‘What was the right thing to do in 1944?’ – The tragedy of Ernő Munkácsi

A Neokohn szerkesztője


Ernő Munkácsi’s memoir How It Happened, one of the first chronicles of the deportation of Hungarian Jews, was published in 1947. The book was forgotten outside of academic circles until Ernő’s cousin Peter Munk, who had immigrated to Canada, discovered it in his desk. The English publication of the book was edited by Peter Munk’s daughter Nina Munk, a journalist and author, who also supported the book’s publication in Hungarian. We spoke to Nina Munk about Munkácsi’s story, the fate of Hungarian Jewry and the remarkable history of her family. 

How did it happen? This is the question asked today by every Hungarian Jew and non-Jew who wants to know the story of the tragedy of the last years.” With these lines, Ernő Munkácsi begins his book of 1947, in which he attempted to describe the history of the deportation of Hungarian Jewry. Munkácsi was a leading figure in the Neolog community, and during the German occupation he was secretary general and general council of the Israelite Congregation of Pest. His book was one of the first attempts to deal with the events of the Holocaust in Hungary and also an attempt to defend the controversial role of the Jewish Council, whose members were held accountable by survivors returning from concentration camps for their role during the German occupation.

Re-published by Park Publishers, it is an extraordinary document that offers insight into how, even in the final moments, Jewish leaders bombarded the Hungarian authorities with letters and petitions from the ghettos, hoping that the Hungarian authorities would rescue them or intervene. The book also shows how the Germans organized the extermination of Hungarian Jewry with cruel, bureaucratic precision. The volume is supplemented by notes and essays by historians Kata Bohus, László Csősz and Ferenc Laczó.

The book was also published in English a few years ago, with the help of Peter Munk, Ernő Munkácsi’s cousin. Munk discovered the 1947 edition of Munkácsi’s book among his own papers and decided that it should be published in English. He entrusted the task to his daughter Nina Munk.

Nina Munk is a Canadian-American journalist and writer whose articles have appeared in The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Fortune, The New York Times and many other publications. She is the author or co-author of four books, most recently The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty. She is also the editor of the English edition of How it Happened: Documenting the Tragedy of Hungarian Jewry. She is currently writing a book about her family’s history during the Holocaust which will be published by Knopf in the US, Faber in the UK, Kiepenheuer & Witsch in Germany, and Park in Hungary. The author’s website.

Nina Munk/ Photo by Mark Schäfer (Courtesy of Nina Munk)


In the foreword of the book, you write about how your father discovered the book by Munkácsi Ernő in his desk drawer. But I wondered how it ended up in your father’s desk in the first place? Do you know the story?

My father, Peter Munk, left Hungary in 1944 at the age of 16 with almost nothing. He eventually immigrated to Canada and moved on with his life. He had a very exciting life. He lived in a lot of different places. He had two wives, he had five children, he started six or seven businesses… And for a long time, he wasn’t all that interested in his family history. Nevertheless, over the years, as various relatives died, more and more of the family papers, documents, letters, archives, ended up in my father’s hands or in his office. That is how, at some point, Ernő Munkácsi’s book ended up in my father’s desk drawer.

My father had a vast book collection, he was interested in history—in Jewish history and the history of World War II especially—but he was busy, without much time to review old family papers, much less a tattered Hungarian book written by a cousin. In the case of Ernő’s book, my guess is that he looked at the first few pages and said, ‘I’ll read this later,’ then put it in a desk drawer and forgot all about it. 15 years went by. 20 years went by. One day my father and my stepmother sold their house in Toronto and, as everything was cleared out, my father rediscovered Ernő’s book.

How It Happened is not an easy read. I would say it shows the shockingly bureaucratic nature of the Holocaust. So why was it so important for your father and for you to get this published in English and now in Hungarian too?

For my father it was obvious right away that the book needed not only to be re-published, but to also to be translated into English. My father was only 16 in 1944. He was also very privileged. He barely suffered, not compared to what so many other Jews endured in Hungary at that time. But he understood the magnitude of what had happened and when he sat down to read Ernő’s book, he immediately recognized its significance.

The parts of the book where you hear Ernő’s voice are powerful and immediate. You feel him right there. You feel the fear, the sense of betrayal, the disbelief.

And also the impotence, the inability to do anything to stop the horror. My father felt all that too, when he read it. And thankfully he could afford, through his foundation in Canada, to help fund the publication of this book. It felt vitally important to him that it be made accessible to a broader audience, not just academics and scholars.

How do you see Munkácsi? He was called to account for not warning the Jews of the countryside about the death camps. Do you think it was unfair to blame him for that?

Those of us who have not lived through war tend to simplify the world into good and bad, black and white. That tendency is made worse by popular culture: movies, television series, novels, comic books. Representations of war in particular tend to also make it seem as if people’s decisions in the heat of the moment are obvious and straightforward; if you don’t do the right thing, you’re doing the wrong thing. But in fact, as we know very well, the world is a lot more complicated than that.

What was the right thing to do in 1944? With the benefit of both hindsight and the privilege of sitting where we are today, we tend to insist that people act in heroic ways. But actually, heroism is so very rare.

It’s so rare because it’s so damn hard to be heroic. Most of us just try to make it to the next day, just try to stay alive. My view of Ernő Munkácsi is shaped by the recognition that only the most exceptional person acts heroically. Ernő Munkácsi was not a hero, nor did he claim to be a hero. He tried to do the right thing. He believed firmly that he was doing right by his community.

I don’t know for sure, but I’ve seen evidence in my family archives that he could have escaped to Switzerland in 1944 like other members of the family, if not on the Kasztner train like my father, then by other means. He had an older brother, Sándor, who had been living in Switzerland since the First World War and was married to a Swiss woman. Yet I think that he felt he was fulfilling a kind of duty to his community by staying in Budapest, by trying to be a good, dutiful, sincere person. In truth, I’m not sure how much more there was that he could have done, or how much more any members of the Jewish Council could have done.

Many people have argued that the Jewish Council could have more actively pushed back against the Nazis. They could have worked harder to alert the Jews, particularly in the countryside of Hungary, of the imminent dangers.

By the same token, as I said before, these men were not heroes; they were fairly ordinary members of the Bourgeoisie. They were members of the Jewish establishment who trusted in the status quo because it had served them well.

As my colleagues Ferenc Laczó, Kata Bohus and László Csősz write in their essays, these were men who believed that the Hungarian establishment would come to their aid. That was a stupid thing to believe. But it wasn’t malicious. They lacked a real understanding. They were naive. They had blinkers on. I give Ernő a lot of credit just for having stayed in Budapest to try to do what he felt was the right thing to do. It’s more than a lot of people did. It is probably more than I would have done.

One of the saddest things in the book is – as you have mentioned – is this sense of betrayal Munkácsi felt about how Hungarian society betrayed the Jews. And I was wondering, did your father feel the same? Did you ever talk about it?

Recently, I was reading transcripts of Adolf Eichmann’s Sassen interviews, recorded when he was in hiding after the war. Eichmann was well known for being a liar and a braggart; nevertheless, his account of the cooperation he received from Hungarian citizens, from the Hungarian government, and from Hungarian officials is consistent with other sources. In one interview, he discusses the invasion of Hungary on 19 March 1944, when he drove from Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria to Budapest, leading a large SS convoy to “clear the Jews out of Hungary.” Initially, he was concerned about resistance from Hungarians at the border; he worried that there would be gunfire or protests. Instead, he was pleasantly surprised, he says, when the Hungarians embraced them with open arms. “We were greeted with cheers by the villagers and treated to white bread and wine,” he says.

To me, that anecdote is pretty emblematic of the behavior of the Hungarians. It’s irrefutable that with the exception of a brave minority of Christian Hungarians, Hungarians either actively helped the Nazis deport and murder Jews or they turned a blind eye to the atrocities. And of course, by 1944, there was already a solid foundation of antisemitism in Hungary, notably the many harsh anti-Jewish laws passed between 1938 and 1941.

Ernő Munkácsi’s book, or rather, his discomfort with this controversial topic, reflects my immediate family’s approach to this topic. They were generally willing to forgive or at least overlook Hungary’s crimes because their attachment to Hungary was so deep, because they did not want to believe their beloved Hungary had betrayed them.

Munkácsi in particular was among those members of the Jewish elite who felt deeply Hungarian and worked hard to prove their commitment to this great nation. Ernő’s father, the famous scholar Bernát Munkácsi, was born “Munk,” but changed the family name to the Hungarian “Munkácsi.” That’s how much they wanted to be accepted into this society.

My father, for example, always spoke kindly of Horthy. I thought that was crazy. But his perspective was fairly typical for the establishment Bourgeoisie Jews of Budapest. The Munk family, especially my immediate family, felt that their success was thanks to the munificence of Hungary. My father would say, ‘Yes, of course there was antisemitism in Hungary but look at how good we had it! We weren’t like the Polish Jews! We weren’t in ghettos!’

It’s a symptom of people who have been deeply persecuted for generations, I believe, to be grateful for the crumbs that they were given.

My family, the Munks, had lived in total poverty only two generations earlier. Ernő Munkácsi’s grandfather was Adolf Munk. In Adolf’s autobiography, written in classical Hebrew at the turn of the last century, he describes the extreme deprivations of his childhood. Ernő Munkácsi’s generation was only two generations removed from that terrible poverty and they believed that their success was thanks to the generosity of the Hungarians. My father too felt this misplaced sense of gratitude. He would say, ‘You young people, you’re so quick to blame other people, but Hungary permitted us to succeed, to become wealthy. We were luckier than the Poles. We were luckier than the Russian Jews.’ Conveniently, they turned a blind eye to the very real persecution that was still going on. They didn’t want to believe that the Hungarians were “generous” to them only for as long as it served Hungary’s objectives.

You are writing a book about your family’s history during the Holocaust. When did you decide to write about your family? Was it because of this book?

Honestly, I was reluctant to work on Ernő Munkácsi’s book. I did it for my father, but I wasn’t keen. I told him, I have my own books to write. I have two children. I’ve got a lot going on. Besides, this is not my field.

But once I took the time to sit down and read Ernő’s book, I was blown away. I understood immediately what my father had understood, just how vital this project was. I understood how absolutely fascinating the story is and how much more I needed to know. Above all, I understood that this is not a story just about my family; it’s a story about countless Hungarian Jewish families. The Munks were just lucky that so much of our documentation was preserved. We were lucky that we survived. We were lucky that Ernő Munkácsi wrote a book, that my father held on to the archives and that they weren’t thrown away when he died.

As my father was getting older, as he was approaching 90, he asked me to help organize his papers. Not just the Munkácsi book, but all these family archives, boxes and boxes of photographs, documents, diaries, letters. And at some point, after my father died in 2018, it occurred to me that I had the material for an astonishing book of my own. It was part of a long process of trying to decide what responsibility you have, as the caretaker of these archives, to make sure the story stays alive. What responsibility do you have to history, to future generations, to scholars?

My book will begin on 19 March 1944, the day that Germany occupies Hungary, because that’s the day when the lives of my three major characters are upended.

The first character is my father, who saw what happened through the eyes of a teenager and who was able to escape on the very controversial Kasztner train. The second character is Ernő Munkácsi. His perspective allows us to see what was happening through the eyes of the Jewish Council, through the eyes of the Jewish elite who remained in Budapest during the war. The third character is my father’s mother, Kató Adler, who was deported to Auschwitz, then forced to work as a slave laborer making munitions for the Nazis. She survived, but only barely, and later committed suicide.

It is a book of non-fiction so I am very lucky, as I have said, to have a great depth of primary sources — troves of letters, diaries, photographs, oral histories, archival documents — to draw on as I reconstruct what happened in that year.

Above all I see my responsibility as a storyteller to use my family stories to offer a new understanding of the so-called last chapter of the Holocaust, the persecution and slaughter of Hungary’s Jews in those final chaotic months of the Second World War. But my book is more than just a story of history, I believe. It’s a tale of intrigue and of betrayal. It’s a detective story. It is an exploration of moral ambiguity and a meditation on the anguish and shame of survivors.

Fotó: Kistarcsai internáló tábor/ Kistarcsa internment camp in Hungary, 1944, Fortepan/Fortepan

Akik azt hitték, a magyar vezetés majd segít rajtuk – Munkácsi Ernő tragédiája

Nina Munkkal beszélgettünk Munkácsi személyéről, a magyar zsidóság sorsáról és családja különleges történetéről.