ernő’s words). Even today, this is a deeply unsettling, controversial topic. The tragic role played by the Jewish councils in Hungary, Poland and other Nazi-occupied nations is often defined in terms of “impossible choices” or, to quote the Holocaust scholar Lawrence L. Langer, “choiceless choices.”

In The Politics of Genocide, Braham describes the Hungarian Judenrat as naive, ineffective and “almost completely oblivious of the inferno around it.” Rudolf Vrba, an escapee whose detailed report of April 1944 first documented the extent of the horrors at Auschwitz, went further in his critique of the Jewish elite who composed the Judenrat, charging them in his later memoirs with complicity in the Nazis’ crimes: “It is my contention that a small group of informed people, by their silence, deprived others of the possibility or privilege of making their own decisions in the face of mortal dangers.”

Ernő Munkácsi wrote How It Happened well before Braham or Vrba questioned the role of Jewish leaders in Hungary; yet already in the immediate aftermath of the war he and other members of the Judenrat were confronted by intense hostility and outrage from fellow survivors, many of whom had lost their whole family and community to the gas chambers. Why didn’t the Judenrat do more to save their people? How did the Judenrat and their families manage to emerge largely unscathed from the war even while more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered?

In his perceptive introduction to this volume, Ferenc Laczo suggests that in writing How It Happened, Ernő had a personal stake in denying how much he knew about the Holocaust by mid-1944; he needed to defend himself against accusations of having done too little too late. Fülöp (Pinchas) Freudiger was another member of my family who served on the Hungarian Judenrat in 1944. Years later, as a witness at the Eichmann Trial, Freudiger was asked what he did to prevent the mass deportations in Hungary. “What could we have done?” he asked.

Ernő Munkácsi and Fülöp Freudiger weren’t the only members of my family who wrestled with their wartime records. In June 1944, as the cattle cars rolled from Hungary to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp at peak capacity, fourteen members of my immediate family — including my father, grandfather, and great-grandfather — fled Budapest on what we now know as the Kasztner Train, the result of secret negotiations with the Nazis that permitted 1,687 select Jews to flee to safety in Switzerland. To be blunt: My family used its connections and money to escape the inferno, while others with less money and fewer connections were murdered. That unspoken, unsavory fact has caused lingering rifts, even within my own family, because less-wealthy or less-lucky branches of the family were trapped in Hungary and slaughtered by the Nazis or the Arrow Cross (fascists who took over the government in October 1944).

What was the right thing to do during the Holocaust? In How It Happened, Munkácsi offers readers a new understanding of the lamentable, impossible balancing act that he and his fellow members of the Judenrat performed. They were not heroes. They were dutiful, “rather dull” members of the establishment who implicitly or conveniently trusted in the established order that had permitted them to thrive in Hungary. Even as increasingly severe anti-Jewish measures robbed them of their property, their jobs and their civil rights, the Jewish elite in Budapest rationalized that if they kept their heads down, they would emerge from the war relatively unscathed.

Even after the Nazis arrived in 1944 and Hungary’s Jews began to be herded into ghettos and deported, they stayed the course, perhaps because they “entertained the illusion that Hungary would be the exception, a tiny foothold of an island in the sea of Jewish devastation,” as Munkácsi argues, or perhaps because they felt they had no other option. To quote Ferenc Laczo: “With greater temporal distance, it might … be easier to acknowledge that members of the Council made politically and morally problematic choices because there was no alternative; it was impossible for them to make good decisions.”

My father could never forgive himself for leaving his mother behind when he escaped in 1944. I should have done something to save her, he would say. But what could he have done? Shortly after the Germans occupied Hungary, my grandmother was arrested on the far-fetched charge that she was a threat to the Reich. My father, aged sixteen, accompanied her to the Gestapo detention center on Rökk Szilárd St., carrying her brown leather valise. Assured by elder statesmen of the community that she would soon be released, my father would only later learn that she had been sent to Auschwitz and then forced into labor for the Nazis at a factory in Zschopau, Germany. She survived the ordeal, only to later commit suicide. Not surprisingly, my father empathized with his cousin Ernő’s impossible dilemma.

Happened be translated and made available to a wide audience. This is a book that illuminates the agony and moral weight of “choiceless choices.” It’s a book of history, certainly; yet it feels particularly vital right now as Jews everywhere anxiously confront a surge of antisemitism, as bigotry and hatred have again become embedded in our everyday discourse.

The Holocaust is fading from memory. Among Americans, two-thirds of millennials and 41 percent of all adults do not know what Auschwitz was, according to a recent poll commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany. It was Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz and the Holocaust in Hungary, who most eloquently implored that we remember the horrors of the past. “For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living,” he wrote in the preface to the new English translation of his memoir, Night. “To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.”