Bergen-Belsen and the Hungarian Jews

Bergen-Belsen concentration camp

The last group of Jews to be deported by the Nazis were the Hungarians. Both Hungary and Bulgaria were allies of Germany in World War II. On April 17, 1943, after Bulgaria had refused to allow their Jews to be deported, Hitler met with Admiral Nicholas Horthy, the Hungarian leader, in Salzburg and tried to persuade him to allow the Jews of Hungary to be "resettled" in Poland, according to Martin Gilbert in his book, "Never Again." Admiral Horthy rejected Hitler's arguments and refused to deport the Hungarian Jews.

In mid March 1944, Germany occupied Hungary, and the deportation of the Jews began a few weeks later. The first transport of Hungarian Jews to the Auschwitz death camp was on April 29,1944, according to Yehuda Bauer (Freikauf von Juden?), who wrote that mass transports of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began on May 14, 1944.

The last mass transport of 14,491 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz was on July 9, 1944, according to Franciszek Piper (Die Zahl der Opfer von Auschwitz), who wrote that most of the Hungarian Jews were gassed immediately upon arrival.

On August 13, 1944, a small transport of 131 Jews arrived from Hungary at Auschwitz and on August 18, 1944 the last transport of 152 Jews arrived. By that time, a minimum of 437,685 Hungarian Jews had been transported to Auschwitz on 148 trains, mostly the Jews living in the villages and smaller towns.

Robert E. Conot wrote in his book "Justice at Nuremberg" that 330,000 of the Hungarian Jews were sent directly to the gas chambers. By 1944, the railroad tracks had been extended into the Birkenau camp and the transport trains stopped a few yards from the four gas chamber buildings. According to the US Holocaust Museum, there were 200,000 Jews still living in Budapest after these deportations.

On April 7, 1944, two Jews, Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, managed to escape from Birkenau, the infamous Auschwitz II camp where the gas chambers were located. They made their way back to Slovakia and wrote a report which soon reached the hands of the Pope, the King of Sweden, and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The neutral nations such as Sweden and Switzerland began to issue passports that saved the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews, including Tom Lantos, who subsequently emigrated to America and became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. and Judge Samuel I. Rosenman, a Jewish advisor to President Roosevelt, urged him to intervene, according to Conot. Roosevelt threatened that "Hungary's fate will not be like any other civilized nation's...unless the deportations are stopped." On July 2, American planes bombed Budapest and its railroad facilities, according to Conot.

The Hungarian government and Admiral Horthy were informed that Vrba and Wetzler had proof that the Jews were being gassed at Auschwitz. Vrba, who worked at the train platform, had counted the number of Jews who arrived at Birkenau and were then never seen again. Vrba's estimate was that 1,765,000 Jews had been gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau by March 1944, just before he made his escape.

After a meeting on June 26, 1944, the Hungarian Council of Ministers decided to permit the emigration of 7,800 Jews, most of whom had immigration papers for Palestine. Others had protection documents issued by the Swedish government. At this point, Horthy ordered the deportation of the Hungarian Jews to stop and on July 17, 1944, the Hungarian government announced that all Jews who had immigration papers for Palestine would be given exit visas and allowed to leave.

After Hitler himself put pressure on Horthy to deport the Budapest Jews to Auschwitz, the Hungarian government decided to begin transporting the Budapest Jews on August 25, 1944. According to Yehuda Bauer, the plan was to transport the Jews on 6 trains with 20,000 Jews on each train; the first train was scheduled to leave for Auschwitz on August 27, 1944. However, the deportation plans were stopped when the Hungarian government received a telegram from Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler on August 24th; Himmler ordered the preparations for the deportation of the Budapest Jews to stop.

According to Eberhard Kolb, Reichsführer Himmler had already opened a special section at the Bergen-Belsen exchange camp on July 8, 1944, where 1683 Hungarian Jews from Budapest were brought. The Jews in the Hungarian section were treated better than all the others at Bergen-Belsen. They received better food and medical care and were not required to work. They wore their own clothes, but were required to wear a yellow Star of David patch. The Bergen-Belsen camp had different categories of prisoners, and the Hungarian Jews were in the category of Preferential Jews (Vorzugsjuden) because they were considered desirable for exchange purposes.

The first transport of 318 "exchange Jews" left the Bergen-Belsen Hungarian camp on August 18, 1944, bound for Switzerland. On August 20th, the trainload of Hungarian Jews arrived in Bregenz and then went on to St. Gallen the next day.

Himmler, who was beginning to think of himself as Hitler's successor, had begun working behind Hitler's back in negotiating with the Jews. On August 21, 1944, three SS officers (Kurt Becher, Max Grüson and Hermann Krumey) who were representing Himmler, and a representative of the Budapest Jews, Rudolf Kastner, met with Saly Mayer, a leading member of the Jewish Community in Switzerland.

The meeting took place in the middle of a bridge at St. Margarethen, on the border between Germany and Switzerland, because Mayer refused to enter Germany and he also did not want the SS men to enter Switzerland, according to Yehuda Bauer. Becher asked for farm machinery and 10,000 trucks, and in return, he promised to free 318 Hungarian Jews from Bergen-Belsen. In a show of good faith, the train with the 318 Jews was already waiting at the Swiss border. Mayer offered minerals and industry goods instead of the trucks.

According to Yehuda Bauer, Becher later claimed that he had persuaded Himmler not to deport the Budapest Jews, and that was why Himmler issued an order to stop the deportation three days later.

A second group of 1368 Hungarian Jews left the Bergen-Belsen detention camp on December 4, 1944 and entered Switzerland just after midnight on December 7th, according to Yehuda Bauer. One of the Hungarian Jews in this group was 11-year-old Adam Heller, who survived and is now a Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas in Austin, TX.

Professor Heller described what it was like in Bergen-Belsen: "I was emaciated, and during the long roll calls I fainted twice of hunger. My hair and clothing were full of lice, and the narrow three-storied bunks on which we slept had bedbugs."

Altogether, there was a total of 2,896 Jews released for ransom, including a transport of 1210 Jews from the Theresienstadt Ghetto who entered Switzerland on February 7, 1945.

After the departure of the second Hungarian transport to Switzerland in December, more transports from Budapest continued to arrive at Bergen-Belsen and the Hungarian section remained in existence there until April 1945. According to Eberhard Kolb, it was a transport of Hungarian Jews in February 1945 that bought in the lice that started a typhus epidemic in the camp. The delousing facilities in the camp had been temporarily out of order at that time.

When Hitler learned that Himmler was negotiating to ransom the Hungarian Jews he was so enraged that he later expelled Himmler from the Nazi party. However, Hitler had already given his permission in December 1942 to release Jews for ransom, so Himmler was not going against established Nazi policy.

After the Hungarian Jews had entered Switzerland, there were false reports by the Swiss press that the Jews were being ransomed in exchange for asylum for 200 SS officers who were planning to defect. When Hitler heard this, from Ernst Kaltenbrunner who was no friend of Himmler, he ordered all further releases of Jews for ransom to stop. Nevertheless, Himmler continued to release Jews from the concentration camps, as he continued to negotiate with the Allies. For example, he allowed a transport of prisoners to leave the Ravensbrück women's camp in the last days of the war.

Between April 6 and April 11, the Hungarian Jews were evacuated from Bergen-Belsen on the orders of Himmler who was planning to use them as bargaining chips in his negotiations with the Allies. The Jews in the Star Camp and also in the Neutrals Camp were also evacuated, along with the Hungarians, in three trains which held altogether about 7,000 Jews who were considered "exchange Jews."

One of these trains arrived with 1712 people on April 21, 1945 in the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. Two weeks later the Theresienstadt Ghetto was turned over to the Red Cross, just before Russian troops arrived. The other two trains never made it to Theresienstadt because they had to keep making detours due to frequent Allied air attacks, according to Eberhard Kolb (Bergen-Belsen from 1943 to 1945).

One of the trains finally stopped on April 14 near Magdeburg in northern Germany; the guards ran away and the Jews on the train were liberated by the American troops. The third train halted on April 23, 1945 near the village of Tröbitz in the Niederlausitz region; they were liberated by Russian troops after the guards escaped.

Living conditions in Bergen-Belsen


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This page was last updated on March 23, 2007