The Second World War began in September 1939, when the German army invaded and occupied Poland. France and Britain, Poland's allies, responded by declaring war on Germany.
Allied to the Axis powers, anti-Semitic legislation began to appear in Hungary in 1938. Despite having been the one to initiate these restrictions, president Miklos Horthy later resisted German pressure to deport the Jewish population of Hungary to concentration camps in Poland. While a large portion of Jewish communities from rural Hungary were deported (either to concentration camps or to the capital city), many Jews were able to survive the war in Budapest. This essay discusses the growth of anti-Semitism in Hungary before the war, while this page for an overview of the restrictions placed against Hungarian Jews, and life in Hungary before the German occupation of 1944.
Hungary officially joined the Axis Alliance in 1941, declaring war on the Soviet Union. Hungarian forces took part in the invasion of Russia, however after heavy losses and a terrible defeat at Stalingrad, Horthy attempted to leave the alliance, arranging armistices first with the Western powers, then the Soviet Union. These armistices were made void when the German army invaded and occupied Hungary, toppling Horthy's government. Read more about Hungary's involvement in the war here. In October 1944, seven months after the invasion, German powers installed Ferenc Szalasi as president. Szalasi was the head of the Arrow Cross Party, Hungary's fascist and brutally anti-Semitic political faction. The Arrow Cross operated a reign of terror between Szalasi's October appointment and the Soviet liberation in April 1945.
Jozsef’s family remained in Hungary throughout the war, and he lost many of them when they were transported to Auschwitz. One of the largest concentration camps in the Third Reich, read more about Auschwitz here.
The situation in wartime Budapest had not been good for its Jewish population. However following the German invasion, conditions worstened significantly. June 1944 saw the creation of yellow-star houses in Budapest. These were crowded and poorly supplied living quarters for Jews, marked with a yellow star over the doorway. Prior to the formation of the Budapest Ghetto, it was believed that scattering Jewish residency throughout the city would deter Allied bombing attacks, whereas condensing the Jewish population to one area would leave the rest of the city open to destruction. When this strategy proved ineffective, the Budapest Ghetto was established in the city centre in November 1944.
Jozsef’s brother Imre survived the war in forced labour. This scheme, from 1944, required healthy Jewish men to undertake physically demanding tasks, often construction or strategic fortification near front lines. Conditions were harsh and supervisors could be brutal, with many labourers dying. However those who performed forced labour were not taken to concentration camps, and many people survived the war this way. Learn more about the Hungarian forced labour scheme here.
More information on life in Hungary after the 1944 invasion can be found here.