Opinion

Israel's Expulsion of Asylum Seekers Awakens Jewish Collective Memory

Deportees throughout history wrote their history in scrolls, commemorated it in stories transmitted from one generation to the next. That will almost certainly happen with the acts of deportation of the 21st century

A woman touches a wall bearing names of victims during the Holocaust memorial day at Budapest's Holocaust Memorial Centre April 15, 2011.
REUTERS

Acts of deportation or exile can remain in the collective memory for generations. Deportees throughout history wrote their history in scrolls, commemorated it in stories transmitted from one generation to the next and in novels and in history books. That will almost certainly happen with the acts of deportation of the 21st century. After the annexation of Austria and the elimination of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and the occupation of Poland in 1939, by the armies of the Third Reich, many Jewish refugees from those countries and from Germany went to Hungary.

Nearly all of them quickly became “stateless persons” from the perspective of the government bureaucracy. One particularly diligent institution, the National Central Alien Control Office, proposed the expulsion from Hungary — which had long been protofascist but was still equipped with most of the trappings of parliamentary order — of deporting stateless “Polish and Russian Jews.”

Right-wing politicians immediately supported the campaign; the “Galician” Jews had been an irritant to them for years. A plan to “change the place of residence” of stateless persons to areas of Ukraine that were controlled by the German and Hungarian armies was submitted to the Hungarian government. Nazi Germany went to war against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941; Hungary joined it.

The road to the “repatriation” of the refugees seemed to be paved. The Hungarian government approved the plan, and suitable regulations were soon published. The interior minister, according to rumor, was the only one in the cabinet who showed signs of hesitation.

The police and the staff of the Alien Control Office mobilized for the task and arrested anyone whose documents were not “sufficient”: refugees from Austria and Slovakia who spoke fluent Hungarian, families from Germany and Poland, entire communities from Carpathian Russia and more.

There was no time given for clarifications. Jewish residents who were well known in their places of residence and involved in community life disappeared in the middle of the night, Jewish VIPs lobbied, sums of money were collected, all in vain. The deportees were allowed to take with them food for five days.

All this happened before the Wannsee Conference and before the concentration and death camps went into operation on the soil of occupied Poland.

First, 6,000 people were arrested in Carpathian Russia. Most of them were poor, God-fearing Jews who had lived in the same place for a long time. It’s true that most of them originated from Galicia, but in the past it was part of the Hapsburg Empire and its successor, the Austro-Hungarian.Their residence in Hungary, although it was not acceptable to the extreme political right and incited public opinion, had in the past been accepted by the government with a degree of indifference.

All those arrested were sent across the border by train, in freight cars. They were promised, as was publicized, that they would be housed in homes and apartments in nearby Ukraine that had been abandoned by Jews who joined the Russian army that evacuated the region during the German invasion. The first stop across the Hungarian border was Kolomea, and from there they were all marched to Kamenets-Podolsk, also known as Kamianets-Podilskyi.

By mid-August 1941, more than 18,000 men, women and children had been transferred from all over Hungary, and the operation was not yet over. The regional commander of the SS forces complained angrily to Hungarian officers that the Jews were blocking the traffic arteries. It was agreed, on his orders, that by September 1 a solution would be found for the deportees.

On August 27 and 28, at some distance from Kamenets-Podolsk, 23,600 Jews were massacred by various SS units with the assistance of a Hungarian army engineering unit. About 16,000 of them had been brought from Hungary, the others were assembled from Kamenets-Podolsk and the region. About 2,000 of the deportees from Hungary were rescued at this stage. Many of them were given shelter by local residents. An unknown number of the survivors were able to escape to Hungary.

The horrors that were described reached the ears of Interior Minister Ferenc Keresztes-Fischer, who ordered an immediate stop to the deportations. I recalled the story of Kamenets-Podolsk when I read about the planned deportation of exiles from Africa to a known country but an unknown fate.

When I completed first grade in the Jewish school in our city in southern Hungary in the summer of 1941, a well-known Jewish family that had lived in the city for years disappeared overnight. Two of the children had studied in the Jewish school. A clear-eyed boy in first grade, and his older sister in fourth grade. After a while it was said that all trace of them had disappeared in Kamenets-Podolsk.

In those days in 1941, Dr. B. Deutsch, a prominent physician in our town, took it upon himself to serve as the community president. In his debut speech he said: “Although many of the Jews don’t understand the threat involved in the situation that has come into being we will do what we must to a struggle for which I would like to be a pioneer, I bring belief in a God who created everything, in the future of Judaism and in its mission, and an impartial love of man.”

Yitzhak Kashi, a professor emeritus of Tel Aviv University, is chairman of the executive committee of the Massuah Institute for Holocaust Studies.