Carpatho-Ruthenia

What happened in Kamenets-Podolskii in 1941?

It would be utterly foolish to attempt a thorough description of what happened in Kamenets-Podolskii (or, in Ukrainian, Kamianets-Podilskyi), today a fair sized city in Ukraine. In earlier times it was an important Jewish center of learning, but even in Soviet times it was a multi-ethnic community of Poles, Ukrainians, and Jews. Internet descriptions of the city’s history always mention that Kamenets-Podolskii was the place where “one of the first and largest Holocaust mass-murders” took place. They usually also note that most of the 23,600 victims were Hungarian Jews.

Luckily there are some excellent English-language sources dealing with the subject. Among them is a volume devoted solely to the topic: Kinga Frojimovics’s I Have Been a Stranger in a Strange Land: The Hungarian State and Jewish Refugees in Hungary, 1933-1945 (2007), which is still available through Amazon. Randolph L. Braham’s monumental The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary, 2 vols. (1994) can still be obtained in an abbreviated edition. In Hungarian Tamás Majsai wrote a book about the deportations that took place in July-August 1941. I learned a lot from Mária Ormos’s Egy magyar médiavezér: Kozma Miklós, 2 vols. Kozma served at that time as a kind of governor of the territory, acquired in March 1939, which was known in Hungary as Kárpátalja or, in English, Carpatho-Ruthenia.

Yesterday I wrote that Sándor Szakály, the new director of the Veritas Historical Institute, called the deportation and murder of about 25,000 people a simple “police action against aliens.” It was not part of the Hungarian Holocaust. Why is it so important for Szakály and therefore, I suspect, for the Veritas Institute and the Orbán government to disassociate the 1941 atrocities from what happened after March 19, 1944, when allegedly Hungary lost its sovereignty? The answer, I think, is obvious. No one, not even far-right historians of Szakály’s ilk, can claim that Hungary was not a sovereign state in 1941. And yet with the approval and support of Miklós Horthy, László Bárdossy, the prime minister, Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, minister of the interior, and Miklós Kozma, one of the promoters of the idea, all agreed to begin the deportation of Jews who had escaped from Germany, Czechoslovakia, Austria and after 1939 from Poland as well. In fact, although the official record of the cabinet meeting doesn’t indicate it, the whole cabinet gave the plan its blessing. The evidence can be found in notes jotted down by Miklós Kozma, who was present.

One must keep in mind that the northeastern corner of Greater Hungary was an underdeveloped region with a very large Orthodox Jewish community who were, especially in smaller towns, quite unassimilated. They were the ones Horthy hated most and wanted to get rid of. Kozma’s aversion to these people was most likely reinforced by living in the area. There were places where there were more religious Orthodox Jews than non-Jews. So, already in the fall of 1940 he entertained the idea of deporting them at the earliest opportunity, which came when Germany attacked the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. When Hungary joined the war effort on June 27 of the same year, conditions were ideal for the mass deportation of the unwanted Jews, foreign as well as domestic, because Hungarian troops were temporarily in possession of territories just across the border.

Hungarian gendarmes collected the victims, who were allowed to take along only 30 pengős and food for three days, herded them into cattle cars or in a few cases trucks, and took them to Kőrösmező/Yasinia, still inside of Hungary. The first group started to move across the border to Galicia and Ukraine on July 14. In the next few weeks 13,400 people were deported from Carpathian Ruthenia and 4,000 from other parts of the country, including Budapest. The majority of the deportees were taken to Kamenets-Podolskii by Hungarian soldiers, who took over the job of the gendarmes. Once there, the deportees were left to their own devices. No shelter, no food, no nothing. The few Jews in town tried to help, but they themselves were poor.

Soon enough the conditions became indescribable. Yet more and more transports arrived daily. Finally the Germans had had enough; they asked the Hungarian government to stop the deportations. In response, Keresztes-Fischer temporarily halted the deportation of Hungarian Jews, but the others continued to arrive daily in Kamenets-Podolskii. It was at that time that the Germans decided to “solve the problem.” They simply killed them and buried them in common graves. Some were still alive when they were thrown into the pit. A few Jews survived and even managed to get back to Hungary, although the Hungarian authorities doubled the number of gendarmes in order to prevent their return.

Deported Jews from Hungary in Kamenets-Podolskii / Source: www.memorialashoah.org

Deported Jews from Hungary in Kamenets-Podolskii / Source: http://www.memorialashoah.org

Yes, at the end of August the deportations stopped, but the Hungarian government didn’t give up the idea of resuming the deportations, especially from this particular corner of Hungary. László Bárdossy announced that because of the German request they halted the action but they have every intention of continuing it when the situation in that part of Galicia and Ukraine improves enough to accept the deportees.

Kamenets-Podolskiii was a dress rehearsal for the deportation of over 600,000 Hungarian citizens. Gendarmes were employed to gather and herd the victims into cattle cars in both cases. In 1944 as in 1941 the Hungarian authorities were the ones who seemed most eager to get rid of their Jewish citizens, and in both cases the Germans were the ones who tried to slow down the transports because they were overburdened.

So, it’s no wonder that the current Hungarian government wants to transform Kamenets-Podolskii into an innocent police action against illegal aliens. Sándor Szakály and the Orbán government are a perfect fit, and I’m certain that his Veritas Institute will do its level best to whitewash the Hungarian governments of the interwar period and make sure that Governor Miklós Horthy, whom Szakály seems to admire, is portrayed as an innocent victim of circumstances. And since soon enough all school books will be published by a state publishing house, I have no doubt that Szakály’s version of Hungary’s modern history will be the “true and only one.” After all, he is heading an institute called Veritas.