- Traces of the Holocaust: Journeying in and out of the Ghettos by Tim Cole
Tim Cole’s study of the ghettoization and deportation of Hungarian Jews is an important book for scholars and students alike. Focusing on 1944, which Cole calls the “year of journeys,” as well as on towns outside Budapest, the book represents an ambitious attempt to write the social history of the Holocaust through documentary traces such as receipts and photographs that have often been neglected or under-analyzed. While he divides his eight chapters into two parts (one on journeys and one on narratives), four major themes appear throughout the work: space, economics, race, and gender.
Cole’s study focuses on the German occupation that began in March 1944, but the Germans are largely absent in his account. Rather, he analyzes the interplay between Hungarian authorities, Jews, and others. He probes how two goals of the different enclosures—i.e., concentration and segregation—could create conflict among non-Jewish Hungarians despite the brevity of the period under investigation. Ghettoization was not some secret and hidden process but was highly visible and openly debated (p. 4). In Szeged, the aversion of city inhabitants to bringing in Jews from elsewhere and the desire of local authorities not to disturb the non-Jewish population meant that few Jews were actually forced out of their homes. In Szekszárd, the mayor avoided ghettoization in part due to the perceived unsuitability of Jewish homes in the town for families from the countryside. Cole concludes: “It is surprising that ghettos were established at all in the majority of these places” (p. 57).
Ghettos thus came in diverse shapes and sizes, including micro-ghettos that consisted only of a few large buildings dispersed within non-Jewish neighborhoods. Jews often were separated not only from non-Jews but also from other Jews. During the process of their spatial concentration, some Jews moved to the ghetto, while the ghetto moved to encompass others. Cole reveals here that mobility shaped survival. Those who journeyed into the ghetto could bring very little with them and tended to be at a disadvantage vis-à-vis people who remained in their own homes. The latter could rely on established social networks and use personal goods to trade for needed supplies.
Moreover, the small size and the dispersion of certain ghettos meant that their boundaries were often porous. Körmend, for example, had a fence, but Jews could sometimes leave with passes, as was the case with doctors who continued to visit non-Jewish patients, or shoppers given the task of procuring supplies for the ghetto. Non-Jews with needed skills and tools could also enter the ghetto, meaning that social and economic interdependence continued despite the Hungarian attempts at segregation. Cole shows that ghettos were able to function in large part because they continued to interact with the outside world. [End Page 493]
As Cole argues, “asset-stripping” was a primary consideration in the decision by national and local authorities to concentrate and then deport the Jews: this “robbing of the Jews” was meant to benefit the non-Jewish population and the Hungarian state. At the same time, Cole also points out that the Holocaust cannot be boiled down to crude economic reductionism. In Nyíregyháza, nearly 250 carts were used on some days to transport Jews to the ghetto. The payments to individual carters, however, tended to be low. Cole concludes that the motivation here appeared to be the “stick” of “legal consequences” wielded by the mayoral authority and was “not first and foremost a story of material enrichment” (p. 39). In this particular case, however, it seems that Cole may have underestimated the role of financial compensation: the carters did not get rich from transporting Jews, but the money likely did encourage participation either as an incentive or by suppressing any misgivings.
Cole offers ample evidence of locals’ racialized views as well. For example, many Hungarians subscribed to the stereotype of Jewish wealth and saw...