Huge Cache of Holocaust Documents Discovered by Budapest Couple Inside Apartment Wall

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A document dating from 1944 that is part of around 6,300 census forms of Budapest's then Jewish population is pictured at Budapest City Archives in Budapest on November 12, 2015.
A document dating from 1944 that is part of around 6,300 census forms of Budapest's then Jewish population is pictured at Budapest City Archives in Budapest on November 12, 2015.Credit: AFP

A huge cache of Holocaust-era census documents relating to Hungarian Jewry has been discovered by a couple in the course of renovations of their Budapest apartment, the French news agency AFP has reported.

The 6,300 documents from a 1944 census helped lay the groundwork for plans for the extermination of the Hungarian capital's 200,000 Jews in Nazi death camps. The forms contained a building-by-building record of residents surveyed and whether or not they were Jewish.

Brigitte Berdefy, one of the owners of the apartment where the trove of documents was found, told AFP a workman in the apartment detected the presence of paper after sticking a screwdriver into a crack in a wall. "We thought we'd ruined the neighbor's wallpaper," she recalled, but then her husband, Gabor, saw handwriting on paper. By carefully removing brick after brick, the couple lifted some 135 pounds of dusty, plaster-covered documents, "with the ink still readable - thanks to a lack of air in the cavity and nicotine from the heavy-smoking former owner," AFP reported. The documents were then turned over to the Budapest city archive.

"The content and scale of the finding is unprecedented," archives chief Istvan Kenyeres said. "It helps to fill a huge gap in the history of the Holocaust in Budapest," he told AFP, adding that "Jewish people filled in the forms honestly. They refused to believe where this might end up."

Restorers at the archives have been using irons to flatten the papers to study them, "pausing occasionally when they spot someone famous among the scrawled names," AFP reported. "The May 1944 Budapest census was to identify houses to serve as holding locations for Jews before moving them to a planned walled ghetto in the city's seventh district," AFP noted. "Shortly after the census, around 200,000 Jews were moved into some 2,000 selected buildings, 'Yellow Star Houses' with the Star-of-David Jewish symbol painted on the doors." The recent discovery of the documents in the Budapest apartment demonstrated that if a large number of Jews lived in a building, it was likely to become a Yellow Star House.

Earlier during World War II, Hungary was ruled by a pro-Nazi dictatorship led by Miklos Horthy. According to the Yad Vashem Holocaust research center and museum in Jerusalem, Horthy resisted handing over his country's Jews, but Nazi Germany invaded in March 1944, and deportations of the more than 800,000 Jews living in Hungary began two months later. In just eight weeks, 424,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz death camp, and by the war's end, approximately 565,000 Hungarian Jews had been killed, according to Yad Vashem data.

In October of that year, the fascist Arrow Cross group took power and a particularly horrific reign of terror began in Budapest. The arrival of the Soviet army at the beginning of 1945 brought a halt to the effort to exterminate the Jews. Unlike Hungarian Jews from outside Budapest, most of the Jews in the city itself survived, AFP stated.

The lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews were also spared by a secretary at the Swedish embassy in Budapest, Raoul Wallenberg, who issued Swedish passports and other protective documents to Jews. When the Soviet soldiers arrived in the city, they took him into custody, never to be seen in public again. The Soviet authorities ultimately said that he had died in a Soviet prison in 1947.

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