Between 1938 and early 1941, Hungary took control of considerable swaths of territory of its various weak or disintegrating neighboring countries, but lost them all again after the war. With these new territories also came many additional Jews. While Hungary proper had some 400,000 Jews, that number swelled to 725,000 with the new territories, plus thousands of war refugees streaming in from Poland in late 1939.
While Hungary had an independent government, its Jews, though subject to discrimination, were largely safe from more-severe measures, such as ghettoization and deportation. This changed in early 1944, when the Hungarian government, foreseeing the defeat of the Axis Powers, tried to pull out of the war. As a reaction, German forces invaded the country, and installed a puppet government. Anti-Jewish measures swiftly followed, including plans of mass deportations.
A series of transcribed telegrams sent by the German plenipotentiary in Hungary Edmund Veesenmayer to the Foreign Office in Berlin report the daily number of Jews that had been deported from Hungary. The last report of July 9 mentions 437,402 deportees. However, these reports do not indicate the destiny of these transports. A report by Eberhard von Thadden, an expert on Jewish issues at the German Foreign Office, mentions that about a third of the Jews deported from Hungary were fit for work, and that they would be made available “immediately after their arrival at the Auschwitz Camp,” to various government agencies for forced-labor deployment. Other documents also mention that roughly a third of all deported Jews from Hungary were able to work, and numerous sources show that many, if not most or even all, of these Jews were deployed in a variety of locations throughout Germany and Austria.
A wide variety of documents permits a somewhat complete reconstruction of the number of Jews deported from Hungary and admitted to the Auschwitz Camp, either with or without registration. This results in a total of some 128,700 Jews, or some 30% of all deported Jews. Almost all of them were eventually transferred to other labor camps and worksites, mostly in Germany or Austria.
Interestingly, the age of some of those who were registered shows that “fit for work” was, at times, a very generously applied concept, because quite a few of them were children, and some of them persons well over 60 years of age. Of the 578 Hungarian Jews who were encountered alive at the Auschwitz Camp by the Soviets on 27 January 1945, 29 were ten years old and younger.
Another set of documents shows that the Hungarian Jews temporarily lodged at Birkenau were given medical treatment to keep them alive and well, as best as was possible under the bad circumstances of an overcrowded, overwhelmed camp. For example, a medical report of 28 June 1944 informs us that 1,426 surgical interventions for serious medical issues were performed on some of these Hungarian Jews.
While currently known documents do not permit any conclusion about the fate of the Jews deemed unfit for work, both the analysis of air photos and of ground photos prove that their fate was probably innocuous.
Two SS men at Auschwitz were charged with documenting the processing of the Hungarian Jews, as they streamed into Auschwitz. They took photos, which were later put together into an album, today referred to as the Auschwitz Album. It was discovered after the war, and has since been published in numerous editions. Gutman’s 1990 Encyclopedia of the Holocaust uses many of its photos to illustrate its article on the Auschwitz Camp (pp. 112-118). It shows how those fit for work were shorn, deloused and given prison clothes, while those unfit for work kept their clothes and belongings and were sent elsewhere. These photos prove that the arriving Hungarian Jews were not slaughtered irrespective of their fitness, and that those unfit for labor could even keep their belongings. (See the entry on the Auschwitz Album.)
Moreover, some of these photos show the chimneys of Crematoria II & III, and they all show sections of the sky. Like the air photos of Auschwitz taken in May, June and July 1944, these photos, too, demonstrate that there was no smoke coming out of the crematoria’s chimneys, that no gigantic open-air incineration pits burned thousands of murdered Jews every day, and that no smoke was blanketing the sky. (See the entry on Air Photos.)
Most of the German officials primarily responsible for the deportation of the Jews from Hungary got off lightly after the war:
- Kurt Becher, representative in Hungary of the SS Führungshauptamt (and thus Himmler’s right-hand man), served the prosecution at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal by signing an affidavit and testifying that he received from Himmler an order in September or October 1944 prohibiting “any extermination of the Jews.” No such order ever existed. (See the entry on Becher for details.)
- Edmund Veesenmayer got indicted during Case 11 (“Ministries Case”) of the U.S.-conducted Nuremberg Military Tribunals (NMT), where he was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, but was pardoned two years into his prison term.
- Eberhard von Thadden, an expert on Jewish issues at the German Foreign Office and Eichmann’s contact person, testified for the prosecution during NMT Case 11 and confirmed everything they wanted, after one of the Allied interrogators had threatened him with extradition to the French, who were eager to sentence him to death. Von Thadden was never prosecuted for his involvement in the deportation of Jews from Hungary.
- Horst Wagner, a member of the personal staff of Germany’s foreign minister Joachim Ribbentrop, and von Thadden’s superior as head of Department Inland II, also testified for the prosecution during NMT Case 11. Several attempts to prosecute him in West Germany went nowhere.
- Several other officials of the German foreign office whose names, signatures or initials can be found on documents pertaining to the deportation of Jews from Hungary – Geiger, Wissberg, Hencke, Reichel, Mirbach – were never indicted or prosecuted for their involvement either.
The two big exceptions are Adolf Eichmann and one of his deputies, Dieter Wisliceny. Eichmann was missing after the war and served as a scapegoat for everyone else during the various Nuremberg trials, while Wisliceny’s deal with the Allies – to be let off the hook for testifying as requested – evidently went sour. He was eventually extradited to Czechoslovakia, where he was tried and hanged in 1948.
The orthodoxy insists that almost all Jews deported from Hungary to Auschwitz were killed on arrival in the various homicidal gas chambers at Birkenau. In fact, so many Jews were allegedly killed every day between 17 May and end of June 1945 that not even the vastly exaggerated cremation capacity of the Birkenau crematoria could keep up with the mass-murderous frenzy. Therefore, large cremation pits are said to have been operated, both in the yard north of Crematorium V as well as in the vicinity of the so-called Bunker 2 just outside the camp to the west. As a result, the crematoria chimneys were smoking heavily, and the entire area was blanketed in smoke coming from the blazing pits burning thousands of corpses daily.
However, as mentioned before, neither the photos taken by the SS and put together as the so-called Auschwitz Album nor the various air photos taken by German and American reconnaissance aircraft show any trace of smoking crematorium chimneys or of any large pits from which smoke is billowing, covering the area in smoke.
Gutman’s 1990 Encyclopedia of the Holocaust shows one of these air photos (26 June 1944). However, it covers the entire Auschwitz region, and the Birkenau Camp is too small to recognize details. Furthermore, the area around Crematorium V and the alleged Bunker 2, where the billowing smoke would be, is conveniently cut off at the top (p. 120). Van Pelt reproduces the same photo, plus one of 31 May 1944, without any smoke visible anywhere, and no explanation provided for the reader as to what is and is not visible on it (van Pelt 2002, pp. 91, 449).