Jewish Skeletons in Hungary's Closet Return to Haunt It

The discovery of human remains in the Danube River, apparently connected to a 1945 bridge explosion, has reopened old wounds concerning Hungary's acknowledgment of the Jewish identity of its Holocaust victims.

David Tarbay
The destroyed Margaret Bridge, in 1945.
The destroyed Margaret Bridge, in 1945. A spark from the tram line, a carelessly tossed cigarette, a gas leak – the cause of the detonation that destroyed its eastern section remains unknown. Credit: Fortepan
David Tarbay

In June 2011, in the course of repairs being done to Margaret Bridge in Budapest, human skeletons were found on the floor of the Danube River. An initial examination found that the bodies were stuck amid the ruins of the bridge, whose unintentional detonation marked the start of the Russian siege of Budapest toward the end of World War II. The discovery reopened old wounds, related to the final months of the war in Hungary. It is only now, five years after the skeletons were found, that agreement has been reached about their burial.

The day on which the bridge was bombed, November 4, 1944, coincided with the swearing-in of Ferenc Szalasi, commander of the Arrow Cross Party, as the “leader of the nation” of Hungary. Margaret (“Margit” in Hungarian) Bridge, which crosses the Danube from the Ujlipotvaros neighborhood in Pest, with an extension to the southern end of pastoral Margaret Island, was crowded with pedestrians and vehicles.

It was a chilly day, about 10 degrees Celsius, but in the afternoon the sun emerged from behind the clouds. Artillery battles raged between Russian and German forces about 100 kilometers southeast of the city; a few units of the Red Army had reached the outskirts of the capital.

That the war was lost was clear, but Hungary continued to fight on the side of the Nazis. At the same time, there were attempts to defect and be on the victorious side upon the conclusion of the hostilities.

Less than three weeks before that fateful Saturday, on October 15, 1944, Hungarian radio had broadcast three times in succession a dramatic announcement by the regent, Miklos Horthy, stating that Hungary was ceasing all hostilities. However, details of the secret negotiations held in Moscow between representatives of Horthy and the Russians (after the failure of similar talks held with the British in Turkey) were leaked to the Germans. The latter, in conjunction with the Arrow Cross leaders, torpedoed the move to surrender, and seized power in the country.

The Germans balked at nothing to extort their former ally, Horthy, going so far as to abduct his 37-year-old son. That operation was carried out by an S.S. commando unit led by Otto Skorzeny, who was known as “the most dangerous person in Europe” for having abducted Mussolini and for planning to assassinate Gen. Dwight Eisenhower and Yugoslav leader Tito.

The regent’s firstborn son, who had cultivated friendly ties with the English, had been killed earlier, in a plane accident, and the Germans hoped that the arrest of his remaining son, Miklós Horthy, Jr., would force him to reconsider. But on October 15, despite the abduction, Horthy demanded of the government that it approve his plan for Hungary to lay down its arms. Immediately after a tempestuous cabinet meeting, he implored the Reich’s ambassador, Edmund Veesenmayer, to return his son safely. Veesenmayer responded with a mixture of derisiveness and feigned innocence, and promised “to look into the matter.”

In fact, the junior Miklos was sent to Mauthausen and then to Dachau. However, he survived the war, as did the scar-faced Skorzeny, who went on to become a successful businessman and a close friend of the dictators Juan Peron and Francisco Franco. (Weesenmayer was convicted of war crimes at Nuremberg and sentenced to 20 years in prison, but was released after serving just two years.)

Mass confusion followed the announcement of the cessation of hostilities. The Jews of Budapest, convinced that the period of persecution had ended, tore off their yellow patches. The mirage of a sudden peace hovered over Budapest, but behind the scenes the army’s general staff instructed the military to ignore the surrender announcement. The officers had a choice: to continue fighting or desert. Some defected to the Soviet side, others were arrested for being traitors by their subordinates. But the battle for power in the country was decided: Arrow Cross forces spread across Budapest and the German army seized Buda Castle, the seat of government.

In early November, a Hungarian engineering unit commanded by Gen. Laszlo Sodro planted explosives on Margaret Bridge. To this day it is not clear whether that initiative came from the Hungarians or the Germans. The latter sought to pressure the Hungarian government not to capitulate and plotted to blow up the bridge to prevent the advance of the Soviet forces.

Shoes On Bank Of Danube River, Hungary.Credit: Insights/UIG via Getty Images

Sodro was an expert in chemical warfare and in the use of nontoxic gas for camouflage purposes: His unit, the 101st Mechanized Battalion, specialized in aerial defense, rescue operations, firefighting and engineering missions. On November 3, responsibility for the booby-trapped bridge was assigned to German engineering forces, without a formal briefing or documentation.

The next day, the fateful Saturday, members of those forces undertook a series of tests related to the bridge’s detonation, and perhaps also inserted the fuses, but they did not close the bridge to traffic. During the tests, the sensitive explosives went off. A spark from the wheels on the tram line, a carelessly tossed cigarette, a gas leak – the precise cause of the detonation that rocked the bridge, completely destroying its eastern section remains unknown. Estimates of the number of victims range from 100 to 600: Among them were innocent civilians, about 40 German soldiers, passengers in a tram that overturned and plunged into the river, and Jewish forced laborers, who were on the bridge in a truck. Boats and ships were called to the site, among them one called the Bihar, which saved about 60 injured people from drowning. It was a horrific scene of chaos and indiscriminate dying. Civilians and soldiers, Hungarians and Germans, Jews and Christians went to their death as the result of the accident; persecutors and persecuted, occupiers and occupied, foreigners and natives, refugees, whole families and indigent itinerants all died together.

Among those killed was a fencer of Jewish origin, Endre Kabos, whose story deserves to be told. Kabos, an Olympic champion and a six-time world champion, was one of the stars of the 1936 Olympiad in Berlin. The Nazis notwithstanding, he won two gold medals – one individual and the other a team medal – and was victorious in 24 of his 25 matches.

Kabos was the inspiration for the character of Adam Sonnenschein in Istvan Szabo’s 2001 film “Sunshine,” along with another real-life fencer, Attila Petschauer, who was brutally murdered in a work camp by a former Olympic teammate, now serving as an officer in the camp.

Hungary came out of the 1936 games with 16 medals, including one that went to another Jewish fencer Ilona Elek, the country’s first female Olympic medalist (also gold).

The explosion of Margaret Bridge marked the start of an inhuman 102-day siege of Budapest, at the end of which the Germans retreated. As they left the city, they blew up the remaining spans: Horthy Bridge (today Petofi Bridge) on January 14, 1945; two days later, Liberty Bridge; and two days after that, Elizabeth (Erszebet) Bridge and the famous Chain Bridge – the first permanent span of the river, which served as a symbol of an enlightened, progressive, proud and conciliatory Budapest. On the same day, the western part of Margaret Bridge, which was still standing, was also blown up. For the Hungarians, the destruction of the bridges was a traumatic conclusion to the siege (though surrender came only on February 13, 1945): a barbaric and humiliating crime that was intended to delay the advance of the Red Army, a precise expression of the fanatic stubbornness that characterized the Germans in the war’s final stages.

Shoes and bullet holes

In June 2011, extensive repairs began on Margaret Bridge, which had been rebuilt after the war. As part of the process, divers descended to the riverbed in preparation for removing the leftover debris of the bridge and of two barges that had sunk and been left there for decades in the absence of suitable equipment for removing them. The divers came back up with an unexpected discovery: Pieces of a number of human skeletons, some with clothes and shoes still intact, were found among the ruins. A police forensic expert who was summoned to the scene concluded that the skeletons had likely been there since the 1940s. A further examination found that some of the bones had bullet holes, raising the suspicion that they were Jews who had been murdered by Arrow Cross at the end of the war.

The police launched an investigation, and the director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in Hungary, Gusztav Zoltai, was also briefed. In addition to the pathological findings, the conjecture that the victims were Jews was also based on the proximity to the site of the Ujlipotvaros neighborhood – the “little ghetto,” in which Jews who were under the protection of neutral countries, such as Sweden, Switzerland or the Vatican, resided. The situation of the tens of thousands of Jews in the city deteriorated seriously when the neutral countries declared that they did not recognize the new Szalasi government. As a result, Arrow Cross gangs raided the ghetto frequently, dragged Jews to the edge of the frozen Danube and shot them.

Examinations of the bones continued in the forensic medicine institute of Semmelweis University medical school. Less than a year after the discovery, the police closed the case, put the findings in storage and sent the items of clothing to the archive of the Museum of Military History in Budapest. That seemed to conclude the episode.

However, in 2015, a doctoral student from ELTE University decided to address the mysterious remains in her thesis, in which she examined them utilizing methods associated with classical anthropology and “molecular genealogy.” Her conclusion: Among the victims were men, women and children, some of them from the same extended family. Nine of the 15 victims whose remains were found showed genetic signs that are characteristic of Ashkenazi Jews. This would seem to be definitive proof that these were Jews who had been dragged from the nearby ghetto by Arrow Cross and shot at the edge of the river. Their bodies had become stuck in the ruins of the bridge, which had collapsed in the explosion shortly before. No clear conclusions were reached as to the identity of the other six individuals, but there is a possibility that they too were Jews.

Budapest’s Jewish community requested a traditional funeral for the bones. However, the National Heritage Institute preferred that the last rites be conducted in an ecumenical spirit. Responsibility for the burial devolved on the Budapest Municipality, but it did not set a date for it, and the whole issue sparked a conflict between politicians and various organizations, and within the Jewish community itself. Some claimed that the remains were those of German soldiers, or that they dated from 1919, from the time of the Communist revolution and the counter-revolution. It was alleged that one of the victims was definitely not Jewish because she was wearing a nun’s shoes, and also that, since many Jews had converted to Christianity during the Holocaust (including Endre Kabos), a Jewish ceremony was out of place.

In short, public discourse blurred the findings of the scientific study. Families of Holocaust victims, who believed these could be the remains of their loved ones, requested that individual genetic tests be done in private laboratories. Others said that it had been wrong to remove the remains from their underwater resting place in the first place. The question of who the victims were – and the opposite question, of who was responsible for their deaths – continued to hover in the air.

Rabbi Zoltan Rodnati, chairman of the rabbinical council of the local Jewish federation, maintained that if the majority of the remains were those of Jews, a traditional burial ceremony should be held, but did not rule out the participation of Christian clergy in such an event. This was the approach that was ultimately adopted by the authorities. According to a statement issued by the Jewish community on February 22, 2016, the remains would be interred in the Jewish cemetery on Kozma Street, with representatives of all the Christian denominations in attendance. A special rabbinical court has agreed to the burial of non-Jews in the Jewish graveyard (the ceremony is now scheduled for March 20, according to the umbrella group of Hungarian Jewish communities), because they had fallen victim to violence and had died together with Jews.

Not surprisingly, there is a difficulty in creating a historical narrative or collective memory based on this episode. In the immediate aftermath of the war, in those parts of Europe liberated by the Soviet forces, no large-scale public trials like those at Nuremberg were conducted – perhaps because those forces themselves were implicated in crimes. War criminals were tried on the basis of the political interests of the new rulers. Under the communist regime in Hungary, it was impossible to mourn in any collective manner for the more than 100,000 innocent civilians who were killed, or for rank-and-file soldiers who died in the fighting. Nationalist and religious sentiments were suppressed by the postwar government. Many second-generation survivors grew up with an identity crisis, often not knowing about their Jewish origin.

Today, on the one hand, the image of certain controversial figures, such as Balint Homan, Hungary’s education minister in the 1930s, who was one of the architects of anti-Jewish legislation in the country, are undergoing rehabilitation. An association to commemorate Homan received state funding to erect a statue of him in the city of Székesfehérvár after a court exonerated him of war crimes (though later the plan for the statue was cancelled). On the other hand, just a year before the skeletons were removed from the Danube, the Budapest municipality renamed sites along the river for people who rescued Jews during the war. Among them: evangelical minister Gabor Szthelo Gabor; Margit Slachta, a politician from the Christian Women’s League; and Sara Salkahazi, a nun, who was murdered by Arrow Cross on the banks of the Danube for hiding Jews and opposing their deportation, and was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem. (More than 800 Hungarians have been similarly recognized by the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.)

While there are numerous monuments to victims of the Holocaust along the Danube, the Hungarian establishment still seems loath to refer to them as “Jews.” The memorials are to “the victims,” “the persecuted” or “those who perished,” even if they were murdered only because they were Jews. It’s not by chance, then, that it took five years for the authorities to acknowledge that the majority of the skeletons that were discovered in the Danube were those of Jews. It remains to be seen what will be inscribed on the new monument in their memory in the Kozma Street cemetery.

Hungarian-born David Tarbay is a writer and translator. He is a graduate of Tel Aviv University’s scriptwriting program, and his novels and his translations into Hebrew – most notably, of Peter Nadas and Gyorgy Spiro – have received critical acclaim and been awarded major literary prizes.

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