Kubátová on Adam, 'Budapest Building Managers and the Holocaust in Hungary'

Istvan Pal Adam
Hana Kubátová

Istvan Pal Adam. Budapest Building Managers and the Holocaust in Hungary. The Holocaust and Its Contexts Series. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. Illustrations. 204 pp. $99.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-319-33830-9.

Reviewed by Hana Kubátová (Charles University) Published on H-Nationalism (April, 2018) Commissioned by Cristian Cercel (Ruhr University Bochum)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=48487

At the forefront of one of the newest additions to historiography of the Holocaust in Hungary are Budapest building managers, a “group of ordinary Hungarians, who are commonly perceived as bystanders to the Holocaust” (p. xi). By following the origins and development of this professional circle between the formation of Budapest in the late nineteenth century and the early post-Second World War years, the author Istvan Pal Adam scrutinizes Jewish-Gentile relations in Hungary in a timeframe of more than seventy years. Using oral interviews, diaries, newspapers, and periodicals along with organizational files of various Hungarian agencies, Adam maintains this longitudinal research design even when zooming in on the actions of Budapest concierges toward Jewish tenants during the Second World War. What was the role of this “group of ordinary Hungarians” in the Holocaust? And what factors shaped responses of Budapest building managers to their Jewish tenants before and following the Arrow Cross takeover of October 1944? These are the two research questions that guide the six chapters of the book.

Stretching the timeframe and analyzing the “actions of a group of ordinary citizens in a much longer timeframe than Holocaust scholars usually do” is also where the author sees the novelty of his work (p. xi). As I would argue, Adam is only partly right in this assessment. A growing number of research monographs and edited volumes on the Holocaust (in general and in Hungary in particular) actually emphasize the need to include both the prewar and postwar years in order to identify the continuities and transformations in Jewish-Gentile relations.[1] While expanding their timeline to include the interwar period, many scholars stay focused on antisemitism and thus may overlook the impact of large sociological factors, including urbanization, social mobility, and the role of traditions on the wartime behavior of “ordinary” citizens toward ostracized “others.” Expanding on sociological theory, Adam paints a more complex picture of the role that Budapest building managers had in the Holocaust of Hungarian Jewry. It is here that I see not only the novelty but also the importance of his first book.

In other words, only when expanding the timeframe and going beyond antisemitism as a category of analysis do we see that the concierges or házmester, to use the Hungarian word, were indeed a byproduct of modernization. We need to keep in mind that Budapest was the most rapidly growing metropolis at the beginning of the twentieth century (with its population growing by 78 percent between 1890 and 1910). Given the influx of new inhabitants, the city was in desperate need of new apartment buildings. A relatively cheap and fast way of (at least partly) satisfying the demand was the construction of courtyard apartments. Until the end of the First World War and the subsequent slowing down of the construction boom, hundreds of such new open-corridor houses mushroomed in Budapest. In total, there were almost twenty-seven thousand buildings in Budapest around the outbreak of the Second World War. Almost every building had its concierge, whose duties typically included cleaning the common areas and the pavement in front of the building, providing basic maintenance, making minor repairs, and dealing with the postman.

While the building of prototypical apartment houses was effective, their layout made the growing social differences visible: if the richest tenants lived in the largest apartments equipped with private bathrooms on the ground floor, the apartment sizes and living conditions decreased as one walked up the stairs. The building managers usually occupied one of the apartments on the ground floor so that they could secure the building for the night. Importantly, the common area functioned as a magnifying glass on the disparity in access to wealth.

As Adam convincingly shows, the very layout of the houses and the strategic position of the apartment occupied by the building manager and his family equipped the concierge with an almost intimate knowledge of the life of the tenants. With the outbreak of the Second World War, duties of building managers increased significantly; they became intermediaries between authorities and apartment residents. Together with Adam, we are then able to follow how the empowerment of building managers went hand it hand with the deteriorating position of Hungarian Jews. While the powers of Budapest building managers might have been initially “just a side-effect of the anti-Jewish legislation,” many of them took an active role in the ghettoization of Hungarian Jewry following the German invasion of the country in March 1944 (p. 56).

What needs to be stressed, however, is that Adam’s book is not “only” a fascinating reading about how Jewish-Gentile lives were intertwined in wartime Budapest. Importantly, by examining the life of concierges inside and outside of buildings they were in charge of, Adam contextualizes their actions (and inactions) vis-à-vis other actors and the Holocaust as an event. Hence, while Adam at first categorizes Budapest building managers as “bystanders” to the Holocaust, he comes back to the triad of catchall categories introduced by Raul Hilberg in chapters 3 through 5. In here, Adam focuses on a small group of concierges who became responsible for the dispersed ghetto buildings (Yellow Star houses) after June 1944. While taking into perspective the risks that the házmester faced following the Arrow Cross takeover, Adam shows that “these concierges often failed but sometimes succeeded in countering the Nazi persecution against the Jewish Hungarians” (p. 66). As shown in a wide range of case studies, the category of building managers was in itself heterogeneous—and included those who applied for positions made available after the dismissal of Jewish concierges in mid-1942; those who eagerly informed the authorities on Jews in hiding in buildings under their control; and those who in one way or another provided assistance to Jewish Hungarians, such as the seventeen Budapest building managers awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations. In this case, as Adam demonstrates, the Yad Vashem requirement of help being provided to the Jews for no reward goes directly against the longstanding Hungarian tradition of tipping. By shedding light on the rescuers within Budapest building managers, Adam hence challenges the dominant narrative in “Hungarian Holocaust literature, which sees rescue efforts performed mostly by foreign diplomats and exceptionally brave members of the Hungarian political and social elite” (p. 113).

The square, five-story-high apartment buildings were a microcosm of the Holocaust in Hungary. The actions of Budapest building managers, knowing their tenants and having direct links to statewide and municipal authorities, had a direct impact on the life and death of the Jewish tenants. In this context, Adam’s book is a vital reminder of how anti-Jewish prejudices, but also lust for power and eagerness to climb the social ladder, enabled the persecution of a largely assimilated minority.


[1]. For example, see Randolph L. Braham and András Kovács, eds., The Holocaust in Hungary: Seventy Years Later (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2016); and Zoltán Vági, László Csősz, and Gábor Kádár, The Holocaust in Hungary: Evolution of a Genocide (Lanham: AltaMira Press, in association with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2013).

Citation: Hana Kubátová. Review of Adam, Istvan Pal, Budapest Building Managers and the Holocaust in Hungary. H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews. April, 2018. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=48487

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.