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  • How It Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry by Ernő Munkácsi
  • Robert Nemes
How It Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry, Ernő Munkácsi, edited by Nina Munk, translated by Péter Balikó Lengyel (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2018), lxxviii + 318 pp., hardcover $29.95, electronic version available.

Ernő Munkácsi (1896–1950) served as secretary of the Hungarian Central Jewish Council (Judenrat) established in Budapest immediately after the German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944. This position allowed him to observe at first-hand the terrible events that followed: the arrival of Adolf Eichmann’s murderous Sonderkommando, the Jews’ confused and uncertain responses to repression, the chilling indifference of the Hungarian government, the rapid deportations to Auschwitz of roughly 430,000 provincial Jews, the desperate attempts to save Budapest’s Jews, and the coup on October 15 that brought to power the fascist Arrow Cross. How It Happened,which appeared in Hungarian in 1947, represents an early attempt to document and make sense of this tragedy. Now in English, it usefully reminds us that many Jewish survivors, far from lapsing into silence, instead bore witness during the immediate postwar years.

In his introduction, Munkácsi explained that he felt an obligation to record all that had happened. His approach would be that of the conscientious historian: “He must remain cool and keep a marble face, subservient to none but the cause of truth—unconditionally” (p. 8). The book thus presents the author’s “impartial observations” (p. 65), the reconstruction of the facts, and dozens of documents. The latter include a transcript of Eichmann’s only meeting with the Jewish Council, the many appeals and petitions sent to the Hungarian authorities, the first grim reports from the countryside, and—almost in their entirety—the “Auschwitz Protocols” (a detailed account by Slovakian Jews who escaped from the camp in early 1944). Yet How It Happened is anything but a documentary reader, and Munkácsi’s “coolness” repeatedly gives way to frustration, anger, and despair. He lashes out at Hungary’s Jewish leaders for their internal divisions and aloofness from the Jewish masses; he praises young Zionists for their bravery and energy; and he marvels at the Germans’ effortless, offhand, outrageous lies. Although Munkácsi focuses primarily on high-level decision-making, he also records the daily struggles of ordinary Jews in Budapest (pp. 240–41).

Much will be familiar. But the book records lesser-known episodes, such as that following the first serious Allied air raids on Budapest in April 1944, when the Hungarian authorities demanded that the Jewish Council produce the keys to 1,500 apartments within twenty-four hours. “I am at loss,” wrote Munkácsi, “to describe the shock and despair into which the requisitioning mission plunged the unwary Jews,” who lost their possessions, security, and dignity (pp. 60–62). He also draws attention to the internment camp at Kistarca, on the edge of Budapest, where the Gestapo and Hungarian police held many prominent Jews and from which the Gestapo deported more than 1,200 in mid-July—nearly two weeks after Regent Miklós Horthy had ordered an end to the deportations. Later chapters underscore the efforts at rescue made by ambassadors of neutral countries and by non-governmental organizations (Sweden, Spain, Switzerland, the International Red Cross); a long [End Page 434] description of a proposal to grant 500 exit visas to Spanish-controlled Tangier shows the creativity and complexity of such efforts (pp. 242–48).

Much of the book, however, focuses on the day-to-day work of the Jewish Council, of which Munkácsi was a key member. He takes us inside the Council’s headquarters on Síp Street, with its overwhelmed officials, clamorous petitioners, and tight-lipped leaders who knew that informants could be anywhere. He criticizes the Jewish leadership for being dilatory and reactive, for engaging in wishful thinking, and for its faith in petitions and appeals.

Munkácsi presents himself as someone who favored more active resistance, and in July he and two young Zionists produced an underground pamphlet calling on Christian Hungarians to help their Jewish countrymen. The authorities soon hunted down the...


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