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Inside the Budapest Judenrat

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Nina Munk (Mark Schafer photo)

The story began several years ago, when Peter Munk, the gold mining and business magnate who died in Toronto last March at the age of 90, pulled a tattered copy of an obscure book from his desk drawer. Written by his cousin, it was published in Hungarian in 1947. Munk, who had escaped Nazi-occupied Hungary, devoured the volume in one sitting. “This book,” he pronounced, “has to be published in English.”

He missed it by mere months, but Munk’s daughter, Nina, has now fulfilled her father’s urgent appeal with a long-overdue English translation of the volume.

The book that had grabbed her father was by Erno Munkácsi, a brilliant jurist and writer who served as secretary general of Budapest’s Jewish Council – known in German as the Judenrat – following the Nazi invasion of Hungary in March 1944.

There was no shortage of histories of the Holocaust in Hungary, but here was a first-hand account of the wrenching business forced on the council. As in other places that were under Nazi occupation, the Judenrat in Budapest was an administrative body composed of Jewish leaders, through which the Gestapo would communicate about the fate of their brethren. They have been attacked often as impotent at best and collaborationist at worst.

Even today, this is “a deeply unsettling, controversial topic,” Nina Munk avers in the translation’s preface.

Already hailed as “riveting” and an important contribution to the subject, How It Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry is the first translation of Munkácsi’s book. Edited by Nina Munk, it’s a deft rendition, illustrated with archival photographs that convey the doom that befell Hungarian Jewry.

Between May 15 and July 7, 1944, more than 437,000 Jews were rounded up in the Hungarian countryside and deported by the trainload to Auschwitz. Of the 760,000 Hungarian citizens who were classified as Jews in 1944, only 250,000 survived the war.

By serving on the council, the refined and well-educated Munkácsi believed he could be an effective bulwark against the persecution of the Jews. Crushed by more than 100 Nazi decrees issued in a matter of months, Munkácsi and the desperate Judenrat were faced with what the book calls “excruciating dilemmas” and “choiceless choices.”

“He could not have anticipated just how powerless the Jewish Council would be,” writes Toronto scholar Susan Papp in the book’s introduction.

Munkácsi survived in hiding. He wrote his account to set the record straight – as he saw it – but also to justify his actions “and defend his good name” in the face of personal attacks, Papp states. He died of heart failure in 1950.

He was personally accused of collaborating with the Nazis and their Hungarian partners, Nina Munk told The CJN in an interview.

“He was deeply shocked by these accusations and the book is very clearly, on one hand, an effort on his part to defend himself and to defend the Jewish Council more broadly.… At the same time, he makes it very clear they accomplished almost nothing and that their main strategy was (one) of compliance.”

It was widely thought by the Jewish leadership, she said, that the Germans had invaded Hungary late in the war, perhaps beyond the hope of winning it, and that if the Jews could just bide their time and keep their heads down, they might emerge largely unscathed.

 

How It Happened will be launched Dec. 4 at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy (1 Devonshire Place) at 5:30 p.m. by Nina Munk and a panel of experts on the topic.