Hungary had been on the losing side of World War I. After the announcement of punitive peace terms to be imposed on Hungary (which included the loss of 66 percent of Hungary’s prewar territory) were announced in 1919, the postwar coalition government resigned. The reins of power fell to a Socialist-Communist coalition under Communist leader Bela Kun. Kun proceeded to establish a short-lived “Soviet Republic.”


This poster urges Jews to: “Protect Jewish interests. Do not buy from our enemies. Do not watch their movies.” Hungary, 1937-1938.

— Magyar Nemzeti Muzeum Torteneti Fenykeptar

When the Kun regime collapsed following a Romanian invasion in June 1919, Admiral Miklos Horthy, who had been an officer in the Austro-Hungarian navy, came to power at the head of a conservative-nationalist coalition. This coalition undid most of the democratic reforms promulgated in Hungary immediately after World War I. Assuming the position of regent for the Habsburg king who would never return to Hungary, Horthy presided for the next 24 years over an authoritarian, almost feudal system of aristocratic rule, which nevertheless had a functioning parliament and permitted political opposition. Among those who opposed the conservative-aristocratic oligarchy were radical nationalists and fascists of middle-class and working-class origin. Many of these politicians called for more radical steps to be taken in “solving the Jewish Question.”


Pressured by domestic radical nationalists and fascists, Hungary fell increasingly under the influence of Germany as the Nazi regime consolidated itself in the 1930s. When Germany began to redraw national boundaries in Europe, Hungary was able to regain territory (with German and Italian help). This territory included southern Slovakia from Czechoslovakia (1938), Subcarpathian Rus from dismembered Czechoslovakia (1939), northern Transylvania from Romania (1940), and the Backa region from dismembered Yugoslavia (1941). In November 1940, Hungary joined the Axis alliance. Hungarian troops participated alongside German troops in the invasion of Yugoslavia (April 1941) and the Soviet Union (June 1941).


According to a 1941 census, Hungary, including the recently annexed territories, had a Jewish population of 825,000, less than 6 percent of the total population. This figure included 100,000 converts to Christianity who, under Hungarian race laws passed between 1938 and 1941, were classified as Jews. The Hungarian racial laws were modeled on Germany’s Nuremberg Laws. They reversed the equal citizenship status granted to Jews in Hungary in 1867. Among other provisions, the laws defined “Jews” in so-called racial terms, forbade intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, and excluded Jews from full participation in various professions. The laws also barred employment of Jews in the civil service and restricted their opportunities in economic life.


In 1939, the Hungarian government, having forbidden Jews to serve in the armed forces, established a forced-labor service for young men of arms-bearing age. By 1940, the obligation to perform forced labor was extended to all able-bodied male Jews. After Hungary entered the war, the forced laborers, organized in labor battalions under the command of Hungarian military officers, were deployed on war-related construction work, often under brutal conditions. Subjected to extreme cold, without adequate shelter, food, or medical care, at least 27,000 Hungarian Jewish forced laborers died before the German occupation of Hungary in March 1944.


In the summer of 1941, Hungarian authorities deported some 20,000 Jews, most of whom resided in Subcarpathian Rus and none of whom had been able to obtain Hungarian citizenship. These Jews were deported to Kamenets-Podolski in the German-occupied Ukraine, where they were shot by Nazi Einsatzgruppe (mobile killing unit) detachments. In January 1942, Hungarian military units murdered 3,000 Jews and Serbs in Novi Sad, the major city in Hungarian-annexed Yugoslavia. When the German government began to pressure the Hungarians in 1942 to deliver Jews who were Hungarian citizens into German custody, however, Horthy’s prime minister, Miklos Kallay, refused to deport the Hungarian Jews, despite significant pressure from the domestic radical right. Ironically, most Hungarian Jews were thus spared deportation prior to the German occupation in 1944, as the Nazis did not directly control the internal activities of their allies.

Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC




After the German defeat at Stalingrad on the eastern front in 1942-1943, a battle in which Hungarian units suffered tremendous losses, Admiral Miklos Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay recognized that Germany would likely lose the war.

With Horthy’s tacit approval, Kallay sought to negotiate a separate armistice for Hungary with the western Allies. In order to forestall these efforts, German forces occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. Horthy was permitted to remain Regent, but Kallay was dismissed and the Germans installed General Dome Sztojay, who had previously served as Hungarian minister to Berlin and was fanatically pro-German, as prime minister. Sztojay committed Hungary to continuing the war effort and cooperated with the Germans in their efforts to deport the Hungarian Jews.


A deserted street in the area of the Sighet Marmatiei ghetto. This photograph was taken after the deportation of the ghetto population. Sighet Marmatiei, Hungary, May 1944.

— USHMM, courtesy of Albert Rosenthal


In April 1944, Hungarian authorities ordered Hungarian Jews living outside Budapest (roughly 500,000) to concentrate in certain cities, usually regional government seats. Hungarian gendarmes were sent into the rural regions to round up the Jews and dispatch them to the cities. The urban areas in which the Jews were forced to concentrate were enclosed and referred to as ghettos. Sometimes the ghettos encompassed the area of a former Jewish neighborhood. In other cases the ghetto was merely a single building, such as a factory.

In some Hungarian cities, Jews were compelled to live outdoors, without shelter or sanitary facilities. Food and water supplies were dangerously inadequate; medical care was virtually non-existent. Hungarian authorities forbade the Jews from leaving the ghettos and police guarded the perimeters of the enclosures. Individual gendarmes often tortured Jews and extorted personal valuables from them. None of these ghettos existed for more than a few weeks and many were liquidated within days.


In mid-May 1944, the Hungarian authorities, in coordination with the German Security Police, began to systematically deport the Hungarian Jews. SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann was chief of the team of “deportation experts” that worked with the Hungarian authorities. The Hungarian police carried out the roundups and forced the Jews onto the deportation trains.

In less than two months, nearly 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary in more than 145 trains. Most were deported to Auschwitz, but thousands were also sent to the border with Austria to be deployed at digging fortification trenches. By the end of July 1944, the only Jewish community left in Hungary was that of Budapest, the capital.


In light of the worsening military situation and facing threats (from Allied leaders) of war crimes trials, Horthy ordered a halt to the deportations on July 7, 1944. In August, he dismissed the Sztojay government and resumed efforts to reach an armistice, this time with the Soviet Union whose army was on Hungary’s borders. Horthy had begun final negotiations with Soviet army commanders by mid-October, when the Germans sponsored a coup d’etat. They arrested Horthy and installed a new Hungarian government under Ferenc Szalasi, the leader of the fascist and radically antisemitic Arrow Cross party.

During the Szalasi regime, Arrow Cross gangs perpetrated a reign of arbitrary terror against the Jews of Budapest. Hundreds of Jews, both men and women, were violently murdered. Many others died from the brutal conditions of forced labor to which the Arrow Cross subjected them.

In November 1944, the Arrow Cross regime ordered the remaining Jews of Budapest into a ghetto which, covering an area of 0.1 square miles, became temporary residence to nearly 70,000 people. Several thousand Budapest Jews were also marched on foot under Hungarian guard to the Austrian border during November and December 1944. Many who were too weak to continue marching in the bitter cold were shot along the way.


In January 1945, with Soviet forces already in the Pest section of Budapest, Hungary signed an armistice. Soviet forces liberated the Buda section of the city on February 13, 1945. Soviet troops drove the last German units and their Arrow Cross collaborators out of western Hungary in early April 1945.

Of approximately 825,000 Jews living in Hungary in 1941, about 63,000 died or were killed prior to the German occupation of March 1944. Under German occupation, just over 500,000 died from maltreatment or were murdered. Some 255,000 Jews, less than one-third of those who had resided within enlarged Hungary in March 1944, survived the Holocaust. About 190,000 of these were residents of Hungary in its 1920 borders.


Portrait of members of a Hungarian Jewish family. They were deported to and killed in Auschwitz soon after this photo was taken. Kapuvar, Hungary, June 8, 1944.

— US Holocaust Memorial Museum


A transport of Hungarian Jews lines up for selection at Auschwitz. Poland, May 1944.

— Yad Vashem Photo Archives


Hungarian Jews on their way to the gas chambers. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, May 1944.

— Yad Vashem Photo Archives


Arrow Cross Party members execute Jews along the banks of the Danube River. Budapest, Hungary, 1944.

— National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md.

Copyright © United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC


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