Exiled from Budapest – Interview with Gábor Dombi about the deportations in the 1950s 

In Budapest in the 1950s, thousands of Jews were deprived of their homes due to lack of space and then relocated to the countryside, often with inadequate infrastructure. We talked about this period with historian Gábor Dombi, who started researching the topic based on his own family history. His book on the subject, Osztályellenségek (“Class Enemies”), is also available online on the NEB website 

How did your own family influence you in your research for your book? Do you think it is more difficult to face the events and tragedies of the past if they are connected by our own family’s past? 

When I was involved in a legendary project called Csillagos Házak (“Star Houses”) in 2014, I found that exploring your family’s past – even that of your community – moves thousands who are willing to share their family memories on a public, well-edited and spectacular website. Hundreds came together to organize commemorations in the buildings where their parents and grandparents lived in the summer of 1944. To date, this initiative has about 8,000 members on Facebook, and the same number are following. From this, it appears that family involvement can be a powerful driving force in exploring the past. But, of course, we don’t know what percentage of first-generation descendants of the former Csillagos Házak residents joined this project, nor whether all living stakeholders even heard about the program. I find it important to recommend a generational perspective because, over time, with newer generations, the connection to past events may weaken: These events may fall into the distant past and the intensity of any personal connection and interest may decrease. 

Gábor Dombi

My driving force was curiosity: my father’s childhood memories were minimal, contradictory, which is understandable: When he was deported in the summer of 1951, he was seven years old, and events very quickly turned the family upside down in the 7th. district environment. But the more I asked about this era, the more details, little things emerged from the depths of his memories, and I am glad that he was still able to recognize the title page of the book, which shows him on a scooter. My research of the history of Jewry in Erzsébetváros, exploring the events of the deportation, who knows when it would have taken place if I had no personal involvement. Because of the same personal attachment, I participated — almost on behalf of my father — in the work of a very important book, A vészkorszak árvái (“Orphans of the Emergency”), dedicated to the memory of Jewish orphanages and children’s homes.                                                                                                                

                                                                                                                                                  Dombi Gábor                                                                                                                                                                          Can the settlement of pensions for the victims of totalitarian dictatorships after such tragedies be sufficient compensation? What would be a historically adequate level of compensation for someone who suffered such events? 

This is a particularly difficult question that many can answer in several ways. It is clear that the late compensation for the displaced — a minimum, symbolic pension supplement — could not reach a significant proportion of those affected, as there are still those alive who were children in the 1950s. About one million people suffered under the dictatorship of the 1950s, with various punishments, including deportation, while hundreds were later persecuted under the “human-faced socialism.” Assets taken away by nationalization were intended to be approved by post-regime legislators under the unfortunate “compensation ticket” program, which far from covered the value of what was ​​taken away from previous owners. For example, my grandfather lost two shops, their inventory and two apartment buildings on Király Street (these would be worth billions today); my father and half-brother received HUF 5 million together. (The procedure was different for farmland.) I know of someone who wrote a letter to the residents of his nationalized apartment building urging them not to buy their homes from the state because he was reclaiming his house as owner — in vain. Perhaps the history of the 20th century can be understood as the warfare of the Hungarian state against its own citizens, and later this was supplemented by the abduction and/or redistribution of the wealth accumulated until 1938 according to the needs of the existing power. 

Hungarian society is thus a loser many times over: There may be no social group that didn’t receive such severe blows, suffered deprivation or lost property. Pathetically and perhaps an exaggeration: 100 years of reparations and wealth are missing from Hungarian society. And it is not enough to compensate for this with a few cents and a pension supplement. Some groups benefited from this and others did not. Perhaps a significant, spectacular, wide-ranging, societal increase in the quality of life could be — with a big question mark — a cure for all this. 

Newer generations of historians have begun to explore the silenced history, to count the victims of terrorist acts and ideologies. Previously, the Társadalmi Konfliktusok Kutatóközpont (Research Center for Social Conflicts), and today the Clio Institute and the Nemzeti Emlékezet Bizottsága (“Committee of National Remembrance,” NEB) document the atrocities suffered by groups in Hungarian society. The NEB published two works dealing with Hungarian Jewish revolutions after 1945, the history of the 1953 Zionist trial in Budapest entitled Ideológia és önazonosság (“Ideology and Self-Identity ”) by Attila Novák, and secondly, my work, Osztályellenségek (“Class Enemies”). He was also a Jewish victim of the 1951 deportation to Budapest. Perhaps it is now possible, after exploring and documenting the facts, events, documents and life paths, to supplement the well-known Hungarian history of the 20th century and to shed light on the more obscured details. 

The deportation affected everyone equally, depending on religion and ethnicity, but what were the aspects that mainly affected Jews and those of Jewish descent? 

The Jews displaced in 1951 had previously experienced increasing social exclusion, loss of income, labor service, ghettoization, torture, and the tragic death of their relatives and family members since 1938. In 1945, they — literally — came back from the grip of death, they all had near-death experiences. The majority of society in Budapest also experienced the siege, the bombings, the dangers of the Málenkij robot [forced labor], they also saw the streets covered with corpses, but they were not hunted by the Arrow Cross and were not robbed, enslaved or destroyed by the state. Each of the Jews displaced in 1951 had lost a significant portion of their family, nor were they in perfect health; they had just resumed their existence when the nationalizations created a new situation and the livelihoods of many were destroyed yet again. The displaced Jews were many times over losers and victims. 

The organizers of the deportations had no regard for whether someone was a Holocaust survivor or not. But petitions to the Home Office emphasize this fact. The average age of displaced family heads was 60 years, and almost all applicants reported serious illnesses. A significant part of these can definitely be attributed to the Holocaust. And therefore, whoever could applied for admission to a rural social institution maintained by the Jewish community —on the instructions of Lajos Stöckler, the president of the National Representation of the Hungarian Israelites and last president of the Jewish council in 1944/45 — which also took in displaced elderly without hesitation. The vast majority of the displaced Jews were Neolog, as they were more likely to attain socio-economic positions that the communist leadership classified as “class enemies.” The Budapest Autonomous Orthodox Jewish Community counted only 13 displaced Orthodox Jewish families, but only two of these families could be classified in the middle class before 1948 on the basis of their income. The others were poor, low-income people, or were added to the list of enemies of the system just for other political reasons (Zionism). The lack of conditions for kosher food and religious practice was a fundamental problem for Orthodox people, but also for religious Neologists. The only solution to this was if they were sent to a settlement where there was a Jewish community or just relatives, acquaintances (rarely the Israeli embassy in Budapest) to get kosher food packages. A small number of memoirs discuss this issue, the most widely known being Pál Királyhegyi’s novel Első kétszáz évem (“My First Two Hundred Years”). 

How did the international press handle the deportations? Were there any protests? 

Not only did protests appear in the press, but there were also rallies and demonstrations against the Hungarian relocation — which the foreign press called “deportation” – in Israel, the United States, and Argentina. There was been a long parliamentary debate in the UK about how to punish Hungary for a crime against humanity, and US President Harry S. Truman condemned the events in Hungary. Israel offered to take in displaced Jews, many of whom previously held valid emigrant passports but had not yet been expelled by the authorities. And Australia offered to take in all the displaced. It would be interesting to examine the relationship between Australia and the Hungarians in more depth, as in 1956 many refugees chose this continent as their new homeland, including Lajos Stöckler, who was imprisoned in 1953. 

The Hungarian authorities threatened Israeli Hungarians, who with their influential organization at the time, were protesting and urging government intervention, to stop the emigration from Hungary altogether and not allow even the 3,000 people promised to be released to cross the border. Israeli voices therefore fell silent. A state secretary arrived in Budapest to continue the emigration, so those who already had an emigrant passport could gradually leave the country — the other displaced Jews did not. 

Meanwhile, the Hungarian public could only learn about the international outrage by reading between the lines, as the journalists of the Szabad Nép (“Free People”) responded to the „Western attacks” unknown to the readers. But the Hungarian press barely reported on the deportations, even as thousands stood up for the deportees, in letters, in person, producing certificates. It was clear to the authorities that it was better not to force this topic in the press: seven years after the deportations, the population did not applaud immorality. 

Many more years of work await the researchers of the history of the deportees and those investigating the identity of the internal cadres and officers who ordered the deportation. And maybe this is the harder task. 

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