Con­script­ed Slaves: Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish Forced Labor­ers on the East­ern Front Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War

Robert Rozett
  • Review
By – December 22, 2014

This book recounts the trag­ic sto­ry of over 45,000 Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish men con­script­ed into forced labor bat­tal­ions that accom­pa­nied armed Hun­gar­i­an units in the inva­sion of the Sovi­et Union along­side the forces of Nazi Ger­many. Few­er than one in five of these forced labor­ers sur­vived the war. Based on fun­da­men­tal research by Ran­dolph Bra­ham and oth­ers, the sto­ry of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish forced labor­ers is sketched through exten­sive use of sur­vivors’ post­war mem­oirs and tes­ti­monies, as well as books by both Hun­garian per­pe­tra­tors and bystanders, along with records of the Hun­gar­i­an mil­i­tary authorities.

Hun­gar­i­an Jews were among the most accul­tur­at­ed of East Euro­pean Jews, hav­ing been grant­ed cit­i­zen­ship and civ­il rights under the old Haps­burg Dual Monar­chy. It was quite com­mon for Hun­gar­i­an Jews, both sec­u­lar and reli­gious­ly quite tra­di­tion­al, to see them­selves as patri­ots of their Mag­yar home­land. Unfor­tunately, the loy­al­ty was not mutu­al, for large seg­ments of Hun­gar­i­an soci­ety reject­ed Jews as inher­ent­ly alien and destruc­tive infe­ri­ors who under­mined the econ­o­my and iden­ti­ty of Hun­gary. Recent events in twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, post-Com­mu­nist Hun­gary seem to demon­strate the stur­di­ness of ancient prejudices. 

Most Jew­ish forced labor­ers believed in their duty to serve the Hun­gar­i­an state that denied them the dig­ni­ty of bear­ing arms oth­er than shov­els and picks. Over and over again, one is shocked by the repeat­ed instances of sys­temic indi­vid­ual bru­tal­i­ty, cru­el­ty, thiev­ery, and sheer evil inflict­ed on the Jew­ish forced labor­ers by their gen­tile nom­i­nal com­pa­tri­ots who blamed the Jews for mil­i­tary fail­ures and took every oppor­tu­ni­ty to steal from the be­nighted Jews. Rations were offi­cial­ly lim­it­ed to the min­i­mum nec­es­sary, but in actu­al­i­ty were reduced to a lev­el insuf­fi­cient to main­tain life amid the harsh­ness of Sovi­et win­ter. Forced labor­ers found them­selves com­pelled to bribe offi­cers for their ris­i­ble rations of watery soup and stale bread, as well as for the priv­i­lege to receive let­ters and parcels from home to which they were for­mal­ly entitled. 

Par­tic­u­lar­ly evoca­tive is the sto­ry of the proud Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish Olympic fenc­ing cham­pi­on Atti­la Petschauer, per­se­cut­ed by guards and sol­diers who rec­og­nized the Jew­ish Olympian. In Jan­u­ary 1943, with the Sovi­et win­ter tem­per­a­ture falling to ‑58 degrees Fahren­heit, Hun­gar­i­an troops tied Petschauer to a tree, naked, and poured water on him. And he froze to death. 

The book pro­vides a sys­tem­at­ic dis­cus­sion of how the Jew­ish forced labor­ers respond­ed to their predica­ment, exam­in­ing how they only vague­ly com­pre­hend­ed the over­all real­i­ty that we now call the Holo­caust of Euro­pean Jew­ry. These Hun­gar­i­an Jews did not have access to enough infor­ma­tion or per­spec­tive to be able to see their own fate as part of the Nazi Ger­man cam­paign to anni­hi­late all the Jews of Europe. This was despite the fact that many of the forced labor­ers wit­nessed mass killings com­mit­ted by the Ger­mans and by their Ukrai­nian and Hun­gar­i­an hench­men. This book is at once engross­ing and appalling, in its clear and civ­i­lized detail­ing of the cat­a­stro­phe that befell tens of thou­sands of Hun­gar­i­an Jew­ish fathers, hus­bands, sons, and broth­ers, who could not com­pre­hend the fate that con­sumed their fam­i­lies, friends, and loved ones trans­port­ed by rail to Auschwitz over the sum­mer of 1944. Index, maps, notes.

Relat­ed Content:

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions