World War 2 Hungary – Chap 3 Darkening Skies 1941-43

In 1941 World War 2 Hungary started on Germany’s side, and anti-semitism grew increasingly oppressive throughout Hungary.

World War 2 Hungary
Hungary Propaganda

“The Jewish Question” in World War 2 Hungary

My birthday and my mother’s are only 2 days apart: mine is June 25th and hers, the 27th. But in 1941, the year I turned nine, we didn’t celebrate either of them. Our birthdays were overshadowed by news that had reached us a few days earlier.

On the morning of June 22nd, the four of us gathered around the radio and heard that Germany had broken the pact with the Soviets and invaded Russia. We listened to the maddened screams of Hitler as he denounced the Judeo-Bolsheviks and promised their rapid annihilation.

That speech warned us of things to come. We were shivering on that warm June day. A giant shadow had descended over our lives.

We had all read Hitler’s book Mein Kampf but none of us had taken the anti-Jewish rantings and threats expressed in it seriously. Now we were finding out just how badly we had misjudged the book and its author.

We learned about what went on in the German-occupied territories, but we didn’t know the full story. People told of the ghettos that Jews were being herded into by the tens of thousands.

We heard of the atrocities committed in Austria and Poland. But extermination camps and mass executions were not yet public knowledge. As refugees arrived from Polish ghettos, we heard of how Jewish communities were being evacuated and of how those deported disappeared to some unknown destination.

But generally, the refugees spoke very little of their experiences due to the fierce threats issued by the Hungarian Jewish Council: talk too much and we will hand you over to the Hungarian authorities for deportation.

We were no longer naïve but we couldn’t fathom what the antisemitic press described as the “final solution” to the “Jewish question”.

We imagined a forced, mass exodus of all of us to some inhospitable land – Uganda perhaps, or Mauritius.

Judeo-Bolshevik: Judaism and Bolshevism (or Communism) were equated by the Nazis and their propaganda machine. Defending Christianity from the Bolshevik Antichrist therefore became an anti-semitic crusade.
Mein Kampf: A book written by Adolf Hitler in 1924 – years before he came to power in Germany – in which he outlined his philosophies and beliefs.
ghetto: During World War II, a section of a city in which Jews were required to live. Residents of the ghetto were barred from engaging in any activity outside of the ghetto, including visiting and shopping.

extermination camps: After World War II started in 1939, some concentration camps were transformed into sites for carrying out genocide. These camps, all in occupied Poland, are sometimes called “death factories.”

Many Jews were killed in the gas chambers of the extermination camps.

As well as tens of thousands of Gypsies, homosexuals, political prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Soviet prisoners of war. Prisoners managed to organize uprisings in a number of camps.

Jewish Council: Jewish Councils were created by the Nazis to administer Jewish ghettos. Such councils, called Judenräte, were set up throughout German-occupied Europe.
“Final Solution”: Hitler’s plan, executed by Adolf Eichmann, to eradicate all of Europe of people of Jewish ancestry.

BBC Broadcasts

That morning of June 22, 1941, was the first time, as far as I remember, when late at night, behind closed windows and locked doors, we turned on our radio to listen to the Hungarian broadcast of the BBC.

Immediately after Hungary joined the war, listening to the BBC had been declared illegal, equal to spreading false rumours and subject to severe punishment.

But this activity became an integral part of daily life for many Jews in the city. It was a small act of defiance and resistance. Many listened regardless, or perhaps because of the prohibition.

We also took great pleasure in listening to theatre, Hungarian operettas and lively music on the radio. Those BBC broadcasts were like a ray of light piercing the darkness surrounding us.

Nazi Propaganda in World War 2 Hungary

World War 2 Hungary

How hopeless it is to live under constant threat and danger! When the propaganda machine works so well, you begin to believe in the finality of the situation and even in your own guilt.

The best, surest way to break people’s spirit is to keep the truth from reaching the victim. Surrounding her with lies manufactured by the ruling system and spread via all means of communication – the newspapers, radio, etc.

Sooner or later, one finds nothing to hang one’s hopes on. Totalitarian propaganda is one of the great German inventions, their gift to twentieth century humanity.

Hate Mongers

After Hungary joined nazi Germany in June 1941, the mad dogs began parading on the streets, with their banners and nazi flags, spouting antisemitic virulence and, occasionally, attacking Jewish-looking passers-by.

They would sing ugly, nonsensical antisemitic ditties, at the top of their lungs, like:

Ferenc Szalasi - World War 2 Hungary
Ferenc Szalasi

One rabbi, two rabbis
The chief rabbi croaked
Hold on! Long live Szalasi!
Long live Szalasi and Hitler
Let’s beat the Jews with whips!
One rabbi, two rabbis…

These thugs verbally and physically assaulted Jewish-looking riders on the streetcars, while the other passengers watched or looked away, embarrassed.

My “aryan” appearance saved me from these attacks. It took a great deal of restraint and forced calm to look on neutrally as fellow Jews were being slapped around and kicked off the streetcar, because inside,

I was terrified. I felt like a tiny mouse trying to avoid attracting the attention of the big bad tomcats.

Luckily for me, school was out and I didn’t have to face my classmates for a few more months. Our gentile neighbours remained friendly and loyal to us.

The little girls next door seemed to be doubly kind to me, assuring me that these insane times would not last long and that I had nothing to fear from the crazies.

Our concierges (the husband and wife who were the caretakers of our apartment building) also remained extremely kind and loyal, playing an increasingly important role in our lives. They looked out for my safety when I was home alone.

When Father was away, they helped us get coal and carry the heavy pails to our apartment for the winter in World War 2 Hungary.

When a fascist band would march into our building, as they sometimes did, and demand to know whether any dirty Jewish scum was living there? She would put on a show of outrage, swearing that she would never have dirty, stinking Jews in her building.

After that, she would came to us and apologize for the filthy language she had to use with the hoodlums. It was heart-warming and reassuring to know that, at least in our home, we were offered some protection.


Szálasi, Ferenc (1897-1946): The leader of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party. On October 15th, 1944, he replaced Horthy as head of state with the help of the Germans.

Szálasi’s brutal and murderous regime lasted until the end of the war.

When the war ended, he was captured by the Americans and extradited to Hungary. Found guilty of war crimes and crimes against the people, he was executed on March 12, 1946.

Forced Labour in World War 2 Hungary

World War 2 Hungary

By 1941, Jews no longer served in the army but worked in forced labour camps. All 16- to 48-year-old Jewish men became slave labourers, forced to do meaningless menial work.

Father had to report to his camp just south of the old Hungarian/Yugoslav border, wearing civilian clothes, workboots and a semi-long, brown leather coat.

He sent a photo of himself and three fellow inmates: all Salamons, all serving in the same unit, all wearing leather coats.

They look quite cheerful in the picture. Of the four, only Father survived. One was beaten to death in the camp by soldiers. The other two froze to death at the Russian front.

On one occasion, Mother and I visited the camp. David stayed behind because he looked old enough to be conscripted to the labour units, even though he was only 13 or 14.

Mother hired a small truck and loaded it up with packages from the wives of the other Salamons and other inmates of the camp in World War 2 Hungary.

After driving many hours, we arrived a large empty lot, surrounded by endless rows of barracks for the “inmates.” A number of bare trees stood at the edges, adding a look of singular sadness to the desolate picture.

I had expected the worst: gallows or whipping posts, but fortunately, we saw no signs of physical abuse.

A few soldiers came out and examined our paper. “You want to visit a Jew?! Get out of here!!

After a not-so-discreet handing over of money, they raised the barrier and directed us to a Hungarian sergeant, sporting a large moustache.

What are you doing here? Which Jew do you want to see?” he demanded aggressively.

We received permission to visit my husband, Herman Salamon,” answered Mother.

Salamon? He is unavailable. He is on latrine duty all day,” responded the sergeant in a mocking voice. My mother grabbed his hand, and pleaded:

Dear Sergeant! We came such a long way for this short visit. Couldn’t you just release my husband for a few minutes?” while slipping a twenty pengo note (worth about $10) into his hand.

After shamelessly examining the money, he said, “Well, those stinking latrines can wait a few minutes. Let’s see what can I do.

In a moment, we were joined by Father. Very subdued and thinner than when we had seen him last, Father’s hesitant behaviour belied the cheerful letters he had sent us.

He hugged Mother awkwardly, then kissed me on the forehead. I wanted to hug him and tell him stories about how we were getting along, but I realized that there was no time, so I just stood aside, listening to my parents’ subdued exchange of words.

Then the parcels were quickly unloaded, kisses were exchanged, and we were on our way once again.

Father and I had never been demonstrative with our emotions but before leaving, I grabbed his hand and squeezed it to my face.

Don’t worry, Apuka (Father),” I whispered, “we manage all right. Just look after yourself!

Be a good boy and help your Mother as much as you can,” he answered, hugging me to his thin chest, and kissing me on the forehead.

Then he slowly turned away and walked back toward the barracks.

During the slow, miserable drive home, Mother wavered between sobs and sighs.

We brought back with us many slips of paper with the names and phone numbers of families to call and tell that their husbands and fathers were still alive and reasonably well.

Back home, we heard horror stories from Hungarian soldiers on leave who came to visit our store. They told us about the abuse and beatings that went on in the camps. Of course it was never they who did it; it was always the other soldiers.

They told us about Jews being stripped naked in the winter cold, doused with icy water and forced to stand at attention and freeze to death.

They told us of Jews being beaten to death with shovels. And of sick men being put in a barn or some building which was then set on fire, and the men inside would burn alive.

We were learning how dangerous it was to be Jewish in World War 2 Hungary.

Back to School

When I returned to school in the fall of 1941, I became increasingly isolated from my classmates. Only a few dared to speak to me.

The teachers were by and large reasonable and even kind to me, occasionally sending out signals of helpless sympathy. But the principal and the school as a whole made it clear that Jewish pupils were just temporarily being tolerated. He said that we would soon stop poisoning the air and be altogether removed.

I was never called up to the blackboard anymore, nor was I given the task of supervising the class. And my seat was moved from the front to the back of the classroom.

At recess, when all the children ran outside to form football teams and other groups in the courtyard, I was not allowed to join any of them.

I had to try to hide myself to avoid attacks and threats from boys who were not my classmates. I was frequently hit by “stray” balls or stones that were thrown by “mistake.”

The supervising teachers either enjoyed the spectacle or were too afraid to defend a Jewish student from the bullies.

Another danger was posed by groups of older students who stalked the streets around the school and beat up Jewish children. My non-Jewish appearance and my various ruses saved me many times from being beaten up.

Once, when accosted by a group of young thugs who seemed to have identified my racial origin, I went straight to the leader and asked him for directions to some street.

This confused them sufficiently to allow me to walk away quietly. This ruse was used later to escape from more dangerous situations: asking for the time or taking out a cigarette and asking for light were favourite methods.

The worst was the paramilitary training class, which, by the war years, involved routine punishment for us Jews. The rabidly anti-semitic phys-ed teacher, our leader, missed no opportunity to ridicule us, or to single us out for some difficult, demeaning task.

And his behaviour encouraged the other kids to imitate him. After getting bad news from the front, Jews were seen as the evil enemy who threatened the innocent civilian population.

We were meted out punishment exercises. These almost daily “training” periods were humiliating and demeaning. Little did we know how much more humiliation we would experience.

Another painful event was the daytime air raid exercise. When the sirens sounded, the class was ordered to line up and march in formation towards the shelter in the courtyard.

Everyone lined up, except for the Jewish students. We were not allowed to contaminate the valuable air of the shelters; we were ordered to remain at our desks and not move anywhere.

So Arpad (the other Jewish student) and I often found ourselves locked in the classroom together. It was awkward: we didn’t dare move from our desks or talk to each other.

To complete our shame, the students, upon returning to the class, were ordered to check all their belongings. They had to verify that the Jews hadn’t stolen anything in their absence. Fortunately, daytime bombing rarely occurred so the isolation was more embarrassing than dangerous.

Despite these harsh realities, I managed to get through the school year. My report card showed no deterioration in my academic performance, thanks to a large extent to the silent support given to me by some of my teachers. They who, in secret, showed small acts of kindness and sympathy.

Cold Dark Winter of World War 2 Hungary1943

The winter of 1943 made our lives even more miserable. It seemed that we were always hungry and cold and living in constant darkness.

Lighting was either kept to a minimum or, when power stations and overhead wires were hit, it was cut off completely. Windows and doors were kept covered so no light would escape, but this also kept the weak outside light from coming in.

We walked to school in the early morning dark. As fuel supplies were low, the school wasn’t heated anymore so we kept our coats, hats and gloves on in the classroom, and every ten minutes we were given time to stand up and do exercises at our desks.

The mood at school was so sour that even the anti-semitic barbarians were nowhere to be seen. The fervent nationalistic sentiments, which had been so strong among the youth,

were now replaced by a sense of quiet desperation. All of us -[ Jews and gentiles – just wanted to survive these hard times and see the end of the miserable war, a war no one wanted any more.

When class was dismissed at 1 o’clock, I took the streetcar into the city to join Mother at our store. David did the same from his high school. The streetcars travelled without lighting or heat; and the riders turned into a morose crowd, bundled up in warm cloths, cursing under their frozen breath.

At the store, David and I did our homework, interrupted by the occasional customer, usually bringing in a broken window frame for repair. We didn’t close up until late – not because we were so busy, but because the store provided more comfort than our apartment.

In our little store, we felt strangely protected, drawing a sense of security from one another, as though we could shut out the outside world and enter a space free from danger and hatred.

By the time we finally closed up and headed to the streetcar stop, the city was in total darkness and the streets were practically deserted. The streetcar came, darkened and in silence.

The usual merry ring of the conductor’s bell had been silenced. Even the sport of harassing Jews had subsided, so we could travel quietly and without fear. But this didn’t mean that we could travel in comfort.

Jews were not allowed to sit, not even when the streetcar was empty. We had to stand crowded together in an open area at the end of the car, fully exposed to the cold and blowing winds.

No one was exempt: not women, not the elderly, not the sick.

Our long walk from the streetcar to home through the chilly, dark streets was made in silence.

With our hands shaking from the cold, we would open the door and enter our freezing apartment. We talked very little; there was so little to say.


By the winter of ’43, there were serious food shortages and ration books were introduced. This meant you could only get so many grams of bread, so many eggs per week, and so on.

It also meant spending many hours lining up outside bakeries and grocery stores. Our diet was reduced to the most basic food items: black bread, beans, corn, dry peas, potatoes.

Food had become a major issue and preoccupation for everyone, especially Jews. Our food cards were stamped with big Js to identify us as Jews and entitle us to smaller quantities.

Quite often, after the storekeeper looked at our card, he would throw it back and say, “There’s no more food,” and we would be kicked out of the line-up.

Other times, the opposite happened. By 1944, when Jews were only allowed on the street for 2 or 3 hours a day, our butcher and our baker would set aside small portions of food for Jews, knowing that because of the curfew, we would never be able to reach the stores while the food supply lasted.

So when 2 o’clock rolled around and we could go to the store, there were scraps for us. So there were some compassionate storekeepers who took the risk and care to help us, but they were very few.

Dinner was usually some unmemorable concoction of watery soup, cooked vegetables and bread. It was all Mother could provide us with.

We ate it in silence, never commenting on the quality or quantity of the food. I went to sleep every night hungry, dreaming of some big meal we had had in the past.

But after a while, hunger didn’t bother us so much anymore; it was one of the smaller inconveniences we had to adapt to.


We still lit candles every Friday night for the Sabbath and Mother said the silent prayer, tears streaming down her cheeks.

There was no way we could go to synagogue anymore since it was too far to walk in the dark winter night. We just took our prayer books and read to ourselves, by flickering candlelight, the words of the Shabbat evening prayers.

Before the war, these lights had warmed the dining room and filled our hearts with joy and a feeling of peace. Now they were only lights, barely providing enough brightness for us to read by.

There was no more challah on the table, no plate of honey to dip the kiddush piece into, none of the usual home-baked chocolate cake we used to eat on Saturday and Sunday mornings. There was no jam for the traditional sufganiot.

And at Chanukah, our celebration consisted of lighting one lonely candle each night, quietly singing the traditional songs, eating some bread, then putting the candle out and saving it for the following day.

House of Terror Museum Visit in Budapest, Hungary | Nazi and Soviet Headquarters

David Dalka of Fearless Revival wrote this article about his 2010 visit to the House of Terror Museum in Budapest, Hungary.