If we go on explaining we shall cease to understand one another…Charles Maurice de Talleyrand


Emissary of the doomed : bargaining for lives in the Holocaust New York : Viking, 2010 Ronald Florence World War, 1939-1945 Jews Rescue Hungary Hardcover. 1st. ed. and printing. 336 p., [16] p. of plates : ill., ports. ; 24 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 293-322) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text.  VG/VG

March 18, 1944 was an unusually pleasant spring day in Budapest, with crowds filling the outdoor cafés: it was difficult to tell that Hungary was at war. Rumors were spread about the government’s secret negotiations with the Western Allies, and all surmised that an unspoken agreement existed according to which the Hungarians would not fire on American and British aircraft overflying the country and the enemy aircraft would not drop any bombs.

Hungary, of course, was still Germany’s partner in the military campaign against Bolshevism, but ever since the annihilation of the Hungarian expeditionary force at the Don River in the winter of 1942, the troops did behind-the-front duty only, fighting the partisans, and only some of them. Ukrainian and Polish nationalist guerrillas were tolerated and sometimes even supported in their struggles against the Nazis and the Bolsheviks.

At home, more food was to be had in the stores, and on the black market, than in Berlin, not to speak of Paris. Amazingly, while 60,000 Hungarian Jews had already died either at the front as unarmed labor servicemen or as victims of various atrocities, and while the rights and livelihoods of the remaining 800,000 persons who were Jews by religion or by descent had been restricted in many ways, they could still go about their daily business, live in their own homes, send their children to public schools, rent a room in most hotels, eat in any restaurant, go to the theater and the swimming pools, and sit on a park bench. Less than two hundred miles away, in Vienna, all this was out of the question; in fact, thousands of Austrian Jews had long since been gassed.

On the evening of March 18, one of Hungary’s wealthiest businessmen, a nobleman of Jewish descent gave a lavish party in honor of his daughter at which even a few young army officers in uniform made their appearance. It was on the way home, in the early hours of the morning, that some guests learned of German tanks crossing the Hungarian border. In a few hours the country’s occupation was complete, and with the exception of a single democratically minded parliamentary deputy who fired his pistol at the Gestapo men who came to arrest him, no one resisted the takeover. Admiral Regent Miklós Horthy, who was Hungary’s uncrowned king, and who a few months earlier categorically rejected Hitler’s request that the country’s Jews be handed over to Germany for extermination, now appointed a cabinet from the right wing of the so-called Government Party.

The new government immediately went into high gear so as to finally “solve the Jewish question.” While the regent washed his hands of the whole affair, the authorities proceeded to isolate the Jews. The same police officers who, a few months earlier during the High Holidays, directed traffic in front of the great Dohány Street Synagogue, resplendent in their shining gala helmets and white gloves, now grabbed Jews in the street and handed them over to the Gestapo, or dumped them into internment camps.

Even though the Red Army was nearing the Hungarian frontier and mass mobilization was proclaimed to fight the enemy, the administrative apparatus spent most of its energy and time confiscating Jewish buildings, apartments, bank accounts, jewelry, telephones, radios, cars, bicycles, dogs, horses, and stamp collections. Jews in the countryside were herded into walled ghettos, where their stays turned out to be shorter than the amount of time required to devise the cruel rules regulating their existence: in May and June, about 420,000 of Hungary’s Jews were deported to Auschwitz. Two-thirds were gassed immediately on arrival, while many of the rest perished subsequently.

Yet all were not lost: in early July there were more than 200,000 Jews alive in the Hungarian capital, and well over 100,000 Jewish men between the ages of eighteen and forty-eight doing labor service for the Hungarian army. Surprisingly, the military had just then decided to declare the labor servicemen prisoners of war – a declaration profoundly degrading to the highly assimilated and patriotic Jews, thousands of whom had fought for the country during World War I.

In reality, however, their POW status would prove to be an effective protection – at least until the SS/Arrow Cross putsch in October 1944 -against the Gestapo, the SS, and the Hungarian civilian authorities. Why the once wildly anti-Semitic high command of the army chose to act this way, and why it went so far as to pull young men off the deportation trains, is still a mystery. But the overfilled cattle cars carried mainly women, older men, and children to Auschwitz. The majority of them were killed; but the majority of able bodied Jewish men survived the war.

In another good turn of events, on July 7, Regent Horthy, yielding to the entreaties of neutral countries and his conservative aristocratic advisers, as well as to his own fear that the Allies would bomb a Judenrein Budapest into rubble, forbade deportations from the capital. It turned out to be a temporary but still valuable reprieve.

Nor was this all: well before the beginning of the deportations – in fact, a few days after the German invasion of Hungary – curious negotiations began between the newly arrived Gestapo, led by SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, and a handful of Jewish Zionists. The subject of the talks was the sale of Hungarian Jews to the Western Allies. Or as Eichmann himself liked to say, the issue was “blood for goods.” Although the protracted negotiations saved the lives of only a few thousand Jews, the fact that the talks occurred at all led to the postwar belief  that much more could have been done.

It is one of the many ironies of history that while at the end of the war 500,000 men, women, and children, or about two-thirds of the Hungarian Jews, were dead, the Gestapo itself did not kill any of its Zionist negotiating partners, some of whom brazenly defied even the terrible Eichmann. The few Zionist negotiators who did not survive the war fell victim not to the Germans but to the Hungarian authorities.

No less astonishingly, the vague promises, half-truths, and outright lies that the brave but totally powerless and not particularly brilliant Zionists produced for their Gestapo, SS, and Abwehr partners led to the eventual involvement in the negotiations of many other Nazi leaders, including Heinrich Himmler, and indirectly even the Führer. The Hungarian government and police, the Turkish government, the British high command in the Near East, the Jewish Agency in Palestine, the world Jewish organizations, the British foreign secretary, the American War Refugee Board, and the intelligence and counter-intelligence services of numerous countries were all eventually involved in the talks as well.

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