By the end of 5704/1944, the Russians had broken into Hungary and were slamming Budapest with bombs and artillery day and night. The rescue of Europe’s last substantial Jewish community seemed imminent.
However, Hitler had ordered his fanatical troops to defend Budapest until the last stone and they obeyed his command to the letter.
“The sky gleams in red and violet colors over the Hungarian capital,” a German newspaperman reported. “The thud of shots and the clatter of machine guns mingle with the muffled rumbling of the aircraft circling over Budapest. Cowering behind quickly erected barricades, moving with exemplary tenacity from cellar to cellar, SS men, tank grenadiers of the army, Hungarian parachutists supported by German tanks, encounter the Soviet storm troops again and again.
“Every defender of Budapest knows the necessity of this battle – therefore the defiant perseverance, the repeated thrusts into the masses of the enemy. In the heart of Budapest, the German garrison defends itself with fanatical bravery. Daily it inflicts tremendous losses on the Soviets. Its obstinate perseverance is not in vain. It is giving the German command precious time to take extensive countermeasures in the Hungarian theater of war.”
THE DEATH MARCHES
Eichmann took advantage of the siege to return and dispose of Budapest’s last Jews. By now, the railroads near Budapest were almost impassable so he decided to deport the Jews by foot in his infamous Death Marches that began on November 8th and lasted until December. Between 50,000-70,000 men, women and children were forced to walk 120 miles to the Austrian border, and those too weak to continue were shot en route.
“The conditions were frightful,” testified Miriam Herzog. “We walked thirty to forty kilometers a day in freezing rain, driven on all the time by the Hungarian gendarmes. We were all women and girls. I was seventeen at the time. The gendarmes were brutal, beating those who could not keep up, leaving others to die in ditches. It was terrible for the older women. Sometimes at night, we didn’t have any shelter, let alone anything to eat or drink.” Even hardened soldiers were aghast at the sight:
“At one point along the road, we met a convoy of German soldiers going the other way, towards the front, ordinary Wehrmacht men, not SS,” Herzog recorded.
“When they saw how the Hungarian gendarmes were treating us, they appeared to be horrified.”
During this terrible month, Raoul Wallenberg became a legend. Miriam Herzog related how he saved her at the border: “Suddenly I heard a great commotion among the women. ‘It’s Wallenberg!’ they said. Dozens of women clustered round him crying, ‘Save us, save us!’ As the women clustered around him, he said to them, ‘Please, you must forgive me but I cannot help all of you. I can only promise certificates for a hundred of you. I feel I have a mission to save the Jewish people and so I must rescue the young ones first.’
After a day or two, the hundred of us whose names had been taken were moved out and put on a cattle truck on a train bound for Budapest.”
Wallenberg’s colleague, Per Anger, also recorded the rescue efforts in his memoirs:
“On one of the first days of December 1944, Wallenberg and I went on a drive along the road on which the Jews were being marched away. We passed these groups of unfortunate people, who were more dead than alive. Grey faced, they tottered while the soldiers were urging them along with their rifle butts. The road was edged with corpses. Our car was loaded with food, which we distributed in spite of the prohibition against doing so but we did not have enough for everyone.
“At Hgyeshalom (on the Austrian border), we saw how those who had arrived were handed over to a German SS command headed by Eichmann who counted them one by one as if they had been cattle. ‘Vierhundertneunundachtzig – stimmt, gut! (Four-hundred and-eighty-nine. Good!)’
“Before this handing over we managed to save about a hundred Jews. Some of them had Swedish protection passports, others we got out by sheer bluff. Wallenberg did not give up and made repeated trips during which he succeeded in bringing a number of Jews back to Budapest.” In cooperation with Swedish, Swiss, Portuguese and Spanish officials, Wallenberg sent delegates to the main roads leading out of Budapest and at the border stations in order to hand out protection passports and prevent the deportation of Jews who already possessed them. It is estimated that this saved about 1,500 Jewish lives.
THE TWO GHETTOS
During November, the Hungarian police established an “international ghetto” for Jews with foreign passes and crammed 15,000 Jews crowded into buildings designed for 4,000. Wallenberg established over thirty “Swedish houses” bearing Swedish flags that he declared Swedish territory and set up hospitals, orphanages and soup kitchens.
Another ghetto for ‘regular’ Jews was enclosed with a wooden fence and its 243 houses were jammed with 75,000 Jews.
By now, Wallenberg had increased his staff to 400 and got by on four hours of sleep a night. His superiors were not unreservedly happy with his unorthodox measures. “I get the impression indirectly that the Swedish Foreign Office is somewhat uneasy about Wallenberg’s activities in Budapest and perhaps feel that he has jumped in with too big a splash,” wrote Ivar Olsen of the American War Refugee Board. “They would prefer, of course, to approach the Jewish problem in the finest traditions of European diplomacy, which wouldn’t help too much.” The Soviet bombardment continued. One million citizens huddled in cellars, ground floor apartments and tunnels.
“The bombing was constant,” a Budapest resident reported. “It was very dangerous to go outside. Many people died while running for water or just going to the courtyard for a cigarette. We went down into the cellar on December 29 and, until the fall of Buda, we lived like rats. Apart from the windows, it’s a miracle our flat remained intact. In our immediate neighborhood, everything was completely destroyed by mines and bullets.”
In the midst of all this destruction, Nazis of the Hungarian Arrow Cross faction decided that the least they could do for the war effort was to kill their last Jews before the Russians broke in. They intensified their attacks, even raiding the Swiss “Glass House” building that sheltered thousands of Jews. Thousands of Jews were murdered, including children in orphanages and hospital patients.
“It was a time of deliberate cultivation of evil,” wrote a Budapest Jew, George Land. “The city was shivering and it was not only the exceptionally cold weather. Buildings, under the Russian artillery and machine-gun fire from low-flying planes fell like tree leaves while human shaped creatures terrorized the city. Most people just tried to survive with obscene indifference towards others, while fourteen-year-old Hungarian fascists, probably neighbors I played soccer with, shot the helpless thousands of Jews and then removed their gold teeth before pushing them into the indifferent Danube.”
Almost twenty thousand Jews died in the bombardment and depredations of Budapest’s last weeks.
WALLENBERG’S GREATEST VICTORY
Eichmann fled Budapest on December 23rd but Wallenberg’s greatest victory came three weeks later, on January 14th, when the Russians were fighting a few hundred meters from the general ghetto. At this eleventh hour, the SS hatched a last minute plot to liquidate the entire ghetto. A combined force of five hundred SS men and a horde of Arrow Cross thugs, led by a priest, Vilmos Lucska, would murder the Jews while two hundred policemen ringed the ghetto fence to prevent any escape.
Wallenberg stopped this monstrous plan in its tracks by sending an unequivocal warning to General August Schmidthuber, overall commander of the SS, that he would personally ensure that Schmidthuber was hanged as a war criminal if the plan went ahead.
By the time the Russian army finished capturing Budapest, on the 17th-18th of January, it was too late for 564,500 Hungarian Jews. But over 100,000 Budapest Jews had survived thanks to Wallenberg and others, and throughout Hungary, about another 155,000 Jews had escaped death.
However, the suffering of the Jews was not over. The Russians plundered and looted the populace and rounded up able-bodied men to build pontoon bridges over the Danube but, at least, they were not mounting a deliberate genocide.
WALLENBERG DISAPPEARS FOREVER
On January 13th, 5705/1945, Wallenberg and his driver drove east to discuss Jewish welfare with the Soviet commander, Marshal Malinsky, and that is the last time he was ever seen as a free man. Reliable testimony indicates that they were arrested by the NKVD (later known as the KGB) and sent to the notorious Lubjanka prison in Moscow.
Why was Wallenberg arrested? Theories abound. The anti-Semitic Russians probably could not believe that he was in Budapest only to rescue Jews and suspected him of being a pro-German spy.
Unfortunately, the man who saved 100,000 Jewish lives died anonymously in a Russian jail or prison camp but his blessed memory lives on forever.