Horowitz on Laczó, 'Hungarian Jews in the Age of Genocide: An Intellectual History, 1929–1948'
Ferenc Laczó. Hungarian Jews in the Age of Genocide: An Intellectual History, 1929–1948. Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, 2016. xii + 240 pp. $143.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-90-04-32464-0.
Reviewed by Brian Horowitz (Tulane 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=50305
The author of this book, Ferenc Laczó, an assistant professor at the University of Maastricht, asserts that the Hungarian Jewish genocide has not received proper scholarly attention. He gives several reasons, among which the main one is the anomalous situation of Hungarian Jewry relative to the conventional narrative: the Jews of Hungary were relatively secure for most of the war until the implementation of the Final Solution for Hungarian Jewry in 1944. The Nazis did not construct ghettos from which to transmit Jews over time, but rather sent Jews directly to camps—Auschwitz, Treblinka, Buchenwald, and others. Furthermore, percentage-wise there were many more survivors among the Hungarians than from Polish Jewry and many survivors took up residence in Hungary after the war. Therefore, the Hungarian Jewish experience breaks from the general conception of the Holocaust.
The anomalous experience is one issue. Another, equally serious for understanding the Hungarian Jewish mind is the Jewish community’s acculturation, its perception of belonging to the Hungarian nation. In this context, the community’s integration affected responses to the Holocaust, decreasing the number of pro-Zionist voices and increasing the bewilderment of Jewish intellectuals who suffered the rise of antisemitism in the 1930s. One sign of the bewilderment is the repeated use in personal testimony, journalism, and analysis, of the concept of Zsidósors (Jewish fate). Unable to find a cogent reason for oppression, they grasped at the idea that at times persecution inexplicably arrives. Since there is no escape from “Jewish fate,” one can embrace it as the core of one’s identity or attempt to avoid it by conversion and total assimilation.
The book has three major sections that are organized chronologically. The author focuses on Jewish intellectuals before the war and their writings during the 1930s, especially the group associated with the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. Following that, Laczó offers a truncated description of witness testimony especially from concentration camps, using Jewish intellectuals’ voices wherever possible. In the final section Laczó treats the immediate postwar period in Hungary, dealing especially with scholars who tried to understand what Hungarian Jewry had endured.
A book about Jewish intellectuals on the Jewish Question in Nazi times is likely to display multifarious opinions and this one is no exception. But what makes this work unique and interesting is its evolutionary perspective. The author allows the narrative to unfold in the 1930s in which scholars debate the meaning of the Nazi takeover in Germany. Later, Jewish intellectuals debated the significance of what occurred. Instead of certainties, Laczó adeptly portrays confusion. Let us compare Fülüp Grünvald and Ernö Ballagi, two intellectuals in the late 1930s.
On Grünvald, Laczó writes, “In accordance with his presentation of a long and deep Hungarian tradition of anti-Semitic exclusion, Grünvald did not consider future national reintegration certain or necessarily desirable, calling future Jewish conditions ‘doubtful’” (p. 75). However, Ballagi, a defense lawyer and chief editor of Magyar Zsidók Lapja, expresses the opposite viewpoint: “Emancipation was not a consequence of the Hungarian legislators’ benevolence … but based on the rational conception of a mutually beneficial exchange. As Ballagi explained, the concept of emancipation was not solely underpinned by the ideas of legal equality and religious freedom, but was solidly rooted in the modern Hungarian national program. He argued that these overlapping agendas enabled the seamless reconciliation of Jewish commitments to religion and motherland” (p. 76). In these two very different attitudes, one can understand how Hungarians waited vainly for answers. The last year of war would bring about the worst-case scenario.
I will leave out discussing witness narratives because these are likely to be well known to any scholar of the Holocaust and are not particular to the Hungarian experience (the only caveat being that some Hungarians were liberated in the camps thanks to their relatively recent arrival). Let us turn to the postwar period.
Of the many volumes that were published immediately after the war, Laczó concentrates on Ernö Munkácsi’s Hogyan törtent? (How did it happen?, 1947) and Jenö Lévai’s Zsidósors Magyarországon (Jewish fate in Hungary, 1948). These were exceptional because of the quality and quantity of sources that were employed as well as the damning conclusions. While most intellectuals blamed the Nazis, Germans, and even extended their rage to the Jewish Council, they also concluded that Hungarian government officials bore guilt: “Within three years of the end of the war, the major early historian of the Holocaust in Hungary [Lévai] assigned critical responsibility to the Hungarian authorities for the deportations from the country in 1944-45” (p. 185). Among the motives for killing Jews, these historians claim that monetary gain played a large role because government officials enriched themselves by removing Jews.
The book is clearly written and well researched. In fact, footnotes compose nearly half of each page. But this is no disaster because the author uses the footnotes to gloss his text. In fact, often the footnotes provide information that at times is more important and illuminating than the text itself. I liked this book because it presents the voices of others, the historians and intellectuals. The author also offers his own coherent narrative in the text and provides a reservoir of materials, sources, discussions, and thoughts in the footnotes. For those who care about the Holocaust in Hungary, this book is an opportunity. In fact, if I had to choose only one book on the Holocaust of the Jews of Hungary, I would select this one because of its wide perspective. Scholars and students will gain a great deal from it.
Brian Horowitz. Review of Laczó, Ferenc, Hungarian Jews in the Age of Genocide: An Intellectual History, 1929–1948.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.